søndag den 19. december 2010

Curio Shopping in Nairobi, The art of bargaining

Beaded artefacts: A speciality of the Maasai tribe

Wood carvings and utensils: Crafts which the Kamba tribe mould with an impressive amount of dexterity and flair.

An ensemble for all tastes: From soapstone carvings to obsidian bracelets, curio vendors have git something for everyone.

Oscar Wilde once said that
"the past is what man should not have been." "The present is what man ought not to be" and that "the future is what artists are". Nowhere is this statement more exemplified than in Africa, and indeed in Kenya, a nation with a rich if not controversial history that has tainted the better nature of the land somewhat. Notwithstanding, there exists amongst the people of Kenya, an indefatigable hope and passion for the future, a hope that is manifested in many ways and through numerous media, the most vibrant of which being the art and craft sold on the streets and walkways of her cities and towns.

Curio shopping is a fascinating form of interaction with the local population and indeed with the art and craft of the nation and therein with the very fundaments of Kenya. I grew up here oblivious to just how beautiful and meaningful all the many soapstone carvings, beaded Maasai artefacts, colourful canvas paintings, elaborately decorated guards and hand made bongo drums actually are. After a hard days worth of bargaining (the price of literally each and every product in Kenya is negotiable, believe it or not) i've finally managed to get all my Christmas shopping done and at a very affordable price too. The artefacts I purchased would have cost up to four or five times more in Europe, a vociferous exploitation of supply and demand dynamics by the few ruthless retailers who have tasked themselves with promoting and profiting off Africa's art and craft.

Bargaining is an artform in itself in these parts, as prices are based on what social class one belongs to and the colour of one's skin, where the more affluent and white-skinned one is, the higher the price charged by the artisans / agents vending their wares. This all changes however, if communication takes place on the same wavelength and this entails that one appear as local as possible. This is the first crucial step to negotiating a deal that's beneficial to both parties, so speaking Swahili, Sheng or any other local language is a massive plus. Once this hurdle is cleared, the rest of the process flows rather smoothly until a price that both seller and customer can be reasonably content with. If my sister is the Picasso of the bargaining world then i'm an infant scribbling on a blank page. I sat back and let her talent run loose, as she brokered most of the purchase prices of the day.

Curio shopping can be done in numerous locations in Kenya. I found myself at the rather small and fairly priced market outside the Uchumi hypermarket on Langata road in Nairobi. The creme de la creme Mecca of all curio meccas, Parkland's Maasai market is open on every Tuesday by the globe cinema roundabout and is definitely worth a glance if one is in need of curios of any sort.

More info:


fredag den 17. december 2010

Kenya Days III and IV: Nairobi's many faces.

Madafu (Coconut milk) : Has to be tried on any visit to Africa.

Westgate Shopping Mall: One of Nairobi's newer shopping centres, a hub of vibrant activity and an example of some the more modern aspects of the city.

Muzaaji wa Miwa (Sugarcane vendor) : Buying sugarcane from one of these fellahs is a must-do if one ever visits Kenya.

These ingenious devices are the epitome of sustainability. Used bottles containing chilli sauce and Youghurt sauce ! The chicken tikka fresh off the spit that these condiments accompanied was served on metal sticks made from bicycle spokes, further examples of "Jua Kali* " sustainabilty

Diamond Plaza remains as vibrant and as hilarious as it's ever been. Impeccable Indian cuisine at affordable prices.

The service at Diamond Plaza is something out of a comic strip. The ushers by the food court made my day !

My third day in Kenya proved to be rather enjoyable, why wouldn't it be with the December sunshine beaming as vividly and as energetically down as it is.

During the course of the day, I rediscovered several simple pleasures that i've missed out on for quite some time, the most significant of which being munching a bag of freshly cut sugarcane at Adam's Arcade on Ngong road. For a mere 25 shillings, a bag of sugarcane is certainly worth the dough, given the wonderful interaction one engages in with the sellers of sugarcane, whose wheelbarrows are parked alongside many a roadside not to mention the sweet succulent freshness of the plant on a hot afternoon. The customer service one receives from sugarcane vendors, sellers of roast maize and other such-like small-scale businessfolk is a rather special aspect of this country that i've missed one that sadly doensn't manifest itself in the context of monetary exchanges on a larger scale, say for instance in eateries and in bars, where customer service can be, in many instances, quite appalling indeed.

