The Other Nairobi

Meffe - Other 1

Nairobi is really two completely different cities. Maybe more.

I can’t remember when it all started to become normal. I look back to when I first arrived and wonder what made me accept it all, like some sort of freakish gospel I couldn’t argue with. Now I’m not even fazed anymore when I think of it. Sometimes when my heart feels cold, I remember those first few weeks when things made sense, when things were, for lack of a better term, black and white.

From our first few days in the country as bright-eyed and bushy tailed interns almost a year ago, we were chauffeured around town in cars and vans, doors tightly locked, touring development projects in slums and rural areas across Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya’s two largest cities. They’d paraded us from compound to courtyard in an effort show us the country’s underbelly, the one that usually got lost between grilled crocodile and the sight of your first zebra.

We’d been given the usual low-down about driving in the slums. Lock you door. Keep your windows rolled up. And most importantly, don’t wear anything valuable.

We got out of the car and I stepped onto a tarmac of unpaved soil and trampled streams of garbage, baking in the stench of cloistered humidity. I had seen nothing but Nairobi’s downtown and ritzy expatriate suburbs until that moment. I thought I must have fallen asleep in the car. This couldn’t be the same city. No, we had gone far beyond, to somewhere else. But the skyline wouldn’t lie to me no matter how I pleaded. Nairobi’s other face was staring back at me, and it wanted change. My pockets were empty.

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Kibera is arguably the largest urban slum in Africa, and one of the largest in the world. Anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million residents live here, depending who you ask and for what reason. Informal houses are made of scrap metal, mud and generally whatever people can find. From the centre, it stretches out in every direction almost as far as the eye can see. There are allegedly over 2000 NGOs and community organizations working out of Kibera.

There exists two completely different social spheres in Nairobi, and though I think they’re aware of one another, they never seem to interact outside of a few select service industries. The city’s looming financial district, complete with skyscrapers and everything else you’d expect from an emerging economic hub, sits just a few kilometres from slums where hundreds of thousands live huddled together in homes made of mud, scrap wood and aluminum siding. Residents of extensive, unmappable slum networks like Mathare or Kibera work for the rich as maids, cooks, guards, bus drivers and any other occupation you can think of without having to think of unless you really want to. Ghosts, they pass unnoticed by most, even long after they’re no longer there.

Navigating the slums is an exercise in patience and acceptance, fighting the urge to forgo all sense and reason for forcibly ingrained sycophantic sensibility. You feel sick at times, but manners prevent you from expressing it. You want to turn out your pockets, but you don’t want to be an asshole. You want to say hello, but you also want desperately to be ignored. But you never can, not here.

Westerners are taught to cry and woo over scenes like these, because sadness demonstrates empathy, the ability to interact in broader sense of humanity. As kids, we’re told by our mothers to finish our meals because “there are starving children in Africa,” a sentiment that is never far removed in these circumstances, despite its ridiculous and infinitely condescending nature. Sadness and pity show you’re relating with the locals, and letting the world know you understand your immense privileges and the genetic lottery you’ve won. But if tears could magically pump into the nearby wells or water pumps, the taps would still spray salty and altogether useless bile out into the rivers of waste and feces that flow through these communities, snaking their way between homes and gaggles of playing children.

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Kiambiu, another of Nairobi’s infinite slum networks, houses roughly 50,000 residents. Rivers of garbage and feces flow through the community down into the mighty Nairobi River. The water is so polluted, it cannot be drank, though many residents do so anyway. Photo originally published in Vocativ, February 2014.

In some places, pity runs the game. There’s a huge industry surrounding social tourism, where people pay good money for guided afternoon tours through slums. Dealers in the trade parade it as a more realistic alternative to going on safari, but I can’t entirely see the difference. Visitors point their lenses at unsuspecting, unwilling animals, drooling and dreaming about what caption they’ll stick under it to garner more buzz from friends back home. It’s Discovery Channel dribble and more like a competition to see who can fit the most flies in a grayscale close-up of a dirty child’s bemused face. Now the world can see just how worldly you are.

The slums are complex communities that exist because there is nowhere else for people to go. Neighbors know each other’s names and look out for one another; mothers let their children play idly in the alleys, comfortable in the knowledge that if they get lost, someone will take them home. People support each other’s businesses and buy local food. Decency is maintained through public shaming, religion and gossip. No one owns their home or the land it sits on and they can be forcibly removed without a moment’s notice. They exist in the spaces between everyday life.

These slums are more than a big amalgamation of informal housing, they represent a massive group of forgotten people whose lives are so often lost to the pages of humanitarian health reports and guilt-inducing NGO public relations material. It’s easy to consciously ignore their humanity and think of them as a single insignificant number in a great statistic aimed at getting donors to shell out pocket lint. If African children could claim royalties on Facebook photos, then we’d be working with a realistic solution to end poverty across the continent.

I had a house woman named Rose who cleaned our apartment, did our laundry and cooked our meals every day. I saw her every morning when I left the complex and every night when I came home. Yet, I knew virtually nothing about Rose save for the fact that she lived in the nearby slum and every day arrived with her hair tied in bright cloth. She’d wave goodbye and leave every night after cooking dinner. I’d been there so long it seemed awkward to try and feign conversation. We were estranged work colleagues. Long after I’d moved out of the apartment, I met her again at a political rally. We hugged and exchanged smiles in broken English. She asked me to take a photo of her and she looked proud to be skipping work to support a politician from her tribe. I snapped the shot and as she disappeared into the crowd, I wondered for the first time I’d ever see Rose again.

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A young man holds a photo of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga. His followers are generally from his Luo tribe, the second largest in Kenya and fierce rivals to the current politically dominant Kikuyu tribe. At a political demonstration known as the Saba-Saba Rally, thousands gathered in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to show their almost religious devotion to the politician and his party. Over 15,000 police and riot squad soldiers were deployed to keep the rally in line, should it break out into a riot. Only a few tear gas canisters were fired, making it a general success.

Nairobi’s two social spheres are so wildly different, it’s hard to fully comprehend how they have coexisted for this long without a total collapse. The rich business elite and political classes feed off the poor in a manner best described by an activist friend of mine named Boniface Mwangi as vultures – countercultural graffiti murals around the city sport the popular motif. The poor in turn are convinced of the inevitability of their status, or, of the far scarier notion that the ruling classes truly have their best interests in mind. People throw their support blindly behind politicians who share their tribal ethnicity, rather than represent their beliefs. They follow their every infallible word and support their decisions blindly; tribalism slowly destroys the fabric of Kenyan society to a such a degree that it has caused mass violence time and time again, most notably the post-election violence of 2007-2008 that left over 1500 dead and thousands more internally displaced. The scars of that time are still visible across the country, and the wounds are still open for all to see. They may never close.

I can see the people mix on the streets but the lines between them could not be more obvious. Sometimes I feel as though a sickness hangs over the city like invisible smog, suffocating those too poor to reach higher ground. They sit asphyxiating in neighborhoods overflowing with poison as the rich, lounging fat in bulging designer suits, cling flutes of cheap champagne in their towers made of glass, watching the wide world wither and die beneath them. “Don’t worry,” they’d assure themselves under the low tones of fixed gas masks, “we can always make more poor.”

Back in that first slum visit almost a year ago, we got back in the car; the driver immediately locked the door behind us as groups of schoolchildren and mothers crowded the vehicle, hands outstretched.

“So how did you like the other Nairobi?” he asked me. I never answered him.

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Sundown in the Sahara

Meffe - Sundown

I’m awake, and the silence is deafening.

Inside an open enclave of hanging rugs and heavy quilts, the sun is cresting over a towering dune in the distance, slowly hunting darkness from a mess of blankets and pillows lacquered in fine sand.

A camel cries out in the distance, crackling the stagnant soundtrack. All is still. The air is cold and dry at the fingertips, light mist clings to the edge of my nose. Wind carries sand across the valley in waves of shimmering gold that undulate and swell as they’re swept from one dune to another. Every gust shifts the mountain structures a minute amount, leaving the landscape in a state of perpetual motion. The hourglass is never flipped, it simply runs.

