Kenya: Mangoes, Roses and a Black Mzungu

Before I came to Nairobi, I pictured it as flat, yellow, dry and a huge city. It is a big city of over 3 million people. Yet parts of it are beautifully hilly, lush and green.

All week I have stayed in a cute little cottage, among huge palm leaves and bright bougainvilleas. Birds twitter and sing in the green leaves.
Last weekend I visited elephants and giraffes. I went to amazing craft places with baskets, weaving, masks, and necklaces. It is hard not to go home with a suitcase full of gorgeous Kenyan art. You can buy huge masks with beadwork, 2 meter tall carved giraffes, tablecloths and blankets of red Maasai and Kente cloth.
All week I got picked up early by ‘my driver’ who took me to school and who then sat studying for his next guide exam while I spoke to hundreds of kids at the international schools. Kids from England, Japan, Spain, Holland, Canada, and many more countries around the world. There was a lot of excitement about my books, about writing their own stories and about books in general. Wonderful librarians stimulate these kids who have a well stocked library at their fingertips.
During the week we ate dinners at lovely places: a large patio in a green forest, in the garden of the principal surrounding by candles, and in many other interesting places.
It’s been warm: 30, 32ºC but often with a nice breeze and it’s a dry heat right now. People are looking forward to the rains, which will rinse off the red dust and bring new flowers. But I’m kind of glad not to have rain while I’m here….
The center of Nairobi is crowded with modern buildings and sidewalks full of people of all races and backgrounds. I’ve never seen traffic like here. Completely clogged roundabouts, 4 lanes of cars completely tied into a knot. Apparently all the traffic lights work but no one looks at them. There’s a policeman at every roundabout directing traffic, regardless of what the lights say… If cars had elbows, that what you use here. You just push ahead, whether space allows it or not.
But my favorite is to drive along the streets with tiny little shops leaning against each other. Corrugated tin forms the walls or roofs, rough wood keeps it all together. A rusty sign announces the ‘Meddle Some Beauty Parlor’ or the ‘Banana Hill Hardware Shop’ – which looks like it is in dire need of hardware. Plastic chairs outside for shopkeepers or customers… A wash basin is used by a barber. Goats, babies, bales of fabric – all crowded onto the city sidewalks while overloaded buses and motorbikes and cars push past. A woman cuts sugar cane, someone is roasting corn. I love the women with broad smiles, swaying hips and long, brightly coloured skirts. Many have headscarves wound around their hair or carry babies in a cloth on their back. Others carry a basket of carrots or tomatoes in their head.
Today I saw women and children washing clothes in a pond, drying them on the grass. I ate the biggest juiciest mangoes you can imagine and I bought an armload of roses for my hosts: 20 fresh, longtime roses for 2 dollars!
This, I think, is Africa.

It Takes A Village…

The ride to the airport today took about 2 hours. Along the main highway you see women carrying babies, bananas and everything in between. Men hail down matutu’s (busses) and cling to the doors. Goats are narrowly missed by the many cars that swerve to avoid potholes. There is red dust and exhaust fumes. When the traffic slows to a crawl you can buy sugar cane to chew or a newspaper or new sunglasses, from all the vendors who walk past the cars. Well outside the city I spotted a forlorn herd of zebra, a sad reminder of days when abundant wildlife still roamed on these planes. Now most animals moved to the relative safety of national parks.
I loved the stories I heard from my driver in Kenya. He told me much about politics, both in small villages, in the capital city and in the country. There seems to be a lot of corruptness, a lot of crime both small and large. But also much kindness. Previous employers of his gave him their car when they returned to Europe.
White employers generally supply a pension for their personnel if they stay with them for more than 15 years. Having a housekeeper you can trust means you can simply go away without having any worries about house, garden, pets, etc.
When I got picked up by Henry, my driver, he was in the kitchen oohing and aahing over the dishwasher. He had never seen one and was amazed that a machine could wash plates and cutlery. I told him not to tell his wife because it made husbands redundant…
I loved driving around on Sunday, when large groups of people walked to church. Children in beautiful, frilly dresses. Men in stiff black suits. One could hear very happy, very loud gospel singing from tents and buildings everywhere. We drove by expansive tea plantations and old, colonial homes.
‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a true saying here. Henry told me long stories about Kenyan weddings. Apparently a child does not belong to its parents here, but to the entire village. He said that, not long ago, the price for a bride, was paid in goats. But now it is paid in other goods such as sugar, drinks, maize, etc. He said “You cannot carry these gifts to the elders in plastic bags. You have to put it in nice baskets.”
The bridal price is paid to some village elders, not necessarily to the parents of the girl. One elder has to give permission for the marriage. He added that you also have to bring cloth for wrap-around shawls for all the women in the village, maybe 200 of them.
Henry’s English was very good but he swaps the ‘r’ for an ‘l’ and visa versa. Hence I had to think for a second when he seriously told me that his daughter wants to be a pirate when she grows up.
It took me a while to figure out she wants to be a pilot…
When I asked Henry if he knew someone who might want my old safari hat, he smiled broadly and immediately slapped it on his head. “Now I am a black mzungu!” he grinned. (Mzungu is a white person).
When we got to the airport, there was security and gates. He rolled down his window and an armed security guy leaned in, shook hands with him, slapped him on the shoulder. They had a laughing conversation in Swahili, the guy leaned across and shook my hand. When we drove on, I asked if this was a friend of Henry’s. “No,” he said, “never seen him before. People are just nice here.”If you ever plan to be in Nairobi and need a driver, or someone to take you on an entire safari – let me know and I’ll give you Henry’s contact information. He is a pleasant person, a very good driver as well as a certified guide.
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