Category Archives: Kenya

Welcome to Samburu County – Maralal


Last weekend, I was invited to spend a few days in Maralal. The spelling is MaraLAL, and not MaraRAL, as would be kinder on the tongue. I consider visiting a place like that a once in a lifetime opportunity because even though Maralal is about 350 km from Nairobi, it’s not exactly the kind of  place that you can go for a weekend barbecue. It’s not the kind of place you go to unless you have serious business there or you are one of those die hard tourists determined to go off the beaten path. And off the beaten path it is.

Nonetheless, Maralal is beautiful. And it is a special kind of place. The kind of Kenya we hear about on the news but can hardly conceptualize. The kind of place that foreign film crews visit to make a slice of ‘Africa’ documentaries that irritate urban Africans with digital tv. The kind of place where little girls and boys don’t swat at the flies covering their eyes and noses. The kind of place where brightly dressed morans saunter into town without anyone batting an eye.

source

source

Heading to Maralal is cutting a line right up to Kenya’s center. From Nairobi, you drive upwards to the rift valley. Past the donkeys in Limuru and the mysterious plantations in Kijabe. Past the hysteria of Soko Mjinga and past the panoramic views at the Rift Valley View Point. Mount Suswa on your left, passenger cars and trailer trucks acting out video games on the winding road before you. You bypass Naivasha town and push ahead into Nyahururu.

You go further still and slowly the fertile hills so coveted by colonial farmers ( now little patches where thousands of Kenyans were resettled after independence, payable in installments and demarcated by redwood ciders) give way to Laikipia’s ranches and acacia trees.

Rumuruti marks the end of ‘Kenya Kenya’ and marks the beginning of what I call ‘greater Kenya’. Even before independence, that settlement marked the spot where the road abruptly shifted from the deep greens of the Rift valley and took a sharp turn into the seemingly hostile, parched pastoral lands. Where, like the colonialists before them, the Kenya government is reluctant to venture into.

The wild.

Not much has changed because just after Rumuruti town, the tarmac gives way to what is still technically a road, but really isn’t. It’s not gravel, or murram or even plain old sand. It’s hard, jagged rocks poking out from the ground and daring you to ruin your engine’s suspension. At this point, you have covered half of the journey in 2 hours. The remainder could take 4 or 5.

Laikipia

Laikipia

Now the lushness of the Rift Valley gives way to the dryness of the scrub lands. The maize plantations become less frequent and the agroforestry approved trees give way to acacias and thorny bushes. Soon the tin roofed houses give way to thatch and then to nothing at all.

The people disappear. In front of you and behind of you, is nothing but grass and the road stretching endlessly before you.

You spot a man with a herd of white cows. Where did he come from and where is he going? Because there is nothing in sight except for the road. And in the far distance, low undulating hills.

At the back of your mind, you worry. Because the Morans are now called bandits. Because now, livestock market days means that gangs of young men slinging AK47s can jump in front of your lone vehicle and bundle you out.  Because police men dare not wander out that far. And even when they do, they go in peace to negotiate with the Samburu elders. To beg them to ask their troops of thirsty young men to leave innocent tourists alone.

But you drive on. On and on; even here, reckless matatu drivers speed by in garrish minivans – the only difference is that theirs have massive ground clearance and lorry tires.

You wonder, who’s ancestors consciously decided to settle in these wastelands?

There are only two towns between the long forgotten Rumuruti and the promise of Maralal. Suguta and Kisima. Calling them towns would be generous. Like calling Nairobi a megapolis. Both are nothing more than a few shops on each side of the road. Mpesa is here though. As is coca cola and plastic bags.

Kisima is 38 kilometers from Maralal. But it will take another hour and a half. By now the scrubland ceases to be exciting. Sure you spotted a few antelope, maybe some giraffes and possibly the dark outlines of elephant herds in the far distance. At this point all you want is food and rest. And for the moment of when you will be finally be released from the rattling vehicle. Your back hurts and your legs are stiff. There hasn’t been a single petrol station or kiosk in sight for the last hundreds of kilometers.

The road that doesn't end

The road that doesn’t end

How do people survive here?

Subtly, the landscape shifts around you. The odd maize field and fenced yard appears. The first stone houses since Nyahururu begin to materialize. Buildings, too. A girls’ high school. A church. A dispensary. All brand new and presumably courtesy of the Samburu County Government.

Maralal is a typical rural town. There is evidence that the colonial government had a plan for the town. Uniform police houses surround the Maralal Police station. They are now in disrepair, the windows are boarded up and the grass has grown wild. Washing lines run between homes because people still live in them.