There’s so much nothing, it’s almost too much to take in at once. Each mass of sand looks different, yet altogether identical to the others surrounding it, spread out in every direction ad infinitum. Like being lost at sea while firmly on land. The desert imparts an overwhelming feeling of timelessness, as if it was all that ever was and ever could be. This arid wasteland cannot be mapped, colonized or conquered. The many gods it has witnessed only know how much blood the sand has swallowed over the centuries.

Mohammed and Aziz, our Berber guides, tie their brightly coloured turbans and ready the camels. We ride single-file out of the Sahara in complete silence.

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A barbary macaque sits in the Monkey Forest, somewhere in the Atlas Mountains.

I’m not sure what we came to Morocco looking for, or if we were even looking for anything at all.

Somewhere between the land of medieval Moorish Sultanates and Aladdin, lay the great divide, the Northern edge of Africa, the place where it finally came to an end. Morocco is also co-host to another monumental frontier of civilizations, the great Sahara Desert, that endless wasteland of sand and nothingness home to only the bravest flora and camel-herding nomads. From the outside, Morocco maintained for us a certain air of incomprehensible mystery, the kind only brought about by snake charmers and great merchant cities run amok with monkeys roaming wild through labyrinth markets shaded in hanging silk cloth.

Morocco’s history as a nation is plagued with a clash of cultures and ongoing struggles against vicious colonial powers, notably Spain and France. On the flip side, it’s also one of the few African nations that hold bragging rights over colonizing Europe before it was even cool to colonize. The Moorish retreat from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista in the 14th and 15th Centuries marked the birth of what we understand as modern European states like France, Portugal and Spain. It’s a place where West and East have met for thousands of years, travelling, trading, and more often than not, violently vying for power. Between the Arabs, Berbers, Europeans, Christians and Muslims, the land has always been a lucrative possession worth holding on to.

A melting pot historical culture is all good and well, but present-day Morocco struggles with modernity as a function of authenticity versus commercially marketable tradition. In cities like Marrakech, the idea of Morocco is a puppet show propped up by an image of its former self, an identity the country desperately wants tourists to believe and buy. The street performers charm foreigners in the vicinity of snakes. The monkeys are all on chains, tethered to posts, poised for photos.

On the train to Fes, we meet a young Moroccan named Amine who gives us the lay of the land: “There are only three rules in Morocco: don’t steal, don’t sell drugs and don’t talk bad about the King,” he says, laughing. “Everything else? Do whatever you want! Whatever! As long as you have money to pay for it.”

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Scenes from a 500-year-old outdoor leather tannery in Fes, the largest in North Africa. All tanning and stitching is done by hand by over 800 employees, many of whom trace their family lineage with that of the tannery. Leather is a key industry in many cities across the country.

The Kingdom of Morocco is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, at least in principle, ruled by King Mohammed VI. The King’s honorific powers are granted by the constitution and secured by an almost religious observance of royal dynastic bloodlines. The King is both a secular political leader and the “Commander of the Faithful,” claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Like most African leaders, his smiling photo hangs in nearly every commercial establishment and even some homes. Followers tout his benevolence and progressive leadership through a network of newly paved roads and a growing economy based increasingly on trade and tourism.

But the King is also a monarch. He appoints the Prime Minister and operates with the parliament on matters of government, but ultimately has final say over what goes on in the country. Despite its revolutionary spread across North Africa, the Arab Spring never really hit Morocco the way it did in Tunisia and Egypt. Amidst protests in 2011, the King won a referendum victory to reform the constitution, though its implementation has been slow, leaving many citizens increasingly frustrated over what they see as a long string of broken promises in a time that should be marked by great change.

There are those who disagree with his highness, but these are generally matters best left for private conversations between friends. Faissal, a young hostel worker we meet in Essaouira, has no problem breaking a few of Morocco’s carnal rules when he feels like it.

“People stand around and clap whenever the King walks by like he’s done something great. They film him giving food to the poor and show it on the news and everyone loves him. All he does is take money from people who work,” he says, sporting plastic sunglasses at night and gently inhaling from a large shisha pipe on the ground. “Do you want to know who I clap for? I clap for my mother when she makes me dinner. She’s the real hero, not this guy. Who made him King? This is not medieval times. The people rule Morocco.”

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Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the largest in all of Africa, its minaret is the tallest in the world at 210 metres. Finished in 1993 by King Mohammed VI, its construction cost an estimated 700 million dollars, a price that angered many citizens struggling with basic amenities like access to water and education. It remains, nonetheless, the city’s most recognizable landmark.

We drive through the countryside for hours as freezing mountaintops melt into arid deserts devoid of any human life, save for a few junk-selling roadside resto-attractions on the crest of scenic highway hills. Come for the view, stay for the lemon couscous. It takes us just under two hours to drive from Middle Atlas mountain towns (known as Swiss Morocco due to their insanely low temperatures and unpredictable snowfall), to the edge of the Sahara, where at every moment, the sun is trying to choke life from the ground.

Morocco is a land of paradoxes, a mix of many worlds that belong together, but often seem very far apart, a sentiment reflected not only by the landscape, but also the locals. Cities inhabited predominantly by ethnic Arabs look and feel strikingly different from those dominated by Berber descendants, in the same way that cities founded by colonialists depict the remnants of a different era than areas inhabited since antiquity. Casablanca and Fes might as well be on different sides of the desert when it comes to culture and economic development.

In its own way, modern Morocco is a series of time capsules buried at arm’s length in the sand, each desperately trying to claw its way to the surface above the others, claiming supremacy or that they were there first. None win, and it doesn’t really matter either way.

Various oasis-like valleys run through the desert all the way to Algeria and mark vital lifelines for farmers who tend to palm and date tress, as well as producing Morocco's famed argan oil.

Various oasis-like valleys run through the desert all the way to Algeria and mark vital lifelines for farmers who tend to palm and date trees, as well as producing Morocco’s famed argan oil.

Back in the Sahara, a darkness creeps quietly across the sky in fading rays of pink and orange. We take turn trying to see how long we can go without looking up, as the night sky slowly unveils itself in webs of twinkling television static. We stare at stars we were always assured existed, but have never actually seen for ourselves. Bands of milky white glow stretch across the sky in gentle arcs and it’s a while before we realize they’re not clouds. There are no clouds.

I suddenly understand why people have been worshiping the sky since…well, the dawn of human consciousness. Why we call them the Heavens. When you consider the capacity of each star to bear its own system of celestial procession, as endless as the Sahara seems, it is not even a grain of sand itself in the great vastness of the universe. The thought makes me feel crushingly insignificant, yet immeasurably powerful at the same time.

I relax my eyes and try to draw my own constellations in the darkness. A chair becomes a horse, becomes a centaur, who becomes a winged warrior in a great battle across the sky. Mars flashes a heavy red grin.

The celestial arrangements I knew as a child are gone, nowhere to be found. Orion is somewhere else. Wicked Cassiopeia has finally been buried. The Great Bear hangs upside down, suspended in motion. All is quiet. The sand sings gently to me in the wind.

Meffe - Shadows in the Sand

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In Awe of India

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As I walked to the temple, the enormity of it looming in the distance made me feel uncontrollably small. Mahogany beams interlocked across the entrance creating an archway of enigma atop a series of stone steps that magnified the structure under a sun obscured by no clouds. They had taken my bag, my camera, my phone and just about everything else after a series of security frisks so thorough, they had made me seriously consider asking the guard for breakfast and a phone number where I could reach him again if he wanted to hang out and watch a Bollywood movie or something.

I took off my shoes, bending low to hand them to an Indian man through a window in what looked like the entrance to a small underground bunker filled with nothing but piles of fading footwear. “Thank you, sir,” he said, bobbing his head from side to side and handing me a small numbered chit.

