How a trip to Kenya short-circuited my children's brains

My kids struggled to process the fact that, other than at the airports, we probably saw only five white people, max

13 January 2019 - 00:06
Image: Aardwolf

The name "Jomo" means "Burning Spear" in the Kikuyu language that is mostly spoken in Kenya and by a smattering of people in neighbouring East African countries.

The first time I encountered the name I was about six years old and had just started taking an interest in football. I listened to a radio interview of one Jomo Sono, the Orlando Pirates maestro who is one of our greatest football exports. He was explaining that his folks had christened him Ephraim Matsilele Sono. But Orlando Pirates supporters had nicknamed him "Jomo" after Jomo "Burning Spear" Kenyatta, who was a legendary figure in the struggle against British imperialism in East Africa. This is because Jomo Sono was seen as a burning spear in the side of their biggest rivals, Moroka Swallows and Kaizer Chiefs.

At least this is what I told my 14-year-old when he asked why the airport we had just landed at, in late December, is named Jomo Kenyatta. Since that interview in 1978/1979, I have always been fascinated with the land of Kenya. This is why, at the first opportunity I got some 25 years ago, I travelled there. The Kenya I vacationed in, over the past two weeks, is very different to the Kenya of a quarter of a century ago. But it's the same Kenya in so many ways.

Throughout our almost two-week stay in Nairobi and Mombasa, the brains of the two children we travelled with struggled to process the fact that, other than at Jomo Kenyatta International in Nairobi and Moi International in Mombasa, we probably saw only five white people, max. The 11-year-old's brain was starting to malfunction as a result of this revelation, by day three. But this was a big part of the reason we chose Kenya as a holiday destination, besides its obvious attractions.

By the second day [the kids] were asking probing questions such as why most of the suburbs in Nairobi had English names just like back home, if this was such a black country

It was part of a broader project to disabuse the kids of the delusion that the sanitised version of the continent they live in is, in any way, a fair representation of the continent. And I'm happy to report that it worked like a charm. By the second day they were asking probing questions such as why most of the suburbs in Nairobi had English names just like back home, if this was such a black country.

Even though we stayed in hotels for most of our stay in Kenya, our gracious hosts were Zukiswa Wanner, author of many novels, and her husband, James Murua, the renowned newspaper columnist, editor, literary reviewer and blogger. We spent many evenings discussing East Africa's geo-politics, Kenya's recent elections and, naturally, the literary scene.

One of James's more poignant observations after the copious amounts of Tusker and Gilbey's Gin being imbibed had loosened his tongue, is that many Kenyans do not self-identify as black people but rather as simply African until they move into spaces where there are white people. "I didn't realise I was black until I lived in London!" This confession was consistent with my previous experience of Kenyans.

A highlight of our time in Kenya was our forays to the Masai markets. Our primary mode of transport was obviously Uber and Taxify. I say "obviously" because, after experiencing the Uber ride from the airport, I dispelled all notions of experiencing their Sacco public transport system or the infamous tuk tuks. I am convinced that tuk tuk drivers are notorious Don Juans who have slept with everyone's spouse in Kenya. I'm convinced that I saw hundreds of motorists go out of their way to take aim at tuk tuks.

But back to the Masai market. Oh, what untold trifles of treasures and trinkets lay in wait for us. I've always known Zukiswa Wanner to be a perpetually jovial, affable and accommodating human being who giggles at the slightest provocation. When it comes to haggling at the market; not so much, hey?

Before we went there she told me, "Comrade, you have only one job. Shut up and let me negotiate on your behalf." But then I see this pair of sandals I really like, going for only 2,500 Kenyan shillings. My sharp arithmetic quickly tells me that this is the equivalent of about R350. So, I look at the guy and tell him that I only have 1,800 Ksh. He says: "For you boss, I'll make it 2,000 Ksh." I get excited and jump on the offer like Floyd on a journalist. This is when I hear Zukiswa's voice: "Are you done giving money away?" She then grabs my hand and says, "We'll be back when this guy gives you a serious price." About 20 minutes later, I got the sandals at 900 Ksh.

I love Kenya profoundly. And one day I'll share all the idiosyncrasies of the place. The breathtaking historical accuracy of Fort Jesus. The state-police tendencies creeping in after the Westgate and Mombasa bombs. The ubiquitous flashing security cameras. Kenyans' penchant for warm beer and their aversion to ice cubes.

Most importantly, how I was enjoying a cold Tusker in the Uber en route to the
Old City in Mombasa and, realising that we were already there and I couldn't finish the 500ml bottle, I asked where I could dispense of it. The Uber driver responds nonchalantly, "Sir, this is a free country. You can drink your beer in peace on the street. Your beer is no one else's business."