PoliticsSocietyCultureBlogNausicaa LabCultural Association

I Heart Kenya: four snapshots of an African country

13 April 2010
Published in Politics
by Katy Fentress

IDP Camp

The white tarpaulins donated by the UNHCR are not made to withstand the toll of time. As rips and holes begin to appear in the fabric of the plastic sheeting, store they are progressively sealed together by bags, pills potato sacks, shop or whatever else is at hand. Some of the tents appear to be sturdier than others and an odd Canadian tent occasionally peeks out from a plot, maybe a donation from a charitable individual or a testament to a family’s better times.

It’s mid-morning at the Nakuru Pipe Settlement, a temporary camp set up for people who were displaced by the post-election violence in early 2008. There are only a couple tiny shops serving the thousand plus people here and most of the youth seem to be congregated in the pool tent, shooting holes without so much as a few bob in their pockets to buy themselves a beer or a soda. The bitter taste of unemployment hangs deep in the air.

“Where is the government?” they lament “why won’t others help us out of an existence we were forced into without any warning? What good is my right to vote if it only brought me misery, hunger and displacement?”

The sense of dejection is palpable throughout the camp. The self-help mechanisms put in place by the chronically poor have not been established here. Until two years ago most of these people enjoyed the comfort of a roof, four walls and some form of employment that saw their families fed and clothed.

The shock, the sense of injustice at their predicament has left them listless.

The best they say they can hope for is to soon find some better materials with which to fortify their waterlogged homes. They own this land now, although who has exactly what is not clear and they hold no legal title to sell their individual plots.


The sun is setting on the tin roofs of Nairobi’s Mathare and the shadows are lengthening in the thoroughfares of the slum. A man with a knife sharpener made out of a bicycle wheel is busy tending to the last customers of the day, women walk down the path with bags of sukuma wiki (literally: “push up weekly”) and ugali in their hands and the children scamper around pushing little cars made out of plastic cola bottles and tops near a dirty sewage stream that  that flows to the bottom of the settlement.

At the bottom of the valley runs a murky little river where people are busy distilling chang’aa, homebrewed liquor similar to South Africa’s moonshine.  I’m told the substance is initially fermented in large barrels inside people’s shacks. The ingredients that make up each special recipe are secret but one can expect anything from vegetable peelings, marijuana stalks and human faeces. When the fermentation has finished its course, it gets transported down to the river where the distilling stations are awaiting.

Al[1], the genial, eccentric, excitable and ebullient architect, is surveying the scene from up on the hill. As he indicates different points of interest in the surrounding slum, he looks like a lord who is standing above his own personal fiefdom, proudly observing the movements of his villagers.

We walk over to a nearby shack and find Lucas hooking up a coat hanger to a wire on an electricity pole outside the door. Inside a light bulb starts shining brightly and the television splutters to life.

We are ushered in and a bag full a Kenyan-style pre rolled joints is pulled out. Everyone is handed one. As I light the thin, tightly rolled cigarette, a skinny cat slinks in and plonks itself on the armrest of my threadbare armchair.

The men are talking a mixture of Kiswahili and English and by the sounds of it plans are being discussed. The man in charge of Mathare’s newly established waste disposal program walks in and perches on the bed. Al says something to him and hands him a few thousand shillings.

A couple of barefoot children appear at the door. They smile at me and say hi but do not seem overly surprised by the presence of a Muzungu (white person) in their midst.

We watch al Jazeera on the crackling screen as the men wrap up their discussion. Then Al and I head back towards the road to catch a Matatu. We go our separate ways at the busy Ngara intersection, where a booming evening market that specialises in women’s underwear has sprung up. As I walk I clutch my cotton bag tightly to my chest – the international symbol for: “foreigner is afraid to get her bag snatched and probably has valuables on her too”


Gashie is only a short ride from Gigiri, the neighbourhood that houses most of Nairobi’s UN buildings. I had originally assumed that it was part of the city’s periphery but John told me that it was I fact a village unto itself.

The compound that John, his wife Sephora and the three children in their care live in, is on the opposite side of the road from a little hospital. The tarmac peters out a couple of kilometres before the town begins and the road is made of compressed, dark red earth. Lush green vegetation seems clamouring to get out in a battle for ground with the humanity encroaching on all sides. The late afternoon sky is a deep blue and peppered with fluffy white clouds.

We duck through the low iron door in the brown gate, into a pleasant enclosure made up of a wide-open space and two rows of neat wood shacks with corrugated iron roofs. An avocado has branches that extend far over one of the rows of shacks. I imagine how the avocados must resonate as they rain down on the iron roofs at night. On the far corner of the compound next to the landlord’s squat grey house, a mango tree stands tall.

A small child runs towards me and wraps her arms around me in a hug. John, who is 24, tells me it’s his five-year-old daughter. The girl doesn’t look a day above three.

Sephora is standing by the door to their shack. Their youngest, Joy, is strapped to her back by a worn yellow and blue kanga. She flashes a wide smile at me, revealing two rows of straight, white teeth. “Karibu!” she says and ushers me into their single room.

I am entirely entranced by Sephora’s unassuming beauty and wonder to myself how a country bumpkin like John managed to bags himself such a pretty city girl.

