Saturday, July 25, 2009

My Nairobi Diary

MONDAY JULY 20, 2009
Esu, my affable driver, picks me from my Kireka neighbourhood at 6am. It is a chilly morning but we have to get up early to beat the jam on Entebbe Road. I get to Entebbe Airport at about 7.30am, a few minutes before check-in. The last check-in point, which usually should be very through, does not look so, because despite holding only hand luggage, I make past way it with a deodorant spray in my bag. This naturally would not be accepted on board.
At 10.30am, our Kenya Airways flight, KQ411, is airborne. We are taken through the usual reminders, seat belts, switch off mobiles etc. The pilot is Capt. Corros and I must say I love the voice of the head stewardess. It sounds melodious as she wishes us a safe flight and promises continental breakfast. I am on seat 10F, next to the window and a seat beyond me, is a grumpy-looking man, who is dozing away. Probably this was a connecting flight for him, having travelled from much further. “Are plane flights better than road, I ask myself?” Apart from speed, I still think roads are good. You closely view the scenery, people, and can buy roast maize or chicken. Planes only give you the clouds view and no gonja (roast banana).
I am jolted from this reverie with announcement of breakfast. As it turns out, the continental offer is a glass of apple juice (looks like Splash) and some buns. As usual, the meager offer only stimulates your appetite, but again, remembering that we are just on a 45-minute flight, means I can gorge myself upon arrival in Nairobi.
As we close to touch down at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi, there is an obvious contrast with Entebbe Airport. The fleet of Kenya Airways planes with their “Pride of Africa” banners strike you to the face. You can see a country proudly represented in the skies. The nostalgia for our own Uganda Airways affronts me chokingly. How did our government just choose to sell off everything that gave us some form of identity? And just last Sunday, our paper reported that now the airport was gonna be sold off to some one-month old Chinese company. Could the guys who keep telling us that we shall one day wake up and find ourselves mortgaged probably be having a point?

Initial impressions:
Service at JKIA is fast. And it is of course a very spacious port with greater activity. My cab driver to Kivi Milimani Hotel is Faesal (he writes it that way, but pronounces it “Faysal”), a chubby, bubbly man, about 30 years. Driving a “Harmonies”-owned cab, he quickly engages me in conversation. “Nairobi is cash-strapped,” he tells me. “We are trying to scrap through. I don’t know if we shall make it.”
“Maisha hiko hivyo kila pali,” I tell him in Swahili and he jolts to attention. He is visibly excited that I can speak Swahili and that becomes our communication mode, though he keeps punctuating his talk with English. As we get stuck in jam on Mombasa Road, near Nyayo Stadium, he tells me about the conflict between the government and Coca Cola over the re-branding of the stadium; a story I had read about a few days ago in the Daily Nation. He uses the opportunity to tell me how corrupt the government is and how it never allows noble projects thrive.
I ask him why there is jam in the mid-morning and he tells me that for that specific road, the vendors bribe the traffic cops to create jam so that they can vend their ware. “Some idea to sell to our vendors back home,” I think.
As we begin snaking to the city, he asks me about Esther—the lady who emerged victor in the Project Fame contest last year. I tell him I don’t know much though I had read in the papers that her album recording at Gallos Studio in South Africa was delayed and when it was finally done, it never impressed her and she has never launched it in Uganda. I tell him that once in a while I read her escapades in the tabloids—and he quips, “She was a beautiful girl. I loved her curves.” I use the chance to brag that that is a quality running through 90 per cent of Ugandan women—and he seems to fall for it.
We are finally at Kivi Milimani Hotel. The receptionist looks sleepy, Job, is his name. His feminine voice is unmistakable. He tells me I will board Room 306 and gives me the keys. 306 is a fairly spacious room. Well-carpeted, a Vono spring bed, 21-inch TV, with a nice bath tub without the rubber closure for the water escape. I wonder how I will be able to fill the tub with water for a bath. The balcony overlooks the swimming pool, but I wonder who can go to the pool, when Nairobi is freezing. July is a cold month in Nairobi and the temperature now must be doing 10-16 degrees Celsius. In fact, I feel the cold biting through me, and my stomach is rumbling.
I go to the reception and inquire if any other participants to the seminar have arrived. I am told I am the first and others are expected later in the day. I ask if I can have lunch and I am told the conference organizers had said this would be half-day boarding. So, I could only expect dinner. I remind Job that I have come in from far and will not stay till night to have a meal. I tell him to give me the food and sort it out with whoever called me to Nairobi. Reading the determination on my face, he capitulates and tells me to go to the restaurant where I am served chapatti, Swahili chicken and Stoney soda.
Full and brimming, I go back to 306—was that not Rubashov’s prison room number in Darkness at Noon? It seems to be freezing up here. I turn on the TV and go to Citizen TV. They are broadcasting a live resistance by a community that was being evicted. So, these problems are just not Ugandan, considering that I have received an update on my phone telling me our President Museveni today supervised the arrest of a policeman in Nateete, a Kampala suburb, who had a few days ago overseen the eviction of a family and in the process forcefully kissed a 12-year-old girl.
I turn to K24, and it is the once-famous Jeff Koinange interviewing the also once-famous David Matsanga about the effectiveness of a local tribunal in trying the perpetrators of the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. I didn’t know that Matsanga, who led the Kony side in the collapsed Juba talks with the Kampala government, was now an authority in these matters. It is getting colder, I decide to jump to bed, but this is after I have sent text messages to Timo, Davy and Mwangi, some of my high school and university OBs, who now work in Nairobi. I tell them they can come and catch me at the hotel; each promises to.
I wake up and it is 6pm. I go brush and move downstairs. I take a seat in one of the shelters next to the pool and order for a cold Tusker Lager. With alcoholic content of 4.2%, it is close to my favourite Bell brand. And even the taste, flat like the Bell. As I sip away, a tall, dark-skinned man shouts at a distance, “You must be Wanyama!” I respond in the affirmative and he shouts back, “I am Enoch.”
Mr Enoch Opuka is the programme manager with American Friends Service Committee, the NGO that has facilitated my trip to Kenya. We have previously, since we made contact, been chatting on mail and he tells me he’s Luhya. Once in a while, we exchange mail in broken Lubukhusu, a Gishu equivalent of western Kenya. He has actually promised to buy me two beers when I get to Nairobi.

