Posts Tagged ‘kenya’
For most of high school and early college, I struggled to find clothes that I liked and that really suited me. I had phases where I tried out different genres (prep, punk, all black), but didn’t really feel comfortable in any of them. Until I found the top shelves (so high I still couldn’t reach them even while standing on a chair) of my dad’s closet.
There I found stacks of gorgeous rumpled fabrics in a dazzling array of colors. Long men’s and boys’ shirts in kente and ankara cloths with swirling, intricate designs; feet-sweeping and embroidered tunics in soft blue materials; piles of funky-patterned scarves in every color combination you can imagine; printed dresses of all styles (scoop-neck, strapless, cap sleeves). These were the clothes of my parents’ past, the past of my brothers and I, all originating from Nigeria. How had I forgotten about this clothing?
So I took some, and then more, and then more. Shortened some pieces, hemmed others, cut into yet others to make them fit and work for me. I wear my brothers’ discarded clothes, along with my dad’s, too. Of course I still shop at stores like H&M, but these clothes are what make me feel like me.
There’s a new blog that I love, called Nairobi Style, that is modern and completely original. Why not photos of street style in East Africa, one of the most vibrant, fresh and colorful fashion scenes I’ve ever encountered? Whenever I go to Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania or Uganda, I try to get as many fabrics and accessories as I can. You can see why from these photos.
Photos via Nairobi Style
Ordinarily, I love foreign coins: their strange inscriptions, their unfamiliar weight, their sometimes odd sizes. But what’s interesting about foreign coins is the way, after enough time, they also fool you. Rummaging around in my wallet, my hand grasps a coin I think is a quarter or dime, but turns out to be a 5-peso or 200-shilling piece.
At first, I was amused — I got a little feeling of secret pleasure when I picked it up or if I didn’t notice and accidentally gave it to a cashier who handed it back to me, confused — it was my proof that I haven’t always been here, a responsible, rooted member of New York society. Now, however, the coins have become annoying. Despite how many times I try to purge all of my purses of the foreign money, it still emerges: in hidden pockets, ripped seams, anywhere I could look for change to pay a bill. And when I’m in a hurry the last thing I want is 30 pesos instead of $2.25 for my subway pass. I clean and I empty, yet again, and the coins glare back at me, shiny and resilient. You can’t get rid of us that easily, they seem to be saying.
It’s been a long ride. When I left Mexico City at the end of April, I landed in New York. After a brief two weeks there, I was on my way to Nairobi, Kenya. At one point during my four weeks in Kenya, I went to Naivasha, a town in Kenya’s Rift Valley. A few days after I got back, I went to Kampala, Uganda, where I stayed for a week and wished it was longer.
When that week ended, it was time to return to New York. So I boarded a plane that took me from Entebbe, Uganda to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates with a layover in Nairobi. Upon disembarking in Sharjah, I took a bus and cab to the airport in Dubai, where I then had a flight to New York — with a layover in Moscow (yes I know I went further away from my destination, often the lure of price wins). Some observations from this timeline:
1) Hanging in the Dubai airport with a charming, interesting Zimbabwean man and two cranky but funny Nigerian women who ordered me to move from my seat (along with a hilarious Congolese man who kept substituting French for English) — I almost didn’t want to leave for my departure lounge. Almost.
2) Being held by a Russian customs woman who didn’t believe my American passport was real (all the extra pages and African visas!).
3) The deep luxury of the United Arab Emirates embodied to me by the fluffy white caftans of the men and the ornate, almost gaudy royal buildings, juxtaposed with the cold shabbiness of the Moscow airport, which was made complete by a designated smoking stand where Russians huddled, puffing silently.
And now, I am finally settling for a good, long while in New York. Unexpectedly, the idea of staying in one place is very appealing.
Photo by Richard Mosse
I would like to first issue a disclaimer that I am guilty of this habit. Being an expatriate is a strange, wonderful thing: living outside of your home is a constant challenge and a thrill. It forces you to step outside of your boundaries, to be confronted with hostile languages, to be the outsider, the different one, the foreigner. To sum it up, being an expat can be terrifyingly incredible.
So that may be why, when we perpetual expatriates find others like us abroad, we can’t help but regard them with a little suspicion and wariness. We slowly test them out, trying to figure out why there are also there, judging their reasons and excuses as if we somehow have more of a right to be there. The most popular question in this test is also the most annoying: “So how long will you be here?”
Too short and you’re just a backpacker, a traveler with no connection to the local community. Too long and we admire your commitment to your purpose in this foreign country but wonder what you are running from. The hook is that, even if we don’t realize it, for most of us it’s both.