Friday evening saw me make a return to Nairobi's spirited nightlife, which it has to be said differs quite somewhat from the clubbing escapades that i've accustomed myself to in Europe. On my way out I couldn't help but notice the number of drunk drivers all over the show, cruising madly from one lane to another, music blazing and tires screeching. I checked out a bar by the name of "Rafiki'z" (which translates to "Friend's" in Sheng Swahili, opposite The Uchumi hypermarket by Wilson airport. The place was packed as many other city hotspots are over the weekends; a buzz of well dressed individuals who came alive to the sounds of local grooves blended with influences of dancehall and popular R&B. I was subjected to a security check on the way in, metal detector and everything which was assuring inasmuch as one knowing that the club was taking measures to ensure the security of its guests and disconcerting insofar as there being a need to do so. In similar vein, the heavy presence in the car park during the night was both comforting as well as disquieting. A riot vehicle turned up at some point during the night and bundled what I suppose had to be a rather dangerous criminal into the back of the van, thumping him well and proper with their fists, rifle butts and kicks. This was all rather horrific needless to say, a sour touch to an otherwise phenomenal night out in which I acquainted myself with the developments that have taken place in the Kenyan music scene since my departure. A more amusing aspect of the night was the service at Rafikiz. We seemed to get stuck with the drunkest waiter I've seen in a long while (mind you his co-waiters and supervisor were just as langered) The chap managed to get our orders jumbled despite being told what to bring four or five times over, and at one point almost wound up smooching my brother- in-law as he turned his ear towards him to hear what was being requested for the umpteenth time, stumbling as he did so, such that the two were separated by little more than a few brief centimetres for several eternally amusing seconds.

Saturday gave rise to the best culinary experience of the year for me, as I made a return to Parkland's Diamond Plaza, Nairobi's very own miniature bombay. Located in the heart of Nairobi's Westland's district, Diamond Plaza is a series of small, tightly-packed shops specialising in the sale of pirated material (in particular DVD's and Playstation games) with a mini food court that may well be Kenya's finest value-for money culinary experience. Diamond Plazza caters primarily for the needs and desires of the Indian community in Nairobi, a sizeable amount of whom reside in the surrounding Parkland's area though in truth there's something for everybody in this Bombay-esque enclave. Once at the food court, I was greeted by a swarm of ushers competing fervently amongst themselves in their quest to lure customers to the respective restaurants each represents. At the end of it all, I wound up having Bhajias and sugarcane juice from one restuarant, madafu (Cocunut juice, drank from a real coconut in its primary stage of development) and shish kebab from another, and chicken tikka, fresh off the spit from a third eatery (See descriptions of these culinary delights at the end of the article.) The food was top-notch, spicy Indian cuisine at its finest, the service however was something out of a comic strip. The ushers kept quarreling amongst themselves and managed to cheekily sneak in an extra plate of shish kebab's (to boost their commission earnings per plate) and were an all out laughing stock as they wrangled with each other for customers. One particularly hilarious moment was when one of the ushers, armed with a pipe of sorts, snuck up behind another usher and whacked him across the backside with it before scuttling off to hide behind a parked car. Naturally, the victim of this cheeky assault was less than amused. All the other ushers however burst into fits of hearty laughter at the prank played on their embarrassed counterpart.

I stopped by the relatively new "Westgate centre" after my adventure at Diamond Plaza, one of Nairobi's largest and most visited shopping malls. This shopping centre stands tall and proud as one of the more laudable dimensions of Nairobi's urban landscapes, competing with other large centres such as The Sarit Centre, Yaya, Village Market, The Galeria in Karen, Panari Centre and ABC place. I was positively impressed by what Westgate centre offered in terms of the shopping opportunities inside it. One particularly impressive detail at this mall is the miniature curio stalls that are scattered around the seating areas on each floor, offering a colorful ensemble of local artifacts for sale albeit at rather exorbitant prices.

And so sets the sun on yet another day, as I drift off to sleep listening to the distant sounds of the savanna night, amplified every so elaborately by the fact that my sister's house is as near to Nairobi's national park as it is. Kenya continues to shock, surprise, regale and impress.

Links of Interest

Jua Kali: The Swahili term for "hot sun" applied to the operations and products of small-scale businesses in Kenya, many of whom recycle existing products and find alternative uses for them. E.g. Bicycle spokes as a substitute for barbeque sticks. Read more about the Jua Kali concept here:


Bhajias: http://indianfood.about.com/od/vegetariansnacks/r/bhajias.htm

Chicken Tikka: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_tikka

Shish Kebab: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kebab

Westgate Shopping Mall: http://www.westgate.co.ke/

Kenya Day II

I'm starting to get used to the eccentricities of everyday life in these parts, peculiarities that once were rather normal phenomena in the course of the daily workings of my life.

