Tag Archives: Perceptions

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.

Meffe - Monkey

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.”

Meffe - Leather

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.”

Meffe - Mosque

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

Awe 3

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.

Awe 2

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.

Meffe - DhobiGhat9

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

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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?!?”


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.


Nyayo Monument in Uhuru Park to commemorate former president Moi

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