Inside, people sped up on their naked feet and rushed to fall on their knees before a gigantic golden statue, the shining likeness of a man in a turban, sitting cross legged on a pillow, hands clasped at his knees. Pilgrims touched their foreheads repeatedly in respect and mumbled words I couldn’t understand under their breath. I stood a few metres behind, hands at my back, observing the scene with a mix of confusion and sympathetic serenity to match the air of fabricated sanctity blessed in silent reverence. The cavernous room felt oddly full, echoes aside.

An arrow pointed me down a set of marble steps that led into the basement. I could hear the sound of ritualistic chanting getting louder as the bulbs dimmed to a caramel shade of candlelight. The mantra grew louder and more monotonous, echoing off the narrow walls as my eyes adjusted to a sea of holy relics laid out in pantheon before me.

The Gateway of India, Mumbai

The Gateway of India in Mumbai, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V.

But the story really starts 16 hours earlier on a train leaving Mumbai in the middle of the night. I slumped into my seat just as it began to rumble, having narrowly caught my overnight sleeper to Ahmedabad, a northern Indian city a few hundred kilometres from the Pakistani border, the largest and most populous city in the province of Gujarat. Despite being one of the few places in India where the sale and consumption of alcohol is entirely forbidden, the self-proclaimed food capital of the country boasts famed mosques, winding markets and absolutely no tourists to speak of. But more importantly, I’d found an incredibly cheap flight back to Kenya from the city’s relatively new and desperately underutilized airport.

I sat next to a married couple on the train, traveling home from a vacation with the family in Mumbai. Their two young daughters quickly jumped on the upper bunks to secure them for the eight-hour ride and we settled into the compartment partitioned by thin walls and a few curtains hung on dangling metal rungs. We got to chatting about the usual moving car pleasantries when I finally admitted that I was only staying in Ahmedabad for a day to catch a flight and not planning to see much. They were shocked, they were appalled. They playfully wouldn’t stand for it.

Strangers were kind in India, a sort of uninhibited natural kindness I had long ago forgotten in Nairobi. People exuded immense pride in their country, not just a veiled hustle for tourist cash with anyone that looked out of place. The wayward stink eye stares of street faring Kenyans was gone, replaced by smiling Indian faces who held out no beggar’s hands when they waved and yelled “Hello!” amidst the intense hustle bustle of metropolitan cities like Mumbai that neither cared nor waited for the slow of heart or mind.

A few days earlier, I’d met a young graduate student on a boat heading back to the mainland from Elephanta Island, an ancient archeological site just off the coast of Mumbai. His name was Hashish. No, really. After seeing me sitting by myself on the deck, he approached me to chat politics and proudly boast the immense technological and social advances his city had undergone in the past 10 years. As we got off the boat, he introduced me to seven of his family members, each individually by name, and gave me a private tour of the downtown core, for which he would accept nothing but a streetside cup of tea. “This is Indian hospitality,” he told me. “You are a guest here. This is our home, and you are most welcome.”

Back on the train to Ahmedabad, the friendly couple was surfing the web on their tablets to find the cheapest hotels in town, routes to the famous tourist spots and even instructions on how to take public transit if I didn’t want to pay for taxis or hire a car. They asked me about life in Kenya and were keen to know about what it was like during the terrorist attack in September. I told them about plans to visit a Somali refugee camp and the husband rolled his eyes.

“He’s a racist,” the wife giggled, winking at both of us from across the tight compartment.

“No, no. Ha, ha. I’m not a racist. I’m just not a fan of the Muslims,” he said, unabashedly. “They have Pakistan, we have India. They only cause problems here.”

The Haji Ali Mosque in Mumbai. Built on a islet 500 metres off the coast, the bridge is accessible only during low tide. Despite the split with Pakistan in 1947, there are still over 138 million Muslims living in India

The Haji Ali Mosque in Mumbai. Built on a islet 500 metres off the coast, the only bridge is completely submerged in water during high tide. Despite the split with Pakistan in 1947, there are still over 138 million Muslims living in India

With 1 billion people in a country no larger than Québec, India was boasting one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This, coupled with a democratic government and a free press that was manifesting itself into an increasingly literate and university educated middle class. India is the ‘I’ in what’s known the BRIC countries, a group of emerging economic superpowers that includes Brazil, Russia and China.

The next day, I followed their directions and made my way to the Swaminarayan temple in Ghandiganar, a nearby town that housed the provincial government buildings and bustling streets filled with horses, cows, camels, elephants and packs of monkeys that weaved their way effortlessly through oncoming traffic. The temple was really a cross between a palace and a playground, complete with an amusement park waterslide and pathway lined with shrubs pruned into elaborately posed baby elephants, trunks all pointing in our wake.

Lord Swaminarayan, who died in 1830, is revered across many parts of the world as the physical incarnation of god on earth. Hindus worship many gods, but they’re all ultimately representations of Brahman, the world soul, the all connecting world energy that flows through everything, vibrating at the frequency of om. Swaminarayan was the incarnation of that supreme being, come in human form to earth in order to show people the way and the truth. It was like a strange Hindu and Christian hybrid religion.

In the basement of the temple, Swminarayan’s relics were displaced in brightly lit glass cases with plaques that explained their significance in Gujarati, Hindi and English. All around, hidden speakers played an almost Gregorian loop of singers continuously repeating the word “Swaaaaaaaaaaaminarayaaaaaaaaan,” in a rhythm that quickly became hypnotic and strangely soothing. I closed my eyes and subconsciously swayed.

Everything from his gloves to his teeth was displayed with the proud dignity of a small group of devoted followers who had taken great pains to keep them in immaculate condition for over 180 years. Life-sized wax dolls illustrated scenes from Swaminarayan’s life, from his seven-year journey across India as a barefoot child to his works and deeds amongst the people of Gujarat.

People kissed their hands before passing them over the glass as they walked onto the next relic. I’d seen the same thing all over Europe; people traveling to see the mummified remains of St-Ambrose or the skull of St-Yves, never too far from a piece of the True Cross. A priest once told me that if you added up all the so-called pieces of the True Cross into a straight line, it would go around the world. Twice.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Here was a religion with 20 million followers across the world that I had never heard of, which, in the age of Wikipedia, is just unacceptable. I was dumbstruck to find out they even had a temple in Toronto.

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Rule #1 of India: Beware of monkeys and proper grammar

The world is so much larger than I’d ever imagined, and just when I think I have a grasp on what’s happening, I come face-to-face with a new reality that shows me how utterly small and clueless I am to the grand scheme of things. The world works in the framework of a ticking, clicking series of interlocking gears that grind together in a way that I don’t feel people were ever meant to fully understand. Humans look different, act different, but in the end, we all seem to feel that inexplicable need to find greatness and power in something outside of ourselves. Something to call great, something to follow. Something larger than life to turn to when things get bad. Something to thank when things are good. Something to praise. Something to worship.

I’d experienced something similar at the Mahalaxmi Temple, one of the oldest and most widely visited Hindu temples in Mumbai. Visitors sometimes wait for hours in a winding metal line to shower bowls of flowers and coconut husks onto three silver statues of goddesses Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati. Others simply slip money into a small steel grate below the statues’ feet where two attendants in matching orange togas brush away the fallen offerings and usher more through. Most of the people visiting the shrine aren’t tourists but locals come to pay their respects and pray for peace, prosperity, and maybe even better days.

Above all, India blew my mind in ways I could never describe. They had their own music, their own movies, their own sports, their own religions, their own body language. It was a completely different sub-section of world culture that manifested itself in a people that bore immense pride in being the descendants of a great and ancient civilization that had survived under the duress of Alexander the Great and the British Empire. This was a new world, shockingly different but altogether not entirely different.

Most of all, India introduced me the idea that everything I know could be entirely, and irrevocably wrong. That despite boasting knowledge about the world, I’m still willfully ignorant of even major concepts that shape the globe politically and socially. People here lived completely independently and out of synch from people in Canada, Kenya or wherever, and they would continue to exist without us. But much like the founding principle of the religion that binds so many of them, Indians were connected to the rest of the global village, though these days the Internet seems like a more realistic incarnation of the world soul, but with more naked people.

