Friday, August 31, 2012

The Peter-Pan years?

At a party last weekend, amongst a group of people I had met only hours and minutes before, I declared my age to be 'twenty six and a half'. Obviously the declaration caused significant amusement to my new friends (well they may not be my new friends after that outburst) who thought the practice of counting halves probably should have stopped when my age went into double digits.

I was reacting to the charge from my friend Patrick that I was in my 'late twenties'. Shocked at this libelous accusation I proceeded to tell him my theory that the years 20, 21, 22, 23 constitute one's early twenties, 24, 25, 26 mid twenties and 27, 28 and 29 late twenties. I told him that I was currently 6 months away from being in my late twenties as I am 'twenty six and a half'.

For the past few days I have been trying to pinpoint the exact reasons behind my outburst, and my reluctance to be labelled as being in my late twenties. Of course, no one likes getting older. No one likes watching the appearance of the faintest of frown lines, finding their second (!) grey hair, having twinges of back pain.

But I think my reluctance stems from something slightly different. In a conversation over Skype with my friend Darren a few weeks back I declared myself to be in 'my Peter Pan years'. That day I had seen another Facebook announcement of an old school friend's engagement. I was delighted for her but it made me think about the fact that I am a long way off hitting some of those major growing-up milestones.

Don't get me wrong I am in no hurry to find myself engaged, or in a job with a pension and a parking space. I guess I am just struggling to get my head around the fact that more of my peers are in those situations. Whereas I am bouncing around Nairobi still telling people that I don't know what I want to do when I grow up and counting my ages in fractions. Have I, by moving here, stopped some of the inevitable processes of growing up? And did I do so intentionally?

But if I am really in my Peter Pan years surely I shouldn't care about the fact that the days are passing? That I am almost in my late twenties. That I am, in fact, getting older.

Despite some days mulling over these questions, I am no nearer to finding an answer. I am happy with where I am right now. I live in Nairobi, I like what I'm doing in terms of work, I have made some lovely friends.

So is Nairobi my Neverland? I guess I'll only really know when I leave. And I am not going to be doing that any time soon.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Post: The Danger of a Single Story

(Alternative title: 'Stories from Kenya or how I learned to stop worrying and just enjoy the mangoes')

Guest Contributor: Odharnait Ansbro

Sunrise Mt. Kenya

I thought that once I arrived back in London, Africa would seem like a distant dream, that after a few days I’d be swept up in the rush of life in London and feel like I’d never left. But I carry the view of sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kenya in mind, the taste of mangoes on my tongue, the sound of the muezzin in my ears and the sand of Lamu’s beaches in my shoes.  Africa has, once again, gotten under my skin.

It’s been there since I was two, when my family moved to Tanzania for two and half years. So, for this three week trip to Kenya, I felt like I was going home. Everything was, at once, utterly exotic and deeply familiar. The sandstone chess sets and ebony Masai figurines on sale at every roadside tourist stop were the same as the ones my parents brought back with us. The rows of ants that appeared with every uncleaned crumb, the sharp itch of mosquito bites, the Swahili in the streets all conjured up my childhood.

But for all my pretensions to an affinity for Africa, I realised that my vision of the continent was the one I had absorbed from living most of my life in the West and seeing Africa through the lens of famine, war, disease and death.  For the first week, I was terrified I’d be robbed, or kidnapped, that the water or the sliver of lettuce in my sandwich at a cafĂ© would make me sick. But my narrow view quickly ballooned into a complex, rich, colourful picture of life. 

This was mostly thanks to the many guides who led me on my travels. The principal one being the wonderful Andrea, who planned the first two weeks of our trip, picked me up from the airport, fed me chocolate and got us on a nine hour overnight bus to the coast the first day I arrived. She taught me how to haggle (Ghali sana! Do you think I arrived yesterday my friend? I live in Nairobi!), banter in Swahili, negotiate the streets of Nairobi and the markets of Kangemi.  There was Peter, her local taxi man, who talked at length about anything from religion to politics, to Maasai culture, and my guide, also Peter, who led me step by step up the slopes of Mt. Kenya (pole pole), among many others.

