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Yet another story that I wrote many years ago.

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2007-06-15

This place is really cold.

I’ve been living in Edinburgh for about two months now and still find it difficult to adjust to this bleak weather.

Last Saturday we had a rare day of sunshine. “It’s a full twenty-two degrees celsius in some places” the media proclaimed amidst warnings that we should all be sure to exercise caution and not overexpose ourselves to what they made sound like an exploding sun.

It so completely transformed the place that I was even briefly seen outside in just a t-shirt before scurrying back inside for another layer of clothing. Later, walking along the canal, I drew perplexed stares from the bare-chested men and sparingly clad women obviously reveling in the warmth beneath fragrant layers of top factor sunscreen. A very confusing state of affairs for me as I shivered on about my daily routine and I hoped that this was at least a sign that it would soon be warm enough even for me to unzip my fleece and even perhaps leave it behind eventually.

That was the hottest day that summer.

A rude reminder that I was living on the same latitude with Moscow and that people from the tropics like me were simply not built to endure these parts of the hemisphere followed. The routine skirmishes from our bunker to work, kindergarten and the shops for supplies through veritable blizzards and the terrifyingly named haar (fog) soon returned.

In all fairness, Edinburgh is a beautiful city and I became even more aware of this after visiting Birmingham and London a few weeks prior. There is a lot of beautifully preserved old architecture all over the place, if you’re into that sort of thing, and lots of canals, ponds, parks and of course the almighty Firth of Forth to walk through and see.

Of particular interest to me are the endless shows, festivals, galleries, etc. I’m so overwhelmed by the sheer extent of possibility, that at the moment, I mostly sit at home and watch the marvel that is digital TV. Perhaps one of these days I’ll stop being intimidated by that 100 page weekly entertainment magazine, and actually do something interesting. I’m thinking of visiting Rosslyn chapel, of the Da Vinci Code fame. But even the thought of that has me cracking up.  If, by any chance, I was to get lost in the haar along the way, no one would ever think to look for me on the route to a five hundred year old church, would they?

But culture is a fluid thing. Perhaps by repeatedly donning my tweed jacket and frequenting poetry recitals in incredibly old buildings across the city I might purge myself of the cultural limits imposed by my Murang’a origins and transform into a contextually socially educated and cultured person.

I have not gone so far, but must admit that I quite enjoy sipping the odd single malted distillate while staring ponderously into the distance. Posh eh?

While such behaviour would probably earn me a beating in Nairobi, I feel that it is culturally acceptable here, and I often find myself sitting at the counter of my new local, the Caledonian Sample Room, with my head tilted at a philosophical angle thinking about the enigmatic life of Robert the Bruce and the triumph that is Rabbie Burns. As you might be able to tell, I’ve been bombarded with information about the founding of this amazing culture.

That said, most of the Scots I’ve met are friendly, unassuming, salt of the earth sort of people who don’t flaunt history and culture in your face in the way many other Europeans would. The main problem is that I’ve not quite managed to cross the language barrier. No, they do not speak Gaelic nowadays, but very heavily accented English which is especially difficult to decipher after they’ve quaffed down a few pints of beer from the remarkably broad range on offer across the city.

I was once offered a “brain” sauce to go with my chips. At the time, I remember thinking that, not only do they make haggis, a sausage thingy from sheep’s stomach and innards, but they also make a sauce from its brain? What a people! They are not as far removed from my beloved Murang’a as I thought. I must get the recipe! Only later, much to my wife’s delight, did I discover that they had meant “brown” (HP) sauce.

“I dinnae ken that” is another phrase that I quickly came to learn which very often followed in the wake of anything that I said meaning “I don’t understand” and “braw” meaning “great” whenever I managed to get my meaning across.

I guess it will take some adjusting. My first steps will be to boldly go to the National Museum in town this weekend to begin the process of acclimatising by visiting the glass tomb of Dolly, that most famous of cloned sheep.

I will try to be enthralled by the expected tales of Jacobites and decapitated queens while trying to understand why they all just didn’t escape south to what surely would have been a less harsh life.

Here’s another story that I wrote many years ago while living in Botswana.  After reading it again after so many years, I feel that I’ve come a long way and that my style has evolved a bit. I’ll, however, let you be the judge.