In India I began to understand that everything I think I know as fact could be complete and utter bullshit, a manifestation of nothing more than the environment I was born into. A surrogate womb of pretentious Western, Eurocentric ideologies and histories I was taught to understand and believe as ultimate truth. Lies caked into lies in order to create for Westerners a history which legitimizes centuries of abuse and destruction of foreign cultures in the name of progress. But they would survive.

India told me I was wrong and, like any good teacher, showed me why.

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Slums adjacent to the Dhobi Ghat washing facility in Mumbai. Photo originally published in Vocativ, February 2014.

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A Love Affair with Lake Victoria IV – Bujumbura Fried Fish and Spider-Man

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As soon as we crossed the border, I knew something was different.

Rounded Rwandan hills dissipated behind us in the distance as cute, cozy mountain villages quickly turned into small poverty stricken communities, complete with women clad in dirty fluorescent robes carrying buckets of mangos on their heads and babies strapped to their backs.

For a country that shares the same physical size and relative war-ridden history of its northern neighbor, Burundi lacked strikingly in just about everything when compared to Rwanda.

After a few hours of driving through dirt roads and jungle terrain in the dark, always wondering if the driver had gotten us lost, we finally saw Bujumbura appear in the distance as a disorganized mess of faded lights by a dark lake we knew was there but couldn’t see.

I took an immediate dislike to the Burundian capital.

Burundi remains one of the top five poorest countries on the planet and boasts one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world. Since the civil war that ended in 1993, the country has been host to a long series of political rebellions, coup d’états and in-fighting that has left the country, and its capital, a tattered shell of what it could be. Just walking down the streets of Bujumbura, you can feel a certain weighted helplessness in the air coupled with a clear sense that if things were going on, they were doubtlessly riddled with corruption and a general disregard for the average citizen that could be seen in everything from the crumbling infrastructure to the masses of idle men and squatting mothers inhabiting every street corner, hands outstretched.

It was so humid one day I stopped at a small red shack near the mini-bus terminal to grab a Coke. Since soft drinks in still come in glass bottles, you have to stand around the vendor and immediately hand the empty back so that the salesman can recycle it for a small return; in some instances the bottle itself is worth more than the liquid inside.

As I was awkwardly standing around, keeping one eye on my bag and the other on everyone around me, a child came up to me, dirty and clad in goodwill rags, hand outstretched, mouthing the word “help” over and over again. I shooed him off. I’d the spent the morning prey to Bujumbura’s booming leagues of beggars and I just wanted to have a sip of something cold before heading back to the hotel. But the kid stuck around, and every time I looked down to make sure no one had their fingers in my bag, he was standing there, looking up at me.

A lot of kids in Africa are conditioned to immediately start begging when they see Westerners or anyone who looks any shade of white. You’ll walk down the road past a group of playing children and they immediately surround you with the only English I think they know: “Mistah! Mistah! I’m haaaangry…give me mahney!”

I’d love to be a fly on the wall for some of these schoolyard discussions: “Yah, if you say that to white people they actually just give you money! I don’t even know what it means!” These kids go from happy and frolicking to destitute and miserable for the cameras at the drop of an IPhone.

But there was something different about this kid by the soda shack. There was a kind of desperation in his eyes I still can’t describe. I looked at his protruding belly and noticed for the first time he was wearing an age-weathered Spider-Man T-shirt that was much too small for him. I remembered having the exact same shirt as a kid and for a second I wondered if it could be mine; most of the clothes we donate in Canada eventually find their way to outdoor markets in Africa being sold for pennies. Quebec goodwill organizations donate the majority of their clothes to French-speaking countries in the developing world, just like Burundi.

For a second I met eyes with the kid and imagined our roles reversed; he growing up in a quiet suburb of Montreal and me begging for scraps in Bujumbura, both sporting the same Spider-Man T-shirt. I thought about the great genetic lottery that I had won, and how simply the location of one’s birth can directly dictate the quality of life that surrounds it. What the hell made the two of us any different? When you boil down the bones, we’re all just blood and bags of flesh, walking through the world, trying to make it through another day in the hopes of something better.

I bought the kid a samosa and gave him the rest of my Coke, which he took with a smile and immediately put to his lips with both hands. I left right away and didn’t look back as he approached the counter and leaned in contently with the others.

When did I become so heartless? I guess it comes with the territory to a certain extent. Reporting on human rights is emotionally draining, and as time goes on I find myself becoming older, colder. I spend my days riffling through reports and articles that display the depths of human cruelty and eventually, somewhere along the line, I started to become so numb to it all because it makes the work easier to swallow. Journalism school teaches you to be objective, to take a step back so as to not be influenced by what you’re seeing, to be a nicely dressed fly on the wall with a pen and a camera. You’re told that great journalists earn their stripes through impartial experience, but I’m starting to wonder if this is professional practice or just a coping mechanism developed over the years, passed down from generation to generation of reporters, an old sedative for a new wave of lost souls, quiet witnesses to the cruel world beyond our eyes.

Sometime I get so caught up in the beauty and novelty of Africa that I forget the sad realities of daily life for a lot of people on the ground. I write about development and the proliferation of human rights in such broad strokes that I’m completely blind to the individuals I’m trying to make life better for, or at least telling myself I am. I talk about all of this like a bold concept while I completely disregard the faces behind it all because I was taught to, but more often than not I feel like I’m sinking into a middle ground made of mud and good intentions that only ever reconcile on printed paper.

That night, Aaron and I took a taxi to a place along the lake called Le Cercle Nautique and were puzzled when the driver pulled up to a Korean massage parlor that looked like it definitely gave happy endings. In a heavy Burundian French the driver assured us that if we followed a dimly lit stone alleyway nearby, we’d reach the place we were looking for. I swear it only sounds shady in retrospect.

The road past a white stone wall quietly revealed a series of rickety wooden docks, barely visible amidst a thick bush of palm trees and driftwood. We grabbed beers and sat facing Lake Tanganyika in near silence. We watched as fishermen on a nearby rocky dock sat and laughed amongst each other, occasionally pulling something from the water into a communal wicker basket. Behind them, two hippos were bobbing up and down over the surface, snorting misty air as tourists took out their cameras and tried to capture to action.

We ordered fish and when it arrived, head and scales and all, I realized what the men had been doing on the dock all evening. We started with forks and knives but as it got darker, Aaron and I both resorted to using our hands to pick apart skin and tiny bones we couldn’t see.
As the sun set over the lake, the Congolese mountains in the distance dissolved in a haze of mist and glowing purple darkness that slowly creeped onto the dinner dock, leaving it lit by only the faint glow of cigarettes and cell phones.

Le Cercle Nautique at sunset

Le Cercle Nautique at sunset

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A Love Affair with Lake Victoria Part III – Gisenyi, The Jagged Teeth of Goma

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After linking up with Aaron in Kigali, he hired a driver to take us north to Gisenyi, a small Rwandan tourist town along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just a few kilometers from the city of Goma. As we drove, I lost myself in backseat window frames of green-speckled rolling red hills that gave the Rockies a run for their money, not in size, but in sheer untamed natural beauty.

The ancient levels of cultivated terraces across the hills spoke testament to the fact that these lands had been the epicenter of a sophisticated culture of agriculture that far predated any Belgian colonialists. It wasn’t mechanized, but you could tell there was a certain beautiful harmony with nature that can only exist after years spent in cyclical synchronization with the environment.

As we got closer to Gisenyi, in the distance we could see the three massive volcanoes that stood in strange dominating juxtaposition with the curvy landscape. Aaron turned and explained that locals call them “The Jagged Teeth” because of the way they stand out against the rounded hills that looked so small in comparison. The volcanoes seemed ominous even before I realized that they demarcated the boundaries to a region plagued with war, slavery and misery for the better part of 200 years.

