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Karibu! July 2, 2010

Filed under: Dreams of youth — Chika Oduah @ 7:42 pm
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I used to dream about Kenya as a little girl. Lying on my belly, I’d watch the clouds drifting from beyond the ivory lace curtains in my bedroom. Slowly drifting clouds. And I’d wonder if those were the same clouds that children see in Kenya.

In my mind, Kenya evoked excitement and romanticism. And at 13 years old, my idea of romance was sitting in a field of tall grass listening to exotic birds and drinking mango juice. I’d fallen in love with Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa,” with the lilting guitar riffs and tight harmonies of local musicians, with the beautiful syllables of kiswahili (“hakuna matata”) and with the legacy of Jomo Kenyatta.

I promised myself that I’d go to Kenya and perhaps have a home there. I’ve constructed the home in my mind numerous times. Red in color. Bungalow in shape. Quaint in design. Close to nature.

A decade later, I’m in Kenya. The next three months, I plan to soak up everything: the language, the food, the clothing, the colors of the earth, the smell of the air, everything.

I’m a Nigerian-American in Kenya. You are welcome to share my experiences. Karibu!

For more info about me, visit: www.chika-oduah.com 

 

Scenes in Kenya: Finale October 14, 2010

Filed under: Scenes in Kenya — Chika Oduah @ 4:40 am
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I left Kenya at the end of my residency program on Sept. 14. Kenya, I’ll be back…!

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The ground from whence I come (Goodbye Kenya)

Filed under: the journey — Chika Oduah @ 3:23 am
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“One who is climbing a tree, must still come down.”

I am truly grateful for the opportunities before me, for the ability to tell the people’s stories and for the gift of words. Life’s joys can only be actualized by fulfillment and because of the goodness of others, I am reaching fulfillment.

Are you’re wondering what in the world I’m talking about?

“One who is climbing a tree, must still come down.”

I heard this proverb when watching a Nigerian movie one evening. An old Igbo man was talking to his son who had become rich and had forgotten his “roots.” The proverb stuck with me. (Africans are so eloquently expressive and such aphorisms are like ripe fruits in the mouth: sweet, wholesome and good for the soul.) Everyone’s goal in life is to progress, move forward, grow…climb a tree. But, the ground is still below and we mustn’t forget the ground from whence we came…and still come. We must come down, specifically to thank.

I write this for those who have helped me and as much as I can vocally express thanks, I believe nothing is more solid than the written word.

So, there is a man at the Medill School of Journalism named Bill. He is the one who coordinated this one-of-a-kind opportunity to report in Kenya. He worked hard to make it happen and while I crisscross from Nyerere Road to University Way to Harry Thuku Road to Kijabe Street and enter Longonot Place to take the elevator to the 3rd floor and walk into the K24 newsroom, I have to remember Bill. He’s not only a journalist and an instructor; he is a generous fellow whose eyes twinkle when he smiles. I’m serious guys, they twinkle!

Bobby, my longest- running friend; the quintessential, “good” buddy who listens and says exactly what you need to hear at the right time. Bobby, thank you for making me laugh, being my friend, encouraging me and never thinking that my goals are just “too big.” I can never, ever, never forget someone like Bobby; such a friend is hard to find in this life and I know this all too well.

And there’s Tope…. the slender, slim-eyed wonder of a friend whose soft, gentle voice leaves a lifelong impact. Tope has not only helped to guide my goals but has made me feel important. Said that… I’m not weird, but unique. Being the lofty, idealist, dreamer that I am, I’ve lived most of my life with my head in the clouds, and it can, indeed, get very lonely in those clouds. Tope sat next to me in the clouds. Good company. I thank him.

My other good friend is also a high-flying dreamer, but he is also like solid ground. And when he gets quiet, brings his palms together and raises them to his center of his face and just…watches, I know he’s thinking…deep thoughts. My thinking, dreaming, ever-solid friend told me not worry when Bill told me that some of the security concerns in Kenya may affect the university’s decision to approve of my trip. When Bill told me everything had went through and all the paperwork had been approved, my friend was no less excited as I was. The opportunities that he saw for me in Kenya were different, yet just as noble as the ones that I saw for myself. He believes I can do just about anything. Great friends come in divine packages like Uzoma.

And there are others, not a lot because I keep a small circle, but there are others. Shoulders I have mounted so I can grab the tree that I am climbing. Pastor Mike. Uncle Nche. Aunty Ngozi. Aunty Deborah. Uncle Ifeanyi. Dr. White, who exposed me to the beauty of anthropology. Mrs. Hobbs, who, when I was 11-years-old, told me that I must be a writer.

And the believers of God.

My younger siblings-three sisters and three brothers. Though I’m the oldest, I tell you, I’ve learned more from them than they’ve learned from me. We are a silly bunch and the hundreds of hours I’ve spent laughing with them are more valuable than gold. I wouldn’t trade my siblings for anything in this world.

Nurturing. Lifting. Encouraging. Teaching. Correcting. Loving. Valuing. Listening. Learning. Feeding. That’s what my parents do for me. They are helping me to live a rich and full life. I believe that a dog can only be a dog. An eagle must live an eagle’s life. And an elephant must follow elephants. I thank my parents for allowing me to be who I am. They have truly fostered my skills. I do love to write, and I believe that they enjoy reading my words. I remember driving in the car with my dad one afternoon a couple years back and I was scribbling in a notebook. Feeling my dad’s gaze, I looked up and he asked what I was writing. I told him, “my book.” He didn’t say anything else with his voice. With his silence, he was saying he loves me.

I took after my mom; she, too, is a writer-in-spirit. I thank them for passing on their traits, the good ones of course. I have my father’s smile and my mother’s creativity. She gave me her intense personality and my dad passed on his patience. Throughout my years of finding myself, they already knew who I was and who I would become.

I laugh like my mom, and my mom and I enjoy talking “big” together in the living room. And I finally understand that she is the source of my fiery passion.

I’ve enjoyed all my years of sitting beside my dad in the car as he, tired from work, picked me up from school. And like my dad, I am inquisitive. He always told us, “Ask questions! Read! Read everything!”

There is nothing like having a great set of parents. The greatest blessing is having parents who respect you as a person, love you as their child and believe in the gift of your future.

And the beauty of this journalist’s life manifests in meeting more people, telling their stories and thanking them for sharing. I look forward to continuing my climb.

But may I never forget the ground from whence I came…and still come.

 

Kenya’s children: yes, it takes a village to raise them September 24, 2010

Filed under: the journey — Chika Oduah @ 1:01 am
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If you never knew it, now you know- African children are beautiful.

Okay, before you raise your eyebrows, I want to clarify that I am not demeaning any other groups of people with this comment. I am simply making a note that despite poverty, hardship, and racial discrimination, African children still captivate and glow with innocent beauty. Kenyan’s children are no exception. Everywhere I went throughout the country, I looked out for children and they were not hard to miss. I saw them in kitchens, playing on the streets, washing clothes, crying, laughing, etc.

