Tag Archives: wangari maathai

This is heaven.

Thursday, September 29.

Feeling energized today, the sky the blue of children’s picture-book drawings, I am on my way into town. The roads are crowded, the matatus doing their best to turn two-lane streets into four-lane highways. SUVs with red diplomatic plates move as solemnly as a state funeral. There are nurseries along the roadside, green leafy things tended by women with broad hips, great earthenware pots baked by the sun. Men in overalls scramble down to the river, carrying up jugs of water for their thirsty varied specimens of African flora. For a moment, the city seems so lush, pastoral. “Nairobi is beautiful,” a woman on the street tells me. “Everything you need is here. This is heaven.” Ads on lampposts for baby-sitters, doctors of a dubious medical bent with offers to cure marriage troubles, impotence, problems paying rent.

And so I get into the back of a matatu, remembering the claustrophobic heat of those shambling vehicles, the sharp oniony smell of body odor, the stiffness of the cushions, the jagged bits of metal, the engine heating up under your feet. I imagine the experience is not unlike that of a cut of beef falling into a bubbling pot of stew. No, you do not kick back in a matatu, flip through a copy of Town & Country, think idle thoughts. You are aware of every cramping muscle, every skin sensation, the hot bodies of your neighbors. (A billboard for a luxury housing complex, Five Star Meadows, lords over the avenue, promising “suburban comfort with urban proximity.”) The driver does maniacal things with the steering wheel, negotiates our passage by jumping onto a curb. Bodies flying, scrambling. Someone behind me answers his phone and proceeds to converse at high volumes. We are driving somehow perpendicular to a car in the next lane. Faith, the invocation of higher powers, is a given here. Little murmurs of gratitude tumble from our lips once we’ve arrived in town and are deposited into the bedlam of Tom Mboya Avenue.

Mboya, the trade unionist, a close friend of Kwame Nkrumah’s and a fervent believer in the Ghanaian’s pan-Africanist ideology, might have looked approvingly on the democratic tumult of the avenue now bearing his name. The young and old and poor and profligate all share the sidewalk, some moving with a distinctly Nairobi bustle, others shuffling about, soaking up the sun, idly flipping through piles of pirated DVDs. If Kenya has become a middle-income country of middle-class aspirations, then here you will find the shoppers and strivers who keep the economy thrumming. Stacks of blue jeans, knock-offs of popular American brands stitched in garment factories in Thailand and Bangladesh. Self-help books with titles like The Art of Public Speaking and How the Rich Think. A dizzying range of footwear. Bulletin boards plastered over with advertisements for obscure technical colleges offering IT training. Beauty schools. Help wanted and proffered. Glass display cases, enough to fill the Smithsonian, with the latest range of Nokia and Samsung and Blackberry phones. (A rumpled man in a worn overcoat, mistaking my ambiguous journalistic interest for intent to buy, quickly shanghais me on the sidewalk with a gorgeous iPhone which pretty much still bears the fingerprints of the guy from whose pocket it was undoubtedly picked.) Block after block of shopping arcades hung with mannequin torsos, the bright jerseys of English soccer teams, guys offering phone repairs. The quality is poor, the prices low. Money is constantly changing hands.

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since I last walked Tom Mboya, stocking up on full seasons of Lost and 24, watching the carnival-colored matatus – aglow with neon track lighting – thundering to hip-hop beats down the avenue. Two years, true, is not a long time in the span of a life, or a city. Perhaps the same grease-spattered chefs are working the deep fryers at Christie’s Café (“For that delicious taste”) and Kenchic Inn (“We are ‘kuku’ about chicken!”) and Big Chicken Inn (“Tasty chicken ‘n’ fries!”) and Chicken Spot (“Delicious”). Certainly the traffic looks unchanged as I cross onto Moi Avenue, the muscular thrum of the City Shuttles and Double M Expresses, the medicinal blue of the KBS buses, the ubiquitous green and yellow Citi Hoppas. (Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, on trial at the Hague, took umbrage with a certain prosecutor’s descriptions of the Citi Hoppa buses he allegedly organized to shuttle rabble-rousing youths to post-election flash points in the Rift Valley. “I wouldn’t describe City Hopper buses as ‘shiny and new,’” Kenyatta solemnly said on the witness stand.)

