Monday, December 30, 2013

Pamoja tswasonga mbele

I have an acute obsession with museums so I decided to visit another museum today. 

The idea of museums is a strange one. This is a definition I found when I looked up the word museum: a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited. My acute obsession with museums began when I visited the East London museum while I was in prep school. We visited the museum regularly throughout primary school whenever our work related to an exhibition that was in the museum. I never questioned the concept nor the content of a museum. Who decides what is of interest and is worthy of being exhibited in a museum?

The Nairobi National Museum has a colonial character even though the work features the history of Kenya, the history of humankind, birds of East Africa and two exhibitions featuring the work of contemporary Kenyan artists. There's also a photo exhibition celebrating Kenya's 50 years of independence. While wandering around I wondered how often the museum is updated as some of the signs look as though they've been there since the birth of the museum.
Ahmed the elephant...The most famous elephant in Kenya who died at 55


Introducing Makhan Singh's story in Kenya's narrative

A random sculpture...it was in a random corner

Celebrating the use of gourds (calabashes) in ancient Kenya

Artwork at the entrance of the museum
 The rest of the day was spent in and about Nairobi. While driving to Parklands (an Indian area where black Kenyans come in and out for work because the area is exclusionary against them living in the area) I noticed the words Pamoja tswasonga mbele celebrating Kenya's 50 years of independence. My friend offered the translation "together moving forward" with a tinge of scepticism, "a nice sentiment" she said as though she doubts it has any bearing on the life experience of what it means being in Kenya. It seems ironic that the 50 year celebration would fall in the same year that "the son of the nation" is the president of Kenya as his father was 50 years ago. It's also the year that the cloud of the Hague hearings hanging above his head at  a time when Kenya is hoping to move on from the violent past that plagues the consciousness of the country. 

My day ended with a catch up dinner with a friend (at an Ethiopian restaurant where the lights went out twice while we were waiting for our meal) who is a journalist in Kenya after her studies in South Africa. She had many interesting stories to share about the anxieties of telling Africa's stories...a conversation for another day I think. The conversation began talking about her experience of being back in Kenya, my experience of Cape Town, our frustrations about the state of Africa with South Sudan, CAR, Egypt facing many conflicts. 

There are many stories that are yet to be told about Kenya and the continent as a whole. Stories that cannot be contained in a museum.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A country club, giraffes and a museum

Today was my first time visiting a country club. I’ve always heard about such spaces and they never really entered my imagination. Places where rich people hang out and play golf and network. My friend’s mom is a member of the Karen Country Club so we had lunch with her after her round of Sunday golf with her golf buddies. I’m sure many people have written about country clubs and the narrative is that of privilege, networking and middle-classness at its best.

I spent most of the time at lunch people-watching. Families and friends were gathered around tables waiting for lunch and drinks to be served. There was a mixture of black and white families being served by black waiters. I was told that the white community in Kenya is referred to as the KC, “Kenyan Cowboys”. There were a few tables of KC families and the rest were what one might call the African elite. My favourite table was a family that took up three tables. Each table represented the three generations that exist in the family: the grandparents, the parents and their children. There was a mixture of American and British accents amongst the children and inflections of an “African accent” amongst the parents (I decided to assume that the family was Kenyan). There was a flurry of hugs and introductions as each part of the clan arrived with their entourage of children (the young daughters in fabulous dresses and straight relaxed hair). The laughter from the parent’s table led me to assume that this might have been some kind of reunion. The children were paraded around as they greeted the elders. It was too tempting not to watch the flurry of excitement and awkward introductions and respectability that was expected from everyone in the clan.

After lunch we moved on to two touristy things to tick off our list: The giraffe centre and the Karen Blixen Museum. It was tourist rush hour at the Giraffe centre and we waited a while for the opportunity to feed a giraffe. While waiting, we chatted to a young man who worked at the centre. When I said I was from the South Africa he responded that he had aspirations of studying at the University of Cape Town. I mentioned that that I lived in Cape Town and he made a subtle hint that  I could be his contact in Cape Town. I thought he said this to make conversation but in retrospect I wonder if he was serious. I did not affirm his enthusiasm. Even when we left the centre with a hearty goodbye after I fed the giraffes, we didn’t exchange contact details.