There is a petrol station staffed by Somalis and men from Nyeri, all chewing mogoka. Laikipia university proudly proclaims its presence with a campus housed in one building. Equity Bank, KCB, Faulu and KWFT too have laid their stakes here. Apart from World Vision, there are no visible NGOs here.

What else is in Maralal town? Where the government stopped, private developers took over. Rows and rows of tin shacks line the road, selling those brightly colored shukas and blankets so loved by the Samburus. Lots and lots of miraa. A couple of cafes selling milky tea and ‘food food’ and not nyama choma.

Boda bodas, cows and ancient cars with reckless drivers, who no longer care about the damage the brutal roads caused their shock absorbers.

The bus station, with all the accompanying seediness and chaos that bus drivers and conductors carry with them. Hidden in sight are dozens of boarding places where you can get a room for 250 bob a night. But you probably shouldn’t.

A few hundred meters out of town is the Maralal Safari Lodge. It is on 5 square kilometers of land leased from the county government. It is an animal sanctuary where guests can watch eland, zebras, impalas, bush bucks, warthogs and the odd stray cow from the comfort of the lounge.

Unlike other over the top Safari Lodges, they keep it real over there. It has recently been renovated and has shed most of it’s stiff colonial decor. Bright orange lampshades and big, comfortable couches.

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The lodge is run by a father daughter team and is host to the kind of characters you would expect to find here. KWS rangers, residents and the odd politician. The conversation too, is fitting of such a place. Nairobi is a distant memory.

Turkanas are becoming a problem, sneaking into Samburu to poach their precious wildlife. Members of parliament gave away gazetted land for private development and now the wildlife corridor is slowly disappearing.  The best way to show your wife that you love her is to give her a good beating every so often.

Kenyatta House is a little three bed roomed property managed by the National Museums of Kenya. It is remarkably well preserved and is Maralal’s long forgotten but biggest claim to fame. During the war for independence, Mzee Jommo Kenyatta spent years in jail – in Lodwar and Kapenguria, which are even more remote than Maralal.

Maralal's legacy

Maralal’s legacy

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

He spent his last year and a half under house arrest in Maralal. It must have been a big improvement because he finally had the luxury of going to town to fix his shoes. He was given a little bungalow where his wife and daughters (Jane and Christine) could live with him. He could receive groups of friends and associates. Eventually, that little house in Maralal is where the British government negotiated Kenya’s transition into an independent nation. The care taker also claims that Uhuru Kenyatta was likely conceived in that house.

Mattress ya makonge

Mattress ya makonge

Maralal represents an uncomfortable kind of truth for me. It represents the facts and the statistics that we read about but don’t understand; that Kenya is mostly arid and semi- arid, that most of Kenya is rural, that most of Kenya is barely serviced by the government. That our national symbols are less lofty than we like to imagine – miraa, mPesa and trash. And yet, where our governments fail us, we pick up.

I hated leaving Maralal. Not just because of the 8 hour drive ahead, but also because I would miss how I felt in Maralal. I would miss the lack of responsibility and obligation. The feeling of novelty and freedom. Most of all I would miss the wide open spaces. Maralal made me fantasize about living in the wild (but somehow still have access to services and convenience). It made me wish that I could own a property that I could escape to on occasion.

A few thoughts on the state of our Nation


I really liked the old judge on Boston Legal who would get into a huff at the antics of Denny Crane and that other guy. This guy:

outrageousTurns out that Denny and his bro crush Alan Shore play up on his insecurities because he is 70 years old, a virgin and still living with his mother. Okay.

Quite often, when I read the papers or listen to the radio, I feel exactly like that. Sometimes I even say it out aloud. There is a lot of outrage in the world right now and I want to throw in my very subjective views on all this anger:

1. On this thing called tribalism: Every time something wrong happens in Kenya, you have all these outraged people on the social media shouting at Kenyans about how we deserve this because we voted on tribal lines. As opposed to what, though? Political ideology? A spotless performance record? Clear vision and the determination to go there? Do we actually, realistically, have a choice? Would we really have been better off under the Opposition, which has been very publicly and very embarrassingly tearing itself into pieces?

Again on tribalism. How exactly are we meant to deal with it? Should we all erase our ethnic names and surnames, ask our grandparents to put their names in a lotto so that they can move from their homes? It would also have to be undertaken on a massive scale: we would have to rename our counties and villages too, and give them bland names like…like what actually?

