letters from nairobi

Kenyan Television
November 30, 2011, 20:53
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags:

Kenyan TV – at least, the programming that our current apartment complex subscribes to – leaves something to be desired.

We have access to 34 channels, technically, although only 21 of them come through.

Right now, the current lineup, which is indicative of offerings 24/7, is as follows:

1: Cricket

2: Interview with unknown soccer player (Sample question: “How is the weather in Paris?”)

3: Terrible movie (“Knowing,” starring Nicholas Cage)

4: Static

5: Static

6: Static

7: Static-y cricket

8: Static

9: Static

10: Static

11: Static

12: CNBC Africa, “Beyond Markets”

13: Local news in Swahili

14: Kenyan soap opera (which deserves a blog post of its own)

15: Soccer

16: Indeterminate program in Swahili

17: Oprah (Side note: OMG WTF THIS IS AMAZING)

18: I really don’t want to keep changing the channel now that I’ve found Oprah.

18: Fine. You win.

18: Static-y news in Swahili

19: Slightly less static-y news in Swahili (same program)

20: Kenyan soap opera

21: News in Swahili

22: Soccer

23: Static

24: Cartoons from the 1970s

25: Blank screen

26: Static

27: Program on teens playing rugby

28: Cricket

29: Al Jazeera

30: Static-y news in Swahili

31: Long-distance running

32: Long-distance running in Swahili

33: Car racing

34: Terrible movie (teenager aspires to be pro-wrestler; parents just don’t understand)

If you’re keeping track – and who wouldn’t be, with these riveting statistics – that’s 13 channels of static, 9 sports programs, 7 Swahili-language programs, two soap operas, two terrible films, one cartoon, CNBC Africa, Al Jazeera, and Oprah.

This programming lineup has a few consequences:

1. I like to have the news on in the background while I’m working. Every morning, I tune the channel to Al Jazeera to catch up on the day’s news. However, the programming lasts only two hours before repeating itself, barring any breaking news updates. After hearing Mike Hanna declare, in his irritatingly crisp British English, that he experiences “the smell of teahh gas, still heavy in tha aahhr” for the third time, my hand involuntarily grabs the remote.

2. N. has begun watching cricket.

3. I have started watching an inordinate amount of terrible, terrible movies. I’ve become highly intrigued (some might prefer the word “obsessed”) with figuring out what formula is used to choose what films are shown at any given time. Right now, it seems like there are a collection of movies in random rotation (and please don’t ask me how many of them I’ve watched in full – I would like to retain some shred of dignity):

Kindergarten Cop


Step Up 2: The Streets

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The Box

First Dog

Six Days, Seven Nights

Transformers 2

4. N. and I have started watching all six seasons of “The Sopranos” (on disc), for lack of anything better to do, despite the fact that he’s seen the entire series more than once.

5. It’s Oprah Time.


Toilet Paper and Marriage Proposals
November 30, 2011, 19:11
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I just returned from my first solo venture outside the confines of Rhapta Road.

Where did I go?

To the mall, of course.

I called a JimCAB – this time, a driver recommended by a friend – and was dropped off at Sarit Centre (which, interestingly, boasts the title of being the “first, biggest, and busiest shopping mall in Kenya,” although you wouldn’t know it by its roster of chain stores that are identical to all the other malls).

I went in search of the following items, which I purchased:

  • Safaricom wireless modem
  • Two 3-litre bottles of water
  • Four rolls of toilet paper
  • Box of tampons
  • Razors

I also returned with:

  • A 5-litre box of Drostdy-Hof Extra Light Dry White wine (“lower in kilojoules!”)
  • A marriage proposal (“Can I have twenty bob? No? Oh, mzungu lady, you are so beautiful! Can I have a kiss? I want to marry you!”)
  • The knowledge that every Kenyan within a radius of several miles recognizes me as “the lady with the big white dog” (“OOOH! Hey! I know you!”)
  • A small, but not insignificant, flicker of independence.

All in all, not too shabby for a first attempt.

You’ve Been Warned
November 29, 2011, 18:30
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Hell hath no fury like a F1 2010 xbox player interrupted, mid-race, by a sudden power outage.

St. Andrew’s Ball

On Saturday evening, I was one of several hundreds guests who attended The Caledonian Society of Kenya’s annual St. Andrew’s Ball. The international Society defines itself as “a patriotic and non-political society, founded in 1907 to promote the study and celebration of all things Scottish,” and the Ball was a black-tie affair that showcased traditional Scottish dance, served haggis, and included quite a few “wee drams” of whisky.

If you’ve watched the first season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, you may have an idea of what the event was like. The fifth episode, “Nights in Ballygran,” features a formal Irish St. Patrick’s Day gala dinner:

Switch out the Irish sashes for Scottish family crests and leprechaun dancers for The Caledonian Ceilidh Band, but keep the kilts, and you have a pretty good idea of the extravagant event.

