Sunday, December 20, 2015

Travelogue: Capturing Nairobi through a writer’s eyes

By Richard ALI
Nairobi, Kenya. There I was again, on the 22nd of June, two years after my first visit. Standing along the same street as last time: Mama Ngina Street, which cuts through the heart of the city. I walk around before my meeting and notice there are several more coffee houses. There is a new Java House on the parallel street. To my ears, the sounds of Swahili from the lips of so many are a sweet offering to Sauti, god of sound. Later, the after-hours beggars with piteous eyes and practiced laments will plague some intersections, defying the authorities’
best efforts. Stylish female Nairobeans, confident in their hair and beauty, talk into mobile phones. The frying smell of chips and chicken and fish in the air. And then there’s that complimentary signature of up-tempo sound, Nigerian often, beating from urban nightclub speakers—the names, Florida, Club Tribeka, Ozone. Hustlers in the corners keep an eye on the human game of this city and note whose wallet bulges out foolishly, who could be robbed with minimum fuss, practiced eyes picking out who does not yet belong. All these—the vitality of a city with a soul. This Nairobi.
From my recent travels, my warmest memory of East Africa is of feeding a giraffe at the Nairobi National Park while my friend laughed and clicked away at her camera. Its slick black tongue flicked out, its skin felt like donkey or horse under my fingertips. The experience was utterly new. A writer gathers experiences, tries to take as many in from as far as possible, seeking out something human to interpret.
I’d arrived Addis Ababa just before midnight on the 17th of June after an eight-hour flight from Abuja. My stated purpose in East Africa was to attend a meeting of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation on which board I sit, attend the Writivism Festival and see to some business obligations. After an hour’s layover, I disembarked at Entebbe Airport at about 2 a.m. Minor trouble at immigration was quickly sorted out by a phone call. In the course of that wahala, I made friends with a Ugandan customs officer. I gave her a copy of Maryam Bobi’s new novella, Bongel. Bwesigye Mwesigire, Director of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, had personally come to welcome the Nigerians. The rest of the week ran smoothly. Writivism went very well, including my delivering a Keynote Address on behalf of Chika Unigwe and hosting the Nigerian Literature panel discussion with Onyeka Nwelue, Saddik Dzukogi and Michael Afenfia. I also took time out to visit Mpigi, a tourist point along the Ugandan Equator two hours outside Kampala, with my girlfriend.
My chums, members of the Nairobi-based Jalada Writers Collective, had come down from Kenya for Writivism. Following the festival, Jalada member and Ugandan blogger, Nyana Kakoma invited us all—plus South African writer, Zukiswa Wanner, her Kenyan husband, James Murua, Ugandan writer Dr. Prudence Acirokop and our filmmaker friend from Zim, Karen Mukwasi—to lunch at her house in Ntinda. I noted with interest that the Ugandans, who are endlessly teased for their food, also do cassava—only they fry it, as we would yams, in strips, as we would sweet potatoes. After spending two hours talking about African politics and writing, the travelling lot of us headed to the Theatre to catch our bus to Nairobi and did so, but not before being hustled by an extortionist bus driver and his conductor accomplice! We crossed the border into Kenya at about 11 p.m. A drizzle was busy mucking things up when we arrived. I was a bit apprehensive, being the only Nigerian in the bus. Mixed stories of my peculiar and wonderful country’s nationals had reached my ears and though I had an East Africa Tourist Visa good for Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, secured in Abuja, I wondered—
Passport Officer: Ah, Nigeria. How is Nigeria?
Richard Ali: Very fine, sir.
Passport Officer: New government. How is Buwari? Good man?
Richard Ali: (smiling) Very good man!
We hit the road after buying some chicken on sticks. For most of the journey, I chatted with Ciku Kimeria whose novel, Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges, I was pleased to buy later on. I felt right at home in the bus—writers are crazy the same everywhere. Moses Kilolo was across from me; Zukiswa and James were just in front, and Wanjeri Gakuru, the travel writer and bonafide omo Naija after attending the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and Ake Festival last year, was farther back with Anne Moraa. Travel was slow by Nigerian standards because the transport authorities have a sensible policy that buses cannot go beyond 80 km per hour on the highway. So, the entire journey took a leisurely twelve hours. We arrived Nairobi at about 8:30 a.m. 700 kilometres is about the same distance from Kaduna in central Nigeria to Lagos by the coast. It is also the distance between the capitals of two countries.
Nairobi is the city I love the most and I think Nairobi-Kampala, linked by a high-speed train, would be as perfect a city as Jos-Abuja in Nigeria. The bus park is at Old Nairobi and it was a cold morning. Everyone was clad in sweaters and jackets, the city’s working class catching quick breakfasts and rushing to offices. Nairobi can do bad things to a brass monkey’s balls if the chill sets in for real. In this respect, I was reminded of my native Jos. There was a sense of nostalgia in Old Nairobi that one finds in the older cities in Nigeria, like Jos and Ibadan, when you take an unexpected turn and are transported to thirty, forty years before—a dated sense of building aesthetics, from a time when there clearly was a different, possibly more optimistic, sense of Nigeria’s future. Old Nairobi has the buzz of downtown Kampala, but without the feeling of dread I felt there. Then again, perhaps that was because Swahili is similar to Hausa in a way Luganda sounds not? Exposure familiarises. Moses and Richard Oduor Oduku, my brother from another mother, helped me negotiate a taxi to the Nomad’s Palace Hotel after the usual taxi driver sme sme.