Old boys, new memories
Just about that time, Timo and Davy drive in. They are in jackets and Timo has gloves on. We are down to conversation. High school memories. They tell me what most of my Kenyan high school classmates are up to, as I fill them on the few Ugandan colleagues whose stations I am aware of. They also order for Tusker Lager and we are soon caught in the Migingo debate. They take the typical Kenyan position of “this is our island” and I tell them we must wait for the surveyors’ report. In the process we debate the strengths of our armies just in case we went to war, with me telling them our boys are tried and tested and them insisting they have superior fire power.
As I mention our UPDF role in Somalia, discussion shifts to the impact of Somali piracy money in Kenya. They tell me about a Nairobi suburb called Isili, which has become the hub of Somalis in Kenya (similar to our own Kisomali in Mengo-Kisenyi). They tell me transactions here are done in US dollars which people carry in bags. This they say is mostly money received from the humongous ransoms paid to pirates in the Gulf of Eden and Indian Ocean. Ultimately, the Somalis have taken to investing in real estate business in Nairobi and prices are sky-rocketing. The locals, I am told, are finding it hard to compete for plots of land and houses as the Somalis offer about three-times the market prices.
I have my dinner during the conversation and some minutes to 11pm, Timo and Davy seek to retire but not before assuring me that tomorrow evening, they will take me on a guided tour of Nairobi town. I take to my room and I doze off.

TUESDAY, JULY 21, 2009
My guide notes indicate that we must be seated in Jacaranda Room by 8.15am, so that events proper kick-off at 8.30am. But by 6am I am already awake and I try to look for that headache, caused by the new beer brand, but find none. To the contrast, I look sharper. I turn on the telly and KTN is the network. They, like K24, are still gloating after one of their own was named the CNN African Journalist of 2009 in South Africa. The top news item though, is cabinet’s failure to agree on whether to form a local tribunal to handle post-election violence masterminds. They also report about increasing cases of road rage, where angered by other motorists, drivers pull guns and shoot each other. The latest case is that of a former police officer, who after another motorist overtook him from the wrong lane, gives chase, catches up with him and shoots.
I turn on the water heater and make it to the bath. About 7.30pm I am at the restaurant for breakfast and I am seated by 8.15 in the conference room. I scan around to see any familiar faces and there is none, then about 5 minutes later, my former workmate at The New Vision Hellen Mukiibi saunters in. she is the other delegate from Kampala. She comes to my bench and we are already doing our Luganda.

