Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Reflections from the forest

Greetings from the forest in Kiambu Kenya
A number of thoughts and imaginings continue to entertain me as I proceed through life considering  what people think (in spite of repeated entreaties to abandon this habit) of my lifestyle choices and personal responsibilities.
So far what I’m doing is keeping me alive and positive in the face of so much destruction. From here the situation in North America seems more scary than what’s happening around me, although, who can say when I’m only aware of a smidgin of the reality both here and there. It’s definitely  warmer here though and cheaper to live, mostly.
 The political situation in Bamenda is sad and frightening, but the non-violent response by the people there gives me hope. I'm sad we had to leave so suddenly.
Just outside Nairobi we are living behind an electric fence next door to a supposed park that was logged by a relative of the previous/current president.  What we are surrounded by is quite parklike in terms of unbroken forest for many metres  along a small river where a golf course shares the other bank. It has not  been disturbed since it was logged over 100 years ago… Troops of monkeys pass by occasionally, upsetting the two dogs living here (more security features) or stealing any fruit left unmonitored for more than a minute. The cats are no help.

Stepping (or mostly driving) out of here through a housing development of monster houses built of cement blocks covered in tile with humoungus walls, gates and hedges gives me pause for 'who is going to live in them and what are they creating?' Little fiefdoms or enclaves, cameras and guards, fancy cars and flashy lifestyles. At the road; buses, 3 wheeled taxis and motorcycles (mattatus, tuk tuk's and, piki pikis)  along with private cars racing by interspersed with trucks. The construction continues of apartment blocks on side roads along  this main road through what used to be large coffee plantations. A few gates still, everyone seems to need some feeling of security, no doubt the after affects of rebellion and colonial control or keeping their livestock from wandering.
At Thindigwa fruit sellers line the road beside the more permanent commercial establishments. At the road junction there are a number of shelters, filled with the waiting piki-pikis mostly, as the Mattatus disgorge and pick-up,  often barely stopping.
Further into town the highway circles and criss-crosses the city, traffic inching along at various times of the day from one exit to the other. The infra structure has yet to catch up with it’s success. New roads under construction beside bumper to bumper vehicles the piki-pikis weaving in and out  while hawkers flog an amazing variety of items to the waiting motorists. Who knew they could sell pillows and towels ? Apples and bananas, potato crisps and tissues, fly swatters and solar flashlights.
It takes an inordinate amount of time to get to where ever we go, mostly due to the traffic, narrow streets and little courtesy. Should it be a mall, of which there are many, everyone must be checked with a wand and walk through the scanner. My nail clippers seldom fail to get a smile from the guards and the military are frequently found unobtrusively  tucked away in quiet corners regarding the scene.
In the grocery stores the variety is phenomenal, how many different types and brands of rice, hot sauce, dairy products and of course alcohol there are! Just like North America eh? However I’m shocked and disappointed by the lack of choice in chocolate. Looks a lot like a monopoly situation. I found one example of fair-trade in a health food store, and that company was purchased by a multi-national. Not naming names.
But out in the “suburbs”beyond the ring road, as the city slowly eats into the arable land there are fewer gates and walls. Mostly folks are crammed into cell blocks of apartments, stacked  here and there across the landscape. It looks like a building boom with so many under construction, with pole scaffolding suspended off the unfinished cement blocks. Or metal roofed one story ’sheds’ housing innumerable families, trash littering the landscape as far as the eye can see.
If anything it emphasises my deeply felt lack of interest in city living. The hustle and bustle certainly providing opportunities for the myriad people flocking to cities everywhere. Commerce and business providing incentives and, hopefully, inspiration, while more trees are cut down, more cement and pavement cover up the earth. But within this environment are many and varied items and restaurants…
I’m considering hiring a tour guide. I’m almost out of thread/string/twine for my weaving, it seems few here do any crochet, knitting or anything but rug weaving. My one successful foray into a mall scored me a colourful selection of some very fine mercerized cotton from France at more than double the price of what I was using previously, from Nigeria.
 I’ve been discouraged from entering the market where I’m sure Indian cotton of similar quality is available, hence the guide. But it appears we’ll be mobile again soon, nomadic so to speak, visiting and exploring more of Kenya, the coast and then back to Tanzania. I’ll park the loom and much of our library till we locate more permanent temporary accommodation.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas in Kenya

