I often feel I am living inside a novel. The situations seem so contrived. Today for lunch we went with our hostess to meet with some of her icon-making students. It was arranged that they were to be blessed by a Franciscan monk, Father Augustine. We drove to another nice house not far from here, and everyone had brought something to contribute for the lunch. The students gathered, and their icons were laid out in display on a table, leaning back on small childrens’ chairs. The students were three immaculately clad Indian women, all Jains, a portly Norwegian Catholic UN man and our hostess, a tall English girl called Harriet. Her three children were at school, but her little terrier amused us by responding avidly to the call of ‘Monkey’. That house, in Spring Valley, being in a more forested area, has monkeys in the garden as a commonplace. Fr Augustine arrived, tall, bearded, thin, friendly.
I had brought, but forgotten, the little Ethiopian icon I bought the other day. It was wrapped up in my bag. Never mind. We had drinks on the verandah – water or fruit juice for us and the Jains, red wine for the Norwegian. Eventually everyone gathered around the icon table, photographs were taken and then we had the blessing – the words having been downloaded by our hostess Amanda from the Vatican website... Catholic rites for Orthodox images. Fr Augustine sprinkled some holy water on the icons, using sprigs of rosemary and we all said Amen. It was rather jolly.
Then we had lunch – the dishes being warmed in the back kitchen and brought out to the table – wonderful curries and puri, yellow rice fragrant with cardamom, and a dish we had brought, made by Catherine, the maid at our villa. This was a Kenyan dish, called githeri, a concoction of beans and other filling things, very nice too. More wine, water, fruit juice and a getting-to-know-you conversation amongst us all. Geeta, stunningly beautiful had been born in Uganda, fled as a baby with her family to Peterborough which she recalled as a true community place, where neighbours gave them tables, chairs, beds etc to get started with. She (it turned out) is a highly successful architect and mother of teenage children, but truly looked to be in her 20s. Jaia, clad in a wonderful saree, was the great cook – elegant, funny, shrewd – we are looking forward to having some cooking lessons with her on Monday. Fr Augustin said he was shortly to go off on his holidays – actually ‘begging’ as he said, (fund raising) for a new student hostel in Nairobi. There is a desperate shortage of safe accommodation for students in the city. He also had news of a German school out near the aiport which had been completely razed to the ground – apparently at the behest of the head of a rival high school whose government connections have proved impervious to law or any other form of open justice.
The Norwegian explained the origins of his name, raved about the stewed rhubarb, drank more wine, and talked of his childhood. He’s worked for the UN in many places, starting with a background in health. He had enjoyed reading a set of books by an Englishwoman (couldn’t remember her name) about Anglican clergy before during between and after the two world wars. Apparently their preoccupation is entirely sex – the slightly ribald laughter implied that this was only to be expected of Anglicans. I did manage to say that Catholic clergy presumably also thought a lot about sex- it seemed a bit unfair to ascribe this universal phenomenon to one sect only.
All the people round the table have had roving lives, born into it, it seems. Harriet was actually born in Brazil, married a Belgian, her father born in India, one child born in Africa (and a struggle to get a British passport led to the other two being born in the UK – no nonsense). Her house is anther due to be torn down to make way for more profitable flats, it seems.
I remembered too late that my icon was in my bag, but Fr Augustine very kindly blessed it (without holy water) right at the lunch table, in a simple ceremony asking a blessing for all who look at it. It will go next to my marvellous Russian icon, also of the Annunciation. In this work, the Angel Gabriel is shown on a tiny little cloud, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, seems to be darting downwards like an arrow towards the Virgin.
Mark drove us home as Amanda was going to a tailor’s fitting, and en route told us of his hopes and fears for his work and the whole dilemma of his decision to return to the UK.
Later in the day, we went to the Massai Market, as I wanted to see it and to buy some cloth. It’s held on Fridays in a large covered space in one of the shopping malls. Mark wanted to approach it through a supermarket and bribed the young salesman in the sofa department to open a fire-exit so we could get straight to it. The young man protested that his boss would be angry, but as usual Mark had his way. It was an excuse, after all, to press a note into the man’s hand. The market is about 10 tennis courts in size, under a high dark roof – all very badly lit. The stalls are throbbing with merchandise and eager salespeople – it turned out, many are employed by businessmen who hire them by the day. If they don’t make enough sales, they get fired. This explains their polite but desperate enthusiasm to get you to stop and look at their wares. I was not looking for carvings, but for cloth of a particular colour and pattern. Bargaining is the way. They ask an impossibly high price, written covertly on the margins of scraps of newspaper stapled together into little books. Under their opening price, you are asked to put your offer, and the bargaining proceeds to a mutually satisfactory level. Cotton has all but disappeared from the market, it’s all acrylic, though they will swear otherwise. The light cast by the one or two high orange lamps is anathema for any kind of colour vision, so it’s ok to ask and take a piece of cloth to the edge of the market to see what it realy looks like. I found a lady called Irene who (uniquely I think, on the market that day) had some of her patchwork quilts, and one I bought. Also a Massai cloth (acrylic) and some Kikuyu khangas, which were a lovely soft cotton. Florence Kelly, the girl selling us these last items, said we had saved her job – she had sold nothing else that day and would have been sacked if not for us. As we left, all these young grafters were packing up their wares into huge cheap plastic bags, to load them onto the roofs of those precarious vans, or the backs of bikes, to haul them away again till the next time.