Escape to Accra

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Accra is my new favorite place. Got here yesterday morning and instantly fell in love with the place. The warmth, the openness, the constant positive references to Africa, it’s too much so now I must find some way to spend more time here. On Thursday evening I went from the airport in Nairobi to a dinner in the course of which a mad plot was hatched to get up the next morning and go to Jomo Kenyatta Airport and buy a ticket to Accra. In the last 48 hours I have been to Johannesburg, Nairobi and now Accra. Verdict? Accra is so much easier to enjoy and the people – seriously and not just to throw around cliches – are just so friendly and open to outsiders – very different from my experience down South and of course in the ‘new’ Kenya. More stuff coming up on this visit if only as an interlude from the bleak posts on Kenya that have dominated lately.

Chilling in Djibouti

I just got back from Djibouti and the amazing Palace Kempinsky. It is a beautiful behemoth of a hotel with almost no guests: courtesy of it having being built for the recent COMESA Heads of State Summit and with very few other conceivable reasons for existing. But then before I get into that let me welcome myself back to this blog which I have left for more than a year. The strange thing is that whether I am blogging or not, it gets approximately the same number of visitors. So here is to the end of 2007, a year that has to rank as one of my better ones. I feel like it was the year that I awoke from a sort of reverie, an illusion so grand and long lasting that I had assumed it to be normal run-of-the-mill life.

In the past twelve months I have done my usual frantic running around the Horn of Africa, To Dubai, India, to different parts of Europe (including Rome for the first time where I quite inexplicably wept like a child in St. Peter’s Basilica) and to Algeria. It was fun but there is something about constant travel when you do not truly have a place to call home, a safe port to which you are called, that has a sad aspect. There was nothing to really stop me from saying that I could leave Addis and settle in any of the cities that I visited. So much freedom felt somehow constricting. Don’t ask me, I can’t figure it out either. Here comes 2008. How did it ever come to be 2008? What’s the bloody rush?

Anyway, here are some pictures of Djibouti. I just recently purchased a point-and-click to at least try and preserve some of what I see to permanent memory. I used to dislike the idea of taking pictures instead of looking at what was in front of me. It felt somehow like a greed to possess, like those kids who will save little scraps of unfinished food under the pillow. Anyway, away with all that. Just tried to upload some photos and do not have a clue how to do it.

Jamhuri Day Party in Addis Ababa

Last night I attended the Jamhuri Day party at the Kenyan Embassy in Addis Ababa, an event which is on every diplomat’s and Ethiopian taxi driver’s calendar. There were at least five hundred people who attended and the food and the tusker were in full flow. So much so that I heard myself, as if from afar, roaring all manner of greetings to people that I knew. ‘Welcome to Kenya,’ I would find myself shouting repeatedly to every Ethiopian acquaintance or friend who attended the event. I steered them this way and that, pointed out the banana trees and asked, ‘do you like those Kenyan banana trees? how about this Kenyan building? And Kenyan food, do you like the food? Isn’t the music lovely? Hey how about that ambassador? Coolest diplomat in town right?

It went on this way, fuelled by the generous portions of tusker that I was pouring into myself, and I fear that I was probably the most fearful bore of the party. I was having fun though and I think in some way I was revenging for being made to answer all the foreigner/ferenji questions that come at me on a daily basis. For instance, not a day or two pass without my being asked whether I like injera. Now the answer, and not just for the sake of politeness, is yes. But this question, I think, is really not about injera but about what I, a foreigner, think of this country. There is no option to say no because if there is one thing that some months of being here have taught me is that non-Ethiopians walk on egg-shells around Ethiopian pride. It’s all good though. Pride is good. I guess.

Anyway, back to the party. A young Kenyan who I suspect is a student at the university sauntered up to the bar and stood alongside me. He had short dreadlocks, and had a dark sweater with green, yellow and red stripes worn over a squat, powerful frame. He was very drunk as became apparent when he slurringly and quite belligerently ordered the bartender to pour him a drink. But the bar, he was told, was closed even though the bartender was busy serving me and others – who were all to a man in ties unlike this young revolutionary. He did not take it lying down: ‘Pour me a fucking drink,’ he shouted. The drink, gin, was poured with him insisting that it be filled to the brim. Once it was in his hand, he dashed it to the ground and screamed, screamed is the exact word, ‘to Dedan Kimathi!’

