"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Sunday, 7 November 2010

My Tent is my Castle

So here I am in the middle of Nairobi in a dark tent illuminated only by my laptop’s eerie screen light. It’s all a little unreal, as if many realities were interwoven into one. A tent in a middle of a thriving metropolis, with internet access in the tent but not much more, as I have forgotten to bring a sleeping mat and am otherwise travelling light. Light on gear but not tools of trade. Crawling back into the tent I enter yet another incongruent reality: books, maps, computer, cameras, notebook and newspapers - an office in a tent: a little shabby, uncomfortable but quaint and private.

I might have of course stayed in the dorms, which are not much more expensive than the campsite (and by campsite I mean the patch of soggy earth between the corrugated iron fence of the enclosure and the brick wall of the ‘bungalow’ fitting exactly my tent and not much more). But I like the idea of having a place to escape to if I grow tired of the ever-jolly company of fellow-travellers. The girls’ dorms feel like a summer camp, bunk beds adorned with towels, sarongs and cosmetics laid out everywhere, the air filled with perfume and giggling. Call me a grump but I prefer my cold earth and the stench of my socks.

I might be a little paranoid but every evening I drag some dray branches from the nearby compost heap and spread them nicely around my tent. So every time I go out after dark I scratch myself, stumble and curse over them. But the idea is that so will the night intruder thus alarming me to his presence. We are in Africa after all and this is my own little kraal or boma, as it is here known. The only problem, probably not encountered by Stanley and others who boldly faced African wild beasts, is that every morning a diligent campsite worker laboriously sweeps my only defence onto the compost pile.

For all those waiting for a more universal or culturally informed message at the end of this post here it comes. My peculiar civilisation vs primitivism situation is a microcosm of Kenya. In Kibera and Mathare, the two infamous slums surrounding Nairobi, countless young men, jobless and penniless, stroll around in worn out clothes flashing the newest mobile models. Despite the unemployment rate of 65% among youth (40% across all ages) over 80% of people over 15 own mobile phones. Phones and access to modern technology is the new status symbol regardless of weather you live in affluent Westlands, the slums or in the agricultural outback. The posh and the poor intermingle and share the same reality. Huge SUVs with tinted windows jump through pot-holes and raise clouds of orange dirt from under-maintained streets. Smartly dressed business-women jump through mud puddles on unpaved streets on their way to work in new shiny skyscrapers. Little children sell peanuts for $0.1 in front of a club where the revellers casually splash $1000 for a bottle of bubbly. Kenya’s GINI coefficient is high but in comparison to other developing countries it does not do too badly. Yet the fact that the same or starker pictures can be seen in Moscow, Beijing, Dehli or other African countries, does not make it less striking.

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