Some of the highlights of the evening:

I unfortunately couldn’t capture a photo of the haggis ceremony and don’t believe I can do it justice in words. Picture a procession of Kenyan chefs marching up to a head table of seated “Office Bearers” while the melody of a bagpipe echoes through a reception hall and the audience claps in unison. They place their offerings on the white tablecloth – a silver-plated mountain of haggis, two whisky bottles held aloft in a cross. The chieftain stands, thanks the chefs, and begins to recite Robert Burns’ interminable “Address to a Haggis” (excerpt: “His knife see rustic Labour dight/An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight/Trenching your gushing entrails bright/Like onie ditch;/And then, O what a glorious sight/Warm-reeking, rich!”). At the conclusion of the eight stanzas, the chieftain raises a glinting butcher knife and impales the object of affection, toasts a few more “wee drams,” and stands solemnly as the skewered meat is paraded out, held aloft to the sound of bagpipes and rhythmic clapping.

I told you I didn’t think I could accurately do justice to the ceremony.

The menu:

As hard as we tried, my fellow diners and I were unable to decipher most of the dishes. As it turned out, “breist o Chookie stappit wi a Bourach o Med Veg served on Drappit Scones wi Beans and Madeira Bree forbye” was some type of fowl over bread, covered in gravy. Below is the “Haggis wi’ Bashed Neeps an’ Champit Tatties” (get your mind out of the gutter – it’s haggis with a pureed root vegetable (rutabaga?) and mashed potatoes):

From what I was told, the highly acclaimed haggis was quite tasty.

The spread:

One of the best parts of the meal was the home-brewed “Atholl Brose,” which, as it turns out, is made of whisky, double cream, honey, eggs, and oatmeal. It tasted like creamy egg nog and was a hit with the lassies at our table:

There were many speeches, and lots of dancing (but, unfortunately, dim lighting):

Around midnight, after toasting to “The Pious Memory of St. Andrew And the Glorious Dead,” finishing off the bottle of Atholl Brose, and declining the chance to try and learn complicated reel dances through osmosis, we said goodbye and took a taxi back to Westlands.

I was told that the Ball is one in a series and that many upper crust Kenyans make a habit of attending them in succession.

In November, I raised my glass to Elizabeth, Queen of Scots. Who’s next?

He Lives!
November 25, 2011, 21:22
Filed under: Uncategorized

N: I swear to god, I just saw Tupac.

November 25, 2011, 12:28
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Yesterday, one of N.’s colleagues was kind enough to invite us both to Thanksgiving at his house.

The food was great and the company even better.

We both really appreciated the opportunity to share the holiday with a wonderful group of people in a beautiful home. It made being so far from our own families a great deal easier.

This year, I am thankful for so much.

marabou storks, the undertakers
November 23, 2011, 19:03
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

It’s difficult to exaggerate how repulsive the marabou stork is.

In Nairobi, there is one place where the massive birds congregate – in the upper branches of ragged thorn trees near Nyayo sports stadium, at one particular roundabout near the airport. Drive down the tree-lined road and look up – you’ll see them perched, motionless, their bowed heads silhouetted against the sky.

Viewed from a closer vantage point, you realize how terrifying they are. The first thing you’re struck by is the bird’s sheer size – at five feet tall, they are thought to have one of the largest wingspreads of any living bird: 12 or more feet across.

To put this in perspective, I am 5’3” tall.

The next thing you notice is the beak: two feet of sun-bleached grey bone that tapers to a razor-sharp tip. It’s used for ripping the flesh out from inside carcasses.

The marabou stork has a nickname: the Undertaker Bird. With a balding, scabby head, drooping, pink air sacs, and beady eyes, it’s been called “one of the ugliest creatures of the world.” According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, the birds “evolved their naked heads and necks as an adaptation for feeding on large animal carcasses without getting their head feathers soiled with blood and gore.” Its legs are dark black but appear a whitish color due to the storks’ practice of squirting excrement onto their legs, where it dries and forms a crust.

And then there are its habits.

The Undertaker Bird is a scavenger. It mainly survives on carrion, scraps and feces, but has become dependent on living off of human garbage. The thorn trees they inhabit in Nairobi are close to large, festering slums where piles of rotting garbage have become a reliable food source. The birds have been known to devour virtually anything that they can swallow, “including shoes and pieces of metal,” and can lash out violently when denied food.

All in all, a revolting creature.

My description really can’t do it justice – below are a few photos I found on the interwebs (there’s no way I am getting close enough to take pictures):

For scale:

And, apparently, I’m not alone in my fear:


%d bloggers like this: