OF MONSTERS AND MADNESS
Light is fading quickly from the pink and orange canvas visible between the curtains of my small bedroom window.
The sun is setting and they are beginning stir.
I prepare myself. I am entering a physical and psychological battle without any training. It is an impossible scenario; practice will not improve my performance and the rules of engagement are entirely fluid.
This is war.
I can’t yet see them, but I know they are there. They lurk in the shadows of the room; the dark spaces created by the cracks in the walls, the crevices between dressers and drawers.
I assemble my armour.
I wait patiently for the first offence. Still and silent, I am invisible. Only my scent draws them near, they are vampires.
The last light leaves the window pane and now I am alone.
I turn the lamp on and wait for the buzz. Their whine is haunting. It is the nagging of a thousand children. It is a hairbrush caught in a knot that pulls my brain in every direction.
The first offender makes its move.
Like a flash, I am petulant. My pre-battle patience disappears like the light. Armed with the bottom of a black foam flip flop, I strike.
Satisfaction courses through my veins like a strong narcotic. I am euphoric, I am aggressive, I am hungry. My first move is always concrete. It foreshadows my impending victory or my impending defeat.
Quietly, I dare its allies to form an attack.
They weigh their options on the ceilings and walls, stationed unnaturally this way and that. They are upside down and they are sideways, but they are not random. Under the glow of lamplight, I see them conspiring.
There is strength in numbers and their existence offends me.
I rise, determined to purge the four corners of their treachery and filth. I pounce, and for a brief moment, we are equal: They cannot predict my trajectory, nor I, theirs.
This one is large. Flattened by my lack of forgiveness, it smears red over the white of my wall. It has recently eaten and it is vile. Glutton. Hoarder. Pig.
I resume my original formation, kneeling silently near the head of my bed. I offer them bait of flesh, but they are not tempted.
They mourn their losses and prepare to strike.
My knuckles turn white and my skin is on fire. I have lost my opportunity and I have missed. I am unwilling to forfeit my spot on the food chain, but I have been defeated by this herd of degenerates.
I am tired and their whine intensifies.
Like an addiction, it occupies the layers of my mind. It echoes. It iterates. I feel the vibrations over every skin cell. I scan the room for the remaining insurgents.
Perhaps there are none.
Perhaps I have killed them all, I dare to dream. I can hear them laughing. Whining, laughing.
The millimetre of fabric pulled over my head provides astonishing comfort. It veils me. I can’t be touched.
They continue to buzz in search of weakness.
I fucking hate mosquitoes.
SUNSETS, STEREOTYPES AND SAFARIS
What is it about tourists, Africa and khaki cargo pants? As I board my first safari to Maasai Mara National Reserve, I can’t help but notice that everyone around me looks the same: Merrell hiking boots, waterproof button-ups and those classic Columbia tear-away trousers.
Grey, green, brown and blue; Stetsons, vests and high-tech fanny packs.
I glance down at my own attire – gym shorts, flip flops and a bright yellow hoodie. Is there some kind of apparel guide I’m not aware of? Some unwritten rule obligating tourists to dress like Steve Irwin?
We’re not about to climb Kilimanjaro, spend a week in the bush or shoot a documentary on African predators. We’re going to sit here in the safari van, sip juice boxes and take pictures of animals.
I’m torn between confusion and amusement as I roll down my window – none of this gear is necessary for a two-day luxury ride in a LandCruiser. It’s possible to be dry and comfortable without being Indiana Jones, but for some reason, everyone still wants to look like him.
Kenya is one of the most notorious countries for tourism stereotypes, the most apparent of which in this case is the quintessential safari outfit.
Our van enters the park gates and a group of Maasai women shove their beaded crafts through the windows.
As a mzungu in Nairobi, I am constantly followed by greetings of “Jambo!” and “Hakuna matata!” as I walk down the street on my way to work. Safari salesmen stuff their business cards in my hands, shouting “Welcome to Africa!” with unreasonable relish.
This is basic tourist language and the fake animation is irritating, but this kind of treatment is exciting for tourists and en effective strategy for attracting business. I’ve come to call it The Lion King Experience, a caricatured version of Kenyan reality that feeds our appetite for African stereotypes.
