Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Nairobi Nights

Just returned from an incredible few days. My friend Celia is just about to leave Kenya after five years and we decided to do a girls' weekend away to the Maasai Mara to celebrate. I hadn't left Rwanda in a year so jumped at the chance. One of the massive perks of the new East Africa agreement is that I can travel around Kenya and Uganda as an East Africa resident, so I get local rates when I go to places like Maasai, and I don't have to pay for a visa, thanks to this little slip of card on the right. It's a really great incentive to travel more. Just wish internal flights were a bit cheaper. A one hour flight to Kenya costs almost as much as a flight back to the UK, but the alternative of 24-hours on a bus is a bit beyond me now.

Our friends Tracey and Francis run a tour company called Overland Travel Adventures, so we were in really good hands. They organised the entire thing.

Tracey picked me up at the airport and drove me home to Ongata Rongai via the back roads because the traffic was so heavy.

It was really strange for me. I'd only been to Nairobi once before. Back then I'd been out of Africa for five years and I was staying in a very posh part of town called Westlands, where all the expats stay. At the time I guess I didn't think much about it, because my memory of Rwanda had faded a little and I was just happy to be back on the continent. But this time, having lived in Rwanda for the past three years, the differences between Nairobi and Kigali really stood out.

Some of the major differences:

  • Giant shopping malls with shops in them. We really don't have malls like that in Rwanda, they're much smaller and much more empty. In Kenya there's loads of Western brands like Clarks shoes and KFC. The sheer scale of Nairobi is quite a shock when you come from Kigali, which we refer to as 'the village'.
  • Rubbish - there's a huge amount of it on the streets. Plastic bottles and bags clogging up the drains and caught in the trees. Rwanda banned plastic bags a long time ago and, as a business owner, I contribute a Kigali City Cleaning Fee which makes Kigali one of the cleanest cities you're ever likely to visit.
  • The 'real' Africa. Which sounds a bit weird, as every country in Africa is Africa, but Rwanda really is so incredibly green and clean that you don't always feel like you're in the thick of things. We don't have any of the street shack markets you see at the end of that video, and we don't have any street food either. One thing I would very much like to export to Kigali are donkeys. There's loads of them in Nairobi. I like donkeys. I tried to persuade Tracey to let us put one in the van, but there wasn't enough room for that and Celia's baby zebra.
  • Slums. Nairobi has a huge migrant slum called Kibera. It's really weird because, having been a British colony, many of the inner city houses are styled like British terrace houses. So you go past these two-up, two-downs that would look perfectly at home in Birmingham or Bristol, then the back of the houses just stop in a flat brick wall and you're staring at a shanty town of corrugated metal. From a distance I'd say the refugee camps in Rwanda look better built. It reminded me of Go Down in Uganda.
  • Corruption. Rwanda is famous for its hard line on corruption. No country is perfect, but low-level corruption is rare in as much as it doesn't tend to affect your day-to-day. You don't get stopped in the street by police or skip the queue if you flash cash about. There's even a hotline to report issues if they arise, and if you report it, someone will take you seriously. Whereas we saw bus drivers on the highway slowing down to pass cash to police officers so as not to get stopped and stories of corruption are rife in Kenya.
  • Dust. Kenya has just been through a bad drought and the air is thick with dust. You used to get something called the Kigali Cough for similar reasons in Rwanda, but then the government said 'plant things' and now Kigali is so green that the dust issue seems to have gone away.
  • Hills - there aren't any. Everything is so incredibly flat. It's quite a shock, and hard to get your head around the idea that Nairobi is higher than Kigali in altitude. Just high enough that they get mosquitoes but not malaria. Because it's so flat and vast, there's a lot more agricultural produce on sale - lots of fresh fruit and veg.
  •  Work visas and social distribution. I have friends who live and run businesses in Kenya, and it's fascinating to discuss the differences. In Kenya you have to put down a $1,000 bond for your work visa, which you're supposed to get back when you leave - if you can find the paperwork by then. In Rwanda a two-year working visa costs you around £100 ($124). In Kenya, there's a really strong expat community which some friends have likened to a clique, or several cliques. Many expats live in the same area, socialise in the same groups and some have told me they feel a bit of racial tension between foreigners and locals. I'm not saying there's no tension in Rwanda, but I honestly don't feel it on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps I'm just oblivious. But in Kigali there has never really been much of an expat scene. There are places you're more likely to see muzungus (foreigners), and you still hear that word sometimes (though rarely in the capital), but I think the major difference with Kigali is that there is no specific expat area. Except for a couple of very small areas (perhaps central Nyamirambo and the main bus station at Nyabugogo) the whole city is fairly safe, so foreigners living here are completely spread out amongst the Rwandan community. Perhaps this goes some way to lessening any resentment. President Kagame is also pretty egalitarian about welcoming foreigners and accepting that they bring money into the economy and have skills to share. It doesn't sound as though Nairobi is quite as relaxed in that sense.
We talk a lot about how safe Rwanda is. As a lone woman I can travel anywhere I like, even walk the streets at night, and - although never 100% guaranteed in any city - I'm not going to face hassle or violence. People say Nairobi isn't very safe (its other name is Nairobbery). Last time I stayed in the posh area. I woke up to gunfire one morning, a guard down the road was murdered and it was during an unsettled period where a market was bombed and tourists were advised to leave. This time, staying in a much poorer area of town, I really didn't feel unsafe at all. Tracey and I went walking in the dark to find street food and I didn't feel worried at any point. Just a  little wary of falling down a ditch as there wasn't much street lightning and no footpaths. Another reason I knew I was in the 'real' Africa - falling down an open drain is an initiation rite. We've all done it.

