Tag Archives: cultural communication

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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Clearing up a few things: notes on the human condition


Travelling gives you perspective. When you live and work in a culture different from your own, you get to expand your horizon. It can be enlightening, annoying, frustrating and sometimes downright awful. You probably don’t find yourself, but you do get a better sense of how the world works. Here are a few things that really stuck with me.

1. No-one cares about your country: Local media is astonishingly egocentric. It makes you think that the world is focused on you. That, of course everyone knows your history and your current affairs. It is easy to build conspiracies about how the world is out to get you, because of course everyone is focused on you and what you are fighting about.

Occasionally, I found myself starting discussions with phrases like ‘everyone knows that Kenya…’ Turns out no-one does actually. I mean, once, my classmate came to tell me about the cool book he read about how the mau mau terrorists were so brutal. I was absolutely enraged and insulted until I realized that I had absolutely no idea about anything that happened in Croatia. And that he spoke to me in the same way- assuming that I have, at the very least a comprehensive knowledge of his country’s drama and history. Specifically, he and his fellow Croatians would always talk about THE WAR. Over and over again and in capital letters. And I had absolutely no idea what they were on about. My mind did not make the connection between the news I heard in the 1990s that inspired me to nickname my little sister Sarajevo and what they were talking about.

Every country is obsessed with its own internal politicking and everything else is just a passing affair. Pages will be dedicated to whatever local bullshit is going on, and international news gets a few lines. If you think about it though, it makes sense. With the exception of people majoring in political affairs, few people have the time or the emotional energy to follow every little story coming from every corner of the world. It’s impossible.

2. Everyone thinks that their weather is unpredictable: I had a Belgian colleague who loved to use the phrase ‘Belgium is the only country where you can experience four seasons in one day.’ Noooo….no it isn’t. For me, Belgium came in two seasons: cold and rainy, or just rainy. I honestly don’t understand why people are so proud of this.  And it’s not just the Belgians. South Africans, the French, Kenyans, literally everyone. I mean, really who cares? The weather happens, lets get over it already.

3. Magic exists in the world: I have had the great fortune of meeting three people who made me feel like I had reunited with a long lost best friend. I don’t know why or how but we just gelled almost from the word go. Despite coming from profoundly different worlds, these people just got me in a way that was unbelievable. There was none of that awkwardness about trying to be politically correct. They did not have to modify their vowels and neither did I. I could make a joke and they would get it, and vice versa. They were my partners in crime. People I could sit with in silence for hours or have long, elaborate arguments about fuck-all. And also do the most incredibly stupid shit possible and get away with it together. It’s like finding a part of your soul that was missing and it is pure magic. (This is not gender specific by the way)

Also, I have to mention the astonishing kindness that people treated me with on so many occasions. Virtual strangers who went out of their way to help me. For example, my first night in France was a comedy of errors that led me to being homeless for the night. My neighbors were having a party and they took me in, gave me champagne, good food and a place to sleep. When was the last time you hosted a scared looking foreigner who’s name you couldn’t pronounce? People can be awesome.

4. People are overly concerned about their accents: Every time you open your mouth, you announce to people where you came from. Where you went to school, your social class, your level of education and quite often, the region that you came from. And it makes people uncomfortable as hell. In every country I have ever visited, certain regions are mocked for their backwardness (and often, implied bestiality) and they are mercilessly mocked for their accents. Then you have people who speak French, Spanish, Hungarian or whatever as a first language. Some of these people go to the UK for six months and as a consequence, speak in a bizarrely contrived ‘English’ accent for the rest of their lives. It sounds just as awful and as painful as a Kenyan guy trying to speak American. True story

5. Food is astonishingly political: If you grew up on beans and maize, the food is just fuel that gets you by. If your country has more than 300 types of cheese, then it is perfectly acceptable to get into arguments with other people about what region produces the best cheese. You can have a beer with your friends, or you can sample wines and complain about the lack of body and therefore imply that your friend has poor taste and is therefore a pleb, probably with a back water accent and incest running in the family.

6. The world is deeply racist: yes, yes, not everyone is racist. Sit down. Even within your own borders, you harbor some deeply held beliefs about people from other regions. Luos waste money on stupid things, Kikuyu bosses will work you to death. People in Paris are arrogant, people from the south of France only care about plastic surgery and getting tans. South Indians are not very smart, North Indians are arrogant racists. This is all on a national level. When you go international, things get even worse. If you want an example, scroll down to the comments section of news on immigration, ebola and other third world concerns. Such thoughts and opinions are the result of years of deep conditioning. I doubt very much that people’s opinions have changed from the 19th century on some things. Different words are used now, like ‘developing’ instead of ‘savage’ and the like but the basic idea remains the same.

7. We are all slaves of our culture: Politicians in Africa have a tendency to shout about how African culture is somehow superior to others and that we should maintain our ‘culture’ because it is pure and unadulterated, unlike the rest of the world, which is drowning in moral decay, weekly abortions and rampant ‘gayism’. Everyone is having the same discussion. Culture is not something that can be controlled in a laboratory. It evolves and changes and it informs everything you do in your life. Everyone is worried about the erosion of their culture, and is, to a large extent, convinced that their culture is somehow superior to the others.

