Four Museums in One Day

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Many Kenyans have only been to one museum in their lifetime, usually the Nairobi National Museum, with most visits being purely academic, not for enjoyment. To change that perception and promote the museum as an interesting and fun place to visit, the National Museums Of Kenya, the authority in charge of Kenyan monuments, posted an interesting challenge via social media: How many museums, sites and monuments can you visit in one day? This was done to commemorate the International Day of Monuments and Sites, when entry fees for Kenyan citizens to all museums and monuments were waived, including guided tours where available. As a result, some of Kenya’s most famous attractions would be free to enter on the 18th of April. The challenge had been made. Would it be possible to visit all the museums in Nairobi to take advantage of the offer of free entry?

After careful planning, some of my friends and I came up with a strategy to see as many of the attractions as we could. We started with The Nairobi National Museum, located on Museum Hill, which contains an extensive collection of artefacts with cultural and historical significance. Among them are the fossils found by various archaeologists, as well as traditional tools, musical instruments and weapons used by various Kenyan communities.

Additionally, the museum houses several exhibitions, one of which was a temporary collection of artwork done by Kenyan schoolchildren in conjunction with their counterparts in Poland. In addition to the ‘History of Kenya’ Exhibit, the National Museum is also showcasing a selection of historical photographs as part of the ongoing Kenya@50 celebrations. Many of the museum’s attractions were familiar to me, as I had been there severally as a child, but seeing them again after so long evoked a strong sense of nostalgia.

While we were at the National Museum, we noticed a larger than average crowd of visitors, because the day was a public holiday, and the free entry offer had received much publicity. Additionally, many of the school children who are the museum’s most frequent visitors were on holiday, and so it was a good time for a family day out. After going through the Museum, we visited the adjacent Snake Park, which also had crowds of visitors peering at the animals on display. The Park has a varied collection of reptiles, with various species of crocodiles, snakes, turtles and tortoises in the enclosures. In addition, the Aquarium Wing also has a wide range of fish that are endemic to Kenya.

From the National Museum, we went on to the Nairobi Gallery, which is located in the refurbished former Provincial Commissioner’s office at the edge of Nairobi’s City Centre. Since June 2013, the Gallery has been home to the Murumbi Collection, and it was a sight to behold. Containing displays of African art that were collected by Joseph Murumbi, the one time foreign minister and vice president of Kenya, the collection is diverse, ranging from gold and silver artefacts to mud cloth and beads from various African countries. The display also showcased some of the honours that were conferred to Mr. Murumbi, such as the Humane Order of African Redemption from Liberia and the Order of the Star of Ethiopia, in recognition of his contributions to African unity. Also on display were facsimile copies of  Murumbi’s stamp collection, which was reputed to be the second largest in the world. One of the rooms at the Gallery contained a tribute to Murumbi the man, with a recreation of his living room showing pictures of him and his wife, some of the music he loved and also some of the letters he wrote.

Displayed alongside the Murumbi Collection were artworks by African artists, such as painter Jak Katarikawe and sculptor Magdalene Odundo. These works combine to give the Gallery a thoroughly African feel, with artwork from all over the continent on display. Alongside the art were everyday items of cultural significance, such as the head rest used by the Karamojong of Uganda and the Turkana of Kenya, as well as musical instruments such as the thumb piano known as the mbira and African lyres. The guided tour also included a documentary on Joseph Murumbi, showcasing the work he did with Alan Donovan to set up the African Heritage Gallery. The short time we had at the Gallery did not do the collection justice, because there was so much to see, but so little time!

After a short break, we set off for our next destination, the Railway Museum. Located near the Nairobi Railway Station, this museum was not one of those offering free entry, but we paid the KES 100 (US$ 1.20) entrance fee. The museum is managed by the Railway Corporation, and contains locomotive engines that belonged to the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Inside the museum are various relics from the heyday of rail travel in East Africa, such as signal lamps, a morse code machine, and scale models of the trains and ships that the Corporation owned and ran before the breakup of the East African Community.

The museum also has a train attachment called a pilot, a special attachments at the front of a train that removes any obstacles that may be on the tracks to allow the train safe passage. This particular pilot on display was the one used by Theodore Roosevelt during his tour of Kenya in 1909, and offered a seating platform from where he could hunt.

The museum is in dire need of maintenance, with the locomotives outside showing a significant amount of wear and tear. Similarly, the displays could also use some arrangement, and a guide to explain some of the more intricate displays would also help.