Art Caffe Ladies

Kenya is a country where private companies are designing and building state of the art cities run by private management companies; where you can get a cocktail in a bar in Karen that costs as much as three weekly shops in Kangemi; where stalls of lashed together branches and plastic roofs sell everything from chip pans to radios to knock off watches, 20 minutes away from shopping centres with water features and Dolce and Gabbana shoes; where every outcrop of concrete block shops from the Maasai Mara to the coast is painted in the colours of Safaricom and M-Pesa, where mobile signal is available on the summit of Mt. Kenya. It’s difficult to capture, with so few words, the diversity, the disparity and the complexity of the country I saw.

For the most part, the story of Africa we see in the West is one that has been filtered of its complexity and colour. The continent is reduced to a stage on which epic tragedies unfold again and again, a place that desperately needs to be saved, that only speaks in the passive voice. Poverty, war and disease exist but they are single stories within a multitude of others - stories of a mobile revolution, of economic growth, of (extra)ordinary people getting on with their lives. Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, made this point in her TED talk recently The Danger of a Single Story. I’ll be trying to remember it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A visit from an old friend

(old as in 'we've known each other for a long time' not old as in 'she is an old person' - I feel Odharnait would like that clarification made)

For 3 weeks in July and August I had the pleasure of hosting my first (but hopefully not my last) visitor in Kenya - the beautiful Odharnait Ansbro. Odharnait and I have been friends for 9 years, something we calculated while on our travels. Like many of my friends it's hard to stay in contact as much as we would both like. Timezones, work schedules and other life commitments tend to get in the way. So when she said that she was coming out to see me, I was thrilled to get the chance to spend some quality time with her. something that we haven't done for a long time. As much as I enjoyed the traveling we did together, some of the most enjoyable times we had over the 3 weeks were spent in my kitchen, drinking green tea and having the chats.
I won't go step by step through our holiday adventures for fear of making you all wildly jealous. Instead I'll highlight my 3 favourite parts of our trip.

Dhows, doorways and donkeys in Lamu
Our trip Lamu can be summarised with the 3ds - dhows, doorways and donkeys. All 3 are omnipresent elements of laidback life on the island.



Lamu is just a wonderful, wonderful place. Having visited it on my first trip to Kenya back in 2009 I was anxious to make a return visit at some point this year. When Odharnait asked for some beach and coast time it was the perfect excuse for me to plan a trip there. Staying in a self-catering apartment with its own rooftop veranda, we spent 5 days sitting, eating, reading, eating, sitting some more. Just what both of us were looking for. We both agreed that it would be the perfect place to go if you needed to write your novel. We didn't quite manage to write a novel while we were there, but I did manage to finish my book for bookclub. Which is a start.

Book reading - with obligatory coffee and chocolate biscuit cake

Where Can You See Lions...
... only in Kenya. Surely I don't need to put up another link to that video, do I? Do I? Ok, here it is!

The highlight for the 2 and a half days that we spent in the Maasai Mara (apart from the gorgeous food at our lodge) was spotting lions. Lots of lions. Male lions. Female lions. I had been waiting for this moment since I arrived in Kenya and when it finally arrived I was exactly as giddy and excited as I thought I would be. For evidence of this see the video below:

Now we did spot other animals besides lions. These were (takes deep breath)

Thompson's Gazelle
Grant's Gazelle
Maasai Giraffe
Guinea Fowl
Crested Cranes
Superb Starlings
Secretary Birds
Lilac breasted roller (Zazu!)
African cave buffalo
Striped mongoose
But for me, it was all about the lions.

Not a lion

Not a lion

Not lions
Not lions
Definitely not lions

Nairobi nightlife
I couldn't let Odharnait leave Kenya without sampling some of the Nairobi nightlife. On Tuesday in between our coast and safari adventures we went for dinner with some friends and then on to K1/Klubhouse (setting of an earlier blogpost). It was 'Jazz Night'at K1 but it wasn't so much Jazz as Classic 105-esque covers.

Caution! Party Zone! Well that's me warned.

Some things never change...

Odharnait has also graciously agreed to write a guest blogpost in the coming weeks on her experiences in Kenya so keep your eyes peeled for that!

In the meantime I urge you all to get checking British Airways, SkyScanner and Kenya Airways and start planning your own trip to see me!

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Things I've Learned in Kenya - Part 5

'Kenyans live according to their pockets'

A colleague of mine from UNAIDS remarked this as we were stuck in traffic on our way to the UN compound after a meeting a few weeks ago, on Friday June 29th. The driver of the car nodded furiously in agreement when she said it. This was their explanation of why the roads were so jammed that day
1) It was just after payday
2) It was a Friday.