Our last stop in the suburb of Karen was the Karen Blixen Museum. I knew nothing about Karen Blixen until I saw the link related to “Things to do when visiting Nairobi”. A movie was made about her, Out of Africa, that I haven’t watched. We arrived at the small museum which is where Karen Blixen lived while in Kenya. We were introduced to our guide who told us the story of a women who attempted to change the settler narrative in Kenya. Our guide spoke fluently but cautiously telling us the tale of a wealthy Dutch women who used the pseudonym Isak Dinesen for her writing who lived in 19th century Kenya. The guide's sentences sounded like sentences from a history textbook. She was careful in making sure that the story must unravel chronologically and make sure she didn’t leave anything out. She might have an interest in history, she might not but her knowledge of Kenyan history brings in an income. When we left the museum my friend commented on how the rote-learning that is emphasised in the Kenyan education system has allowed her to perform as a museum guide. Beyond that I wonder what other options she could pursue if she wanted to leave the museum and work elsewhere.
Karen Blixen's house

Tools used on the Blixen farm...we're told

One of the oldest tres in the garden...I'm gullible

No, it's not a pet elephant


The familiarity of being here still won’t go away and I’ve decided that it is a result of reading novels about African lives such as Nervous Condition, Zenzele, Half of a yellow son and Americanah (that I’m reading at the moment). Stories that capture the anxieties and complexities of what it means to live on the continent. These stories and my experience of Kenya so far have given me time to think about what it means being a modern African family in a developing country. Fifty years after independence and Kenya still bears the burden of a colonial legacy. And Kenya isn't the exception but the rule. The pervading narrative begs the question, how does one live in this place that is potentially familiar but also deeply stratified along class lines? Conversations with my friend have largely been about this issue as she moved back to Kenya recently after studying in South Africa and identifying with South Africa as home.


The tensions of being in privileged spaces while being aware of the other narrative of poverty in places like Kenya and South Africa and across Africa make living uneasy. When I landed at the airport on Friday I noticed a long queue of people waiting at a door. They looked as though they had been there for hours. Later I learned that South Sudanese citizens where being flown into Kenya after the turmoil erupted in South Sudan. Thoughs who were on my flight noticed this queue and became anxious that we would have to join that line to sort out our entry into the country. But as tourists who were in Kenya thanks to more fortuitous circumstances ended up in a different queue that allowed us to be deemed as respectable African citizens who were being received into Kenya not because of a war but because we were holiday makers, tourist who made the choice to be here.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Visiting Kenya

I’m visiting a friend in Nairobi and while I’m here I’m going to try and blog about the experience. I haven’t travelled much (that’s if I’m comparing myself with some of my friends). The first time I ventured into the continent was a trip to Mozambique last year with friends. This time I’m travelling alone visiting a friend who moved back to Kenya after studying in South Africa after many years.

I never have high expectations when I’m travelling. This time around I travelled to see a good friend and to make sure I’m not at home come New Year’s Eve. When I booked the ticket to Kenya I knew it was time I travel alone and navigate an airport in another country all by myself (I hate airports. I always feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t know what’s happening and I’m paranoid until I sit in the aircraft).

Once I landed in Kenya I decided to follow the crowd that was in my flight. Passport control was mayhem and I eventually found a familiar face as I had made small talk with a woman while I was boarding the flight in Johannesburg. We selected a random queue with a sign that looked like it was applicable to us, only to find out there was a form to fill in and we had to change queues. Eventually we got to the front of the line with our blue forms and we were scanned into Kenya by very grumpy-looking KAA (Kenya Airways Authority) officials. We found our luggage still in tact, exchanged names so we could find each other on twitter and went our separate ways.

My friend and her brother were waiting for me patiently when I eventually stepped out into the Kenyan sun. I quickly glanced around looking for the section of the airport that had been burned down a few months ago. Scaffholding at the other end of the building confirmed that the fire was indeed a reality. Driving from the airport I was transformed into a pseudo-tourist and my attention was drawn to the National Park that’s very close to the airport. There are constructions along the highway and there seems to be a fair amount of development. It felt as though I was driving through somewhere in South Africa. Not as flashy as Joburg or Cape Town, maybe somewhere in the Eastern Cape, but I still haven’t been able to put my finger on the sense of familiarity with this place.

Fast forward to the evening...we had dinner at my friend’s aunt’s place. Driving through the city important landmarks were identified. The National Park where Wangari Maathai’s work blossomed, Westgate Mall that was attacked a few months ago, the UN Campus in Randu. While driving through suburbia, it’s easy to notice the lush plant life that envelopes most of the houses and buildings. Nairobi is a very green city. And of course, one cannot write about an African city without writing about the roads and the matatu’s, minibus taxis. The Matatus aren’t a novelty given that I’ve used taxis in South Africa all my life.