Things started to go south for the Congo when King Leopold II of Belgium took a large portion of central Africa as his own personal colony in 1885, ironically naming it the Congo Free State. What followed was years of brutal enslavement of the local population, forced to collect industrial amounts of ivory or rubber with their bare hands, the profits of which flowed directly into the king’s coffers. A victim of what’s known as “The Resource Curse,” the Republic of the Congo got its independence in 1960, but a Cold War fuelled civil conflict over power would sow the seeds for a greater war that would engulf the region in armed guerilla warfare and misery to this very day. The Second Congo War, or more popularly known as the Great War of Africa, involved troops from Rwanda, Uganda, The African Union and a host of other in-fighting groups that turned a country that should be one of wealthiest in the world into a humanitarian disaster of corruption, poverty and forced labour.

Though the war is technically over, fighting in the Eastern Kivu areas near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda goes on, with many armed groups like M-23 and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army still active in mineral rich rural areas, though in early November, the M23 rebels finally called for a ceasefire with the Congolese army, bringing a 20 year rebellion to the negotiating table, at least for now.

These days, the fighting isn’t over ivory or rubber, but minerals like gold and coltan used to manufacture chips and small circuitboards in just about every smartphone and laptop on the planet. It’s undoubtedly the breadbasket of the tech industry, a global trade that involves everyone from Chinese manufacturers to North American mass consumers.

On the way to Gisenyi, we passed refugee camps where displaced people sat and walked around behind heavy iron bars and barbed wire that made them look like open-air zoo animals. These people, without saying a word, spoke volumes to the ongoing Congolese conflicts that have claimed the lives of several million people and counting. Believe it or not, the refugees are the lucky ones, living in the hope that they might one day be able to return home.

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A woman stands outside Nkamira Refugee Camp

The next day, we headed to a border crossing along the lake known as the Grande Barrière to try and see if we could get to Goma to meet up with some NGO workers on the other side. There, a bright blue reflective road sign read “Democratic Republic of the Congo” with another more weather-worn board that read “Safe Journey” and I couldn’t help but laugh a bit.

M-23 rebels group captured Goma in 2012, but despite the city having been retaken, there was still a sort of heavy tension you could almost touch. Heavily armed guards and military outposts along the border told the story of a multi-belligerent conflict with no end in sight, the prolongation of which both Rwanda and Uganda have their hands in just as much as the Congolese. It’s the kind of place you don’t need to be told not to take pictures. So I made sure to take a quick picture.

A tad short on $350 visa tab necessary to enter the country (at least only half of which I assumed was bribe money for the guards) we headed to a nearby bar where they set a table and a few plastic chairs for us on the grass. There, we sat and shared drinks with political activists, former rebel fighters and NGO workers from groups like Free the Slaves and the Enough Project who crossed over to meet with us, keeping an eye on their watches so as to not miss the 6:00 PM border curfew that would leave them stuck in Rwanda until sunrise.

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A view of La Grande Barrière taken from inside my jacket

They talked about the situation in Goma and the complete lack of political will for change that held a stranglehold on the whole region. A perpetual wheel of lies and bullshit good intentions that fed into a system so genuinely sickening, it was actually easier to just ignore it altogether and wait for the new IPhone to patch over the dark parts. A perfect system by which the rich remained so, uninhibited as long as people could be pacified by a blood-soaked touchscreen at a reasonable price. The irony of it all, is that I write this on a laptop that I know is riddled with minerals from the Congo, myself a devoted slave to the whole damn pixilated process.

It all seemed so strange, all the heavy security and general malaise backdropped to beautiful Lake Kivu, with its quaint sandy beaches and ritzy waterfront resorts. Separated by an arbitrary border and heavy fortifications, this was the division not only between two countries, but two seemingly different worlds. As Rwanda became the beacon of East African post-war political stability, the DRC had sunk deeper and deeper into a routine of systematic corruption and failed political will where they rich, just like in the old days, lined their pockets with the blood of those too poor to realize the true value of their work. The whole place was living testament to the fact that if you turn your eyes away from someplace long enough, it really can just disappear, vanish into the depth, buried beneath terabytes of Buzzfeed articles about Miley Cyrus and 25 reasons why cats are more important than breathing. The world had all but forgotten the Congolese struggle, and there I was, straddling the line that separated two worlds I’d never be able to reconcile or even fully understand.

After the interviews, Aaron and I decided to take a stroll down the waterfront as the cloudy sun was setting over the lake. We sat on a natural dock of jagged volcanic rocks and took turns unsuccessfully trying to snap pictures of lightning bolts over the Lake Kivu.

As I finally made it back to my hotel gate, I felt a single drop of rain fall on my head and I rushed inside just as a nearby bolt of lightning broke the sky open. In the distance, I could see Lake Kivu momentarily illuminated in vibrant shades of blue and cherry gray.

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A Love Affair with Lake Victoria Part II – Kigali Shards of Glass and Grilled Goat

Back to the Land of a Thousand Hills

Back to the Land of a Thousand Hills

I forgot how beautiful Kigali looks at night.

I hadn’t been back in over a year, and after a while, despite best efforts and a long series of carefully cataloged Facebook photos, memories start shattering into in a big pile of broken shards you’re sure fit together but aren’t sure exactly how, like a puzzle where all the pieces are yours but subject to the same cognitive whims that birthed them in the first place. Sometimes I’ll smell something, close my eyes, and all of a sudden I’m back drinking coffee on a speeding motorbike or wandering the streets of Nyamerambo at dawn in a daze like I’d never left. I’ll relive that time I spent in Rwanda, straddling the life a European exchange student and a Canadian university bum, a fleeting daydream that feels so real you can almost grip the sweating bottle of Mutzig and watch as the condensation rolls down your thumb.

But I forgot what Kigali looked like once the sun set. Most houses in the city are single-dwelling bungalows made of brick, stone or mud depending on what area of town you’re in, with only a single solitary lamp outside the gate to distinguish it from any other. The effect is pretty in twilight, but in darkness, lights pepper the hills so that if you focus just right you can make out the contours of the rolling landscape like motion capture polka dots on a curvy cocktail dress.

Revisiting places you used to live puts a lot of things into perspective. You immediately think of how much time it’s been since you were last there, then notice the physical aspects that have changed; the billboards that have finally been replaced, the stores and shopfronts that have silently switched hands in your absence. The familiar faces I used to see outside my house every morning hawking cell phone minutes or taxi rides are gone, replaced with a new set of smiling salesmen selling the same old shit, but it’s different.

You also start to think about the things you never really noticed before. I’d forgotten about the Rwandan suffocating sense of respect for law and order, that when juxtaposed with Kampala or Nairobi, makes the place look like more like Switzerland than Swaziland. People wait patiently at traffic lights, line up at matatu stops and absolutely refuse to liter; the streets are so clean, you can eat off them. I realize only now how spoiled I was to have Rwanda be the first place I visited in Africa, the same reason people often jokingly refer to Kigali as “Africa-Lite.”

One night, my old friend and editor Andre took me back to a resto-bar called Caiman, a place we used to frequent so often we didn’t need to specify a location when we made plans on a Friday night. It’s one of those places you’d never find unless you already knew where it was; a perfect terraced paradise carved into the side of a hill that overlooks a small lower-income suburb of Kigali. It’s the kind of place where you can order fresh grilled goat, seemingly endless rounds of Guinness, and watch silently as the sun sets over the hills of Kigali.

Andre on his throne at Caiman

Andre on his throne at Caiman

We laughed over the same jokes, ate the same food and drank the same drinks, but then something weird happened. I started to realize how much I’ve changed since I was last there. I thought of the man I was and how much 14 months can completely change a person’s outlook on life, the universe and everything in it. I thought of the places I’d been and the people I’d met along the way, how it all seems to blur into a porridge of words and slurs strung together with nothing but the tiny voice in my head as lead conductor of the screaming cacophony that exists only as specs of disjointed jumbled time and space between my ears. But if I close my eyes, I can separate and pick out each moment to relive it like a YouTube video in my head as long as I give it a moment or two to buffer.