And thanks to years of one-sided media coverage, our appetite for stereotypes is virtually never satiated. There are certain things we expect when visiting Africa for the first time and will go to great lengths to check off our list:
Extra points if any of the below include baobab trees, spears, sea shells, animal teeth, chickens, potholes, schools or orphanages…
1. Blazing sunsets 2. Tribal drum music
3. Beaded jewelry 4. Dusty mud huts
5. Manufactured selfie with African children in rural village
6. Pretty much anything else on this list by Adam Mosley
The checklist is innocent and amusing at the best of times, but offensive and ignorant when indelicately pursued. Dressing in a safari outfit is relatively harmless, but taking a picture of someone’s home just because it’s made of mud can make a person feel objectified at the very least.
It would be foolish to claim that none of our stereotypes have roots in social, historical or geographic realities in Africa, the problem is that we tend to apply them as a cookie-cutter cultural model for the continent at large. These labels, if they were ever true, may not be true today, and the onus is on us to be up to speed on each individual country we visit. The only pan-African reality is that every African country is unique and worth our time, research and careful consideration.
So what happens when we skip this vital step?
Apart from having a completely unnecessary kick-ass safari outfit, we become part of the cycle of ignorance that perpetuates The Lion King Experience. We contribute to a system that replaces authenticity with artifice because stereotypes sell better to customers who are oblivious.
I once heard a Kenyan joke that 80 per cent of the country’s Maasai are Kikuyu who dress in traditional Maasai attire for the sake of the tourism industry. I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that our ignorance has created a culture where it pays to pander to African stereotypes.
I see it everyday as I walk down the street and receive the standard tourist hakuna matata greeting. It stirs and unsettles me. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for our level of illiteracy towards to the current social, political, economic and cultural reality of African countries. No one should have to pretend to be something they’re not so that I can put a ‘check’ on my list.
It’s late in September and we are lucky to have caught the end of the wildebeest migration into Tanzania. Thousands – literally thousands – of animals are munching on grass in the Maasai Mara, providing ample prey for the park’s big predators. A lion takes a swipe at our van when we get too close to its newly-killed lunch and we are one of the few groups to spot a leopard snoozing in the trees.
As we head back to the campsite, I wonder how many of the tourists maintain that the Crocodile Hunter gear was necessary. What is it about tourists, Africa and khaki cargo pants?
Perhaps I’ll never know. But what I do know, is that it’s time to expand our African fairytale beyond sunsets, stereotypes and safaris.
A LIFE IN TRANSIT
The air is dry and my eyes are red. The road is dusty and my shoes are red. When Nairobi dirt gets on your clothing, it has the distinct appearance of dried up blood. Soon, I will look like Carrie and be kicked out of the office for being too red.
I am picturing this exchange when a half-full matatu roars down the street, taking passengers to work in town. Haphazardly, it weaves through traffic, driving on sidewalks and scraping by vehicles. “Tao, tao, tao!” calls the conductor, beckoning fish to the belly of the great metal beast.
Waiting at the stage are a couple of businessmen, a proper-sized mama with a crate of potatoes and a handful of youth glued to secondhand smartphones. For a brief moment we are calm and civilized, but we are lions hunting the same gazelle.
When the matatu pulls over, we bare our teeth and extend our claws, pouncing on the first open seat. A born-predator, I score a spot in the middle and promptly declare myself King of the Jungle.
Then a pile of old vegetables is dumped on my lap; a swift reminder that I am nobody. For the next two hours, I am a 60-Shilling ticket wedged between a farmer, a shoe vendor and the drunken mzee who has passed out on my shoulder.
Feeling nauseous, I take a deep breath and choke on the smoke of the overworked engine. I slam the plastic window shut, rattling our broken passenger door. The corroded floor heats up quickly as we swerve through stoplights and plow through pot holes; I am sweaty, uncomfortable and strangely ecstatic.
For here, in this matatu, I am flirting outrageously with death. I will spend the next two hours in this rattling can, held together by duct tape and hope. I hear a bang and then a hiss – I’m fairly sure we have a flat. I grin as I stare out the filthy window; this morning death is flirting back.
Transit in Kenya is simultaneously gruelling and invigorating: Boda bodas, matatus, tuk tuks. Time, tickets, skin, sweat. In heavy traffic, you will burn up in stop-and-go hell, but on a quiet day, there is something magical about moving from one place to the next.
For as much as ‘transit’ refers to physical displacement, it refers to displacement of the mind as well. When you step into a vehicle, the brain may travel further than the body while stimulated by nothing but silence and scenery.
At least this has been my experience; while travelling in Kenya my thoughts roll as quickly as the wheels themselves. What choices have led me here? What impact am I having? Do my experiences come at someone else’s expense?
