While I was in Kenya, I picked up a number of books from Kwani?, a Nairobi based publisher which (mostly) specializes in Kenyan writers.
Established in 2003, Kwani Trust is a Kenyan based literary network dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing, offering training opportunities, producing literary events and establishing and maintaining global literary networks. Our vision is to create a society that uses its stories to see itself more coherently.
At the very least, reading these books allows one to see Kenya somewhat more coherently.
One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir Binyavanga Wanaina is now famous for bravely having come out as gay in an area famous for conservative and often violent attitudes toward homosexuality. He should be more famous for his books or at least for taking the prize money from one of his literary accolades and starting Kwani Press.
“One Day I Will Write About This Place” is a memoir of growing up in a middle class household in central Kenya, following some of the country’s most tumultuous social and political upheavals. Wanaina experiences Kenya on the periphery, looking in at Kenya through the lens of reruns of the Six Million Dollar Man, formerly colonial schools, local libraries and the staggering complexity of Kenya itself. Wanaina even makes several attempts to leave Kenya for good, jetting off to South Africa for law school during apartheid and after, even coming back to Kenya for the disastrous and bloody 2007 elections. His descriptions of the latter and of supermarkets sold out of pangas are no less than chilling.
Kenya has long been a mystery to me. While the country was set to become on of the world’s economic success stories, it’s progress was rapidly squandered due to a combination of demographics and bad politics. Wanaina might be even more perplexed.
If anything, the book needs to be read for Wanaina’s excellent prose. It doesn’t matter whether one understands or knows anything about Kenya (though it helps). His writing is engaging enough to keep ones attention even without understanding the details. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Kwani? 4 Kwani? is a series of collections of Kenyan writing from both writers within and without Kenya. This volume focuses on subjects of travel, emigration, immigration and the lives of the Kenyan diaspora. Discussions of Africa must recognize that Africans are some of the most mobile people on the planet.
The experience of the diaspora is essential to understanding the state of present day African people, who often lay on the front lines fighting for survival in a world which mostly doesn’t want them, while providing support for all the people who depend on them back home. Immigration nightmares, the loss of connection with home, and the shaping of new identities make up this great collection of stories, poems and artwork.
(Note that the link is for Kwani 4.)
The Stone Hills of Maragoli – Stanley Gazemba I have not finished this one yet (“reading now”), but I was excited to pick up something from Gazemba, who bills himself as a humble gardener living in a slum outside of Nairobi. He is clearly much more than that. He is a prolific writer and journalist, whose works have appeared in many of the major Kenyan newspapers, New African and the New York Times (where I first became aware of him).
“The Stone Hills of Maragoli” follows Ombima as he overcomes his morals to find that stealing food from a garden is delightfully empowering. Mostly, the book is about life in a rural area of Western Kenya, filled with the complexities of daily life and a tightly knit, though deeply divided society.
The book won the Jomo Kenyatta literary prize in 2003. Gazemba apparently has frou other novels waiting to see the light of day.
We visited another rehabilitation facility in Nairobi. We found out that the guy we are looking for has been telling his counselors about his employers, but they thought he was just making it all up. His story was so implausible that his employers were a figment of his troubled imagination.
They are surprised to find these fictional characters standing in the sitting room of their facility. One of them has the same name as a good friend of mine, Justin Farrar. I’m somewhat taken aback by his business card.
Capitalism is the cause of drug problems in Kenya, apparently. The market economy has robbed Kenyans of their culture and they are now turning to drugs for comfort and solace. I’m interested in this. I ask where most of the patients of this $500 a month facility come from. They are mostly children of the wealthy Kenyans, half of which probably have real problems, and the other half of which are sent here to get them out of their parents’ hair.
I’m wondering if all those with brains pickled (or eyes blinded) from changaa (an awful homebrewed alcoholic beverage common in the villages) are the victims of capitalism as well. While it’s important to discuss the causes and roots of social problems, it was an odd aside.
We stop by a new Ethiopian restaurant. The owner is excited because we are the first foreigners at his place, which opened up three days ago. He takes numerous pictures.
I’m told that much of the real estate boom in Nairobi has been funded through proceeds from Somali piracy. I look and find that it’s probably true.
In fact, I reflecting on how Nairobi is in the middle of a real estate bubble. Rents are absurdly high in Nairobi, but then one will pay a premium for security, particularly after Westgate. I keep thinking about what an awful strategy this is. Investors are looking to make a quick buck, building and turning over real estate prices for ever higher prices. I remark that Kenyans are wholly uninterested in developing their country, preferring risky, short term assets like real estate to investment in new manufacturing sectors.
