February 2002

Hello All,
If you wish to be taken off the list of recipients of my updates from the desert please let me know by reply and you'll set free and I will not be the slightest bit upset. I know they are long and much as I've tried I can't reduce them, mind you, you could just continue to delete them either!
The weeks are flying in I can't believe it is the end of February already. I know you have probably just received my last months report but at least you can be assured you'll have a month off after this one! That is assuming that the communication systems up here works this week and I am able to get this to the outside world! February has been a particularly bad communication month, I had a baby nephew for a whole week before I knew. Congratulations!! Baby Kevin Cogan was born on the 29th of January to Diarmuid and Eva, his big sister Niamh had her birthday also this month. All these family events make me feel very far away!
Well February has been another eventful month in the Turkana desert! Sand storms were the order of the day with the first and third week almost entirely taken up with flying dust. A sand storm can go on for 2 to 3 days with clouds of dust hanging in the air up to 20 mtrs high, like a brown curtain blocking the view of the desert. When these storms set in there is nothing much to do only sit it out, many try to sweep in-between gusts but now I just ignore it and work around the dirt sure isn't it clean dirt as my mother used to say! The heat has intensified yet again as the real summer hits here and it is now so hot that you don't even realize how hot it is until you put your hand to your forehead to wipe away salt, yes it's so hot that you don't even have time to sweat it turns to salt! Hence everyone here is getting heat rashes, this would not be so bad if I wasn't so white and the blotches so red, everyone else has matching colour blotches, so I am the centre of unrequested concern at present, no chance of keeping a low profile. I felt particularly white on Ash Wednesday also as the local children laughed their heads off as I walked around with a big grey cross on my forehead, they had one too but you couldn't see it!!! I did see the funny side though as it was the BIGGEST cross I have ever had to carry around for the day, I don't know what the Bishop was thinking, none of this inconspicuous thumb print you get at home!
The month started on a festive note with a cheese and wine party in Kakuma if you don't mind! Cheese here is such a luxury and has to be brought up from down country but the whole concept was totally wasted on the locals who insist that if there is a gathering there must be grub so, it just became a big party that happened to have cheese at it! This was followed by two birthdays of other lay missionaries and much eating out, in one of the three fine eating establishments hereabouts. The fun is usually when you get the menu and order what you want to be told they don't have it and you usually resort to asking, "So what do you have?" Then order egg and chips and give back the menu, but things have improved greatly and to our amazement you can now order beef stroganoff (probably made from goat!) or ham and pineapple pizza in Lodwar, wonders will never cease!! Of course you can't be hungry when you order because you will be waiting at least two hours so it's best to order early go home and come back!!
Valentines Day is big here and people walk around in red but the only chocolates I received were British army rations and that was on the condition that I would pass them on to the children! I was brought to lunch by two army sergeants who felt sorry for me I'm sure. I also got a flower (rare in the desert!) from one of the staff here. An anonymous card arrived causing fierce amusement as we tried to figure out the postmark! It made my week, a much better year than last year. That night I frequented the local bar and under huge pressure and popular demand (as you can imagine!) performed Gabrielle's, 'Out of Reach'. The next night more singing was being done at a going away party for the army, where I felt a bit like Vera Lynn. But I was the entertained more than the entertainer as were very talented with one of them managing a fire breathing display! Many prizes were presented. The person, who had been bogged into the sand most, got a shovel! The person who had the most punctures (easy with the size of the thorns on the bushes here!!) got a pair of sandals made from recycled tyres, commonly worn here as they last forever! Great fun!
Twenty four of Britain's best were over here to make a map of the area for the Kenyan government, mind you the roads they are mapping today may have changed next month as most of them are sand tracks and when it gets too sandy to go one way then the trucks just go another way! There is no such thing as a sign post once you leave the main roads and most of the time you are driving by intuition or someone is shouting directions from behind, bearing in mind that you may be able to walk that way but not drive, and the locals can't always tell the difference! On the more travelled roads there may be a stick in the road to indicate a Y junction or as is the case on the road to the lake the directions are 'Keep left on the way there and right on the way back.' So if you come to a place where you see two tracks follow the one to the left. I was fortunate enough to have inherited their stationary supplies when they left and have already put them to good use in my first teachers workshop held in Kalokol last weekend.
