Author: Jean Thévenet

Cirkafrika: The continent’s got talent

The Parisian audience is like a petulant child: very hard to please. So when French spectators and critics waxed eloquent over Cirkafrika, a show by an all-African circus troupe, I was intrigued, but pursed my lips à la française.

“Pfft!” I thought to myself, “What do they know? Yet another ho-hum repeat of contortionists and jugglers and human pyramids and dancers and unicyclists that are typical in plush resort hotels that line the Kenyan coast. Seen one, seen them all.”

A friend from Benin, also sceptical, went with his son to watch Cirkafrika and came away singing a new tune. “Mesmerising,” was his text message. That gave me food for thought.

So tickets were bought for an adult and three children for the show, which runs for over two hours. The children were to be the jury, with the main judge being my three-year-old whose attention span is pretty good – 30-40 minutes tops.

The French circus, Cirque Phénix, produced Cirkafrika. Cirque Phénix’s aim is to present novel artistic creations each new season. Having no proper circus tradition to speak of in Africa – we have  only four big tops: one based in Egypt, two in South Africa and one in Tanzania – unlike the Chinese and Eastern Europe circus heavyweights, it is not surprising that Paris sat up and paid attention to Africa coming to town.

While looking for African talent comparable to circus chefs-d’oeuvre from Moscow and Peking, Alain M. Pacherie, the founder and director of Cirque Phénix, turned to the Zip Zap Circus (South Africa) and Circus Mama Africa (Tanzania). What was once a germ of an idea – an African show, unlike any other, in Paris – became a reality a few years later.

This was the reality we went to discover on a recent wintry Saturday afternoon in Paris.

The artists from South Africa, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana, the Congo and Guinea; the costumes; the stage decor; the giant 3D animal and bird marionettes; the music – Lion King, move over! – were all made in Africa.

Forget clichéd African folklore and dancers garbed in traditional attire welcoming an African president or some other dignitary; forget the cold disciplined professionalism of Chinese acrobats and the aloof masterful excellence of trapeze artists from eastern Europe; forget the crisp, pasted smiles of chorus-line girls dancing the French cancan.

How could one not stand up, from the word go, and dance to Miriam Makeba, Youssou N’Dour or Touré Kunda numbers sang by three African musicians accompanied by a Big Live all-African band?

I felt Pata Pata.

The splash of colours from the costumes, decor and music reminded me of an African marketplace with its pyramid arrangement of colourful fruits and vegetables, and people talking, gossiping, haggling and laughing with music blaring from a nearby stall.

Cirkafrika is oh so cheerful, the music vibrant and the artists generous. The children couldn’t get bored even if they’d wanted to.

The artists – all very professional, focused and elegant in their performances – made their acts look so easy. They were genuinely having fun, their joy so contagious that I longed to join them on stage even though I have no circus skills.

Large, colourful plastic wash basins that can be found in African households replaced plates and bowls in the plate-spinning contortionist’s act. The artist spun five of them at a dizzying speed – one per limb and the fifth was spun using his mouth. The act was accompanied by vibrant dancing.


The colourful basins took me back to Saturday mornings in Kenya: tending to household chores after breakfast using similar kinds of basins, the same ones that hold grain and spices sold at the market. Cirkafrika was a ray of warm tropical sunshine in the middle of a European winter.

The Ethiopian hoop artist made me forget that she was manipulating hula hoops. What I saw was a Samburu woman beautifully adorned with handmade beaded ornaments.

Cirque Phénix never presents animal acts as a matter of principle, but what would Africa be without her rich fauna and award-worthy costumed artists on stilts? The children saw an animal parade of graceful giraffes, tropical birds, crocodiles and a life-size elephant. And the frog! Oh the lithe green human frog, padded feet, croaking and all. How on earth did he manage to fit into that little transparent box?


South Africa’s gumboot dancers made us long for more. So we asked for one encore and a second encore and yet another encore. We danced and we celebrated Africa. We saw the other face of the continent that has potential and talent and that can adapt and excel while preserving its Africanness.

Cirkafrika whispered that we can dare to dream and to believe in Africa because Africa’s got talent!

My children’s verdict? If Cirkafrika comes to a big top near you, drop whatever you are doing and run, don’t walk, to see it.

I agree.

The show, now on the road in Switzerland, Belgium and Ukraine, will be back in France/Europe in Winter 2013.

Jean Thévenet, a work-at-home mum, was born and raised in Kenya. She now lives in France and blogs at

The day we buried my father

Red dipladenia: a shrubby climber with glossy leaves and red funnel-shaped flowers. A lively, you-bring-the-sun-out plant.