If we look at how other countries have dealt with tribalism, there are no easy solutions. Rwanda, no-one needs a reminder. India, strong regional government, but still there are fights between the Muslims and the Hindus, not to mention the war on women. Europe? Well, extermination, integration by sheer numbers and force, and of course splitting up countries into smaller and smaller geographical units sort of took care of it over a really, really, really long time. United by language, culture and a shared history. (Also a strong conviction that your people are superior to everyone else.)

Yes…what we are really saying is that we want equality and peace. Shouting down tribalism is a convenient boogey-man. We can’t ‘solve’ it but we can blame all our failures on it.

Will we ever really truly love each other and hold hands under our beautiful flag? I’m not sure. Maybe we don’t need to. We embraced devolution, which is a clear statement that different regions have different needs and they have the right to protect their own interests and do what works for them. (Once all the governors’ mansions have been built and there are a few more billionaires in the country of course.) Again, even if we magically wipe away any trace of diversity/ difference, growing extreme nationalism (also known as stop taking all the jobs we refuse to do and go back to your countries you brown people) tells us that finding differences to unite against is something societies are very good at.

Which brings me to,

2. This thing called Kenya: Some people are of the opinion that calling Kenya a country requires a massive stretch of the imagination. If you live in Nairobi and some of the other towns in the 15% of Kenya that is not a desert or semi- desert, you may not believe this. Even then, there are pockets in the city that are not technically under the rule of government. Instead, this is a world where NGO’s, gangsters and local barons decide what happens. Places where people do not want electricity from KPLC because they have their own connections (that frequently cause devastating fires). And even then…this is a place where you would rather call the Red Cross when a building collapses, despite the fact that a whole department exists to deal with disasters. And the next day, shout about how NGO’s need to leave the country.

3. On fighting corruption: This is another great distraction. Which is often linked back to ‘YOU VOTED ALONG TRIBAL LINES!!!’

many headed hydra

The EACC has to fight this monster with hard hitting reports and PLO’s linguistic flare

I should say one thing though: I am not really sure what Parliament does. They debate a ton of laws, ranging from legally allowed substitutes for breast milk, to enabling Counties to officially have something called the ‘County Printer’ to more serious issues such as security and potato farming.

One of the greatest things that the NARC/ PNU government did was revitalize the public service. While we were following the Nyayo philosophy, the civil service virtually ground to a halt. Literally everything collapsed. Part of the reason was that we had to ‘structurally adjust’ our economies, another way of asking government to just slash the civil service, stop building schools, hospitals and roads and outsource everything to private companies who would obviously do a better job and would absolutely not shred these companies to pieces to make massive profits before making a quick exit. Also Nyayo had to focus on consolidating his power, which meant that a lot of incompetent people suddenly found themselves running the economy.

So now, at least we have a semblance of a functioning public service. We have PHDs and MPhils sitting in little cubicles drafting policies and getting angry at consultants all day. And they do make progress. Slow, boring progress that cannot compete against sensational headlines, and are always under the threat of complete erasure after a roadside declaration from an MP on the campaign trail.

Which brings me back to corruption. We focus on grand corruption because it is something we can talk about in a few paragraphs, exorcise our anger, and feel like we are tackling a problem. Chicken scandal! Counties will cause the financial collapse of the country! (they could be well on their way by the way). More outrage. Again, I am not sure if we can actually solve this. Our whole system, under whatever name, still gives politicians too much temptation. Even Hercules would falter.

On the other hand, systemic corruption  is corruption which is primarily due to the weaknesses of an organization or process. It invades the system, and becomes the system.  It becomes the rule, rather than the exception. It is caused by conflicting incentives, discretionary powers, monopolistic powers, lack of transparency and low pay (i.e all those public servants who are never at work because they are moonlighting for NGOs or busy growing potatoes to send their kids to school).

This is why I think that people who go around saying that ‘corruption starts with you and me!’ are asking a bit much from us. That if we stop paying cops to get off on traffic offences, the system will magically realign itself. Okay…

It would be nice if we focused a little more on what the public service is actually doing. Or not doing. They are the ones who actually move the country forward; stronger institutions means better service, which is what we really want.

4. On understand who we are: we are in the unfortunate position of not being in control of our own story. We get outraged every time our problems are framed in way that implies the reason we are such failures is because we are primitive. What is even worse is that we have internalized this  narrative are have become unable to have honest, critical debates about who we are.

I see this when MPs can ask for exceptions on domestic violence because ‘in our culture, that is how men show they love their wives’. I see this when you have people sighing and saying ‘Only in Kenya!’ and, ‘You voted on tribal lines!’ (as if land, production, wealth and trying to protect legitimate interests has nothing to do with it). I see this when we lash out at development organisations one day, insisting that activists are on their payroll and the next day, we accept loans from our best friends the IMF (architects of the infamous SAPs) I see this when we say bizarre things like ‘What the West needs to do is to help developing governments be empowered to fight corruption’. How can you ask someone to come and empower you? Isn’t there an oxymoron in there somewhere?

