Travels & Trips

7-day roadtrip through Taita Taveta and Makueni

To help contain Corona, we have really contained our love for travel in the last 5 months! Confident in my social distancing skills, I was ready for an adventure and to see a new part of the country for my birthday leave and settled on Taita Taveta.

I had seven days, my motorbike (a Spirit built on the Honda 125cc) and a limited budget. With around 5,000 km riding experience, I count myself an advanced beginner and had never done much more than 220km in a day.  Therefore I did quite a bit of research and talked to a few peeps to plan and anticipate my route. 

The plan ended up being: Nairobi to Taveta via Oloitoktok. After a few days around Taveta, head over to Taita Hills. Back home via Voi and Mombasa Road with a detour via Makueni’s Wote. 

Main questions in my head were: How will I handle the trucks and oncoming traffic on Mombasa Highway? Can I hack and enjoy dozens of kilometres on rural rough roads? 

In summary: It all went well and the area is breathtaking. Y’all should go there and maybe this blog post will be helpful if you’re thinking of it. 

Day 1: Nairobi to Taveta town

This is 320km long and comes in 3 stages:

First stage is 130km along Mombasa road

As you’d expect, the challenge was the oncoming traffic, where mats, cars and lorries come at you in your lane. But that piece has a good run-off area which you need to be ready to use. After the Machakos junction it gets more scenic and less busy. I’d recommend leaving Nairobi at 6-7am so that you get to Emali by 9/10 and are off the highway before it gets too busy. I didn’t follow my own advice and left Nairobi at 10 and got to Emali at 12:45 after a few photo stops.

After passing Emali town (get fuel and water) you ride over a bridge that’s worth stopping on to soak in the views of Emali and the railway (old and new). During the SGR construction a higher new bridge was built here, but the old bridge is “kinda” still there, with 15 metres missing in the tarmac, looks like an excellent spot for a sunset date if you ask me…

Stage 2 is through Maasai land up to Oloitoktok

This is 100km of excellent road. Very enjoyable. You’d easily make it in 1hr 15 but I kept stopping for photos.

Especially once you pass the cement factory it’s pictureque. Cattle herded by kids, gazelles grazing, a watering hole directly at the road (dry now). Lots of beautiful acacia trees and hills. 

A word on fuel: The last Shell before Voi on this entire route is 10km to Oloitoktok. I ignored it, as I was in full swing, thinking that Oloitoktok must have a Petrol Station.

Now, Oloitoktok town itself is sadly totally underwhelming. I got harassed while fuelling by some kids on bodas chewing miraa.  Maybe the lunch places were closed because it’s Sunday?  What I hoped would be a nice lunch break ended up a 1min maps check at National Oil. I got biscuits just before the tarmac ends (Oil Lybia in Laset).

Stage 3 is the rough road stretch. 72km from Laset to Taveta Town

The bodas in Laset said that it’s not too bad.  Well, I am new to this… I took 1hr for the first 12km. Passed a couple of stretches with 20cm deep sand. Stones, potholes, you go at 15km/h.   At one spot I slipped off the sandy road into a gully. The boda guy who helped me get the bike out said that Taveta is 70km. “So 2hrs?”, I ask. “You’ll be there in one”, he answered. Lol!

In summary, I took 3.5 hours for the 72km and learned a lot about riding in sand and how to relax your shoulders with all the sliding and how to cover miles on bumpy uncomfortable ground.  

Sometimes the white part is best to ride. Sometimes the black. Sometimes the sand. Sometimes the hard parts inbetween the sand… YO!

It’s not too scenic, but lots of trees to rest under if you had snacks. I didn’t stop to take any photos of the really bad patches. It’s safe generally speaking. But there were around 4 parts where floods had taken away the road, and they’re not very visible as there are many small hills. You might actually fall in a 3m deep hole 🙂  I ended up following the local bodas, as they really know the route and that worked out well. 

The last 20km were VERY pretty as the sun was already setting. I really started enjoying riding the waves on the sandy road with around with 35 km/h… I felt like a hero!

Didn’t stop too much, as I started to worry that I might get to Taveta after dark. Again, leaving Nairobi early would give some allowance for breaks or punctures (thorns!!). 

Then you get to the small bridge near Lake Chala – the sign you’re nearly there. You can’t see the lake as it’s a crater lake, but it’s very pretty that side. If you were earlier, you could go take a dip in the lake… Here is where I realized that I’m sandy up to my knees and the bike needs a serious wash. I started to feel like I’m on vacation 🙂

The most lol part was the junction that on Google Maps is a junction between two roads next to the railway line. While planning my trip on Google Maps, I envisioned myself turning right here towards town. But things kwa ground…. It is literally a sandy patch with bushes in the middle of the road so I went on straight. Note that some stones lying on the road indicate deep holes, so don’t take them as a joke. 