This collage shows kids that I met in Nairobi and Nyeri. Top, Left to right: 1) These two girls live in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. It’s in the southwest corner of Nairobi’s outskirts. The shy girls watched as my K24 colleagues and I interviewed residents and took photos. 2) Here is another kid I saw in Kibera. Looking over his shoulder, he stood next to a river of filth. 3) These hyper kids went ballistic when they saw me and the K24 camera-guy shooting on the school campus. I was at a primary school in Dagoretti, Nairobi doing a story on dyslexia. Bottom row, left to right: 1) This dyslexic boy is another student from the primary school in Dagoretti. I thought he was so adorable and he spoke well during the interview. 2) This is a young girl in Nyeri who lives at a youth center because her family cannot afford to raise her. When I asked about her impoverished childhood, she couldn’t answer and began to cry. 3) More kids from Kibera

Top row, left to right: 1) These kids were watching as customers wandered through the Maasai Market at the Kenya International Conference Center in Nairobi’s Central Business District 2) I played peak-a-boo with the boy with the large head and enormous eyes. Whenever I would look at him, he’d laugh hysterically and hide. I met him in Central Province. He’s about 3 years old. 3) adolescent girls in Nyeri  Bottom row, left to right: 1) These adorable girls live in Central Province. I thought it was so cute how the girl in the plaid dress was hiding behind the taller girl when I stood before them 2) Most of these boys are orphans and they live at a youth center in Nyeri 3) This is Phyllis’ nephew. He’s a cute kid with lovely cocoa-skin and huge, almond-shaped eyes

Africa’s children have a lot on their shoulders. They are the future of this continent and as they grow, they will surely face more hardship. Many of them live in struggling communities and statistics say that most of them will not live past the age of 48. But they have already defied the odds by being born, surviving infancy and sleeping under a roof.

They will probably be told that they are not worthy of success, and they will surely see demeaning images of people with brown skin being maltreated, enduring hellish experiences. But these children have the ability to rise and as Africans tend to do, they will survive and let’s pray that they thrive.

 

More K24 Features September 17, 2010

Filed under: K24 — Chika Oduah @ 11:57 pm

I attended the Maker Faire Africa 2010 (http://makerfaireafrica.com/) a few weeks ago and had a blast. I learned about it back in July and knew that I had to do a story about. The 3-day event brings together artists, creators, engineers and the like from around Africa to showcase technology and various art work. I met a South African, a Tanzanian, Ghanaian, Rwandan, and other Africans. I also met a Nigerian guy…named Chika! We were so happy to see each other. This story was also an exclusive; no other broadcast news company featured it. But the Maker Faire Africa really is a big deal because it truly is breeding ground for innovation and Africa’s next technology genius will be there. I’m already planning to attend the Maker Faire Africa 2011. Here is the video that I did: (By the way, I wasn’t able to get a camera operator, so I was doing the camera work all by myself.)

Finishing the dyslexia story was quite difficult, but i finally got it done. First, I never got permission from Kenyan’s Ministry of Education to conduct interviews with teachers, so that took a big chunk out of the story. And secondly, I was not able to find another dyslexic kid to focus on for the story. For part 1, Felix Kariuki (Phyllis’ son) was the “face.” I wanted another face for part 2, but it was nearly impossible. Parents didn’t want their kids on the camera. One lady kept canceling our schedule interview, and so on. So, part 2 ended up being more ‘official’ that the first part, with numerous organizational representatives and stuff.

 

K24 Features September 16, 2010

Filed under: K24 — Chika Oduah @ 10:11 pm

This is a story that I did back in August. I’ve been following the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) for the past 3 months. NYO is the first of its kind in Kenya, a classical orchestra for youth across the nation. Yes, there are classical orchestras, but they are pretty much for the elite kids who attend international schools and such. But the NYO is supposedly, “the face of Kenya” and will incorporate Kenyan youth of diverse ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. This story was actually an exclusive. No other broadcast company had reported it.

When this story aired on K24’s IN20 program (a magazine feature program), other media became interested in the NYO and reporters asked me for Ashni’s contact.

Ashni is a sweet and bubbly girl and her family, especially her mother, are very kindhearted. I really enjoyed meeting this family. I consider the Shahs as friends, not just story sources. I wrote about one of my outings with the Shah family here: https://chikainkenya.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/a-day-at-village-market/

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I’m working on a story about dyslexia.  https://chikainkenya.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/k24-day-12-dyslexia-awareness/ Well, here is part 1 of the 2 part series. It featured on K24’s In20.

 

Poetry in Nyeri

Filed under: the journey — Chika Oduah @ 10:07 pm
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I was able to witness, actually, not only witness- but to participate in the first ever open mic poetry event in Nyeri, Kenya! It was organized by a guy named Sam. I went with Kevin, a cameraguy at K24 and was not expecting to recite anything. But I decided to go ahead- hey, why not? So, I skimmed through a book of poems. But I couldn’t find anything that I particularly liked so I quickly wrote my own poem in about 5 minutes. I titled it, ‘7000 miles.’

I’m 7,000 miles away from home

What am I doing here?

I’m 7,000 miles away from home

My mother, she’s quite worried about my safety…

They say Africans are dangerous

And that I should be very

Very careful

I can’t be careful enough

But

I’m 7,000 miles away from home

But I feel like I am home

Because the people that I see here

With the same sun-kissed hue that I have,

They have the same

Kinky hair that crowns my own head

And even though we have different accents

We speak the same language

The language of the

African soul,

And the heart

I’m 7,000 miles away from home

And I’m having the best time of my life

In the most beautiful land in the world

The motherland of great people

And of even greater dreams

I’m 7,000 miles away from home

No, I think I’m home

Pardon me,

I know I’m home

After reading it, I quickly scribbled another poem called ‘One by One.’ I borrowed the title from a South African song used in The Lion King movie. Here is the other poem that I read that evening:

The color of my skin

That is dark

I am proud of it

The color of my skin

That is dark

I will die

With it

The one thing that really frustrates me

Bothers me

And tears me apart

Is seeing black skin bleached yellow

I don’t see it often,

But when I do,

The image stays with me,

And it’s hard to forget the ladies

With yellow faces

And black arms

And bluish fingertips

Would you change the color of rich soil?

The color of good coffee?

The color of sweet chocolate?

Show me the liars who said black is not beautiful

And I will show you a weak people

We can never change Africa

Until we stop bleaching our skin,

Bleaching our minds

And bleaching our culture

The color of my skin

That is dark

I am proud of it

The color of my skin

That is dark

I will die

With it

The greatest part of this shindig was seeing young Kenyans engaging in the art of poetry. They were quite talented! And after the warm applause I received after reading my poems, my heart told me that Africa is the place for me; that Africa is where my heart was all along; that Africa is where I will find true happiness; that Africa is where my future will unfold; that there is no place, and no place in this universe, like Africa.

