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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

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.

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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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Having a Kenyan passport is many times a curse. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of where I come from and would not wish to come from anywhere else. It is just that the blue travel document that I have to carry from my beloved country causes me endless strife.

I remember recently passing through O R Tambo International Airport on my way home from some forgotten place, and after queuing up for what was the better part of an hour, I finally got an audience with an immigration clerk who turned out to be no different from most of the others I’ve come across in my travels.

In an effort to make his job easier, I handed over my passport with the relevant visa page open but he promptly – without even glancing at the proffered page – closed it and started paging through it from the beginning. Why do they do that? Anyway, when he eventually got to the page with the sticker that gives me permission to reside in South Africa indefinitely, his expression changed to one of incredulity. An expression that said, “Of all the stickers you could have in your passport, this is the one that you’ve dared to present to me today??!!”  Maybe I didn’t look like someone who should be living here.

“Where’s your ID?” he then asked.

“I don’t have one”, I responded.

“Driver’s license?” he quickly continued.

“I don’t have one”, I said again.

“How do I know that you are really a permanent resident then?” he finally said after thumbing through my passport from beginning to end several times again.

“Because it says so on page sixteen of the book in your hand you idiot! Since when is a driver’s license or ID card necessary at immigration!?” I wanted to respond – irritated by the incessant thumbing – but I held my counsel. Experience has shown me that playing dumb in these situations helps the process move along a bit faster.

“Where’s your yellow fever ?” he continued after realising that I was not going to respond to his last question.

What followed was probably the result of having spent the previous ten hours in a cramped seat between a man whom I thought to be a Palestinian heavyweight champion of some variety who just would not fit in his seat, and another chap whose penchant for fast-food was obvious in his girth and chubby hands that were clearly not designed for sharing the armrests provided in the economy cabin. I stopped playing dumb.

Something snapped inside and I heard myself saying to the immigration guy “Why do I need a yellow fever certificate when I obviously live here and I have only been away for a few days and not even to a yellow fever region?”

Clouds gathered and too late I realised that I had just earned myself a thorough schooling in the art of using bureaucracy to inflict pain through stupidity. What had I done?

“You know very well that you always have to have a yellow fever with this passport?” he retorted while thumbing through my poor passport yet again.

Fortunately, not all my wits had abandoned me and I quickly regained my stoicism and fished out the demanded “yellow fever” from my bag without further comment and handed it over. I had learnt through experience never to be without one.  It was all, however, too little too late and the irate imp decided to escalate the whole thing to his supervisor who was hovering behind the counters.

I saw him animatedly waving my passport at his supervisor and I caught bits of the conversation which included words like “no ID” and “permanent resident”. I resigned myself to thinking about how I’d need to reschedule my connecting flight because it was looking like one of those situations where an interview in a backroom was about to be had. Me and my big mouth, I thought to myself.

Much to my pleasure and surprise, however, I heard the boss-lady say to him “stop wasting his time, there are many people waiting in line”, and just like that by troubles ended. However, as a parting shot, the annoyed immigration clerk paged through my passport one last time and spitefully ignored all the spaces available and stamped my entry onto the centre of one of my few remaining blank pages.

After having travelled on a Kenyan passport for this long, I suppose I should have learnt to keep my mouth shut and maybe I deserved the maltreatment. Maybe I should just grit my teeth and keep my mind focussed beyond the border. I’m certainly not the only one who carries a passport that invites this kind of abuse, and it’s certainly not the only place where this kind of thing happens. Frankfurt airport, for example, is a lot worse for me to pass through than any other airport, and it has been for many years. That, however, is not a story that I can tell with any measure of humour and so will keep it off print for now.

My question is this. Why does my passport attract such negative treatment despite having all the required stickers and stamps in it that have to be applied for in advance at significant cost in both time and money? Is it something I did or said?

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Once upon a time.

“I met a traveller from an antique land” is the first line of a poem by Shelley that has fascinated me for many many years. This poem about the inevitability of decline centres around a long dead king called Ozymandias whose empire has been laid to waste by time and nothing remains of it save a shattered statue of the despot.