People say life happens quickly, but I think like that’s a lie people tell themselves to justify a lifetime of apathy and comfort in exchange for a prescribed pursuit of happiness, or at least a half-assed attempt at it. Life happen slowly, painfully slowly actually. When you start counting all the time spent asleep, or in transit or narcissistically pissing away time on social media, the clock looks like a NASCAR snail going around in circles with no particular end in sight. It’s a lot of bullshit padded into less interesting bullshit, but if you look hard enough, the tiny strange moments in between spent with friends over drinks and shit-talking about nothing on a porch  seem to occupy an exaggerated  focus, at least from my perspective. If you really pay attention, the tiny seconds of personal peace in seas of chaos add up to a lifetime of happiness and internal bliss; shards of dull glass in a mountain of sand eventually to be washed away by an ocean of time ready to devour everything in sight if you don’t keep it close to the chest.

These moments of great peace get buried in mountains of righteous self-pity and lifetimes spent wondering the what-if?s. In spite of everything, these tiny flecks of nothing come together to create a multicolored mosaic of minute-moments, the true of beauty of which is hidden to all but those willing to take a step back and appreciate the greater image they form together.

As we walked down the winding dirt road that led from the secluded Caiman, we stumbled around and kicked stones down the path, laughing at jokes I can’t remember. The area was so dark, the sky looked almost like the reflection of a nearby hill, covered in its own array of tiny lights shining in a sea of darkness. The guys were schmoozing a few girls while I staggered down the hill with my neck craned all the way back. I looked up and saw Orion lying on his side and suddenly remembered I was in the southern hemisphere.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath through my nose, trying to imprint the memory in my mind, just another in a large pile of shattered glass dreams in Kigali.

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A blurry Kigali skyline at night

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A Love Affair with Lake Victoria Part I – Kampala Journey to the Motorcycle City

4 countries, 7 cities, 3500 kilometres by bus and backpack

4 countries, 7 cities and 3500 kilometers by bus and backpack

I opened my eyes and we were in Kampala.

Even before being fully awake I could tell that something was new; clammy hands clasped in moist humidity, the air even smelled different. I remembered scenes like hazy daydreams out the window of the overnight bus, watching as Kenya’s arid soil slowly dissolved into vibrant shades of lush green as the sun rose slowly above the rounded hills in the distance.

But let’s backtrack a bit; it started with beer. Actually, it started with many beers, probably some whiskey too, but who’s keeping score? I work with two Ugandans who constantly brag about their homeland’s overall superiority to Kenya in everything from food to women and weather. One night over drinks we challenged them to put their matoke where their mouths were; we’d join them for a weekend of shenanigans in Kampala to put to the test their Ugandan self-satisfying sense of regional superiority, myself and my American friend Ben as the neutral, third party judges. We were not above taking bribes.

A few days before we left, I interviewed an American NGO worked named Aaron who said he was planning a trip to Rwanda and Burundi to do field research on conflict minerals like tungsten and coltan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that were still finding their way into international markets despite increased legislation and worldwide condemnation. He lamented the lack of media attention on the issue as well as the prospect of finding a French translator in both countries, so we settled that I’d accompany to follow the story and give him a hand. I’d meet him in Rwanda and we’d take it from there. After Aaron and I parted, I’d trek by bus along Northern Tanzania, where another story about a secret Polish refugee cemetery hidden in a field near Arusha spurred my interest, but we’ll get to that later.

And there it was, a full-circle journey around Lake Victoria to wash away the strange emptiness the Westgate massacre had left in my mind and the pit of my stomach.

So after a grueling 14-hour bus ride, Ben and I arrived in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and headed straight to the hostel to take showers and just generally clean ourselves up after the sweaty, cramped voyage. When I got out of the shower, Ben was sitting in the early afternoon sun with oversized tacky brown sunglasses and a large sweating bottle of beer at his side. He looked like an African reincarnation of Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway’s unborn lovechild; this vision would set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

From the get-go I couldn’t believe the contrast; it was as if Nairobi’s heavily Westernized bustling downtown core had been replaced with a sea of winding dirt roads lined on all sides with lush jungle greenery. People often generalize Africa as one amorphous blob of congregated cultures and puff power poverty, leading to the dreaded “Africa is a Country” mentality that tends to dominate Western attitudes vis-à-vis the continent in everything from geopolitics to immigration. But Kampala was different; it had its own pace, its own throbbing pulse as you walked down the streets. Ugandans have the reputation of being the happiest people in East Africa, something I learned is earned with a heavy bag of salt… which they’d probably use for tequila if you actually gave it to them.

Motorcycle culture dominates the city as heavily congested traffic can be bypassed with a quick vehicle capable of weaving itself between gridlocked trucks and mini buses all screaming for a right of way that simply doesn’t exist. It’s one of those cities that was never built, nor properly adapted for mechanized commuter traffic that doesn’t involve camels.

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Hail a taxi, I dare you

Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962, but power was seized nine years later from the democratically elected government by dictator extraordinaire Idi Amin, or, as he preferred to be referred to: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” However, despite also referring to himself as the uncrowned King of Scotland, he was not into freedom, and what followed was eight years of brutal political repression and ethnic persecution. Since, however, Uganda has remained out of the spotlight, drawing international condemnation only for alleged continued support of the ongoing civil war in the DRC and an almost institutionalized hatred of homosexuals.

But Kampala seemed at odds with the ways news media from the West reported on Uganda. It was more than just the homeland of YouTube sensation Joseph Koni or rapping president Yoweri Museveni. The beautiful multicultural city spanned kilometers of densely populated souls hustling to make a living doing whatever, wherever and however in a way I can only describe as uniquely Ugandan.

The city’s famed indoor/outdoor informal market stretches several square kilometers and is so dense, you can lose yourself amidst the small sea of aluminum siding and whatever-selling salesmen, which we inevitably did. It was the kind of place you could find absolutely anything, from bootleg DVDs and jewelry (READ: Stolen) to Museveni keychains and T-Shirts so hip, they didn’t need “That Vintage Look,” they were old before it was cool. Mountains of polished leather shoes stood dwarfed by massive bags of rice and multicolored beans that easily weighed a ton. I’m convinced that if the Holy Grail is real, it’s in there somewhere, nestled between a heap of dingy dishware and a woman wearing a tattered Osama Bin Laden t-shirt.

Ben aboard a motorbike

Ben aboard a motorbike, locally known as boda-bodas

Despite Kampala’s insatiable insanity, a place of complete peace and serenity sits atop the city’s seventh and dominant hill, a newly constructed mega-mosque, an architectural rarity in sub-Saharan East Africa. Construction for the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council was started by Idi Amin and completed by Muammar Gaddafi, but despite its questionable funding history, the building showcases the beauty of modern Islamic architecture. We toured the interior and were delighted when our guide asked if we wanted to hike the 400+ steps up the single minaret to the highest point in the city.

We climbed and bitched the entire way, but from the top, you could see all of Kampala, its winding streets with thousands of residents swarming through traffic like ants on a metropolitan molehill. Every way you looked, the wind-swept panorama revealed a city in constant motion with radiating boulevards emanating in every direction from the mosque and splitting into a seemingly endless array of urban subdivisions. Giant shopping malls muddled together with miniature slum cities nestled near palaces and gardens that rather than sitting in juxtaposition with one another, blended into one complex mass of beautiful madness.

“All roads in the city lead to this central point,” our tour guide told us, never taking his eyes off the horizon. “That is why the British raised their flag at this very spot when they conquered. Now we have replaced it with a mosque, to show that god is more powerful than the British.”

Sometimes I forget that most nations in East Africa gained their independence in recent memory; there are those still alive who remember first-hand the brutality of colonialism and the long periods of instability and political mayhem that followed. All the war and political strife that dominates collective modern memory is a function of the awkward growing pains that all nations must go through on the long road to freedom and stability. Much like what we see now in countries struggling with democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring, the road to peace is plagued with ups and downs, a function of years of existence under someone else’s heel. East Africa will find its own way to prosperity, but it will take time and many angst-ridden years of pimply uncertainty and crackling voices struggling to uncover the true depth of their baritones.