This last question continues to rack my brains after a trip to northern Kenya last month. On the gravel road from Laisamis to Marsabit, a friend and I picked up some hitch hikers looking for a ride to the nearest village:
It was a Saturday, and the sun blazed over the arid deserts of Marsabit County where a father and his two young daughters waited by the road for a lift into town. They were a semi-traditional Rendille family; pastoral and beaded with limited Swahili. We pulled over and they clambered into our vehicle, thanking us in Randile as they sat between our luggage and sleeping bags.
I surveyed our youngest passengers; it appeared as though this was their first car ride and possibly their first mzungu interaction. They were torn between terror and fascination as they giggled with one another and forever the tourist, I asked their permission to take some photos. They kindly indulged me and trying to be friendly, I handed over the camera so they could give it a whirl. The girls had never taken a photo before and used the camera backwards, snapping pictures of their eyeballs. I remember their smiles turning quickly to frustration, and I offered them a snack of bright purple grapes.
Our Rendille company had never seen fruit like this and was equally perplexed by the plastic container it came in. I opened the carton and the father pulled the whole stem out: Everyone was confused by the strange new food. The eldest daughter picked a single grape and cautiously brought it up to her lips. After licking it, she took a small nibble and quickly popped it into her mouth. Soon, all of the grapes were gone and the girls were giggling once again.
Our entire interaction lasted 10 minutes and we said farewell outside a small village. The passengers parted with full arms; apples, oranges and a variety of other unfamiliar foods. I’ll remember those girls as long as I live.
Do my experiences come at someone else’s expense?
The wheels of the matatu are miraculously still turning and black engine smoke continues to poison its passengers. I am still looking out the window, thinking about my life and the choices I’ve made.
What impact have I had on these little girls? Perhaps I’m flattering myself to think I’ve had any; yet for weeks, they will likely be telling their friends about the time they rode in a car with mzungus. Will they look at me, my fancy tools and my clothes and think one day, they would like to have those things too? If they were at all as fascinated by me as I was by them, the answer is probably yes.
According to the World Bank (2006), a third of total migrants from developing countries are between the ages of 12 and 24. In an analysis of 29 developing countries, youth were found 40 per cent more likely than older people to move from rural to urban areas. The phenomenon is partially explained in the following statement, an excerpt from the FAO, ESW and Decent Rural Employment Team contribution to the United Nations World Youth Report 2013:
“Rural out-migration, particularly migration out of agriculture, is also associated with rural youth aspirations and perceptions. Most youth seems to have a negative perception of farm life, linked to the type of work performed and to the limited profits, lack of mobility and low status associated to working in agriculture (Leavy and Smith, 2010).”
I push the drunk mzee off of my shoulder; he reeks of whiskey and is starting to drool.
In some way, shape or form, have I contributed to this? Am I exposing these girls to temptations that will lead them away from their traditions and culture? In a globalized world, the new-age opportunity of cities can be alluring compared with the simplicity and stagnancy of home. Indirectly, have I brought globalization to their doorstep? It’s a catch-22; there is as much to be gained by it as there is to be lost by it.
My ears are ringing and my seat is vibrating; Kenyan pop music blares through the homemade speakers.
How do I solve this cultural conundrum? I suppose I must pick and choose my moments carefully. Many areas of Kenya remain relatively untouched by the modern world and my enthusiasm as a tourist should not disturb that peace. I am wary of my cultural and ecological footprints; a responsibility that comes with a life in transit.
I step out of the matatu and trip on a potato that has rolled from my lap. A dusty shade of red hangs to my clothing as I make my way to my office in town. This morning, my body has travelled only 20 kilometres, but my brain has been to northern Kenya and back.
After all, I lead a life in transit, and the only thing changing more quickly than the scenery, at the end of the day, is me.
TERRORISM, TWITTER AND TÊTE-À-TÊTE
It’s an unusually beautiful Saturday morning. I’ve been feeling sick for the last few days, but today I feel utterly incredible. I have fruit, yogurt and granola for breakfast before heading out to an interview scheduled at noon. This will be a great story, I say to myself, I’ve got quality audio and exceptional photos.
I walk home in the sunshine, thinking about going for an afternoon run when my cellphone vibrates in the pocket of my jeans:
There’s been another terrorist attack in Kenya.
My elation quickly turns into panic as I rush home to find out the news. My spotty internet connection is failing and I briefly consider kicking my laptop before deciding to reset the modem instead:
Twenty-eight killed in #ManderaBusAttack by Al-Shebaab militants.
In less than an hour the hashtag is trending on Twitter all over the world. “Sick killing in the name of religion,” tweets one Kenyan follower. “Heads need to roll now,” writes another. Most people blame the government for the country’s lack of security; some even say that officials knew the attack was coming.
