If rush hour in Nairobi can be compared to the Kenyan diet: matatus are to traffic what ugali is to dinner.
They are the staple of Kenyan transportation.
By law, matatus are supposed to be painted white with a broken yellow stripe around them.
But unlike ugali (that white maize meal on nearly every Kenyan dinner table), there is some variety in matatus. The owners observe the white paint, yellow stripe law but most also personalise the vans with names and custom decals.
I've seen decal photos of golf stars, rap stars, athletic brand logos, Bob Marley and that blonde female tennis player who's better known for her modelling than her tennis game.
But it's the matatu names that are most entertaining. Here, in no particular order, is a list:
Feel the Flow
Glory 2 God
No Way Out
Great is God
She Drives Crazy
But so far my favorite (I kicked myself for not having my camera on me, to snap a photo) is the Louis Vuitton matatu.
Just like knock-off bags slung over shoulders around the world, and the just-as-ugly designer originals, this matatu is covered with those LVs and little fleurs de lis. It's a _designer_ matatu.
I have been in Washington slightly more than a week now. It’s interesting how new surroundings fill us with a measure of anxiety and confusion. My first moment of real discomfort came at the close of the last week.
I call it getting lost on the train.
I asked colleagues at the office to direct me to a market where I could buy some useful personal stuff. They suggested was a busy mall not so far from the capital centre at Pentagon City. However to get to Pentagon City, I had to use a metro train. That’s exactly where the trouble began.
I had never used a metro train before. My anxiety stemmed from not knowing which train to get on, or how to ask for directions, for that matter. I heard people talk of yellow, orange and blue lines; my sense of confusion grew. A considerate colleague advised me to just try it.
"The only way you are going to gets used to this is by trying."
What a way to be reminded of that simple lesson; you only get to know new things by trying new things. Those who do not venture to try never succeed in life. They get stuck with the familiar and miss the benefit of learning from new experiences.
Armed with a small map of Washington, I resolved that I would go to Pentagon City on my own. If I got lost, it would be part of the fun! Come Saturday morning I was up early and got on the metro right outside George Washington University, just a couple of blocks from my apartment on Pen Avenue.
Twenty or so minutes later I was at Pentagon City. Still a little anxious, but proud, too. Indeed, since this Saturday experience, my confidence in this new environment has been growing. Armed with my small map I have been able to get to several points across the city without any difficulties.
Mostly when we hear others talk about culture shock, it pretty much sounds like academic phraseology. Never again, for me.
The other day I stepped into a café for a sandwich. I was not exactly sure what I wanted to have. I looked at the long menu list, a host of foods on offer. I decided I would go with the LA Wrap.
I had never eaten an LA Wrap before. The driving spirit was to try new things as much as possible.
"You will have the LA Wrap, sir?" The lady waiter asked, and I confidently nodded my head.
"Right, give us a minute sir."
The LA Wrap was nicely wrapped up for me to carry to my desk. But on un-wrapping the wrap, I was shocked. What I saw was not what I expected.
The LA Wrap is a piece of ice-cold, probably raw tuna and some spinach leaves all wrapped in some ugly, cold green spinach wrap!! I tried testing it, and it sure didn’t taste like food. The wrap cost a precious six-and-a-half dollars. It all ended up in the dustbin.
My colleagues say that I should have returned it to the restaurant and pleaded my case for a change to something edible.
What we eat contributes a lot to defining our different identities as a cultural people. Our eating habits locate us on the cultural map of the world. What else, but an LA Wrap to experience culture shock in a new country!
The LA wrap clearly did not look like food that people from my part of the world would devour with a sense of relish.
"You don't need to go to school to be a journalist."
Charlie and I were sitting in the Royal Oak in Ottawa's Glebe neighborhood. I'd just ordered another vodka and cranberry. He was drinking some green-bottled Canadian beer.
"Yeah, but I want to make some contacts," he said.
