Cycling The City

By: Eddy Ashioya

I’m cycling through Nairobi and it’s the noise that gets me. More than anything, it is the noise. 

As a cyclist you get a perspective that drivers might never have. You’re closer to the action, so to speak. And here in Nairobi, if you do not get hit by a poorly erected street pole, then it will be a hand shoving an election pamphlet at you. It’s that time when there is money in the air. But there is also the noise, violence, threats, ecstasy and virulence. And it’s the cold season, which means the sky looks as if God is wringing out his dirty underwear.

At any other time, I would say Safaricom Green is the color of Nairobi. But with an election at hand that’s changed too – the walls are plastered with posters of varying quality covering the green branding of the telecoms behemoth. A concrete jungle widely known for its work-hard-play-hard attitude now reduced to noisy little election pockets. Local experts huddle together in ma-baraza under the guise of sharing political analysis, citing insider information. Lao gumzo tu. They analyze. Criticize. Predict winners. They state facts. They quote “intelligence”.  If you ask them their sources, they’ll say “si ni me nakushow”.

The air is rancid with political slogans lacking in sheen but clamoring for attention with biting anecdotes: “Change Mpya. Change Inawezekana.” “Let’s make XXX Work.” “Vote Yako. Future Yako.” Even the walls, in the spaces between the poster, covered with blankets of cheap glue,seem to laugh at this hysteria. Kenyans, and Nairobians in particular, despise being told what to do and it is no surprise that the sign “No Posters” is where posters are glued. The sign “Usikojoe Hapa” is where people proceed to urinate. It’s a cynical metaphor for waheshimiwas. It’s the degree (or lack thereof) of uheshimiwa.

The Kadogo economy is booming. Despite the economy being in freefall people are making do with little. I’m cycling through Juja Rd, which splits Little Mogadishu and Mathare. As I bike through Mathare I fuel myself with mushogi – chicken head stuffed with potatoes and tomatoes and onions. Eaten hot. In Kawangware, kata kata is all the rage: chicken legs, chicken heads, chicken liver. For as little as Ksh20, you can taste meat without breaking the bank. The other usual culprits can be found dotting the town, the mayai pasua, the chapo smokie (smocha) and the ubiquitous mutura. 

“But where is unga?” the locals demand. “Vote for me. Vote for change!” The mheshimiwa responds: “Nitaleta unga!” It is the face of farce. Wallahi. 

Mheshimiwa knows that there is nothing euphoria cannot achieve. That is why young men – young men my age – are organized and ‘bought’. “Tupo site!” Crowds for hire is booming business and all-over downtown Nairobi dingy drinking dens rise like hosannas across the streets. Here, you will find Mama Pima serving cheap alcohol in all its various forms: chang’aa, busaa, keroro, gauge. Young men shout orders for ‘more gauge’ because they cannot afford a mortgage.

I pass Ngara and all its shenanigans, head on through Globe, past Moi Avenue and University Way to join Uhuru Highway. Riding under the expressway I can feel its itchy attraction and wonder if it’s just a matter of time until one brave (or ignorant) politician plasters his posters on its pillars.

My cycling group has been invited to link up with a certain mheshimiwa’s group for a “sensitization ride”. “Brand awareness” if you are into marketing lingo. We didn’t find a reason to say no. I didn’t want to say no. This is our time to eat, I think. And eat we do. Later, we will ride home with free t-shirts and “Change Inakuja” blaring in our ears and some small “appreciation fee” from mheshimiwa. 

I couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to say no. This is Nairobi after all. Immediately the elections are done, we will begin campaigning for the next one.

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading:  Helping the elderly fill their days with digital art – Virtual reality and gaming are often associated with youth and younger audiences. Read about a man who is using these digital technologies to give Nigeria’s elderly population new ways to express themselves through art, music and dancing; he’s giving them new reasons to smile and to engage with the world.

What We’re Watching: FORCED TO BEG: Tanzania’s Trafficked Kids Impoverished families in Tanzania are being tricked into giving up their disabled children by human traffickers. Promised a better life, the children are instead smuggled into Kenya and forced to beg, often for years. Africa Eye goes undercover to expose the traffickers trading in human misery and helps one young victim escape his captors.

What We’re Listening To:  The Butcher of Uganda – The horrors perpetrated by the third president of Uganda, Idi Amin Dada Oumee against his own people have been told and told again in the media. The stories of his buffoonery are also everywhere and you might think there is nothing else to tell. It’s a bit of a surprise, therefore, to find this podcast from Aljazeera which attempts to bring the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ back from the dead to tell his own story. Ignore the distracting attempt to imitate a Ugandan accent (Why not just get a Ugandan actor?) and you find a story of a person shaped by rejection as a child and used by colonialists for their own oppressive ends. Was it inevitable that he would end up being who he became?

As always,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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