The bartender, a peaceable man till just then shouted back, ‘why you pour drink? Who is this Kimathi?’ Their back and fro, full of outraged explanations by the student and complete confusion on the bartender’s part, entertained me for a full fifteen minutes before we all staggered away to dance to Lingala.

A couple of hours later, this young Dedan Kimathi was spotted fast asleep on embassy grounds. One of the Kenyan diplomats took the opportunity to deliver a lecture on the importance of handling your liquor well – met by slow nods from Kenyans in the circle who were too drunk to do more than mutter guilty agreement. But this group of inebriates came alive in protest when the diplomat made to wake the young man up and kick him out. ‘He is in Kenya,’ ‘how can you kick him out of his own house?’ These and similar remarks came fast and furious so that the diplomat eventually backed down, probably having decided to do the kicking out more discreetly. But the incident seemed to me to speak to a certain, increasing Kenyan ownership of our spaces, and an unwillingness to accept the official point of view. Or am I romanticizing and over-interpreting a small, meaningless incident?

Charm kills art and I fear it has murdered in Addis Ababa

I was recently rewatching Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when a friend of mine, who is on a one-year writing fellowship in London asked whether he should move house to Oxford so that he could commute to London for his classes. Oxford, which is a city that I enjoy and like, is ever associated in my mind with charm. As in walking its cobblestones always yields the thought of how charming it is. Yet this I suspect is not what Oxford is at all, its charm is a velvet glove worn over a monstrous self regard which like all malign things that are English is hidden by a facade of good manners and prettified surface.

In any case, here is what the character Anthony Blanche says to Charles Ryder, a modestly famous artist of famous country houses played by Jeremy Irons: “I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

This charm is what I have been seeing in many of the galleries I have visited here in Addis Ababa. The artists seem captive to a desire to please and delight, and little more, so that canvas after canvas, all somehow avoiding the world the artist lives in, become like a giant lie that soothes so that it can sell. Charm, in addition to being a facet of personality, is a magic with dangerous, hypnotic qualities. Who would want to hypnotize if not for the purpose of some sort of harm? Charm as magic in the hands of the pleaser and delighter, the artist who avoids honesty, who steers clear of controversy at all costs, recruits him into society’s ruling army of dissemblers. In fact the dictator is more honest in his manipulations and betrayals than is the artist who paints little cute flowers as tanks roll by in the streets.

It was not until I met Richard Onyango (old NYT review) in Nairobi this past weekend that I was able to recognize what I had been seeing in so many galleries here. Onyango’s art is the practice of honesty and it shines through. His life with Souzy Drosie is captured in all its pain and frustration and happiness. His painting of a KBS bus evoked in me such a powerful memory of a day in which death missed me by an inch and ploughed its tons of metal into a schoolboy who was standing less than two meters from me. Onyango does not charm, he delights and challenges and makes me feel that I must be more honest in my writing, and yes, to be a bit dramatic, in my living as well.

(Btw, here is another great quote from the Brideshead Revisited series. This time by Father Mowbray: “But yesterday I got a real eye opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.”)

Change of Subject and Trip to Asia

I suspect that there is a saboteur out to get bullets and honey; in the last week paragraphs have disappeared from the blog and I just now had a techie friend fix the problem (with embarrasing ease.) Maybe this is what I get for dipping my toes into Kenya’s treacherous tribal wars, in which case I must get away. And by that I mean that I am planning to visit Asia for the very first time.

Yes, this son of the soil is going to get into one of those machines made by man to visit at least a couple of cities in India and possibly one in China. I will be there for a week or two at the most so I suspect that I will not have the chance to see much. But planning and thinking of the trip has brought me low in shame. China has a billion people and I do not have a single close friend that I can call there. How pathetic is that? India is the same with all the Indians I know in the States or in Kenya so that again I do not have a person to call on anywhere on that sub-continent (except for the folks I will be working with for a few days.)