I got to the tarmac near Taveta at exactly sunset from which my hotel was around 15 minutes away. And what an amazing highway it is! The road was pretty empty (the border is closed, and curfew in place with Corona). Youth are listening to music hanging out on the bridges along the road. A girl is learning how to ride and is carrying her boyfriend. Women are taking walks chatting. I later learned that people waited for this road for over ten years…

At Green Park Hotel I had an amazingly warm welcome. Clean rooms, friendly staff, safe parking, I’d go here again. I had called earlier to book (1500 for bed and breakfast)

Day 2 – Day trip Lake Chala

I spent half the day relaxing, chatting with hotel staff, seeing the town and catching up with an old friend. It was interesting to learn more about the local history, the realities of living near the TZ border (remember how this border was drawn) and the economic opportunities.  I mean who knew that our tomatoes come from Taveta? I was also told that the Oloitoktok-Taveta route will be tarmacked by a Chinese contractor in a year or so. (“This is Worldbank money. Our government won’t touch it, so we’re optimistic that this time the road will actually be made.”)

I should also mention that Abdallah is an experienced bike mech (Shop called Hayeez opposite KCB) and I got a few nuts & bolts tightened and the chain oiled after the bumpy and dusty Day 1.

Lake Chala is a crater lake and getting to the rim is now the real off-road riding. The one you see on YouTube.  Or you can park downstairs or half-way and walk up. It’s only 5 minutes walk. There’s absolutely nothing up there, no bar, no soul and no noise – it’s beautiful! Carry water and swim suit.

Knowing the route and terrain well from last night, it took me 30 minutes from town to reach there. I’d say spend 3-4 hours on the Chala trip, so you get an hour or two to actually sit and relax and soak it all in. Maybe walk around the crater top or walk down to swim (it’s steeeeep!! Only excellent swimmers please)

Day 3 – Day trip to Lake Jipe

Let me start by saying that if at all you decide to go to Lake Jipe, you should enter Tsavo West and get to the KWS Bandas (500m from the park gate). I found no other place along the lake impressive (the lodge isn’t on the water and was out of my budget). The village itself is dusty, garbage heaps and you won’t get close to the lake or find a spot to truly relax (heat!). 

You could leave Taveta early and get here by 11 to spend the day along the lake. You can’t swim (hippos and crocs) but you can hire a boat ride (1k per person), or simply hang out.

If you were to stay overnight, the KWS bandas are a great option (book early!) which are 3k for a unit (1 double and 1 single bed, so up to 3 peeps) or 500 for camping. Check KWS website for latest prices and booking phone number. What I learned with KWS is that the team on the ground can give you all details (weather, state of the road, is their tent still intact, does the meko have gas) so call and get the direct number to the KWS Tsavo West Jipe Gate team.

It’s all extremely simple, think campsite. Shared outdoors showers. The rooms are small and very basic but are 20m from the waterfront, with a clear view on the lake and of the Tanzanian hills. AMAZING!

Bring all food and charcoal. And mosquito repellant, towels, slippers and soap. There’s gas and sufurias in the kitchen, but I’d bring dish washing soap just to be sure. For a barbecue bring charcoal or buy from the nearby village. They have a tent they said they could put up but again – call in advance to confirm. 

Now – the road from Taveta Town to the park gate isn’t great. The first 10km are doable (upto the castle which sadly seems closed to the public), then 10km rough road which was recently dug up and pretty messy. The last 10km is sand riding… Some patches are like a beach. The cruising and sliding is real fun! 

From the park gate it’s 500m to the bandas. I was escorted by a ranger on a motorbike. Note that riding past the Bandas is not allowed as per KWS policy. I understood this policy intrinsically, when there was a single male elephant crossing the road ahead of us to get a sip from the lake (can you spot them on the pic?). It’s beautiful, you pass impalas and guinea fowls also.

There is an option to reach here through the Maktau gate but you’ll pay the park fees and also it’s not allowed for motorbikes. If you’re doing this entire route by car, it’s really recommended! You could exit through Maktau directly towards Taita Hills.

You really can’t get lost, but as I’m using the red mobile phone network, I had synced the entire county on Google offline maps, meaning I could always see where I am using GPS even when the signal was weak.

Day 4 – Taveta to Wundanyi

No reason not to leave early. PLENTY to see and experience today!