And the streetscape, too, has an old familiarity. Behind me is the Hilton, with its two fluted towers, and across the congestion of Moi Avenue the neo-classical façade of the Kenya National Archives. To its right is the weather-stained hulk of the Ambassadeur hotel, no doubt even unfit for low-rent diplomatic delegations from like N’Djamena and Banjul. After the Ambassadeur the Eureka Highrise Hotel, and across from them the Kencom building, buses idling along its curb. Further down Moi ‘60s- and ‘70s-era office buildings in various gray-scales. Exhaust hanging over the avenue like a raincloud. A woman clopping by in a thick orthopedic shoe. A man in a sweater-vest is preaches to a decidedly disinterested lunch-time crowd, slapping his Bible and gesticulating like a madman, which in fact he might very well be.

Outside Kencom is a small pavilion, a Condolence Tent for the Late Prof. Wangari Maathai, beside which Kenyans of all stripes are lined up to sign their names and scribble two square inches’ worth of condolences in the ledgers. A dozen saplings sit on the sidewalk in dirt-filled plastic bags, a tribute to the late environmentalist. Maathai, so widely celebrated abroad, had a more checkered history in her homeland. She was beaten and jailed for her opposition to former president Daniel arap Moi, dragged through the mud over her messy divorce, criticized when she decided to reject the mantle of global green crusader in favor of a more humble – and, perhaps, difficult – place in local politics. Yet many credit her stand against Moi and his ruling-party cronies in the late-‘80s as the first salvo which emboldened civil society to finally, a decade later, topple the old tyrant. The contrast between her selfless struggle and the disreputable actions of Kenya’s ruling kleptocrats today couldn’t be more stark. “Prof. Maathai was a woman way ahead of her times,” eulogized one long-time friend in the Daily Nation. “We have yet to catch up with her.”

I am thinking these solemn death-thoughts, brooding under a rapidly graying sky, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s an improbable coincidence: my friend Khaleed Abdulaziz, tall and grinning, having picked me out on a crowded sidewalk in a city of three million plus. It takes a second for me to compose a thought, and then we both laugh at the remarkable smallness of Nairobi. (Later, having dinner with Liz and her friends at an Ethiopian restaurant in Lavington, we’re joined by an old friend I’d met nearly two years ago in Burundi.) Our greetings are long, warm, full of complicated handshakes and shoulder-clapping. “Long time,” he says. “Long time,” I say. It’s been a very long time.

Khaleed is on his way to the Railways bus rank; he’s heading to Adam’s Arcade to meet with the producers of a popular TV show, Churchill Live, on which he has a recurring stand-up role. Though we’ve been in touch on and off for the past two years, this is the first I’ve heard of his new gig. It sounds like the perfect fit. Four years ago, I’d met Khaleed and his older brother, Faiz, on my way to Maralal, in Samburu country, for the annual camel derby. It was a terrible journey: rain had washed out the roads north of Nyahururu; the only vehicles heading to Maralal were lorries transporting supplies to the frontier towns of the north: Maralal, South Horr, Baragoi, Loyangalani. Crowding into the back of a truck, paying extortionate prices, we were pitched around at every bump and ditch, cases of Kenya Special Brandy toppling on all sides. Then we hit a long stretch of road that had turned to mud; two, three dozen lorries were lined up end to end. Some had been stuck there for days. Darkness began to fall. Two hundred meters from where we were stuck, armed bandits robbed a matatu, then vanished into the bush. This was hardly a month after I’d arrived in Kenya; it was my first great African journey, and I was scared shitless. Khaleed’s good humor, Faiz’s unswerving calm, were what steadied me for that 15-hour journey. In Maralal, they introduced me to their family; we exchanged gifts. Faiz gave me an old ceremonial gourd, used by the Turkana tribesmen of his father. I left Khaleed with a novelty t-shirt: it said “My First Ride” over the picture of a tricycle. Four years and a half-dozen meetings later, it’s one of the first things he recalls for me as I walk with him along Moi Avenue.