For this reason, I have lately been trying to chat up my Indian neighbors in the hope of some introductions with very little success – they just nod politely and keep walking. Yesterday afternoon I saw a piece of paper on the ground and picked it up only to find that it was a letter in english with some Hindi writing (I assume); I guess it must have been dropped by one of them or blown over from their place. Curiosity got the better of me and so I read it. The only exceptional item was the question whether the recipient had ‘managed to make any new negro friends…’ The thing is that I have been re-reading my James Baldwin lately and so this word negro has been much on my mind but I had no idea that there were still people using it to this day. Is it a bad thing? What does it mean? Assuming that the letter belonged to my neighbors, I really think I should befriend them – maybe all their words are frozen in 1960s ‘jive-turkey’ Americanisms.

If I do get to make this trip, I will be the second person in my close family to have been in Asia. My grandfather fought with the King’s African Rifles in Burma. Well, he didn’t really fight since he was a medic (and therefore was called doctor by everyone in Sigona, Kiambu till he passed away) but he was over there.

Most Kenyans do not know with what tenacity and success our grandfathers fought in that campaign since our relentlessly nationalist reading of history leaves no space to acknowledge Africans who fought for the British against the Japanese or the Germans. What this means in my own life is that I grew up around men who had traveled the world, maybe had even performed great feats in battle and never got to hear about it. I wish I had known what I know now before he died. So many memories in my family seem to just be buried and forgotten. And yet daily I read accounts of other peoples who have fought this or that campaign, who have traveled across that sea or that desert, while not having a single idea whether my own blood ever had the same experiences. It is crazy shit to live in a continent that is the most ancient – the cradle of mankind no less – and not know anything much about my own grandfather’s life. I won’t even get into the fact that I have never heard more than a few words about his father and mother, or theirs.

In the States, my black American friends would occasionally remark on how wonderful it was that I ‘had a history’ and a ‘name’ when theirs had been stolen from them by history. How to explain that in the most personal terms, they could trace their lineages further back than I could mine. That they could pop into courthouses and libraries and come away with records and stories of their grandparent’s parents when I could barely name mine or even tell where they had lived, what they had done. It is as my friend Wambui says, I live in an ancient world without having a history. How to explain to them that I may not have a “slave name” but that I do not really know the meaning of my name. It was handed to me from my grandfather as he received it from his grandfather but I was never told what it meant, where it came from, why for heaven’s sake our naming system was as it is. And please do not tell me of pyramids and the great Kush, they are as remote to me in personal terms as the Han Dynasty or ancient Greece. Of course I feel some nationalist pride once in a while at the thought of the Swahili trading empire or even Nubia and Egypt but I have no a personal sense of linkage with that time and those people because my history looms up short – maybe eighty to a hundred years at the most.
I wonder what this does to me. Am I freed by not being bound by a past, freer to create my life, to imagine different courses? Or am I like a corkscrew in a raging ocean, without direction, without the foundations of history on which to build my life? Hell, are these questions even relevant anymore?

Staring Death in the Face on the Drive to Jomo Kenyatta Airport

After a week of Digital Indaba polemics, entertaining outraged comments from South Africa, I had my moment of Outrage on the way to the airport yesterday morning. My flight for Addis Ababa from Nairobi was scheduled to leave at such a time as made it necessary for me to be at the airport by 5.30am. As is always the case in Nairobi, this departure was heading toward the ‘one for the road’ till flight-time script. But Sohos where we were downing beers – and which I dislike and yet for some reason keep finding myself patronizing – closed early and I was forced to return home in good time to pack and get some sleep. The plan was for K____, my usual taxi driver, to turn up in good time and so he did. As I got into the battered Toyota, I noticed he was quieter than usual, that the front end had a new largish dent and that he seemed to have forgotten the way out of my place. But then I thought it must be the late hour and that perhaps even the curious slowness of his driving was due to his having woken up earlier than usual. This working theory, plus the mild hangover I was suffering all fled as we were pulling into Mbagathi Way (a highway under construction so that both directions of traffic have to share a single road.) My dear K____ was at the stop sign for a full minute though the road was quite empty of traffic. He only decided to pull out, with excruciating slowness, the moment cars were bearing down on us from both directions. They came screeching to a stop and one of the drivers rolled down his window and let go such a furious – and at such an early hour, impressive – flood of curses. K_____ merely nodded his head slowly from side to side as if in sadness that the other drivers could be so unreasonable and unskilled. It was only when he proceeded to drive in the middle of the road, seeming to weave toward the path of oncoming cars, as if somehow their headlights were what to aim for, that I realized that K____ – he of the frequent lectures on the importance of responsibility and punctuality in the working man – was roaring drunk.