That first line of the sonnet still manages to transport me back to the desolate scene it further describes.

I first heard this poem during a recital at school, and it has remained with me through the years. I have in this period imagined Ozymandias in many forms with my most significant expression of him being through some desktop graffiti that I would do while in school.  I would scratch out the form of a man with long flowing dreadlocks mouthing what I imagined to be very profound sayings and sign these quotes with that enigmatic name, Ozymandias.

These scribblings would be done in secret to lend an air of mystery to the concept and after I had done about ten of them, people began to notice and speculate about who Ozymandias was. I imagined that my fellow students were thinking that the drawings were the inspired works of someone touched by genius and I continued to deface school property with my then new-found art, trying to revive a hero long gone.

“From the darkness there must come a light”, “Sing your own song” and “The abyss also looks into you” were just some of the many borrowed quotes that my oh-so-cool rastaman claimed to be his and that I plastered next to his image wherever I could find a space in the hope of a meme resulting from my interpretation of Ozymandias.

I was soon discovered to be the one behind the graffiti and with this discovery I also learnt that people were not really interested in who Ozymandias might have been, but rather more by when I found time to do the scribblings and why I even did them. There were many hints dropped that I should get a life and so, sadly, that particular revival of the ancient king’s following died without going viral.

I have, however, found that I’m not the only Ozymandias enthusiast out there and that there are all sorts of websites with different angles ranging from actual recitals to even a low-budget movie that I’m not sure was ever aired.

Interestingly, the ending of the poem is also appropriate in describing the current state of my attempted revival of king Ozymandias.

“Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The complete poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugali

October 2006, Lilongwe, Malawi.

Sitting at Malawi’s Kamuzu international airport in this year’s already singeing summer has me bored, constipated and wishing I was somewhere else. I’ve been dropped off an hour and half early and am finding it difficult to breathe. This has nothing to do with my premature arrival, but with a rather wild weekend in Nairobi a few days prior that will remain a story for another day. I’m on my way back home though, which is good.

The reason I’ve whipped my laptop out is really a mixture of envy, nostalgia and arrogance.

I’ve just been watching someone whom I think to be a Malawian on his way out of his country for the very first time.

He is roughly in his mid thirties and is wearing a green disheveled suit that he will not be remembered for. He has clearly been wearing it a long time. A couple of days I would think.

His shoes though, are an entirely different matter. They look brand new and have no trace of wear save for the shallow line of dust along the bottom half of the sole. They are what cause me to notice this otherwise quite ordinary fellow. They stick out like how a rhinoceros would in…well, just like how a rhino sticks out wherever it is.

The shoes are also quite bright yellow as if in defiance to his dull green suit. Were it not for those shoes, my encounter with this man might have gone otherwise unreported. Quite arrogantly I think that those shoes are that man’s sole and only claim to fame.

He is accompanied by an equally nondescript man in his sixties and a younger fellow grunting under the weight of a humongous suitcase. The “tote-wallah” deposits the case on the scales at the check-in counter and the numbers spin. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Shoes is seven kilos above permitted weight and an animated discussion with the uninterested Air Malawi girl ensues. The end result is that he comes back to the queue with his entourage and they open up the case to see if they can trim some of the extra weight off.

Tote-wallah is exceedingly resilient for a man of his slight stature and executes the procedure with deceptive ease. Soon, the excision is ended and a five kilo bag of Iwisa maize-meal flour has been removed and indifferently sits on the floor beside the queue just ahead of me.

If you’re not African, then you might not know that maize-meal is used to make ugali (or pap, nshima or sadza depending on which part of the continent you come from) and forms the cornerstone of the typical sub-Saharan diet. It is a great injustice to separate a man from his ugali and I can almost swear I saw Shoes wipe away a tear

The check-in procedure is however then flawlessly concluded and the man disappears from my view and on to the rest of his life leaving his family to deal with the surrendered excess.

He and his yellow shoes, however, linger in my mind.

Having completed profiling him, I step past the huddle around the maize-meal and check myself in to then find a quiet place to muse on what I’d just seen.