RG

A parking at the Red Dot

The Red Dot is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a quandary. I have long thought that description to be the sort of mouthful that belongs only in the realms of poetry and other such dark arts that are not much encumbered by reality. I, therefore, would never have thought that I would ever stumble across a real place of such description. The chance of this for me was less than that of me walking through my closet and emerging in Narnia or some other such fanciful place of fantasy and yet, somehow, the Red Dot managed to achieve such transport in depositing one in a place you would not have thought possible.

The Red Dot is a bar in Gaborone that has had many other whimsical adjectives attributed to it as it continues to grow and change in ways that require quite the accepting imagination to appreciate. It is, in my opinion, such an unusual place that I feel the need to take the time to record its presence in history and spare the archeologists and the anthropologists of the future from having to explain why so many empty bottles and cans were buried there.

Having lived next to it for a year now, I’ve watched it evolve into what can only be described as a phenomenon that simply should not be, but quite doggedly persists in being.

Allow me the podium for a moment as I attempt to explain this place.

If you’ve never been to Botswana before, you’ll not be surprised to learn that it shares many cultural characteristics with its other southern African neighbours. There are differences, however, and the one difference that I base this piece on is certainly unique to the country. Everything runs normally as is typical for the region save for the activities surrounding one glorious weekend at the end of the month when a mass euphoria grabs the country and joy is expressed in a very unusual way. This carnival-like weekend is the weekend during which the Red Dot has grown into what it is today.

Once a month, parking lots across the land fill up with cars of all style and craft. They spill in from chains of traffic connecting homes and workplaces to what are expectedly full shopping centres and lending an unusual energy to the normally slow and laid-back capital. Everyone and everybody, as if to the report of a starter pistol, goes out to the shops at the same time. Curiously, the numbers of shoppers in some of these malls are often quite out of proportion with what the rows upon rows of freshly cleaned vehicles parked in the dust would have you believe.

The Red Dot is in one such shopping centre in the Gaborone suburb known only as Block 6. It is a small centre that houses a supermarket and a few other businesses but most importantly, it is home to the elemental pub properly known as The BEE pub. At first glance, this pub looks like quite the ordinary place and one might even be lulled into thinking that it is not a very popular place because of the many empty tables in it. This thought, however, is soon completely put aside when you eventually link the place with the very full parking lot outside that is teeming with life. Only then do you notice the steady stream of people to and from the very busy bar counter.

For some reason that I’m unable to explain, the City’s dwellers tend to prefer sitting outside in their cars outside a place of festivity like the BEE pub, rather being inside it. It may have something to do with the stifling heat of the seven month long summer, or even perhaps with the fact that many people drive cars that are often far fancier than the establishments outside of which they are parked. Whatever the reason, it is established behaviour that can be observed across the country and now a cultural norm.

This pub and its parking lot have, in the past year, grown so much in stature that the surrounding businesses have literally ceased to exist in the public’s eye. When you mention the Red Dot to the average month-ender, there are no thoughts of the supermarket, butchery or hair salon that are also in the complex, but only of the pub and its surrounding parking-lot. The pub, in its popularity has become the only known destination in this mall and thus has become one and the same with the centre. A very unusual anchor business for a mall I would think.

You see, once or twice a month, the city of Gaborone gathers in this very parking-lot to celebrate the fulfillment of the contract that binds employees to employers when most wages are paid out. The mighty paycheck is heard bellowing from the within the pockets of the Batswana as they congregate on the asphalt and dust to spend their hard-earned money in this rather unusual ritual.

It is a thing of mysterious beauty and indeed a sight to behold. There are people everywhere, sitting in and out of their cars. Loud music is heard from cars that are sometimes worth less than the stereos they blare and the fancy wheels with which they are shod. Beer-filled ice boxes sitting on the dust or in the back seats; the spaces in the boots filled by fearsome speakers that scream out the current kwaito hit. “Taku-taku! Taku-taku! Taku-taku! …” sings the hip-hop pantszula.

When I first moved there, the pub was a nondescript little place not even worth the pixels on this page. It was the sort of place that had little more than a handful of regulars who were all clearly within spitting distance of their homes and only there because there was nowhere else to go. But then someone – no doubt, a visionary – noticed the vast unexploited parking area around the shopping centre and its fortunes changed forever.

The first sign of things to come was the setting up of a car wash in one corner of the lot which was soon followed by the braai (barbecue) area that the pub previously could not have supported. The clearing of the surrounding bushland sealed its fate and it progressed on to become the number one parking-lot in the country.

Someone from the local brewery tells me that it consistently records the highest beer sales by volume in the country and this is evidenced by the growing size of the delivery trucks that I see regularly drive by my gate.