Hanging Out at Tracey's Place

With Scooby the Dog

View of the Burbs


I really liked Tracey's apartment, but it was very strange going up steps. I felt the same in DRC where many houses are multi-story. In Rwanda, most apartments are very expensive and houses tend to be single story bungalows. The other thing I noticed is that people in Kenya seem to be much kinder to animals. There are a lot more stray dogs on the street, and many people have a dog in their compound, but I didn't see anyone throwing stones at them, I just saw people feeding them. I've witnessed a lot of unkindness to animals in Kigali. My kitten got outside the compound the other day and when I went to find it - two minutes later - someone was throwing something at it. Animals just seem to be part of life in Kenya.

Talking of which, Tracey has just adopted the most adorable kitten - Poppy. She is absolutely gorgeous.

And that's not the only new family member. Tracey and Francis will be welcoming a baby in June. I truly can't express my admiration enough - that Tracey is out running safaris at this stage. She is totally amazing, and it was so nice to be able to spend some time with her at this special point in her life. She's healthily irreverent about the whole process, and I'm looking forward to meeting the bump when it finally arrives. It's certainly going to have a very adventurous life.

Though it does throw into stark contrast the issues of expat/immigrant life. Our friend Celia is leaving in a couple of months, which is why we're going on safari. Another friend joining us on the trip is also leaving. Their friend Kirstin has left, and  another friend she used to go to tea with a lot. Just at the time when a little female support would be helpful. I think of my own life and what I'd do if Jo and Maia suddenly got up and left, and I think my life here would be missing a huge amount of support and love. But that's the difficult thing living in an adopted land, people come and go frequently. It's hard to make new friends the longer you're here because you get tired of repeating your story to people who are likely to leave soon. The friendships you have are so important, because you see each other at your very best and your very worst. You can hang out and have a drink and a laugh, but you're also on call when the unexpected happens. You're a tight family bonded by shared experience.

I'm glad Nairobi is only a short plane ride away, but like I say, I just wish the flight was cheaper. I feel similarly about Nairobi as I do about London. There's so much going on there, it's such a big city, you could never get bored. If I had more time I'd love to go on a clothes spree. You can get anything in Nairobi. But at the same time it's a bit overwhelming. I've never been a big city gal. It's nice to visit, but I suspect it would be quite draining to live there.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017


Followed up the wonderful party at the weekend with a truly lovely actual birthday yesterday. 

Thanks to family for sending presents and party people for bringing gifts.

Received some lovely jewelry from Dad & Marilyn, loads of chocolate, and very touched by a lovely bag from my landlord and neighbours. Very stylish.

I had such a chilled out day. Thanks to help from my cleaner, Nadia, the house was back to normal, so I lounged about in my PJs most of the day, eating chocolate. In the evening I headed to CasaKeza. My friend Lulu lives upstairs and cooked the most amazing meal, which Jo and Maia came to share. Such a lovely atmosphere. Lulu's apartment has a balcony looking out over the lights of Nyarutarama. The food was so good, and even champagne and chocolate cake to follow!  