With 2 hours left until the advertised closing time, we left the City Centre and set off to the Karen Blixen Museum. Located on a 20 acre estate in Nairobi’s Karen suburb, the museum was established as Kenya’s first house museum in 1986, in what had been Karen Blixen’s house. Coincidentally, the day before our visit would have been Karen Blixen’s 129th birthday, and the Museum staff had decorated the house with balloons and streamers to mark the occasion. The house was used as the set for the film ‘Out of Africa’, which was based on the book by Karen Blixen with the same name. The house and the land on which it were home to Baron Bror and Karen Blixen, who had established a 6,000 acre coffee farm in 1914. The museum chronicles Karen’s time in Kenya, and the struggle she underwent over the the seventeen years when she made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa.

The various rooms in the house have been set up to mimic what they might have looked during Karen’s time, with original furnishings and fittings. This includes the mahogany panelling on the walls, and the coffee grinders in the kitchen. In recognition of Karen Blixen’s literary prowess, the Museum has several of her books on display, along with translations of ‘Out of Africa’.

The overall tour took nine hours, and five sites were visited in total. While the free entry was a potent motivator, the entry fees to the various sites are actually quite low. It is therefore possible to visit all the sites and monuments in Nairobi within a day in order to fully appreciate the sheer depth of historical knowledge these places contain. The guides available at the National Gallery and the Karen Blixen Museum literally brought history to life through the back stories of the exhibits, answering all sorts of random questions in the process. All this stoked my sense of wonderment at the amount of history on show. Perhaps the next step should be a museum tour to various towns in Kenya, in what will undoubtedly be an educational and fun way to travel and learn a lot about the history of Kenya.

#SaveTheMara, A Matter of Urgency

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The Maasai Mara National Reserve is undoubtedly one of Kenya’s most popular tourist attractions, especially due to the annual wildebeest migration that takes place in July to October every year, a spectacle that was declared the eighth wonder of the world in 2006. It forms the northern part of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, a wildlife-rich plain that is shared by Kenya and Tanzania. It then follows that an area with such immense value to Kenya would be intensely guarded and conserved, but sadly, that is not the case.

Located 270 kilometres to the south west of Nairobi, the Maasai Mara covers an area of 583 square kilometers, and consists of two main conservation areas. First , to the west of the Mara River, is the Mara Triangle in the west of the Mara River, in what was Transmara District, now part of Narok County. The Triangle is managed by the Mara Conservancy, an organization formed by the local Maasai to manage the reserve and prevent poaching of animals.

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To the east of the river is the more visited Mara National Reserve, which is managed by the Narok County Government. Adjacent to the designated reserve are conservancies set up by local communities who have joined forces to protect the land that the wildlife are dependent on. These conservancies, which cover a total of 810 square kilometers, operate on a revenue sharing model with the lodges that are found scattered around the national reserve. Interestingly, the Maasai Mara has been managed since its inception by the Narok County Council, and its successor, the County Government of Narok and not the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The eastern side of the Mara is closer to Nairobi, and is therefore more popular with visitors by road, while the airstrips are mainly located in the north and west of the reserve, which has a higher concentration of animals.

The Mara has an exceptionally large number of resident animals, among them various antelope species, cheetahs, migratory and resident birds, as well as big cats such as lions and leopards. The Mara River, which rises from the Mau Forest water catchment, is itself home to a large number of hippos and other aquatic animals. The ideal time to view wildlife in the Mara is in the late evening and early morning, therefore a good option would be to travel from Nairobi, a journey of 50 minutes by air or 4 hours by road through Narok Town, and arrive in the late afternoon. On especially hot days, most animals prefer to rest in the shade, with only a few warthogs and baboons running about, but during the cooler afternoons and evenings, it is possible to spot a pride of lions or a coalition of cheetahs on the hunt. After an overnight stay in one of the lodges, a morning game drive offers prime viewing of the wildlife, ranging from vultures and hyenas cleaning off the remains of the previous day’s hunts, to giraffes browsing on the many scattered acacia trees in the area and hippos returning to their river habitats after a night of grazing.

Due to its popularity, the reserve houses a number of lodges and campsites which have been built to cater to the large number of tourists that visit every year. Initially, these lodges were built out of local materials, and care was taken to blend them with the surrounding environment through painting the buildings green and integrating them with the local vegetation, but with time, new lodges are being built out of materials that are visible from a great distance, thereby interrupting the scenery and natural environment.