"Really, save your time and money," I told him. "You're a great writer. If you don't want to be a news person, just keep on writing and selling stories."
Charlie didn't take my advice. This month, he is shelling out big bucks to add a dash of world-weary flavor to the pap of 18-year-old first years.
Other than honing his skill at keg stands, I don't really think Charlie's going to learn too much at Carleton. He is a strong writer and he's already selling his bitter, biting first-person stories. He might get some technical know-how, but he already knows how to write.
Charlie didn't take my advice, but I wrote a hand-out a few weeks ago that might do him some good at Carelton. It's basically a compilation of the essential journalism skills that I absorbed at Kings College -- a handout for the workshops I'm delivering here on journalism and human rights.
All that money, all that time; all I’ve got is four pages. I shook my head as I watched the pages spitting out of the office printer.
I was able to spend seven years dilly-dallying in my undergrad: studying part-time, working in coffee shops, swapping majors as often as a beach bunny swaps bikinis.
The profit margin of four separate universities benefited from my lack of direction and ambivalence. It took me a while to realize the only thing I really liked was asking questions.
I don't think journalism school made me a better reporter than I would have become working under a good editor for a year. After five years in the field, I still think my reporting would improve immeasurably from a solid year working under a hard-nosed boss.
Other than a few great teachers and some basic technical training, all I got from seven years of part- then full-time school was debt and classroom fatigue.
That debt is now paid off, but the fatigue has not gone away. "I'll be quite fine if I never see the inside of another lecture hall or exam room, thank you very much."
But it seems that everyone in Kenya is crazy about school.
My lawyer housemate works full-time and goes to school every evening.
The AWC receptionist is studying business management because, "some day I want to run my own NGO." "What kind of NGO?" "Any kind."
Rosemary, the AWC director, spends so much time on the road attending and speaking at workshops, I have no idea how she gets any 'real work' done.
People here amass seminar, training and conference certificates like Canadian campers amass mosquito bites. Kenyans are covered in credentials. I imagine their resumes are swollen with degrees and continuing education courses.
"People in Kenya believe in education," Wilson told me a few weeks ago. "They have seen what it can do for you."
Wilson himself is a testament to the power of education. He grew up in a poor rural community in western Kenya.
"You know chiggers?" he asked.
I thought of a doctor friend telling me how to diagnose a chigger infection - the bugs usually dissolve the skin of their human hosts in three spots before they fall off: breakfast, lunch, dinner.
"I had chiggers during my whole childhood. They'd live in your feet and make you itchy all the time," he says.
He wore shoes for the first time on his first day of high school.
"My mother used to buy a pencil and cut it into three, to share between the kids. Oh, I wanted my own pencil so badly! I knew education was my way out. I promised myself I would never drop out of school."
Through a combination of scholarship, sponsorship and hard work, Wilson put himself through high school, college and post-graduate studies. He's got lots of pencils now, at his three-month internship in Washington, D.C.
The dream of a brand new pencil is not Wilson's alone. I heard it years ago from a Haitian man who was in an international studies class with me. In fact, his story is the main thing I remember from my semester in that dimly-lit lecture hall. He's the reason I packed boxes of pencils in my luggage, to hand out to children who beg for money.
But for the kids begging in Kibera, in Eastleigh, at Toy market, education will pay off.
People respect education here. Spending time in school and in professional workshops builds the social networks (Charlie's contacts) that are critical for finding work in a country where about 45 percent of adults are unemployed. Multiple degrees and a fat curriculum vitae are a nearly-universal prerequisite for good-paying jobs.
But for the many thousands of Canadian dollars Charlie and other journalism students will spend on school this semester, I still think they could learn more, more quickly by being thrown into an internship under a tough boss.
Would-be engineers and doctors should go to university. Artists and reporters just need to do the work.
Oh, and reporters need to read my four-page basic journalism skills hand-out. It's pretty good. Now if only I could remember my own advice...
