A light lunch?

Nairobi is a good place to eat out in. There is food from everywhere in the extended neighbourhood, even as far afield as France and Italy. MONT and The Family planned a day of shopping, and I tagged along. There is wonderful stuff from local artists is various shops: Nani Croze has mentored many through Kitangela Hot Glass, and the artists’ cooperative of Kazuri makes beads and pottery which looks totally different from what I’ve seen before. But the high point of my discovery of Nairobi’s shopping that day was to be the lunch. Sure enough, we found a wonderful cafe. The lentil soup, the falafal, a small chicken salad, certainly. Would that be enough? No, maybe I should add a burger with fries. You would prefer a kabab? Maybe both then. A smoothie will go well with it, don’t you think? Before we knew we had over ordered. Who realized that the pita bread would be so large? Maybe a little dessert? Let’s finish with an espresso. You want a Kenyan tea instead? It wasn’t a light lunch, but it was good: fresh and flavourful ingredients made well.

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Crawling through downtown Nairobi

Traffic in downtown Nairobi can be slow at rush hour. Unfortunately, we couldn’t avoid it on all days. The video here is speeded up 10 times; you can see pedestrians zip by while motorized traffic crawls!

Nairobi’s shops

Eight hundred years ago, the Chinese admiral Zheng He launched expeditions to Africa which tried to link up with the Indian Ocean trade network. Six centuries ago, Vasco da Gama found the same extensive trade linking the Indian Ocean, and hired a Gujarati pilot to guide him from Kenya’s coast to India. Colonial militarism and the slave trade shredded these links in the subsequent centuries. In 1907, the British Imperial Under-Secretary of the Colonies, Winston Churchill, wrote an article which whitewashed the old history of this trans-oceanic trade. “It is the Indian trader who, penetrating and maintaining himself in all sorts of places where no white man would go, developed the early beginnings of trade.”

But this was a prelude to a statement of what he thought was a crucial problem, “The entry of the Asiatic as labourers, trader, and capitalist into competition in industry and enterprise not only with, but in, the Western world is a new fact of first importance.” It is hard to read this article today without coming face to face with the fundamental problem of empire- it is geared to maintaining the prosperity and privilege of the colonizer through brute force, hidden behind an invented moral justification which, for the imperial British, was racist (“These people are unable to govern themselves”). But I digress.

What was true eight centuries ago remains true today: East Africa is a microcosm of the world. The small Gujarati-run grocery stores, called duka (from dukan, the Hindi word for a shop) are common throughout East Africa. We stepped into one briefly to pick up some cheese and yogurt to take with us on the long drive to Masai Mara. The shop was bustling with the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Nairobi. Kenya’s economy has prospered by never descending into the populist distraction of Uganda’s infamous Idi Amin. The frame does not capture a Chinese couple, who were also in the shop. They are the newest entrants to the East African mix. If Indian labourers built the railways a hundred and thirty years ago, the Chinese are building today’s roads.

At the other end of the spectrum of shops was the infamous Westgate Mall. The terrorist attack of 2013 on this Israeli owned mall and subsequent scenes of looting seen on TV screens across the world, seem to be almost forgotten today. Almost, but not quite, since entry to every mall now requires you to pass through metal detectors and mandatory scanning of bags. We went in late, looking for an ATM, and then stayed to wander through shops. The Westgate mall has not recovered completely yet; many spaces were empty, unlike what we saw in other malls. Many see Westgate as a microcosm of everything that is happening in Kenya today. But one part of the story is clear; Kenya is beginning to boom. To Kenyans the story may not look simple with the ongoing hiccups in world trade, but malls are there to stay, as much as the duka, and the recovering trans-oceanic trade.

The perfect center of Nairobi

When I walked in through the doors of the Nairobi Gallery I knew there had to be something interesting about the small round lobby. The dartboard pattern of tiles on the floor pointed to the very center of the circular lobby, directly under the dome. Could it have held a Foucault’s pendulum at one time? I squinted up to the gallery and decided that the height did not look correct. The name of the cafe outside, Zero Point, should have alerted me if I’d paid attention to it.

But it wasn’t until I saw this plaque on the wall did the historical significance hit me. Nairobi was built in 1899 to be a railway depot on the Uganda Railway, which ran from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. The zero point would have been a survey benchmark in the construction of the railways by the British East India Company. By the time the railway was finished, Nairobi had begun to grow. After a major cholera outbreak in 1901, there was some talk of moving the township, but Railway engineers thought that it would remain an Indian township and could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.” Winston Churchill, traveling to see the railways in 1907 as Under-Secretary for the Colonies, wrote that the place “enjoys no advantages as a residential site.” By then it was too late to shift the town.

By 1913, when the Provincial Commissioner’s office was constructed at this spot, Nairobi had “outgrown its swamp and tin-roof days”, as Beryl Markham writes in her book West by Night. Joseph Murumbi, independent Kenya’s second Vice-President, who eventually moved to this house, was two years old and living in India at that time. He moved back to Kenya and joined the African Union Party, becoming its general secretary in 1952, part of constituent assembly after independence, Foreign Minister, and finally the Vice-President, resigning at the end of 1966 and moving away from politics. The photo above shows a recreation of his study during the time that he lived here.