While flying over the Mara, it is possible to see some of these lodges, which have been built along the Mara and Talek rivers, because they use highly reflective roofing materials. Another difference that is visible from the air is in the vegetation of the Mara Triangle and Mara Reserve. The Mara Triangle, which extends west of the Mara River and south into the Serengeti, has a strict policy prohibiting cattle grazing on reserve land, while regulation of the Mara Reserve is more lax towards grazing of domestic animals. As a result, the Mara Triangle has more grass available for wild animals, and therefore it appears greener than the land to the east of the Mara River.

There are a number of settlements in the vicinity of the Mara, which have grown as more people have moved closer to the park. One town, Mara Rianta, has grown because of the displacement of people who lived on land which has been turned into conservancies. Another town, Sekenani, has grown at one of the entrance gate to Maasai Mara, due to the commercial activity brought about by visiting tourists. The growth of these towns is a result of changing cultures of the local Maasai community, which is traditionally pastoralist but has become more sedentary due to the changing realities of land ownership in Kenya, thus greatly reduced their range and ability to move. Economic motivations, such as the revenue from visiting tourists have also led to the establishment of businesses such as balloon safari operators near the park, further contributing to the growth of these settlements.

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Camp built using white material, visible from the air

As more people settle around the reserve, there is competition for pasture, which results in livestock intrusion into wildlife territory. Of particular concern is the human-wildlife conflict that results from this intrusion. The cattle eat the grass that the wild herbivores rely on, and since they wander into the reserve at night, they are preyed upon by the big cats of the Mara. This in turn causes the Maasai who own the livestock to attack and even kill the predators. It is therefore essential for the Narok County Government and the National Environment Management Authority along with other interested parties to review some of the policies that are in place for the management of the reserve in order to reverse the damage that has been inflicted on the Mara ecosystem in order to adequately protect this crown jewel in the Kenyan tourism circuit.

Notes from a Masterclass – Tribute to Prof. Kofi Awoonor

There are few people that can make a first impression so lasting that it makes you see your craft in a whole new light.

A Tribute to Professor Kofi Awoonor

I first became aware of Prof. Kofi Awoonor when I heard that he was to speak and have a masterclass at the Storymoja Hay Festival. I became interested in his work after reading a study of his work, ‘This Earth, My Brother’.

His masterclass on ‘The Responsibility of the African Writer’ was especially revealing. Here was a man who had written longer than my country had been independent. He represented a link with the past, with the age-old traditions of singing and performing poetry that are now classified dryly as ‘Oral Literature’. The fact that these poems and songs of Africa have influenced genres as varied as spoken word, hip hop and rap show that African literature has a profound contribution to make to the rest of the world.

He was a man who found humour in everything, even in the fact that his name had been misspelt in the event programme.

He was also a man who loved language. He spoke 5 Ghanaian languages fluently, along with French, German and Dutch. Remarkably, at his age, he was also learning Portuguese to translate and promote his work in Portugal. He confessed that he counted himself incredibly lucky to have never been rejected by an editor. His dedication to his work, and the lengths that he was willing to go to were legendary.
One thing that he loved though was to read. In his opinion, the best way for a writer to build up his work was through reading the works of others. He started with the classics, with Jane Austen’s love affairs and James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the course of his reading, he encountered interesting, sometimes subtle themes. He pointed out that Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, for example, contains an interesting narrative about colonization and language, where Caliban’s freedom and rule over the island is broken by Prospero’s sorcery. When Prospero lands on his island, Caliban treats him well, and Prospero in return teaches him a language with which he could express himself. The way the English language was imposed on Africa, however, led to an interesting side effect: we were able to talk to each other directly, providing a convenient point of exchange.

However, even when we talked to each other in English, we still remained in touch with the creativity that our languages possessed. Where direct translation failed, we often resort to imagery.

Prof. Awoonor’s provocation to write was from a sense of obligation. One of his grandmothers was a priestess who performed incantations, while the other was a dirge singer. He felt that he needed to contribute to the culture of his people by promoting their poetry, both in the original language and translated to English. Another provocation to write that he shares with Chinua Achebe was the need to go against the prevailing opinion that Africa had no culture. Achebe had written ‘Things Fall Apart’ in response to ‘Mister Johnson’, a story of a bumbling African clerk that made so many mistakes that his life became a farcical representation of how the colonialists viewed Africa.
Ultimately, the heart of the masterclass was the fact that we all have an obligation to write as Africans. In order to do this, we need to answer four questions.