We still have not understood that everyone has an agenda, as they should. We don’t quite have a way to protect our own interests, as we should. So we act like the world owes us a favor. This is how we can get away to claiming that there is a secret campaign to sterelise African women. To what end? To bring us down and destroy us? There are perfectly legal ways in which this is happening…and continues to happen.

The world owes us a big apology. They owe us a massive debt. But they won’t pay it. Or even acknowledge that it exists.

I have no solutions because I am part of the system. Like plenty of others, I benefit from the dysfunction build into the system. I have privilege, and if you are reading this, then you probably do too. I can only beg that we think deeper and harder about who we are and what we want, and what is really ailing us. That eventually, one day, it will be normal to attend public hearings on budget and expenditure, instead of lurching from crisis after crisis.

Laziness, Ignorance and Chance: the Weird Ways we Get it Right


Now that I am looking for an internship to possibly launch my glamorous and enviable career, a lot of little things are coming back to me.

Like one of the first times I was called for an interview. I had seen an advertisement on the USIU notice board  calling out for freelance writers, and I thought, ‘yeah, I could do that!’

So I sent my rookie cv and cover letter , with a sample piece I had written for my distance learning assignment, which, at the time I thought was a very clever piece. (Just like when I will read this post years from now and think, aaw, how cute.)

And then I waited. And waited. Aaaand waited.

Finally, I was called for an interview. ‘Hey, am THAT awesome- lets do this!’ I thought.

So I put on my only white shirt, a pair of odd looking pants I thought were formal, rounded off the newbie look with some inappropriate jewelery and got there on time, just like the career center advised.

I remember the reception had that nauseating chai ya maziwa kwa thermos smell and I nearly gagged as I waited for an eternity to be called into the interviewer’s office. (PowerPlay!)

Maaaan, the guy was old. And he was asking me all these questions about search engine optimization and ad words and all the shit we take for granted today, but in 2009, was cutting edge stuff. Obviously, it never occured to me to research on ‘writing for the web’ and so I fumbled around for answers- even cracked a couple of jokes. The guy was so old, it was impossible to be nervous- not even when he asked me, ‘If you love to write so much, how come you don’t have more work published?’

Good question. I still think about it today.

Then he went on to tell me that the ‘work is pretty basic, nothing special- just write 1 000 words on a destination that we give you, and you get a bob a word.’

I left, and waited for the call. It never came. Obviously, I did not impress enough to do the ‘basic work’.

A few weeks later, (or maybe months, not so sure) I saw another advert. Looking for freelancers. This one asked for an original piece to go along with the application.

This time, I was inspired. Probably smarter. Possibly a bit of both.

I wrote my article one afternoon at Fifi’s (and rewarded myself with a beer afterwards) and I have to say, it was much cheekier. A couple of days later, I got an email with a list of topics to choose from as well as instructions on how to write for the web. Pay was per articles, any discussion or consulting could be done face to face. In short, I was in. All I had to do was write, and if they liked it, they would pay.

How simple. How beautiful.

After a couple of stiff, awkward posts, I sort of got the flow. Then I was put on a monthly retainer. Yeah baby.  It was one of the best assignments of my life. The euphoria from finishing each task could have rivaled a hit of cocaine, I’m pretty sure. Eventually, the rumblings about a job offer came too.

(And then  I left for France)

Anyway, obvious differences:

Ancient guy asking for 1 000 word articles and conducting meticulous interviews. Who the hell reads 1000  word articles online? (You probably skimmed through this post, with like, five other tabs open.. )Versus, you write, if we like we pay- and keep it short and sweet.

I was still the same person, basically with the same skills- but who could make the best use of them? Who could see my potential?.

Honestly, where was I suited better? No wonder I failed the first interview- I just was not a match for the ‘mutton dressing up as lamb’ company. Thank God I wasn’t saddled with that dinosaur company: maybe by now I’d be going through three thermoses a day….

My point? Sometimes there is a good reason we fail interviews. Because it just wouldn’t work out.

Any stories about how you finally sold your souls to the corporation? Please do share

Oh, the Power of Retrospect: Why I Will Always Love USIU


At the end of August 2010, I finally graduated from USIU with a degree in ‘blah blah blah’. I shared the moment with my drinking buddies, best friends, former best friends, comatose class mates and other bits of USIU furniture.