Event proper
Mr Opoka formally welcomes us and we do the introductions. There are journalists and editors from Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Ms Netlyn Bernard, the Haitian deputy Africa regional director of AFSC, gives us an overview of what the conference is about. Under the theme Media and Peace: Conflict Sensitive Analysis and Reporting, we are here to share experiences on how the media can be used as a tool for peace.
With the intros done, we do break tea and it is time to listen to our presenters. The first is Dr Mustafa Ali, a PhD holder in Media and International Relations and also the Executive Director of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. His paper focuses on the evolution of the electronic and print media in the Horn of Africa and its role in promoting justice peace and democracy.
He took us through the evolution of media, with greater focus on new media (blogs, YouTube, twitter) and their challenges. He also reminded us that we are a powerful tool that can promote peace through communicating, educating, correcting misperceptions, humanising people in conflict and wars, and serving as an early warning mechanism while helping frame conflict situations (contextualizing).
It was discussion time and the tales were as harrowing as they were edifying. In the different groups, we get accounts of reporting in war. Our Somalia colleagues tell us how the Al Shabab terrorists call into news rooms before bulletins to censor what goes on air. One lady tells me how her producer was shot and killed as they were covering a story. It is a tough world out there. The Burundian story is a successful one. First, it was the media hyping the war, reporting corpses and offering grandeur interviews to either the government generals or then rebels. Then, seeing the mayhem around them, they realized there was a greater calling than just profiteering from war; they saw the need to become a tool for peace. Radios, newspapers began running joint editorials, broadcasts, calling for peace. At one point, all radios had to relay programmes from a central point. War for peace had been launched. Interestingly, with pressure from other international groups, the warring factions in Burundi had no choice but to sit together and make peace. The media had played a central role in the process.
The afternoon session was by the much-respected veteran journalist and editor, Mitch Odero, whose presentation was focused on the power of the editor in anaylsing and reporting on conflict in conflict areas.
Besides the usual, the revelation of the new 5Cs as the drivers of news was interesting. Conflict, controversy, cast of character, crime, have come to replace the 4Ws and H.

Nairobi nightlife/nyama choma
Evening time and Timo is back, this time Davy has gone upcountry and it is Mwangi—my Literature classmate at university who comes to see me. We catch a few pints at Kivi before hitting town proper.
We first decide to go and eat the muchomo (roast goat) at a noisy, cold joint called The Hood. Because of the biting cold, they bring us a sigiri (charcoal stove) next to our table just to keep our legs warm. When the muchomo comes, I swear it looks like an entire goat! It also comes with Kiyenyeji (a meal of mashed Irish potatoes and other stuff). Having gorged ourselves to our fill, we decide to go to Westlands suburb and settle at Black Diamond, a bar turned dancehall; and it is obviously an East-meets-West joint.
Judging from the throngs of white men and black girls, Black Diamond is probably equal to our Bubbles or Fat Boyz in Kisementi. Only difference here being that the black girls have no time for black guys. I thought I would probably meet a lady and basically have a chat on Nairobi’s nightlife, but none wants to listen to me. Not until one hanging nearby hears Mwangi and I talk about Uganda. She quickly asks if I am not Kenyan, which I reply to the affirmative.
Looks like that is the turning point. I am quickly bundled among the “tourists” and I can have a chat. She tells me she’s Linda, a student at Kenyatta University. But when I begin to explore stuff like her course, I see how uneasy she gets. Obviously she must be another lady of the night, passing for a university student. So, these things just don’t end in Kampala. How far yet how close! She orders for a drink and in no time, a host of her friends are around us. Timo and Mwangi too have company. We are the only black guys getting attention. The rest is reserved for bazungu. A friend drops by and after several drinks; we decide to drop her at Umoja. When we make this announcement, we are dropped like hot coals. Our friends dash to catch some of the left-over bazungu. As we walk out, I see Linda clinging unto a white man fit to be her granddad—feigning excitement.
We drop our friend at Umoja Estate and its time to hit the trail back to Kivi. Along the way, we make a stop at Galileo Night club, but apart from the flesh peddlers, there is nothing to write home about. Maybe painfully noting is how these girls, some barely 18, are exposing their bodies in what is an obviously chilly Nairobi night. We ignore the calls for discount services from the sex workers, some shouting in Kikuyu, and we drive back. When I hit my bed, at about 4am, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I must be up before 8am…
(To be continued)


JJACKMAN said...

Seems we have switched places and you are writing about your travels. I am enjoying it! Oh, I also miss Ganja (they don't sell it here in the states)or at least not the "fried banana" version.

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My you can write - but then I forget - you are a writer! Omusani Opuka.

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