I conclude that this man had been accompanied by his father and a relative to the airport in Lilongwe from some far and unpronounceable section of Malawi and was on his way for the first time into Johannesburg to seek his fortune.

The suit gave away the fact that he had traveled in it for a few days and it being high summer, the fact that he was from the breed of African who still maintained that one could only be truly dressed when one was in a suit.

This genus of African tends to occur more in the rural areas but can be seen in many urban settings displaying distinct characteristics that enable you to spot him from a distance. What had happened here was typical of a man who had left his village and yet somehow managed to take the village along with him.

I used to be like him when younger and always had a bag of beans from my mother’s little farm packed snugly in my suitcase.  I check myself as I realise that, in judgment, I have stumbled across what I have actually become; a man who is increasingly separated from his roots and this is bad.

I actually now envy his simplicity and wish I could be more like him again.

Maybe I should get a pair of yellow shoes.

2006-10-04

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Bits of song and broken drums were all he could recall”. Very poignant words crooned by the ageless Johnny Clegg and the ever-supportive Savuka in a hit song that cleverly chronicles the path through which the British led their colonies to what are today termed to be modern and independent civilisations.

Third world child, the title of the song and album, catapulted Mr. Clegg into international renown in the late eighties as he accompanied it with the more familiar tune “Scatterlings of Africa” in painting an altogether bleak picture of the plight of this Dark Continent.

In the same song, the third world child is encouraged to walk in the dreams of the foreigner and quite melodiously to learn to speak some English and his soul will be saved.

I salute Mr. Clegg for this wonderful tune, and it is as it echoes in my head that I take this moment to reflect on what I perceive to be at the root purpose of all our existence; the pursuit of happiness. Yes, even as a third world child like myself went to school and learnt to speak that little bit of English, the underlying hope was that it would be constituent in bringing me happiness. The fate of the third world child in this pursuit of happiness would appear to have been worsened by the dreams of the foreigner and I find myself thinking about what happiness really is.

I will not delve into the relativity of happiness but will say this: happiness is a much debated and discussed condition going through history in infinite states of description but maintaining one universally agreed upon characteristic. It is said to be elusive.

Mankind’s existence is therefore clichéd in the much flogged phrase “the pursuit of happiness” because of its penchant for retreat.

We all get up in the morning or at whatever time our schedules dictate to engage in activity that will gain us health, wealth, wisdom, etc. with a reliability whose purpose is to bring us that much closer to catching up with a happiness that ironically becomes increasingly ephemeral. When does it all end, this hopeless race!?

At this stage I want to apologise for that rather long-winded introduction and will, without further waste, go straight on to what I wanted to say.

It is my position that generally, the goal of pursuit is capture. If we share this stance, then you will also agree that after capture, pursuit immediately ends and it is replaced by measures for containment, exploitation, consumption, etc. A near endless variety of transitive verbs can be used to describe what one would do with happiness in this scenario, save one; release. Release should never, ever be an option.

Why then, are we forever in this pursuit of happiness? Could it be that we have never attained it?

Speaking for myself, I have been happy innumerable times and in many instances continue to be so. I, sadly, am also very often unhappy too. I think that it is the condition of life that we require some sadness to really appreciate happiness in the same vein as a high point is only high with reference to a low one. The trick, in my opinion, is to retain the balance in favour of the high points.

Very easily said I hear you say, and I understand if you are thinking that you might have just wasted valuable time reading this blurb up to here only to find that I’m only saying you should strive to be happier than sadder and not telling you how. Quite honestly, I can’t tell you how.

I’m simply saying that I do not believe that happiness is a thing we eternally pursue, but something that we quite often attain but due to our natures, it again and again escapes us as we turn our gaze from what we already have to what bigger and better version might be lurking beyond our reach.

Recognise your life for what it is and not what you hope for it to be and embrace that which makes you happy now.

There is much more to the little things in life than I ever knew and so I dedicate this blog to those littler things and hope to share them with you from time to time as my method of embracing them.

I, after all, am a third world child and I recall a whole lot more than bits of song and broken drums.

2012-02-15

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