Nairobi remains as vibrant, active, and electric as she's always been, a bustling hub of activities under the equatorial sun. It's heartening to note the progress that has been made here in terms of infrastructure and architecture as I stated yesterday. Similarly, it's rather disquieting to note the exacerbation of several fundamental factors that are central to the long term development of Kenya.

My focus in this article is on one of the most controversial housing projects in the history of the African continent, the slum settlement of Kibera, home to over 250'000 people who live in or close to abject poverty. I drove past Kibera yesterday around rush hour, confronted on both sides by the rush of pedestrians on their way home to the slum back from work. The road was teeming with one swank SUV after another, a colourful parade of the toys of the wealthy in the faces of the poorest of the poor. On either side of the car expressions of desperation and suffering were the order of the day, etched irrefutably candidly on the fatigued faces of the masses of oncoming pedestrians as they trekked home to their misery after slaving away for the interests of the rich. One has to be extraordinarily inhuman or blind not to have sensed the tremendously potent undertone of untold suffering in the air, and this was merely on the outskirts of Kibera.

The History of Kibera

Kibera is Africa's second largest slum settlement after South Africa's Soweto and was originally created by the colonialist British government as a settlement for Nubian soldiers returning from the first world war. The status of these ex war soldiers as former servants of the British crown coupled with the fact that they laid no claim to "native reserves" by virtue of the fact that they were "detribalized natives" meant that the British government of the time negated to interfere in the development of the settlement. This punctuated the commencement of the sprawl of Kibera, as local tribes migrated to the area to rent affordable housing from the resident Nubian population. Kenya's attainment of independence in 1963 saw Kibera declared an illegal settlement by the new government. Notwithstanding, migration to the settlement continued relatively unabated such that by 1974 the Nubian population's status as the dominant ethnic group in Kibera was ousted by the influx of members of the Kikuyu tribe who took over administrative control via political patronage.

The ethnic makeup of the slum has altered over time such that most ethnic groups in Kenya are numerically represented to one extent or another the way things stand at present, though the Luo and Luya tribes constitute the dominant population. The implications of this dominion in the context of the fact that the prime minister of Kenya, (Raila Odinga) is himself both a Luo and a member of parliament for the area that Kibera is situated in have had worrying undertones for ethnic conflict in the nation inasmuch by providing him with access to a sizeable demonstration force from within the Kibera community. The aforesaid force has been used frequently as a tool to upset harmony in the nation via violent expressions of the political agendas of the prime minister. It has to be said that the political agendas of the president (Mwai Kibaki) have also been represented in similar fashion albeit from within support groups within other slum areas such as Kibera's neighbouring slum quarter, Mathare Valley where the dominant population is of the Kikuyu tribe, just like the president himself. In both cases, the political and ideological conflicts of both leaders have been wrongfullly translated into a conflict based on ethnic grounds, as controversial and as ironic as such a misconception may be, reflecting a tragic, prevalent cancer that has hacked away at Africa's spinal chord for centuries.

The Dynamics of Kibera

Kibera lies approximately 5 km's from Nairobi's city centre in the southwest of the city. The southern fringe of the settlement borders the Nairobi Dam, and the Nairobi river. The affordable housing prices in the slum area attract Kenya's poor from far and wide many of whom migrate from rural areas plagued by chronic underdevelopment and lack of opportunities. Tragically however, the hell they leave is not replaced by the heaven they seek in any way. Living conditions in Kibera are some of the harshest in the world, characterised by a lack of sewage systems, the use of flying toilets (paper bags containing fecal material that are deposited or hurled onto rooftops, garbage heaps or simply as far away from ones home as possible) poor access to safe driking water and abject impoverishment. Crime typically thrives under such fertile conditions. Kibera is rife with incidents of both violent and petty crime, exacerbated by the lack of any form of police presence in the area implying that law and order, like any other government-provided services are completely and totally non existent and based on power inequalities that exploit the powerless and furnish the powerful.

The definition of anarchy could not possibly be epitomised in a more quintessential capacity than by the tragedy of Kibera, a tragedy that has not been tackled in any tangible manner by any government or ruling power in the history of Kenya. Ironically however, many of Kibera's residents constitute the working class majority that slaves away selflessly for the interests of the upper echelons of Kenyan society, to whom their political rights and liberties are trusted needless to say to to imminent avail and with no sustainable effect. The dire plight of Africa's second largest slum area has been wrongfully and sadistically exploited by Kenya's politicians who have used its problems as a fertile breeding ground for their ideological ethos , exploiting ethnic differences to champion their political statuses and dividing an entire city and nation in the process. And hence, as another day comes to pass, Kibera's problems get a little bit more grave, a little more pronounced and far more tragic. Invariably, Kibera's tragedy is not its own alone, but that of an entire nation and indeed of an entire continent. The repression of the lowest of the low in the social system for the benefit of upper society who continue to wallow away in their materialistic grandiloquence is no stranger to Africa. The question is when will it ever end ? Will it ever end ?

