Tag: East Africa

Rock on down to Electric Avenue

Disco lights shine through the jet of piss arching from the groin of an ill-mannered youth to the dusty face of the street. The lights spectacularly change the urine’s usual beer-tinted jaundice to a glorious mix of green, red, blue, pink and, yes, purple, in rapid succession. It is the randomised colours of the rainbow, a celebration of life.

After a record-breaking long piss, the arc lazily breaks into a straight line of a trickle, then splutters to a sudden stop. A quick shake follows, breaching the mandatory three, and becomes a small act of self-gratification. Etiquette kicks in; he zips and the games begin.

Welcome to Electric Avenue, the epicentre of Nairobi’s nightlife.

The city’s classes are well represented in the sample here: clowns, ladies and gentlemen of the night, civil servants, wannabe artists, cooks and watchmen, corporate and chief executive types, taxi drivers, students, informal pharmacists and their victims — and even some grannies. On Electric Avenue, they are all sexogenerians.

The sun goes down, as a matter of habit, at a few minutes to seven. It is a vagary of living close to the equator and a chime for the aficionados of the nightly arts to serenade the town. Participant observation is the best way to appreciate the unfolding drama.

Behold the street wildlife. There is a pageant of antelopes. They glide by high in seven-inch heels, balancing their unearthly forms in bipedal locomotion. They seem to have no kneecaps. Waistlines are kept within bounds with “figure belts” — that remnant of the Eighties, minus the trademark butterfly of that befuddled decade. A delicate neckline peeks above the forced cleavage. The skin at the bottom of the neck is given texture by rashes, a virulent symptom of black skin angrily reacting to dead or fake Indian hair. It is the kind of picture that appears on the Men against Weaves and Extensions Facebook group, collateral damage for the battle between contrived aesthetics and dermatology.

The lions sit easy in wait for game. Their flaccid tummies sag with gravity. Too heavy to climb high trees, they go for low-hanging fruit. Darker hair means more years. Like Mugabe, like Gaddafi, like Biya, the shoe polish-like dye to blame. Their big bright collars pop out of their brightly coloured shirts to frame their fat napes, double chins and rotund cheeks, like a coconut fruit popping from the bum of a fully unfurled peacock. They might be red-hot gay, if not for their unshapely potbellies or choice of aftershave, or their patent homophobia.

Then there is the matriarchal, late-thirty something, six-strong girl pack sitting at a lone loud table in the middle of the club. These female hyenas are ready to chew off any intruding males’ ears. The crux of the evening’s conversation is punctuated by the occasional complaint about a dark spot that stubbornly refuses to go away, praises for acetone-free nail polish, Woolworths underwear, the wonder-working wrinkle cream and the comfortable seats of the little car. Among mankind, only Steve the mechanic gets positive mention. He knows how to fasten wheel caps.

The lions don’t pay attention, not even to those big handbags that may comfortably conceal a panga, a truncheon and handcuffs beside lipstick tubes, eye pencils and a tubular mini-Steve the mechanic in purple. Only the naive young male hyena may dare intrude, for he senses not the high-octane oestrogen.

But it is the political types that are hilarious to watch. Their sense of aesthetics permits the strutting of 5kg of fat just above the groin with utter impunity. The cheesy meaculpa for these one-packs is that they are a fuel tank for sex machines. No one breaks the news to the emperor about his really big tummy.

Only the button threads straining through the lower buttonholes of their shirts may screech. Maybe, too, the frustrated woman who calls an FM station to complain about the fuel tank and how it has robbed their man of his full glory.

Politicos are the real grains of dust in this city — simultaneously predators, scavengers and parasites — but also ethical agents in a strange moral universe and trendsetters of aesthetics. In their own inelegant way they still manage to set the standards for social aspiration. The title maketh the man; the abbreviated Hon is the most sought after.

Their pointed shoes, known as sharpshooters, are unfamiliar with mud and have broken well into the carpeting in their homes, offices and even their private chambers. They wear the big gold ring, gold-plated oriental watches and the gold bracelet with gold buckles on their belts
and shoes.

At 2am a kind of liturgy is playing out. Some religious rules of a sort are at play. It is time to punish the body. Livers are shrinking. Oral tissue is burning. Lungs labour to manage the balance of smoke and oxygen. Tendons are stretched by contracting muscles. The street gets jam-packed. It is pumping. The party has started all over again. If you missed the song earlier, it is replaying. Tomorrow, your ears will still be throbbing.