 

K24 Day 43: Back to Nyeri September 6, 2010

Filed under: K24 — Chika Oduah @ 1:16 pm
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I went to Nyeri again last Thursday and stayed until Saturday afternoon. This time, I went for 2 enterprise stories that I’ve been researching for the past three weeks and I am particularly excited about these two stories. In a small town, a youth center houses former street children and teaches them about environmental sustainability. But this center is doing some very interesting things. A social revolution is breeding here.

The socialists principles underlying the foundation of the youth center are evident in a number of ways. Firstly, at the center, the youth are encouraged to take up skills and to be a “good human being,” and by doing so, they gain points for which they can use to “purchase” items such as clothing. The “directors” of the center, Andrew and Paul are what many Americans would call radical. I’ve conversed extensively with both Andrew and Paul and one can’t help but to be inspired. Paul has a economics background and Andrew is trained in technological engineering and by combining the two disciplines, Paul and Okello have formulated socioeconomic principles to help Africans to help themselves out of poverty.

On Thursday,  Kevin (the K24 camera guy who accompanied me) and I observed Andrew and his young volunteers discussing their project called Ujamma. Ujamma means “family hood,” in Kiswahili and denotes the idea of togetherness.

Ujamma, as a concept, was first practiced in Tanzania where the country’s first President, a very afrocentric and leftist leader named Julius Nyerere, advocated socialist ideals, promoting the idea that the land belongs to everyone and such. It didn’t last, but Andrew and his volunteers are convinced that Africans must returned to its tradition of helping one another. Ujamma, African socialism, they believe that this is the best direction for Africa.

So, these are Africa’s new revolutionary socialist.

When I asked the nine of them if they are socialist, I was met with a variety of replies.

“Socialism is a revolution. The value that we have as human beings shouldn’t be attached to money. Ujamma means family. Family is all of us. “ Tabitha Wangari Muchue, 23-years-old

“As much as we are trying to adopt capitalism, we are trying to keep our tradition of socialism. We want to keep socialism in us. This is in us. We cannot run from ourselves.”  Harry Mkala, 22-years-old

“This is the time for another revolution…If you mean African socialism, then yes I am [a socialist]. I belive in Africans taking care of each other. Not the imported ideas from the West. I don’t believe in this debate between Marxism and communism. I believe in the socialism that my grandmother told me that you look after your neighbor.” Susan Nyambura, 23-years-old

“Africa has always been social. The child is brought up by the village. We look after each other.” Andrew Okello-Syata, 42-years-old

“The work of my body, my brain, my hands, that is what I see in Ujamma. That’s the beauty of it. I see money as very dirty but your sweat is cleaner.” Jannath Bhagar

 

Food in Kenya September 5, 2010

Filed under: the journey — Chika Oduah @ 1:03 pm
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Throughout my stay here in Kenya, I’ve been taking photos of food whenever I can remember to do so. The foods I have eaten include traditional Kenyan dishes, “Kenyanized” food and international cuisine. Traditional foods are like, githeri, mukimo and ugali. “Kenyanized” dishes include bhajia, samosa and eggrolls. These foods have been in Kenya for decades but are not indigenous. Kenya, well, specially Nairobi and Mombasa, is a blend of cultures. In these two most popular cities, you will find heavy influences of Asian Indian, Arabic, and Portuguese cultures. As far as international cuisine goes, I’m specifically referring to Italian food, Chinese, American, etc. Here we go!  (Place the mouse over the photo to identify the food items.)

Top row, left to right: 1) Mukimo and kuku choma. 2)Fish soup and spinach. 3)Spicy meatballs. Bottom row, left to right: 4) Mboga mix. 5) Pineapples. 5) Bhajia, vegetarian eggroll, stew and mango juice

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Before I came to Kenya, I read about a dish called, nyama choma and every blog and website that I read about Kenya stated that every visitor to Kenya must eat nyama choma. Confession: I have been in Kenya now for 10 weeks and I have yet to eat nyama choma. Second confession: I don’t eat meat, with the exception of fish.

Nyama (I have also seen it spelled, nyoma) means beef, or what Kenyans say, “meat” and choma means “roasted. American translation: grilled/barbecued beef. Nyama choma truly is the national food of Kenya because all the ethnic groups eat it. People here keep telling me to try it and I say, I don’t eat beef. After the initial shock of meeting a non-meat eating black person, they usually ask me if I am sick or if I am Muslim (which is strange because Muslims eat meat, just not pig, AKA swine.) I tell them, “no,” and explain that I do it to keep good health.

This reminds me, Phyllis’ 65-year-old father hard a hard time understanding this. He kept thinking that I am not well, or that meat makes me sick. Phyllis had to explain to him that I am trying to prevent illness.

But anyway, I have finally relented and said that I will at least eat chicken choma. But even this act of surrender does little to impress my Kenyan friends. “No, nyama!” Is what they often say next.

“Just a little bit won’t kill you,” Phyllis said to me, not once, not twice, but three times.

I ate kuku choma (roasted chicken) in Njoro while the K24 colleagues who had accompanied me at nyama choma. I ended up only eating three of four bites of the chicken because I found the texture quite…different. Chicken in Kenya is tougher than it is in the States, partly because it is free-range, meaning the chickens on the farm are able to run freely as opposed to being caged. By moving around, the chickens strengthen their muscles, thus the meat is tougher, obviously.  But not only was the chicken tough, but I just wasn’t able to like the taste of it. My K24 friends ate the rest, while I nibbled on the mukimo, which is the green “stuff” in the picture. Mukimo is maize, corn and pumpkin leaves mashed together. It tastes like…very thick mashed potatoes but sweeter.

Good fish is hard to find in Nairobi, and I know this mostly because that’s what Nairobians keep telling me. “If you want good fish, you have to go to Kisumu or to the coast [Mombasa]” is the common explanation. But, since I can’t go to either of those places, I have been eating fish, which is always tilapia, in Nairobi, and it tastes okay, nothing spectacular. A lot of the Kenyans I meet don’t really eat fish and maybe that’s because a lot of the Kenyans I meet are Kikuyu. The Kikuyu people come from the central areas of the country and they don’t really have access to fish. Even Phyllis, a Kikuyu, told me that she doesn’t know how to make fish. She and her family buy already prepared fish because they don’t know how to cook it. One K24 camera guy, Kevin, who is also a Kikuyu told me that he only eats fish in the western part of the country because Kikuyus can’t cook fish; but then again, he said Kikuyus can’t cook that well anyway, with the exception of his mother.

So, I went to a popular restaurant with Tom one day and ordered fish soup. It was the only thing on the menu that I could eat anyway, since every thing else was beef and chicken. I ordered a side of spinach to go along with the soup.