1. Who are you? Not just your name, but the sum total of your identity. If you don’t know who you are, then you are lost. You need to have confidence in yourself first before you write, and this arises from your understanding of what you are made of. One of the ways to answer this is to look at where you come from, the people who have gone before you. Everyone has ancestors with whom we share an inescapable link, and identifying these connections makes it easier to identify who we truly are.
2. Where do you call home? We all carry our homes around with us, like a snail with its shell. Home is where your art, your being and your true purpose lie. Home is part of identity. This is why the most eloquent stories that we can tell are those around us, those that contain in them the things that we are most familiar with.
Even for people who would consider themselves rootless, the people who live in cities like Nairobi who feel rootless also have a home that they can find and connect with.

3. What makes you think you can write? Until you can answer this question, anything you say will lack conviction. We all have stories that we can tell, but that alone is not reason enough to write. We should write because we have things that need to be said. He summed this up with a saying, ‘I have something to say, and I will say it before death comes. Let no one say it for me.’
4. What would you want to write about? He noted that there are many things that can be written about, ‘as many as the range of human emotions’. Every emotion is legitimate, and so it comes with its own story. Stories are a testament to the human condition, where conflict is engrained, and that is why we are happy when they are resolved. Good stories can also leave the situation hanging for the reader to resolve on their own. Every writer contends with his historical background and uses it as a source for his writing. We need to write more of our own stories, to share our perspectives as African writers with the world.
Stories are after all about meetings and partings, where we are introduced to the characters in the beginning, go through the story with them and say farewell at the end. How we feel towards them, how we feel towards the situations they are in, that is something that is brought out by how it is written.
His love for poetry showed in his lament for how it is taught. Taking the art of the poem and making it a dry, complicated matter was especially painful to him, starting with nursery rhymes. Poems are made to be performed, to be sung out loud and given the dignity they deserve. Poems, he said, are religious experiences that deserve to be treated with respect.

When writing, he suggested that first drafts should be used as a guide. He was always editing his work until right before he needed to send it to the publisher, and even after it had been published, he still found edits that he made and incorporated in various edits. He also dedicated himself to popularizing poetry, even though he knew, and acknowledged with a laugh, that there was no money in it. Poetry, according to him, was art for its own sake.
Professor Awoonor was a champion of African literature, and he will be sorely missed. To honour him, I suggest you read some of his work. And every time you write, be true to yourself.
This Earth, My Brother’ and more of his work are available on Amazon.
Farewell, gentle soul.

mea maxima culpa

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I have been calling myself a writer for far too log without actually putting anything in my blog. And for that, I am sorry.

Well, I still get inspiration, with random lines that pop into my head that i can totally turn into a story, like ‘In her eyes flashed a deep darkness that many tried to look away from but often wound up softly sobbing’, but I have done nothing with those.

I’m going to write more. There’s a way words just build up, like a volcano, and the sweet release that is a long post is very often therapeutic. Twitter and its short bursts of whatever just don’t cut it.

So here’s the deal. I will write once a week. And it may be anecdotal. I know, there’s far too many storytelling blogs as it is, but you will have to bear with me. Indulge me, even.

But

I have returned.

to every wheel, turn

I find myself putting out the fires that ideas start in my head, with the extinguisher of reason and the excuse of inability…
boring, boring questions
I’m caught somewhere between accepting the fact that I have an identity to actively maintain, and the desire to craft out a name for myself from the bricks and mortar that I regularly use as weapons when provoked. Rather than douse the ideas in petrol and watch them burn, I want to water them, watch as they grow into trees that flower and fruit in abundance, on which I can build a house of truth and substance, from where I can see the horizon, the line that marks the end, beyond which is a world of dreams and lights and colours so bright…
I want to think again, to put these thoughts down, to inspire…

“Freedom Ain’t Free” – On The Integrity Bill and Online Freedom

Originally posted on Diasporadical:

Before I start, R.I.P. to the many souls departed in the past few days. It’s been a difficult time for the country without having to lose so many in such a short time.
And now to the matter at hand…

Let’s talk about the impunity of our government in regards to the above issues and how we can tackle it.

Sigh.

We’ve been here before.

The best of us are sitting in our comfort zones pointing at blatant rights violations with full mouths screaming.

The rest of us don’t even know why people are screaming. Trying to figure out what’s going on, or just ignoring it all together.

For those that don’t know what the hoopla is about the Integrity Bill being “watered down” is

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