Meetings in Nairobi

Having raved so much in my last post about the IFAN museum in Dakar, I thought it only fair to mention the excellent National Archives in Nairobi. I’m here for meetings, but had a half-day free. It was a difficult choice between the Giraffe Centre (where apparently a raised platform enables you to look giraffes in the face and even feed them), and the Archive Centre (with its new exhibition of traditional African art I had read about on the flight from Dakar), but eventually I settled on the latter and am very glad I did.

For only a $3 entry fee I saw a superb collection of stuff from Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana and the Congo, amongst others, including an extensive section on traditional African jewellery. I don’t have any particular interest in jewellery, but was fascinated by the history of the beads brought to Africa from India, then Europe, and more recently India again. Apparently a few centuries back there were entire communities in the Czech Republic making beads destined for Kenyan tribes! At different times in history the various tribes in East Africa have used flakes of ostrich egg, antelope toe bones, coral, glass, melted down aluminium cooking pots, brass, amber, shells, and even giraffe tails in the making of jewellery. There was a lot of information in there and also some beautiful exhibits. They have so far missed a trick though in failing to set up a shop selling replicas, which was a good thing for my bank balance!

Then back at my hotel I went out into the shady little garden, but the procession of different birds came more quickly than the speed at which I could identify them in my newly acquired Birds of East Africa guide book. I only went back inside when the birds became outnumbered by the biting mosquitoes. This weekend I am going to Lake Nakuru with my Mum and am hoping that the rainy weather doesn’t encourage all the wildlife to stay in hiding. Hopefully I will get a nice photo of the flamingos to add to this post.

Back from Lake Nakuru (but without my camera cable - will add photos later so please revisit this post after 16 April!), I just had to say what a beautiful place it is. Part of the Rift Valley, it is an alkaline lake surrounded by hills, with a population of some 2.8 million flamingos. I had read that their numbers had recently declined, but that was hard to believe as I looked out at a sea of pink. I was able to get surprisingly close to them - such strange creatures, both elegant and ungainly at the same time - and I was really surprised by the noise they made. Our guide said it was the beating of their wings, but it sounded more like drumming on the water surface.

In addition to the flamingos there were marabou storks, sacred ibis, zebra, giraffe, warthogs, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, ostriches, kudus, two types of gazelle, white rhinos (we saw five, mostly at pretty close quarters), rock hyraxes, a crested eagle and a group of beautiful black and white colobus monkeys. All helped by a cloudless blue sky and a very few other tourists. Worth getting up at 5:30 for, definitely!

Birdsong and antelope masks

Work has been pretty demanding over the past couple of weeks, leaving me no time to post an entry here. In fact it also left me without the time or energy to do anything worth writing about. Everyday life for many people, I guess: get up and eat, go to work, go home, eat, wind down in front of the TV for an hour and go to bed again. Only the time in front of the TV was mostly spent searching through the channels to see which, if any, had any reception, and so was more likely to wind me up than down.

But through all of this I was still reminded of the many differences in my life here. In the early hours of the morning, trying to push work out of my mind and get back to sleep, I could hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. The banging of large but not-yet-ripe mangoes hanging from one of my trees being blown against my metal roof in the strong winds we’ve had all week. Then, much later, the persistent and demanding sound of a vehicle horn – the signal to householders or their maids to bring out their rubbish and take it to the rubbish truck making its way very slowly down the main road.

Birdsong, too, is different, from the cheerful ‘chuk chuk twiruwe’ of the common bulbuls, the harsh call of the long-tailed glossy starlings, to the wheezy, plaintive ‘kheeey-errrr’ of the black kites circling overhead – always to be seen over my house as a pair have a nest in a tree around the corner.

The starlings were in a tree outside the IFAN museum in Dakar – a museum of West African tribal art, with some wonderful masks and other wooden sculptures. Some friends reading this will know my love of the elegant chi-wara mask from Mali (a representation of the antelope spirit that taught agriculture to mankind, with associations of harmony between man and woman, and between humans and the earth), and so would understand why I went around the top floor display three times. But in addition to a lovely collection of different styles of chi-wara were some amazing nimba sculptures from Guinea – enormous, heavy and yet graceful representations of female fertility. My scheduled trip to Guinea in late February was called off because of the civil unrest there at the time, and this reminded me of how much I am looking forward to the rearranged trip later this year.

Applying for a job

I usually avoid writing about work on here, as I don't think it's right for me to publish anything about my employer, nor about my colleagues. But I just have to share some of the stuff I have received in the last few weeks whilst trying to recruit some staff.

The working language of my NGO is English, and the job adverts therefore stated that all applications must be in English. Many applicants thus failed at the first stage, sending CVs and cover letters in French. Others tried hard to get around their lack of English with translations of varying quality. One of the more bizarre was the 'translation' of Curriculum Vitae to Curiculium Quickly.

The approaches to the covering letter vary hugely. One applicant, who had absolutely none of the relevant experience asked for, nevertheless ended his covering letter, "Consequently I insist on the obtainment of this employment since the mandate of our organisation is perfection and excellence".

Another elicited a great deal of sympathy with this:

"I jut graduated...but find it so difficult to get a job. I really love to work with you...for I love to help in the development of our country. It's so hard to get a job these days and my family really need my help because my dad died some years ago and my mum has little or nothing doing." But unfortunately he also had to go on the rejection pile.

Otherwise a fairly demanding work schedule, with French lessons when I can find the time, is keeping me fairly busy at the moment. But it is a lovely time of year to be here. I was lying in my hammock the other day trying to get to grips with the subjunctive, and I could see all the mangoes ripening overhead and a flock of bright yellow weaver birds chattering in the branches of my orange tree (no, not a lime tree as I first thought). A lizard with a red tail was darting about after flies, and Gloria had prepared me a nice glass of ginger juice. For those with a job, this is a great place to be...

Trying to make things work

I mustn’t go on about the negative sides of living in Africa, because I really am happy to be here. But, my goodness, can it be a frustrating place.

Saturday morning a technician came (the fifth such visit) to improve my very dodgy TV reception, having identified a piece I was missing in the cabling. After an hour of doing his stuff, voilĂ ! TV!

I went out for a while and when I got back later in the day I tried the TV again, as instructed. And… nothing. Now I have no reception whatsoever.

I was however pleased to find that while I was out the missing piece for my oven – without which it cannot be used – had been delivered at last, after two months of asking. I took it into the kitchen to fit it, only to find that they had sent it one size too big, so it doesn’t fit into my oven. Oh well.

The reason I had gone out for a while was to collect two British-sized pillows I had commissioned. The ones on sale here are square, and so do not fit the British pillow-cases I had bought on my trip to the UK in January (having failed to find any decent ones here). So last weekend I found a place selling pillows, and agreed a price for them to make me two, leaving one pillowcase with them so as to be sure I got exactly the right size. Nevertheless my hopes weren’t high, which is just as well. They’d made me two ENORMOUS pillows, stuffed to bursting point with hard square lumps of something, and appear to have undone some of the seams of the brand new pillowcase I left with them in order to squeeze one of the new pillows into it. Added to which the satin-look cream coloured front side now has two blue biro marks across it.

I suppose if I do ever go back to live in the UK I will at least have a much greater appreciation of the fact that, generally, things (and people) do what they say they will.