A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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Scenes in Kenya: Finale October 14, 2010

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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)

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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.


Food in Kenya September 5, 2010

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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)

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A Day at Village Market August 27, 2010

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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.


Israel and New Breed in Kenya August 18, 2010

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At the end of the nearly 2 1/5 hour ministration, Israel Houghton said it was his first time in Kenya. The crowd clapped to welcome and thank him.

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This past Sunday, I was in my room looking up recipes (yeah, I like to read food recipes!) and resting after a lively service at Mavuno Church. Outside, I heard a guy, who I could tell was a young, white American, talking to a crowd of people. He was talking about the love of God and what it really means to be Christian. All day, several religious presentations had been going at Central Park, which was a 5 second walk outside of my building. Then I heard the guy say that he wants to welcome a friend. “Israel. And New Breed!” Suddenly, Israel Houghton’s powerful voice rang through the air.

My heart jumped. Gosh! This is one of my favorite gospel artist!

I leaped up, threw on my sandals and ran outside.  At Central Park, a crowd of hundreds (I can’t give a more accurate estimate because I’m just not good at the sort of thing) stood before Israel and New Breed. After stopping at a security guard who traced my body with a metal detector, I made my way to the very front and danced away with my camera bouncing around my neck and thumping on my chest.

It seemed like half of the crowd knew the songs and the other half didn’t. The sun was blazing, but it was a comfortable heat with a gentle breeze blowing from time to time.

I knew Israel had ministered yesterday at a huge concert because someone has mentioned it at Mavuno on Sunday. She said she had attended and had a fantastic time. Two Sundays ago, two people had received free tickets to the concert as a reward for bringing first time visitors to Mavuno. A guy announced that we could by tickets at the table in the front. But, I couldn’t find the table and just forgot about the whole thing. I’m glad I did, because I had saved my money. The Saturday concert costed quite a bit, according to the lady from Mavuno. But on Sunday, I was jamming for free.

“God, do your will in Kenya. Do your will in Africa!” Israel said.

I have to say, Israel and New Breed in Kenya was better than when I had seen them live at my church in Conyers, Georgia. I think it was…the people, the sun, the trees, the squawking birds, and everything else that God created.


The lively Maasai Market August 16, 2010

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This past weekend, I finally went to Maasai Market! I’d been planning to go, but something would always come up and I’d have to postpone. Maasai Market is an open-air bargain shop and all my friends told me I’d get ripped off if I went alone and the sellers heard my accent. So, everyone recommended that I go with a Kenyan. I believe it’s called Maasai Market but the sellers were originally mostly from the Maasai ethnic group. And the artistic wares, all handmade by the Maasai.

So Gladys took me to the Maasai Market right next to the Kenya International Conference Center (KICC). Gladys was an intern at K24. Having completed the 3 month internship, she has now resumed school. The Maasai Market at the KICC is open on Saturdays and the one next to K24 is open Tuesdays. So I went with Ksh5,000 expecting to come out with 6 or 7 nice fabrics and some jewelry. A colleague at K24 said I can buy khanga or lesso fabric for about Ksh300 and kitenge for Ksh600. Pastor Frida said I’d buy them for Ksh1,000 or so. Pretty big discrepancy, right?

I knew when we were getting closer to the market because all of a sudden I saw white people. I told Gladys this is definitely the type of place that white people like. Gladys laughed and agreed.

She said the West has the perception that the Maasai are the quintessential Kenyans. Truly, the classic image of the Maasai is world famous: tall, chestnut brown skin, very slender guys with long cornrowed hair dyed red, wearing a red and/or purple plaid wrap, standing on one leg and holding a tall wooden staff. And their women- big, white teeth with baby smooth, wrinkle-free skin with bright necklaces and bangles. Bald. But, their beauty is unmistakable. During the colonial days, the Maasai warrior was described as the “noble savage.” I think most Western visitors to Kenya want to see the Maasai people. Shoot… I know I did.

I have two Kenya travel books and both have extensive descriptions of the Maasai and don’t give much attention to the nearly five dozen other ethnic groups in Kenya. The Maasai people are known to love beauty. Guys and females take great care in grooming.