The core of the collection we saw was a bequest from his wife, Sheila Murumbi, to the Kenyan nation. The couple had been collectors of African art through their lives, and had encouraged the continuation of traditional forms in many ways. The lobby contained the two beautiful traditional carved doors which you see in the photos above. These are portals, so to say, through which you pass into the wonderful collection here. We were the only visitors during the two hours we spent here. Unfortunate, because it is a great collection, and a perfectly wonderful way to spend a morning when you pass through Nairobi.

Two more residents of Nairobi

Nursing a morning cuppa in MONT’s kitchen I heard much chattering outside the window. I would be a very bad naturalist, because I paid no attention to it. The Family looked out and was instantly excited. I ran for my camera and caught the featured photo. Finally with a field guide at hand I sat down to identify it. Perhaps an oriole? No, it didn’t fit. A field guide with almost 1400 entries is no good unless you have some idea of what you are looking at. I flipped through it looking for all black and yellow birds and finally landed up with the weavers. Could it be one of the five different subspecies of Baglafecht weaver? The males and females have different but equally bright colours, so I had to be careful. It was; a male Ploceus baglafecht reichenowi. That was my first successful field identification in Kenya.

In the meanwhile, another bird had arrived in the same palm tree outside MONT’s kitchen. I snapped off a couple of photos thinking it was a speckled mouse bird. But it wasn’t. The crest was much paler. I jumped to the conclusion that it was the rarer white headed mousebird. The Family was not slow to point out that this must be wrong, because it doesn’t have the long tail that mousebirds always do. Now it required a careful page by page look through the book. I couldn’t identify it. The Family tried a second trawl, and came up empty too. Now we are waiting for a kind reader to help us with an id.

[One possibility that more than one birder suggested is that this is a mousebird which lost its tail to a predator.]

Three African artists

When I saw the painting in the featured photo in Nairobi Gallery, I thought to myself “So like a Chagall.” Apparently Jak Katarikawe (born 1940 in Kigezi, Uganda, died October 19 2018) was sometimes called Africa’s Chagall for his whimsical paintings of elephants and cattle. In interviews he said that his sense of colour came from stained glass windows in the churches of Uganda. He was mentored by Sam Ntiru of the Makarere University’s art department, when he was a driver in the university. He moved to Kenya in the 1970s, and became professionally successful. This painting is probably from the 1970s.

Bruce Onobrakpeya (born 30 August 1932) experimented with techniques to make low-relief works through printing. The example in Nairobi Galery seems to be from his early experimental period when he started depositing bronze patinas on lino cuts. It would be interesting to see how he extended these methods over a large part of his lifetime, first using resin and plaster of Paris (which he called Plastographs), then metal foil, and finally artificial polymers which look like ivory.

Salih Abdou Mashamoun was born (in 1946?) in the village of Debeira in Wadi Halfa, Northern Sudan, which was inundated by the building of the Aswan High Dam. He was a poet and artist, and a Sudanese diplomat until the country became an Islamic state. In an interview, Mashamoun says that he was mentored by Seif Wanley in Alexandria, where he entered the university in 1964. He was the featured artist in the African Heritage exhibition in Nairobi in 1976 when it burnt down, so that much of his early work is now lost. This work, a gouache on stretched goatskin, is one of the two which were saved. It is from the period just before the fire.

These three artists whose works I saw in Nariobi Gallery stand at the beginning of the contemporary art of post-colonial Africa. It will be interesting to go back to Nairobi and explore the directions that their successors are taking.

Paintings from Nairobi

There’s wonderful contemporary art in Kenya, and, like much of the world’s contemporary art, it is driven by the human condition. But apart from this, there is also a stream of contemporary art which takes its inspiration from Kenya’s abundant wildlife. When I walked into Nairobi Gallery, a temporary exhibition was based on this theme. Some of the works can be seen in the gallery of photos below.

An East African specialty

One thousand and five hundred years ago the ancestor of the matoke were brought from Asia to Africa. They took root, in a manner of speaking, grew, and flourished, quite separately from their cousins. They became something very special: the East African Highland banana, a staple of food in Eastern Africa. On the flight to Nairobi I’d watched a potboiler of a movie about two people whose love life is thrown (temporarily) off the rails because the girl can’t cook matoke to the liking of the mother of the boy. One should not read too much into a movie, but this must say something about how basic the matoke is to the daily life of East Africa.

So I was very happy to find a dish of matoke, looking roughly like what I’d seen in the movie. They are a very flavourful starch, which explains their centrality to many East African kitchens. This dish was entirely vegetarian, but there is a famous beef stew with matoke. I liked the flavour and the spicing; not so different from Indian food. Typical recipes call for the banana to be cut into thick disks and boiled. The whole banana must be hard to cook that way; I thought from its taste that it could have been partly baked before being cooked into the curry. No matter how it was prepared, this was something I wouldn’t mind eating again.

