Thursday, August 11, 2016

Traveled East Africa:Crossed Two Borders, Met Two Cities.


I  had been looking for this bracelet for quite a
while when I stumbled on it on the streets. The hawker had several beaded ornaments in display including the famous shanga za kiuno. Ahem …

I need a lesson or two about these. You see, I needed a bracelet, with the colors of the flag of any East African country and I always imagined I would be spoilt for choice over which one to settle for. Well, I would wear all of them at the same time but I don’t want to look like a witch in a Nollywood movie or weird Ugandan artiste Radio. Surprisingly, without giving it much thought, I settled for the one with the colors of the Kenyan flag. It was effortless, it was easy, and it was natural. This got me thinking, would I really wish not to be Kenyan? Would I have wished to be born in another country? Would I one day just pack my bags and leave my motherland for elsewhere? For good?
A while back someone made a joke about how Kenya should be sold and each of us given their share, so that we can go elsewhere and start anew. Allow me to digress.

About two years ago I went on a road trip to Rwanda. The trip was supposed to end in Kampala but it extended all the way to Banyarwandaland. It was adventurous and exciting and somewhere in there I fell in love but fell right out even before the trip was over. It was a five-day trip, traversing two countries. Kigali is a very beautiful city, and the countryside is lush, green and quiet. It is less crowded than most cities I have visited. The Rwandese are very friendly folk. They prefer to be referred to as Rwandans; I never had the chance to inquire why. Well I did but I did not have the courage to. I made a
few friends and one beautiful slender young lady offered to take us shopping. I mean, it would have been a nightmare haggling about the price bracelets with the only Kinyarwanda speaking vendors. She helped us locate the forex bureau offering the best exchange rate for the ‘superior Ksh’. We needed to
convert our mulla in to Mafaranka – Rwandese Francs in case you are wondering. Sounds like vifaranga. I know!
There was not much to shop around for, but you don’t visit another country and leave without a souvenir. The streets of Kigali are super clean, well kempt, lawns manicured and trees well-trimmed. You will rarely spot street children roaming about with dirty bottles of glue sticking out from their mouths. Most of the population is middle aged and I noted they looked rather sad, and the mood sombre. I guessed that perhaps it was so because we visited at a time when they were about to
commemorate the lives of those who perished in the 1994 genocide.

And of course I was eloquently reminded that I was not in Nairobi by the orderly public transport system. Buses comfortable and spacious; no loud bend over music with hoarse voiced deejays croaking in the background ninety-five percent of the time or rude matatu ‘condas’ who won’t give back your balance and always looking like they spent the night swimming in a changaa still spotting the signature miraa particle-decorated teeth accentuated by dark cigarette charred lips. The Hutu –Tutsi conversation is almost taboo. No, you do not talk about that. If you are too hard pressed to, then you’ll probably have to lock yourself up in the darkest room in your mind and whisper whatever it is you have to say, to yourself.
Most of the Rwandans I interacted with either spoke Kinyarwanda or French. A few of the ones I met at the national university of Rwanda had mastered a few lines of the English language, though still struggling not to confuse ‘has’ with ‘have, or ‘was’ with ‘is’. We had to keep asking ‘Tu parle francais?’ in order to save everyone’s time and energy.

The Rwandese cuisine is not so bad, although I did not get to see or even eat any green vegetables and if you choose to do buffet, you only get to serve one piece of meat (mostly beef). If you need an extra piece, you pay for it. Isn’t that weird? And what they call chapattis cannot be sufficiently described in words. They are made from wheat flour, eggs, baking powder and water and they look like big round mandazis. The experience was fantastic and I somehow toyed with the idea of how great it would be to live amongst people so kind, so friendly and in a city so clean. I imagined how safe it would be to spend the rest of my life with people who seemed to have understood how important peace is and had learnt the hard way to appreciate it. The mass graves at the Genocide Memorial
Centre bore notes mostly written ‘never again’. I was touched; deeply.

Kampala, the city of a thousand hills, on the other hand is noisy, crowded and God help you, you do not get hit by a bodaboda motorbike. Ha! Am on a roll, bambi don’t lynch me. Well if you think Kenyan police are corrupt then you should try Uganda. Counting Ugandan shillings made me sick, a banana costs two hundred shillings; that is approximately seven bob. You can imagine what happens when you want to buy something costlier, say a refrigerator. Lord have mercy.

Now in the food front, Uganda is way up there in the globe. The cuisine is rich and diverse - from g-nuts to matoke, potatoes and all manner of veggies. You should see a Baganda breakfast, rich, buffet. They even serve meat. I didn’t like their ugali though. The thing that looked and tasted like overcooked grade four Ahero rice. They say a change is as good as a rest, but other than the food and novelty in the environment, there was nothing much to be desired in Kampala. Who buys airtime worth ten thousand shillings? You know i took a bodaboda between Wandegeya and somewhere in town –and I was told in thick Uglish that it cost UGX 1,500. I rolled my eyes and remembered thing was just about Ksh 50. I wonder if people from countries with buoyant economies feel the same way about Kenyan shillings. This would take me some time to adjust to.

Rwanda would be an excellent place to live or even work in, but I am Kenyan, and what makes me Kenyan is not the name on my national identity card or the fact that I was born in Kenya, but what makes me Kenyan is that this is the life I know; that ugali is my staple food; that Swahili is my national language; that my hair is kinky and tough as tough as steel wool; that tea is our favorite beverage, that elections in my country are always almost never peaceful, that we forget; that accept and move on is our slogan that we vote along tribal lines, that traffic is part of city life.

That you have to watch out for your handbag and cellphone while walking in town or when you are in traffic, lest you get home with bruises and a potential tetanus infection. You see, I am not Kenyan because I live here or because I am black. I am Kenyan because we have a great sense of humor, that our currency is the Kenyan shilling, that sheng is our national colloquial language, I choose Kenya despite the fact that corruption is the fourth arm of our government. I choose Kenya because am
optimistic for better days. I choose Kenya because we are fun and hardworking and chapchap and always find something great in ourselves to fall back to. I would not wish to be Rwandan, or Ugandan, or Turkish, or British (I wouldn’t mind the accent though), or American, or South African. I am Kenyan and that is all I want to be.

Je suis kenyanne! But do I say buana.
Otieno Lynn
Otieno Lynn

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