I’m glad I went to the market with Gladys because she was excellent with bargaining. Immediately upon entering the shop, a young guy approached us and led us somewhere. That’s the way it seems to work. A guy comes to “help” you, and yes, he is helping but he is also making sure he gets paid. A young white couple was in front of us and a black Kenyan was running around them, like a lost puppy, trying to help. The white guy was very friendly, patting the Kenyan on his shoulder and smiling, but the lady was smart. She told the Kenyan, “no, we’re okay we don’t need help.” But the Kenyan was persistent. And the lady had to tell him three times, “no.”

So, a guy walked up to Gladys and I as Gladys was pointing to some fabric. “No, I don’t want tye-dye,” I told her.

The guy directed our attention to a wall of T-shirts. I told him I want khanga to make clothes. He understood right away. “Follow me!” He said.

Gladys and I twisted and turned throughout the market to keep up with the guy and of course, he made sure we didn’t get lost. I watched my feet to make sure I didn’t step on any jewelry, wooden wares, legs, stones, drums, and the like. We finally stopped where a lady was sitting and the guy showed me different colors of fabric. I told him I want something bright, purples and blues and yellows. Whenever I would pick up something, he’d say, “Oh, that’s pretty!” I ended up with three pieces of fabric. I believe 1 was khanga and 2 were kitenge, which is of better quality. He told me the total was Ksh4,000.

I was like, “no way!”

Gladys told him it’s too much. They continued talking as two other guys snaked over to listen to the bartering. One of the guys tapped my shoulder, “I have art! Nice art. Come look at my art.”

I said, “no” as firmly and politely as I could and went back to listening to Gladys and the guy as they spoke Kiswahili.

But the guy tapped me again, “Art. Very nice. Come see.”

Another guy walked up to me, “I have nice khanga.”

Finally the young guy settled on Ksh3,600.

I said it is still to much and pretended to walk away. He finally came down to Ksh3,000.

Gladys asked me if that is ok. I said yes. She asked if I am settled with what I have.

A green and orange pattern caught my eye and I bent down to look at it.

“You want to buy more? Or you want to switch?” the young guy asked. I was beginning to like this guy. He was very forward, but not annoying. Friendly, but not pushy. And his clever countenance and dashing eyes reminded me of my brother, Arinze.

“I’m just thinking!” I said with a laugh.

All three guys then laughed at once, as if on-cue.

“Take your time. Please. Think,” the young guy said with a broad smile exposing exquisite teeth.

I settled on my original three (red, yellow and black; yellow and green; sea green and white) and shook the guys hand. I guess he was happy.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Now, I show you my art. Nice art.”

Gladys looked at me.

“I’m not interested in art,” I said.

Gladys asked if I needed anything else.


The guy lit up, “Come! Yes, come!”

Again, we snaked through the wares and sellers and buyers. With every step of the way, someone would see the Canon SLR camera hanging around my neck and advertise their goods in front of my face.

The guy led us to a woman sitting quietly. Before her feet lay about 400 beautiful necklaces and behind her, about 200 pairs of earrings. I picked up a jade stone necklace.

The guy said, “Two thousand five hundred.”

I laughed and walked away with Gladys behind me speaking to the guy.

I said, “The khanga wasn’t even 2,000 so what is he talking about?”

I’m not a fool. Gladys laughed and told the guy it is too much. We walked to another stall but this man followed us with the necklace draped between his long fingers.

I stopped to look at a beautiful, large elephant sculpture and another guy, tall and slim tapped my shoulder. He pointed to my camera and picked up a drum. He said that I can take a picture of him playing the drum for money.

“How much?” I asked.

He said Ksh200.

“50,” I said.

He agreed.

Gladys confirmed, “50 bob! 50 bob!”

“Sawa,” he said.

He began to beat and I felt kind of awkward. People began looking around, trying to find who was paying this guy to bang the drum. They found me and I was immediately surrounded by sellers. I gave the guy a 50 and he smiled. “Asante sana.”

A lady came to Gladys with the same beautiful jade necklace I had wanted earlier. This was the same lady who sat quietly as the guy led us to her stall. She spoke to Gladys. Apparently, she was the true seller of that necklace and the guy was just trying to make a sale off commission. I heard her say “500” to Gladys. I told her there was something else I liked.

We walked back to her stall.

I ended up buying three earrings and the jade necklace- all for Ksh1000. I did some bargaining of my own!

I thanked the lady and she was so happy.

“Keep those brokers away,” Gladys told the lady with a smile.

The lady nodded.

Maasai Market at KICC, I’ll be back. I’ll surely be back someday.

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