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This Blog used to be about the question: What is Science?
Now, it asks: What is Happiness?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kenya Shiny Blue


'The air which surrounds us, so intangible and so commonplace that it
seldom arrests our attention, is in reality a vast, unexplored ocean,
fraught with future possibilities.'
- Richard Ferris: How To Fly (1910) -

It might not be the tallest, but it certainly is the shiniest. The
Blue Glass I&M Building on Kenyatta Ave in central Nairobi, would seem
like an obvious target for disgruntled Al Shabaab operatives. But for
its proximity to the Central Mosque. The terror threat reaches us,
however, via a hastily pasted A4 size, hand-written sign at the
commanding front stairway. 'Please use back entrance on Muhindi
Mundini Street.'
I am familiar with the security guard at that entrance and as I pass
through the single door I smile and ask if I can be searched by her
for a change. “Tomorrow”, she replies, “on my day off”.

From the 13th Floor I have a virtual panoramic view of the city.
Across Kenyatta, the Ecobank (The Pan Africa Bank) building has 4
floors on us and a spike on top that always reminds me of the Twin
Towers. A little up the drag, the Lonrho Africa building, and to the
west the 2 towers of the conference centre. Then the world goes flat,
melting past the railway station and on into the Eastern areas of the
city, gently following the East African railroad that touches on the
Tsavo Elephant Park and dries up in the torrid humidity of coastal

 I ventured into Nairobi's Eastleigh once in hot pursuit of a stolen
cell phone which I had GPS-tracked into a park. It was in the middle
of what appeared on Googlemaps to be a general confluence of highways
and labyrinths....In an instant I am immersed in that quest once
I write down a dozen or so turn lefts and rights and head off to find
the phone (and its new owner).
Being dangerously exposed on a motorcyle is the normal cliché that
non-bikers use, but here is a totally different kind of exposure. A
police car inches past me in an impossible jam, separated from the
crowds by tinted obscurity. Weaving along, I am very obviously an
mzungu (whitey) in a whirling sea. What if I break down? Dare I pause
to check my directions? Intertwined in my fears is a realization that
I am not actually being noticed. Instead, I am noticing the energy of
activity, close and everywhere. A wiry, thin man is weldng a pile of
twisted metal on the pavement. Another slides sideways through the
melee with a bundle of pipes held high above his head. He is wearing a
turban of sorts and funny plastic sandles, his feet black as the soot
of the roadside coal being sold every few paces along.
Sreet food is fine as long as it is well cooked. But I decide against
local cred and just keep moving. I straddle the sandy hued grass in
the middle of the road till I am near my marked destination, then
jacknife through the cars, still safe. The pace is perilously slow.
Then I am out of the jungle and into the private world of Kenyan home
life. I feel as if there is new set of perils here, but still nobody
seems to care. A boy casually says, “Mzungu”. I ignore him and
concentrate on controlling my small piki-piki (125cc bike) in the soft
sand.  I stop in what seems to be an African village in the inner
city, but before I reach for my Nokia GPS I turn and go back to the
big blue building. Unable to invent any more dangers, I wonder what on
earth I would have done when I  found the new owner.

From the 13th floor couch I can see swathes of street. Dinky cars and
polite pedestrians move mechano-like from up here. Some of it is
true.. People here are simply so. Old fashioned...sort of Britain in
the 50s, an old worldliness. The rather commanding Nairobi Public
Library, which also flanks the mosque, is filled with quiet,
conscientious studiers. Education is the key to every future dream in
Kenya and is pursued sometimes in the strangest ways. A closer look at
the library shelves reveals hardly a book newer than 1978. On the
magazine racks I find an IT computer magazine from 1998.  Reading
Rudyard Kipling and science books about Cosmonauts has to be somewhat
responsible for the eerie sense of being locked into old England.

I zoom down into street view and am walking through the bright yellow
Simmers, 'enjoy a cold Tusker', street pub. What would probably be a
den of certain iniquities back home in SA, and certainly not in the
city centre, is, here, filled at any time of day with besuited, atache
carrying busnessmen. The odd tourist soaking in the real Africa lights
up a fag with his beer and risks instant arrest. Two blocks down,
straddling the centre island is a 4 metre square cage with a single
door and a sign saying – Public Smoking Area.
Sadly, this is one of the reasons I like Nairobi. On a Monday
afternoon the city fathers voted to ban smoking in public. On Tusday
morning the arrests commenced. By Friday the city was smoking in a
cage on Koinange Street and the sidewalks were butt free.

Towering over Simmers is a Smirnoff Ad, “The Night...Be There”.

