Sunday, 22 May 2011

Shopping, church, gemstones....

The number of things we are seeing and doing is tremendous and difficult to report in full with only limited access to a computer, or indeed time to write. I keep remembering things I meant to say ... For instance, over lunch (when we blessed the icons) Runar, the Norwegian, turned out to be quite an ornithologist. He explained how the owl is not liked in Africa, is thought to be a bird of bad omen, bringing death. (Mark later said this may be because it’s nocturnal). Anyway, Runar said people often destroy owls’ nests and generally harry them. This is very different from my own view of owls – as wise birds, interesting and valuable, related to the goddess Athene, and of course significant in Winnie the Pooh as Wol. Anyway, Amanda pointed out this dislike of owls puts a very different colour on the story in Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’ where her staff on the farm give her an owl. She took it, I think, as a fine gift and something to cherish, but the donors’ purpose may have been quite different.

Yesterday (Saturday) was taken up with various errands – to buy meat for the weekend from Mr Gilani, who we met in his resplendent shop. He is dressed in formal 3-piece suit, with no less than 18 people serving in the shop and more visible via a screen in the cutting room at the back. He was at pains to tell us he had trained at Dewhursts and lived in New Maldon. I doubt there is a butcher’s shop like it left in Britain, though I must say The Butcher at Brogdale (near Faversham) certainly operates to the same proud standards. I was thrilled to find Harriet (our hostess from Friday’s Icon lunch) standing next to me at the counter. I felt like I had acquaintance in Nairobi, an oddly satisfying feeling. We then went to get salads etc... found a particularly tasty, firm and juicy orange called Pixie, which I recommend to you if you can find it, for its crisp easily-peeled skin and full flavour.

We also went (as witnesses if nothing else) to Ramoma – this is its last weekend. It is only 3 years old, a tremendously successful and generative art centre, but it’s run out of funds and they have to close down. The whole is set in pretty gardens, with sculptures all around, the walls inside covered in works of all kinds, including wonderful art made by children in hospital – some of them in the direst circumstances imaginable. I loved the pieces made of recycled materials – hanging screens made of hundreds of brightly coloured jar-lids, and representations of animals or scenes from life bashed out of old tins and other metal. The staircase itself was adorned with a marvellous parade of people, animals, clowns etc, so that to get to the upstairs galleries was to move inside a huge spiral artwork. I was thrilled to find the piece I bought – a very apprehensive looking lion made of scrap metal – was made by this staircase sculptor, who is called Harrison Mburu and deserves wide acclaim, as do many of the other artists whose work was on show. We saw only one dance show – performed by two men, one of whom had had polio and with totally wasted legs, but the two moved in perfect, loving, balancing alignment, one lifting the other slowly over his hips or back, the other using his long stick to help his taller companion to swivel and bend. It was very very good. One can only wonder what will happen to these artists now. In a city of such enormous poverty and contrast, it must have been a meeting place of huge value, and offering opportunities to people who would otherwise never get a chance.

We have now been to quite a few shopping malls – partly to get to bank machines, partly to get presents for people, partly to see the culture. There are sometimes ramps built alongside the staircases, either for disable access or for wheeled trollies for deliveries, not sure. The rake of these ramps is lethal. I would hate to have to get someone in a wheelchair up or down – it’d be very very difficult to hold them steady let alone push. All the malls have crowded carparks outside, with barrier entrances. I think most are owned and operated by Indians, and it seems that Kenyans themselves are not in the majority once you get inside the buildings.
Amanda needed to see her tailor about the coat he’s been making for her... this has been a tale of disappointment and mishap. Somehow he has not cut the precious raw silk properly and though the front of the coat looks marvellous, the back does not hang properly. She has been distraught... the cost of it, the waste, the amount of time, the exasperation with the man who said he did not need to do fittings, the need for it to be ready for a wedding in Kent on Sunday. We waited in the car outside his place while she tried to get some sort of improvement made... It grew dark. We waited and waited. Nothing to be done. She eventually came out, saying he was going to work at it overnight and try to do something. Very sad. Lots of emotion hanging on it. (Today in fact, having gone back there twice, and taken him two garments from her wardrobe to show how it needs to be done, she has accepted a change of plan, and he will now make a copy of one of her jackets using the remaining pieces of the silk).

It was a relief to stay in last night. We made a picnic supper and settled down to watch a (pirate) DVD... an Argentinian film called The Secret in the Their Eyes. This had previously been a failure as the first copy of the DVD only ran for about half the film. This time, it all seemed to be going very well. The story is a romanticised tale of an official from the prosecutor’s office who in retirement wants to go back to a horrible unsolved murder case. It involves quite a lot of flashbacks. His boss is a gorgeous lady (who looks very like my friend Sue Cassini), and his sidekick is supposed to be a drunk but actually steals the show as a clever and attractive free-thinker. We just got to a chase scene inside a football I stadium where the supposed murderer was hiding in the smelly-looking bogs, when the disc froze and nothing we could do could get it to move past this point. So I shall have to find a genuine copy when I get home to find out whodunnit.

Since I do have some precious time now to write I will give you this morning’s wonder. We went to the 8am Mass at St Augustine’s, which is the earliest Catholic Mission in East Africa and a fine set of buildings. I am not at all religious (our hosts are devoutly RC) but was keen to listen to an Kenyan choir. This was the Swahili service. We arrived in good time, the church was at least half full – and that was about 200 souls already sitting and standing in the handsome space. The windows are lovely – 1920s French glass. The church filled up and off we went. The whole service was in Swahili, the singing of the choir rocked! Their choirmaster is a thin, handsome, illuminated man, one trouser leg caught up in his sock, but who cares??? With drums, a washboard, a keyboard, and occasional ululation from some of the sopranos, we had a fantastic performance, with swaying, clapping, marvellous harmonies and rhythms, just wonderful. Mark said the early missionaries encouraged this style of singing as it seemed so African, but he as a purist thinks they should just use Gregorian chant. I cannot agree. I loved it. It seemed to throb out of every man, woman and child in the church as an occasion for expression. I also loved the chance to shake hands with my neighbours... the two young girls in front of me couldn’t believe this was happening. I guess not many white people go to that service, certainly not out-of-towners (and non-believers) like me.

We’ve also had a visit from a gem dealer this morning, a nice fellow called Marvin, who came to show us some tanzanite and other things. He worked in the US in the hotel trade but while he was there went the Gem Institute to study and qualify. Cool guy. He was walking around with a whole load of stones in his backpack – not only his own stock but also stuff belonging to other dealers. He loves cutting too, showed us which ones he’d done, and how brilliant they were. We’ve just had a nice barbecue from Mr Gilani’s excellent meat, with the remainders given to the staff.

We have Monday and Tuesday left now, with a full schedule for almost every hour. It’s going so fast. I see how I have become accustomed to the roadside life which we drive past. I can see how desperately poor it is, but also how enterprising and optimistic it is. Vision Groceries, Plumbers Exhausterer Unlock, Destiny Funeral Services, Christ is the Answer Church, all these mean hope for the future.

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