Photo via Women of Kireka
In East Africa, it’s the Indians. In West Africa, it’s the Lebanese. Communities of long-time immigrants who have made Africa their home, but who have tenuous, strained relationships with their fellow residents. They often prosper, owning several businesses, homes, hotels, even corporations — and they employ Nigerians, Liberians, Ugandans, Kenyans and other native Africans to work for them while helping to fuel along fragile economies.
An OK agreement for all, it would seem, but things are never that easy. Black Africans complain of mistreatment and disrespect from these immigrants: in fact, when you ask a Liberian or Kenyan about a Lebanese or Indian, the reaction is usually mocking and full of distaste, and sometimes vitriolic. Many Lebanese and Indians, however, say that they genuinely harbor no ill will towards black Africans and even consider themselves Africans.
When the resentment towards these immigrants builds, it can turn deadly very quickly, as it did the day I witnessed a bloody protest in Uganda. The day echoed former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s expelling of Indian-Ugandans a few decades ago. I wonder what’s next for these tension-filled relationships.
I won’t repeat all that has been said about the historic significance of Africa’s first World Cup. It’s a big deal, obviously. While South Africa is still the continent’s most economically advanced (and) politically stable nation, and even though the ways in which Africa will financially and diplomatically benefit from the tournament are severely limited, the fact that a global sports event of such importance is on African soil is an idea that was unimaginable to many not so long ago.
And for this World Cup at least, there’s no better place to watch it than on the continent. The opening game was during my first weekend in Uganda, and I couldn’t have ignored it even if I tried (I didn’t). The local supermarket played a radio station that announced players’ every move in the Luganda language, dimly lit bars nearby blasted the game on small boxy televisions and the city even erected a giant screen in the middle of town that lets commuters precariously drive and watch the game at the same time. It is more than World Cup fever, it’s World Cup malaria. It slowly built for months and has now taken over our bodies and minds, and it refuses to let go until it is finished. The malaria doesn’t discriminate by nationality. We’re not just cheering for South Africa or Nigeria or the Ivory Coast — we’re cheering for Africa, for her present, for her future.
Photo via Row One Magazine
“Do you want some skinny jeans?”
We didn’t even notice him walk up behind us, this young gangly guy who directed us to his stall where he was selling racks and racks of American branded jeans. We were at Toi market on a deeply hot, sunny day in Nairobi. Sweat crept down our backs as we wandered through the sprawling dusty maze of people hawking everything from hats and shoes to oranges and mangoes. In Kenya, the best clothes shopping can be found not at the expatriate-crowded malls or shopping centers, but at this large market that pushes into Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum. There Kenyans can find for a few dollars designer American and European brands that retail for hundreds more in the West. The market, and smaller ones like it, are vital daily hubs of activity: the constant hustle and creativity when it comes to the trade of secondhand clothing is a hallmark of urban life in Africa.
Two girlfriends and I were already saddled with plastic bags filled with sundresses and blouses we had bought at other vendors, but were amused enough by the skinny jeans line to look at his wares. Donated and used clothing is a touchy topic in Africa because many countries’ textile industries collapsed under the weight of secondhand clothing imports that were introduced in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, more than any other region, East Africa boasts a booming secondhand scene.
Philanthropists, like the very misguided Jason Sadler and his million t-shirts, still want to donate clothing to African countries. But if there are some truths in East Africa, one is that the dynamic efficiency and innovation of the secondhand clothing trade will never cease to continue.
Last night was my first night back in Uganda, back in Kampala. The place where I spent my first real adult years, the place where I experienced joy, disappointment, success, failure, love and growth — all encapsulated in this small but chaotic town. I’m staying with an amazing friend T, who had jumped to my aid only two years ago by giving me a room in his house. I headed with his roommates to a newish Mexican restaurant/bar in town for a birthday party.
T stumbled in late, as the dinner was drawing to an end, drunk from a work meeting. I stayed and we drank some more before getting into his car to leave. I tried to take the keys from him, but like a Ugandan now, he wouldn’t let me. So we roared home on the dark empty streets, through the lush foliage, up the last dusty hill. I laughed as I stuck my head out of the window into the wind, and T lighted a cigarette as he told me another story. Driving in Africa is one of my favorite things to do, even if it it is also one of the most dangerous.
Drink driving, as East Africans call it, is a huge problem in this region. Kenyans, Ugandans, Tanzanians refuse to abandon their cars at home when they go out to bars and clubs at night, and, as a result, frequent accidents happen. A Kenyan photographer died, so did a friend of a friend. On my first day in Kenya, a woman on the radio reported that 1,000 deaths had occurred over the last 4 months, mainly due to a combination of unruly matatu vans and drunk driving. Still they drink, they laugh and they drive.
Photo via Project Diaspora