I looked to the side and noticed a small child had followed us up the minaret. As we all ogled and took out our cameras for that perfect pose, he leaned against the rail and stood in complete silence, arms folded in bliss, overlooking the motorcycle city he called home.

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I Was Promised Sun and Civil War

Nairobi Skyline

Nairobi is cold.

I mean, not unreasonably cold, but not exactly what I expected. I come from a land of ice and snow where -30 C temperatures are commonplace and the outdoors can kill you if you’re not careful. But since Nairobi sits comfortably in the mountains at about 1795 metres above sea level, it’s cool enough to merit a hoodie on nice nights and rains casually on an almost daily basis.

As a kid, I always floated between classroom daydreams of Africa as this wild, untamed land of leopards and lions frolicking on endless planes of dusty Savannah while somewhere in the background Simba watched Moufasa fall and be trampled by thousands of wildebeests – wilder beasts, I called them. I still do in my head every now and again for old time’s sake.

But seeing Nairobi, a hustling, bustling, multicultural African economic metropolis, I feel like I was fed shit in the dark for far longer than I care to admit. My ignorance was comforting, and much easier than actually putting effort into finding out about a place beyond what I was told by sanctimonious, self-righteous midnight World Vision ads and pay-to-play volontourist vouchers stapled to university summer employment billboards. Those poor, poor Africans, we must save them! Shed a tear and share this link if you agree! Kumbayah Africa.

People’s perceptions of this whole place are so ingrained it’s almost a fight to try and tell them anything different when I send news back home. Anything that doesn’t have to do with elephants or bare-chested National Geographic Maasai tribeswomen seems lost on people I generally regard as intelligent citizens of the information age.

“Wait, you have internet there?!?”

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Hanged hero of the Mau Mau Rebellion Dedan Kimathi stands guard atop a street that bears his namesake

“Have you met someone with a click in their name yet?”

“How’s the jungle man? Lol bro, TIA right?”

The jungle. I’m not arguing that Nairobi isn’t wild, but it’s a different kind of wilderness made of concrete and crumbling infrastructure, the kind you find in a massive urban city anywhere in the world. Vulture businessmen in 3-piece suits push pasts herds of fanny-packing tourists on street corners, weaving aimlessly through honking horns and gridlocked afternoon traffic. Homeless youth scavenge around for a piece of what the larger animals leave behind in pocket change and bits of food, hands outstretched and eyes desperately scanning for inescapable initial contact.

Nairobi was founded in 1899 on the belief that if you’re going to oppress the shit out of people, you might as well impress them first by forcing them to build a really long railroad to transport goods you’re stealing. And if you’re missing labour? Just import some Indians from another one of your colonies across the pond to lend a friendly hand. They should get along fine with the local population, and why wouldn’t they? All for the good of the Empire.

What was originally supposed to be a stopover town to get goods from Mombasa to Kampala boomed into a major cultural and economic centre that would eventually become Kenya’s capital once it achieved independence in 1963 following Britain’s generally overlooked but unbelievably violent crackdown on the Mau Mau Rebellion a few years earlier. Ever since, Nairobi’s been a hotbed for foreign investment and tourism, not to mention United Nations and international development work.

Everywhere I go I see people preying and praying, scavenging and scattering, swearing, swerving and all around a different world from what The Lion King and Blood Diamond assured me all of Africa was like. If it’s any kind of jungle at all, it’s an urban jungle, teeming with faceless lost souls working their asses off trying to make enough money to feed and clothe their kids, dreaming about what they’ll do with their lottery winnings.

I interviewed a man in Rwanda last year, a prominent member of the Tutsi diaspora, who had worked for years as a correspondent for European media out of the Great Lakes region of Africa (yes, they have great lakes too, but they’re not as great if you ask me.) I was impressed; he had lived my dream and lived to tell the tale. He had brought the stories of Africa to the world in a way I could only view as heroic and noble, though I hadn’t read a word of his writing. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I asked him how it was; I wanted all of the gory glory details. Without even blinking he told me, “it was shit.” He broke my heart.

He told me that in all the years he worked, he couldn’t sell a positive story about Africa to the West, “all they wanted was death and famine and disease.” The more flies you could fit onto a close-up black and white shot of an African child’s face, the better. “I didn’t last long. I couldn’t do it,” he said, “but others did, because there was money in it.” Showing people what they wanted to see rather than what they needed to, framing stories though a lens that gratified and legitimized years of savage colonialism and paternalistic political repression under the guise of missionary salvation.

But I think that’s symptomatic of the way most people view the world in general. We don’t like being disagreed with, especially not by experts or the internet. And why would we? If a website tells you something you don’t agree with, click again and try to stumble on something a little more in line with the way you see things. People make up their minds first then look for information to back it up, rather than the other way around. We get caught up in this revolving door of cognitive dissonance where everyone is running around blind with their fingers in their ears, yelling that they want to be heard but making the mistake of believing that their right to an opinion means their ignorance is worth just as much as someone else’s knowledge.

It’s cold in Nairobi because it’s winter here and even Kenyans are subject to the ebbs and flows of the seasons. The longer I’m here the more I’m learning that everything I was taught about Africa and the world around me is not absolute truth, but rather a hard-wired perspective that without context is absolutely meaningless. We’re taught to see things the way we want to rather than the way they are, to reinforce what we know is true instead of wondering what truth is to begin with. I’m realizing that for everything I think I know, there are millions of things I don’t and an infinite amount left to be discovered that all stand in stark contrast to one another. No truths, no great fallacies, but a wider world still of wonder and amazement shrouded in mystery and the throwaways of everyday life.

And I couldn’t be happier about it.

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Nyayo Monument in Uhuru Park to commemorate former president Moi

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Clearly Off in Another Fine Mess

Mess1I love writing in transit.

There’s something strangely comforting about hovering in a giant metal tube 35,000 feet in the air, sipping single-serving bottles of cheap Merlot and wondering when the polite, heavy-set woman from Mozambique next to me is going to realize she’s been drooling on my shoulder since we left Addis Ababa.

And so here I am again, penning from planes and picking through piles of tattered in-flight magazines and dry peanuts, halfway to Nairobi and starting to wrap my head around the full extent of I’m about to get myself into.

People keep asking me in very serious, grown-up tones, if “I know what I’m doing” or if “I’m ready” and I constantly lie and say that I do, and I am. The honest truth is that I don’t think I’ve ever really been ready for anything in my entire life and I’ve definitely never known exactly what I’m doing, other than the fact that I’m doing it. That’s usually always been enough.

There’s a weird kind of personal confidence that can really only be gained through a certain sense of reckless self-abandon, a kind of head-first dive into fuck-it-all and general oblivion. No nets, no wires, no pads, no scores, just balls.

Maybe that’s also half the fun of writing in transit, the knowledge that each time I put down my pen and close my eyes I’m a few inches farther from where I came from and a few closer to wherever I’m going. Moving at inhuman high speeds through thin air also reveals the inherent lust for danger and adventure I think is hiding under the surface of most people’s comfortable smiles and generally repressed in favor of white picket-fenced dreams and early retirement plans. A plane skids off the runway in San Francisco. A commuter ferry sinks off the coast of Zanzibar. A train derails in Spain. A bus topples over in Italy. An old man dies alone in bed somewhere. And all the while here I am, sitting miles above it all, watching the wide world riot, pen in hand, trying to come to terms with life, the universe, everything, and my place in all of it.

I love how the world keeps finding new ways to surprise me. Every day I learn something new and I’m reminded about how painfully ignorant I am about everything around me. There’s so much I want to do, so much I need to learn and every night I can’t help but be reminded about the world around me as it swirls and turns so remarkably out of my control. All I can do I hope that the things I do somehow ripple and radiate in a positive direction, even if I never fully understand the great scope of what it all means.

Am I really creating a tangible change? Who the fuck knows. Least of all, me.