The news from his family is good; the Abdulaziz clan, it seems, is ascendant. Four of the five brothers have reunited in Nairobi; Faiz, the second-born, has married, as has their only sister. Khaleed, too, has seen his fortunes improve since landing his TV gig. He’s become one of the show’s best-known comics; girls on the street stop us, giggle, pay me exactly no mind. A Nairobi radio station has named Khaleed one of the country’s top ten comics. When he was younger, growing up in Maralal, Khaleed and his brother Ahmed performed comic sketches for high-school friends. Their skits were famous; they had a small crew called the “Green Mattress Boys,” so named because of their sexual exploits in grassy fields. This is one of the many inside jokes which constitute a good 60 percent of our conversations. Do not ask me about Supamambo. Do not ask about mikono juu.

We make plans to meet on Friday, to see the new apartment Faiz has moved into with his wife, Aisha. I watch Khaleed walking slowly across the avenue, the jeans low on his slender hips, a slight roll to his shoulders. If you had spotted him on some Nairobi street, lost in the crowds of unemployed youths with the same low jeans and the same shoulder-roll, would you imagine him one of the country’s top ten comics? Would you imagine such things as Supamambo, Maralal, the Green Mattress Boys?

The day feels impossibly light now, my first stroke of great fortune in a country that, oddly, after all these years, still feels like my true African home. Walking back toward Kencom, a few cold drops of rain falling, I stop in front of an ad display by a group called Powerpoint Media. (“….trying to do business without Advertisementis like winking to a girl in the dark…nobody knows but you!”) A small crowd of job-seekers is gathered, jotting down numbers, scouring the postings. A Denish-Kenyan Linked Company is Seeking to Employ. Over 500 jobs available at Diamite international. WONDREFULL OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!! Emanex Computer College. German Institute of Professional Studies. Over 100 posts available at Diamite international. Cotech Training Centre (“For best computer packages”). Sponsorship!! Immortal Tattoos Kenya (“Tattoos at your own convenience”). Glory Celebration Centre. Believe it or not H.I.V is curable now. Potion 21 (“Liquid from heaven”). Get Immortalized, Get Inked. HIV AIDS CURE. Sales Executives Needed. Designers’ Showcase. NOT A LIE. Abou Kante, Master of the Secret Knowledge. Faith Opticians. Leading Locks Limited (“Beauty + Security = Timeless Love!!!”). H.I.V victims have been corned, misused and cheated, that is no more. Call Dr. Clement. NOT A JOKE. Are you tired of being tired of not reaching your goals???

Jacaranda blossoms litter the pavement.

Crossing toward Kenyatta Avenue now, the last daylight trying to break through the clouds, the temperature about 10 Celsius degrees below what it was when I left the house, a short man comes bustling up beside me. As a white man, you get used to all manner of importuning on the streets of Nairobi. But no, this man is harmless, he just has a safari to sell. He hands me his card: John Mbithi, Tour Consultant. Bencia Africa Adventure & Safaris. His brown slacks, about four sizes too big, are heavily cuffed; he wears a brown droopy fleece which sags down to his thighs. I introduce myself. “Like in the movies, there is that Christopher,” he says. Sure enough, I suppose. John’s got a big brown crooked tooth on which I unfairly, though perhaps not unreasonably, fixate. He is cheerful, persistent if not persuasive. Having shot him down on the safari front, I have narrowed his options. There will be no trips to the Maasai Mara, none to Amboseli or Nakuru. He recites his litany of low-rent Nairobi tourist options – the Giraffe Centre, the Bomas of Kenya – the way I suspect certain Catholics recite the rosary. “Pole sana,” I say. John shakes his head and brightens: he is still pleased to meet me. “When you see me, you just greet me,” he says, hopping off the curb, dodging a bus, and quick-footing it across Kenyatta Avenue.