The Kenyan government, of course, is uninterested in encouraging growth through enterprises which create jobs, preferring to skim off the top of real estate in the form of bribes and taxation for imported supplies. It’s all sad, really. I’m wondering when the bubble is going to finally burst.
It turns out the Nairobi Java House that got bombed was the one outside, not the one inside the terminal. I’m looking at it and noticing how dangerous the location is. Anyone could drive by, lob a bomb here and kill five or ten foreigners in a split second.
It’s time to go, though I’m sad. Nairobi is an exciting place, far more exciting than my own boring, though pleasant, Ann Arbor.
We went and visited Kwale, a relatively small community of Duruma and Digo in Eastern Kenya. I’ve been to so many of these African towns that I’m honestly somewhat bored. Five years ago, I might have been more excited. Perhaps I’m just tired.
People speak Swahili here. For real. In the rest of Kenya, Swahili is a language to connect disparate tribes, Kenyans happily mangle and make a mess of Swahili, but it does its job well enough. Here, I’m struck that even the kids speak Swahili, something you never see in other parts of Kenya.
I keep running into people who don’t speak anything but Swahili forcing me to communicate as best I can with my limited vocabulary. Fortunately, it’s all easy to understand out here.
But, to be honest, it’s quite boring out here. Life is fairly content, it lacks all of the huge and obvious problems of economics and health that persist in the rest of Kenya, and the ubiquity of Islam makes is a safe and tranquil place, if one is willing to ignore the oppressive patriarchy.
We spend the day at the hospital, meeting person after person. I’m growing agitated. Lunch is being pushed back later and later. I’m so bad at this, but its necessary and everyone is well meaning and kind.
Why are we doing this? All of Kenya’s problems are a failure of government. It’s not fashionable to say, but you can’t help but be annoyed when people spin the tired old narratives of colonialism and corruption. You guys voted these assholes in.
We finally get to lunch. I order pilau (mixed rice and beef) and some fried goat, knowing that it will be quick and we can be back on the road. Since he’s not paying, our Kenyan host orders to most expensive thing on the menu, the thing they never have prepared, the thing you have to wait an hour for. It’s hard not to be annoyed, but you just let it slide.
People are telling me what a great President Moi was, claiming that everything was ok during his reign. It was at the beginning, thanks to his predecessors, but his awful policies pushed Kenya to a horribly repressive one party state and spurred a complete collapse of the Kenyan economy, leaving the mess for his successors to clean up. In politics, timing is everything.
Now the entire health system has been devolved to the provincial governments. I’m thinking this is going to become a disaster of epic proportions. While the devolution of powers to local governments makes some sense in diverse and fractured Kenya, health problems usually don’t recognize political boundaries. A failure of health policy in HIV and malaria infested Nyanza could have devastating effects for Nairobi.
We’ve stopped in a tiny market center in the middle of nowhere. I say “shikamoo” to an old man, a respectful greeting reserved for elderly people. He asks me for 20 schillings. I’m having fun saying “shikamoo” to people younger than I am. It confuses the hell out of them.
The area is partially semi-arid and partially forested. Elephants come out of the national park and wander through the streets, I’m told. Baboons rifle through the trash. The areas close to the forest are doing better than the other areas, but there’s no real economy out here and the wildlife and igneous terrain prevent people from doing any substantial agriculture out here. The houses are in great shape, some even have power, but there’s malnutrition everywhere. The markets are mostly devoid of decent food outside of bags of rice trucked in from other areas. There are signs of American food aid and a World Food Program truck passes us.
A Japanese group is doing a survey on diet and malnutrition. It’s explained to me, but I think it’s pretty stupid. We already know that a lack of food causes malnutrition. They say they want to help. While I’m listening, though, I’m thinking that it’s a colossal waste of time and money. Perhaps it might be more helpful to come up with a better plan.
I realizing that this post is full of complaints, but here not every day is full of wonder and excitement.
We get dinner. It’s nyama choma (BBQ) again. I’m not disappointed but the conversation turns to Japanese academics. I can’t help but remark that I find a lot of it horribly uninteresting. I’m not sure why many of these groups do projects here, and even less sure what the tangible results will be, outside of raising the domestic status of ineffective Japanese researchers. Public health research really has to do one of two things. Either it should push science forward, or provide meaningful public health services to developing countries. The projects that are being described to me fail on both points. My anxiety level is high.