Links of Interest

Music Video> The World On Fire Sarah Mclachlan


Video trailer> Kibera Kid


torsdag den 16. december 2010

Kenya Day One

I touched down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport last night after a smooth flight courtesy of the Dutch carrier KLM. My dear sister Pat, brother-in law Victor and their little lad Hawi, (my 2 year old nephew who was born whilst I was away) were at the airport to pick me up along with my sister June’s daughter, my niece Jessica who was so very different when I left here 5 years ago.

5 vivid, vibrant years have passed since I was in Kenya last. It feels like such a lifetime ago, more so now in light of all the many changes I’ve seen in the country I grew up in. I return to Kenya so very different to who and what I was when I left, richer in experience and in insight on the world, starved however of a certain few luxuries that only Kenya can offer.

Kenya seems to be undergoing a period of significant political change, a process that’s unfolding even as I sit here writing this. The television screens by the waiting lines at airport last night flickered constantly with reel upon reel detailing the findings of The International Criminal Court’s findings pertaining to the naming of six high profile Kenyan figures in connection with responsibility for the politically connected killings and bloodshed that took place in the controversial 2007 general elections that left over 1000 dead and forced over half a million people to flee their homes. Internationally, the declarations of the ICC led by prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo have been hailed as constructive to the future of Kenya with Barack Obama, whose late father was Kenyan voicing his support for the findings. Locally, however, The Ocampo findings have not been embraced with such high zest. President Mwai Kibaki remains committed to setting up a local tribunal to investigate the election violence, a move which critics say is nothing more than a tactic to clear many of the guilty parties responsible for the bloodshed of their role in it. The ICC findings in the words of prosecutor Ocampo identified the “most responsible” culprits yet there are many others that Kenya could choose to implicate too. The Ocampo six as some have come to call the accused, have been summoned by The Hague to defend themselves against the charges leveled at them and failure to do so will result in arrest warrants being issued. All of this essentially implies that the positions of many of the political elite in this country are at present under the unprecedented threat of them being liable for their actions whilst in office, a long overdue development that could benefit the ordinary Kenyan. Notwithstanding, the trial is far from complete and many questions remain as of yet, unanswered. The possibility of the political elite stepping in to protect or shield the Ocampo six from prosecution should certainly not be ruled out, in a nation whose past is littered with heinous cover-ups on the part of corrupt and in many cases criminal politicians. All the same, the apportioning of blame for the 2007 massacres is a welcome step towards a brighter and better future and if nothing else, serves as an external mechanism of pressure that ought to lead to greater transparency and more accountability from the ruling echelons, an elite that has failed to serve the needs of its people and sought to better its own since the nation gained independence.

Politically then it is safe to say that Kenya has changed rather substantially since I’ve been away and looks set to continue down the path of change and progress. There have also been significant infrastructural changes to the architectural landscape I once knew. I can’t help but marvel at the countless examples of construction sites all over Nairobi at the moment, or the many buildings that have sprung up since my departure. Lining the highway from the airport for instance are a series of stylish, modern buildings that glisten with the verve and swerve of a city that’s headed down the right track. Progress seems to have been in made with respect to public works too; where once there were little more than potholed tracks that one was forced to navigate precariously through, there are now numerous examples of well paved roads that are a pleasure to drive on.

And whilst some things change, others stay the same and may always do so. Driving habits in Kenya remain as controversial as they have always been. The influx of cars, a shocking number of which bear the latest registration numbers continues to put pressure on the ability of the road network to cope with them, exacerbating traffic jam related challenges that have existed for quite some time. Dysfunctional traffic lights and a chronic lack of pedestrian crossings (or respect for the pedestrian crossings that do exist of the part of motorists) remain as of yet, unsolved issues in the capital city. This was exemplified most candidly to me on the way from the airport last night, as a maasai streaked across the highway ahead of us in a flash of red under the car headlights. Such-like incidents (none of which have involved more maasais however) since last night have been a feature of driving in Nairobi that I’ve had to get used to again.

On the whole though, it’s great to be back in Nairoberry, where the temperate sunshine is beating determinedly down, a sunshine whose radiance and charm I’ve missed for the longest time. I remain observant and inquisitive about all the many developments (or lack of them) eager if not anxious about the prospect of the rest of my days here.