Last summer, I purchased such a plant for a friend’s garden. Immediately after paying for the plant at the florist’s, a female customer behind me said: “I bought the same a couple of weeks ago to place on my mother’s tomb.” I almost keeled over. Was I committing a faux pas? Not at all. Dipladenias are hardy, low-maintenance plants. All they need is moist soil, good drainage, and bright light. They are good for graveyards and friends’ gardens.

My father is buried at Langata Cemetery on the outskirts of Nairobi. It never occurred to us to check the weather forecast for Langata Cemetery on the day of the burial. It poured and poured after we had tossed the requisite clods of soil on the casket, after the grave diggers had covered the grave and each member of the family had placed a solitary rose on the mound of earth. It would not have made any difference if the weatherman had predicted a squall with a sustained wind speed of 70km/hr. We would still have done what was required of us: lay to rest our beloved pater.

Langata Cemetery is not a place to go to for an afternoon stroll. It would never cross a sane Kenyan’s mind to do so, even if there was no  horrendous Nairobi traffic to contend with, even if one did not have to work one’s way through the huge cemetery, past a few well-kept graves, past a plethora of unkempt graves, past cemented graves, grassy graves, weedy graves, fenced-in graves, graves with wobbly wooden crosses.

The day we buried my father, I forgot my grief for a while and smiled when I saw soft drinks and bottled water vendors. Mourners also get thirsty after standing for a long time under the unrelenting equatorial sun as the priest invokes heaven’s mercies and sometimes drones on and on. Mourners also appreciate a bit of shade, so there were white marquees for rent. Lest we forget, dying is a thriving business – for the living.

General assumption has it that only those without a home (aka land) upcountry are buried in the city, specifically in Langata. Further assumption has it that those buried in Langata are rootless. Their origins are lacking. They were born in Nairobi, more’s the pity.

When my father, before passing on, asked to be buried in Langata, a small tremor ran through the extended family. “But why, oh why?” people murmured. But, whispers ran, he had land (aka roots and origins) upcountry where he was born, raised, and educated. Why was he breaking away with tradition? The explanation given was that it would be easier for his immediate family to visit the grave in Nairobi than upcountry. Secondly, it is impossible to sell land with family graves on it, one does not even dare to think about it.

Now, I am a city brat. I grew up and was educated in Nairobi. Upcountry, our drinking, washing, and bathing water came from a domestic rainwater reservoir. Paraffin and Tilley lamps and candles lit up our evenings. City Brat going upcountry was an epic event. She would be the one groping the walls instinctively at dusk, searching for the light switch. She would be one who would want to iron out a top but couldn’t. She would be the one longing for a hot shower instead of bathing from a plastic basin of warm water. And she would peer into her glass of drinking water trying to see if there was any unclear and present danger in it. She never got used to cooking with a jiko, a charcoal stove with zilch knobs to adjust the heat, or a paraffin stove (oh, the headache-inducing odour!).

City Brat had attended her fair share of upcountry weddings and funerals during the rainy season. There were only five words to describe her impressions of the events: mud, mud, lots of mud. Red mud under your shoes, red mud on your shoes. Red mud on the hem of your skirt, red mud on your trousers. Red mud in the car, lots of red mud under the wheels of the car. Loose red mud, squishy red mud, sticky red mud.

City Brat was eternally grateful to her father for his request to be buried in Langata.

Never once in my childhood and growing-up years did the family ever go to visit and tend to my grandparents’ and various relatives’ graves. I have no idea what happened to my maternal grandmother’s homestead, where she was laid to rest, but I do know that her legacy to my mother was a bunch of bananas from hwell-kept, weedless garden.

Graves are places my family never goes back to.

My father was wrong in his assumption that we would faithfully visit his final earthly abode: no one has made the effort to beat the traffic on the road — also called Langata – that leads to the cemetery. It does not behoove us to grab a matatu – Nairobi’s garish, raucous, travel-at-your-risk-but-what-a-ride! public transport minibuses – and we certainly do not walk with guilt stamped all over our faces since visiting family graves is neither an inherited trait nor a passed-down practice.

But surely my father, a sage, must have known that we would fall terribly short when it came to grave-visiting-and-tending matters. I can only conjecture that deep down in his soul, he, too, was a city brat and would say that a dipladenia clambering up a garden trellis is a beautiful sight to behold.

Jean Thévenet, a work-at-home mum, was born and raised in Kenya. She now lives in France and blogs at


Kenya 101 for dummies

“You cross the equator as you drive down to Mombasa,” the tourist says with authority. He is adamant, he will not be corrected.