It’s time for me to stop complaining, though complaining is healthy and sometimes leads to substantive change. I’m getting ready to go to get some Ethiopian food at one of my favorite spots in Nairobi, Queen Sheba, which is run by Ethiopian refugees who fled the war there some years ago. Fortunately, it’s not expensive, unlike other places in Nairobi. See, the complaints never stop.
I’m having a hard time keeping up with the days. We’ve moved on the Kwale, located on the coast of Kenya, not far from Mombasa. I’m warned that this area isn’t safe for white people, but there seem to be an abundance of German and Italian tourists. I’m wondering if they missed that particular State Department warning.
There is no doubt that this area is filled with Al Shabab leaning fundamentalists, or so I’m told. There was a terrorist training center near here back in the 90′s. This is no joke. Mombasa is famous for terrorist attacks and kidnappings, but they don’t seem to discourage the droves of Western tourist which play an important role in the local economy.
We are hungry. The field manager, Juma, takes us to a place to eat along the beach. Apparently, this is where the rich from Nairobi come to relax and drink beer, but there’s no one here at all. As soon as we place our order, I realize what’s to come.
In Africa, if there are no customers, you will have to assume that the kitchen staff hasn’t cooked anything at all. You might even assume that they have to find, purchase, kill and feather a chicken for you. The wait might get so long that you begin to think that they are tracking down and slaughtering a cow for you. At the two hour mark, you start wondering if they might be raising the animal from birth, waiting until it gets big enough for you to eat.
And this is exactly what happens. We wait… and wait…. while listening to the torturous sounds of every Disney soundtrack reinterpreted by famous American R&B artists, or maybe these are the originals, I wouldn’t know.
Juma hates music. Juma is Islamic and makes sure to tell you about all of the hard and important rules of Islam whenever he can, which seem to mostly be about having sex with his wife. No dancing. No music. He claims that Christians are crazy and don’t value their wives. I agree that Christians are crazy, but keep my opinions on the craziness of Islam to myself. In listening to his constant moralizing, which rivals the constant moralizing of African Christians,
“He lives by the forest that runs along the valley.” These are apparently the lyrics to a song which was corrupting Kenya’s youth. He says he is lucky that his daughters are too young to understand it.
We can’t really figure out what he’s talking about and he can’t figure out why we don’t get it. But then I strain and finally realize what it means.
“Ahhh…” Still, I’m the only one who gets it.
This is a place where old Italian and German women come to hook up with large, athletic young Kenyan men. The signs are even in German. The roads are in great shape, until we get to the places that normal people live, the places I assume the “beach boys” live with their families.
We’re talking and It turns out that Shimada and his wife were communists who met while taking lunches to jailed student protestors in the era of the resigning of the military treaty between Japan and the US. I’m pretty impressed. I’ve never met anyone who was directly involved in the Japanese student protests of the 1960’s.
We stop by a drug and rehabilitation center to see a computer programmer whose help is badly needed. His parents have committed him because he cut his own throat after a week’s long bender. We actually stop by two of them. The first one is in town. There’s a Pakistani kid and two Kenyans there watching TV (though the Pakistani kid might be Kenyan, too).
While we wait they invite me to sit down and they start rattling off the drugs that they’ve done. I listen, somewhat fascinated by the variety of drugs available here. In the west toward Lake Victoria, it’s just alcohol and weed. Here, given Mombasa’s status as a major port city with extensive connections to the Middle East and Asia, just about anything imaginable is available. If the local addicts can’t find something better, though, they’ll just huff glue like they do in Nairobi.
These guys look really bad. They repeat AA slogans and talk of addiction, but it’s painfully rehearsed. I’m wondering what kind of shit they’ve put their parents through to have them stuck in a $700 per month rehabilitation facility, and then wonder if some of them might not be addicts at all, but rather just a nuisance to their families. It’s hard to say. I really hope these guys make it.
The second facility we go to is a bit more upscale. Someone is reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” I remember that I really don’t like addicts at all. I find the air of feigned sympathy distasteful, given the horrible wreckage they leave in their wake. Addicts can be emotional black holes, sucking the life out of everyone around them. They can’t be trusted, I remind myself. I want to get out of here as soon as possible.
I’m not sure why I number these from “1.” I must have a multitude of “1′s.” Perhaps I should just start a continuing, yet even more unsearchable, series.
It’s 4 in the morning, I’ve slept probably a total of 2 hours in the past 72 hours, but being awake after the stasis of international flights and the crossing of time zone is like a sleep of its own. It might be like that creepy Russian Sleep Experiment story, though, where you’ve stayed awake long enough to arrange your entrails on the floor in an artistic fashion.