The fish soup didn’t taste anything like Nigerian fish soup, which we call pepper soup. Kenyan food is extremely plain, according to my taste. They use very little herbs and seasonings and almost no pepper. Whenever I make a mention of this to other Kenyans, they agree and they tell me that the food in Mombasa if much more flavorful. So the fish soup didn’t have the taste that I wanted and when I asked for pepper, what the waitress brought was also not what I was expecting. I was looking forward to sprinkling grounded red pepper or crushed red pepper flakes onto the fish, but they didn’t even have that-to my great surprise. Tom had to explain “pepper” to the waitress–who kept asking questions as if she has never heard of someone asking for pepper in a restaurant– and she brought a small bowl of what I believe was a blend of red and habanero or scotch-like peppers. The chilled blend was so raw! The seeds were still in it. It spiced up the food, but it did not add taste. Now, as a Nigerian, I know the difference between hot pepper and good pepper. Good pepper is more ideal, because not only is it spicy, but it has a great taste.

Meatballs. You know what that is. The big, oily balls of beef are served after church at Mavuno.

Mgoba mix. I had this dish in Nyeri on Saturday and I really liked it. Mboga means vegetable and Kenyans like veggies, mostly beans and greens. This dish is a mix of local beans, carrots, spinach, kale and onions. Not only is it filling, but it’s healthy.

On the last day of my visit with Pyllis’ family in Nyeri, I had a simple breakfast of pineapple, mango juice and bread. I found it really strange to eat a sliced bread with fruit, but hey, that’s how they do it here. I didn’t even bother to let them know that for the sake of good digestion, fruit is best when eaten on an empty stomach, without the interference of other foods. The pineapples were delicious (the pineapples in this country taste like candy- so sweet!), but I could only eat a few cuts. Everyone else not only ate pineapple, but oranges. I have never eaten more than one fruit at a sitting. Actually that’s not true- fruit salad. But still, I found this as very different.

My plate full of bhajia, veggie eggroll, and stew was my first “Kenyan” meal. While waiting for Pastor Frida after church one Sunday, I went and bought this and it was good, not great, but good. The fresh cup of mango juice tasted amazing. Bhajia, a flat round ball of fried potato and onion, is an Indian dish that has become well-incorporated into Nairobian cuisine. I’ve only had it twice, and the second time I had it, I was so disgusted with all the oil sliding around the plate, that I threw it away. But at the church, it is not very oily and tastes ok. I think I’d like it better if it had some pepper. I’m going to learn how to make bhajia and then find a way to “Nigerianize” it.

Top row, left to right: 1) beans, fish fillet, chapati 2) Thai stir fry 3) boiled aro root Bottom row, left to right: 4) macadamia nut 5) bhajia 6) vegetarian samosa

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Chapati is one of the best flour-based foods I’ve ever tasted. I love bread, and fortunately you can find some variant of fried bread in nearly every culture. You’ve got burrito, pita, flat bread. Chapati, also known as roti, is an Indian unleavened flatbread. It taste just as it looks, thich, chewy, slightly sweet. You can find white or wheat chapatis and Kenyans eat it for breakfast with tea, or with beans and greens. The beans in this dish taste like red beans, I believe it is called nduma.

This delicious Thai stir-fry came from Village Market; I went to that mall with the Shah family several weeks ago. The veggies were fresh and the sauce was sweet. I gotta find time to go back for more.

Boiled aro root taste like chunks of soggy paper. I don’t know any other way to describe it. It is, really, interesting. I saw the actual root growing in Phyllis’ mother’s garden and then Phyllis ordered it at a restaurant so I can see and taste it. She said her kids don’t like it and I can’t blame them. It is really thick, starchy and heavy. It’s unusual white and purple color doesn’t make it look any more appetizing than it already doesn’t. While eating, Phyllis said it is “sweet,” which I didn’t understand. She said it does have a very plain taste, but that is the way it should taste.

I went to a primary school in Central Province and on the school campus is a farm. Macadamia nuts grow wild here. I only know macadamia nut from the little bits you find in chocolate bars.

Samosa is another Indian import to Kenya. Remember, Indians have been in Kenya since the early part of the 1900s. Samosa is a triangular-shaped fried pastry filled with beef, chicken, potatoes and spices. Samosa is like a Jamaican meat patty or Nigerian meat pie, or any of the other meat-filled pastries you find in other cultures.

Top row, left to right: 1)ugali and kale 2) chicken, ugali and tomatoes 3)rice, beans  and fish fillet bottom row, left to right: 4) pizza 5)spring rolls 6) I have no idea

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Many African ethnic groups have a food that looks like ugali. In Nigeria, we have fufu/garri/ or what have you. Ugali is maize flour (aka cornmeal) stirred in boiling water. You can also find ugali in Tanzania and throughout eastern and southern Africa. I read somewhere that South Afrians call it pap. A friend told me that in Zambia and Malawi, it is called nshima.

It took me a while to finally taste ugali. One blogger wrote that ugali is “heavy in the stomach,” well, it wasn’t that heavy for me. It has a gritty texture, as if you’re eating fine sand. Kenyans eat it with greens or nyama/kuku choma. At Phyllis’ family’s house in Nyeri, I had some ugali with kale. I think I ate most of it, too. Tom had ugali with kuku choma and tomato salsa when we went to Renalo’s restaurant.

Rice is what I usually eat in Kenya and unfortunately, is is usually white rice. I eat rice with beans and fish. When I first ate rice here, I was surprised that there was no tomato- based stew. I thought tomato-based stew was everywhere in Africa, I mean, that’s the way West Africans eat stew, and even a lot of Central Africans. But, no. there was no tomato-based stew, only the “juice” from the beans to wet the rice.

The pizza came from a restaurant at Village Market. The taste was unlike what you find in the states. I found this tasted like speciality pizza, with artisan bread and juicy green olives. Spring rolls are everywhere in Nairobi, and usually if you don’t want to beef samosa, the alternative is a veggie spring roll. Another Asian import. I can’t remember what the last picture is- but it looks kind of like a banana or bits of sugar cane.

1)mukimo and kale 2) pizza 3) Swahili chicken curry, rice and salsa 4) chapati 5) veggie spring roll

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By now, most of these foods should be a familiar. The first photo of the mukimo looks different from the previous shot of the mukimo because this is the real “rural, homemade”mukimo. I ate this one in Mureru, Nyeri and not only did it look different from the mukimo I ate at a restaurant in Njoro, but it tasted different as well. Before, I described the mukimo as thick, sweet mashed potatoes. It contained corn kernels but I didn’t feel them. The mukimo in Nyeri also contained corn kernels, but they were really hard. When I told Phyllis this, she was surprised because that corn is considered to be the softer type.

The Swahili chicken curry has a very sweet taste. This dish is from Java House. I’ve had it once and Tom ordered it when we met for the first time. What they call “salsa” is really a just a blend of cut tomatoes, with cilantro and lemon juice. I can’t stand the taste of cilantro, but I really love this salsa.