 Dec 24
At the moment I’m staying in an A-frame surrounded by second growth trees in some of the last remaining indigenous forest in Nairobi Kenyas’ environs. A few moments ago there was a large Sykes monkey sitting on the balcony peering at us from the railing. Long tails and a huge hairy brow. They are quite entertaining jumping through the tree tops, chasing each other. The dogs barking their heads off while the monkeys run up and down the vines and trees beside the house teasing them. If we leave a window open for the cats, and bananas on the counter? Bananas gone. Yesterday I was sitting doing my writing and I hear the window moving open, then a face peers under the blind. Cheeky!
It’s a tremendous relief to be away from the instability and potential violence we experienced last month in Bamenda. It was challenging to  focus on anything with random gunshots , tear gas and protests happening. We were already intending to leave, so it seemed appropriate to accelerate our departure since we had a destination and accommodation waiting. Putting out the word to friends and associates we were able to give away and sell  all our furniture and household goods, recovering some of our investment. A bonus really. And all done long before the arranged ride arrived. Floors mopped, bags packed and waiting at the entrance.
It was a bitter sweet departure. We made some good friends in Bafut, some friends were out of the country and others we hadn’t contacted before leaving. The threat of more troops arriving, unknown outcomes and more protests anticipated,  encouraged us to cut short our stay, and move on to our next adventure. One of the German volunteers accompanied us to Dschang where there is a famous museum. The other volunteer was there already staying with a friend and raving about how friendly everyone was. A college town with a lakeside promenade beside the museum, it was quite a contrast.
Then onto Douala by bus. The proprietor of the hotel drove us in the morning to the depot where numerous touts attempted to “assist” us into their company’s bus. I watched them accost a number of arriving women on motorcycles, quite aggressively. The women were not impressed. Eventually we left after a few false starts, entertained by a salesman flogging herbal remedies, standing in the aisle at the front of the bus exhorting everyone to try his samples. After some time he got off and not long later another fellow stepped on and did a repeat performance.
Douala’s a busy place, international seaport and airport, a real cross-roads of cultures. We spent time walking near the hotel, breakfast at a roadside stall every morning, a pizza in the Greek/Lebanese restaurant on our last night. We had a driver from a previous visit and he gave us a tour of the town. Through the port authority; massive warehouses,  lines of waiting workers, stacked containers and seafood restaurants, then the old part of town past impressive architecture, hotels and residences. Lots of very old street trees, mostly mangoes.
 Then into the main market, a more chaotic and crowded place, I’ve never been. Negotiating through intersections spilling over with produce, people and intense smells we inched through, the market itself stretching in all directions beyond sight. Trucks disgorging endless boxes of goods manhandled and hand-trucked back into the market from blocks away where there was somewhere to park. Intense.
In the morning a Christmas parade had us leaving early to avoid the blocked streets, through the airport and onto our plane… practically empty. We managed to score the exit seats, lots of leg room and they cancelled the scheduled stop in Yaounde so we arrived an hour early. The view was clouds the whole way until I saw Lake Victoria!   Our ride arrived after Elke had arranged sim cards so our internet connection is set.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

General Strike the day after

Dec 9
As we walked out to say our last goodbyes to the women in the village, Elke received a call, a friend was trapped in town, her car’s back window smashed, a neighbour beat-up and gunshots all around; a riot in progress on the main street of Bamenda. How does one respond to news like that?
We met up with the children, some of the women and said goodbye. The women were understanding but regretful. At lunch with one especially hospitable friend, we heard over cellphone that people had been killed, the riots had spread throughout the city, police station burned, a politicians car torched in front of the hospital, blockades on many streets.
My anxiety level rose considerably, in spite of the benign surroundings and we proceeded walking out to say goodbye to another friend, wondering where we might be spending the night. Calling  our friend who had been downtown, she invited us to her home nearby. She’d been rescued by a young man on a motorcycle who navigated the back roads around barricades and burning tires to get her home safely. Plus, someone had driven her car back as well. All her groceries had to be discarded -full of broken glass.
Our time there was fraught with concern, a continual ringing of phones and incoming text messages kept us up to date with all the latest conjectures and possible truth, including the news that more troops were coming from Yaounde. Hard to sleep with all this weighing on our minds, our intention to leave on Monday now placed in jeopardy. 
All our furniture spoken for, household goods and incidentals ready for removal Saturday. That is if the roads are cleared and people are allowed out.
More phone calls in the morning. Apparently the authorities were now releasing all the children held in residential schools. A window of opportunity to make our way home… past charred pavement, piles of still burning refuse and tires, the burnt out hulk of a truck straddling the road. In one spot  an opening pulled aside for the traffic between still burning tires. At most intersections military armed and watchful. People lining the streets, on the move loaded down with all manner of items. In front of one school taxis loading children, some looking a little lost, backpacks and bags in hand.
Our fellow apartment resident had told us not to return yesterday; tear gas drifting, tires burning and police and demonstrators everywhere. She was at the hospital when we returned, a friend caught a bullet.
The floor in the apartment looked clean but as soon as I walked in, black footprints.
It all looks normal outside except for the blackened pavement, taxis and pedestrians going about their business, buses driving past the food market… except they’re all empty…?
At least there’s no gunshots or tear gas. We finished packing, we are ready to go as soon as we an arrange transport. But when will that be?