Day two in Nairobi was visiting the “shags” the rural areas (shags comes from the Kikuyu word gishagi). My friend’s family is also based in Machako County. Kenya recently did away with the provincial system and introduced a local government system in the form of counties (more than 40 counties). While driving through the lush hills past the Athi River towards Machako, I couldn’t help but notice the many signs for schools in the area. Many of the signs indicate primary or secondary schools. I’ve never seen this while driving through any rural area in South Africa. It was overwhelming seeing such a visual image of the extent of the importance of education in Kenya. My favourite sign read “St Catherine’s Girls School” in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. Single-sex schools in South Africa are prestigious and only exist in wealthy areas in urban areas, definitely not in rural areas. As is the case in most developing countries, Kenya also has two economies, but the level of poverty in Nairobi makes the wealth in Nairobi difficult to distinguish. But the poverty in the rural areas is palatable.
A bench in Machakos
Kids fetching water in Kivimbu, "the shags"


We drove as far as Kivumbu and Masii in the Machako county and then drove back to Nairobi at the end of the day. The stark difference between Machako and Nairobi is not surprising. The word development begins to mean something and in Nairobi development means tall buildings made of glass, driving an SUV, housing developments and malls spring up everywhere. Development also looks like university institutions like Riara University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture; more examples of the important of education and studying further. The question of the quality of these universities is a conversation for another day.

Of course I'm leaving many stories out. The conversation in the car while travelling to Machako, eating a triangle-shaped vetkoek, the conversations in my head about what I was seeing and hearing.There's a proverb in isiXhosa, ukuhamba kukubona, to travel is to see/learn about new things. Apart from learning about the above observations, I'm learning about myself too. I think I'm a bad traveller. Perhaps I'm yet to master the art of travelling but I find it very stressful. I don't plan very well:I left my travel arrangements from Durban to Joburg to catch the flight until last minute, I didn't find out about changing currency so instead I have a bank card for a bank that isn't in Kenya, I don't even have a decent camera to take photos along the way.I like blending in when I travel, I'm not a tourist. But I hope the remaining 9 days won't be marred by my travelling anxiety.
Ikhombe: where maize is stored to let it dry
Neighbours working in the fields in the shags

Friday, December 13, 2013

A love-hate relationship: writing and teaching

I wish I could have written this reflection before the 5th of December. If I had, there would have been no pressure to meet the expectation that I must have a profound reflection that relates to tat’uMadiba. I shan’t be writing about uTata. But the fact that I can write, that I am educated, that I can claim a voice has a lot to do with the icon’s life. It’s no mistake that I write. It’s no mistake that I’m a teacher, either, but 2013 has taught me that I may have chosen two passions that often send me to a dark place, an existential crisis.

The year has been long and tiring. I wish I could have written more. This must be the lament of every young, aspiring writer: I wish I had more time. The irony is that the reason I have not been able to write as much as I would have liked to, is one of the things that also brings me great joy: being a teacher. The will to write has been affected by my will to stay afloat in the business of being a teacher.

Writing and teaching are second cousins: teaching requires that one who wants to teach well they must be prepared to be depleted of energy at the end of a good day of teaching, the same way a writer might feel after they have written the story or essay they have been aching to write. Both tasks require an inner energy that is illusive and always leaves me wondering “Where does it come from?”.

Teaching teenagers has taught me many lessons about myself, the same way writing has become a tool for helping me understand myself and the world around me. I don’t write because I am a brilliant writer nor am I a teacher because I am the best teacher in the world. Both writing and teaching happen with great difficulty in my life. I approach both tasks with great anxiety. I am still trying to remind myself to be kind to myself when I approach either of these two tasks. And this year I have not been very kind to myself. I have hated teaching because I am often tired to the point where I think I can’t breathe. I have hated writing whenever I have started writing something but have left it incomplete because I can’t find the right words to complete it.

This level of self-flagellation cannot be healthy for one individual. But here it is. The truth about the two things I love the most. There’s no guarantee that things will be different in the new year, but as I glance back at the past year, I’m making peace with responsibility of attempting to put my life back together through writing so I can be a better person in my classroom next year.

A reflection written for Bokamoso Leadership Forum