Tag Archives: art and culture

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.

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Tales of travel: top tips and other stuff thrown in


Here’s a confession- growing up, I secretly wished that I could walk around, unwashed, wearing ugly sandals and flowing Indian clothes. I hoped that one day I too would have licence to stumble about, mouth hanging open, invading people’s privacy by taking pictures of stuff with my very cool and expensive looking camera.

At some point I realized that trying very hard to be different from the masses turns you into a cliché yourself, and that sometimes this truth is evident to everyone but yourself.

So when I met a gang of  under-dressed, tattooed vegans who described themselves as long term travelers, I was intrigued. Maybe I could do the same thing? Maybe I could also make statements like

‘My home is my backpack and I am a nomad.’

and mean it?

Maybe I could finance my travels by making jewelry, reading palms and playing a myriad of instruments? Stick it to the Man once and for all by embracing an obscure Asian religion and changing my name?

Who am I kidding? I has the wrong passport.

Anyway, since none of the  trips I ever made involved acting out my hippie fantasies, I present you my very own top tips to having an awesome holiday:

Don’t be a Dead-weight

Group dynamic is very important when you want to travel with strangers, or even your own friends. You see, there’s leaders, and there’s followers. And then there are dead-weights. Dead-weights are happy to let everyone else make decisions for them, put them on a leash and shepherd them from destination to destination. Dead-weights come into their own when something goes wrong, and are often the ones who complain the loudest about everything. The hostel sucks, why are we looking at this sh*t? I’m tired. This is boring.

Don’t be a dead weight. Just don’t. Suck it in- following someone else’s plans is also a choice in itself. Remember that as you get rained on in the middle of some God forsaken town as you watch the last bus speed away.

Don’t try to recreate home

You know what doesn’t work? Trying to make yourself feel at home. Especially when it comes to food. I see people trying to recreate the taste of home over and over again, only to be bitterly disappointed. So…trying to find a replacement for paneer will not end well. Neither will buying pineapples north of the equator. Ditto for finding aged cheese in India. You can wait till you get home for that stuff. And above all, no-one wants to listen to a 45 minute lecture about how bad whatever it is you are eating is, and how much better it normally is at home. Don’t, just don’t.

Same goes for complaining about transport and people. Yes, we know, your country is awesome and people are nice and no-none stares and you get everything you want and everyone understands you. It’s okay, be strong, its only a few more days till you can go back to your Utopia.

Don’t be embarrassed about being a tourist

Memory can be a fickle thing. So take pictures if you want to. Instagram the shit out of them and use a million #hashtags if you want to. Especially if you visit landmarks that are a must see. Spend half an hour getting the perfect shot of you jumping in the air and touching the top of the building or whatever. Take 15 shots of those pretty flowers that you saw if you want to. Ignore people who tell you that you can download those images from Google and indulge your fantasies about being an awesome photographer (we all have them…) You are on holiday, what else are you going to do?

Seek out your authentic experience as much as you want, but the truth is, if you have a few days in place X, there are only so many ‘hidden’ things you will find. You will probably do touristy, cliched things and you will be happy about it. As long as you don’t obsess about finding the ‘real’ deal. Everybody wants to see the Eiffel tower. Everybody wants to see the Taj. Everybody wants to swim with the sharks. And it’s all been done before.

Remember it could be much worse

Below a certain age, doing anything with your parents is unbearable. But even when you can share a drink with your kin, lots of things you do with your parents fall under the category I like to call ‘obligatory fun’. Like going on holiday. Or going to amusement parks. Or going to museums. Sometimes even having a conversation. But  especially going on holiday.

Because getting lost isn’t just getting lost- its fodder for that ongoing war of attrition between mom and dad.  Screaming matches in public during dinner are not so funny in real life.  Going to a museum isn’t about culture. It’s about struggling with adolescents who see more value in their phones than in whatever dusty crap their folks are shoving their faces into.

Remember that when your plans don’t work out as imagined.

Leave your comments- best holiday, worst holiday, what works for you, what you resent about tourists invading your city…

The Truth Behind Randomness. And Claude Monet. Again


I don’t know much about art. I come from the ‘new world’, where the oldest building is a colonial relic less than a hundred years old, and all the history I need to know happened during my grand mother’s lifetime.

Art is hip, and sometimes a passing but annoying fad- I’m talking about ‘spoken word’ and ‘contemporary dancing’…maybe even Kapuka. Art is over the top dramas staged by Heart Stings Kenya actors, who make up for their lack of talent with enthusiasm. Or the more sophisticated but decaying Phoenix Players.

Art is alive.

But in crumbling Europe, art is ancient. Art is history. It is hours at the Louvre and Gothic cathedrals. It’s learning about the Renaissance and Impressionism and the different styles of nude marble statues. It’s straining to admire the roof of the Sistine Chapel while slowly succumbing to a sensory overload induced headache. It’s walking in museums crammed with geriatrics and reading reassuring signs that  defibrillators are available in the building….just in case anyone’s heart stops.

Consequently, my visit to Monet’s village had nothing to do with art and a lot more with lazing away a pretty Sunday afternoon. And why shouldn’t it have been? Like the average literate person, all I knew was that Monet was dead, very famous and that his pictures are often reprinted on postcards.

I might as well have spent the day taking pictures of rocks in formation, because you can only appreciate what you understand.

Has anything changed since then?

Well…Yes and no….

Jesus said we have eyes but we cannot see. And something about a candle not shining if hidden under a basket. He wasn’t just talking about heaven.

