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.

Some street art from Nairobi

Somewhere in the Parklands district of Nairobi, I came across a wall with beautiful street art. Markets in Kenya are full of beautifully executed art, sold at heart-breakingly low prices. I’d been surprised at the relative lack of street art, so this discovery was very pleasant. The Swahili word Jamuri means room, and that puts the piece in the featured photo in context. Imaginative, along with the graffiti inside graffiti.

This beautifully flowing piece on the same wall has the inscription Haki iwe ngao, which is Swahili for “Righteousness be the shield”. I like this East African “idiom” which avoids large areas of single colour, but uses stippling and stripes very extensively. On this large scale it makes for an extremely bright effect, somewhat in the way the pointillist experiments of Seurat did.

This superbly painted clubhouse gate more or less explained why this wall was full of street art. The logo of the clubhouse is rather cool I think. That background pink is really lovely.

This last one requires little explanation if you know a bit of Kenyan history. 1963 was the year Kenya became independent.

A Nairobi bookstore

On our way back to Nairobi I asked about bookstores. MONT recommended a local chain called Textbook Center, not a very promising name. After breakfast I checked out its web site, and was impressed by the search engine and the fact that it stocked not only the particular field guide for East African birds that I was interested in, but also several others. So The Family and I paid the nearest one a visit. The staff was knowledgeable, and directed us immediately to the right section. After we’d compared the different guides and picked up a copy of the book by Stevenson and Fanshawe, we decided to take a look at the other books on display.

It is always nice to walk into a bookstore in a different country and see what the locals are reading. It is much more informative than looking at recommendations on the web, which are often dominated by foreigners. We’ve picked up some really interesting books this way. This time was no exception. The Family and I wandered through the maze of shelves looking at the enormous variety of Africa-centric, and Kenya-centric, literature and picked up enough to last us a year. You don’t really have to go to Nairobi to find these books, but it helps you to choose.

Street food of Nairobi

Nairobi is a great place for restaurants: a wide variety, extremely fresh ingredients, and imaginative chefs. But the biggest fun in eating when you are in a completely new place is street food. It always gives you a wonderful introduction to local ingredients, used in ways that attract local palates. For me the high point of discover was street side mogo chips. I’m sure every East African will groan at my predictability, but a paper bag of these fresh thin wafers of cassava (mogo), fried to a crispy gold, covered with flakes of chili, with a whole lime squeezed over the bagful, was a fabulous discovery. It is not an unfamiliar taste, but the flavour of cassava is very different from that of potato, and that touch of the exotic made my day. The young man in the featured photo was one of a line of vendors who had brought traffic to a standstill with this single item.

Not quite a single item. There were also vendors selling grilled corn (exactly like back home in Mumbai) with lime and chili to flavour it. I’d missed the fact that the stall that you see in the photo above also featured banana flowers. I’ll have to wait till my next trip to Nairobi to figure out how banana flowers are used in local fast food.

Through rural Kenya

I had dreams of a long restful sleep on my first night in Kenya, but the reality was quite different. We got up early to leave for Amboseli National Park. Since we would spend large parts of two days inside the car, I was happy to see that the interior was spacious enough for four. There was considerable traffic in Nairobi, and it was more than half an hour before we hit the Mombasa highway.

Highway travel in Kenya is completely different from that in India, as you can see in the video above. Almost everyone keeps to the speed limit of 80 Kilometers an hour (in fact tourist vehicles have a governor that enforces this limit), so there is almost no overtaking. No one honks. Lane discipline is strict. It is as boring as driving in Switzerland. One other interesting thing that you see in the video above, and in the featured photo, is that even out on the highway you can see people on foot. There are fairly frequent buses to ferry people between towns, and we could see many people walking to these stops.

The most common shops are those which deal in mobile phone services. These green and white shops of Safaricom are everywhere, quite outnumbering the shops for other service providers. Vodafone’s tremendously popular electronic payment portal, called m-Pesa, works over the Safaricom network. Very large numbers of people travel far from their villages to look for work, so the popularity of mobile services is quite understandable. With so many people living away from home, it is no surprise that bars come a close second in popularity.

Electricity clearly reached every village on the highway; not surprising since the Mombasa-Nairobi stretch is the biggest trade corridor inside the country. But the ubiquity of mobile services meant that electricity does indeed reach much further. What didn’t was drinking water. I would notice these yellow plastic jars of water in many places after I saw them being filled at a mobile water tank (photo above).

We sped past many small towns or villages. Along the highway one saw many of the services you might expect: hardware stores, general stores, car repairs. A century ago Winston Churchill had remarked on the enterprise of Indian merchants who had, according to him, “opened up the continent.” They were not in evidence any more. Native Kenyans have taken over this niche. Only the word duka, meaning shop, adapted from Hindi, remains of this vanished history.

