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Bac Ha – On being about the Journey, not the destination

I’ve been doing a few guest posts for another travel blog.  They are not necessarily about Kenya, so they might seem a bit off topic.  But the blogger I’m writing for takes amazing photos that I want to share.  And it might be interesting for you to hear about other places outside East Africa as well.

The Friendly Cafe was where I met Sasha and Neil on my first day in Sapa and where our adventure was concocted.  We decided to hire motorbikes and ride to Bac Ha for the Sunday market.  We hired two bikes for three of us as I didn’t know how to ride and thought I’d be quite happy on the back.

Fog entering the valley, near Lau Thi Ngai coll, Bac Ha Mountains, Lao Cai province, mountains of Vietnam near the border of China, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Fog entering the valley

After half a day I was ready to drive.  What fun!  Lesson one covered dirt roads, potholes, gravel, mud, river crossings and night driving.

As evening approached we realised we were lost.  It was dark and cold so we stopped in a village to ask for help.  We negotiated for someone to lead us to the nearest guesthouse and soon we were retracing our route along the potholed dirt roads and over rivers.  But this time, Neil fell in.  He must have hit a rock; the bike went over.  Fortunately he and the bike were OK but he was drenched and we still had another thirty minutes ride.

Hmong women in rice fields, Bac Ha Mountains, Lao Cai province, mountains of Vietnam near the border of China. OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Hmong women in rice fields

At last we arrived at a guesthouse where an extraordinarily rude hotelier greeted us.  But the rooms were clean, the price reasonable, and we would have settled for anything.

Next mission: dinner.  Sasha and I found a restaurant across the road where, instead of trying to figure out what we wanted, the old woman simply put the knife in one of Sasha’s hands and a tomato in the other and indicated “here’s the kitchen, go for it”.  It was wonderful!

The following day we got to Bac Ha.  What a sight greeted our eyes: everywhere we looked were colourful H’mong in bright traditional dress.  With a magnificent temple in the background, mounds of vegetables for sale on the street and women with large basket backpacks, it was a visual spectacular.  Breakfast was something we could not identify, but it was good.  For the rest of the day we munched on sugar cane.

The market extended over a large area, divided into sections.  The animal market was an open dirt patch with each seller’s offerings harnessed together.  There were donkeys, sheep, cows, water buffalo and dogs (which we hope were being sold for pets, not food).  Local liqueur was being sold from jerry cans.  Customers had to bring their own bottle into which the liqueur was poured through a funnel.  It seemed somehow incongruous to see these older H’mong women in their beautiful costumes dispensing local alcohol in this way.  My favourite section was clothing where I was sorely tempted to buy a lovely traditional H’mong skirt.

The photos for this post were supplied by Alberto Mateo.  More of his work can be found at  www.albertomateo.com  and www.thelastfootprint.com

Hmong men playing snooker, Bac Ha village, Lao Cai province, mountains of Vietnam near the border of China, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Hmong men playing snooker

Lamu

Having heard much about the island of Lamu, I decided to take a week off and check it out.  I knew it was on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and it was the place in Kenya to experience traditional Swahili culture.  I didn’t know that getting there by bus was not the best way to travel!  Lamu is fairly remote, and most tourists opt to fly in and out.

The journey involved an overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa (not as straightforward as it sounds, but another story completely), a seven-hour bus ride with the girl next to me curled up with her head in my lap asleep, and finally an overloaded boat to the island.

But arriving on Lamu was like entering another world: from the bumpy dusty road to an architecturally beautiful haven.  My accommodation was a cheap guest house with a lovely rooftop terrace where I could relax if I tired of exploring.

My first goal was to fill up on the historic sites including Lamu Museum and Swahili House, giving me excellent insight into traditional Swahili culture.  As I wandered about the Old Town, I marvelled at the narrow laneways, intricate carved wood doors, and traditional houses.  There are no cars in Lamu; if you need to go further than walking distance or carry a load, you travel by donkey.  This makes walking a pleasure…. unless you get too close to a grumpy donkey!

My favourite thing when travelling is to watch life happen; Lamu Fort provided the perfect place.  Looking out over the central square from the fort afforded views of market sellers and chess players.  The fort has views in all directions, so I could see houses all around, with people coming in and out, children visiting their friends and playing in the laneways.

Alberto Mateo

The real beauty however, I found at the waterfront.  Fishing has long been the primary industry of Lamu, and it continues to be an important part of life here.  I watched as the fisherman hauled in their catch, made and mended their nets, and repaired their boats.  The dhows (wooden sailing boats) they use are the same design as years past, and fathers teach their sons the skills of boat building, net making and fishing.  And so life continues as ever before in this remote paradise.

Alberto Mateo

Lamu is a haven, so serene compared to mainland Kenya.  I learnt there are many ways to experience Swahili culture, apart from the museum.  For example one man invites people to his home for a dinner of traditional dishes, there are sunset dhow cruises, or just soak up the atmosphere in the Old Town.

Alberto Mateo

The photos for this post were supplied by Alberto Mateo.  More of his work can be found at  www.albertomateo.com  and www.thelastfootprint.com

Improving Maternal & Child Health in Masai Land, Kenya

The well-being of mothers, infants and children determines the health of the next generation and can help predict future public health challenges for families, communities and medical care systems. Moreover, healthy birth outcomes and early identification and treatment of health conditions among infants can prevent death or disability and enable children to reach their full potential.

Despite major advances in medical care, critical threats to maternal, infant, and child health exist in the Masai District of Narok. Among the most pressing challenges, are reducing the rate of pre-term births and reducing the infant death rate.

More than 80% of women in Narok District will become pregnant and give birth to one or more children. Most of these women suffer pregnancy complications ranging from depression to the need for a cesarean delivery. Although rare, the risk of death during pregnancy has also been witnessed.

Each year, approximately 12% of the infants are born pre-term and 8.2% of infants are born with low birth weight. In addition to increasing the infant’s risk of death in its first few days of life, pre-term birth and low birth weight can lead to devastating and lifelong disabilities for the child. Primary among these are visual and hearing impairments, development delays, and behavioral and emotional problems that range from mild to severe.

Scarcity of Maternal and Child Health Community Centres has also contributed at large as the biggest challenge in Narok North District. Expectant mothers are unable to receive early maternal services and end up delivering in homes under less care and poor service; this poses a big danger to both the mother and the infant.

In order to curb this challenge, the Ewang’an e Suswa Community-based Organisation is raising funds to assist in the complete establishment of the Ewang’an e Suswa Community Health Centre. The Health Centre’s goal is to make services available to all residents of Suswa in Narok North District. Emphasis is placed on ensuring services to child-bearing women, infants and children. The organisation received a donation from the Japanese Government towards the construction of the Health Centre which is currently underway but the funding is only enough to construct an out-patient facility.

In order to accomplish its goal, the Ewang’an e Suswa Community-Based Health Centre will:

  • Promote the delivery of high quality, comprehensive, family-centred health services for women, infants, children and adolescents
  • Monitor relevant health status indicators to identify, assess and proactively plan for current and future areas of need including proposals for regulatory change for the general community
  • Promote early pre-natal care, breastfeeding, provision of nutritious food, and health education to improve pregnancy outcomes and child care
  • Once fully established and equipped, the Centre would also act as a treatment centre for both out- and  in-patient illnesses giving priority to Maternal Health care, Malaria and HIV/AIDs (Prevention of mother to child-PMTCT)
  • The Centre will also act as a control centre providing advice on prevention and outreach interventions

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