Celebrating East African Writing!
I was going to Eastlands. It comes from Eastlands. It is manufactured and disseminated from Eastlands. Its heart is here: creative vibrant and often deviant. Fast changing, unstructured aural graffiti. It awaits shipment to the suburbs. Its eagerly assimilated edicts usually delivered via the pervasive medium that is urban music. Genge.
Eastlands is the lexicographical authority of the new generation in all that’s Sheng. Language stopped expanding. Like the economy it is shrinking. The part of it we use at least. More communication less words. The average teenager’s ramblings sound like a karaoke mix of popular songs choruses. Imitative and incoherent to the point of inarticulacy. Less personal effort, more interaction. But I wasn’t going to that Eastlands.
Eastlands also happens to have the misfortune of being the site of an army airbase. That’s right an army airbase. After the heroics of 1982, the air force was reincarnated as an aerial division of the army that specialized in aerial acrobatics for entertainment. A sort of Jester up there, in the air. The only worse idea than that is putting gas canisters outside a supermarket store. In case of war, it is a prime target and with the large civilian population just adjacent to it there will be blood.
Which genius decided to put a secondary school in an Air force base? Or is the Air force’s main defence against enemy attack a civilian shield? Our air force’s insignia interestingly is a bull’s-eye. I have no military experience outside the realm of videogames but I tend to think that in a dogfight* it will be easier for enemy pilots to aim for a plane that has been marked with a target. What is the point of trying to camouflage a plane then painting a target on it? But I wasn’t going to that Eastlands either.
I was going to Eastleigh. Not the one in Hampshire UK. But the one in Somalia. Somalia’s commercial capital.
The baby in the matatu was screaming. Again. She had lungs like Michael Phelps. And made a sound like a cat thrown into a posho mill. Even in a number 9 matatu most of which offer an enhanced audio experience you could hear her. I was ready to pay her mother with Taxi fare to get off the bloody Matatu and get a cab when an ingenious idea hit me. Can’t someone just start a transport company that does not permit children under the age of twelve? They will have a customer for life in me.
I hate children and we got there just as I had finished reading doctor Mengele’s guide to self sterilization. The conductor got out. They always do. To direct traffic. No self respecting Matatu tout sits through a traffic jam in Eastleigh. It is professional negligence of duty. Punishable by cold stares from the paying patrons. To be a number 9 matatu tout you must be an amateur traffic policeman who can untangle this Gordian knot. Traffic in Eastleigh slow. Continental drift is actually faster than traffic in Eastleigh.
Eastleigh has all the pretensions of being a city with none of the conveniences of one. The sewerage system is overflows when it rains. The road network is imaginary in the crucial areas and crime is through the leaky roof. How did the first Somali settlers here convince their brothers to follow them here? It must have gone like this: My brothers we have found the perfect place, the planning is a mess, water is a luxury, roads are sparse, and the government stopped bothering about it. It is just like home!
Somalia has problems. Not like ours. It is the poster child for failed states. The chart topping, ever present disaster from whence only bad news flows from. A locus of economic, political and social fault lines that regularly give in. The problems have become so interconnected with their neighbours that they are irresolvable alone. Of course none of this is Somali’s fault. You would be hard-pressed to find a more honourable and dignified grouping in Kenya. It is the Italians.
The Romans were great administrators but their larger province of Italy was totally rubbish at it. The British were the best at it. The French were between extremes: one minute they were bizarrely malevolent (they declared that everyone in Haiti was a slave and saddled them with a 106 year debt) and across the pond they were benign to Senegal. Israel is still practicing on the Palestinians. Belgians were the worst. Violent, oppressive and extremely petty. Poor Zaire might never recover from her mad scientist experiment in administration. In fact Belgium was so bad at colonization that Germany occupied them twice in the twentieth century to show them how things ought to be run. Colonies basically copy their owners approach to administration.
The Italians have had so many rulers last millennium and more administrations than Uganda within the same period. Coalition governments are a house of cards. Thus they rarely respect authority. What really is the point of obeying the new rules if Hannibal is coming across the Alps to impose a new set of commandments? Why listen to Il Duce Mussolini when the Allies are coming from Sicily to hang him from a lamp post? What is the point of haranguing Berlusconi on his mistresses when he is just a fleeting prime minister? They passed on this disdain for authority to their subjects. That does not however mean that the Italians do not respect all authority. They respect the Mafia who have neatly filled the void the government left.
