Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Nairobi is a city that looks very different depending on your perspective and the direction of your gaze. This is as true in the sense that it encompasses one of the world's largest slums, Kibera, together with the fortified paradises of Karen and Langata, as it is in that you see a very city if you look up rather than down in the city centre. Above are the towering skyscrapers that make up the skyline that is often portrayed in photographs of the city, towering above Uhuru Park. There are the Marabou Storks, gliding in on enormous, ungainly wings to roost on the acacia trees lining Uhuru Highway, looking like the planes that you can also see coming in to land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport.

Below, lots of dust. Streets that are busy, but not terribly crowded. Lots of carefully-dressed people. Buildings and shops that reflect different layers of history as well as well as a highly unequal society. Matatus, cars, trucks, scooters, and pedestrians who go about their business according to a very different set of rules for the road: 1) crossing signs are meaningless, and you invest them with significance at your peril; 2) vehicles may or may not stop for you if you run out in front of them to get across the street; 3) it is generally quite safe to walk halfway across the street, and then down the middle of a busy road until there is a break in the traffic in the other half; 4) when crossing, there is safety in numbers.

Amongst the shops and offices that inhabit steel skyscrapers and run-down cinder block buildings are a few that date from the colonial era, including the one where I spend most of my days, the National Archives (the yellow building in the foreground). This large, very international regional centre of commerce, sport, development efforts, medicine and education is a very different one to the town that grew up around the Uganda railway and didn't become a colonial capital until after 1900. The Nairobi of these early days was, by all accounts, a cross between the Wild West and an English village, with lions roaming up and down its dirt streets for good measure.

Walking through Nairobi today I passed the Dedan Kimathi statue. Kimathi was a Mau Mau guerrilla leader (and the subject of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Micere Githae Mugo's play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi).

Kimathi, unlike Nelson Mandela, did not live to make the transition in the world's eye from a 'terrorist' to a world statesman. In life, he was used by the British to represent Mau Mau as an unreasoning, senselessly violent, purposeless movement (not a movement at all, colonial propagandists suggested, but a kind of spasm from a primitive people...a view which allowed them to conveniently ignore the land issue when explaining Mau Mau to the world), and his execution in 1957 came near the end of the uprising. This representation was made easier by the (sometimes shockingly brutal) killings of white settlers and their families in the early days of Mau Mau. Now Kimathi is seen as one of the heroes of the liberation struggle. I've been wanting to get hold of Ngugi's play, and if it's as good as most of his other works, it is probably worth a read.

Ngugi is one of Kenya's foremost authors, but he has been in exile for many years (currently he writes from Irvine, California). He is not one to sugar-coat Kenya's history, and his portrayal of Mau Mau in his book, Grain of Wheat, allows us to think about the movement's complexities for all involved. We also get a sense of this in Ngugi's latest work, a memoir entitled Dreams in a Time of War, which though not as magical as his scathing satire of African dictatorships, The Wizard of the Crow, nonetheless makes for an extremely compelling read.

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