This month, we put Brendan Harding (known around Travellerspoint as zaksame) on the spot. Brendan is a passionate writer who abandoned the working world to focus on his writing. In 2006, he started a charity working to provide basic eye care services to the people of a remote area of Kenya. We caught up with Brendan to find out more about his writing, charity and - of course - travel.
How long ago did you leave the working world to focus on writing?
My last full-time paid job was in 2002 when I worked as a graphic designer for a large print house here in Ireland. I left that company to continue my career in graphics as a free-lance designer but I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands as I waited for clients to come on-stream.
It was during this free time that I started writing again – something I hadn't done since the early nineties when I lived in Russia. Once I started writing again it was just like filling in the final piece of a jigsaw that had been missing for a long time.
So in answer, there wasn't really a date on a calendar when I said I'm a writer now, but an evolution which dove-tailed neatly into my existing life.
That must have been a daunting experience. Who or what encouraged you to do it?
It has most certainly been daunting at times (and continues to be) when the bills are due and solutions are hard to find. It really is like doing an apprenticeship and gathering the information, the knowledge and the contacts that it takes to make some kind of a living from my writing. Just like an apprenticeship, you don't get paid much but you continue to hope that one day, in the future, you can make a life for yourself using all the components you've gathered along the way.
I had a wonderful English teacher in school who taught me the love of the written word, so I guess it was this one thing that really made me want to write. Also a strange thing happened one day in my home town's public library: I found a leaflet for a creative writing degree and put it in my bag, when I arrived home later that day a copy of that same leaflet had been posted to me by someone, who to this day I still don't know their identity. Subsequently, I enrolled in the course and over the next couple of years whilst studying, writing took over my life completely.
Together with your colleague Bernard Jennings, you've started up a charity called Asante, which provides eye care services in a remote, drought-afflicted part of Kenya. What first inspired you to start Asante?
My colleague Bernard Jennings is a well-known optician in Ireland and it was through his friendship with a Catholic nun named Sr Goretti Ward that the whole thing came about. Sister Goretti, who was based in my home town of Carlow for most of her life, moved to rural Kenya when she was 65 – a time when everyone else wants to retire and put their feet up. On one of her visits home she was having her eyes tested by Bernard when she happened to mention the wonderful work an optician could do in her remote Kenyan village. On Christmas eve 2006 - after several beers it has to be noted - Bernard asked if I'd be interested in traveling with him to Kenya and write about what I saw. And so it began.
In Kenya I was gripped by the inequality of life to such a degree that on our first evening in the bush we decided that our clinics shouldn't become a one-off arrangement. Since that first year, we have returned annually and brought several other opticians along with us. Through an alliance with the Kikuyu Eye Hospital in Nairobi the numbers of people tested have risen to over 1500 and from that number almost two hundred people have had their sight restored completely or partially. We continue to raise money from the people of our home town and from the business community of the area; without them nothing would happen.
What are the main challenges and obstacles to running a charity like Asante?
We've been really lucky in running Asante in the fact that we have people on the ground already - the nuns of the Mercy community in Kenya - who pave the way for our arrival each year. They organise our calendar and get the word out into the communities of our arrival. Often when we arrive at a village we wonder if the people will turn up, and always they arrive, usually having walked many miles in murderous temperatures to get there.
Having said that, the logistics involved can still prove a headache with simple things like equipment going astray in transit. After the post-election violence of 2007/8 we had safety concerns of course, but these proved to be unfounded and existed only in our minds.
Asante (which by the way means 'Thank You' in Swahili) now runs pretty smoothly and most of the organisation involved is in the raising of funds.
How much have your travels and experiences in Kenya shaped your world view?
I was a late bloomer to travel and didn't get to travel until I was thirty years old. I had seen all of my friends leave Ireland during the recession of the eighties and was always so envious of the stories they told on their visits home. When I did travel in August of 1990 it was to the Soviet Union, Moscow in particular and I knew the very moment, on my first night in Moscow, as I walked in Red Square that there was a big world out there waiting for me. I went on to spend five years in Russia and got to see a large portion of the country in that time, every new sight and every new person I met seemed to make up for the years of lost traveling.
But Kenya has really changed my perspective on life, so much so that I feel I will end up going back there to live at some point. It is our undying devotion to materialism that has upset me most since my first visit. It really saddens me at times to see people complain over trivialities when almost all of us have everything - and more - we could ever use in a hundred lifetimes.
One day near Tsavo, in the south-east of the country, as I sat at a railway station in the terrible heat a small child was watching me from the doorway of a crumbling, mud hut. After a short time of watching me, half-hidden from sight, she boldly walked up to me carrying a bowl of maize porridge and offered to share it with me. It was all she had. Her smile was as big as the plains of the Masai Mara and to this day she is still never far from my thoughts. If that's change, it's change I'm happy with.
Do you have any trips planned for this year?
Let me start by saying I'm open for any assignment!
But the truth is, unless I'm commissioned to travel for a newspaper of some other publication it's unlikely that I'll get to travel before next spring. I've been to Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia, Portugal and Kenya this year and also spent a fantastic week here in Ireland at the West Cork literary festival in Bantry. There's still an awful lot to see and do in Ireland.
In the future I would really like to spend an extended period of time in my favourite place; Croatia. I have an idea for a travel-novel set on a Dalmatian island and would love the chance to go back and learn the language allowing me better access to the hidden Croatia.
But even if I'm not traveling physically between one place and another, I am continuously traveling in my mind.
You can some of Brendan's writing and see his artwork on his website.
Check out these past interviews in the Talking Travel series:
- Talking Travel with Jennifer Johnson
- Talking Travel with Sander
- Talking Travel with Rob and Pol
- Talking Travel with Michael Johnson
- Talking Travel with Izzy and Marisa
- Talking Travel with Marlis
- Talking Travel with Gretchen
- Talking Travel with Andrew and Courtney
- Talking Travel with Purdy
- Talking Travel with Maria
- Talking Travel with Niels
- Talking Travel with Amy and Wim
- Talking Travel with Hien
- Talking Travel and HIV/AIDS in India with Dave Reidy
- Talking Travel with Utrecht