 

Scenes in Kenya (Part 4)

Filed under: Scenes in Kenya — Chika Oduah @ 11:45 am
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Kenya’s Day of pride August 27, 2010

Filed under: the journey — Chika Oduah @ 12:08 pm
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Around 10:30 am at Uhuru Park, President Mwai Kibaki promulgated the new constitution, making it the supreme law of the land. Dignitaries in attendance included former U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan; former Ghanaian President, John Kufuor; former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo; Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni; Rwandan President, Paul Kagame; etc.

I found a BBC article that nicely summed the story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11106558

*                          *                        *

27 August 2010 Last updated at 10:05 GMT

Kenya president ratifies new constitution

Kenya has adopted a new constitution, more than three weeks after it was overwhelmingly approved in a national referendum.

Tens of thousands of people watched as President Mwai Kibaki signed the document into law at a large ceremony in the capital, Nairobi.

The debate over a new constitution has lasted 20 years.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was present at the event, despite being wanted for war crimes.

Human Rights Watch earlier called on the Kenyan authorities to either “arrest him or bar him entry” if he were to attend.

Kenya has ratified the statute requiring it to co-operate with the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for Mr Bashir.

However, last month the African Union instructed its members – which include Kenya – not to apprehend Mr Bashir.

‘Huge cheer’

The constitution is expected to bring significant changes.

Some have billed it as the most important political event in Kenya’s history since it gained independence from Britain in 1963.

The large crowd gathered in Nairobi’s main Uhuru park to watch their leader promulgate the new document, amid gun salutes and a grand parade.

After Mr Kibaki signed his name, he held the document up and there was a huge cheer from the audience.

The new constitution will bring a more decentralised political system, which will limit the president’s powers and replace corrupt provincial governments with local counties.

It will also create a second chamber of parliament – the Senate – and set up a land commission to settle ownership disputes and review past abuses.

It is hoped that the changes will help bring an end to the tribal differences that have brought violence to the country in the past.

‘Optimism’

The BBC’s East Africa correspondent, Peter Greste, says the debate for a new constitution ebbed and flowed with each new political crisis until the elections of 2007, which were followed by the worst ethnic violence Kenya has yet seen.

In the wake of the violence, everyone acknowledged that something fundamental had to change if the country was to avoid yet more trouble, our correspondent says.

“The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end,” Mr Kibaki said earlier this month after the results of the referendum were announced on 5 August.

“There will be challenges along the way. But it is important that we look forward with renewed optimism to better days ahead.”

Our correspondent says that the previous constitution allowed politicians to exploit tribal divisions, left courts weak, and concentrated power in the president’s hands.

While many Kenyans say that this is just a start – and that things could still go very wrong – most believe it is a fundamentally better document than the last.

President Kibaki won a landslide victory in 2002 promising to change the constitution within 100 days of taking office. In 2005, he held a referendum but it failed to pass.

The previous constitution was negotiated with the British in the early 1960s.

Constitution key changes

  • Reduces president’s powers
  • Devolves power to regions
  • Creates senate
  • Creates a Judicial Service Commission
  • Includes citizens’ Bill of Rights
  • Creates land commission to settle disputes
  • Recognises Kadhi (Muslim) courts

 

A Day at Village Market

Filed under: the journey — Chika Oduah @ 5:50 am
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A couple weeks ago, Mrs. Shah invited me to join her and her family to Village Market, a mall in the Westlands area of Nairobi. I know Mrs. Shah because I had done a story on her daughter, Ashni, about the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya. Before and after that story, Mrs. Shah has been extremely kind to me. She enjoys showing me around Nairobi and always offers assistance. She told me to see her “home as my home.”

So, I went with her family to Village Market and met her husband for the first time.  Village Market is a large mall with a movie theatre, bowling alley, miniature golf field and small water park. It is more beautiful than most malls that I’ve seen in the States because it blends the outdoors with the indoors. Large trees are everywhere along with the sound of birds.

 

Weekend in the Nyeri Countyside: (Part 2)

Filed under: K24,the journey — Chika Oduah @ 5:41 am
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I’m not crazy or anything but I have a curious affection for older people and I haven’t figured out where those feelings come from. But they have to come from someplace, because whenever I meet someone who may be at least 30 years my senior, I can’t ignore the force within me that emerges. I first noticed this when a Nigerian family came to visit our home several years ago and my siblings and I came down from upstairs to greet the guest. When I saw the grandmother, I bent down to hug her and did not fail to notice the delight in her eyes.

From that moment, I noticed my ways around the elderly. In Nyeri, Phyllis’ parents were probably the most interesting part of the visit. Her father, 65-year-old Joseph Munyi, talks about the Bible almost nonstop. A retired civil servant, he now tends to his crops of potatoes, tomatoes, maize, and beans. He said he was excited to know that an American was coming to visit him and he asked for me to tell my parents that I had slept in a safe home in Nyeri.

Phyllis’ mother, Grace, is a vibrant woman. I found myself looking at her face for long periods of time, and I finally discovered what it was about her that I found so irresistible… her eyes. Chestnut brown skinned with a softly chiseled face of high-cheek bones, Grace might have been what my mom would call a “local woman” but, I’ve always fancied “the locals,” especially the women. Walking behind Grace through her field of maize, pumpkins and aro root, I watched Grace’s hips sway as her bare feet treaded the soil.

Grace is part of a local woman’s group and from what I understand, women’s groups are prevalent throughout Kenya and the mother is usually the one who keeps the family together. They meet to discuss domestic matters such as health and nutrition, farming, education and how to make more money. I asked Phyllis if fathers meet for such things. She said that men are difficult because when they get together, things go bad. Drinking, ulterior motives and big egos are too often involved. So, it is the mother who maintains the home and Grace was no exception.

Grace and her group of friends, some her age and some younger, are helping each other to construct energy efficient cooking stoves. Actually, it’s a fireplace. Traditionally, Kikuyu women cooked on a stone mantle placed on top of three stone structures. But, even in rural Africa, technology is rapidly changing. Grace and the group of mothers learned a new style of a cooking fireplace that involves less wood, so one can prepare more food with less energy.  One by one, the women in the group go to each other’s house to build the new fireplace. I believe Africa is standing today, simply because of the millions of mothers like these. But as we all know, they can’t do it alone…and that’s another story.

Khanga is the most common of fabric in Kenya. Worn by lower and middle-class women, khanga is easy to recognize because of the scarf-like pattern. I recognized the blue, black and white khanga that Phyllis wrapped around her waist as the exact one that I bought at Maasai Market last week. Phyllis said it is a popular pattern. I paid Ksh1,000 for that, and I HIGHLY doubt that these rural women paid that much for the same. I was ripped off!!!!!!