An AWC colleague, Wilson Ugangu, arrived in Washington, D.C. this week for a three month internship with Consumer Union. I've asked him to share his reflections of the U.S. with us, as I share my observations of Kenya.
Here's the first installment, with my editor's notes presented [like this].
Greetings and hope you are well. My journey to Washington was peaceful. I got here late saturday
completely jet lagged, sleepy and hungry!! It was a hot day in Washington, quite a contrast to the chilly
Nairobi weather I had left behind.
My luggage got delayed in New York for some reason and only got to me 24 hours after arrival. My
hosts however have been really wonderful and got me a small lovely apartment on Pennyslvania Avenue, a number of blocks from the White House. Penn Avenue, by ordinary Washington standards is an up market zone. Apartments here are quite costly. It's however, quite beautiful, less crowded and clean.
It's thus a priviledge that I'm accomodated here for the next three months. Round the corner from my block is the prestigious George Washington University, with its vast campus and student population.
For the next three months I will work with staff at Consumer Union on congressional advocacy initiatives. During my first two days, I have already had opportunity to attend a series of meetings at Senate with CU staff. Its amazing how ordinary citizens here easily get access to the high offices on the hill. We even had lunch at the Senate cafe! The Russel building, which houses the senate offices, is a huge imposing grey block.
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Sen. Obama, but just not yet [Obama is very popular in Kenya, since his mother is Luo]. My hope is that I can do an interview with him if i can for the local media back home. Staff at CU work in the most casual way. Dress is non-official unless one is going for a meeting. We are required to be in suits when going to the hill.
I haven't yet made any friends other than staff at CU who are quite friendly. I hope also to venture into
town one of these days and discover a few interesting places.
All in all, initial impressions; Americans like it big. Big phones, big cars, big houses, big bodies, big
burgers, huge wide streets. Everything is big here!!
More next time.
Kenya is a god-loving country, and in Mombasa there are many gods to choose from.
I smiled when the muezzin's call sounded shortly after we had prayed to open our workshop last Thursday. Generations of writers have described the Muslim call to prayer and I won’t attempt to do it justice here. It is evocative and lovely, particularly when it wafts into the room on Indian Ocean breezes.
We held the workshop on the top floor of the Sapphire Hotel on the busy outskirts of central Mombasa. The room provides a nearly 360-degree view of the city skyline. There are small farm plots squeezed against corner kiosks, palm trees brushing laundry-lined apartment units, and everywhere a constant flow of matatus, cars, handcarts, Land Rovers, bicycles, and three-wheeled tuktuks.
The mosque that called on us to come to Allah is to the north of the hotel. It’s bulbous turquoise tower is bedecked with speakers that are (I learned, somewhat crankily, at dawn the next morning) loud enough to wake the bone-weary.
Eighty percent of Kenyans are Christian, but Islam is the dominant religion here on the coast. Centuries of trade with the middle east brought immigrants and the religion here. But Kenyans also traded with sailors from India. Their gods hang out under another turquoise tower to the south of the hotel.
The Hindu temple welcomes worshippers to celebrate a pantheon of gods, Shiva primary among them. Whereas Muslims are not allowed to make any representation God (other than the beautiful script that is carved into wooden lintels throughout the old town), the Hindu temple is a visual overload of religious artwork.
Arriving at the temple, I’m greeted by a rainbow-colored door piece of Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh. Elephant-headed Ganesh and blue-hued Shiva are there again in 5-foot carved glory as I pass through the entrance way.
In the front room gruesome relief paintings lay down basic Hindu tenets.
“People who drink alcohol in his life are taken to hell. There they are forced to drink hot, boiling metal by the hellish people.
“If a person kills or eats animals for food in his life he has to pay for their sinful deeds in hell. They are thrown in a pot of boiling water forcefully.”
Only one percent of Kenyans are Hindu. Given the concentration of East Indian descendents here, I’d guess that a large part of that one percent live here on the coast.