What I did today. First day is always hectic, shopping to be done. This time it was a quest for hand shaking, an extension on a research permit to suck more blood from animals, a new phone and as many Remmy Ongala CD’s as existence would allow.
Remmy Ongala is a legendary Tanzanian musician. I was told that one has to go to a special part of town to get Remmy Ongala CD’s. The place where there are no pirates, but apparently, I’m not allowed to go. See, all of the other people on the street selling Jean Claude Van Damme films and Jay Z CD’s are pirates. The Americans can never catch them. Remmy Ongala, however, must have protectors everywhere, because his CDs aren’t available. At least not in the 99% of the country where the pirates live.
I get a call from my friend Tirus. He’s apparently gone to that-place-I-should-not-go and found everything (even a video) for the crushing price of $3.00. He asks me to pay double for his services. I talk him down to a total of $4.25. I ask him how the land of no pirates is.
I buy a new phone. My old one was terrible, though it was recommended by another friend, simply because he has it. It’s supposedly a “smart” phone, but it was one of the stupidest pieces of technology I’ve ever owned. Out of loyalty, I try to buy a Japanese phone, but find they don’t exist, so I opt for one of the former colonies, thinking that they must own everything anyway, kind of like how the Brits still own everything in Kenya (well, not really, but it sounded good).
The lady at the phone store knows everything about all of the phones she has. I’m impressed by the authoritative air with which she answers my questions and her insistence that I tell her what I hated about my other phone. I intentionally play a game with her, asking more and more difficult and probably unanswerable (or so I thought) questions and she doesn’t bat an eye. Best sales lady I’ve seen in a while.
You see, in America, they just want to sell you the most expensive thing they can and get you the hell out of the store so they can sell another. Here, a sale is a sale because there’s 500 more people within a 1 km radius selling the exact same thing for the same prices.
Tirus asks me about America and why it’s so hard to get a visa. I tell him that Americans are scared of Africans because they work too hard. I tell him that there are Americans who want to turn out the lights and force everyone to go back to the farms to keep them from selling cell phones and driving taxis and writing books and networking and succeeding in America or anywhere else because they are so good at all of them.
Though I’m half joking, I’m half serious, but half complaining and Tirus senses it. I buy a hat because I left mine at home.
Uganda has banned mini-skirts. Museveni is apparently paying a political price for refusing to sign the anti-gay law, so, like a good dictator, he’s turned to victimizing another group who can’t defend themselves. Hashimoto Toru would be proud. The irony, of course, is that the law merely makes Museveni even more powerful as Uganda barrels forward to becoming an frighteningly autocratic state.
The social conservatives are nodding their heads, saying that such a law was overdue. “The women are out of control. It’s time for the police to step in.” I remark that I’ve seen more evidence that the men are the one’s who are out of control. It’s amazing how deeply female sexuality is both respected and feared here. Fortunately, the voices are reason are screaming loudly, at least in Kenya.
We eat Nyama Choma (grilled meat). I eat more than I intend and have gained 10 pounds again. I blame the chips. Apparently, though, the big news is that Kenya is falling apart because someone is opening a restaurant which serves donkey meat in Naivasha. The Chinese are blamed. I remark that I’ve never seen a dead donkey on the side of the road (as opposed to dogs and cats) and ask where do those donkeys go? Everyone laughs.
I’m eating my favorite Salticrax. OK, back to bed.
Kenya, lacking mineral or oil resources, is an agricultural economy. Specifically, they are really good at growing tea, and, to a lesser extent, coffee. This helps explain why Kenya’s developmental trajectory has been far more successful than that of other economies. Tea production is labor intensive and often depends on small and mid-sized farms which employ lots of people. Instead of money flowing in the pockets of the corrupt, who often squirrel it away in overseas accounts, money goes directly in the pockets of growers.
Kenya is the UK’s biggest tea supplier, but Egypt buys more tea by volume from Kenya than any other country. A piece in Think Africa Press today wrote on the dual problem of falling demand for tea from Egypt due to prolonged unrest, and that of falling commodity prices worldwide.
The cause of the farmers’ problems lies far to the north of the cool, tea-covered slopes of the Aberdares, in the heat of Cairo and the continuing fallout from the Arab Spring. In 2010, the last year before the uprising in Egypt, Kenya supplied the tea-obsessed UK with around half of its tea, but Egypt was the the single largest destination for Kenyan tea exports, buying nearly a fifth of what the factories around Nyeri produce. With the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and the ongoing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood causing continued political instability, demand has plummeted and prices have gone with them.
“It’s a supply and demand issue,” says Chai Kiarie, Field Services Manager at Gitugi Tea Factory. “We produced more tea this year, but we still made nearly $2 million less than we did last year. With these problems abroad, the demand just isn’t there.”