 

Weekend in the Nyeri countryside: Part 1 August 23, 2010

Filed under: K24,the journey — Chika Oduah @ 3:45 pm

This weekend, I visited Phyllis’ family along the outskirts of Nyeri. We had been planning the trip for the past three weeks, ever since I mentioned my desire to explore more of the country. On Friday, I joined Phyllis and her son and niece for a three hour drive out going north to Central Province. I was also going to arrange interviews for a story on an organization that was helping street children by teaching them how to live eco-friendly lifestyles, so this was K24 Day 33.

The road from Nairobi, known as Thika Highway, was safe as we joined other Nairobians traveling out to visit family.  From Nairobi to Thika town, construction made the drive a little slow, but it wasn’t too bad. Throughout Nairobi province, massive road construction can be seen along with black employees working under the guidance of the Chinese. (The road improvement project contract went to China.)

But never mind all that. I did not know too much about where we were going, Narumoru, only that it was not too far from Mount Kenya, it gets a little chilly in temperature, it is in Kikuyuland, and there is no electricity, well at least there was none in Mureru, the exact location, the village, if you may.

So, we arrived and I met Phyllis’ older son, her sister, her parents, nephew Patrick, and her sister-in-law known as Mama Grace. These are the people I spent my weekend with. (Place the cursor over the photo to identify the people in the photo). I took a photo of the family before I left on Sunday.

Phyllis told me that we were in Mureru in Narumoru in Nyeri district. Her mother gave me another description of the location: Gakawa sublocation in Githima location in Kieni east division of Nyeri district in Central province.

There are few things in this world as peaceful as the countryside. A sprawling blue sky stretched above me and acres and acres of crops, weeds, and dry grass. Sitting with Phyllis and her mother inside Phyllis’ mother detached kitchen, Phyllis pointed outside and said, “this is the electricity.” I leaned out and saw the silver glow of the moon.

Adjusting to the countryside was not too difficult, and I thank the Lord that there were no rodents! Or roaches! While in Mureru, I thought about how I wanted to write about my weekend. And Phyllis, unknowingly gave me a great idea. Emerging from the pit latrine, I walked toward Phyllis who asked me, “Is that your first time using a pit latrine?”

This weekend was full of firsts…

My first time watching a goat being milked. Actually, I thought the goat was small, but Phyllis said it is a full-sized goat. I watched her mother, Grace, pump the the udders as the goat stood quietly.

My first time tasting goat milk. Okay, I don’t even drink cow’s milk, so goat’s milk was really foreign. They used the goat’s milk for tea (Kenyans love tea, by the way-British influence). I once read that goat’s milk is more nutritious than cow’s milk and is easier for humans to digest. Phyllis confirmed and said goat’s milk is cholesterol-free. Holding the cup in my hand, I noticed its warmth. After two tip sips of the boiled milk, I was finished and Grace served the rest of mine to the cat.

My first time brushing my teeth outside and using the grass as a sink. With a mug in my hand, I brushed my teeth with the cow behind me. I was doing what I had only seen in Nigerian movies, people brushing their teeth outside and spitting where they pleased.

My first time sleeping in a bedroom with an earthen floor. I didn’t really understand that this this was dirt. On the first night, I took of my shoes and stood. ”My dear, this is earth,” Phyllis said.  I asked her why did it not seem…well dirty? She said it has been packed tightly to suppress dust.  Hmmm….interesting. Now I understand why people sweep the soil…with a broom.

First time sleeping with a cow on the other side of the wall. I could hear its every move. The walking, the munching, I wouldn’t have known if the cow had passed gas. I’m just not familiar with that sound. Does it sound like a trumpet or more like a train?

My first time using a pit latrine. I’m not going to get very descriptive on this one, which is kind of hard for me, so I will move on.

Actually, okay, I will say that this latrine was much much much much cleaner than I had imagined. It was actually cleaner than most of the restrooms I had seen in Nairobi. And because of the windy, chilly environment, there was no smell…okay, I’m moving on.

My first time using a detached bathroom made of wood. I was somewhat used to the bucket method of bathing and there was a big yellow bucket of hot water inside this bathroom. But, my facial and body wash seemed a bit out of place. This wasn’t too bad…until a fly landed on the back of my left thigh…but really it was ok. Next to the bathroom is the kitchen so I had to hold my breath to avoid inhaling the smoky fumes coming from the other side.

My first time standing in acres and acres of maize. Corn is plenty in America, but it looks different in Kenya and I wasn’t even able to recognize the crop, to Phyllis’ great surprise. But the corn in America is much taller. Phyllis’ mother, Grace, has almost 5 acres of land.

My first time sleeping in a tin-roofed house. This is the house, as in the whole house. It is about the size of my living room. The house belongs to Phyllis’ sister-in-law and late brother. It has two bedrooms and a living room. Detached are the kitchen and bathroom. The woman of the house keeps everything very clean and she’s a very hard worker; I actually never saw her sit down. She didn’t speak English but she always responded to my “thank you’s” and “good morning” with a smile.

 

Kenya’s literary giant returns

Filed under: the journey — Chika Oduah @ 1:38 pm
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Last Thursday, Ngugi wa Thiong’o launched a new book, the first in a four-volume autobiographical series. It was an elite affair, with Kenya’s intellects, activists and educated citizens. You can definitely expect such a crowd since the event was held at the National Museum of Kenya in the Parklands area of Nairobi.

Let me take a few steps back, back to the beginning.

*                        *                        *                        *

Reading is an important part of my life, a habit formed in my childhood and nurtured by my parents. In my father’s old collection of books, I saw Things Fall Apart and other titles, some more obscure than others. I began reading my father’s books and then collecting my own to begin filling my own bookshelf. In these African books I could escape into a land of thick forests, mud huts, ancient ceremonial traditions and emerging urban centers. Day after day, week after week, my nose was often hidden between the covers of a book. Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease; Michael Veal’s Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon; Buchi Emecheta’s  The Joy of Motherhood; Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower; Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Named Disaster; Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes: A Love Story; Beverly Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth; Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana; Fauziya Kassindja’s Do They Hear You When You Cry?

These books weren’t just words on papers. They really were my friends. And I took them with me…on playgrounds, in school cafeterias, in public restrooms, in my bedroom, at church, you get the picture.

And among these great books, I’d always see the name Ngugi wa Thiong’o and in every list of great African books, I saw Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petal of Blood. Though I had never read any of Thiongo’ books, I knew he was held in the same regard as Achebe, Soyinka and Aidoo.

So, when Moraa Gitaa (Tom’s sister) told me that he is launching a new book, my curiosity led me to begin researching more about this man.

