In September 2021, after a delay of almost two years caused by COVID-19, I finally made it to the peak of Mount Longonot. This is a 2,780 metre dormant volcano one and a half hour’s drive north of Nairobi, in Kenya. I was hiking with my friends Matthias and Sheila, who I first met in Malawi five years before. It was an overcast day, which kept the temperatures mercifully mild as we followed the steep path up the mountainside. Our first goal was to reach the rim. From here, we could see across the crater, which – unusually for a volcano – was filled with a dense forest, cut off from the outside world by steep cliffs. Its was unclear what wildlife was living down there, although we did see the occasional giraffe on our way up. Great gashes down the mountainsides traced the routes where lava had previously flowed and we found pieces of brittle pumice stone scattered amongst the ash around the crater.
From this viewpoint, a well-worn path circled around the rim of the crater, which rose to a higher peak about a third of the way around. As we walked and scrambled along the narrow route, my boots, which had been black at the start of the hike, got progressively covered in ash until they turned almost white. It took another hour or so to reach the peak, from which we could look back down into the crater. Longonot is a lonely mountain so we were also rewarded with a 360-degree view across the surrounding flat plain to Lake Naivasha in one direction and Hells Gate National Park in another. Even at this distance, we could see tall columns of steam rising from the geothermal vents in the park.
On the way up the mountain, we passed a few other ex-pat hikers, but on the way back down we encountered large groups or Kenyan students, many of them happily drunk and listening to music, who had arrived after us on a bus trip from Nairobi. Back in the office, I asked my Kenyan colleagues Dennis about this. “It’s something that started during COVID-19,” he explained. “Young people couldn’t go to bars anymore, so these hiking trips were one of the few opportunities for them to have a party.”
All in all, my second year in Kenya was quite different to the first (see part one of this blog). After weathering the first six months of the pandemic in Hong Kong, we returned to Kenya in September 2020. In contrast to our hasty and semi-apocalyptic flight out, we were able to plan our return flight and travel back on half empty flights, through eerily quiet airports. We cleaned out our house, which had accumulated piles of dead insect wings from the rainy season swarms, and then picked up the pieces of our old life.
My work continued to be focused on COVID-19 but within six months of our return, this moved from support for handwashing and remote learning into a much more hopeful phase. The dire predictions for Africa, which had been one of the reasons we left Kenya, failed to materialise. Then, in March 2021, I was part of the UNICEF Kenya team that brought the first COVID-19 vaccines into the country. It was an intense but rewarding week, starting with media coverage of the first late-night arrival at the airport, followed by a visit to the vaccine warehouse by President Kenyatta, and ending with the launch of the national vaccination campaign.
I was at Kenyatta Hospital, Nairobi, for the campaign launch. It was a scorching hot summer day and I sheltered in the shade of a tree, staying back from the media scrum around the high-profile guests, who spoke from a podium set up in the carpark. After the speeches, I witnessed the historic moment when the first vaccine dose was delivered to Dr Patrick Amoth, Director General at the Ministry of Health. As the first tranche of health workers also got their shots, I worked with our regular freelance photographer Lameck to take their portraits and interview them about the experience. We set up our equipment in a quiet corner next to a UNICEF-branded fridge and tried to capture confident poses and quotes to inspire other health workers to also get the vaccine.
After a year of working mostly from home, it was great to be back on the ground, doing the kind of communication work that I most enjoy. It was also, at least in retrospect, a significant moment when defeating the pandemic went from something that felt impossible and hopeless to something that we might just be able to pull off.
“This vaccine protects myself, my patients and my family from COVID-19,” Dr Eric Hungu, a surgeon at Kenyatta National Hospital, told me. “I am looking forward to the second dose.”
Shortly afterwards, UN staff including myself and my team got our own first COVID-19 vaccination shots. This was another transformative moment which allowed us to go out and about much more safely. Although most health workers and ex-pats were keen to get vaccinated, other Kenyans were noticeably less keen, with myths and misinformation spreading on social media and in communities, combined with true stories about the (very low) risk of blood clots from AstraZeneca vaccines.
We soon realised that we had to do more to counter vaccine hesitancy, especially among older people and – surprisingly – teachers. We worked with religious leaders to record messages targeting their congregations and I visited a health centre in Dandora informal settlement, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, to film teachers getting vaccinated and record their messages to the peers.
