5 cents

Back to Nairobi, Thanksgiving at Haandi

November 22, 2007 — Nairobi, Kenya

In addition to it being Thanksgiving and the 44th anniversary of JFK's assasination, it's also my birthday. We didn't celebrate neither, though in reality this whole month has been my birthday. I couldn't ask for anything better.

We woke up in Garissa after our long day in Dertu and Jess had a few last meetings in town. We hit the road around 11. Four or five hour drive back to Nairobi. The reverse of our trip from Nairobi to Garissa.

Back to the Jacaranda hotel. Went to eat at Haandi, which is one of the better Indian restaurants I have ever been to. Then again, given what we'd been eating for the last few days, anything would taste good. It's housed in some random shopping mall. It seemed an appropriate enough Birthday/Thanksgiving dinner.


Uploading Bytes From Nairobi

November 23, 2007 — Nairobi, Kenya

The internet here in Nairobi sucks and is ridiculously expensive. At the hotel it's $20 an hour, and that is for dial-up. No wireless. We found an internet cafe across the street at some random mall that was considerably cheaper. Spent part of the day posting my trip reports from Garissa and Dertu. Hung out by the pool reading. There was a wedding going on in the hotel grounds which was kind of interesting. They'd go into Kenyan song and dance, but then it also got really religious and they sang cheesey Christian songs.

Speaking of cheesey, I started to read The Mzungu Boy by Meja Mwangi. Not sure how I ended up with it as it is more of a children's book, in the vien of Jungle Book, about a Kenyan boy who becomes friends with a white boy against all odds. Maybe I meant to get another book by Mwangi. It was the only book I brought with me down by the pool so I ended up reading half of it anyway, so I guess it was better than reading nothing.

When I was trying to find books by Kenyan writers back home, I remember coming across an interesting looking Kenyan literary journal called Kwani. But I didn't give myself enough time to get an issue before leaving. Will have to check out a copy upon my return.


Making Sense of the Chaos (reading Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri)

November 24, 2007 — Nairobi, Kenya

Another day in Nairobi. We've experienced so much externally this past month, that we decided to just regroup and internalize. Especially Jess, as she has finished all her work committments, except for one more site visit on our last day after our safari.

Ben Okri Stars of the New Curfew

And no better way than to reflect on the chaos we've witnessed than by reading Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri. Granted he does not write about Nairobi, but Lagos, Nigeria which is probably even more insane than Nairobi. I can only imagine, and read Okri. Stars of the New Curfew is composed of six short stories that are set in the bustling streets of Lagos or in the surrounding jungle of Nigeria. Okri is one hell of a writer, and can write stark realism as well as Hemingway. And just when you get sucked in, he can slip you a mickey and lull you into his surreal hell.

In the City of Red Dust, Okri first proclaims that "if the governor's stance was that of a boxer, then his opponent was the chaos he had created in order to rule." This becomes a common thread in all of the stories—that the citiizens of Lagos are at the mercy of those that rule. Reocurring blackouts are also constantly going on in the stories, and surprisingly still go on today in the East African countries we've been in. In America you take it for granted that power is a constant and a given. But here it almost feels like there is some half-ass god on a treadmill that is constantly generating power real-time, with no storage or back-up. So when this lackey god of energy gets tired and needs to take a break, or suffers from some other whimsical deficiency, the power goes off. Or at other times he is feeling particularly energetic, and the power surges. The lights flicker, get brighter, dim, go out, but rarely are they constant. Through his characters, Okri speculates that these blackouts are because officials are seeking bribes, or "because the government despised it's own people, that they wanted citizens to walk off into the wild roads, and to disappear into open drains and manholes." These "blackouts" (from power) are potrayed as if they were collective blackouts (of the psychological or drug-induced kind) of the city, where all the citizens slip collectively into a common dream.

In comparison to The Famished Road, which knocked me down a few months ago, the voices in Stars of the New Curfew are more grown-up. The influence of drugs or alcohol is not as subversive. Though the drugs are also metaphors of the wool the governement is slipping over their eyes. At the end of In the City of Red Dust, "they smoked the marijuana from the governor's secret farms quietly into the night of the red city."