It was around 1 hr to Maktau, mostly riding through the national park. As the border is closed, I was mostly alone on the highway, with less than 5 cars on the 40km that you ride within Tsavo West. Sadly, fires had razed all flora near the road, so animals were very few. Thankfully it was uneventful with a few zebras and gazelles, and no elephants. There were strong side winds, so with my light bike I managed around 50 safely. 

Next is Maktau where some 100 year-old history of the county comes to life. You can see the old railway line and station, and the Indian war cemetery… (I wondered where the African troops were buried and remembered) There were barracks worth 40,000 people here during World War 1. It’s now a dusty town with a police stop.

DO take a stop at Sarova (now managed by Pollmann’s). Have a coffee at the pool – you deserve it! They got two hotels but you can only ride to the first one (Taita Hills Resort). It’s around 25km after Maktau. 

They have a small exhibition about the first world war sponsored by European budgets in commemoration of the centenary of World War I, covering lots of facts of the war: The British and the German thinking, the strategies, the different events and fights. It talks of the Indians that were shipped to build the railway from Voi to Taveta. The war ships. It talks about the 15 African porters who stood behind 1 frontline soldier carrying supplies through the Savannah. All in all interesting to read as it was certainly not covered in my high school history classes.

Remembering that the European capitals are 9,000 km and a month away drives home what an incredible mess colonialism was. 

What they don’t even attempt to describe are the impacts of the same tribe/community fighting on both sides had on the local people and their communities and economy. We have a small mention that some of them “lost their will to live”. We don’t learn how this area and its people did between 1918 and 1963, how it came under Coast province and what that meant up to 2010 for life and people here. You’d have to find a well-informed and open-minded local to tell you that.

Back to the hotel: Location is excellent with great views from the rooftop viewpoints. I found the food average for such a fancy place. If your pocket allows, you can book a game drive, stay for a night and watch animals from the rooftop view points.  They had just reopened after a 4 month Corona break and were still booting (or rather I hope so). Sadly, they were not ready for motorcyclists, as no car could be found to get me to the more beautiful second hotel (Salt Lick).

Next stop: Wundanyi and Taita Hills

The Taita Hills side of the county is a completely different experience: Green, lush and hilly.

The ride from Mwatate up to Wundanyi was gorgeous. A smooth tarmac road is winding up the hills and takes you from 850m to 1400m asl. The tarmac ends in Wundanyi, but you can explore the various valleys from here on rough roads. I stayed at Taita Rocks Hotel, which was affordable, clean and had warm blankets for the cold night. They also got great views from the room’s balcony and decent food.

You could take a whole day or two to hike the different peaks (Wuria is 2228m high!) but I had around 4 hours and got to 2 peaks before it started raining. If you’re into off-road then go for it, otherwise just get a boda guy to take you around. They’re truly ninjas.

Someone had given me the number of a local guide who knew the best points to reach the peaks from. We had a great time, we used his bike, and he showed me his hometown. I really enjoyed taking videos instead of riding myself. The weather here changes every 20 minutes and it rained the entire evening and got pretty cold at night.  

Final 1-2 days – Return to Nairobi via Mombasa Highway

The distance from Wundanyi to Nairobi is 370km. You can do it in one day or break it in two. Either way: Leave early!

I passed Voi at exactly 8am and reached Mtito Andei at 10am for breakfast. In my opinion the best place to stop is “Midway Refreshments” with organized parking, clean toilets and tasty food. Why was it not there when we used to take the bus to coast and they dropped us in these filthy dingy places at 2am?

So how is Voi to Mtito Andei? 

It went surprisingly well. I think the stars just aligned for me: The highway was empty, the truck drivers were in a great mood. I did well with my average speed of 70. Some trucks overtook me. Others I overtook. When the road was messy, I stayed behind a slow moving truck to be safe from oncoming traffic.  

It is very spectacular and you feel like stopping for pics all the time. While you can’t stop at every single beautiful Baobab tree, I did where I felt it was safe to do so… 😀  

I found riding past the maximum security prison at Manyani quite the experience, and imagined the meeting where it was decided to put it in the middle of 20,000 km² savanna full of predators.

Wakili had given me some tips for the highway, so I don’t want to keep them to myself: The 100km surface is almost entirely rough and quite bumpy. Some sections are smooth but they do not stretch far enough. Most of this section doesn’t have any safe run off areas as the edges of the rather narrow highway are not paved. You’re likely to encounter a good number of wild animals including elephants, gazelles, giraffes and zebras. You will need to be most vigilant in this section. There’s a 60km stretch which is nothing but a national park with no human amenities like houses, Petrol stations, shops etc. In other words, don’t screw up between Mtito Andei and Voi. You don’t want to be stranded here. Good thing is most trucks and buses will let you have your right of way due to lack of safe runoff areas. Keep your headlights on, own your lane and be willing to slow down when the crazy incoming drivers disregard your presence and overtake at your peril.