They’ve have now even built a stage upon which a fellow with an impossibly girlish voice eerily sings Hotel California in an endless loop. To be fair, he does sing other songs, but for some reason or the other, the only one that ever carries over the noise is Hotel California. This could be Heaven, or this could indeed be Hell.

Often on a Sunday morning after yet another month has ended, I watch as they sweep up the debris from the previous nights jaunt into a giant pile of aluminium and glass. It looks like a great and inexplicable war was fought and lost there. A future archeologist’s nightmare.

The scattering of people lying passed-out in their cars have morphed back from the supermen that they were the night before, back to mere mortals again. The hip-hop pantszula also mellowed and the great boot speaker hissing its relief.

Why people continue to spend their hard-earned money in this parking lot continues to baffle me and remains the enigma wrapped in the quandary. Perhaps this is the actual location of that fabled hotel in California, because as the Eagles put it in the tune that haunts the place, “You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

2006-10-20

Doctor Doom.

A short while ago, I applied to do a PhD at the University of Cape Town. Yes, you read that right, I actually sat down, did some careful introspection and decided that I was equal to the task.  You see, where I come from, you are considered to be of very respectable stock if you have a title other than the standard mister or miss. I wanted to distinguish myself in society and this seemed like a good way to try and do it.  I guess this is true of most places.

I therefore set out to get myself a new title, already imagining what my business card would look like when I got through the program and started flaunting the credential.  In the back of my mind though, I did not believe that anyone would take my scribblings in answer to the interrogations about research questions, funding, etc. that you had to answer in the application process seriously. If I’m really honest with myself, I think I just wrote out the application because I had nothing better to do at the time.

Once the applications had all been completed and sent off, I settled back to wait happily in my normal routine of scouring the web for the mundane nuggets that I’ve become very skilled at ferreting out. I was very confident that I would never hear anything about the application again and it was just going to be yet another story that I would add to the ones that I normally use when trying to impress.

“I’ve applied to do a PhD at UCT you know” makes the perfect rejoinder to conversations about things like fluid mechanics that I have recently found myself in the middle of. It brings the conversation back from those heady levels to a place where you can comfortably bluff your way through by saying things like “I’m not comfortable with the traditional methodologies and tend to lean more toward the Actor-Network Theory” which you spent the morning memorising how to say.

A month or two later, however, I was surprised to receive a letter from the chap in charge of PhD applications at UCT. This must be the letter of regret, I remember thinking.  Anticipating the bad news I tore open the envelope and was shocked to discover that it was actually a request for more information about the research area and not the standard letter which usually ended with “we wish you the best in your future endeavors”.

My response, I must confess, was not immediate because I was going through a phase at the time and I had spent the morning repeatedly watching this very nice YouTube video about githeri and could not bring myself to focus on how I might contribute to the knowledge pool for a while after. Githeri, if you do not know it, is a luxurious blend of maize and beans that is the staple diet of the people of central Kenya and it is to this bane that I grew up big and strong. It had been a while since I had had some and a whimsical melancholy had descended on me rendering any serious thought impossible. I eventually did, however, get over my nostalgia and managed to craft together a response to the unanswered questions that had sat on my desk for a few weeks. An acknowledgement of receipt followed the dispatch and back to the web I went.

The date by which a response had been promised came and went without a further word from the venerable professor of screening and admissions but I continued using the fact that I’d actually applied to do a PhD as a social crutch and I imagined that it gained me respectability amongst my peers. “The activity theory is not all that it is cut out to be”, I would be heard injecting into conversations that I knew nothing about before promptly moving on as if in search of someone who could engage me in intellectual debate about it.

I would have quite happily gone on doing this but then I again entered another silly phase. This time it was the desire for feedback on anything and everything that I did or said. Prompted by this new and very strange urge, I decided to write to him and force him to send me the standard letter of regret to which I had already started formulating a scathing response demanding feedback.

Once again I was surprised that the “bugger-off” letter did not come immediately as expected and I even considered sending off the email again, sure that it might have escaped his notice or fallen foul of his spam filter. Surprise, once again, turned to shock when a response requesting a few further details was sent and this shock to incredulity when an acceptance was later offered. All this in the same morning.

They had the wrong chap was my first thought, but then they started sending me additional stuff that soon convinced me that they indeed thought that they had the right chap, but did not really know who they were dealing with.