Inside the television is showing a Philippino sitcom. It looks quite fun, although it’s hard to get used to the dubbed American voices. Blessed, the five year old and her equally petite cousin Shanique, run into the room and jump up onto the sofa so that they can touch my short crop of straight hair.

I get the impression there aren’t many muzungu who drop in for a cup of tea round here. Poor they may be but people for the most have steady jobs here and no one is going hungry. This is not the kind of community to whom development practitioners come rushing to the rescue.

John is applying to study Development at the University of Nairobi. He says he knows that working for an NGO will not make him much money but that he wants to do it because, in his words, he wants to “bridge the bad gap our fathers have created so as not to pass it on to the next generation”.

John also aspires to living in a house with gas and running water and possibly to have a separate bedroom in which him and Sephora can enjoy the benefits of married life without three little ones in the bed with them.

As I am leaving a few hours later, Sephora lowers her head and starts reciting a prayer for me, thanking the lord that he has brought me to them. I can feel the heat of my cheeks, as they turn red with embarrassment.

Great Rift Valley Lodge

“Baridi! Baridi!” squeal the excited children as they come off the slide into the pool’s ice-cold water. All around are well-dressed groups of Kenyan youth, chatting to each other and making like teenagers across the world.

Baridi means cold in Kiswahili and although the vast majority of the people staying at the golf resort are Kenyan, you’d be hard pressed to hear more than the occasional word in this language.

The people around me are all speaking English. Kiswahili here  appears to be a language made for talking to others but not amongst family and friends. Accents vary, often betraying the places abroad in which people have studied but Kenyan English has its own particular timbre. The stress in a word generally is at the end and sentences are often punctuated by a sharp “eh”. Kenyans speak a lilting form of English, which is far removed from the low gruff version their Nigerian cousins on the opposite side of the continent have developed.

This could almost be Hobe Sound Florida, where wealthy Americans go to retire and the younger generations pass their privileged vacations sailing, playing golf, sunning themselves by the pool and downing bloody marys in the evening at the private members’ clubs. The perfectly tended to lawns and hedges are peppered with brightly coloured birds and the villas have been built along the perimeter of the ridge, so as to be able to benefit from the best views.

From our balcony we can look down on a shimmering Lake Naivasha in the distance. At night the lights from the flower farms sparkle in bright rows. From here it’s impossible to tell how polluted its waters have become.

Nissan 4×4s and Land Rovers compete for dominance on the paved roads of the resort while children charge around on their shiny rented bikes.

Conversation, in the evening, when there is no game of Kenyan Poker going on, often focuses politics. At least one member of our party has taken the time to read the proposed constitution and argues that if it goes through, it might actually make a difference towards addressing some of the issues that are plaguing the country. People’s concerns seem to mirror those of many others I have spoken to, although the language used to support their arguments is significantly different.

Football makes up another large chunk of the subject matters discussed. I occasionally retire and read the biography of a recently retired Kenyan politician, one of Kibaki’s peers. The first chapter tells of what life was like working on the prominent colonialist Lord Delamere’s farm.  “Almost every African child was dressed in his or her traditional cloak. It was not a matter of fashion or status to be dressed in a skin; it was a normal, everyday habit, just as was the carrying of clubs and sticks by boys  … children were occupied by family chores and did not go to school”.[2]

Things have changed.

[1] Who’s name, like everyone else’s in this blog, is something entirely different.

[2] Njenga Karume Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold English Press Ltd, Nairobi Kenya, 2009

2 Responses to “I Heart Kenya: four snapshots of an African country”

  1. James says:

    great, it’s getting on to 2 am and I’m in the kitchen of Romito casale. Mamma has finally gone off and left me with the computer. I don’t mind the mixed metaphor so much. The plural of mzungu is wazungu as I’m sure you already know. If I had clung my bag mofre tightly to my chest in Barcelona I might not have gotten robbed, so I wouldn-t feel too bad about looking like a gormless mzungu. There’s nothing you can do. I like the picture. Love daddy

  2. Felicity Barringer says:

    These are tiny jewels of description; you have an eye and a heart and a voice. The writing is intensely personal and the better for it.

    But the good and bad news is that the reader, coming to it cold, is thrown in media res. We know the folks in the first one, which I greatly admire, were displace in post-election violence nearly 2 years ago. Is there a way, without losing the immediacy of your observations, to explain who they were and whether they have any hope of getting back there.

    Also, some things need to be explained. When you say “the self-help mechanisms put in place by the chronically poor,” I’d like to know what one or two of them are.

    Also, in general, there are fewer quotes and voices than there might be. After reading this, I have an idea what people look like and what they are doing, but not what they sound like and what they think.

    Taken as a whole, there is a pointillism about this that is v. appealing, though the overall sense of anomie, of having wandered into a Beckett play set in Kenya, is unsettling. As journalism, it lacks one key thing — a cohesive passage that explains why you are showing us these things and why we should care. As pure writing, however, it gains power from the detailed observation, putting me in mind of the cinema verite quality of John Le Carre in the Constant Gardener or even Michael Herr in Dispatches.

    You’ve got my attention and then some. Make me understand why.