People in Kenya can afford to fuel their cars after payday so there is always increased traffic around the city streets in the fortnight after payday. After that the traffic begins to dwindle until only those who have done some excellent budgeting, or who have lots of money, can fill up their tank.

A typical Nairobi road after payday...

...and just before payday (disclaimer - this is actually a
picture of Tom Mboya Street during the curfew in 2008)

Other VSO volunteers and I had noticed a similar phenomenon after Christmas. In January our buses were more full than ever. And full of people in fancy suits, who looked a little out of place crammed into buses and matatus, laptop cases and briefcases gripped tightly on their laps, having spent their December wages (and then some) on Christmas trips to visit families upcountry.

Obama mania?

When I came to Kenya on my holidays in 2009 Barack Obama was everywhere. You could not escape his image or his name. His face was to be found on kangas, shops and restaurants were called things like 'Yes We Can Ltd' or 'Barack Obama Cafe', bookshops had shelves teeming with copies of his books.

And yet in the last 9 months since I have been here I have seen very little evidence of the American president. Many of the shops and businesses have been renamed, other images and patterns cover Kenyan women's bums.

A Barack Obama kanga - the fashion
accessory of choice in Kenya in 2008/9

Yes We Can Kinyozi (Barber)

I was only reminded of his past omnipresence when I spotted a matatu during the week sporting the sign 'Still Obama'. I couldn't help but wonder (sorry, I couldn't resist!) where has Obama gone? I hadn't noticed his disappearance until prompted by the matatu.

What might be behind this?

Well I think partly it's a quite natural process. Obama swept to power in America on such a wave of enthusiasm and popularity - a popularity he enjoyed both in the United States and overseas - that it was unlikely that it could be sustained for the entire 4 years of his first term. In Africa, there was a feeling that his election could mark a new phase in U.S. African relations. Increased trade, development assistance and tourism were all expected to come on the back of the election.

However, many are disappointed in his apparent lack of interest in Africa, and Kenya more specifically. Neither he or the First Lady have visited the land of his father since he became President. When I tell people that Obama has Irish heritage, and has visited his relations there, they are usually incredulous. This lack of a visit, combined with a feeling that he has not done enough for the continent have provoked ill-feeling in many quarters. Under his watch PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief - an initiative of Obama's predecessor George W. Bush) has seen it's budget slashed drawing heavy criticism from advocates of people living with HIV/AIDS. Over a million people depend on PEPFAR funding for their Anti Retroviral Treatment. Obama's Global Health Initiative (GHI) is a $63 billion initiative aimed at tackling a broad range of tropical diseases, as well and maternal and child health issues. However, it has been criticised so far for being unfocused and uncoordinated in comparison with PEPFAR.

Even the upcoming US Presidential election has failed to relight imaginations here. The election contest is being covered in the foreign news sections of the papers, but reference to Obama's heritage are thin on the ground at the moment. Will it change if he wins in November? We shall see.

Nairobi has hipsters too

This weekend I headed along to 'Blankets and Wine' - a monthly one day music festival held just outside of Nairobi. On the first Sunday of every month, Nairobi's trendiest (and this month, me) descend on this outdoor venue armed with, as the name suggests, blankets and wine. Gig-goers are encouraged to bring their own booze and picnic with them while they enjoy what the organisers terms 'Afro fusion' music. The performers are a mix of Kenyan, and international artists. Yesterday we were treated to the sounds of Kenya's own Yunasi and Sauti Sol as well as Tumi and the Volume from South Africa.

Tumi and the Volume warm up the crowd early in the afternoon

More people arrive as the afternoon wears on

Gemma and I enjoying being among Nairobi's
cool folks ... for an afternoon at least

For me, the attraction of the event - apart from the music and the al fresco dining and drinking - was the chance to do some serious people watching. The crowd were a mix of Kenyan and mzungu (with Kenyans definitely being in the majority) families and groups of young people, hipsters and the not-so-hipsters. The style was incredible. However my personal favourite style icon of the day was the gentleman below whose blazer was made out of the exact same Maasai blanket material as I was sitting on. There are few guys who could get away with this but I think he pulls it off. What do you think?

Nairobi hipster

A hastily taken picture of the blanket
in question but you get the idea.

Also in this series: