Tuesday, 17 May 2011


We explored some of the edges of Nairobi’s cultural and anthropological scene today. En route to the fruit and veg market we called at Diamond Plaza, an Indian retail experience. First thrill was a sugar cane drink with lime and ginger, the juices squeezed out in a big old antique machine, and exactly filling two glass mugs ready to drink. Sensational! The warren of shops and boutiques could have been a suburb of Mumbai, complete with sex shop, Buddhist temple, shop selling lots of Ganesh replicas, and a cake shop filled with delectable sweets.

The fruit and veg market was something medieval, crammed into the edge of a pretty park laid out by the British, it looked from the outside like some sort of dangerous hellhole which no sane white woman would go anywhere near. A ramshackle arrangement of wooden stakes is covered with old strips of corrugated iron, plastic bags, old sacks and other makeshift waterproofing. Inside, it's very dark, and there are hundreds of fruit stalls, more or less carefully arranged on wooden trestles and banks which are lashed together with string and nails. Every trader, man, woman or boy, calls out a cheery ‘Good day! Hallo, mam!’ Some of the ware is instantly recognisable, some very strange. Grannies sit round the edge shelling beans into bowls or trays, so we have lots of beans and peas of all colours gleaming and glowing in the dark. Lads come to offer to carry your shopping. Every trader calls out and wants you to buy from them. They will cut fruits and veges open to show you how ripe or how marvellous their produce is. We bought two baskets full of bananas, passion fruit, fresh chickpeas, mango, mushrooms, cucumbers, courgettes, onions, and more... every item individually negotiated and bargained for. We took photos of some of the traders standing or sitting by their gorgeous stalls. Above their heads, a makeshift inner ceiling was stuffed with sacks and bags to help insulate everything from the heat, pouring in through the holey corrugated iron sheet roof.

I thought of my childhood visits to Camden Town market – how threatening the women there were – their raucous shouts and willingness to cheat. These traders today were quite different, modest and eager, and again it all seemed very Dickensian to me.

Home to a lunch of squash and ginger soup made by the maid, Catherine, a 23 year old orphan who works for our hosts to support herself and put her two little brothers through school.
Then with Mark at the wheel, we set out (via a fuel-fill at the subsidised UN garage) Paradise Lost. This is not a wellknown or promoted place, but worth the bone-shaking ride through Runda Forest (or what’s left of it). Turning off the highway, we were on a dark bright red soil road, with lush hedges on either side. We drove through a coffee plantation, and then tried to see a coffee processing plant – but nothing doing.

The entrance to Paradise Lost has a sign saying it's a Stone Age Cave. It's guarded by a gaggle of old men,some chewing khat, and looking pretty much out of it. We saw a camel and an ostrich, both available to ride when the place is fully open. We jogged down a steep rough path towards the lake. A sign says: No Swimming. Please Adhere! (This is because of the diseases in the water). Then we walked along the path to the waterfall, a picturesque tumble of filthy-looking water with a sheer drop of about 40' and then some rapids. The path leads to a neat space behind the waterfall and then to a cave. There is no information there, nothing apart from one plastic garden chair and a dangling light switch which is worth turning on.

A light bulb goes on inside the cave. To go in in, you have to stoop down and go along a short very low passageway and eventually, through some twists and turns, into a handsome cavern. There are handy side caves and shelves, but to my very untrained eye, no direct sign of burials or art. But who knows? The passageway ceiling looks waterworn, but the floors are rough and presumably hand-hacked.

I have never heard of this cave and have no idea if anyone’s ever studied it. It reminded me of the cave in South Wales which turned out to have very ancient human and animal occupation, high up on a cliff face – but this was easier of access. Something to research.

Coming home we called into yet another Indian shopping place, looking for Duct Tape but buying ayurvedic oil instead. Now the TV is on as I write this. It’s been another fascinating day. I am not finding it any easier to see so many desperately poor people along the roads. The villas are fenced with pretty walls topped with razor wire. The compounds are all guarded by watchmen, maybe as medieval houses were guarded – it’s employment for them, after all. The land in front of these walls is frequently gardened with hedging and topiary, which to my eye looks like a hangover from the vivid bedding schemes beloved of formal England up to WWII. Women waiting for their buses home after a night shift (cleaning?) spread out thin cloths on the ground and try to sleep, looking both decorous and vulnerable. The rich, including us, bounce past in 4x4s, sometimes looking people in the face, most often not. There is not any sense of revolution in the air, but I wonder if there should be.

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