A few days later and as the process continued, they had already started heading the letters with “Dear PhD Associate”, and the reality slowly started sinking in. So much so, that vanity soon took over and my CV for January 2012 was quickly updated with a bold “PhD Associate” under the education section. Yes, me, a PhD associate and with it even written in black and white on my CV to boot.

“I like the cut of your jib” I already imagined them saying when I introduced myself at the many high society  gatherings that I was sure to frequent as my social standing soared ever higher on the wings of my new title. I might even learn what all the theories that I had been flaunting about in the past few months were about, I remember thinking.

The bubble burst, as it was bound to, when I was later asked to expand on my research statement as a precursor to a two-week intensive induction programme that was to be conducted by a much revered professor being flown in all the way from west Africa to whip us into shape for what promised to be a grueling academic slog of at least three or four years.

“What you have done is not acceptable. It gives the impression that you are not ready to embark on PhD studies.” This was the opening statement from the Nigerian purveyor of knowledge that finally put paid to my ambitions of ever achieving that oh-so-very desirable pre-nominal.  His keen eye had sifted through all the stuff that I had not-so-meticulously put together and saw it for the formless jumble of words that it really was and with one sentence, he stopped that idle pursuit indefinitely. “If you don’t have the time or serious attitude for PhD studies, why enter the program now? You can wait until you are ready to put in the effort.”

I now have my sights set on a Knighthood. Where can I get an application form?

Banana Jam.

Squared away in the heart of Cape Town’s southern suburbs is a little anomaly of a place called Banana Jam. I call it anomalous because it is the sort of place you’d expect to find in the more vibey parts of any town – the high streets and downtowns of this world if you like.

It has a markedly exotic theme inspired by the Caribbean that would usually resonate in a more urban setting where choice is king, rather than in suburbs like these where pizza joints, laundromats and stock standard pubs are the norm. Yet there it defiantly stands, in the centre of a middle class residential area with no malls or major businesses around to help it attract the custom that is required to keep most businesses of this sort going and not visibly attempting to appeal to the iterant traffic that spills out of the nearby Kenilworth railway station to fill its tables. Hmmm… I wonder why?

I frequented the establishment directly next door to Banana Jam for a while, seeking the mindless after work camaraderie that our wives struggle to understand, and finding it repeatedly through the endless disconnected conversations that men will have with each other in such places. Hob Nobs, as it is quite appropriately named, exactly fits the bill of the typical neighbourhood pub which is peppered with TV screens everywhere showing the football, rugby or cricket, depending on the season and is filled with locals who all know each other and are in turn also well-known to the establishment to the point that drinks are seemingly ordered telepathically. This was my local until very recently.

In stark contrast to Hob Nobs, Banana Jam does not show any sports at all and does not even have any screens to show them on. It does not even have much of a bar area and instead focusses on being more of a restaurant with many more tables than a typical barfly like myself is used to.

On the way to my local last summer and while strolling past Banana Jam, as was my routine, I noticed a colourful sign at the entrance proclaiming that October Fest had finally made its way to this very unremarkable part of Cape Town and it had found a temporary home in this place that I had so often walked by.

Bemused and much to the horror of the waiter at Hob Nobs who had already ordered for my drink, I decided to break with tradition and walked into the place to sample their interpretation of that most hallowed of German beer festivals. Having been to several such festivals, I must admit that I was sceptical about what I would find in this little place and fully expected to be perched at my favourite corner of the bar at Hob Nobs before long.

I will spare you a long-winded description of what is at best a faded memory of my first impressions of the establishment dulled by the many samplings that I did that day. Suffice it to say that I have never been to the place next door again and I now get my fix of mundane conversations with total strangers from Banana Jam.

I think, however, that the excellent beer that I had that day and my subsequent education on the craft surrounding its brewing and appreciation deserves further mention.

The beer was, and continues to be, outstanding and is largely sourced from the local craft beer movement. If you are unfamiliar with the term craft beer, it generally refers to beers produced by small-scale brewers and it is normally of types outside the ones dominant in the local market.  India Pale Ale (a personal favourite of mine) is, for example, a style of beer that you will only find in the craft beer circles in South Africa and it does not last very long wherever you find it due to the woefully inadequate supply of the stuff.

Apart from the usual fare that can be found on most taps across the land, they also have many other non-standard beers on tap that are always available and that can be depended on to not run out. These by themselves are enough to distinguish the place from most other places within a twenty kilometre radius, but nooo it does not stop there… With names like First Light, Hammerhead IPA and the Ocean Potion, Banana Jam sports a very impressive repertoire of exotic beers with a variety wide enough to suit every palate and which I continuously sample with rare disappointment.