‘K____,’ I asked carefully hoping not to distract him further, ‘have you been drinking?’ Silence. ‘Have you been drinking, please tell me,’ I pleaded knowing by this time that the answer must be in the affirmative. Oncoming cars were hooting and driving half on the road and half off it to avoid the Grim Ripper who was clearly now in control of that Toyota. And K____ was his angel of death. What with his sleepy answers, sunken, darkened cheeks, that now as I looked at him made me realize that for the past year I have been getting rides from a man who has ceded much of the flesh of his body to cheap liquors and late hours. I knew that we were never going to make by the time we got to the roundabout near the Barbados Children’s Home, about two kilometers from my first realization that he was drunk out of his mind.

‘I think I must have eaten something that disagreed with me,’ came the reply after long minutes of waiting. I have myself used this never-to-be-believed phrase and the next one as well. ‘I think I am just really sleepy, I have been having such a tough time sleeping. I even scrapped a gate on my way to you.’ The grave for mmk it was, even before the end of the Digital Indaba talkfest. Perhaps this is what comes of questioning do-gooding. That God, the lover of justice and empowerment, sends a drunk driver to your doorstep who crashes you head-on into an oncoming truck. Maybe K____ too had been rude to White South Africans as he carried them from the airport and so Justice was going to kill two birds with one stone.

‘Pullover K____, now!’ by this time I was hysterical. What a bad way to go.

Long story short: he stopped and I took over and drove to the airport with him fast asleep and even snoring in the back. I parked the car with him still fast asleep in it and took my flight. Once again Nairobi having ushered me into its curious blend of terror and comedy, on the way to Addis Ababa where dangerous driving such as K’s would not even make me twitch an eyelid as common and normal as it seems once I am here.

A Son of the Soil in Khartoum

I am in Khartoum and I need a drink. Badly. But there are none to be had here or at least in no place that I know. Most women are covered up demurely which only seems to raise my curiosity rather than diminishing it. This is my first time here and so far of all the trips I have taken so far this year, I have yet to encounter better hosts. In every office I have gone to, I have been given something memorable to eat or drink. There is a laid back feel to the place and graciousness to the people that put me immediately at ease.

The city itself sprawls over a large area with very few high buildings. Many are clay colored, like the desert, and have wide spaces between them which lends the city a sense of unfettered freedom which clashes somewhat with the careful covering of body and hair by many of the women. The avenues are wide: a runner’s paradise as I discovered this morning when I took what is becoming a small tradition in every city I visit. Unlike cities like Addis Ababa or Copenhagen where the sight of me running attracts a certain amount of attention, people in Khartoum just seem to take it in their stride even though I did not meet any other runners. There are new cars everywhere, and new buildings on the rise, this is a boom city. Oil may be a curse further to the south of the country but here in Khartoum it most definitely a blessing.

The situation in Darfur scarcely seems impact this city. To be here, you would never imagine that there could be such intense suffering in some other part of the country. Politically, one of the more striking sights is of the numerous posters of John Garang on buildings and street lights. In the few conversations I have had with ordinary folk on the peace with the SPLM, I have felt that there was a genuine desire for peace. But will it last I wonder? Should South Sudan opt to secede during the 2011 referendum, I wonder if the peace will be maintained. I hope I get to see more of the country, especially the South. Sudan has always loomed large in my imagination and yet I find that I am so deeply ignorant of it and its complexities.

I remember when I was just about five or six, I would take down the world atlas and insist that my mother play a find-the-place game with me. She would usually pick towns and cities close to Nairobi and I, believing that she would try and go for some distant, obscure town, would start my search in the furthest corners of what was then the Soviet Union. Once or twice she picked Khartoum. When it was pointed out to me (when on the verge of tears of frustration I may add), I would run my finger along the Nile all the way north through Egypt to Cairo. So how surreal it was to stand at the intersection of the White and Blue Nile never having imagined that fate would conspire to bring me here. To see the different currents, the differing colors and to be told that the waters from the two rivers even taste different.

More later.