My salvation was a bouncy haired girl who had the dearly coveted ‘true’ appreciation for art. The ability to tell the difference between Monet and Pissaro. The ability to have a ‘favorite’ painting. And in those dark places we all love, she explained the fundamentals concerning Monet, and by extension, modern art as we know it. (or, as we should.)

Monet was a revolutionary. He did something that others did not dare.

He began painting with his feelings, as opposed to reproducing stiff, picture perfect and slightly boxy images that were in vogue those days.

The modern day equivalent?

Try asking a studio photographer on River Road to adjust the light  to accentuate your cheek bones, as you will tilt your nose to the right and look over your shoulder to show your good side, as opposed to his standard hands-crossed-on-lap-painful-smile pose for your photo.

Then go uptown to those studios that have reflectors, black screens, golden filters, and two million different lenses, with a dreadlocked guy playing trendy neo-soul abstract-ish music, who angles you to ‘catch the light in your hair’ before frantically clicking away for an hour.

Monet was the first of the dreadlocked guys.

He was the trend setter. The bad boy of the 19th century painting crew.

And he just happens to be in Normandy.

Hence, 19th Century Normandy was forever captured by the impressionists. Boats and towns and rivers and the odd explosion from sexual repression in the form of naked women picnicking with fully dressed men.

Like most people under 25 admiring smudges of boats and rivers and flowers at Monet’s museum, I suspect we were there mostly because it was free for students (and really old people).

There are some things my limited knowledge do not allow me to understand. Such as, who decides what good art is? Its been caricatured in movies. Everyone stands around looking puzzled at some confusing and apparently meaningless portrait, before the most effeminate man in the room stands up and, in between gasps of pleasure and tears of joy, flamboyantly declares he has never seen anything more beautiful. Then everyone else claps and pretends to understand.

Think about it. Who decided skinny jeans and shorts with hideous pleats and bulky seams are cool again? When will they change their minds again?

My art buff explained to me about HER visit to Monet’s garden. She studied art for a couple of years, and was ecstatic to stand in the very same spot where Monet stood as he painted her favorite painting of his. For her, the paintings came alive. Or maybe she was taken back in time.

I still don’t understand art. I don’t even understand poetry. But since I can only draw stick men, I do appreciate people who can recreate 3D on a piece of cloth and then have full museums dedicated to them.

And, of course, we all love revolutionaries.

The truth behind randomness. And Claude Monet


Would you take a bus, a train, walk for half an hour and then pay 300 bob to stare at a bunch of flowers and an old house?

No, neither would I. I’d much rather buy a bottle of questionable quality wine and make idle chatter (or sit with a man of even more questionable intelligence in a dimly lit pub and  pretend to be interested in his conversation as he feeds me large quantities of beer…).

But I’m fighting a war, and like in every war, I need strategy.

In my war to get acquainted with more than just my laptop and reruns of 30 Rock, its all about being a YES (wo)man. And off we went to Giverny.

Because nothing encourages bonding more than getting lost in a town far away from home with a group of people who’s names you are still trying to memorize.

Its all about the honeymoon.

If you ever had a first day at school, then you must know the honey moon-a time when everyone is on their best behavior. Alliances are weak and cliques are still in the embryonic stages.

It comes before you discover that the really cool guy you like to party with is actually a pathological liar, and that the girl who is always out for a bargain is really an annoying skinflint who’s passion is running a constant monologue on every cent she has spent.

No, the honey moon period is a time for pleasant conversation and people falling over themselves to be as nice as possible to everyone else. It’s sort of screen saver mode. Or an airbrushed version of the real you.

Mais, c’est tres important. Like Jesus said, you must separate the sheep from the goats. But first you must get acquainted with the herd.

Giverny, Claude Monet’s final residence, is a ‘village’ of 520 people with tarmac-ed roads and uniform French people cuddling their little dogs. (Am I wrong in thinking that, if you want to invest so much in an animal, might as well have a child? Why take a dog to a museum anyways?) On a somewhat related note, dogs in Paris shit about 16 tonnes daily. Daycare, anyone?

To the untrained eye, Monet’s work looks a lot like multicolored, smudged scribbles . You can make out a couple of flowers or two, after reading the name of the painting, maybe.

‘Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand. As if it were necessary to understand…'(the rest of the quote is gay, so I’m doing Monet a favor here.)

He said it himself.

He must be like sushi, beer and cheese- an acquired taste. But saying that I was not impressed by his work and meticulous gardens would be a major faux pas– one of his paintings recently sold for USD 80 million.

Yet another source of pride and joy for France’s already overinflated national ego.

He hated school (shock horror, ditching school only works if you are a genius) obviously preferring to be outdoors, where he became fascinated with natural light and subjects, painting lots of flowers and ponds at different times of the day. Critics condemned his work as ‘impressionism’, and to their chagrin, the name was embraced by all his adoring copycats.

Yes, he was that good.

Add the French’s rock solid belief in the superiority of their culture above all others and their ability to transform even the most mundane wooden shack into a fee-charging museum, and Monet’s house lives on, providing W with a strategic opportunity for a reconnaissance mission.

Some took pictures of flowers. Others complained about the heat. All were out on their own mission too. Lewd jokes, plans for future nights in dark places and the odd confession dripping with suggestions of future adventures.

Jackpot.

Soggy sandwiches, melting chocolate, lukewarm water and a dead French painter. The glue that bonds friendships, or at the very least, drinking buddies.