The daylight dwindling, the air cooler, the city’s foot soldiers off on their evening commutes. Sitting on a park bench, I feel something wet in my hair: a bird in one of the trees above has offered its own version of “Karibu Kenya!” Njiwa akimnyea mtu kichwani, mtu huyo atapata bahati njema, goes an old Swahili proverb. In Kenya, too, animal turds are a harbinger of good things to come. I take this as a happy portent. Fortune is both smiling and shitting on me.


Nairobi’s growing up.

Tuesday, September 27.

It’s like being born again, shot into the daylight.

Chadrak has my bag over his shoulder, hauling it across the parking lot. The light is white, flat, it rinses everything of color. I shield my eyes with the palm of my hand. “That is the sun of Kenya,” says Chadrak, laughing. I suppose it is. The flight from Johannesburg has brought us a few thousand miles closer to the equator; the sun just sits there in the sky, fat and belligerent, looking to do you harm. Already I am sweating profusely. The pilot had announced our ground temperature as a not unreasonable 23 degrees – somewhere in the low-70s, for the Celsius-challenged – but this sun is oppressive. Has life in Joburg’s temperate latitudes made me so unfit already? Chadrak, pitched into a state of mild hysterics, clucks his tongue with sympathy. How many white men has he seen before, squinting, bitching about the heat?

Just a few minutes before our plane had taxied across the tarmac. We were all business and bustle disembarking, setting off for our safaris and conferences and closed-door meetings with low-ranking parliamentarians and foreign delegations of Bretton Woods eggheads. Kenya, Kenya, my first African love, under my feet once again. It has been more than two years since my last visit – four since my first – and my stomach tightened on my way through the arrivals hall. Low-ceilinged corridors, flanked by pictures of romping antelopes and grinning Maasai and hot-air balloons casting oblong shadows over the savannah. Déjà vu: I’d seen these same pics four years ago. Customs was a room of low-pile carpeting, lights of flickering fluorescence; we waited behind a ragged strip of yellow tape. Two German tourists, a middle-aged couple in crisp khakis, bantered with the immigration official. They had tripods strapped to their backpacks, zippers firmly secured with Swiss Army combination locks. A woman, pleasantly smiling, beckoned me forward, processed me quickly: I smiled for the camera, allowed each finger to be biometrically scanned. Crowds of taxi drivers and tour guides waited outside, holding up signs with magic-markered names. The walls were garishly plastered with signs for forex bureaus and dubious Travel Information Centres whose information was of a decidedly commercial bent. Men leaning forward, hoping to make significant eye contact. Then there was Chadrak, smiling, extending a hand, pitching my backpack over his shoulder and making his way toward the parking lot.

I have spent the past few days in a state of high agitation, burning off the nervous energy on shopping sprees that were both shameless and -ful in their scope and duration. Much has changed in the years since my first visit, perhaps nothing more so than my desire to look crisp and fresh from the moment my feet touch the tarmac. I have done away with the old convertible pants, the thick-soled Gore-Tex boots, the hiking gear in high-tech breathable fabrics. No, this time around, I would not walk the streets of Nairobi looking like a safari guide. There would be dinners in Karen, drinks in Westlands, all manner of attractive preening persons around whom I would like to attractively preen. I’ve packed seven pairs of footwear for my five-week trip. I’m nervous about the fit of certain shirts and convinced that I look fat in these jeans. Yes, my fears have certainly changed since my first visit to Nairobi. I am less concerned with getting robbed than getting laid.