It’s here, really, that Kenya met the rest of the world. Middle eastern traders brought Islam and bought camels. Indian immigrants brought chai and helped build the railroad. One history book says Chinese traders were known to come through this port a few times a year as well. And then, of course, Portuguese colonizers invaded in the early 1500s.
The Portuguese kick-started the trade in slaves in Mombasa, partly out of Fort Jesus. That cross-shaped walled village still stands over the Mombasa harbor. Later rulers made their additions: a new well from the Omani Arabs and canons from the British. Today it’s a national museum, topped with the flag of independent Kenya.
This is another way in which the Kenyan coast reminds me of New Orleans. It’s a gumbo, or thali plate if you prefer, of cultures. And similar to New Orleans, it seems that by-and-large these cultures co-exist in relative harmony.
Some Kenyan friends tell me there is a little bitterness about the Indian dominance in commerce here. But in the crush of the market on Biashara street, I see kanga-clad women buying from Indian spice dealers, women in burqas buying clusters of magenta lychees from indigenous Kenyans and women in bead-adorned salwar kameez browsing for handbags from a woman wearing a dark headscarf.
And then there’s the fair-haired girl in Ray Bans and blue jeans. To the owner of the Indian restaurant, I am probably just another white tourist in for lunch, until I buy an extra gulab jamun and offer it to his statue of a reclining Ganesh.
“You believe in Ganesh?” he asks me.
“He‘s a good guy.” I say. I'm reticent to start a discussion about weak agnosticism.
But not knowing whether or not God or Gods exist leaves me free to hedge my bets. I’m happy to accept occasional invitations to meeting, church or temple, and to offer dessert to a god with a sweet-tooth.
People on the road in Nairobi barely make eye contact with me as I walk down the street, but here in Kikambala, everyone wants to say “hi.” In this tourist town, most of them aren’t offering the kind of friendly I’m looking for.
I’ve come to Kikambala with Rosemary’s brother Paul, his wife Jane and about a dozen of their friends. Naomi’s father is selling his Continental Beach Resort property to a developer who wants to raze the dilapidated guest cottages and patchy thatch-roofed dining room, and build luxury vacation condos for the international market. Paul and friends are here for a weekend retreat before the deal closes.
It’s clear that business at the Continental has been good enough to wear out the plumbing and to leave years worth of grime on the walls. But business has clearly not been good enough to warrant investing in a fresh coat of paint and new ceiling panels where the roof has leaked during the short or long rains.
The tourism business here slumped in 2002, after three suicide bombers killed themselves and 13 other people at an Israeli-run hotel on the coast. Only when I return to Nairobi will I learn that the Paradise Hotel site is just down the beach from here.
But even before I learn about the bombings, Kikambala Beach feels post-apocalyptic. There are abandoned resorts on either side of the Continental. Shells of vacation cottages grow emerald moss on interior walls. Once-fashionable carved concrete block breezeways crumble under the persistent wind off the Indian Ocean.
Kikambala reminds me a bit of New Orleans, minus the music and the crowds. Humid and tourism-driven, it is also decidedly gothic. And like New Orleans, there is a dark underbelly of poverty and crime that the tropical splendor of palm trees and startlingly white sand can’t disguise.
There are a couple of operational resorts further down the beach from the Continental. They generate enough business, at least, to keep the local Beach Boys around. They are the wiry-looking guys who are so eager to greet me as I walk along picking shells. The boys, most of whom don’t look older than 16, make their living by befriending tourists or stealing from them.
An old poster on the side of one of the resorts exhorts visitors to “Protect Our Children. Sex With A Minor is a Crime.” But Naomi tells me that most of the boys end up as temporary “boyfriends” of the men and women who come to vacation at Kikambala. Naomi says there are girls working this way too, though on my two forays down the beach, I only see one woman. She tries to entice Naomi’s boyfriend Bryan through the frayed cloth door of the massage parlor and salon that she operates out of the remains of a beach cottage.