In our day, bitching about USIU was an acceptable pastime. We couldn’t get enough. The not-quite-right food in the cafeteria, with all it’s creepy cats. The barely dressed freshmen at Fifi’s making eyes at the Nigerians. Too much work. No internet. Library books weighing a tonne. Bzzzzzzzzzzzz….the sound of endless whining and moaning.

Anyway, fast forward 2011, and  I was logging on to my current school’s intranet to upload some assignments. My friend asked me, ‘did you have that shit back in Kenya?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah, and it worked most of the time!’

And that got me thinking…

A little comparison between USIU and my current school wouldn’t do any harm….

1. Show me the money: Every year in June, GoK lets us know that we have to pay a little more for bread and beer. And USIU adjusts the budget, upwards. Because students still need to eat poisonous mince meat in the cafetereria. And the the little issue of the multimillion dollar library (that was) being built. Not to mention the expansive hockey fields, multimedia center and the like.

But my peoples up here? Finally got a ‘triple crown’ rating. It’s a big deal, because only six other schools in France have it. It’s prestigious and presumably says something about the quality of education here.  Their reaction? Increase the school fees, increase the number of students (minimum sixty), reduce the number of trips and fire a couple of lecturers. Also, charge for all the other previous freebie stuff. Oh, and nothing else changes. Capitalism much?

2.It’s all in the fine print. You said Internet: Students are often a bunch of whiney little brats who will complain at the slightest defect in facilities. ‘What do you mean I have to carry three free course texts per subject?’ What is this? ‘A three storey, fully stocked library with private study carousels?’ ‘Jesus Christ! You threw in a shitty dispensary AND a free gym?’ ‘Have mercy Lord, we can subsidize our club trips and activities?’ Off with their heads I say! Communists!

In the land of accreditations,  there are at least 4 000 students here. Our library is spread out over one floor. I can see the entire collection by doing a matrix 360 degree turn in slow motion.  But don’t worry, we have ‘wi-fi’ and you can log on to do ‘research’ (facebooking each other about the professor’s gay earring) as long as you are willing to try connecting for at least half an hour. Really, I should have brought my safaricom modem.

Our projectors turn the most artistic  ppts into a hideous mass of yellow, and the cool lecturer who wants to show  a movie? He cant- our sound system died a slow death somewhere at the beginning of the century. You want to exercise? Take a walk to town. Feeling sick? Practice your French with the public health system. But don’t forget to pay your triple crown fees, s’il vous plait.

4.Rainbow Nation: We go starry eyed talking about diversity. We salivate over posters of happy, multicolored university students. Triple crown has got diversity. Lots of it. It’s a mini UN up in here. It’s a pity we spend all day with exactly the same people.

I don’t know, I liked rotating classes in USIU. Seeing spaced out Psych students and strung out IST guys. Collaborate with nerdy accounting types. I liked that I could pick and choose my classes, and there would always be that weird guy at the back of the class with ‘out there’ opinions.

But I’m back in primary school. Same faces, different day. Over and over again. 9.00 to 5.00. At least we get to go to ‘open bar’ parties with ambulances waiting outside to treat the regular alcohol poisoning and sprained ankle.

The thing is, we are like a hundred little schools crammed into a couple of buildings. There is the MGE which is not the same as the Msc, which is better than the IFI, which ranks better than the ISCPP which is not as bad as the ISCE…so we live together, but only because we have to- and our directors battle viciously for financing, so not much love lost there.

5. Event Management: You know how they say ‘too many cooks spoil the broth?’ They knew what they was talking about. Things can get tricky when the person in charge of examinations is not the same person in charge of assignments who is not the same person in charge of course outlines who is not the same person in charge of the classroom who is not in charge of the timetable and no one knows where your lecturer is. Let’s put it this way- I sat an exam in October 2010 and I don’t know if I passed or failed- even though school ends in May.

So Kudos to USIU, who had my certificate ready in April- a whole 4 months before graduation.

And then there was Fifi’s, where we all happily complained about Gillie and Ken and not knowing anyone in the bar anymore. Nothing will ever compare to having a drink with my people there. Call it nostalgia. (And, as soon as I leave triple crown, I will have another basket full of nostalgia too)

…One thing I won’t miss though, is that ridiculous song we called our Alma Mater. I mean, really???

Of course, I will remember all the good and beautiful times I had here. And all the nutty professors and all the afternoons spent discussing the nuances between branding and selling. Most of all, I will remember all the things that forced me to grow up, or as my professor says, ‘You brats need to learn to look at the bigger picture- and stop complaining so much’.

btw: what do you miss the most about school?