Either way, the media jump over the story, which allegedly goes something like this:
Nearly 30 innocent Kenyans were killed on Sat. Nov. 22 after Al-Shebaab fighters hijacked a Nairobi-bound bus in Mandera town near the Somalia border.
The passengers were sorted into groups by faith and all non-Muslims were promptly slaughtered. The victims included four police officers and a number of teachers and healthcare workers who were posted in the area.
In an unauthenticated press release, Al-Shebaab claimed responsibility for the attack, citing revenge for the “crimes committed by Kenyan crusaders against our Muslim brethren in Mombasa.”
This is the short version of the story; the details are as gruesome and gut-wrenching as the photos, which have been circulating the internet uncensored since 11 a.m. this morning.
Just to be clear, I was not there and I did not see the attack – as a journalist, I am not even covering it. But as an honourary Kenyan and resident of this country, I am deeply troubled and saddened by these events.
Since I moved to Kenya in August, there have been at least six separate terrorist attacks in different parts of the country. More than 30 people have died, not including the victims of several shootings and lootings for which Al-Shebaab involvement has long been suspected but never confirmed.
Since the start of 2014, there have been more than 10 Al-Shebaab attacks, bringing the death toll to over 85 people. None have received the same international attention as the siege of the Westgate mall of course, which left more than 67 dead and 175 wounded during an assault in 2013.
I couldn’t do anything about it then and I can’t do anything about it now. I sit before my computer screen mesmerized, consuming as much information as I can about the #ManderaBusAttack.
I go online and search for every article written about the attack so far, but it’s only been a couple of hours. At this point, the only contribution I can make is to disseminate the information and tweet it:
#BREAKING: 28 killed in #ManderaBusAttack.
If I can’t report it, the least I can do is spread the word. I’ve got 140 characters to make sure everyone knows what has transpired today in northern Kenya.
As an objective journalist, I am unable to offer opinion or perspective – an incredibly frustrating responsibility at times. I can’t comment on issues of internal security, government apathy, religious warfare or anything else at all, really.
But it doesn’t matter, KOTs (Kenyans on Twitter) have risen to the occasion marvelously and I am happy to retweet their dialogue to facilitate the conversation. The country has more than 250,000 active Twitter accounts, so news travels quickly through social media:
It’s a miraculous and beautiful thing, social media. It has the ability to topple paradigms, break down barriers and in this case, organize thousands of Kenyans into a single movement: #MySecurityMyRight.
There will be a protest on Nov. 25 in town to push the government for better internal security. #OccupyHarambeeAvenue, pamoja.
The dialogue on Twitter is civilized for the most part; Muslims and Christians are supporting one another, equally disgusted with the day’s events. I feel proud. But I still feel sick: Slaughter. Terrorism. Al-Shebaab. This is not the first time these words have come into my life. My stomach churns: I’ve been on a hundred roller coasters in the last two hours. Quit being dramatic, I tell myself.
It is now 3 p.m. and I am to go to a Christmas craft fair in Karen. The idea was enchanting this morning, but now seems rather repulsing and irrelevant. How could I walk amid patterned table cloths and napkin holders pretending to be charmed, when 28 people have just been murdered? Can I really turn my back on injustice so easily in favour of something so utterly frivolous?
Meanwhile at the craft fair, hundreds of privileged residents of Kenya will have no idea this massacre has taken place. Of course I do not blame them for this, but the idea still makes me squirm. Those who do know have likely managed to achieve what I could not, and become detached from the violence considered to be “normal in Kenya.” Maybe they don’t care. This is a sick speculation, I tell myself, but this is what goes through my head as I ponder the invitation to the craft fair in Karen.
I can’t put my life on hold because of the attack. I can’t change anyone’s fate over Twitter and sitting in front of the computer will not bring justice for the victims. I go to the craft fair. I browse through over-priced goods and sample homemade jams and cheese. The juxtaposition makes me ill, but for two hours, I forget about the 28 who have died. I go out for dinner, eat sushi and then come home to my Twitter feed. I have 40 new followers. I sleep well.