Thiong’o is well loved by Kenyans and was at one point feared by the government during the tumultuous years of the Daniel Arap Moi administration, an administration that efficiently suppressed opposition for more than two decades. Ngugi was a like a thorn in the side for the Moi administration. His words aroused fiery sentiment among the rural poor and society’s intellectuals. Thiong’o became popular when he began writing in the Gikuyu (also known as Kikuyu) language. He is credited for being the first to write a modern-day novel in the Gikuyu language. By writing in Gikuyu, Thiong’o was speaking directly to the people, as the Gikuyu comprise the largest ethnic group in Kenya. His first book, Weep Not, Child (1964) launched his career as an African writer to recognize. Then came The River Between in 1965, A Grain of Wheat in 1967, Petals of Blood in 1977 and over a dozen other works.

For fear of his life, Thiong’o left Kenya during Moi’s presidency. He is now a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California at Irvine.

The event began at 7pm.  Accompanied by Tom and Moraa, I joined others as P.L.O. Lumumba, guest of honor and the new head of Kenya’s Anti Corruption commission, spoke passionate words of praise about Thiong’o.

“I am amazed by your ability to always discover yourself…If you were an animal in the jungle, you’d be a lion…those of you who want to learn greatness, read Ngugi’s Dreams in a Time of War, greet him and don’t wash your hands for several days…I  also encourage you that when you read Dreams in a Time of War, that you should also wake up and realize your own dream.”

Lumumba greatly impressed me. He’s a fiery, petite man with a strong jawline and a tight, round mouth, the type of mouth that seems to be holding something large inside. A colleague of mine at K24 and I have been trying to get an interview with Lumumba to do a story about his rise, but he is a busy man. Tom greeted him and gestured toward me. Lumumba smiled at me and I introduced myself as a reporter with K24. He raised his eyebrows and said he knows we have been trying to get in touch with him.  His speech reminded me of that of an African-American Baptist preacher, with rich crescendos and dramatic pauses. He made references to Patrice Lumumba, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Gandhi and other freedom fighters.

Back to Thiong’o.

The book, Dreams in a Time of War is a childhood memoir that movingly captures the zeitgeist and political happenings of the time. He also writes about the Mau Mau, a revolutionary, now legendary, army of Gikuyu guerrilla freedom fighters who sought to preserve their African traditions in the face of colonial suppression and hardship.

Thiong’o introduced his wife, Njeeri, his brother and sister-in-law. I just may be overtly sentimental, I know, sometimes even maudlin, but I couldn’t help but get a little teary-eyed watching Thiong’o and his elderly relatives. These people were among the many who fought for black Kenyans while their black brothers and sisters were in bondage by the white colonialists who were taking away the ancestral lands of the blacks.

So, of course I bought the book and grabbed another, more-lighthearted read entitled, How to Be a Kenyan by Wahome Mutahi.

 

Tom Gitaa, A Kenyan based in Minnesota

Filed under: Safety,the journey — Chika Oduah @ 12:01 pm
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In the first quarter of this year, I received an email from someone named Tom Gitaa. In the email, Gitaa said he wanted to post one of my video stories on his website. I responded positively and that is how our friendship began.

Tom Gitaa is the publisher of Mshale News, a website and monthly print publication for African immigrants in the United States. www.mshale.com With it headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mshale also has offices in Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia.

The site features news about Africans in the diaspora and Africans back home. While in Chicago, I did a story on a Liberian-American soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. The story was picked up by several publications, including Mshale.  View the story here: http://www.mshale.com/article/Features/Features/Remembering_a_fallen_LiberianAmerican_Soldier/18465

In April, Mshale picked up another one of my stories- one about Nigeria’s then Acting-President, Goodluck Jonathan, as he made his first visit to America to attend the nuclear summit in Washington, D.C. I researched Mshale News and learned that Tom is from Kenya, though he has been based in Minnesota for more than 20 years.

Later, I told Tom that I was planning to go to Kenya, but security warnings may prevent my school from allowing me to go. Immediately, Tom offered assistance, saying Kenya is safe. He even offered to talk with someone from my school to assuage their concerns.

Since I’ve been in Kenya, Tom and I have been in communication via email and two weeks ago, he said he was coming to Kenya for a family emergency.

I finally met Tom for the first time, last week, Tuesday. Upon seeing him, I immediately thought he looked Nigerian and when I told him this he laughed, saying that may be why he gets along with Nigerians and has so many Nigerian friends. We had a pleasant lunch at Java House on Koinange Street. After he finished his Swahili curry chicken meal and I had satisfied myself with a veggie samosa and a plate of rice, I pulled out my camera and audio recorder. I wanted to hear about Tom’s experience as a Kenyan in the Diaspora.

*                                    *                                    *                                    *

Tom: I’m Tom Gitaa and I live in Minneapolis Minnesota. I’ve spent half of my life in the states now because I left Kenya pretty much immediately after high school. I left college, started working after college, got married, started a family. I’ve always been in the U.S. I come as often as I can, at the minimum, every couple of years. I think in the last five years, I’ve been here everywhere for a month or so. Some of it for business, some family visits.

There have been a lot of changes in Kenya. To be honest with you, I think in the last five or six years, it has actually been more fun to come to Kenya in the last five or six years than in previous years. A lot of things seem to work. Actually, it has been really nice to drive. I try not drive in Nairobi traffic, but when I’m going to Mombasa, the road is like driving from Minneapolis to Chicago because there are no potholes! (laughs) So it’s fun.

Chika: Is it safe to drive from city to city? What about bandits along the road?

Tom: This is the thing, since I’ve not been a victim myself, I’d say it’s pretty safe. Nothing has happened to me. I’ve always gotten from point A to B. I’ve heard things. Nairobi Mombasa road, especially as you approached Nairobi, near the airport from the Mombasa side, I know that used to be a really bad stretch. Of late I hear things have gotten better.  They’re very open and happy that things are getting better. I don’t think we have what might be called the ideal government yet, but there have been strides to something better than what we had previously. I tend to find there’s a sense from a lot of people in government that things need to be better. Which is a big change from before.

The one thing I love is the internet. That has been a big change. I can normally do a lot of my business between here and Minnesota. At least I know when I’m in Nairobi or Mombasa, I can get high speed internet.

Chika: When did that come about?

Tom: Actually in the last three of four years. When I was here back in 2004, that’s kind of when the cellphone explosion was taking place. You could come here and I could not meet anyone who didn’t have a cellphone. When I came back in 2006, for unfortunate circumstances…that’s when we came back for my wife’s funeral. My wife died in 2006, so we were here in December again. So it wasn’t quite high speed yet, but you could do what you wanted to do. Go to a cyber café. And you’d find different classes of cyber cafes.

Fast forward now, I can come with my laptop and go to what I call a top-tier cyber café. I think the locals consider it expensive, but since I’m only here for a short while, I can pay for the high speed and the nicer, cleaner environment and conduct some business. Those have been fun developments.

Now, we just came for my father-in-law’s funeral and I’ve been able to keep up with my colleagues on the other side. I know what it going on in the office and what my writers are doing. You know I do a newspaper.