“The tour bus driver stopped a few kilometres after Voi,” he continues, “and all seven of us stepped out of the minibus and crossed some imaginary line called the equator.” He has photos to prove it! I do not have the heart to ask him if he had seen the “You are now crossing the equator” sign off the road. I could imagine him and his travelling companions haranguing the hapless driver, insisting that they really did want to cross the equator.

The poor, worn-down driver might have debated with himself on whether to leave them on the wayside for the man-eaters of Tsavo to find them, or to bend a geographical fact just a little bit.

“Would this lie change the face of the world and stop the mother of all wars?” he might have pondered. Most probably not, so he left the authoritative tourist in his ignorant bliss, with photos to prove it.

For the record, dear tourist, you cross the equator while driving away from Mombasa, away from Nairobi, heading up north. When you reach the equator, a sign by the road will let you know that you are now crossing the imaginary line. And you will have photos to prove it.

Tourists at the equator. (Marc Samsom/Flickr)

Kenya is an English-speaking country because the British Empire paid us a visit once upon a time and stayed for longer than three days. That also answers your query about why my English is sooo good. We do not have tribal languages – nowhere in Africa will you find anyone speaking a tribal language. We have African languages. Like you, we have mother tongues, national languages, and official languages. But if you insist on asking, dear tourist …

“How do you say ‘Hello’ in Kenyan?”
“We don’t.”
“You don’t?” There’s a look of incredulity on her face. “You don’t say ‘Hello’ in Kenyan?”
“I mean, we don’t speak Kenyan. No one speaks Kenyan.”

I’ll give the girl some credit. She at least knows where Kenya is located in Africa. Kenya, a country of great wildlife, authentic photo safaris, pristine white beaches, coconut trees, the Maasai, an ocean with waters of 28°C and the fastest long-distance runners (Aren’t they simply amazing?).

However, Kenya is more than that. Reading up a little on my country before coming to visit will go a long way. A good travel guide is a must. Do us Kenyans a favour by going to the market place, daring to take local transport and trying out our local dishes, however strange they may appear to be. That is how we say “Hello” in Kenyan.

We have a fair amount of sunshine, given that Kenya lies in the tropics. However, when it gets muggy in Europe with the mercury caressing +40°C, do not assume that the heat wave does not bother me since I “must be used to the heat in Africa” in the same way I do not assume that you, having grown up in mild climates, must be used to wintry subzero temperatures.

It’s true that we have extraordinary long-distance runners in Kenya and our athletes excel all over the marathon map. But what is not true is this: I am a Kenyan, therefore I run. All of us did not grow up running many kilometres to school barefoot, up hills and down valleys. It is also not true that the reason for our athletic prowess lies in the water. Rather, it lies with the lions. Yes, Simba and his pride. We Kenyans are perpetually running away from our ferocious, man-starved lions, for many kilometres on end, up hills and down valleys.

(I’m kidding.)

Kenya – and by extension, Africa – is not a bubbling petri dish of pathogenic bacteria that could decimate the human race any second now. If you, dear tourist, are concerned about la tourista (traveller’s diarrhoea), rest assured that Africa has no monopoly on this. It’s also to be found in London, Paris, Tokyo, or New York, where you probably come from.

You can sleep comfortably knowing that we not only have water in Kenya, but we also know how to boil and filter it to make it fit for consumption. We wash our fruits and vegetables; we even wash our hands. With soap. Looking for Evian? You should try our brands of bottled mineral water sourced from our own mineral springs.

Now for a little geography lesson.

If you are French and wish to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, you’ll have to go to Tanzania. Of course you can land in Nairobi and then drive all the way down to Tanzania. You can see Mount Kilimanjaro very well from Kenya, no fear. But trust me on this one: Mount Kilimanjaro is very much in Tanzania. Disregard what the travel agencies advertise, ignore the “Kenya: Do a Safari! Climb Kilimanjaro!” posters in the Parisian metro. Check your map of East Africa. See that sudden detour on the Kenya-Tanzania border that starts at the coastline heading inland? That’s where the map drawers went “oops!” and skirted around Mount Kilimanjaro. Or perhaps they hiccuped over their nth beer, causing their fingers to slip, and ended up with a straight-but-uneven border. Whatever the case, if you see “Visit Kenya! Visit Mount Kilimanjaro!” on a tourist brochure don’t get your geography all tangled up.

But do pack your bags and come visit. Come see – not climb – the mountain while heading down to Mombasa. Come speak Kenyan with us! The journey will be worth the destination.

Jean Thévenet, a work-at-home mum, was born and raised in Kenya. She now lives in France and blogs at