Sister Veronica tells me she can build another house for one of her orphans if we can raise $2,000.

If you would like to make an anonymous donation to support the people we are working with, please CLICK HERE

Thank you

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Build Project – Video

Here is a video of the house build project.



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Dear All

I am off to Kenya tomorrow and will be spending a couple of weeks there trying to get an understanding of the issues around poverty in Africa and exploring ways in which some of us might be able to work together with the people there as they strive for a better future.

Some of you have expressed an interest in what I am doing so I thought I would send a few emails over the course of the trip.

As part of the trip I am spending four days working with a charity that is supported by the AMERICAN FOUNDATION FOR CHILDREN WITH AIDS. We are going to be rebuilding a couple of houses for families affected by HIV. In one case the son is infected and has only recently received a donated bed so he will no longer have to sleep on the floor.

I am approaching this project with a mixture of scepticism, trepidation and excitement.

Scepticism that we may be perceived as a bunch of liberal minded middle class ‘do gooders’ assuaging our consciences by doing this instead of a having week on the beach in Turkey this year. Trepidation that the extreme poverty that we have been warned to expect to see will have a devastating impact and finally, excitement that perhaps, just maybe, what we do will make a difference and point to ways in which we can continue to do so.

Kind regards

John Biggs



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My extensive research for this tip included an invaluable visit to the Safari at Chessington World of adventure!

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Nairobi Airport 0600

Nothing too shabby here. No rush of hot air as we got off the plane. The one jumper I came with is gonna get some use!

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The residential block of the Holly Order of St Josephs which will be our home for a week.

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Net Practice

About to experience my first night under a mosquito net. These cost about a fiver each and can protect a child for five years.

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Our first informal briefing at a smart beachside hotel.

For the record, the sisters did imbibe but we voted to let them off thier contribution to the kitty.

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Techno Nun

Our hostess, Sister Veronica, has two mobiles and a laptop and drives thorough Mombassa like Lewis Hamilton.

Julie Andrews eat your heart out.

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Back to source

Internet cafe in Mombassa.

I checked with them all and none of them had ‘inherited £10m and needed a bank account to process it through’!

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Customer Satisfation Index Kenya style.

BTW – they did so we did.

Ding Dong

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Downtown Mombassa

Could be Beijing or Bangkok.

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Luggage On The Roof

A sure sign we are in Africa. Who remembers Daktari?

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Private ensuite room with balcony. I stayed in a Travelodge in Newcastle last week that was not up to this standard.

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Our Neighbourhood

These kids chasing a ball around our compound look far to healthy. Later discovered that the compound incorporates a small fee paying school for no HIV kids.

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Update 1

If like me, you don’t have picture in your mind of where Kenya is, look on a map, go to Egypt and then head south down the East coast of Africa and stop at the equator. Most of Kenya is a bit north of that, but you will in the zone.

To get to Mombasa where we are working this week, we arrived in the capital Nairobi, and changed to an internal flight. You get the full on Africa ‘Big Sky’ experience just walking from one terminal to the other. The early morning sun breaking through the trees fits perfectly with the classic Out of Africa stereotype.

I have never been kissed by a nun before.

However Sister Veronica, who heads up the project we will be supporting, was not one for formal introductions. A big hug and kiss on each cheek were dispensed with alacrity to all members of our party as we emerged from Arrivals at Mombasa airport.

Sister Veronica’s mission, which is run by the St Joseph’s order of the Catholic church, has a pastoral centre attached to one of it’s schools in the city and this is to be our home for the next 10 days.

Half of the team I am woking with have just come from another project in Tanzania where they have been sleeping on concrete floors, using pit latrines, cooking their own food and living under an alcohol ban.

Not for the first time on this trip I had the feeling that I had won the Lottery of Life as we took up residence in our rooms with balconies, en-suite bathrooms, tepid showers and an invitation to ‘bring our own wine’ down to dinner.

Eat your heart out Lenny Henry!




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Over 100 clients are seen here each day. Women, children and men are all given free medication and vital counselling on how to deal with being HIV+ (as we in the sector describe it!)

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As a Catholic mission the Sisters face a number of challenges around educating clients about the transmission of HIV. Whilst the clinic itself does not distribute condoms they are able to refer clients to sources of free supplies.