From Mtito Andei onwards it’s just a matter of staying concentrated. There’s good run-off space and it’s still quite scenic up to Makindu.

Once you reach Makindu, you’ve got two options: Continue up to Nairobi directly on the highway, or take the detour via Wote. You’ll add 35km to your journey (and probably 1.5 hours) if you take the detour. But it’s excellent tarmac, a break from the traffic and BEAUTIFUL riding and a chance to explore Makueni county.

From Makindu to Wote is approximately 75kms via Kathonzweni. A straight road with good tarmac and minimal traffic. Halfway through Wote town, take a left turn for the road to Nairobi. That’s where the fun starts. It gets twistier and twistier, passing the famous Makongo Viewpoint.  This curvy 50k stretch with great views was the highlight of my trip in terms of joyful riding. I avoided Machakos town, but took the left turn at Konza which got me back to Mombasa road. A fast, virtually empty road save for occasional grazing cows and no speed bumps.

If you want to break this up into two days, you could ride up to Wote and get accommodation there. From Wote to Nairobi is still 130km and with the Athi River construction and traffic, you need to be fresh. I found Wote a nice town with friendly people. (I had lunch at a place called Becky’s Garden which yes, is a garden restaurant. They also got rooms for 1k). While I had a hotel along Mombasa highway, I would not do it again as I found these motels not pretty or serene or affordable. Sleeping in Emali for example is such a buzzkill from the beauty of this trip.



The total was 1,100 km on the road across 5 counties. I used fuel worth 2386 KES which speaks to smaller engines being affordable travel mates 😉

Finally, a word on road safety

ATGATT sounds obvious, but takes commitment in dusty 30 degrees (at some point my gloves wouldn’t even slip back on after taking pics) and when riding in areas where boda riders wear t-shirts and tyre slippers. With more luggage space someone might carry a body armor for the hot areas and leave the riding jacket in the hotel for the day trips. And I also got the Amref maisha basic cover (it’s 2500 per year), juuuust in case.

Overall, truck drivers were fantastic to me on this entire trip. They slowed down where needed, made space and waved me through. It’s great to see so many truck drivers actively show me as a biker that they have seen me, as it can be quite intimidating otherwise. Yes, colour, yes, gender. But still. The trip also allowed me to empathize with their work, after seeing them collect tomatoes along the 72km off-road stretch, watching 4 trucks turned over along the highway and seeing these dusty towns where they’d sleep or eat. One would need a strong spirit in this job! 

All my 5 or so risky situations were caused by cars: Oncoming cars pulling out from behind a truck, moving into your lane, seeing you clearly, flashing their light and accelerating towards you. This sucks always, but it sucks most when there’s no safe run-off space. They literally look into your eyes expecting you to get out of their way, when really they are in your way. The second thing I wish car drivers could remember is to give bikes a full lane when overtaking us (Highway Code Section 52 states this clearly as a requirement). If we have this beautiful wide road, then why would you decide to nearly hit my handlebar with your mirror? It would also help if car drivers understood that at 100 km/h they are causing quite a bit of wind that affects a bike if they overtake too closely.

road safety

The deep, emotional stuff World topics

Epilepsy and 1900 KES monthly

The reason why I don’t want to have a car in Nairobi (besides the ones we all think of: jam, repairs, cops, cleaning…) is that I could miss out on what makes life. You see, Kenya is a walking nation and many real human encounters happen while walking.

After lunch I walked to the nearby mall (beautiful sun today) as just before the entrance a lady walking in front of me collapsed and had a seizure. I stopped to support her face and head. While shaking, she injured her face and tongue on the tarmac and started bleeding.

The medication she needs to control her epilepsy are 450 per week and 1900 a month. With Corona and no work, she doesn’t have that money, she told us after she recovered and sat up against a wall in the dirt. She had visited her sister to get money but in vain. As she walked home she had 3 attacks, me witnessing the third one.

During Corona, do you touch a bleeding stranger? Support her back while she sits? A few others walking nearby stopped and after initial concern helped and one lady offered to accompany her home on the same bus (another 4km walk was ahead of her). The mall security got her water to clean her face. The security chief and I went to the pharmacy and got her meds for some days days and gave her bus fare. (Why do the fancy mall pharmacies not sell generics?)

Can you believe it? She cried from exhaustion. 1900 a month and even worse, the generics are nowhere to be found currently, another lady who stopped and who previously suffered from epilepsy but recovered, explained.