Godfrey Chesang lives and loves in Nairobi. This piece was first published in the M&G newspaper. 

Chama: The economic model that’s all the rage in Kenya

The greying man in his early 50s wore an expensive brown leather jacket and a cream cowboy hat that slouched on his head. He looked at me sideways and asked: “Why are you so keen on hanging out with us?”

Everyone at the table sat up, and five pairs of probing eyes turned in my direction. The booming speakers in the background hummed in a monotonous drone as I cleared my throat.

“I’d like to join your group,” I managed as I returned the old man’s stare, “because we are like-minded.”

It might seem like I was trying to join an exclusive golf club, but all I wanted was to join their chama – the economic empowerment train that is all the rage here in Kenya.

Chama is Swahili for a group of people – anywhere between two and more than 100 – with a common interest in coming together. They can be classified into a few categories: self-help groups, merry-go-rounds, or investment groups in which members pay a certain amount of money every week or month. The money is then used by the group to invest, give members loans or pay them monthly dividends from their micro-savings.

To join a chama, each of which has its own protocols, you have to be introduced by a member. The “board” will then vet you before you are eligible to join.

It was an old friend, with whom I was once in the same chama, who recently tried to convince me to join his new group. During the introductory meeting I was advised that I would be the one who would settle the bills.

I was buying rounds of beer as questions were fired off by the board members.

“How old are you?”

“What do you do?”

“Why should we trust you?”

I made my pitch and my friend backed me up. After the initial scepticism, things were looking good.

In my former chama each of the six members paid R100 every fortnight. At the end of the month, one member went home with R1 200 he had collected from the group. This group was a merry-go-round affair but it broke up because of serial pay defaulters. It’s the reason why new members of any chama always have to be thoroughly vetted: membership is built on mutual trust and understanding.

When our merry-go-round group collapsed my friend held on to a few members from the former group and injected new blood into it. They transformed the old chama into an investment group. The monthly payments shot up to R400, more members were recruited and a constitution with rules and regulations was created. The new chama bought a nightclub and was planning to build a gas station on a plot it owned.

The modern-day chamas have come a long way. They began as groups our mothers formed as away to collect funds to improve our homes. Most people dismissed them as an excuse for our mothers to gossip and drink tea, their favourite brew.

It was in the 1990s – when there was high inflation, savings were wiped out, jobs were lost and the prices of basics like food and rent quadrupled – that these tea parties started to gain some respect. After all, it was money from the chamas that put food on the table and got rent and school fees paid.

The basic premise of our mothers’ chamas was this: never wholly trust banks because they will give you the proverbial umbrella when the sun shines and take it back when it rains.

But a chama is not just an informal bank, it’s family.

If there is a job opening, members will tell other members about it. If you are sick, bereaved or getting married, they will be with you through times good or bad. If you need professional guidance, the wealth of experience of people in different careers helps – and the advice is free.

The evolved, modern chama also has many diff erent versions. There’s a girl I know whose chama exists simply for bonding with friends. The five members pay R30 each and meet at the weekend to gossip and catch up. The host uses the R150 raised to pay for food and refreshments.

Then there is a chama for single professional ladies. Its single purpose is to help pay for the members’ wedding day, if and when it comes.

I even know a guy in a beer chama. He and his four mates used to have one for the road every day after work. Then they did some maths and decided they were spending too much money. Now each member contributes R100 a week, which has reduced their beer intake but increased their savings; every month one member walks home with R1 600.

The most famous investment chama is the Trans-Century group, which was established by 27 leading Kenyan professionals and investors.

The membership fee was between R50 000 and R100 000 – and 11 years later the infrastructure investment company is worth hundreds of millions of rands.

After making my successful pitch to the board, I sat admiring the expansive nightclub my soon-to-be “family” had bought. I was given the rules and regulations.

As a new member I would first have to pay a one-off fee of R8 000 and timely monthly contributions of R400. If I defaulted I would be fined the equivalent of three months’ contributions.

Meetings would be held twice a month and I had to pay R50 for the purchase of refreshments.

Coming to chama meetings with a woman would get me fined a goat or cash in kind, while being drunk and disorderly in front of members was a serious offence. And I would not be able to touch any of my contribution money for the next five years unless it was an emergency situation, in which case I would get a soft loan.