What is truly different about Banana Jam, as I’m sure all the other enthusiasts from across the mother city will attest to, is that they also sport an impressive array of guest beers on tap that constantly change as the craft beer lot experiment with different styles of beer making, fermentation and ingredients that even include fruit. Yes fruit. There was very nice mango ale that did a rather short stint on one of the taps at the beginning of the year. I don’t think it lasted more than a couple of hours to be honest. It had been anticipated by quite a few people while it was still brewing and so by the time it hit the taps, it found a large group of eager samplers waiting to applaud it.

This neatly brings me to the brewing fraternity in Cape Town. Craft beer actually has quite a large following in Cape Town with no fewer than four very well attended festivals happening in the year and several clubs that meet regularly to discuss their various brews and projects around brewing.

There are also a few shops that specialise in the supply of materials for the home brewer ranging from the malt itself, all the way through to sophisticated kit used to test for alcohol levels and even acidity in the water used.  The craft beer movement is, however, a whole other story in itself and the few words that I’ve written do not even begin to describe the enthusiasm with which people are clubbing together, sharing information and producing ales of remarkable variety and quality.

“Big man, what can I get you today?” is how I am now greeted when I go to Banana Jam these days, and it is to this jovial atmosphere that the first beer normally goes down. Many of my friends wonder why I have become so hard to find recently, but I am wont to go anywhere that does not have at least one tap that dispenses something out of the ordinary and because of this I have abandoned most of my previous haunts.

Yes, despite being tucked away in the heart of Cape Town’s southern suburbs, Banana Jam continues to defy most expectations and is already the veritable Mecca for a very niche but growing craft beer appreciation society and it does not, as far as I know, have any competition in this fair city yet.

http://pocketcultures.com/2012/05/11/roger-kenyan-living-in-south-africa/

KLM have now gone and done it! In one of the usual barrel shoots that occur at airports all over the world, KLM have gone and slugged the wrong fish.

Recently, while on his way to a conference in Brazil, a senior UN official received a right bollocking at the airport in Nairobi and he is not taking it lying down. In fact he has sat up and launched into a flying kick of a response – spearheaded by a prominent Nairobi law firm, Murgor and Murgor – that has left the airline scrambling for cover and engaging the equally prolific law firm, Hamilton, Harrison & Mathews, to buy them time as they compose themselves and presumably to find, debrief and distance themselves from the idiot that did not realise that this was no ordinary third-world passport bearing pleb – for whom carte blanche on harassment is generally granted – but one of those big-wigs for whom they had a separate rule book.

Bakari Kante, the director of the Division of Environmental Law and Conventions at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi is, in my opinion, the victim of the very same problem I spoke about in an earlier blog. He just comes from one of those places that people at airports have inexplicably decided should not be allowed free travel.

According to the Business Daily, Kante was stopped by KLM security officials who accused him of having a fake Brazilian visa – in his diplomatic passport no less. What made the situation even worse was the fact that his Austrian assistant was allowed through without them even looking at his visa which was probably endorsed onto his Laissez Passer at the same embassy and at the same time as Kante’s.

Kante and his lawyers are accusing the airline of discrimination along racial and religious lines.

I’ll be watching this case very closely as finally, a champion for my plight with significant enough profile has emerged.

I wonder if they demanded a yellow fever certificate?

I was delighted to find someone else who remembers Lance Spearman, Fearless Fang and the Son of Sam as I mentioned them a couple of months back while searching for an African superhero.

Kabozi: notes from a ugandan abroad

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An idle chat during a work break a fortnight ago brought out a forgotten aspect of our childhood: the African photo comic magazine. With heroes like ‘fearless fang’ (an african tarzan) and the ‘son of Samson’ (an african superman in a wrestler’s body suit) we waited every month back in the seventies and eighties for latest edition to hit the news stands. They were sold under the brand name ‘African Film’.

The leading photo comic magazine was of course ‘the Spear’, featuring Lance Spearman, the super cool detective who drove around town in an impossibly named coupe (the stingray), sporting a panama hat and smoking a cigar. Not to be outdone by 007, he too had a bevy of beauties at his beck and call. He was super cool and we all wanted to be like him, right down to the suit and the bow tie.

He pursued the baddies…

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