I could have gotten mad at our health system failing us and her.
But I know that we need a civil society stronger than our challenges.
I got the opportunity to have a conversation with 5 previously unaware strangers about this disease and how we can support.

I remembered the saying that God has no hands but our hands.
Don’t walk past someone in need, if you can help.
Do a first aid training. And please learn and educate others about epilepsy. It’s noone’s choice, not contagious and it’s not a curse.

#epilepsy #nairobi #sisterskeeper #firstaid

The deep, emotional stuff World topics

Noise pollution & your health being at the mercy of others

Yesterday my friend Gigi and I refused to pay the fare on the bus, as the driver had ignored our repeated requests to reduce the volume of the deafening music.

That threat quickly led to the desired change. The volume came down and finally we could communicate verbally with the conductor: “Will you pay our hospital bill and hearing aids when we need one?”

My friend told the crowd: “Now you think the loud music is cool and I’m a crazy woman. But in ten years you’ll be deaf and remember me!” She further explained to the other passengers what influence loud music has on the human ear, especially when exposed at a young age.

I couldn’t tell whether the mothers on the bus holding infants were listening or understanding. Certainly the adolescent males on the bus laughed it off.

Low information of issues affecting health in the general public.
It’s the same issue with cars and bikes driving directly behind lorries and their passengers inhaling all the unfiltered Diesel smoke for several minutes before overtaking. Similar to cabbages being stored on the muddy road side, where village sewage flows.

Learned helplessness frustrates me so much: This is not an earthquake or flood which can only be controlled through action on a macro level. These are the actions of human beings right in front of our eyes. We HAVE influence on them.

World topics

Help – What to say when islamphobic statements are thrown around?

It was at a barbecue in Nairobi’s posher neighbourhoods that I lost it.
We talked about the proposed security bill, actions of Police and Defence Forces and how Kenyans may never hear the truth about events like Westgate and killings of Muslim clerics if not for courageous investigative journalists.

Then, as if she intended to bring the conversation to a good end, the lady in her late 20s next to me says that “not all Muslims are bad”.

After weeks of feeling angry and helpless, I exploded.

“Would we ever even consider saying that not all Christians are bad? We know that Christian extrimists are funding an aggressive and dangerous anti-gay and anti-contraception movement.
Would the words ‘not all Americans are bad’ even pop up in our heads even after the recent CIA-report and Guantanamo?”

She weakly defends the anti-gay movement as less deadly and more convicted says that “we humans believe what our leaders tell us” and that it’s a “problem of the majority being uneducated”.

I tell her that I have little respect for giving up responsibility for our actions, for generalizations and for self-defeating language.
I ask her why not more people go to mosques to ask questions or if that’s scary to just google “what does the quran say”.

I can’t quite grasp this is happening in a country, a continent, where both religions where brought in from outside and have lived side by side for over 100 years.

She says “people” like short-cuts.

I feel like telling her about my Muslim friends, how bright, funny, hospitable they are. How some of them take their religion more and others less serious. How my Shia and Sunni colleagues got along extremely well despite millions of victims in related conflicts. How Somali-Kenyan youth are turning against the FGM practice. How the vast majority of those affected by “Muslim” extrimism are Muslims.
But I don’t. I feel alienated.

I’m still angry and helpless.
I’m looking for ways to make a difference.

The deep, emotional stuff

The gift of health

In the coastal region of Kenya I shared a (public transport) motorbike with a stranger this morning. It’s not just physically intimate to do that (at high speed) but in these brief conversations any topic can be discussed – between strangers.

(The gentlemen are conversing in Swahili, where it sounds more simple and poetic at the same time.)

Driver asks the other passenger: “What were you doing there?” – “I was trying to offer my services!” – “Oh you are in business. How is it going (/flowing)?” – “We thank God for giving us health.” – “Yes, we are blessed” – “If you have health it’s better than to have a lot of money”

Off he jumps and dashes to his bus.

I thought the exchange serves as a great reminder.
For most of us who read this (= internet users) our key resources which will run low or dry one day are our time and efforts.

Let’s invest them to truly fulfil the potential we were given.

The deep, emotional stuff

Weekend wisdom

This has been a weekend full of reflection, as I’m about to wrap up my third year in London and preparing for a few months on the move between Kenya, Brazil, India and Europe.

I wrote down three of my insights.

We’re only in transit in this life and to seize our opportunities, we should travel light. In conversations I’m realizing how blessed I am: My roots are strong and my wings even more so.

Call it prayer, the law of attraction, looking ahead with fresh eyes, but when you’re honest about what you want in life, most likely life is going to give it to you.
It’s okay to ease my self-protection and to courageously let go, the eyes on horizon, walking in faith.