Also discovered that chocolate cake tastes incredible with apricot jam. Very nice combination. 

More presents followed. I always buy Jo's daughter Zuba books for her birthday, so she thought I might like Tintin for mine.  Given that her name, Zuba, means sun in Kinyarwanda, I'm a little worried about the second one. Also received a beautiful bowl from Maia, all the way from Morocco. Feeling more than a little spoilt.

I still have a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Looking forward to drinking it when I get back from Kenya. Currently in a state of total relaxation and finding it hard to feel the panic I probably should at not having packed anything yet. Jo's dropping off a small suitcase tonight, so I'll put everything in it tomorrow. I'm only going for four nights so won't need much anyway. Very much looking forward to seeing my friends Tracey and Celia - and the Maasai Mara, of course.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Hippy Burpday To Me

Recovering from the best birthday party ever. 

Still grinning like a lunatic. 

It's actually my birthday tomorrow, but Saturdays are much better for partying than Mondays. The run up was a bit bumpy.  Didn't think I was going to have anything to wear. The tailor at the fabric shop assured me he'd have three tops finished by Wednesday. By late Friday afternoon he'd only finished one. But it was my favourite coloured one and it's very nice. Then there were mad dashes across town to source wine, organising with my local shop to provide the beer and Fanta, and buying a half-hundred weight of candles.

I must admit, I was rather worried. The party was due to start at 7:30 (meaning more like 8:30) and by 7 p.m. I was sitting on my own on the porch watching the rain pouring down. Because most people travel by moto (public motorbike), rain is an automatic party stopper. No one can get anywhere. We've just entered the start of the wet season. This is basically the weather forecast for the week.

So, it wasn't looking good, especially as I'd planned a BBQ and a fire pit. I asked the gods very nicely if they wouldn't mind holding off for the night. With a final flash of lightning and a parting shower, the clouds dispersed, replaced by a flawless, starry night. Couldn't have asked for better. 

But weather was still no guarantee anyone would come. I've never held a house party in all the time I've been in Rwanda. I just turn up to other people's. So I wasn't sure if anyone would answer the call. I have lots of different groups of friends, none of whom had ever really met each other, so I was hoping to introduce them. Everything was prepared (I'm a little OCD when it comes to pre-prep).

I knew that I wanted lots of candles, to give the garden a fairy feel. And I wanted a fire pit and drums. My friend Jo was unwell, so couldn't come, but she lent me these beautiful lights made from old tin cans with holes drilled through them. They look lovely.

My friends Lulu, John, Senga and his wife Grace turned up early to help get things ready. I put them in charge of candle arranging. They put them all the way up the driveway and it looked absolutely stunning. So pretty, photos could never do it justice.

The BBQ guys were delayed by the rain, but so was everyone else so it didn't really matter. I didn't want the hassle of cooking, so Maia's staff kindly made potato salad and couscous for me, and Maia donated a chicken paella. The caterer was a bit of a gamble, because they wanted to know how many people, and with parties you just never know.

I guessed between 25-30 people and I think we got around 40, but there was plenty to go around, and I got my fire and drumming - thanks to Lulu and Dodo. 

It really was the most superb night. So many friends came, and everyone mingled. Inside, we had modern music and space to dance and chat. Outside, I had blankets around the fire. People could move to wherever they felt most comfortable. My landlord donated more chairs and spoke to the head of umudugudu (local sector) to tell them I was having a party, which is nice because they put extra security on your road to watch over your guests' cars.

I was seriously a little overwhelmed by it all. I realised why, when I go to Jo's parties, she's never sitting with us, because there's so much to do you don't have time to stop. I think I managed to snatch a single brochette the entire night. But it was absolutely, totally worth it. One guy even said it was the best house party he'd ever been to.

Not the only compliment I received. I know some guys in their early twenties. We started a drinking game, trying to guess each other's ages. They were convinced I was 'twenty six or twenty seven.' I was more than a little flattered (I'm turning thirty-six!).

Everyone had left by about 2 a.m. so, just to prove I could, I accompanied the twenty-somethings to a local club called Fuchsia and danced my socks off until 5:30. Arrived home just in time for the dawn chorus and a beautiful sunrise. That thing sitting on the pole is a huge owl, about the height of my forearm. He was on my garden wall the other day.

