letters from nairobi

Spin the Globe
December 29, 2011, 18:46
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The Lonely Island‘s Jorma Taccone spins the globe and comes to Nairobi, where he collaborates on a song and music video with a Kenyan rapper.

Video here.


Idiot Savant or Just Idiot?
December 29, 2011, 12:30
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Sometimes, I am unable to tell whether my dog is intelligent, or really, really stupid.

When he wants something – a treat, a ball, to curl up on my pillow and steal all the blankets – his ability to process information and communicate appears to suddenly skyrocket into Mensa territory. He’ll paw at the comforter to indicate his all-consuming desire to take a luxurious nap on the bed, whine to get my attention and expectantly trot over to the cabinet where his toys are stored, and perk up at the casual mention of a collection of words he recognizes, even if not directed at him (sample incident: Me: “Hey, N., are you hungry? When do you want to eat dinner?” Franklin: WHINE WHINE BARK WHINE).

But other times, he seems brain dead.

Leaving aside for a moment the behaviors he exhibits that are incomprehensible and/or indicative of a lobotomy – licking the exposed skin of any human endlessly, repeatedly locking himself in the bathroom, obsessively swallowing up anything within tongue’s reach and then vomiting – he appears to classify all non-human entities into one of three behavioral categories:

To Bark At, To Chase, or To Hump.

To Bark At is the most widely cast net of the three. Things To Bark At include all cats, other dogs (when he is on a leash or safely corralled behind a fence), enormous birds that may or may not be cats from a distance, horses, unidentified animals that are cat-sized, and, occasionally, nothing.

Things To Chase is a category more narrowly defined, consisting of cats and aforementioned cat-like animals, moths, mosquitos, flies, pigeons, rats, and tennis balls. It’s important to note that the goal here is not To Catch, but To Chase. Once a Chased thing is Caught, the dog appears confused.

Last, but most definitely not least, there are Things To Hump – a surprisingly inclusive category that encompasses other dogs, the legs of unsuspecting men at the dog park, blankets, children, and the occasional ottoman.

Sometimes, I will enter a room to find him sitting in front of a blank wall, staring at it.

Is there something more I’m unable to see in this zen-like act of meditation? A deeper meaning of Contemplating the Wall that my puny human brain can’t comprehend?

Or is my dog simply an idiot?

Make Every Meal A Story
December 28, 2011, 15:17
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For a closer look:

An Impromptu Christmas Safari
December 27, 2011, 13:08
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Celebrating Christmas in Kenya has been an interesting experience, to say the least.

N. and I celebrated Christmas Eve in a manner more fitting of my (non-Christian) family than his: watching “The Sopranos” and ordering Italian food. No twinkling lights or carols, but enjoyable nonetheless.

On Christmas Day, we attended a party at a friend’s house, contributing a total of 9kg of potato dishes between the two of us – 6kg of leftovers are currently stored in the fridge, wrapped in aluminum foil, which I am optimistically attributing to the abundant spread of food that was provided, rather than a testament to the quality of my mashed potatoes. Right?

The gathering was fun and the food outstanding, but there is something that felt not quite right about drinking mulled wine outside in sandals, listening to “Jingle Bell Rock” while batting away mosquitos in the hot sun.

“Dashing through the snow?” Not in Nairobi.

Yesterday, which was a national holiday for Boxing Day (which, I discovered via Wikipedia, marks “a day when wealthy people in the United Kingdom would give a box containing a gift to their servants,”) N. and I decided to take a day trip and drove out to Lake Naivasha, which is located about 85km northwest from the city.

The drive along the Rift Valley and into the town of Naivasha was stunning. On either side of the road leading to the lake, massive, pale green tents house hundreds of thousands of flowers – the area is epicenter of Kenya’s $360 million flower industry, and its products are flown to Dubai, Holland, and London daily. It’s strange to think that in a hotel lobby somewhere in England, the fresh flowers sitting in vases were grown here, plucked, and flown over the ocean before the petals wilted.

But I digress. The trip to Naivasha was amazing not just only because the countryside is so beautiful – or because I successfully navigated us there without the aid of maps or road signs – but because of the wild animals that surround the lake, roaming across the roads and disappearing into high grasses. It is clear that the humans are the visitors here, tolerated but peripheral.

On the road leading to the wildlife reserve, we saw a group of monkeys with inquisitive eyes and graceful feet; a family of warthogs snorting in the dirt; and herds of slender, delicate gazelles whose ears would twist and bend, following the movement of the air around them:

We drove to Crater Lake Game Sanctuary on the far side of the lake, and for a mere $10, were admitted to the reserve, where we were free to drive around at whim. Seeing the wild zebras and giraffes so close was an indescribable experience – I found myself wide-eyed, exclaiming with childlike awe: “Look at how TALL that giraffe is! Ooo, wow, watch how FAST the caribou are! Look at them jump! Look! Look!”