Patience with myself led to increased patience for others.
You’ve got to allow others to develop at their own speed. I commit to opening safe space for those close to me. I commit to improving my sense for others. I commit to allow others their own learning experience.

Travels & Trips

Dartmoor get-away

I spent a few days in the South West of England, in Devonshire. Just me, my bike and my rain jacket 😉

Very recommended in this area: The book ’50 Hikes across Devon’, a lunch at the Warren House Inn, the Youth Hostel in Bellever (great fireplace and no mobile phone coverage!).

World topics

The cost of secondary ed in Kenya

Last week I wrote a blog post about child poverty in urban Kenya, my observations from years of community engagement in Mukuru and a few suggestions on what can be done. I got great responses on the text, thanks everyone! Keep spreading the link and sending me your comments.

In this post I want to dive deeper into the cost of providing a child with secondary education. The aim is to inform all who are interested and to document my experience for those planning to start this rewarding endeavour.

I’m going to show how incredibly expensive it is and how the current system affects especially vulnerable children (which I defined in the former post). Most of this will feel informative to foreigners and will sound familiar to Kenyans. Often though even locals are surprised at the cost and awful logistics around Secondary Education.

At the bottom of this post I’ll break down how providing a child with simple secondary education and extremely basic nutrition and clothing easily costs over 1000 USD (100,000 KES) per year (using 2014 data).

  • Short-notice admission – Now how it works is that you get the admission letter from the Secondary School only mid January and the deadline for payment is around 10 days later. For vulnerable children in specific, this is challenging, as most donors and sponsors (local or international) will only start considering to support a child after seeing the letters.
  • Distance – Cost of schooling in Nairobi is very high and the chances of being admitted to Nairobi day schools are lower, too. When submitting the list of schools they’d prefer to attend, our children therefore tick boarding schools in the rural areas. So most of our children attend schools between 4-10 hours travel away from Nairobi. I believe the emotional impact is high. Having lost parents and guardians when young and now deciding to live away from friends and trusted teachers who effectively brought up the child. Financially speaking this means they have to travel 12 times a year (to and fro for every of the 3 terms and in the half-term breaks). It also means that to attend the annual ‘parents day’ our volunteers incur costs, too.
  • Transport costs – Gas prices tend to go up and down around high travel seasons in Europe. We all know this is an effect of the local market, not actually the global oil price. In Kenya traditionally around the christmas season the bus tickets get more expensive and this “tradition” has now extended to the opening and closing dates of schools. Since night bus travel has been outlawed in Kenya (at the point of writing), the prices have again increased.
  • Inflation – When our first two kids were admitted to secondary schools in 2011, their fees were around 300 Euros annually each. Of course, there were additional costs of buying a school uniform and other items. Now fees have nearly doubled, also owing to increase in food costs and teachers salaries. While this is a natural turn of things, it doesn’t help low-income parents or guardians to send their children to school.
  • In-transparent fees – Some schools’ fee breakdown includes things like “bus maintenance fee”, “holiday tuition”, “award money”. Rarely accountability is provided; we have yet to see a bus, any holiday tuition or the impact of an award.
  • Additional expenses – The food provided in the schools is really basic and children are expected to carry some pocket money to pimp their meals (e.g. buy sugar locally for example for breakfast tea). You’ll also want to think of renewing clothing, getting additional books to support practice etc.

Secondary School Sponsorship Cost Breakdown

This picture shows an approximate breakdown of costs for a child to start in 2015, quoted in Kenyan Shilling.

Every year in Upendo, we have at least 10 graduates who have good enough grades to attend Secondary School. We have been able to find sponsors for 2-3 graduates in the last 4 years.

Please get in touch if you would like to help in 2015! The costs are high but the outcome very rewarding. You can mobilize family, friends or colleagues to cater for a child together.

And what happens to the others” you may ask. Every year we also have a couple of graduates, who are talented in working with crafts and have interests in learning tailoring, carpentry or other vocational skills. For example two girls started a 3-year tailoring course with an organization. If you would like to find out how to support our graduates in learning these skills and starting up a small business, we’re interested in exploring this with you!

Important tips for anyone thinking of sponsoring a child through your own effort (not through us I mean):

  • Don’t do it without knowing the child or believing you have understood his or her situation enough to willingly give. A four-year commitment is ideal for the child. Spend at least one day with the child, visit their home, talk to the family, neighbours, teachers to cross-verify the basic information. If you are planning to be a “light touch sponsor”, you will need a trusted relationship with the close guardians. They will visit the child for parents day, they will discuss with the teachers and school nurses, the child will know them much more than she/he will know you.
  • If you are very short of time, you can take a short-cut by talking to established institutions, like international NGOs or church-run schools (NOT private schools run by so-called pastors!) to point out children and families to you. Insider knowledge comes through trust. And trust is earned – often over time! Also remember that they might worry you could be unreliable or have second thoughts regarding the children under their care.
  • Accountability issues. Often, numbers will change in the course of the year, the child might have a sickness which needs costly medication, suddenly a certain fee pops up that wasn’t discussed before. Always use your common sense, ask for written proof, ask for references and actually talk to them. Ask for photos and letters from the child, the scanned report card. If you’re abroad, get them verified from a third party on the ground.
The deep, emotional stuff World topics

Insights from 6 years with vulnerable youth in Nairobi

Since 2008 I have been a member at a community-based school in Mukuru, a Nairobi slum and since 2010 I have gotten engaged in the processes evolving around the “Kenya Certificate of Primary Education” and around sending children to Secondary Schools in Kenya.

In fantastic collaboration with other community members we have been able to send 10 very bright and deserving youth to Secondary Schools. Speaking numbers, it means that alongside other international fundraisers I have channeled over 9,000 Euros into the lives of Kenyan underprivileged kids to allow them to pursue secondary education.

I have felt humbled, rewarded, grateful, relieved, proud, worried, terrified, sad and many many more feelings. The secret to success? Believing in the impossible, getting out of the comfort zone and consistent communication with stakeholders involved.

In a second post I will share about the cost of sending kids to school in Kenya, but in this one I want to share a few things I have learnt along the journey.

The list of challenges related to urban poverty is never-ending

If you have visited a house in the slum before and talked to a few families there, you will know:Mukuru street

  • People in slums spend a lot of time on cleaning, preparing, networking and organizing their daily lives. Because finances are scarce, because the weather determines your life and health a lot and simply because water and electricity are disrupted regularly.
  • Slum houses are unsafe housing, which are easily broken into at night. Being robbed is always harsh, but imagine it was all your money; or that you saved for a health event; or it was borrowed at 30% interest rate. Slums also burn down easily in case of fire accidents.
  • If you made it to urban Kenya, you rarely tell your family back in the rural areas, that life in the slums sucks. And if you do, they might not believe it. They will ask for money during holiday visits, so some people cut ties or visit on fewer occasions. This in turn makes it less likely to one day return home and the aim “to make it in Nairobi” grows (while the odds don’t necessarily).
  • Health care is hardly affordable. Some NGOs are bringing relief regarding maternal care, malaria and HIV/AIDS related ailments, but you have to know where to look for them and how to qualify for support. Which comes back to bullet point number 1.
  • 30 shillings mean all the difference when providing dinner for a family. That is why there is a lot walking involved.

Now let’s imagine, you are a “vulnerable child”, meaning you could have a poor single parent, you could be an orphan, you could be living on the street or you could have violent or substance-addicted parents/guardians. This adds a few items to your list

  • If you don’t have a birth certificate, you will find it impossible to register for KCPE. While you don’t even know what that means, nobody around you will know how to solve this.
  • You will need a place to pee, sleep, eat and you will believe many things you are told in order to find such a place.
  • You will easily catch throat and ear infections, colds and worms. You will diarrhea often and catch malaria more easily than kids in middle-class homes.
  • You have seen and heard adults around you having sex since youb can remember, those who are married and those who are not. Most likely you have seen still-born babies and know a few things about home-abortions.
  • Once you turn 12-ish you will find that the mattress which you shared with 3 or 5 other children is too small now. You will find that the neighbour or aunt who hosted you becomes more impatient with you and that the food portions are never enough.
  • You will have lost at least one close relative in the last two years, either due to a disease, crime or a traffic accident.
  • You have never reflected on religion critically. You have been to the city center once or twice and never to the National Museum. Obviously you have seen pictures of the Massai Mara but you don’t know anybody who’s gone there.

These are the type of things I’ve learnt from conversations with children, youth and adults. What I can’t imagine is what this does to children, youth, humans. Or a nation.

Many middle-class Kenyans are concerned and often too busy to get involved

Whatever the exact numbers, let’s assume Nairobi has 60% odd percent of the population living in slums.

Many of my friends are educated, concerned Kenyans between 25 and 35. They too are disgusted with the greed of the elite. They understand the cycle of poverty and crime. They don’t buy the shady covering up of land issues and tribalism through the political elite. Many have joined me (or other NGOs) in the slums for visits, volunteering and donated clothes or food. c

They challenge their own assumptions, connect to their humanity and take heart to do what is needed.