In the next story, Stars of the New Curfew, the narrator takes to peddling bogus cure-all drugs on the streets of Lagos. As Jess was reading about ringworm and showing me pictures, I was reading about this hawker that had been "selling fake ringworm medicine which actually multiplied ringworm." He becomes increasingly haunted by his clients coming back to him with all their ailments that his drugs had only served to aggravate. The story escalates, as his conscience drives him to new drug vendors that give him drugs that are purported to be better and cure almost everything, but it gets worse and worse. The selling of the drugs mimics the patterns of drug rehab.

I finally decided I would no longer sell medicines that were trying to cure people of anything. The more they set out to cure, the more problems they seemed to create. But the truth was that, as there were so few jobs available, the only sales jobs to be obtained were ones that sold products which had to do with cures. Everybody seemed to need a cure for something. So, against my will, I had to adjust my resolve.

It's a vicious cycle that seems to manifest itself it many sectors here in Africa as well as America. Finally he settles on selling POWER-DRUG that is manufactured by CURES-UNLIMITED, which is the mother of all drugs and cures anything. The story reaches comic proportions as he competes with a Rastafrarian and a Jehova's Witness for the public's attention inside a molue (a collective taxi or bus, what they call "collectivos" in Mexico, and they call motutu's here in Nairobi). He wins, and even the Rastafarian buys and chugs this POWER-DRUG (which he finds out later contains Marijuana oil amongst other things), and then all the people go into a frenzy buying his drugs, including the driver of the molue, who proceeds to gulp the drug while driving, leading to a wild ride, rivaling the prose of Hunter S. Thompson. In the end,

I had nothing to show for myself but a dog-eared collection of sales correspondence, a few useless certificates in salesmanship, a briefcase full of weird drugs, a head teeming with bats, and a vision of a bus disappearing into the green lagoon.

In other stories it rains blood and crayfish fall from the sky. Dancers bite off the heads of chickens, pour blood over themselves and then parade into the strees wielding machetes at everyone. Okri paints a pictures of Nigeria as being completely chaotic and unpredictable. But in his writing at least, there is an order to the chaos, a beauty that he creates out of it. As long as you don't resist the chaos and are zen about it, good things will come of it. It's kind of how I've felt being here in East Africa as well. With all the instability in Africa, nothing is unexpected. It is hard to think about the future with that riding over your head. In Okri's writing, and come to think of it, also in Tutuola and Isegawa, you're always in the now, tackling things as they come day to day, and there is no time for speculation about the future. When we visit this villages, I often try to imagine a life where you don't have a bank account. "Cashless socities" as Jess calls them. You live day to day, growing season to growing season, and if your crops fail, then you're fucked. Not to sound grim, but it's like there is a present and a past in the African pysche, but no future.

Another reocurring theme in these writers, especially Tutuola, is the quest for miracles, and these miracles are typically financially related.

A mad energy rode me while the proceedings began. I felt angry and reckless. Then as I pushed forward I passed a group of fishermen who had come to the event with nets. They had come to catch money. In a moment of hallucinated illumination it struck me that all those present—the market-women from the creeks of dark rivers, the clerks from remote bureacracies deep in the delta villages—had one thing in common. We needed modern miracles. We were, all of us, hungry. We had all abandoned our private lives, our business lives, our leisure, our pain, because we wanted to witness miracles. And the miracle we had come to witness, which seemed to comprise the other side ritual drums and dread, was that of the multiplying currency. We had come to be fed by the great magicians of money, masters of our age.

That pretty much sums it up. These NGOs, Care and Unicef, etc., that we see everywhere we go, in their white trucks, they are these magicians, these providers of miracles, that have established this dependency. It's a viscious cycle. The Millenium Villages Project where Jess works is not about giving out handouts, but encouraging self-sufficiency and sustainability. But here they are trying to encourage this in places like Dertu, when you have relief agencies giving them free food, which eliminates the need to grow your own crops or to fend for yourself. Why learn to fish when the fish are given to you by the bucket?

To get back to the POWER-DRUG story, when the new inadequacies of the drugs began to manifest themselves again, he changes his mind. His boss turns to creating medicines to cure the problems that the POWER-DRUG had caused. "Where will it end?" Okri's character speculates. "Like most of our leaders, he creates a problem, then creates another problem to deal with the first one—on and on, endlessly fertile, always creatively spriralling to greater chaos."




(c) 2007 Derek White & Jessica Fanzo

Five Senses Reviews