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.

Remembered murder

The Memorial to Murdered Jews is a strong name. I was aware of the many different responses to this memorial to the Holocaust two blocks away from the Brandenburger Door. One opinion was voiced in an article in Der Spiegel, which asked “…is it really possible to sense mortal fear? And how exactly can it be triggered by this mass of concrete, surrounded as it is with the street noise of a busy metropolis?” This was a response to Wolfgang Thierse’s assertion in the Bundestag that a space has been created which lets you feel “what loneliness, powerlessness and despair mean”.

Memorial to murdered jews

The coffins rise higher around you as you progress into the memorial. The ground undulates under you. Walking through these narrow paths between the dark columns, The Family and I had similar thoughts which we shared later. It is a memorial to political murder, and we both felt that it worked better since the six million dead had not been named here. That was the opinion also of the designer, Peter Eisenmann. An article in The New Yorker grants the complexity of the emotions raised by walking through the stelae. However, it differs from Eisenmann in the idea of not integrating the specific murders with the memorial. It asks the pertinent question, how do you understand 6 million murders while also keeping in mind the individuals who died?

The article in Der Spiegel says how the underground information center “…realized against Eisenman’s will, [will] make the memorial into a memorial. Even for those who doubt the symbolic value of the concrete blocks above, the confrontation with stories of deportation and annihilation will not fail to have an effect. It’s like a punch line of history that the worst crime in German history will be remembered underground — just a stone’s throw away from Hitler’s bunker.” True enough. But we had no stomach to walk through the flattened site of the murderer’s bunker after this.

Memorial to murdered jews

Walking through the memorial I wondered whether there will be any ever for the two million Bengalis murdered through deliberate starvation when the imperial British government withdrew stores of rice from Bengal during the same war in order to prevent food from falling into the hands of the advancing Japanese army. We know today that the orders to do this came directly from Winston Churchill, who acted against the recorded advice about deaths that would result. Offers of landing food from the USA and Australia were refused. The refusal of all successive British governments to own up to these murders till today stands in stark contrast to this monument in the center of Berlin.

I don’t hold with apologies. The past is past, once the murderers are dead. If justice is to be done, the murderers have to be tried in their lifetimes. But acknowledgements, even if late, help everyone to see the clay which is dressed up with marble.