But very few regularly engage with their neighbours in the ghetto. Very few build relations with leaders in the slums. When slums burn down, few come with food and clothes and help rebuild homes.

Understandably. Many are busy building their own lives, doing a second degree, starting a side business, hustling to buy a car to get out of the (cough cough) public transport system, the eyes to the horizon. On weekends you take care of your spiritual, emotional and health needs after a tough week: collapsing on the couch, playing with the kids, partying all night, going to church, everyone has a conscious or unconscious coping strategy.

80% of Kenya’s population is systematically excluded from participation – stunning! I believe it will bite us in the back. How will an elite (even if it wants to) find solutions to transport crisis, security, housing and health, truly disruptive education approaches which work for all? How will we build an inclusive society if we aren’t aware of just how exclusive we currently are?

What is needed is creating platforms for conversations and connections between these two groups of the population, between poor and (aspiring) middle-class. Our futures relies on each other, but we don’t talk. We have the same aspirations and the same fears, but we don’t even know each other.

Ubuntu in urban Kenya? Sometimes ni ngumu kuipata.

Education needs an overhaul

Of course it is not proven that going to Secondary School will allow poor Kenyan kids to escapea poverty. The opposite might be true. It might teach them to learn off-head instead of think; or sitting down instead of taking initiative; or shut up when they have an idea or question. It might as well lead them to university, a National science competition or let them create friendships across tribes and class.

Maybe it’s more effective in terms of livelihood creation to use the same money to teach them to start businesses and give them seed capital. I am more than happy to engage in conversations and activities around this!

What I do believe though, is that children under 18 don’t belong on the street and below-16s don’t belong in jobs. They need boundaries and learn how to navigate them while growing up. They need opportunity to discuss ethics, politics, religion and history. They deserve something as close to a loving home as possible. It’s their right to be protected from teenage pregnancy, drugs and disease.

And if the best current tool to do this is Kenya’s Secondary School System, it’s easy to see: Our job is just starting.

It takes a village to raise a child

This is a fantastic African saying, which I came to understand much more now. Over the last four years I have witnessed generous contributions from “across the village” of our children:

Community members of Mukuru who find family members in the rural areas to take in the secondary pupils for half-term break to save bus fare. Neighbours who send children to our center, having witnessed abuse through guardians. Upendo voluntary staff dedicating nights and weekends, heck, their lives, to raising these children. Kenyans coming in to play with the kids and to donate food. Sponsors in Germany and other countries, who just because they know me have agreed to spend hundreds of Euros per year on an unknown child. Boarding school nurses who avail their phones to call home when the kid feels the need to talk. Head teachers who allow fees to come in a week late.

These are the types of actions that we need to see more. A spontaneous donation, giving someone a ride, asking for the story behind the face, offering your ears, greeting a stranger, taking time to make a new friend, connecting to our human side.

If somebody asks me (and it definitely happens a lot!) whether I have children, I now answer “Of course!” and start showing pictures on my phone. And I feel proud to, in my own small way, help create connections, hope and awareness. And to contribute to the next generation, without being a biological mother.

World topics


Recently I was asked whether I’m a feminist. Well here’s the thing:
* I truly believe every human should have equal opportunity and rights.
* I know that both, women and men can suffer where gender roles are rigid.
* Exploring sexual identities may feel frightening but I find it liberating and it enables more human behavior in the mid and long term.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article on feminists:

“Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending a state of equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women.
This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women.

Feminist theory, which emerged from feminist movements, aims to understand the nature of gender inequality by examining women’s social roles and lived experience; it has developed theories in a variety of disciplines in order to respond to issues such as the social construction of sex and gender.

Feminist activists campaign for women’s rights – such as in contract law, property, and voting – while also promoting bodily integrity, autonomy, and reproductive rights for women.

Feminist campaigns have changed societies, particularly in the West, by achieving women’s suffrage, gender neutrality in English, equal pay for women, reproductive rights for women (including access to contraceptives and abortion), and the right to enter into contracts and own property.
Feminists have worked to protect women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
They have also advocated for workplace rights, including maternity leave, and against forms of discrimination against women.

Feminism is mainly focused on women’s issues, but author bell hooks and others have argued that, since feminism seeks gender equality, it must necessarily include men’s liberation because men are also harmed by sexism and gender roles.”

Am I a feminist?

The problem with this question is that it feels loaded. Someone who hates men, who breaks all clothing rules, an esoteric witch.

Leave aside these pictures.
Define the feminist idea for yourself.

Where could you have benefited from this ideal in your life?

Of course I am a feminist!