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Update 2

Off to visit the clinic today for a briefing on the work the sisters are doing and what we are expected to do when we start our construction work.

It is probably fair to say that our party of British, North American and Australian liberal minded volunteers approached the prospect of getting an insight into the way the Catholic church is working with people with HIV with a degree of scepticism tinged with trepidation at the prospect of seeing people of all ages ravaged by the disease.

We were wrong on both counts.

The clinic is on the fringes of of the largest slum in Mombasa. thousands of people are crammed into makeshift accommodation on the side of a hill with no running water or sanitation.

The clinic itself is a calm oasis in the midst of the chaos. Well kept and tidy, the compound comprises of the clinic, a school and an FE college.

Clients are ‘recruited’ to attend the clinic by a group of community works who move around the slums seeking to identify those most at risk and those orphaned by the ravagers of the illness.

Their benchmarks, interestingly, are:

More people living with HIV = a good thing because we are keeping hem alive.

More people reporting that they have HIV = a bad thing because it is spreading.

To date they are managing to keep ahead of the game by getting positive results against both benchmarks.

Their key messages seem to be:

De-stigmatise HIV by talking about it and disclosing if you are infected.

Promoting testing at the clinic and at home with free simple tests.

Medicating those that test positive, providing free drugs and helping them to stay the course of treatment.

Counselling prior to testing, supporting those who test positive and encouraging them to attend couple counselling to face up to the practicalities of the diagnosis.

Working with HIV infected children, encouraging them to take medication and supporting parents, if they are still alive, as they disclose to the children that they are infected.

Encouraging the use use of condoms to prevent further infection.

The budget for running the clinic for year is around 150k They have just been advised of a 20% budget cut and told that they must deal with more clients.

Just in case this all sounds a bit serious, we had a great afternoon at the clinic playing and singing with a group of 4-6 year olds that were blissfully unaware of why they come here each week.

Kind regards




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Once upon a time

Teachers weave lessons about the importance of diligently taking medication into stories for the children.

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Language School

Our Swahili lesson was going well until I asked for a translation of ‘how much would it cost to employ you to rebuild that house on my behalf.?’

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The team we are working with run this clinic as well as an outreach programme.

Client participation and empowerment are key to their work.

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Update 3

Zawadi is 12 years old and was born HIV+. She has no siblings and is a “total orphan’, that is both of her parents are dead. They died of Aids.

Zawadi has been taken in by her uncle and his wife and shares their house with them along with five on their own children.

The house is in a slum and is appalling condition. There is no running water or electricity and an outside pit latrine toilet. Two of the walls of the house have large holes and the roof is missing in places.

This will be our first project.

On arrival at the site we are introduced to Zawadi are were welcomed by members of the local football team who had volunteered to support our work.

The construction process is basic. Holes are dug half a meter in the ground and rough hewn posts set in them. Lengths of bamboo are split in half and lashed to either side of the uprights at regular intervals providing cross members to support the mud that will used to construct the walls.

Most of Zawadi’s friends from the village come over alter school and they all helped with the mammoth task of moving a large pile of sand across the valley from where it was delivered to the build site.

Many of them, like her, are HIV+ positive. however, if like her they are receiving the drugs from Sister Veronica’s clinic the prognosis is good.

As we left the village a couple of our team we’re invited into the hose of a young man who has only just started his drug treatment. they reported that his arms we as thin as their fingers and he could hardly stand up. the local team are confident that with treatment and support he should survive.

Tomorrow will be very messy as we will begin to mix the mud for the walls!


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The Build Site

Not sure who was more worried as we arrived on site, us or the locals.

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Zawadi’s House

Even the most audacious estate agent would be pushed to see the ‘potential’ here.

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The Plan

The plan is to knock down half the house and replace it with a larger space with two rooms. Oh, and they will have to live there whist we do it.

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Phase 1

Dig the holes for the uprights.

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Phase 2

Put the uprights in place. My vote was to demolish the old part of the house first.


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Phase 3

Use a machete to split bamboo pole in half and lash them to the uprights. Oh for a pack of cable ties!