I sat mulling over whether to join, wondering whether it wouldn’t be simpler to join a mutual fund. Then again, joining a chama is not just about the money – it’s about friends.

Munene Kilongi is a freelance writer and videographer based in Nairobi. This post was published in the M&G newspaper.

Juba: An old Jo’burg

Juba, on a Monday morning, spews diesel from thousands of Toyota Land Cruisers, their logos testimony to the baffling phalanx of aid organisations nudging the world’s newest nation into being. Flying over the city brings to mind images of Johannesburg in 1890 – a flung-together, hodge-podge camp made almost entirely of canvas, corrugated iron and mud.

But on closer inspection, Juba is less unformed than it appears. We have never seen an aid orgy like this one – not in Kabul, not in eastern DRC, nowhere. A lengthy Sunday stroll reveals a city in various stages of development: hotels taking shape, shanty towns sprawling over a graveyard, superbly tarred roads petering out into muddy tracts. Spend Saturday night at the Logali House Hotel and the neighbouring nightclubs, and you learn that money is flowing in from everywhere, and dangerous little rivalries are forming between locals and the international moneymen. Sometimes, knives get pulled. Like we said, Johannesburg in the 1890s.

But we’d be lying if we pretended that our Sunday flaneuring was not a pleasant experience. The air is sultry, the Jubans are relaxed, and the Land Cruisers, after a while, become a bitter, gallows-humour punch line. This, for now, is how life appears in the capital of the world’s youngest country, South Sudan.

Water containers for a town without infrastructure. (Pic: Richard Poplak)
Boda-boda boys in Juba. (Pic: Richard Poplak)

This post is part of Africa 3.0, a series by Richard Poplak and Kevin Bloom in which they highlight aspects of their travels and investigations on the continent. Visit http://africa3point0.tumblr.com for more, and engage with them on Facebook and Twitter.

Renting a read from Ethiopia’s paper landlords

Despite an abundance of national and international newsmakers, Addis Ababa has relatively little in the way of newspapers – no dailies of note or even newsstands to offer news consumers. But don’t be fooled. This is a city of voracious readers where even the poor are indulged.

In fact, some corners of Addis are reserved for newspaper passions, Arat Kilo being one legendary neighbourhood. And by persisting, there you may stumble upon the city’s secret: consumers too poor to buy a copy of a newspaper but able to rent a read.

Arat Kilo is not only the home of the country’s Parliament building but also of flat-broke citizens with rich news-reading addictions.

“Paper landlords” offer “news seats”  to readers who gather on the edge of a road, in a nearby alleyway, even inside a traffic circle. And for years, these “paper tenants” have happily hunkered down, reading a copy of a newspaper quickly and then returning it to watchful owners nearby. And even today’s deteriorating economy and “press-phobic” government has not significantly slowed
this frenzied exchange.

In a country without a substantive daily Saturday is distribution day for the country’s weeklies. That also makes it the toughest day to find an empty news seat in Arat Kilo, or anywhere on the streets of Addis.

Luckily, Birhanina Selam, the nation’s oldest and largest publishing house, where 99% of newspapers get published, is in Arat Kilo. So readers there can get news hot off the press while the rest of the city gets the paper later that day.

Major cities elsewhere in the country receive newspapers a day or two later and for readers there the cliché of journalism as the first rough draft of history seems senseless. The story is already history by the time it reaches their streets.

Unlike newspaper readers in the countryside, the poor of Arat Kilo must deal with noise. Cars blow horns hysterically. Street children shout for money in the name of God. Lottery vendors call out for customers. Taxi conductors shriek names of destinations. Yet the “renters” tune out the city’s hustle as they run up against rental deadlines. Paper landlords vigilantly act as timekeepers.

Readers dare not hold copies for more than a half hour or they will be charged more birr. One copy of a newspaper may quickly pass through a hundred readers before, late in the day, it is finally recycled as toilet tissue or bread wrap.

Now, as a rising number of unemployed people hunt for jobs through newspapers and a growing population of pensioners distract themselves with news, news seats are popular pastimes.

Men catch up on the news in Addis Ababa. (Tristam Sparks/Flickr)

And this is true despite prices for newspapers doubling as a result of the rising costs of newsprint and the country’s latest round of inflation and devaluation.