The animals were unperturbed by the noise of the car engine, and would occasionally stop grazing to peer at us, vaguely interested, the way we would watch scenery speeding by the windows of a train. Then they would lower their necks once again and sniff the sun-bleached grass, and we drove on.

On the way out of the sanctuary, we passed by an area of the lake where flamingos gather.

Then the rain began splattering the windshield, and we drove back to Nairobi as the sun set, planning our next trip to Naivasha – one of the best Christmas gifts imaginable.

Breaking News
December 22, 2011, 14:41
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Watoto in the Rift Valley
December 22, 2011, 14:17
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Yesterday, we drove through the Rift Valley from morning until night.

There were many unforgettable moments – watching a bowl of water spin in opposite directions on either side of the equatorial line, visiting a women’s market where mothers held babies in slings on their backs while they rummaged through mountains of clothing, seeing the sprawling expanse of tea fields for the first time – but one stands out against all the rest: the faces of the children.

A caravan of us turned off of the highway several times to visit a series of wells and springs where N. and his colleagues are considering development projects. The potholed gravel would give way to golden dust as we disappeared down winding roads, stalks of maize brushing against the windows. We left the world behind. And that’s when the children would appear.

Walking with bowed heads through muddy grass, standing in the shadows of doorways, perched on rocks, watching sheep and goats graze in the sunlight – suddenly, they would see our massive car lurching down the broken road, and look up. Their dark eyes lit up and toothy smiles spread across beaming faces.

Mzungu! Hellohowareyou?? Hellomuzunguhowareyou??” They shouted, frantically waving. “How are you how are you?!”

“Fine, how are you?” One of us would respond, waving. “Jambo! Hello!”

Grins spread from cheek to cheek, and plodding steps became instantly animated. As we bumped and bounced our way past, the children would start following us, slinking out from forests of maize and appearing on the tops of dusty hills. Our vehicle became a rural Pied Piper, choruses of “hellohowareyou”s heralding our arrival.

When we stopped at our destination and climbed out of the car, the children would suddenly grow shy, huddling together a safe distance away.

“Jambo! How are you?” One of us would greet them. No response, save for a hesitant smile.

As soon as our backs were turned, as we began walking towards the one of the wells, the children would cluster together and follow our tentative footsteps with their confident ones. When we arrived at the water source, they stood in clusters, watching us and whispering.

The Eldoret Club
December 20, 2011, 09:16
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As I write this, I am sitting in the lounge of one of the strangest places I have ever seen: the Eldoret Club.

Eldoret is a town located 260km from Nairobi, in the midst of the Rift Valley, with a population of approximately 500,000. The surrounding countryside is mostly agricultural – sheets of maize dry on sheets in the sunlight, and young boys herd cows and sheep along cracked dirt paths. The hours pass slowly here, as hawks glide lazily above the treetops.

Like the rusting railroad tracks that crisscross the town, having once brought electricity, piped water, and prosperity into the sleepy village, the Eldoret Club is a relic from another era.

Constructed in 1924 on what was once farmland, the club is an erratic mishmash of bygone times, halfheartedly masquerading as a nostalgic retreat with modern amenities. The club lounge, which overlooks a sprawling nine-hole golf course, is an experiment in interior design – wood paneling touches every inch of surface, outlining even the ceiling tiles. Mountains of shiny, plastic plants frame doorways; electric green paint bounces off of walls. The furniture is sagging, dejected, having given up the façade of providing comfort as the decades wore on.

There is an unmistakable echo of the Overlook Hotel here.

Outside the lounge, the club grows more peculiar. There are several rooms offering various entertainment options: a “badminton room” with a drooping net and no rackets, a “TV room” with a cracked television, and a “snooker room” (“adults only”), where yellowing signs dictate playing rules and ashtrays are built into all surrounding surfaces – full of crushed cigarette butts and scattered ashes.

It isn’t that the Eldoret Club is such a terrible place – in fact, the rooms in which we are staying are quite nice – but there is something intangibly despondent about the atmosphere. Once upon a time, it seems, diplomats in crisply ironed shirts toasted to a well-played drive; powerful men discussed politics in smoky rooms; the sound of jazz music floated out into the open air.

Now, there are still men drinking, smoking, and congratulating one another on putts, but a sense of frivolity and hollowness pervades the gestures. No one comes here to see and be seen; instead, aging wzungu lounge by the pool, basting in the sun.

What’s bleaker than a country oppressed by colonialism?

Trying to recapture its remnants – in vain.

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