Five antelopes of Amboseli

One thing a visitor from India like me has to constantly remind himself of is that there are no deer in Africa (almost). What you are going to see are antelopes. The difference? One text told me, very unhelpfully, that deer belong to the family Cervidae whereas antelopes belong to the family Bovidae. It took me a little searching to figure that the operative difference is that deer have antlers which fall off every year and are regrown, whereas antelopes have horns which keep growing year after year. Another text defined antelopes for me: all bovines which are not cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo or bison. It is a catch-all term, in other words. No wonder Africa teems with antelopes. They fill every possible ecological niche that herbivores can. They are so successful that they leave space only for just a few other medium-sized herbivores.

We saw the waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) only once in Amboseli national park. The featured photo shows the characteristic light stripe on its rump. As the name implies, it is very dependent on water, and comes back to it after ranging afield for a while. When we saw this one, it was not very close to water, but could get there in a half hour or so of human-speed walking. It browses on succulent leaves, shoots, and fruits. That’s probably what limits its range, not coming head to head with a zebra.

One of the largest of gazelles, the Grant’s gazelles (Nanger granti, called Gazella granti in the older literature) were more common. We saw occasional small bunches of Grant’s browsing and grazing and learnt to identify it by two signs. One was the lack of black stripes on its hide, and the other was the patch of white on its rump which starts from a little above its tail. This individual never turned to look at us,so we never got to see whether its muzzle had the distinct white-lined black stripes from eyes to mouth, but an identification was still possible from the body. The elegant shape of the horns can also be used to narrow the possibilities. In the dry season they migrate to areas which are not of interest to wildebeest and zebras, since they can eat plants which are unpalatable to those.

Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas thomsonii) were very common in Amboseli. You can tell them from the wide black stripes down the flanks. Even if you just see the rump, you can distinguish them from the Grant’s by the fact that the white patch on its rump starts from below its tail. The Family was quite taken by this elegant gazelle and was surprised when she found that it was the preferred food of cheetahs. We never saw a chase, so never saw the spectacular leaps and turns that the Tommie is capable of. I wonder whether the evolutionary race between the Tommie and the cheetah has spurred each of them to be breed for speed. That would be a version of the Red Queen’s statement in Alice about how one has to run fast to stay in one place.

Our first sightings of the very common impala (Aepyceros melampus) came well inside the park. Although it looks very similar to the Grant’s gazelle, it is instantly distinguishable by the black stripes on its rump, the lack of black and white on its muzzle, and the lyre shaped pair of horns. I thought I mostly saw them in grasslands bordering thickets of forest. This makes sense, since they both browse (usually on softer grasses) and graze on leaves. We saw them in August, which is the middle of the dry season, when they eat more leaves, and so push closer to the forest than otherwise. We saw males briefly engaging horns, otherwise they stuck to eating. There were none of the spectacular leaps which wildlife documentaries are fond of showing. The bunch that you see in the photo above are all males; female impala, unlike female gazelles, have no horns.

The most common antelope in Amboseli has to be the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). Large herds can be seen grazing along with zebras in the open plains of the park. How do they feed together without being in competition? It seems that the wildebeest strip the succulent leaves of grass (and are therefore more affected by droughts) and leave the tougher parts of grasses for zebras. Feeding together is advantageous for these two, which are the main prey of lions, because they can depend on each other to give alarms. Gnus have also been seen to respond to alarm calls of baboons. They are extremely high strung, breaking into runs at the slightest sign of an alarm and setting others running. I wonder whether this kind of chronic stress is a major factor in the reduction of its life expectation in the wild to about 20 years, when compared to zoo animals which can live up to 40 years.

I’d expected to see more species of antelopes in Amboseli, but five is not a small number in the season of drought. What was remarkable was how the species have specialized their diets to utilize different parts of the ecosystem. In spite of that, enormous habitat loss in the last 100 years has reduced their numbers so dramatically that advertisements for hunting safaris look pretty shocking.

Coloured zebras

Zebras are fun to watch and I spent a significant amount of time watching this very common animal in Amboseli national park. They always present interesting questions. For example, in the herd of plains zebra (Equus quagga) that you can see in the featured photo, the youngest one has distinctly red stripes. This is just the red dust of Amboseli sticking to its fur. Why does it stick to the black stripes and not the white? No one seems to have asked this question, so here is my answer. It has been found that zebras can raise each stripe of the black fur, but not of the white. When dust bathing, animals like to get the dust in contact with skin, just as me like water to get in contact with our scalp when we have a shower. So a zebra would naturally raise its fur, if it can, while rolling in the dust. As a result, there will be more dust trapped in the black stripes than in the white. The end result is a red and white zebra. Quite a sight!

Foals look enchanting, whether of horses or of zebras. I followed the red and white zebra foal with my camera. Looking closer at its coat, one sees that there is red dust on the white fur too, but it looks like it sits on top of the fur. While reading about the fur of the zebra, I realized that the old question of why a zebra has stripes has not been settled. Could it be that the question is not really sensible? Isn’t it a little like asking what our hands are for? Are they for holding babies or holding guns?