I woke with a free pass.

A free pass is a very rare event. You have a night out that should rightfully have killed you, you expect to wake up screaming, but instead you wake feeling absolutely fine. Better than fine. So fine, in fact, that I whizzed through the after party (tidying) in under two hours. Filled three bin bags, then called my cleaner to help wash the floors and dishes.


Erm... not sure what the hell happened there.

Looking forward to opening my presents tomorrow, but my cats have prospered too. One of my friends is a vet and brought me a giant pack of cat food. She knows me too well! Another friend brought a play basket for them, which they love.

I'm just sitting here in a post-party glow of happiness. Definitely up there on the list of best birthdays ever. Everyone truly seemed to enjoy themselves. Was so busy hostessing that I didn't get many pictures, but did get a couple of snaps with the lovely ladies I roll with.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Federer and Fabric

Been a relaxing few weeks. Had a fantastic time watching the Federer v. Nadal Australian Open Final. Woke up in time to see people asking about it on the expat/immigrant forum and when I saw who was playing I knew I couldn't miss it. I don't have a telly, so I headed to a local bar. Met up with some lovely people including an aid worker who was flying out a few hours later. We were the only two Federer fans, so it was quite a triumph when he won. We decamped to CasaKeza for drinks and, having been drinking since 10am (thanks international time zones!) I fell asleep on the couch after seeing him safely back to his hotel. The staff at CasaKeza know me well, and simply left me there. I woke up just as the owner came home, so managed another round of tinto de verano before wobbling my way home.

Working from CasaKeza - My Outdoor Office

Also went to a fun event at Impact Hub, which is a rooftop cafe with screening space. A young documentary maker was showing his piece about Rwanda's Reading Culture which, as a writer, interests me hugely. It was a good night. Met more lovely people, and there was a panel discussion afterwards.

View from Impact Hub

Swung home past Maia's house. After one panelist's comments about using technology to get people reading, it was great to see these young ladies engrossed in a story on their tablet.

Life here is really very lovely, though there have been a couple of strange moments. I'm organising a birthday party this weekend for myself. Called the caterer to come and make brochettes, and ordered a couple of crates of beer from my local shop. But it's been about a year since I left Rwanda and my clothes are looking a bit threadbare. Rwanda has increased tax on second hand clothing, which has also prompted a mass increase in cheap Chinese imports which don't usually come in the same sizes western and African women come in - or a style you'd ever want to wear. 

The only other option is to get something made. The problem with that is, your choice of fabric is usually igitenge, igitenge, igitenge or igitenge, which is printed African fabric usually in bright colours and complicated patterns. It can look absolutely lovely, but I know from experience that it's not something I would wear if I went back to the UK, and it doesn't work with the sort of tops I generally wear. So, I went in search of a non-igitenge fabric shop and managed to find one inside a huge shopping mall that has been recently built.

Shopping malls are going up all over the place at the moment, and there is now a directive that all NGOs and businesses operating from residential houses must move into purpose-built office space. They say it's to free up housing in the city, and I get that, but I think it's also to try to bring a return for the companies who invested in building the malls. Shopping malls don't make a massive amount of sense because there isn't much variety in business here, and the majority of people don't have expendable income to burn. Shops are usually: clothes, food, tech. If you're operating from a market or a small street stall, your prices are going to be lower than people who move into a shopping mall, because shopping mall overheads are expensive. So you move into a shopping mall, have to put your prices up, and everyone still goes to the market because it's cheaper. 

It leads to scenes like this:

That's the shopping mall where I found the fabric shop. It's pretty much empty apart from one floor entirely devoted to imported clothes. From a distance, they look tempting, but out of about twenty shops I couldn't find a single thing I could, or would, wear.

I did find the fabric shop though, and it was glorious.


I found some beautiful material and took it to a tailor that had been recommended, along with some old clothes I was hoping he could recycle. Unfortunately, as often happens, they measured me for the size they thought I should be, rather than the size I actually am, and instead of an elegant, floaty top, I ended up with something resembling a polo shirt. If it had been an igitenge top, I'm sure they would have done a fine job.

It was a bit disappointing. So I went back to buy more fabric and told my woes to the owner, who promptly called up another tailor. I'm hopefully collecting my outfit tomorrow. Fingers crossed it's a bit better. 