Chika: What do you think of the passing of the draft constitution?

Tom: You know I’m a diaspora guy, right?  I don’t know any Kenyan diaspora guy that was a ‘no vote.’ All of us, well many of us, at least those that I know where in favor. You have to know where this is coming from. Some of this was in self-interest, obviously. One of the things in there is dual citizenship is finally being recognized. There used to be a thing called the Kenya Community Abroad which was sort of a lobby group of Kenyans in the U.S., Canada, but used to encompass a lot of Kenyans in the diaspora. You know, this is actually something for a long time they’ve been pushing for- the implementation of dual citizenship. So when it was passed, it was a realization for a dream of many. Because a lot of Kenyans [abroad] where forced to give up there citizenship. I know some Kenyans, for example, who have not taken up the citizenship of other countries. Because they say they are not comfortable giving up their [Kenyan] citizenship. So, it was a big, psychological thing, to tell somebody, ‘give up your citizenship.’ So, even from that perspective, I know there are other things, accountability to the people and the like, which we all love, but for a lot of diaspora people, that was like a key thing.

Chika: What are some of the myths and false perceptions that Kenyans have of those in the diaspora?

Tom: There are two things actually. One of the biggest things is they tend to think people in the U.S. have  lot of money; that we are not struggling like everybody else; that we have a bottomless pit of resources that we can type into. I think of late, more and more Kenyans have been getting a correct perspective of what happens in the U.S. But there are still a lot of people, most people that you pull on the streets of Kenya will tell you they don’t mind going to the U.S. I have a few friends, they try to give advice to a parent to save their money they say to send their child to a Kenyan university. The parent will say, ‘you, you have already gone so that is why don’t want my child to have the same benefit.’ So that is what they still say.

Of late, especially in the last 10 years of so, Kenya has been considered an emerging market. A lot of people have come back. Business has been booming. A lot of people say, ‘You people in America…’ It’s kind of  dual thing. Some people think America is glamorous, but some have dimmed view. They say ‘all you guys do is odd jobs,’ so there is also that perspective. But over the years, I think the local people have realized that the diapsora plays an important role in the society.

Especially since the Kibaki administration came into office, there has been an aggressive pushing of Kenyans in the diaspora. They have sent ministers. I remember a few years ago they sent a minister to a conference we were having in Atlanta. They were encouraging Kenyans in the diaspora to invest. Especially in real estate. When you exclude the Somalis that have been investing a lot here, the other biggest investor in real estate in Kenya is actually diaspora Kenyans. So there has been that perception. There has been a slow evolution to say diaspora people are very important in the economy. We send a lot of money and there has been a question of if that money has been used properly. But lots of progress has been made. There’s this big project that is being done in northeastern Kenya. It’s a big project. It is the biggest project that the diaspora community has ever been involved in.  And part of those efforts actually came when the government started attending our conferences.

Chika: What are some of the misconceptions Westerners have of Kenya?

Tom: Oh, it’s a lot, a lot. You know Westerners, not all, but a good lot, there perception of Kenya and Africa in general is that, nothing works in Africa. They have heard the stories of you know, if there mind is not still in the stone age then, you’d be eaten by lions and whatever, it’s either ‘oh you know Africa man,’ ‘will I be robbed? Will I come back in one piece? Corruption?’ Yes, there’s corruption but there’s also a lot of Westerners making a lot of money here as you might have seen. I think that is the biggest misconception.

I’ve met some people who do not know there are big cities in Africa. But you have a choice. You can choose to say you want to see the old Africa, which is still there. If you want to get attacked by lions, we can arrange to go somewhere and they can eat you. (laughs) Or if you want to stay in the urban environment and experience the modern life, then all the conveniences are there. What you can get in America, London, Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg, all of that is there. A lot of people don’t know such big cities exist in Africa.

Chika: My last question, in Nigeria there is something called ‘colo-mentality.’ Do they have such here, where you praise white people? I’ve noticed that where I live here in Nairobi, the guards don’t greet me, but they will greet the white person behind me. Is that mentality prevalent here? Preference for lighter skin and that sort of thing?

Tom: A lot of Africans are brainwashed. It’s a legacy that continues to haunt our people, especially people who have not left this country.  For example, I was at Safaricom. When I landed here, I landed on Thursday night and the funeral was Friday. I went to one of the Safaricom outlets to get a sim card for my phone. So, you know me, I don’t jump the queue. I go line up and this other person comes. A black person comes, attempts to jump the queue and ask the clerk a question. You are not supposed to jump the queue. You are supposed to ask the guard if you have a question and he will direct you. I know the procedure so I lined up. Two three black Africans came and they intended to go straight to the clerk. I think they had a quick question but you are not supposed to do that. The guard stopped them right there  and said, ‘hey hey hey, you need to line up.’ This white person, light skin, I think he was half and half. You know a mixed person. He comes and does the same thing the other guys were trying to do. He tries to go to the clerk, straight without lining. And the guard hesitated. He’s not as aggressive with this person as he was with his brothers. You see? So he hesitates until even the mixed person asked the guard and that’s when he realized he should be equal to everybody.

When I come, sometimes I stay at the hotels. When I go to Mombasa, you know that’s the tourism capital for Kenya because of all the beach hotels and the like. So when you go to the beach hotels, that is when you will see the brainwashing in full force.  I’ll approach the gate. You know they try to make these beach properties very exclusive. They see me, they automatically think I am not staying at the beach hotel. You see? When I’ve already maybe paid full fare. And I even have white people working for me. (laughs) See our people don’t know this. They try to stop me. They have to go the extra step to verify, ‘are you really staying here?’ So you will experience the blatant brainwashing, colonial mentality. You’ll normally experience them in the service industries: hotels, airports. You know you have some people in the airport who try to help with luggage. I come with my children and you sometimes see the helpers falling over themselves trying to help the white people that we just rode on the plane with.  You know things like that, it’s very unfortunate. But, we are hoping that our people will realize that this is our country. We are not saying that you should treat blacks better than whites. Treat all people the same. If a black person approaches, you don’t know what it there. For all I know, he could be the one owning the beach property or could be your boss. I could be the one owning 50% of that property. You never know.

Chika: Are white women highly prized?

Tom: I think they are, especially older white women. We have what they call, I don’t know what they call them now, but back then, we called them white sugar mommies who come here for what we call, sex tourism. At the coast it’s very prevalent. At the coast they are highly prized. In fact, in some of the newspapers even here, if you look at the personals section, you will see people directly, plainly stating, ‘white man’ or ‘white woman.’ Sometimes  you can just read between the lines.

I came back, for a sad occasion, but it’s always good to be home.

Tom’s sister, Moraa, later joined us. His sister is a writer, a nominee for the Penguin Books Awards in the fiction category, and featured in the July issue of the East African women and lifestyle magazine, True Love. I’d been trying to interview her, so it was great to finally meet her face to face.