Dandora is home to both a densely packed urban community and one of the largest rubbish dumps in Africa. Outside the health centre, I could hear the sounds of children playing, along with boda boda motorbikes and the Friday call to prayers. A large graffiti mural had been painted across the front of the health centre, showing a doctor with stethoscope advising residents to wear a mask, wash their hands, and keep physical distance, under the slogan “komesha korona” (stop coronavirus).
In the small garden behind Dandora 1 Health Centre, a tent and table had been set up for COVID-19 vaccinations. Health workers sat at the table checking IDs and registering local residents who had turned up to get their jab. A small queue had formed, with people sitting on a bench or plastic chairs as they waited their turn.
Grade 2 Teacher Rosemary Waithera was one of the first people to get vaccinated. She pulled down the sleeve of her grey cardigan, turned her head and closed her eyes, while the nurse injected the COVID-19 vaccine in her upper left arm. In a few seconds it was over, but the nurse asked Rosemary to sit down for another 15 minutes, in case she had any side effects..
“I decided to get vaccinated because I realized I’m vulnerable,” Rosemary told me, once her 15 minutes had passed. “I need to protect myself from COVID-19. I’ve come to realise that it’s real. My nephew was almost dying the other day, so I cannot rule out that I could also get it. And I’ve seen many others who have been vaccinated and they are OK, so now the fear is gone.” Read the full story here.
Being back in Kenya also gave us the opportunity to visit the safaris we’d missed the first time around, including the Maasai Mara. This was our first true break from the pandemic.
In both Hong Kong and Nairobi, COVID-19 had seemed to upend everything. Busy city streets became deserted, aeroplanes disappeared from the skies and face masks became ubiquitous. But the Maasai Mara seemed blissfully unaffected. Here, antelopes, giraffes and wildebeests kept grazing the savannah, exactly as they had for millennia. Lions and cheetahs kept on hunting them. Even the semi-nomadic Maasai people continued life much as before, herding their cattle across the open plains.
The highlight of our first Maasai Mara visit was undoubtedly Kisaru the cheetah. We found her one morning on a safari drive with our guide Moses. She sitting on a small grassy hillock, looking out for prey. It was a good spot, overlooking a wide valley. Beyond it, the savanna turned to woodland, with blue hills outlined on the horizon. Behind the cheetah, herons probed the swampy ground speculatively.
We waited with Kisaru for about 20 minutes. Then suddenly, she tensed up. “Look, she’s spotted an impala,” Moses said, pointing to a lone female animal grazing on its own. “It’s on swampy ground. If she can get close, she may be able to catch it.” Kisaru started moving, creeping through the long grass with her shoulders up and back down, looking for all the world like a domestic cat stalking a bird in the garden. “It’s on!” Moses exclaimed.
Kisaru crept closer, moving between the antelope and the rest of the herd. She hid in a patch of reeds a few metres away from the animal and waited. The antelope, which at first was oblivious to Kisaru’s presence, was now starting to look around nervously. “She’s noticed the behaviour of the rest of the herd,” Moses explained, as we heard nearby Wildebeest snorting. “They’re trying to warn her. She knows there’s a predator around now, but she doesn’t know where.”
The impala finally made a decision. Not knowing where the cheetah was, she decided to make a run for it back to the herd. But this took her directly towards Kisaru’s hiding place. At the last moment, she saw the cheetah, and used her long legs to leap high in the air, passing over her head. Kisaru leapt in turn, shooting upwards and trying to catch the antelope with her claws. She missed but spun around in the air and landed on her paws, springing after it.
Within a few paces, Kisuru caught the impala, grabbing its back legs to trip it over, almost like a rugby tackle, and then seizing its neck in her jaws. We drove closer to see the kill. Kisaru held the antelope in a deadly embrace, keeping a chokehold on its neck and slowly suffocating it. At one point, Kisaru changed her grip and the impala let out a desperate bleat, kicking out a back leg, but otherwise the kill proceeded in silence until Kisaru released her hold on the lifeless animal. Read the full story here.
Turkana: linked in
After getting vaccinated, I was also able to resume travel ‘to the field’ to report on UNICEF’s projects for children across the country. I started with a trip to Turkana, where I visited a school that UNICEF had recently connected to the Internet, partly to enable remote learning in the case of any future school closures.
