Everybody wants to demystify Africa. Likewise, I had a yen for setting out in the Conradian heartland. So in 2004, I found myself packing my bags for an awfully good break far from my hum drum life. I took off to do some volunteering social work and joined a complete group of strangers from different walks of life -- all bound by that odd zeal to indulge in some philanthrophy, some adventure. That saw me through eight months of bohemianism backed by a zombie-like appearance (well, they lack the expertise to cut straight hair in Africa, it's only braids, hair extensions, hair ironing and shampooing that salons there thrive in. They have the most fascinating of hair though, spiral-like curls. While they envied mine, I envied theirs. Human nature, you see, you are never satisfied with what you have!)

Kenya where I was based for most part of my stay was wild, crazy, and, often, perilous. Kenyans love to drink and chew on 'mira' or khat, a cash crop grown extensively there and in Ethopia and Yemen They get a high from the mira, the way Indians get a high chewing 'kwai' or 'tamul' or 'supari' as is the different name known for 'paan'. And many of the humanitarian planes and cargo that go to places like Somalia carry loads of khats and few passengers. Brisk business too! It's the twigs they savour, which are sold in bundles. Weekends are the time when mira revelry is at its peak as people huddle together or cars line up along certain points for a taste of that 'soft' drug. I tried a stem or two but stayed out of the loop. So much for the mira.

Revelry is something that comes very easily to Africans. Be it at the local feasts, pubs or at Carnivore (one of the world's exotic night clubs in Nairobi), or at the safaris. It just takes a Sasa or a Jumbo (hello in Swahili, the most widely spoken language) to break the ice. People love their drinks and women love to show off their booty and dance. From the surface of it all, you think it's a complacent life. But fear was something that wasn't unique to me alone. What do you assume of a place where inmates keep their houses under tight lock and key 24 hours and look upon every visitor with suspicion? Even in insurgency-ridden places like the north east, nobody lives under such paranoia. As a foreigner and with my Muzungo (non-Indian, whites and the rest are called that) looks, we were easy prey for muggers -- pasports (used in illegal human trafficking, which is rampant we were told) among other things targeted to make a quick good buck out of selling. True enough, among many close shaves I had with muggers, this one takes the cake. I was busy SMSing while sitting by the window seat of the motato, the local transport, when this youth clasps my hands then swiftly takes it and alights out of the moving vehicle, leaving me non-plussed. A local friend even had this story of people rolling up their car windows if they happen to be driving and talking for fear of their arms being chopped off -- all for a mobile!

This is not to say that the India that I come from is bereft of conmen, muggers and thugs, but that they happen with such impunity there is what makes the difference. And never have I seen English-speaking beggars, children who hound you with "mama give me one bob".

Plucking memories from life in east Africa, I had an enriching experience but the lurking fear outweighs all other memories. I wouldn't, without a moment's hesitation, say I came out a very optimistic person at the end. So as far as the title of this post goes, I am right on.


Shanti Thokchom said...

Hey! that was nice to know you been to Kenya! You are right to say that they have English speaking urchins in large numbers who follow you everywhere!! I had great fun though, cycling through the early morning streets in Mombassa with my host's family's bike!! People would stare and stared at me no end because I was not their local nor any other people they could think of!!Even my host family( they were Gujjus) was too scared for me when I let them know that I wanted to explore the town on the bicycle in the morning!!They gave me lot of reason to be fearful but I assured them that I would not be carrying any valuables but only myself to enjoy the town's uniqueness!!I really could not help admiring the way those Mutato vans zoomed off with all the passengers all in one piece at that breakneck speed!! I guess thats the beauty of their transport system like we have back home with those local city buses where people would mount on tops of the buses to get to places!!The only thing I could not eat was the UGALI cos it was like plain Sooji and I tried my best to eat it the way the Kenyans did but I was unable to do so.It was a very good experience and very insightful to meet the good people there and they taught me so many of the Swahili words!!Till date I can't forget the encounter I had with the Masaai people! I was trying to take their pictures for memory of my trip there but one of them came at me with their spear! I was very scared.My translator helped him calm down.He told me that they did not like their pictures taken without their permission. I apolgized profusely cos I was very sorry and very scared!!I nearly wet my pants!!
I really loved strolling the local markets with all the fresh vegetables on sale!! The locals know the Indians as"Baniani" (especially the Gujjus )!!
I also enjoyed the beautiful and clean sea beaches!!Most of the seaside resorts were owned by Italians settled there!!My host family took me to a Hindi movie at the local theatre and I was damn surprised to see so many Kenyans enjoying the movie evn though they did not know Hindi!!I guess the song and dance routines had an entertainment value for them!!it was truly a rich experience for me!! So my friend Indira, I can relate to how you feel at facing those muggers and all alike!!

rita said...

ur african/kenyan experience was quite interesting and certainly an eye opener.but pssst the kenyans r baying 4 ur blood cos ur article has left the tourism industry in a mess he!he! jokes aside i must say u r indeed brave to be travelling alone ,with a group of strangers to an unknown land to do social work esp when u know that afrikan countries r always in the news 4 all the wrong reasons, well, i guess it is your indomitable spirit of adventure that has taken u there and i hope u continue to explore new places and experience the different nuances of life....GOOD LUCK!

Shanti Thokchom said...

See how your adventurous spirits took you to places others would not dream of!! Didn't those rich experiences make you look at Africa with a different view, now that you have set foot on that soil!!Seeing is believing!! So all those scary stuffs you have heard & read about it must have been cleared by now from your visit to Kenya!!Keep it up! I am really all for your indomitable spirits!!

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