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OK – so now let’s demolish the old bit and chuck it over the new bit.

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New for old

Progress at the site was seriously hampered by the lack of good tools so we headed for the shops.
This lot came to about the price of Sunday lunch for four at our local pub at home and increased productivity ten found.

Meat and two veg anyone?

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As Zawadi’s friends help us carry the sand across the valley we are reminded that the education proces here is a two way street.
Just for the record, I tried it and it hurt like hell!

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Participatory Development

Val, our team leader, is helped up the hill with yet another bucket of sand by our ‘client’

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Catering Team

At the peak there were nearly 40 people working on the project. The women from the village organised a mass catering programme. They produced vast tubs of ‘Seema’ a corn based semolina type food served with meat and cabbage that filled you up quicker then a Big Mac Double Cheese Burger with extra fries.

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Zawadi’s Crew

Zawadi and some of the community leaders that nominated her for participation in the programme

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Update 4

Apparently, there are some in my circle convinced that I have issues around ‘control freakery’. Not sure I agree, but I would be happy to organise a meeting, perhaps with some catering which I could organise, where we could all take turns in an order that I would decide on, so we could in an orderly and structured way, share our positions on this and come to a consensus which I would then be happy to type up and circulate.

Anyway – arriving on site on the first day of the build to find the full squad of the local football team ready to help us and the only tools available to be a couple of blunt machetes sent my ‘must sort this’ reflexes into overdrive.

Pat, one of or US volunteers had fund-raised before she came and had brought a few hundred dollars as petty cash for ’emergencies’. After work we headed for the local supermarket and filled a trolley for around £100 with enough tools to build an extension on a three bed semi in Surbiton.

All tooled up, we approached day two with renewed vigour only to discover early on that the huge pile of sand and rocks that we had passed on day one on the north side of the valley had to be moved to the south side where the build site was.

Like China, one thing Africa is not short of is people. Shortly the cry went out that the Muzomos (white people), whilst putting on a good show, were never going to get the job done alone.

Suddenly the valley was filled with women and children of all ages forming a human convoy, moving the materials from north to south.

Our team members become figureheads for small groups of children all singing newly learned English nursery rhymes as they swarmed back and forth across the valley carrying their loads in scenes reminiscent of the Pied Piper.

The men meanwhile, dug, sawed, nailed, mixed and fell in love with the women in our group. By the end of day two at least two members of our team had firm proposals of marriage and promises of years of continuous child bearing.

In addition to recruiting her school friends to help with the ‘great move’ Zawadis role in all of this was to stop now and then to gaze at this vast hive of activity that was about to change her life forever.

The process of ‘mudding’ the walls of the house starts with a pile of mud and vast quantities of water. The mud is rolled into dumpling sized lumps and forced into the gaps in the wooden frames.

Mercifully, the mud had been delivered to the site before we arrived. Unfortunately, as I saw the women returning from the well with the first of the dozens of five gallon containers of water we were going to need on their heads my ‘I can fix that’ reflex kicked in again.

Four hours and another £100 later me and my team of ‘water boys’ were stringing half a dozen garden hoses across the valley from the one house in the village with a working tap.

In his book, The End of Poverty, Jeffery Sachs postulates that one reason for the British ‘success’ in colonising Africa was the  fluke of geography that meant that the Industrial Revolution was much more likely to happen here than anywhere else.

I was pondering parallels between this and my water project as my team and I patrolled the route of the pipe looking for leaks. Determined to follow the ‘teach a man to fish’ model of delivering my miniature international aid project, I encouraged the team to mend the leaks themselves which they did with skill and enthusiasm.

As we climbed the last few meters to the build site my role had been diminished to following behind double checking for missed leaks as the team rushed ahead with the tools and spare pipes we needed for our task.

Unfortunately for me, and for my attempts to present the former ‘colonial masters’ in a new reformed light, I found a leak in the last joint before the top. My cries to the team to come back and help me fix the leak altered my co-volunteers to our presence.

As this group of Americans, Canadians and Australians, all countries that have faced the challenges of Colonisation by the Brits, turned from ‘mudding’ the side wall of the house they were faced with the sight of a group of locals, including a 10 year old boy who had ‘insisted’ that I let him carry my rucksack, running full speed down the side of the valley in response to the call of a large white man in a silly safari hat.