This is a place of safe night life. The city winds down into the warm
aromas of competing coffee houses, Where a Dormans opens, a Java House
follows and many a Californian barista has here found reason to
return. In a pavement bar 3 men are in earnest discussion over a
laptop and...3 cokes. Not unusual here, but again, almost impossible
in South Africa. Well, the cokes maybe, but the laptop? Simply won't
stick around that long.

I came in early today to extend my visa skilling my woven way through
the traffic contradiction that is perennial Nairobi. Almost no
drainage, no sidewalks, peppered potholes make safaris of journeys ,
but the glue of chaos is how the drivers behave. Kenyans are hard
pressed to be aggressive and seldom resort to violence as a solution
to confrontation. Everything is negotiated, chances taken, the rule of
life. From the lowliest politician to the sharpest street operator to
the gas station attendant, when the inevitable attempt at overcharging
is discovered, it is simply let go with a smile and an “Oh, I must
have made a mistake”.
But on the streets, it's a free for all, the trick being to never
acknowledge the other drivers and simply put part of your own vehicle
into whatever small gap presents itself. It can take  Ida 2 hours for
the five miles to work and then, 2 hours back in the evening. This
morning the remnants of a rained out yesterday tightened the corkscrew
on the morning jam. A dusty bus with naked fowls tied  by their feet
and flaying on the windy roof shoved a path through the solid lanes to
mount the pedestrian walkway and as it thundered off, people forced
aside, it took with it a part of Ida's taxi. Her driver leapt out in
hot pursuit, leaving IDA and cab keyless in the middle of rushhour

It's in this and the adjacent street view that the real Africa
evolves. And the street comes to us in a rich mix of ways. Need an
electrician? No problem. He's the guy in the blue work clothes. Green
is horticulture, and brown, general diversified. Cooks are clearly
marked in crisp white chef regalia which can cause some confusion if
your cook is also the Askari or gate opener. At somewhat ridiculously
low wages by any standards, middle class Kenyans often have several
servants, with newly urbanized Maasai cornering the gate-opening and
security detail.  Many a would be intruder has fled with an arrow
quivering in his behind.
Not that we hear too many such tales. In the five years of living in a
wooded winding suburb, some 3kms from an extensive slum (what we call
an informal settlement in SA), the only neighbourhood crime we have
heard of was the harrassment of a young girl by a group of rowdy
youths. A crisis   meeting was called in the face of this 'imminent
collapse of law and order'.
In the next suburb, we hear that police shot and killed a group of
thugs. They were reportedly en route to a heist when their getaway car
ran out of gas and they continued on foot, resplendent in hoodies and
What this all means is that, in the sublime African evening, melting
off into the coolth of the planet's most perfect climate, I can walk
our dog, up ad down the hills and dales and greet all I meet. Habari
Yako! Mzuri sana. I am well, thank you.

Tribal Politics.

Fairly early in our tenure here we had the first of what we now see as
'SUIs. Somewhat useful insights. The Innernews receptionist popped a
congenial head into Ida's office, “There's a Kikuyu at the door.”...
“Well”, let him in.”. ..“No, I can't”...Why?”...”He's a Kikuyu, can't
be trusted.”

Five years later, I am glaring into the sharp morning sun diffused
through an uneven spread of altocumulus clouds. Hanging over the
precipices of Nairobi's most desireable hotel their pulsating light
diminishes the lone. besuited, pacing girl on the deck, smoking. A few
years back, I was at arrivals for the first aircraft to disembark at
the new King Shaka International Airport in my home city, Durban. The
virgin glass opened to spill out a carpet of Emirates stewardesses.
Their clones glide in and out of the Tribe Hotel, Nairobi, daily. My
thoughts wane to the incongruities around an Israeli owned hotel being
home to gliding middle Emirates ladies. Another SUI.
Ida's at a Chief of Staff meeting. I, here for breakfast and today's
carpemomenta. Breakfast offerings include sushi. But neither the
coffee nor the sushi is as good as can be got in Nairobi. For
unbelievable or unbeatable (much the same) sushi, the place is
Phoenicean. It was just down the road from us when we first arrived in
Kenya and we warmed to this cosy garden sushi hideaway intertwined
with Lebanese fare and open fires.  Now it has joined the mall sprawl
and spans several floors of the upgraded Junction Centre, Ngong Road.

The Israelis define style and purpose in this town, like a baby, in
and out of sizes, almost before they fit. The Chinese are invisible in
a different way. One day they were simply here and the life of a power
plug adaptor shrunk to about a week. I hear that there is an emerging
market for expensive, quality built, German appliances in Changhai.
Here, buy cheap, buy thrice.