After a long drive from the county town Lodwar, it was late morning when we arrived Namoruputh Primary School. The school was close to the border with Uganda, which is lined by a ridge of high mountains on the horizon where rainclouds had gathered. Behind one classroom, a large satellite dish has been installed, surrounded by a makeshift fence of thorny branches, gathered from the bushes that punctuated the sandy ground.
Inside the classroom, teacher Mwangangi began an unusual science lesson. He drew a diagram of a flower on the blackboard, but instead of telling the children the names of the parts of the flower, or handing out a textbook, he asked them to Google it. The children bent over their distinctive lime-coloured tablets, searching for images with the right information. Cecilia Akai, 13, raised her arm “Teacher, teacher,” she said. He gave her a chalk and she walked to the board, where she wrote ‘stigma’ on the correct part of the flower. After naming all the parts of the flower, Mwangangi asked the children to research their functions and they broke into groups, searching and discussing the results.
It was a more interactive scene than traditional Kenyan primary school lessons and the children were obviously enthusiastic. “After the Internet was installed, I was able to learn many more things,” James Lokeny, 15, told me. “I can find out what’s happening now in Kenya and look at maps and videos. I’ve been able to learn more on topics like engineering and wildlife. Already my grades have improved. When I grow up, I would like to become an engineer because there are very few in this country.”
While in Turkana, I also visited schools to see how UNICEF was returning adolescent girls affected by child marriage and children with disabilities to class.
The next day, I was at a school back in Lodwar town. As classes finished, a group of boys ran out onto a sandy football pitch between the buidlings. There was a flash of colour beneath their pink school shirts, which some of them peeled off to reveal international football club shirts beneath. They ran up and down the pitch with tremendous energy, gesturing at each other. Finally, 13-year-old Ezra, wearing an Atletico Madrid t-shirt, got a clear shot at the goal. He lined it up and took the shot. The ball swerved past the goalkeeper and landed behind the goalpost, kicking up a small cloud of dust. Ezra threw up his arms in celebration. But there was little or no sound from the players, all of whom were fully or partially deaf.
St Bernadette School for the Deaf provides education for children with hearing impairments. The children come from across Turkana County, including Kakuma refugee camp, where Ezra lived with his parents. He was found on the streets by a child protection officer from the Lutheran World Federation. They soon realized that he was not a refugee. Ezra’s family came from the surrounding area and had moved to the camp in search of work. So LWF arranged for him to come back to school, paying his transport and boarding fees.
“My parents were happy for me to go back to school,” Ezra told me using sign language. “I enjoy being here, my life is much nicer. Now I know how to read and write. I want to stay at school until I’ve finished my education.”
Garissa: spreading the word
After Turkana, I travelled to Garissa, close to the border with Somalia, where UNICEF was working with religious leaders to tackle COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. It felt almost like a different country. Garissa is semi-desert, most of the population are nomadic herders, the main language is Somali and religion is Islam. I was told that when people cross the Tana River to travel to Nairobi, they say that they’re “going to Kenya”.
In Garissa, I visited KWS mosque, named after the nearby Kenya Wildlife Service, at noon on a Friday. The call to prayers echoed out from speakers inside the thin minarets that towered above the white-washed building. Worshippers took off their shoes and washed their hands and feet before entering the mosque – a hygiene practice that predates COVID-19 by over 1,400 years. Some had brought their sons with them, young and older boys in Islamic kanzu tunics. Once the crowd had settled, the local imam, Sheikh Omar Dagane, preached about the importance of vaccination. As non-Muslims, we were not allowed inside for the sermon, but we had found a cameraman from a local TV station to take our equipment in and film it for us.
After the sermon, I interviewed Sheikh Omar. “Today, I spoke to my congregation about preventing COVID-19 by taking the vaccine,” he said. “I quoted one of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, who was asked by a follower whether he should tie his camel. He replied: ‘Trust in Allah but tie your camel.’ In the same way, we should Trust in Allah but get vaccinated, wear our masks and wash our hands to keep ourselves protected.”
Isak Abdi, 40, was one of the members of the congregation who was convinced. “I listened to today’s sermon by the imam and to the health official,” he said. “I have now made up my mind to go and take the COVID-19 vaccine.”
So our second year in Kenya was a definite improvement on the first, but still very much dominated by COVID-19. The arrival of vaccines was a literal and metaphorical shot in the arm that helped us start returning our lives to some kind of normality. Things continued to improve in our third year, with highlights including the world-famous Great Wildebeest Migration, as featured on countless wildlife documentaries. But that will be the subject of my next blog.