8. You will never be as happy as you are right now: Life can be easier or more convenient in places where the government functions. Life is good when your family and friends are intact. But your outside surroundings will never make you happy. In fact, the added stress of being in an unfamiliar culture can make you downright miserable. Sure, the adrenalin rush of adventure and novelty can distract you from whatever is going on in your mind and soul, but generally, your state of being is a constant. If you are unhappy at home, then you will find reasons to be unhappy, no matter where you go.

So yeah, and that is that, I would say. I still have hope in humanity.

Let’s talk about race for a minute, shall we?


I have this one friend. I’m not really saying who he is, but we can call him ‘Jeremy’ and assume that he is living and working in Pakistan at the moment.

The reason I’m talking about ‘Jeremy’ is because he has this thing where he cuts me off with a sarcastic ‘yawn‘ every time I start heading towards a great big rant/philosophizing/update on anything race related.

And so I am dedicating this post to him. (‘Jeremy’, as it turns out, is also working through his racial angst and you can read all about that here)

Obviously, living in Europe has exposed me to racial issues that I never even dreamed of.  For example, I haven’t adjusted to the fact that people look at me and see a black girl. And this produces a range of reactions that I’m going to broadly stereotype and make assumptions that may or not be correct. (See what I’m doing here?)

And so here is my list of racists:

The Awkward ones

TAO: So where do you come from?

Me: Kenya

TAO: OOOOOOHHH, K-E-N-I-A?? (In that really slow, loud voice most people use when talking to deaf people.)

Me: Uuuum…yeah

TAO: Well, I’ve never been to Africa. Followed by awkward silence/vague references to safaris and the joys and simplicities of the warm African spirit.

Well good for you.

The Openly Hostile

There is once I was waiting by the bus stop for one very very unreliable friend. Since I rarely make any attempt to look feminine, I was casually leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette and wearing my most badass-dont-mess-with-me face. Then this little f*ck gets off the bus and starts shooting me dirty looks while furiously going through his pockets looking for his phone. He breaks into a half jog, all the while throwing glances back at me and fumbling with his phone/potentially deadly weapon/army knife/I don’t know. I got irritated and asked him, ‘What? What are you looking at?’, followed by ‘keep walking, the hell?’. He crossed the road in his frantic state and disappeared into the night.

I was baffled. I mean, how scary can one 1.65 female really be? My naive mind still has no explanation for that little sh*t’s actions.

Thankfully, the hostile ones are mostly limited to feeble geriatrics eyeballing you on the train as they wish for the good old days when darkies knew their place and Europe was the center of the world. Well…sorry grandma, shit happens. And by shit I mean your neighbourhood will continue to be overun by good for nothing immigrants, k?

The Clueless

These ones are almost always exclusively socially awkward Asians, and for some strange reason, the Turkish. I guess because they have no embarassing history with Africa and since negroes rarely head out that far, they have a child like curiosity about black people. So I can be sitting with a group of people and suddenly feel a hand tentatively touching  my hair.

Or deal with conversational nuclear bombs such as:

I think black people have good eyesight because instead of reading, they go hunting.

Leaving everyone slightly uncomfortable.

The ones who don’t quite know what to do

Apparently we stereotype because our minds simply can’t pause to analyze every single thing in great detail else we would be unable to function.

Add on to the fact that everyone wants to appear politically correct and liberal, and sometimes the two just don’t go together. This was especially clear when I was looking for a place to stay. So I’d make a call in my rudimentary French and set up an appointment to view the flat.

And then…

A black girl shows up. Landlord tries desperately hard to be polite and beat his prejudices.  But the pauses are too long and the atmosphere too strained.

Needless to say, a polite rejection comes in a couple of days later. Oh, how civilized.

Jungle Fever

This is my best and worst category. The worst is when I meet drunk old women in bars where their granddaughters hang out, and get cornered into a spitfest about how she ‘prefers black people’ and ‘is/was married to a black guy’ and how much her wobbly wrinkly ass loves Mandingo…or the nastly little old men who think they can grab my ass.

The best is when the boys from behind the iron curtain drool all over the sisters. Or as my Greek friend put it

I have never been with a coloured girl, but I want to try. It’s like the french say, taste a little bit of everything.

Well, my brother, keep the drinks coming and be honest about your motivations and you are good with me!

The ones who think they are funny

And, of course, fielding comments and ‘jokes’ from friends. For example, I was chatting with a gentleman working in our building. Banter, teasing, that sort of thing. When…

Your accent is terrible. I can’t understand what you are saying!

Now, this coming from a former Eastern bloc brother who can’t tell the difference between v and w and missing half of the English vocabulary…..

I would be expected to get angry.

What? Me? I have an accent? I speak perfect English! YOU have an accent.

And then storm off in a huff.

But Trevor says it best:

Instead, a nice, back handed sarcastic comment earned me not so cheap 3d tickets to Tintin.

Lemons into lemonade, boys and girls.

No need trippin’ over fools.