In other news, I found a fabulous little place called Books & Convenience in town, run by a Rwandan author and book lover who currently lives in Gabon. Hoping to meet up with her next time she's in town.

I saw they had Howl's Moving Castle on sale, and couldn't resist buying a copy (my cats are called Sophie & Howl).

Talking of which, my pride of kittens are doing very well.

Also went to a talk at CasaKeza by ImagineWe, a Rwandan publisher who launched their first children's book last year. Really talented group. It was a complete pleasure to hang out with them and other new friends, including one of the panel members from the documentary and a totally fab Kenyan lady who came to interview me about the writing courses I run. She works for a media company and was due to head home after our interview, but I managed to convince her to stay on a day longer to come to the book talk. It was a really lovely night and much sangria was consumed and books talked about. Great write-up here.

Beautiful Moon from CasaKeza Garden

In other news, I've had a major breakthrough with Lirika. I have learnt so much about pianos over the past couple of months. I've tuned her (twice - once in the wrong direction due to an over-pull slip up), I've glued three broken elbows, repositioned six damper spoons, reset a popped bridle strap, removed a tuning pin and restrung it, adjusted let off, and learnt the really hard way why a pitch raise is important. I can now reinstall the action in under an hour (down to about five minutes - significantly better than my first attempt). And I haven't managed to break anything *yet*. Though I did manage to destroy an entire tin of tomato puree (best not to ask). I even took my first steps into the world of piano repair, called to a Korean church where their pianist had (and I have absolutely no idea how) managed to cut five strings. I removed the broken strings and identified the ones he needed to order. Not as easy as it sounds as each key has a number, and most notes have two or three strings (unisons/a 'chorus of strings'). Because the hammers are set at an angle, it isn't always obvious which number string is missing. Piano repair is a lot more physically demanding than I expected, but I'm really enjoying it. 

Did hit a bit of a problem, though. My cheap eBay tuning hammer did really well on 95% of the tuning pins, but on the bass section it began stripping the pins rather than turning them. Tuning hammers are just socket wrenches, and socket wrenches come in a star shape, whereas tuning pins are square. You can see the problem from this picture. That really shiny pin in the middle is not new, it's old, but the wrench has shaved its corners smooth.

If you can't turn the pin, you can't tune the string. I really wanted the piano in working order for my party, so I set out in pursuit of a hardware store someone on the immigrant forum told me about. Eventually found the place and made another friend. It's run by a guy called Rocky, originally also from Britain. He was so helpful, letting me take expensive equipment home to try it out. When nothing worked, he sent me to a metal worker he knows. I took one of the tuning pins with me to show him (the first time I'd ever removes one), and he agreed to make me a square tuning bit for around £10.

Standard Tuning Hammer

Custom Made Bit Fitted to a Ratchet Handle

How cool is that? It's worked on everything except one, extremely buggered, pin. She still has a few issues, mostly with the damper spoons, but I'm hoping to fix that today. Eventually I'll replace the pins, and I'd love to restring her entirely, but not just yet. My friend and I are still looking for a broken piano to try building one. We need a string frame to use as a template. Unfortunately, no one has come forward with a piano we can use. If we can't find one soon, I'm thinking about using Lirika. She would become the mother of all pianos in Rwanda, but it would mean taking her apart entirely. I cringe at this, after all the work I've put into her, plus I was rather looking forward to piano lessons, but if we do this, I'll put her back together with a full set of new pins and strings. 

Looking Good
Regulating Kit
Tuning Kit
Last Remaining Problem

Going to spend today adjusting the spoons. For the most part, she sounds really lovely, and I feel a little teary-eyed when I play her and realise I did this. I've never considered myself particularly mechanically-minded or capable, but for some reason, pianos just seem to click. 

I'm enjoying a last, lazy day as I have a lodger arriving tomorrow. A consultant staying for two weeks, which works out perfectly for me as I'm off to the Maasai with friends in a couple of weeks and he can feed my cats whilst I'm gone. Trying to get my head around lodger, party, safari in quick succession.

Finally, sad to hear actor John Hurt passed away. He is often remembered for Shooting Dogs, a film about the Rwandan genocide. This is him on location whilst they were filming. I wasn't here at the time, but my friend Lies was and even got a photo with him!