Leaving the airport, traffic slowing, lazy-eyed policemen stopping, peering inside, waving us through. Cumulus clouds drifting like dirigibles. Tons of open spaces. I had almost forgotten, after the manicured neatness of South Africa, just how raw these Kenyan landscapes are. Goats are chewing on the dry medians. Bird nests in the acacias. The brown unloveliness around the airport gives way to the gray unloveliness of industrial parks. Men in dress slacks walk with slow purposelessness along the road’s shoulder. There is not a sidewalk in sight. A hotel like a factory from Dickens’ London, called Nice & Lovely, looking neither. Work crews laying tarmac. A new overpass spanning the airport road, hung with signage for the China Road & Bridge Corporation. Cars and matatus pinballing from side to side, lifting clouds of dust. A driver grins, raising his thumb, as if to assure me that everything will be okay.

Memory is a peculiar thing. It’s been two years since I last drove along this airport road, but a mental map is imprinted on my gray matter. New buildings jar some stray neuron, look out of place. Ole Sereni, a new upmarket hotel. The Sameer Business Park, offering a few million square feet of prime office rental space. I tell Chadrak how much the city has changed, and he laughs. “Nairobi’s growing up,” he says. Business complexes and shopping centers. Vision Plaza. Plaza 2000. Mirage Plaza. Super Bargains (Kenya) Ltd. (“Live Life King Size”). On my first visit four years ago, I was no doubt struck – as most first-time visitors are – by the roughness of the roads, by the blind beggars at traffic lights, by the dark sullen faces crowded into the backs of matatus which clunked and groaned with their doors rattling. Now all I can see is this city’s wealth, the spectacular growth, the rapid development. My nerves are on high alert, my skin tingling. Even stuck in traffic, it feels like we’re racing forward at improbable speeds.

Chadrak steers us clear of the city center, negotiating the back roads. Upper Hill, Kilimani – the names are coming back to me. Through the tree cover I can see the office buildings downtown – the blue-glass windows of some bank tower, the thrusting phallus of the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre. A caller on a talk-radio show is complaining. “These wives are stupid,” he says. Newspaper sellers on the side of the road. Men with dozens of belts draped around their necks, holding up shoes, as if in offering to some pagan god. The leanness of these times, the crumbling of the Kenyan shilling – it has dropped more than 20 percent against the dollar in the past month. “Here in Nairobi, life is hard now,” says Chadrak. I try to suppress my glee at all this favorable forex news. In my last weeks in Joburg, the rand took a similar plunge. I had returned from Ghana with the rand at 6.8 to the dollar; just two weeks ago, it had sunk to 8.4. This set off a frenzy of currency Schadenfreude on my Facebook feed, hailing the fall of the mighty rand, no doubt irritating the hell out of my South African friends. Here in Kenya, the shilling’s tailspin has alarmed the local punditocracy, with embassy staffers and other foreign-currency earners the only ones likely to cash in on the increasingly favorable exchange rate. For expats, life in Nairobi has gotten dramatically cheaper. This taxi ride costs less than it did two years ago.

We turn onto Waiyaki Way, its Guernican chaos. Buses spewing smoke like locomotives, lorries moving with the slow, steady grace of ancient caravans. Another new overpass has been built across the road. “Vision 2030 Flagship Project,” reads a sign. “Upgrading of the Nairobi-Thika Road into a Superhighway to Enhance Connectivity.” On Waiyaki Way, no enhancements necessary: we’re connected bumper to bumper. All this construction, it is hoped, will improve congestion around the city, but the traffic now is appalling. Was it this bad when I visited two years ago? Here it is hard for my memory to serve me well; on past visits, I spent most of my time hunkered down at hostels in leafy suburbs on the other side of town. I had rarely tried to get across the city on a weekday afternoon. I am seeing a new side of Nairobi already.

Finally, we break free of the congestion. The road bends, we pass apartment blocks with pastoral names, laborers in blue overalls squatting on the roadside, eating roasted corn on the cob. The unmistakable, acrid smell of burning trash: scraps of food, vegetable rot, plastic bags. Soon we’re honking the horn at the gate of a leafy compound of stylish apartment blocks – the home of a friend who’s offered me a place to crash these next two weeks. She’s out for the day; she welcomes me into her house with a brisk note and urges me to make myself at home. I drop my things in the guest room and unfurl on the bed, stretching my plane- and cab-cramped limbs. Birds chatter in the trees outside my window. Nairobi – less big and bad than it had once seemed – stands before me like an open door.