This isn’t an isolated problem. Coffee prices, once riding high on a boom in commodity prices have been steadily falling since the financial collapse. The commodity boom was a winning sitaution for African economies and helped drive much of the rapid growth seen throughout the 00′s. Regulation has started curbing speculative practices that drove the increases, removing a source of destructive volatility which drove up food prices in developing countries, but has also decreased badly needed foreign exchange revenues.
I visited a few farms the last time I was in Kenya. Farmers aren’t waiting around for subsidies to help pull them out of a potential mess. All of the farmers I spoke with are looking for new ways to diversify their operations and meet potentially lucrative world wide demand for competitive products. All of them wanted to think of ways to increase productivity while decreasing the cost of inputs. The pressures from falling tea demand could help push them to find ways to innovate and increase both revenues and stability.
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo recently visited three African countries to unveil plans to provide 320 million dollars in aid to Africa. This should, of course, infuriate China enough as they seem to consider the continent their own in 2014.
However, following Abe’s stupid disregard for common sense in his visit to Yasukuni and a spokesman’s less unrealistic quip about China’s unwillingness to hire locals, the Chinese Ambassador to the African Unions call a press conference. In truly comic fashion, he screamed at the press, labelled Abe the “biggest troublemaker in Asia” and held up graphic pictures of Japanese war crimes committed during World War II.
During his press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where Abe had just visited, Xie held aloft photos of Chinese he said had been massacred by Japanese troops. “[Abe] has worked hard to portray China as a threat, aiming to sow discord, raising regional tensions and so creating a convenient excuse for the resurrection of Japanese militarism,” said the Chinese envoy.
Is there any level at all where this isn’t absolutely ridiculous? First, we have to question Abe’s judgement in visiting Yasukuni, which enshrines a number WWII war criminals, as an inexplicable act of stupidity. The stunt was guaranteed to annoy China, setting back already strained relations over the Senkaku islands off the shores of Taiwan. It’s possible, though, that it was orchestrated to do just that. If so, it worked.
Second, setting aside the fact that most people who were participated in WWII are long dead now, and China’s old history of bloodshed, no matter how one looks at it, waving pictures of war crimes at the African Union is likely to have, well, no effect at all. Many African countries are still autocracies and nearly all have deep pasts of violence against civilians. In fact, both of the highest leaders of Kenya are currently in court for crimes against humanity!
Third, let’s just ponder how stupid it is to have two of the largest economic powers in the world quabbling like crying children. Please, we can do better, kids.
It has been announced that Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza has been appointed the Interim President of the near anarchic Central African Republic.
Her ascension couldn’t come at a better time. The Central African Republic, fragile even in the best of times, has been slowly sinking into chaos. No one really knows how many people have been killed in the fighting between Christian and Muslim militias (though this shouldn’t be read as a religious conflict), but reports last year pegged more than 1000 civilian deaths within a two day span. Experts have started using the g-word.
From the NYT:
The interim president selected on Monday at a raucous, five-hour session of a “national transition council” of rebels, rivals and politicians was Catherine Samba-Panza, a French-educated lawyer with a reputation for integrity and no ties either to the Muslim rebels or the Christian militia. Her selection was greeted with cheers in the assembly hall and dancing outside. That she is a woman — the third female head of state in post-colonial Africa — was especially welcomed by many people who felt that men had done nothing but lead the country on its vicious downward spiral.
Though encouraging, it’s too early to tell if Ms. Samba-Panza will be able to contain the bloodshed in the CAR. Certainly, Liberia gained much under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it’s hard to say whether there’s been a great transformation in Malawi under Joyce Banda. Rwanda’s female majority Parliament is vastly preferable to Kenya’s (or the United States’) overpaid and corrupt boy’s club, however.
The conflagration in the CAR has been troubling for a number of reasons. First, it represents a general pattern of instability just below the Sahara. Neighboring South Sudan, which just recently obtained independence, is now facing a conflict ridden humanitarian crisis.
Second, the conflicts in South Sudan, the CAR, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Somalia rage on compromise the positive narrative of a newly prosperous and economically viable Africa. The 80′s and 90′s were a stain on the continent. Though I don’t foresee a return to the extended civil wars of Angola and Mozambique (for example), general regional instability compromises the ability to sustain development over the entire continent.
Third, even if the CAR manages to suppress the violence, there are few viable options for the long term economic future of this landlocked and historically marginalized country. Without a long term economic plan chances are high that tensions will flare up once more, setting the country back again.