In an obtuse office in a ubiquitous corridor in a shapeless building
near the Potomac River, Washington DC, is a pin-striped, well gymed
intelligence officer. Amongst her daily duties are to brief and
debrief the office next door. A silver and grey sign, smallish, says,
“Innernews”. Today's briefing was less than 10 minutes and easily
summarized: “How's the Kenya office doing  with the new man?”
The 'New Man' is Jonathon Scott-Gration, the Obama administration's
Kenyan ambassadour, replacing Rannenburger, whose time here will be
remembered for his dancing with the locals and giving a friendly ear
to all and sundry. The New Man's reputation arrived a day or so before
his person, enough to make the timid tremble, especially if you are a
media organization necessitating editorial independence. In the
conflictory days of George W Bush, this meant endless meetings with US
government funders over the niceties of having condom machines in the
office and not displaying large USAID banners at official events. The
sign on the Nairobi Blue Building head office of Innernews is burgundy
and grey and somewhat lyrical. The media centre has a large red spot
on the floor. This is the Write Spot to be and quite a shot from the
Potomac. And with the troubles in nearby Somalia, it is probably beter
to have an ex military man as Ambassadour than a songster.

Despite their immutable invisibility the Chinese invasion is already
over.  It greets many comuters in the shape and size of Kenya's first
'Super Highway', built by one of the '532 largest civils in the
world', or so the banners proclaim.  Where once there was a stolid
roundabout, jammed and impassable, now there is a sweeping flyover
pulling traffic in and out of the same congested city centre as
before.  Leaving Nairobi and heading out towards Thika and Mount Kenya
you can be  excused for the urge to clear the cobwebs from your tired
Toyota as you hit the first of the foot high speed bumps on the first
blind bend of the super highway. Down the drag, Africa is busy
reclaiming Chinese territory, with impromptu taxi stops, informal
traders and herds of goats encroaching on the multi-lanes. In the
middle of a newly tarred stretch heading with no mean portent to
Cairo, a stubborn rock sticks out of the middle lane, neatly
macadamized in place
None of this utter chaos exists in Israeli conceived malls and hotels.
They are a world beyond and have spawned a fever of emulation in the
new Nairobi.
It is Easter weekend and the many malls are open for the long haul.
Driving from home to Junction   we count the potholes in the road and
divide the total by the distance. A hole every 3 metres is the
average. In the rainy season roads become rivers with nowhere to go,
but this has seemingly no effect on drivers, other than spreading the
chaos that leaks through the jam like sludgy superglue. It is Easter
Sunday and 99.9% of Kenyans are in church so we reach the Kitchen shop
with minimal emotional trauma. Here we have superb synchronicity. I am
fascinated by all the heat resistant silicon and Ida, a displaced
Julia Childs. A bag full of goodies and we head off to our respective
interests. Mine, tools and lighting. Ida, shoes, clothes, fragrance.
Cliches, it is said, exist because that's exactly what they are –
generally applicable. I, for one, feel pretty good about being a boy
in an adult toy shop. A 12v led lamp catches my attention. By this
evening it will have been dismantled and united with the remnants of a
broken incandescent lamp, mounted into the ceiling and wired invisibly
to a deep cycle battery, connected invisibly to invisible solar panels
on the roof. I am
fulfilled, relevant, modern and useful and tomorrow,  5 minutes after
the rain starts, we will have light in the daily powerdown. 5 minutes
is the time it takes for the rain to short out the exposed substations
and trigger a harmony of generators. There is no word for
'maintenance' in kiSwahili and
interestingly no real concept thereof either. In East Africa, us
humans know our place in the scheme of things. We are gently
manipulated by the influences of the past, our ancestors and a range
of inanimate objects, like walls, buses, traffic jams and leaders in
various shades of corrupt indifference. Bernard Shaw mused on this,
writing that 'Reasonable men adjust their ways to the realities and
forces of Nature around them, unreasonable men alter Nature to suit
themselves. All progress is thus driven by unreasonable men'.

For a year and a half builders have been toiling on a sporadic mansion
next door to us. I watched as a 12 foot wall rose between us, at a
clear angle of no less than 5 degrees from the vertical. Glad for our
renewed privacy I planned a sloping outdoor movie screen, an idea that
the next door owner clearly didn't share as he commanded the wall to
be rubbished and rebuilt. I politely asked the building foreman what
had happened and he replied, “That decided to be a bad
Whether or not version 2 will have a better disposition is in the
hands of the, shall we say, wall gods to whom I am praying for our
rapidly renewed solitude.