It is likely to be a busy stay. I’ve timed my visit to coincide with the Kenya International Film Festival, which kicks off in late-October; until then, I’ll be filing dispatches on Kenya’s film and TV industries for Variety, and hoping to cash in on the odd travel story once I’ve managed to tear myself from Nairobi’s clutches. My return flight is booked for November 1, but already that seems unlikely: friends in Kigali and Bujumbura are just a short flight away, and I’d undoubtedly prolong my stay at the first sniff of interest in one of the proposals currently shuttling between editorial departments of magazines in New York. I might be homeless, again, until the middle of November. By then summer in Joburg will be in full swing. And then the holidays, just around the corner.

The excitement, the nervous energy of the past few days, has finally caught up with me. Hunger and an urgent need for caffeination are the only things that compel me to leave the house. The afternoon has turned mild, and the neighborhood is lovely in the late-day light – the red blossoms of flame trees, the jacarandas. I walk back to Waiyaki and, feeling tired and indecisive, continue walking: away from the congested skyline of town, looking for the first welcoming restaurant I might find. Early traffic, drivers looking to beat the worst of the rush-hour crowds. Crosswalks sit there like animal skins in the living room, strictly ornamental. There is not a working traffic light in sight. Heavy-set men cross the road with the quick-footed grace of certain fat people. Women with babies on their backs, barefoot boys in shirts the size of ponchos. I reach the Mall, a small shopping plaza, and settle into a so-called cappuccino with a copy of the Daily Nation. The paper is filled with news of the passing of Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s green crusader and Nobel Peace prize winner. Condolences pour in from around the world: Nelson Mandela, President Obama, Kofi Annan. “She was a true African heroine,” wrote the office of Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu. The country has declared a two-day period of mourning. Maathai alone has managed to push the ICC hearings at the Hague from the front page.

The last embers of daylight. Commuters jostling on the sidewalk, packing into matatus, horns calling back and forth as drivers engage in some abstract conversation between their vehicles. An unending stream of cars and matatus and buses flowing up and down the avenue. I am tempted, almost compelled to step into this swiftly moving stream and get carried away. Already, though, I can feel my energy dwindling. I want to buy some groceries and make it home before I stumble blindly into oncoming traffic. Across the road is an Uchumi – the sort of Kansas City Royals of the Kenyan supermarket scene. Sadly, there is no Nakumatt in sight; I will have to make do.

The aisles are crowded with shoppers stocking up before the commute home. Tired mothers filling their baskets with cooking oil and bags of rice. Solitary men, security guards, laborers, clutching loaves of brown bread, single cartons of milk. People look washed-out, stricken under the pale fluorescence. Here, among the Uchumi’s thrifty brands, I should be able to clean up: this week the Kenyan shilling has hit a historic low, at 102 to the dollar. Only I miscalculated before leaving the house; still adjusting to the new currency, I only brought a 1,000-shilling note with me. After the cappuccino, I just have a few hundred bob to spare.

I resort to backpacker mode, that feral state I know so well from past travels. Six sachets of Nescafe, a loaf of brown bread, a small jar of Nuteez brand peanut butter. Not without a certain grim irony do I realize that, four years and more than a few literary laurels later, I’m almost exactly back where I started when I first came to Africa: counting my last few shillings on an Uchumi check-out line. “Two thousand is not a lot of money these days,” the man ahead of me complains to the cashier. Neither is the rumpled 500-shilling note I present to her, like a badge of all my past failures. She hands me a shopping bag with my sad haul inside. I had expected to return to Nairobi a conquering hero. Instead I carry my groceries outside like wounded soldiers, into the pitch and tumult of rush hour, looking for the cheapest way home.