What I do know is that what I’m doing is at least a semi-altruistic alternative to sitting behind a computer screen in Canada sharing horrifying, self-gratifying, guilt-ridden links to browser views of a world that’s more nasty and brutish than I want to believe it really is.

I’m too young to embrace a fully naïve view of the world in which I can change everything around me, but I’m also not old enough to fully forego and fuck the world quite yet. Despite all the senseless and savage disparity I see around me, I don’t think I’m done being an optimist. A time may come where I hit that point, and I expect it somewhere close around the bend, but not yet. Maybe no one’s offered me the right price yet.

The woman next to me is still snoring as we hit a small fit of turbulence. She barely budges. On my lap is an old blue paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that’s seen better days. I’ve had it on permanent loan from an old friend for years. “Read it when you need it,” she told me, “you’ll know when.” I close my eyes and I’m splitting a pint of whiskey with Sal Paradise, talking about the great journey of life and the open, endlessly inviting and enveloping road that seems to effortlessly intertwine itself into every part human experience for those bold enough to notice it. He disapproves of my means of travel but seems to be okay with it; it’s a long way to Africa and just a tad too far to hitchhike. Bodies in motion and nothing but cool, calming comfort and lukewarm uncertainty.

I hear a crunch and my eyes snap open as a small packet of cutesy, airplane-shaped crackers lands on the tray in front of me. We’re miles from Nairobi and out the window I can see the sun rising over the Sahara in the distance.

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Tea and Shisha in the City of the Dead

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Amateur Egyptian tour guide and childhood friend extraordinaire Filippo.
He’d been living as an ex-pat in Egypt for about a year.

By the height of afternoon, the overhanging sun is so strong that even the few lonely patches of shade surrounding us seem to scream a certain protective and uninviting macabre dominance as we lazily stroll by, kicking clouds of dust in our wake. The roads are intentionally unpaved with sand and each rusting gate or crumbling stone façade seems to blend into the next as we glide past, trying to pass unnoticed by passersby just as happy to ignore or scowl at us.

Filippo, conscious of the visibly unaccustomed sweat now pouring and pooling down my back into my dark, retrospectively overtight jeans, nudges me out of a daze with his left elbow. I shake my head.  I’d been in a sort of trance since ever since we’d gotten here, trying to gradually regulate the almost unbearable intake of muted death and mingled misery that everyone around me seems to be gleefully ignoring or just painfully accustomed to.

“Time to break?” he asks me, his voice still almost unrecognizable under the thick black beard he’s grown over the past year in an attempt to blend in with the human scenery of Egypt.

Visiting the Cairo Necropolis had been Fil’s idea, not mine. Frankly I’d never heard of the place as it generally took a socially accepted backseat to more tourist friendly scenes like the Pyramids or the Al Qahira Fatimia Mosques. It’s the kind of place that’s meant to be purposely ignored, especially by locals and especially by foreigners. When he proposed it as the perfect place for an afternoon lunch and stroll, it seemed somewhat unnecessarily dark, even for my taste. If zombie movies had taught me anything, it’s that a placed commonly known as “The City of the Dead” was where I would be lunch, rather than eat it.

The Cairo Necropolis is a massive Arabic pseudo-cemetery that lies just under Mokattam Hills in the Southeast corner of the Egyptian capital. Originally meant to be a somber place for Cairenes to bury their deceased relatives, the neighborhood has since become a refuge for the city’s poorest undesirables who’d rather walk proudly with the departed than beg amongst the living.

For the better part of the afternoon we’d crept along rows of Muslim mausoleums and tombs, some marked with cryptic calligraphy and others with nothing but a thin slab of upright sculpted stone to designate them from just another hole in the ground. As we walk, Fil tells me how wealthy Egyptian families will visit their respective family tombs once or twice a year, but otherwise leave the care of their deceased relatives to relative strangers too poor to afford anything but a makeshift grave of their own, nestled amongst the ruins and rusting fences that seem to fill the makeshift city. Residents live relatively rent-free amongst the rubble and decaying remains of a neighborhood frequented by the living but undoubtedly ruled by the dead.

As we pass, children behind us cry out and point fingers; despite the scenery and somber surroundings, we’re the oddity in this sideshow that seems normal to everyone but me. We walk past a crumbling stone wall to uncover three elderly women in black niqabs huddled around a pot where something seems to be cooking. I instinctively pull out my camera but Filippo puts his hand aside and silently tells me that I shouldn’t. We’ve been friends since we were kids so I trust his judgment. The women stare at us for a moment before bowing their heads in unison towards the pot. We might as well just be passing phantoms.

I can’t help but feel completely and utterly out of place, like I have no business being here, mainly because I don’t. I hate cemeteries to begin with, but this is something else, and a wild feeling of overwhelming hopelessness washes over me and I can’t help but feel a little sick. Some estimate the population of the slum at half a million, but no one’s really sure.

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Shade in the mosque is sometimes the only heat relief for residents of the Necropolis

We leave the major portion of the City and Fil takes me into a crumbling mosque he says is famous. Inside, about fifty men lay scattered on the red carpet, trying desperately to escape the heat in whatever patches of shade the walls choose to provide at this hour. Neither of us is Muslim, but we sit for a while under a nearby ornamented arch that looks like it could crumble and kill us at any moment.

“Prayer time is soon, we should leave,” Fil whispers. As we exit, a young Egyptian kid approaches us, eager to show off the few words in English he knows. Fil introduces himself and points at me before gargling some words I don’t understand.

“What’s my name in Arabic?” I ask him, half laughing.

“Daud,” he answers, pronouncing it Da-ood and drawing out each sound with his cheeks.

Daud,” I repeat slowly. The kid stares at me and nods with a huge grin. Apparently that’s his name too.

Nearby, we settle at a small brick-laced patio where a few bearded Egyptian men huddle around large hookah pipes. The owner gleefully produces two plastic chairs and a matching table. He serves us black tea and we share a shisha pipe, trying to beat the heat. The concept had shocked me a few days earlier, but in Egypt, when the temperature gets too unbearable, locals turn to hot rather than cold drinks to cool down. Sweating is socially acceptable when everyone is doing it and no one cares to begin with. Nearby, I spy a throng of unattended goats lazily ruffling through a massive pile of garbage. One of them dips its head into the underfilth and emerges with what looks like a large bone between its teeth. Part of me wonders whether it’s human, but deep down, I’m not sure if I really want to know.

As the call to prayer suddenly erupts nearby, the owner kindly asks us to pay our tab so that he may tend to his religious duties. He and all the others leave us alone on the terrace as they file one by one into the mosque we’d just left.

My time in Cairo had seemed like a giant walk from one medieval mosque to another and as the coals burn out on our pipe, Filippo tells me there’s just one more place he wants to see before we head back to his air-conditioned apartment in Zamalek. It’s almost completely silent as we pack up our things and walk towards another set of stone walls and high rise minarets a few sandstone blocks away, just by the Dead City limits. We make sure to take our time to not disrupt prayers but when we arrive, a group of men are sitting on the curved threshold and blocking our passage. Fil engages in what seems to be a verbal altercation with them, but with Egyptians, I can never tell the difference between playful banter and genuinely heated debate. By the end of the conversation Fil is shouting in red-faced rage, throwing his hands in the air as I stand idly by, smiling awkwardly like an idiot.

“They won’t let us in because we’re foreigners,” he finally turns and confesses to me. He yells something over to them in Arabic as I try to quietly get him away before we get into something we can’t get out of. “This is not Islam! This is not the way of peace!” he keeps turning and shouting as we walk away. The men speak hurriedly and laugh at us as we make our way down the massive stone steps. “This is such bullshit,” he whispers under his breath.

This may be the City of the Dead, but even as living men, it’s still somewhere we’re not welcome. This place is reserved for those destined to call it home, in life, death or both . We, on the other hand, are just passing through, and no amount of compassion or interest can change that. We don’t belong here. Not yet anyway.

Crumbling walls and piles of garbage litter the area as far as you can see

Crumbling walls and piles of garbage litter the area as far as you can see

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