Addis — dubbed the political capital of Africa because it hosts the headquarters of the African Union – is not as safe a haven for journalists as it is for journalism readers. Some international patron saints of media call the current government one of the world’s most journalist unfriendly regimes.

As more and more local journalists face threats, the number of newspapers dwindles as diminutive media houses close. Over the past few years, some two dozen journalists have fled to neighbouring countries. They’ve left behind a country hurtling towards a “no free press” zone, with few media houses willing to publish private political newspapers.

In 2010, two journalists in Ethiopia collected two prestigious awards — the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award and the Pen American Centre’s Freedom to Write Award — for their fortitude and courage working in Ethiopia as political journalists. These honours witness the way the country handles the free press.

At present only a handful of local newspapers and two handsful of local magazines circulate in Ethiopia, with a total weekly circulation that barely equals that of one day of Kenya’s Daily Nation’s 50 000 print run.

By comparison, Fortune, reportedly the leading English weekly in Ethiopia, publishes 7 000 copies a week at most. So, unfortunately, the poor – and everyone else – in Addis have fewer copies and less variety. And a nation with the second-largest population in Africa – some 80-million potential readers – registers among the fewest number of newspapers on the continent.

Ironically, in Addis you do not often see readers riding in taxis, waiting at bus stops or sitting in cafés for hours. Few Ethiopians read newspapers, magazines or books alone in public but they do banter in groups. Only a few cafés allow their verandahs to be news seats to attract more customers. On the contrary, many street-side cafés post No Reading signs next to No Smoking signs. The Jolly Bar, friendly to newspaper renters for more than a decade, now forbids customers to read newspapers inside or outside.

In Arat Kilo, however, no one expects, or can afford, to read their papers in a comfortable seat or on a café verandah. “Here citizens may stand for a while on a zebra crossing and read the headline and pass,” says Boche Bochera, a prominent “paper lord” in the neighbourhood, exaggerating how his place is overrun by newspaper tenants.

Here, stones are aids to reading as are lampposts and pedestrian right-of-ways. And readers lean against notice boards or idle taxis, transforming themselves into “newspaper warms”. The streets of Addis, like Arat Kilo, get warmer with newspapers and newspaper readers lying on them.

Nowadays, traditional newspaper vendors and peddlers find themselves challenged by newspaper lords such as Boche. From a flat stone in Arat Kilo, Boche earns bread for his family of six by renting newspapers and magazines from sunrise to sunset.

Wearing worn overalls, he spreads the day’s newspapers around him and passes copies to paper brokers, mostly kids; his “paper constituencies” may reach 300 people a day. His attachment to this task is legendary.

“I have a beautiful daughter called Kalkidan,” he says. “I named her after a magazine I lease weekly.”

And he seldom bribes community police to let him sit comfortably. “That is how I survived for the last 15 years,” he says.

When papers start to wear out with over-use, Boche splices them with Scotch tape. Then he affixes his signature so everyone knows which copies belong to him. This, he reasons, is his protection. But, he says: “Some disloyal paper tenants steal my copy and sell it somewhere else to quench their hunger.”

As the hub of street newspaper reading, Arat Kilo entertains more than a thousand people a day. Other spots are rising to the challenge.

Merkato, dubbed the largest open market in Africa, now has a place for newspaper addicts around the Mearab Hotel. When daylight wanes, newspapers rented there will be collected and resold in kiosks nearby to wrap chat, a local leafy stimulant.

Other Addis neighbourhoods, like Piassa, Legehar, Megenagna and Kazanchis have also created newspaper circles for paper tenants.

Yohannes Tekle (29) has been a regular reader of street papers for seven years. These days, especially, when a newspaper costs up to six birr (75 US cents), he rents one for 25 Ethiopian cents (which is less than one US cent).

For Tekle, a day without newspapers is unthinkable. “It is like an addiction,” he says. “Sometimes, I regret it after renting a paper when it is full of mumbojumbo news. I could have used that cent for buying a loaf of bread.”

Still, he’s reluctant to set aside the habit. “If I miss a day without renting, however, I feel like I missed some signify cant news about my county – like a coup in progress.”

Mohammed Selman, a lecturer in journalism, is a freelance writer. He lives in Ethiopia. In 2009 he won the Excellence in Journalism award for print from the Foreign Press Association in Addis Ababa. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.