Before the workshop I spent the week visiting the schools from a central location in the Parish. To say that I had an adventure would be mild. I spend most of my week saying 'sure this is what the desert experience is all about!' My first day out found us driving over sand dunes at high speed so as not to get stuck arriving to a school in the middle of nowhere, nothing unusual about this school, too many children, not enough teachers, the norm it seems but I was followed from class to class by two children from the nursery school. They had curly mops of blonde hair! Beached from the water of the lake and they were gorgeous, all smiles and giggles until I took out the camera to take a photo when they stood to attention and stopped smiling, nothing could get back the playful sparkle from before so I gave up! We push started the car and headed back
The next days outing was hampered by high winds as we were crossing to the school by boat! After driving through the bush for 20 minutes we came to a clearing by the lake, with a boat about 100mtrs out. Five loads of sticks were carried on heads and 20 people followed out into the warm stagnant water full of thorns, as during El Nino this whole area has been flooded. Previously a forest, we now walked on the thorns mixed with mud and slush, a horrible feeling soon forgotten when the horror of realization that all these stick and people are going into the same boat as me!! Once in we were pushed for a good 20 mins in shallow water which was making it's way quickly into the boat, almost as quick as I could bail it out! Once the rowing started we headed out into the gulf proper and the waves were high and poor Sr. Marie Goretti beside me was petrified, her veil blew off and was retrieved and the boat continued to take in water, I figured I'd be fine I can swim and it wasn't that far UNTIL.... I was informed that the crocodiles usually stayed over by the trees to my right and that not that many people are eaten when there are a lot of fish!! I could see the headlines... "Irish Lay Missionary Eaten by Crocodiles as Overloaded Boat Sinks!" The next 20 minutes were very long! Once on dry land a long walk in the heat of the sun brought us to our school destination. When I say that this school was unlike any other I can only describe what met my eyes as amphitheatre like! There were sand dunes IN the classrooms and the children were sitting on the sand in an elevated manner to see the blackboard. There would be no fight over; he's in my way!! There were children walking from the sand dunes onto the roof of the class such was the height of it. The teachers who work here are wonderful, I really don't think I could face into that everyday! On the return journey the seas had calmed and the crossing was very pleasant with me insisting on rowing part of the way, they thought I was mad of course! On arrival to the other side I had a quick jolt of reality when I had to step out of the boat into the sludgey, slippery, yuckie, unknown surface to get back to the shore, I was assured that it was TOO HOT for the crocodiles and TOO SALTY for the snakes but I couldn't get out of it fast enough, speed being hindered by the thorns of course! Push started the car and we're off!
Wednesday started the sandstorms and we headed south into the interior and the dust. We went to a very traditional village with very low school attendance and motivation, yet the Standard 4 class of 5 children sat with their eyes half open trying to keep the dust out. They were hardly able to see the blackboard for the dust and did long division sums for me, I was so impressed! I then joined them in some traditional dancing as they sang a traditional song for me. To save themselves an hour and a half walk with a bag of charcoal on their heads (which I couldn't even lift off the ground!) half the village seemed to piles bags and themselves onto the back of the truck, luckily we push started it before we loaded up! The vehicle we travelled in all week has seen better days but Thursday was NOT one of them. We had dust in the filter and had to push twice on the way to the destination of Kataboi around 40 or 50 km from Kalokol. On arrival the locals decided to use this opportunity to carry some water (of which there is very little drinking quality even though they are right by the lake!) to the parish house. Unfortunately the truck broke down at the water hole and they had to push car and water back 5km to the house. Half the local school and teachers helped, while I had a swim in the lake (not enough fish in this area to have crocodiles!).
Now stranded in the desert and my workshop only a day away I braved the elements and the next morning hopped on the back of a motorbike made for one with my seat made up of a leather brief case strapped to the backer! With my trust in God and Fr. Charles I headed back the long journey to Kalokol, thanks to sheer strength, skill and balance I managed to make it there in two hours, unbroken and covered in dust! Aware that some teachers would have to walk much of that distance to attend the workshop I didn't complain!
The workshop was a great success with the 10 participants from the Catholic Sponsored schools turning up out of the 21 invited, (typical when it's free) BUT 13 teachers joined them from the non-sponsored schools and choose to pay, and I was thrilled that they valued the workshop so much. This was a first!! SO the 23 teachers, the local inspector and myself spent the next two days discussing the teaching of English in Kenya. They had never heard of Word Bingo, word boxes or word snap (that is for the teachers out there!!) It was a joy to see grown men playing Bingo and snap and I actually had to keep an eye on them as they cheated and looked at the next card like all children try to do.
When I returned the following week I extended my job description. I began in the local secondary school as their remedial English teacher and their pastoral instructor. As my workshops are at the weekend I felt that my weekdays could be better utilized so I now take the bottom 5 children from each of the 3 streams of Form 1 for their English, and all of the Form 1 and 2 classes for Pastoral Instruction, it's a bit like religion I think, I'm not sure yet! I've just started. I was so thrilled to get back to teaching; life has been given a real kick-start. I love it! It also means that I'll be getting the schools holidays of one month in April, Aug and Dec to do other work (or as not the case may be). I am still working with the Adult Education group and I am at present working on a publication in Turkana on diseases in animals. I never thought that I'd be learning the Turkana for worms and diarrhea. I also seem to attract any project and proposal writer within shouting distance, so my desktop publishing skills are not gone to rest as classes finish at 1:35pm. (I should add that they start at 7:10am. Anyone who knows me from home will know how difficult that is for me, as I could sleep for Ireland!) So I tend to spend afternoons working on one project or another.
Well that brings February to a close, hope it was a good one for you where ever you are! Enjoy Patrick's Day in your part of the world, I'll be wearing the green but don't think I'll manage the shamrock!
Love always from the desert, Keep well,