On Sunday morning, #ManderaBusAttack is no longer trending. The news is old and the world has turned its attention to the Premier League and a boxing match between someone named Manny Pacquiao and someone else named Chris Algieri. I will go to a barbecue this afternoon and eat pasta salad and chat with rich expatriates who compare their Land Rover models. No one will care about the horror of yesterday, save a few, who will whisper in a corner because they don’t want the gravity of their conversation to dampen the party.I am reminded of the awkward silence that lulled through the air in September this year, during the one-year anniversary of the Westgate attack. Atrocity was the elephant in the room then, just as it is now. If we can ignore it, we will. If we can’t change it, we won’t. If we perceive that nothing can be done, then that is reality. We’ll push for a while and then we’ll give up because the people in power have more resources than we do. We’ll tweet about it of course, because that’s passive and easy, and we love being angry without being accountable. It’s easy to speak up through the anonymity of the internet.
There is a protest on Nov. 25. #MySecurityMyRight. #OccupyHarambeeAvenue. As a journalist, I can’t participate, all I can do is witness and write. It’s a frustrating responsibility at times:
Published by the Daily Nation, November 2014
THIS IS AFRICA TOO
The windows are shut and the car door is locked. Be careful, they tell me, Nairobi is known for its high urban crime rate. I clutch my purse tightly and step out of the taxi, wary of the stares I attract walking by.
My eyes are locked on the uneven pavement; I don’t want to trip on my way to the office. To my surprise, I pass a Samsung store, a KFC restaurant and an IMAX theatre, all before starting my first day of work.
I stop on Kenyatta Avenue and my gaze moves upward. I am surrounded by skyscrapers, hotels and offices. Their entrances are decorated by pillars and plants, and some have valets to park cars for their clients.
My hands loosen their grip on my purse. I forget that I’m alone and I forget that I’m white. All of a sudden, I’m the one staring.
All around me, hundreds of people are rushing to work. They are chatting away on touch-screen smartphones and pushing through crowds to get to their coffee shops. I am lost in a sea of suits and skirts.
My feet are planted and I can’t stop staring. Look at the cars! Look at the billboards! And for the love of God, would you look at those shoes?!
None of this would have been remarkable had I been in Toronto, in Paris or Prague, but I was in Kenya. And last time I checked, Kenya was in Africa.
I force myself to snap back into action and cut through an alley to get to my office.
My hands resume their grip on my bag as I pass a young woman slumped by a wall. One arm cradles a baby while the other reaches out for a few spare shillings.
“Pole, hapana,” I reply in broken Swahili; I don’t have any cash and I don’t want to be late. I hurry by without blinking twice, feeling sorry but not overwhelmed.
After all, that is normal because this is Africa.
You’ve heard it before from academics and activists: Africa can’t be painted with a single brush. At one time, the canvas may have been black and white, but globalization has spread shades of grey.
Kenya is one of many countries that doesn’t fit historical stereotypes and challenges our paradigm for “everyday Africa.” A commercial powerhouse, it has one of the largest and most advanced economies in the continent with an average 10-year growth rate of 4.8 per cent.
That doesn’t make Kenya a rich country, but it proves that it is possible to be black and prosperous and living in Africa. Years of movies and embellished charity commercials may have convinced us otherwise, but the reality is that Kenya and many other African countries are home to an extraordinary amount of wealth.
And I’m not just talking about financial wealth. In fewer than two months here, I have met a great number of artistic, inspired and innovative professionals who want to bring change and vision to Kenya.
Unfortunately, their words are often stifled by the ring of our stereotypes: Their English is poor, their education is basic and it’s sweet that they’re trying – can I take your picture?
It’s not that poverty doesn’t exist in Kenya – Nairobi itself is home to Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. Inside and outside of the city, millions live in absolute poverty and the country is ranked 147 out of 187 on the UN Human Development Index.
Over the last two years, this is the reflection of Africa I have come to know best – the exotic one, the romantic one – the one with red dirt roads, palm huts and charity-sponsored drinking wells. I always knew Nairobi would be different, yet as I stood there in the city centre, paralyzed by my foolish mzungu astonishment, I still found myself shocked with how ordinary it looked.
I realize now that this is my challenge – to find the extraordinary inherent in the ordinary; to kick my own naivety to the curb and appreciate urban African living. Over the last month, I’ve learned that it doesn’t need to be exotic to be exciting, and our definition of ‘exotic’ needs a real makeover.
For now, I look forward to discovering, writing about and revelling in Kenya’s many shades of grey, and of course, eating as much chapati as possible.
Finally, I’m standing at the entrance to my 15-storey building, feeling I admit, a little intimidated. To my left, a tall, well-groomed gentleman leans against a windowpane, sipping a capuccino and reading The Economist. On my right, I see a news crew setting up cameras for a 9 a.m. broadcast on bustling Kimathi Street.
Poverty, illness, famine – that’s part of Africa, I say to myself, but this is part of Africa too.