Richard Ali, Wanjeri, Nana
With Moses Kilolo, Nana Darkoa and Wanjeri Gakuru
I had chosen the hotel because of the name really, and its proximity to the city centre onwww.bookings.com . This nomad’s palace is located in Eastleigh, a predominantly Somali neighbourhood. Six floors of marble, glass and solid woods. Shall we just say Somali nomads are princely? Nomad’s Palace is an excellent hotel for under $40. I shuddered to think how much I would have paid in Abuja—at least $100. Regardless, Eastleigh doesn’t seem supported by responsive municipal services even as there is the strong atmosphere of commerce in the air. The owners of the hotel clearly have the near future in mind as just across the street from it is a huge Nakumatt shopping mall being dug up. Somali women are exceedingly beautiful; they seem like the idealised Fulani maidens in Nigeria. Only that, beneath those eyes, one senses caprice. These stormy enchantresses are dressed, to the girl, in the black abayah robes from across the Red Sea. Somali is, without a doubt, “the most beautiful language in the world”, a claim from Abdul Adan’s excellent story—The Somalification of James Karangi.
I went exploring Eastleigh later that evening, walking about two kilometres from the hotel and back. I eventually wound up at a Somali café where I had excellent, excellent coffee along with pasta and chicken and chips while watching the Somalis. These were a people at an angle to their country’s ruin, for most of these young men and businesspersons were exiles from the collapse of Somalia.
I met my friend, Roselyn Kn, at the new Java House the next morning. I had a latte while she had a milkshake with a cake. The top floor was a great place to discuss our business plans which, while embryonic, would be extensive. Roselyn and I, and some of the people I had meetings with at Kampala, including Beverley and Rwandan Louise Umutoni, are a part of a new actor-class in Africa’s economies—we largely consider national boundaries to be non-existent, we consider the African market, for ideas and culture and trade, to be single one. Eventually, the old men at the AU will get this too and do the needful. In the meantime, we build our webs of ideas and trade and collaboration one link at a time, one recommendation at a time.
I love Nairobi for two particular reasons. The first is the near hypnotic atmosphere of young, creative people in a city that while distinctly African is extremely modern. With the cadence of Swahili everywhere, you can about reach out and touch and twist and make a scarf, a shirt, anything you wish. There is a way the insistence on English, in all its hopelessly breakable variants, robs Nigerian cities of character. Swahili unifies.
The second reason is that Nairobi is flat, a city designed with walkers in mind. I enjoy walking in Nairobi, taking in the sights from the ground level. The principal sight is of course the zany coloured matatu buses which can be a cross between a danfo bus and a Mercedes 911 tipper-head with a cabin attached. Each tries to outdo the previous one in outlandish colours. Some even had speakers blaring this or that. Every single matatu has a motto—Man Eat Man and To Be A Man Is Hard for example. Familiar to any Nigerian.
We took a couple of these clunky conveyors of humanity to the Nairobi National Park where I went on the savannah safari walk—meeting monkeys, the aforementioned giraffe, an albino zebra and then standing two inches from a pair of lions. Gamekeepers talked about the animals and their behaviour, letting us take the best photos and even spotting a leopard high up in a tree which took me all of five minutes to find. Clearly, if it were in the wild, this city boy would not have known what pounced and ate him. There would be no more novels from Richard Ali.
There was a bit of sadness to that visit because I remember Jos Wildlife Park the very first time I visited, in 1988, after my family moved down to Jos from Kano where I was born. It is hard to reconcile the ghost of that park now with then–I remember the elephant enclosure and the hippo pool and my father’s light blue Peugeot 504 saloon, and a day full of excitement. It is hard when I think how badly Nigeria’s tourism infrastructure has fallen when I see how well the Kenyan’s still do theirs with a capital letter wow.
My last day in Nairobi was spent with Zukiswa Wanner. We had a coffee then went to a huge bookstore, called Bookstop, at a shopping mall in a district with a very Nigerian name—Yaya. You know something about a city’s quality from the size of its bookstores. Bookstop Limited is about three times the size of Booksellers at Jericho in Ibadan, which is several times larger than anything in Abuja or Lagos. Nairobi aims for the book lover’s heart as well, you see? Zooks and I did some shopping at the mall, then sat down to the serious business of very good nyama choma [grilled goat meat] with ugali and Tuskers beer at the Motor Racing Club. We then headed to her place where she made an excellent, excellent coconut rice. It was her son, J’s, birthday so we ate to his health. I knocked down several more beers with writers James Murua and Kiprop Kimuthai, talked about Bantu Migration theory, before going to town with Kiprop to attend the second year anniversary celebrations of the Jalada Writer’s Cooperative. I returned to the Wanner-Murua house in a taxi at about 11 p.m. and tried to get some rest before waking up at 4 a.m. to catch my 6 a.m. flight back to Abuja.
I arrived Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport noon the next day with just $35 in my pocket and nothing in a bank account I could access. I had blown through my budget. But for that price, I had gained irreplicable experiences. I stepped out of the Arrivals terminal into the Nigerian sun and made my way to the taxi rank. I stopped and remembered all the laughter and smiles and camaraderie of the last ten days and was filled with the inimitable sense of an African sweetness.
Africa is a country. I am African. I am an African writer.
Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer, novelist and poet. He is the Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors [ANA] and COO of Parresia Publishers Ltd. He loves travelling, blogs atwww.richardalijos.wordpress.com and tweets @richardalijos