The boys, on the other hand are everywhere. They are tall and short, well dressed and ragged. They walk along the beach in groups and, no matter what their age, are quick to greet my white skin with “Jambo! How are you!”
On my first evening in Kikambala I walk down the beach toward distant point break. My Kenyan hosts have warned me to stay on the beach and to return before dusk settles in. I’ve just turn back at a low building, its flaking paint advertising the now-defunct “Kikambala Water Sports,” when a group of boys emerges from a path nearby.
“Jambo! How are you?”
“Nzuri sana,” I say, hoping some Swahili will at least tip them off that I am not entirely green.
“Oh you speak Swahili?” The tallest boy walks up to me.
“Only kidogo,” I say.
As we walk down the beach and make small talk about Nairobi and the resort here that burned down last week, I am nervous for the first time in Kenya.
I’m thinking about the necklace I’m wearing. Robert gave it to me, saying the hand-cut peridot, adventurine and citrine would protect me in my travels. For all its protective powers, the necklace is understated. I’m hoping the boys will think it’s just beads, like the Maasai jewelry sold alongside the fake ebony carvings and kanga cloths in the small beach market a mile from here.
I'm making casual conversation about Canada and journalism and the weather as I try to look relaxed and keep track of where all the boys are. The younger ones are trailing behind the older kids who are walking abreast with the tallest boy, who’s talking to me. Everyone seems to be listening in on our conversation. I notice I’m slowly (and probably unintentionally) being herded deeper into the water.
I hate feeling like this.
The kid seems nice. His English is good (Naomi says most beach boys speak five or six languages), he is pleasant enough. I want to be able to like him. I want to relax. It feels wrong to be scared of ten kids who are just walking down the beach. I keep thinking about Mark Walker’s story about violent swarms of glue-fume-crazed kids in Eastlands, and Naomi’s story of a Kenyan friend who was grabbed by beach boys when she was walking this beach at night with her boyfriend.
I am relieved when the tall boy says, “we turn off here” and they head in-land. Dan says there’s a high drop-out rate in Mombasa and along the coast, as kids find they can make an easy living off tourists. It breaks my heart that kids anywhere might see theft, exploitive friendships and “light prostitution” as their future.
The only time I see one of the beach boys without a crew, he is walking beside a middle-aged mzungu in a olive green bikini.
“He gets money and she gets attention from a young ‘exotic’ man,” Paul explains as we all sit around talking about the boys.
I can’t stop thinking that that kind of friendship is doubly exploitive. The boy or girl is sexually exploited because of his or her economic status. I wonder if the visiting man or woman is also exploited because of the emotional isolation of the over-developed world.
When Naomi tells me that these “friendships” often include unprotected sex, I’m incredulous. It’s one thing for a tourist to try to ignore the reality that economic deprivation is motivating their new friend to be friendly. It’s another thing to ignore the reality that HIV is rampant in sub-Saharan Africa. And for the young men and women on the coast, it’s hard to believe that a life of anti-retroviral drugs and self-compromise is preferable to the subsistence farming that happens on the inland side of the road.
But I know the Beach Boys are right about one thing. I’ve never had to make that kind of choice. My white skin, education and the Canadian social welfare system have meant a life of privilege and, as far as most Kenyans are concerned, wealth.
By the time I get back to the Continental, the party has already started. The lone barkeep is roasting meat from the goat Githege had slaughtered in Mombasa this morning. Mucheme has pulled his SUV up to the lounge chairs and is playing a mix of new |R&B and disco oldies off the stereo. I make jokes about British colonizers as I accept Wacu’s offer of gin and tonic.
Soon I’m dancing and laughing along with my Kenyan friends. But when I step into the shadows to take a better look at the moon rising over the Indian Ocean, I can’t help noticing the thin silhouettes of young men as they watch us from the beach.