All you need to be in heaven here is a traffic plan. Mine is in the
form of 2 wheels and spending a lot of time at home. Here, most days I
feel I am in the Rwandan jungle, despite being only 5 miles from the
City Centre. Until we were mugged (for being really stupid) Ida would
run to work in an hour which beats driving for two. Now she locks the
car doors and intones our Mantra, 'Thank God for the BBC, thank god
for the BBC, thank god for the bbc.....'
We have mapped Nairobi into epicentres of delightful Eurocentricity.
This is the international NGO capital of Africa, with a continual
flood of expats and the coffee is good, especially when languishing in
Israeli created cafe society.

The conflagration of neighbouring Somalia has also spawned a network
of eateries, mostly in back alleys and unmarked corridors. I like
unmarked corridors and the disappearing act they afford, but was
initially confused at the lack of service received when I was
frequently the only breakfast customer on the ranch.
This was all cleared up at a dinner party after I expressed my
puzzlement. The Somali pirates have wads of US dollars that need
'cleaning' and what better way than invisble restaurants that don't
need food.
The laundered funds in turn fuel the huge rash of property development
in Nairobi and also explain why it is difficult to identify the Al
Qaeda within.

Ultimately Kenya, like most of Africa, I never find boring. Anything
can happen and usually does in the daily comute between centres of
negative entropy.  Car accidents are almost always settled on the spot
with an exchange of offers and money while traffic police use cell
phones as coms radios.

My singular achivement in Kenya has been to limit my incoming cell
calls to only one person, Ida.
I receive great comfort from always knowing who is on the other end of
my familiar ring, even if it is merely traffic progess updates.

Tomorrow we will try out a new plan. The rains are upon us and Ida's
16 hour work day will include the 4 hours in the car. So, I drive
while she emails. Broadband here is cheap and fast, so, we turn jam
horror into an i-opportunity and head off into a traffic negotiated

In the all blue building, my eyes tilt full up from street to blue
sky, now with the first clumps of strato-cumulus mustering for the
afternoon downpour.
A potbellied airplane banks lazily overhead for Wilson Airport. I feel
a deeply etched  happiness as I stretch myself into the honed and
focused space of an aircraft on final approach.
Back in the dusty backveld of KwaZulu-Natal, I have been languidly
learning to fly and this is the only thing I really miss about SA home
these days. In the air I am playing in a technologically predictable
mix of faith and adventure. If I do all the right things my chances of
survival are great, without ever losing the thrill of the maybe. What
lies between me and the ground is skill, pure skill that becomes
instinctual. Here there is little room for post-modernity. 'Anything
goes' normally means 'everything gone'. But most of all, it is where
nobody can find me. I am truly up there on my own. For a little while
I can truly disappear. I travel a lot these days on commercial flights
and never cease to be invigorated. I am tied to a chair flying at 500
miles per hour and cloud 9 is below me. But flying the small flying
machines, what they call light sports planes, is the real thing. It is
a time blast back to the brothers Wright, just with a more reliable
overcoat.  As I watch the airplane drop down behind the conference
centre towers, I wonder if I would have been as unafraid of dying in a
plane in 1905 as I seem to be now. Yesterday (as I write this) a
fellow flier crashed on takeoff after a well attended fly-in,  and in
the ensuing fire, was critically injured, his wife losing her life. A
few days before, I had dreamt I was at the funeral of a friend who met
a similar fate.. That my dream and reality conversed, holds no import
for me other than the unhappy coincidence of inevitable statistics,
hopes and fears.  Yet I am still left wondering what the real chances
are of this happening to me.

One day I will simply take off and disappear off the radar, or maybe
just grow old and regret not having reached for the sky. Maybe I will
watch the rains here in East Africa. But for now, I leave the view
from the tall blue building and retun to my anonymous corner in the
media centre.  Tomorrow another world awaits me and another aeroplane.
Back in SA, my dear 91 year old mum suffered a minor stroke over her
morning toast and it is again time for my other life to awaken.....for
a while.

Post script:
Rob Mirtle succumbed to his burns from the plane crash a few days
later. In the ensuing week, in my other home town, three more aircraft
plunged into the earth, and two more people lost their lives. As I
write this from 37000ft above the ground, I smile disarmingly at the
air hostess, “An orange juice, a Pilsener beer, Pinotage red wine for
the meal and two small Amarula liquers.”

April/May 2012
Written on flight SA185 at 30 thousand feet.