The part of Somalia that is broken is Italian Somalia. British Somaliland has frequent elections and a working government. French Somalia (Djibouti) also seems to be running with only occasional hitches. The Italian part is a warzone, which is the world’s favourite litter box for toxic waste an ungovernable, unforgiving and barren wasteland. A place where the cruelty of Mother Nature is only surpassed by the cruelty of Man. Guns here are the national symbol. A place where children spray you with magazines before they can actually read one. It should change its name to Pistolvania. And I was in Eastleigh its commercial capital.
Dust. Everywhere. Clings on everything. When it rains it forms mud an even bigger nuisance. Eastleigh is sight of eco-terrorism. Scorched Earth policy. There is no tree in sight. The only green in sight is from the greenback of the money changers. And Khat of course. Khat is to Somalis what Vodka is to Russians what guns are to Americans: dangerous obsession that adversely affects the community yet no one will ban it.
There are rumours that Osama has his fingers in the Somali mess. Iran possibly. Taliban probably. Two decades of civil war, dislocation, drought, disasters, and degradation have made Somalia a Petri dish of the fungus that is terrorism and recently piracy. Only when al-Qaeda stepped in and begin training Al-shabab did Somalia stagger back to our collective consciousness of the world. Trapped between nowhere and nothing the people have taken to the ocean.
These pirates are entrepreneurial terrorists. The ocean is an escape a ticket out of this desolate place that claims millions. It is an Eldorado where riches abound in plenty, a chance at decent life a chance to escape Somalia.
Most of the ransom money finds its way to Kenya. Faced with an influx of unchecked Somali immigration the collective and vindictive Kenyan knee jerk reaction has been overwhelmingly racist. No one dares mention that Biashara Street looks like the cast of a Bollywood blockbuster. But everyone talks of checking Somali Immigration. They forget that the largest direct foreign investor to Kenya now is probably Somalia. Dollars are dollars whether they come from Mogadishu or Washington. In fact Somali dollars are better; they come with no strings attached. Plus they do not even need infrastructure before pumping the money in. Look at Eastleigh. It has all the conveniences of an outside toilet in Afghanistan yet the money keeps coming. It shows how overwhelmingly Xenophobic we are, forgetting that a section of our population are ethnic Somalis. In fact when it comes to Somalis Kenya has conducted a dreaded campaign of extermination in the sixties and seventies.
The Shifta war was largely ideological war with Kenyatta and Selasie using British tactics of concentration camps and state of emergency to terrorise the communist backed Shiftas. They wanted all Somalis under one country. Same thing Hitler wanted with all German speakers. One nation, one people all united by the Kalashnikov with Khat as the staple food. The ideals of the war were lost and most Shiftas resorted to petty banditry. Our military was attacked again last week in the north eastern border. I’m beginning to think we need to hire a militia to protect our military.
Eastlands is where cultures meet. Where interest free Islam meets conscience free capitalism and somehow in an inexplicable merging of what appears to be polar opposites and succeeds at it. It is where the minarets of Eastleigh gently yield to steeples of Pumwani. Where the east, Muslim, nomadic united and Somali, meet the west, fractured and Kenyan and co exist in an uneasy peace.
Eastleigh dresses a large part of Nairobi. This is interesting because majority of the women doing the selling hardly bother to keep their Fashion ala mode. They all prefer the black veil, clandestine and discreet. They offer you choice which themselves they cannot choose from. Like drug dealers they rarely use their product. Strictly for selling, not for personal consumption.
But I was here for the food. The glorious, palate savoring, mix of cultures food. Food is the most fun you can have fully clothed. Eastleigh being the labyrinthine mix of culture is the perfect place to get good food. Exotic food. I was here for the goat Biriani. This goat Biriani is for my money the best, nectar and ambrosia fit for a Greek God.
To be honest the Goat Biriani I ate that day deserved to go out and hold public addresses, meetings get-togethers, where it would be the keynote speaker encouraging all other fledgling chefs to be all they can be. Yes you can. It was all that good food is supposed to be messy, lean and exotic. Eating something else is under utilizing your taste buds. Honestly after this meal you feel like everything else tastes like the swab from a pap smear of someone with advanced ovarian cancer.
And that’s the point of Eastleigh. It may lead to an increase in proliferation of guns, smuggling of goods, increased crime, buying up of all our property but we ought to keep them. For the goat Biriani if for nothing else. The secret of the Biriani? The goat is from Somalia. Made in Somalia. Or as my host told me “Mad in Somalia.”
©Waga Odongo 2010