African Thoughts


This week my post comes from Kenya. It’s a midlife shopping bag of African thoughts. We are taking a break from Zanzibar, in case there’s a military coup on the island. My husband’s boss thought it would be a good idea if we disappeared for a few days while the elections took place. “Better to be safe than sorry”, he said. So we have been sent to stay in a beautiful tiny house in Karen, Nairobi. I am left wondering if moving from Zanzibar to Nairobi is any safer.

African Thoughts: Zanzibar Election

In Zanzibar, the main road near our home had been quite noisy this week, lots of loudspeakers and election rallying. As an incentive to vote, local people were given free booze and petrol (…at the same time). The results were staggering to see, and you wouldn’t want to be driving on the road after the incentives were handed out!

Zanzibar is a one-main-road island. Providing you are not on it when others are partying it seems a relatively safe place to be. You might encounter a wandering stray cow, road runner-type chicken, or a very fast matatu (taxi bus) overtaking on the wrong side, yet that’s about it as far as risks go.

African Thoughts: Nairobi Malls

african thoughts

Here in Nairobi  I am suffering from sensory overload. Kenya is one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. This is one huge, busy, noisy metropolis. Like most big cities it seems to be there solely for the purpose of money. ‘Buy, buy, buy’ everywhere you look. In order to buy you need to ‘work, work, work’.

I feel uncomfortable, not in a security sense, although I am aware things are done differently here. We take taxis everywhere and we lock the internal security gate below the stairs before going to bed each evening. At the moment things seem to be safe, yet there is always a tangible undercurrent that next moment they might not be. Personally, I feel uncomfortable through lack of choice.

I want to go shopping for the things I miss in Zanzibar. The shopping malls are designed to meet that want, and there are many here in Nairobi, with more being built and due to open in the next few years.

Yet . . . since the Islamic shootings at the Westgate Shopping Mall on 21st September 2013, where 67 people were killed, commercialism and tourism Kenya have had a mixed bag of reviews. Westgate opened anew this July, two years after the shootings and the looting of the shops. Some feel it was an important turning point, a sign of Kenya’s spirit against adversity, and there are others who feel the shopping centre is now a living grave and have vowed never to return.

Am I really in need of a shopping fix?

It certainly got me thinking. Living in Zanzibar I have become acutely aware of the real basics needed in order to survive life. Shopping is done at the local duka, where you will find, if you are lucky, a carton of milk, a box of washing powder and so on. There is no choice, and I quite like not having to decide which brand is best, or which offers the better value for money. If it’s not on the shelf, you do without, until next week or next month or whenever it appears again. The suggestion that we must consume more is a lie.

Yesterday I hit two shopping malls, (not Westgate) looking for the things I cannot find in Zanzibar, the health food shop being the biggest attraction. The airport-style security system at the entrance gives you a sense of safety.

After stocking a carrier bag with the things on my list; sushi, quinoa, essential oils and suchlike, I looked at the other shops. I found them visually noisy and garish, claustrophobic, nauseating and more to the point, the same as anywhere else in the Western world.

Retail Fever

The more choice I had, the worse the fever felt. How could I be stressing yet again over the ‘buy one get one free’ offer! My head spun, my whole body ached, I had to get out.

Today I am sitting in front of my tiny house, thinking African thoughts, enjoying the peaceful bird sounds, the sun on my back, and life feels good. My fever and headache have gone. I have had my midlife African shopping fix. It will last me until the next time!


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2 Responses

  1. Griselda

    So interesting to read this. I was in Nairobi in 2011 shortly after my cancer surgery. We stayed with a friend who was working at the UN, and his wife, in a plush house with fantastic security. Every single house we saw had barred windows, and guards patrolled everything. I wondered if a colonial cultural policy in the 30s or 50s of providing employment (creating unnecessary jobs for people) had inadvertently led to this scary paranoid culture.
    I loved the climate in Nairobi, and the trees, and the lack of mosquitoes! It was all like summer-time in Surrey!
    But there down the road is the fastest-growing slum in the world, and the fate of so many youngsters is perilous. I was very impressed by the dignity and diligence if the Kenyan working people – the disparity between their economics and ours was dreadful – a small tip from us was equivalent to a day’s pay to them. The roads are terrifying, despite the English-looking traffic lights and roundabouts. The police are mostly one tribe and set up weekly roadblocks to impose a tax on all drivers to fund their weekend incomes (UN cars are exempt). There’s a massive influx of money/investment from China – road-building, etc.
    We went to Westgate – that was before the attack of course – all just as horrible as you describe. The merchant class in Kenya is originally from India – and no love lost between Indians and Africans who would rather work for Europeans any day. As you say, it is not a comfortable place, despite its marvellous natural advantages.
    Karen is a fascinating place – I think the behaviour of the people who romped round in Kenya in the 30s-50s (including British royalty) were a pretty despicable lot – ‘white mischief’ indeed.
    But we saw wondrous things, wildlife, landscape, enterprise, energy and hope. It was so interesting to read your update – thank you.

    • Kay Newton

      Thanks Griselda,
      Yes to everything you have said! Whilst there, I also curled up with two books; ‘The White Masai’ by Corinne Hofmann
      and ‘Rules of the Wild’ by Francesca Marciano. Both for me, summed up the wonders of Africa. I have a feeling I will be back very soon.

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