Some of the towns along the route clearly housed larger markets. We barreled past a deserted marketplace (photo above). Our guide, Anthony, explained that this was a weekly market. The place must be something to see on a market day. Unfortunately, we never got to see the market.

In spite of the very large number of bars and restaurants on the way, Anthony brought us to a rest stop at a place which advertised itself on its gate as Bethel Global Art Gallery. This was something like the Masai market we had seen the previous evening, but larger. The Family and Mother of Niece Tatu were soon engrossed in looking at the works on display.

Father of Niece Tatu and I were meanwhile eyeing other shopping opportunities. A little stall in the corner of this complex served tea. It was mid-morning and a tea was exactly what was needed. Although the complex was full of tourists, we were the only people who stopped for tea. Most tourists left with little packets of handicrafts, we exited with a cup of Kericho Gold warming us.

The Family went off to take a photo of the duo which guarded the gate. One difference we’d noticed between India and Kenya was that in Kenya you when your tried to talk to a guard or a shopkeeper, they would talk and joke with you. In India most talk of this kind is extremely businesslike. A guard will seldom joke with you. The Family came back beaming; she’d had a nice and funny conversation with the two you see in the photo above.

We’d been driving for a couple of hours already, and I’d spent the time sitting next to Anthony in the front. Now I changed seats and joined the rest of the group at the back. Instantly MONT unpacked some food and began passing it around. I had my share and dozed off. As a result, I never saw the interesting things that The Family clicked, like the little market place that you see in the photo above.

The per capita GDP of Kenya is about three quarters that of India, so Kenya cannot be considered to be a very poor country. It is perhaps the most successful economy of East Africa, in spite of the current slow down. The income distribution is not terribly skewed either (currently, going by the Gini coefficient, Canada, India, and Kenya have roughly similar levels of inequality). So it is common to see a three story bungalow, and ramshackle shops close to each other.

I was completely asleep when we turned away from the Mombasa highway on to the southward road which would take us to Amboseli. The surroundings turned more pastoral. The Family told me of an increasing number of herders. Could this person whom she clicked be a Masai? Perhaps. There are Masai settlements around Amboseli, and the Masai are herders.

The landscape also changed about then. The photos that the family took show that the flat land of the Nairobi plateau had given way to the hills that would lead on to Mount Kilimanjaro. We were near our destination.

Masai Market

Late in the afternoon Mother of Niece Tatu asked The Family whether we needed to take anything with us on the trip we planned the next day. We’d had very little sleep the previous night, and I was forcing myself to stay awake until the night to adjust to the local time. Walking about would be the perfect way to keep awake, so I hoped that the question would result in a long expedition to which I could tag along.

A large part of the expedition was a visit to a Masai market. We were to find later that it is a Nairobi staple. There are several of these markets; a large one travels to a different mall every day. We spent part of the evening in the Diamond Plaza shopping complex where a smaller one sits a few days a week. The sight of a large variety of semi-precious stones ensured that I wouldn’t feel drowsy for a while. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized that the interesting and violent geology of the rift valley would be the source of a large variety of such stones.

I thought I would look for a kikoi or shuka. The kikoi is an extremely versatile tectangle of hand woven cloth which can be used as a lungi or a shawl, or folded over into a backpack or a turban. If you have seen photos of Masai wearing a red blanket, then you’ve seen a shuka. The Family instantly realized what a wonderful thing a kikoi could be, and supplanted me as the main customer.

I wandered off to look at the other handicrafts. These are all produced in little workshops at home, something that we would call a cottage industry in India. This very Gandhian model of economy now produces a huge variety of objects for the large tourist trade that Kenya has. I loved the polished wooden kitchenware with the beautiful zebra themed highlights. The prices that they go for are so small that you wonder about the cost of living in Kenya.

I’m sold on giraffes. When I looked at the painted wooden giraffes on display here I knew they could not be Rothschild’s giraffes, since they did not have the white socks characteristic of the species. Were they Masai giraffes then? I looked at the long ears and resolved to keep this feature in mind when I got to see them in the wild. Of course all these are stylized representations of the animals, so it was possible that certain features are exaggerated or removed.

The stalls were just a piece of cloth laid on the ground with the wares displayed on top of them, just as in street markets across Asia. The tourist trade is often drawn off into shops inside malls where exactly the same things are sold at a premium. We saw more tourists in those places than in these Masai markets. Economic theory fails to explain this. The result is that the primary producer, the people who make and sell these things at Masai markets, earns much less than the middleman who sells them in bigger shops at malls.

I wandered over to a vendor who was selling etched glass. The baobab and acacia trees, the lions, zebras, and buffaloes, were beautifully rendered. I asked the lady selling it whether she did it herself. “No,” she said, “this is done by a mzee.” MONT explained that mzee literally means an old man, but can be used as a respectful term for anyone. I promised the lady that I would be back later to buy something from her. This first expedition was just scouting the market. The Family had also decided to postpone the buying of kikoi. We moved on.