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Quiet contemplation

Not everything went smoothly. Sister catches a moment of reflection having just defused another potential crisis.

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Zawadi’s uncle and guardian remained a calm dignified presence throughout the build, including the day when his boss threatened to fire him if he took a day off work.

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Carry on and keep calm

Zawadi’s aunt and her cousins do their best to carry on as normal in spite of the fact that we have demolished half of their house to make way for the new one. Worth remembering this next time we moan about ‘having the builder in’

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Water Course

In spite of my ‘minor cultural incident’ we did mange to get the water flowing across the valley – until the electricity running the pumps that feed the tank that connected to the tap went off.

In an attempt to win back some credibility with my team I carry some five litre containers of water the 200 meters by hand. In the end about half the water we needed came by pipe some some honour was restored.

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Water Project

No shortage of volunteers to support Biggs’ Great Water Project! They really, really really did insist on carrying the materials. Honest.

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Dirty Habits

Any thoughts that church may not be fully engaged in the nitty gritty realties facing the community were rapidly dispelled as Sister Veronica put on a fabulous ‘mudding’ display.

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The ‘mudding’ begins as evidence emerges that ‘builder’s bum’ is not exclusively a western issue.

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Moving Rocks 1

Now that is clever….


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Moving Rocks 2

and that is just showing off!

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Great Leap Forward

Just when we thought we were getting nowhere the roof was on and the walls were well on the way to being fully muddied.

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Noon Day Sun

Check out the looks on the faces of the local team as they speculate on the arrival of the ‘Mad Dogs’ to complete the scene.

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Job Done

Well, almost. A small group returned the following day to add the finishing touches.

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Update 5 – Zawadi outside her new home

We finished the house on Thursday.

A few months ago Zawadi could barely move. She was sleeping on the mud floor of her uncle’s house and missing school.

Thanks to the work of Sister Veronica’s team she is now receiving regular Anti Retro Viral drug treatment to keep her HIV under control and she is expected to lead a long life. She has a proper bed to sleep on, goes to school regularly and will move into her new home this weekend.

I’m here for another week and hope to be spending time in schools trying to get an understanding of the education system, but phase one of my adventure is almost at an end.

I hope that you have enjoyed these occasional missives and, if nothing more, that they have raised awareness of something most of us winners of the ‘Lottery of Life’ had no real understanding of.

For me the learnings are:

* The drugs do work – if we can get them to the right people at the right time.

* The cycle of HIV infection, especially from mothers to their unborn children, can be stoped with early testing and medication.

* Communities, even very poor ones, will help themselves if they are given a chance.

* There are no perfect solutions and all of them require a degree of compromise, trade off and risk taking.

* Even in the most dire of situations people can still find humour and the ability to smile.

So to return to my original ‘trepidations’ about this project:

1. Liberal minded ‘do gooders’ we might have been, but we made a difference, touched some lives and shattered a few stereotypes of our own and of the people we worked with.

2. Staggered by the poverty, we certainly were. Some of us had seen similar elsewhere but coupled with the devastating  impact of HIV, especially  on the young children, it seemed much harsher.

3. Inspired to find a way to do more – absolutely. I am meeting various people from the British High Commission later this week to explore some options and will update you on the outcome.

In the meantime, Sister Veronica tells me that $2,000 (£1,300) will provide enough materials to build another house for an orphan like Zawadi.

Now I know that I am not as funny as Lenny Henry and I hope I am not as rude as Bob Geldof, but you know what I need you to do now, and you can do it HERE
It’s anonymous so I won’t know if you did or if you didn’t, although Sister Veronica might be able to tap into ‘higher sources’ to find out!

If we get to the target I’ll release a video clip of a ‘ tired and emotional’ white man dressed as a Masai Warrior dancing with a nun that I found on my phone the morning after the end of build party. Now if that wont make you cough up  – nothing will!

Many thanks to those of you that sent message of support.

Kind regards


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Sister Veronica tells me she can build another house for one of her orphans if we can raise $2,000.

If you would like to make an anonymous donation to support the people we are working with, please CLICK HERE

Thank you

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