General Strike an interlude

Dec 8
The 3 day strike is over, another called for January. Yesterday, traffic was flowing a little subdued but almost normal. The motorbikes did another honking drive by in a group, the water cannon and tear gas possibly taking place elsewhere but certainly not visible to us.
The market down below was busy almost all morning, well past the stated 9am “deadline” a few stores open along the main roads, although we heard nothing was open on Commercial ave. 
The night before we heard the ruling party CPDM was planning a rally in town at the grandstand, a feature of every Cameroonian town we’ve been in. An interesting proposition, provocative in the extreme since this area is represented in the parliament by the opposition party and the strike was challenging the government to address concerns. Which it hasn’t. Instead it continues to ignore, deny and repress any actual dialogue. See this
In conversations with numerous individuals, the under current of dissatisfaction and impatience soon comes to the surface. We heard stories of successful businesses driven into failure by the policies and attitudes of the rulers here. Opportunities for improving the lives and fortunes of citizens squandered or undermined by the powers that be, the regions resources providing for the rest of Cameroon. Or more likely the people in power, Teachers and military often wait months to get paid, the standard of living is in  the lower 3/4 of countries worldwide and yet the president is one of the richest men in Africa. What is wrong with this picture?
Early in the morning one of the volunteers went downtown to mail something for us and to attempt to get cash. He told us the area was crawling with machine gun toting military police. Made him extremely uncomfortable.
We had arranged to head out to the farm since we understood everything was supposedly back to normal. And it appeared to be. Our driver took us easily out of the city, we purchased bananas from a roadside vendor and arranged for pick-up later in the day.
 I spent the morning re-ordering/organizing the toolshed while Elke re-plastered the lounge hangout space. It’s a pleasant place to be, birds singing, a gentle breeze and plenty of greenery. And a great way to say goodbye, doing something useful and meaningful.

General strike- Next installment

Dec 6
As the morning progressed, I headed down to †he market. A few taxis heading up the hill, lots of motorbikes and a steady stream of pedestrians going both ways.
The fellow with a table near the taxi stand had a chunk of meat on his table, the smell indicated it wasn’t fresh in spite of the hour. Must have been left over from yesterday. Crossing the bridge I averted my eyes from the creek, it’s choked with debris, plastic waste, discarded clothing and all the leftovers from the market. There is nothing quite like the smell of… you get the picture.
In the open part of the market where the trucks drop off oranges, melons and papayas folks were busy distributing the wholesale into retail, wheelbarrows and handcarts piled with produce. I was jostled by the crowds of women (mostly) out getting their daily supplies. From my usual vendors I got lemons, tomatoes and papayas. They seemed unworried, the tomato lady was busy negotiating for 6 baskets of tomatoes, the lemon lady always looks worried and the melon sellers never stop trying to get me to buy.
My usual trudge back uphill was marked  first by an inability to cross over due to a preponderance of motorbikes and then the sight of Elke on the balcony waving to me. She had preceded me out the door taking a bike to Oscar shop where things not available in the market (occasionally) can be obtained. Actually just about everything is available in the market, one just needs to know where to look and I wasn’t relishing the thought of traipsing through the rabbit warren. Normally an enjoyable experience on a dry day, the women constantly call out to me. Those who we are familiar with ask after “Madame” or “Ma”. It’s often cooler in there  as well and folks are friendly whereas walking the street edge can be percarious as traffic honks it's way through the crowds of vendors and shoppers competing for space.
Back home we are set for the next few days, we won’t go hungry. Our friend and associate  Beatrice stopped in to collect the drying ginger from the back room. She’s interested in some of our furniture. We’re both willing to write it off in our need to leave but it’s wonderful to get something for it . Others have expressed interest, looks like it’ll all be out of here, which is also a concern; I don't want to walk away from a partially furnished apartment , leaving it for others to deal with. It will all be absorbed into our community. Items of clothing given to friends, household articles taken to the Eco-village or the guest house.
The waiting around is the worst, not knowing when or if, much less concerned about being involved in some ridiculous political disagreement or altercation. The occasional percussive report, scenes of people running plus stories of injury and worse are not something I want to get used to.
My privilege is showing. I’m quite aware I have the option to both come here and then leave should things become too difficult or uncomfortable. My upbringing and background presupposes an expectation of basic human rights, guaranteed access to appropriate healthcare, nutrition, water and waste management. I have taken these things for granted. Along with trusting the police to protect me and having faith in the benevolence of government. I suppose I could say this is another awakening from complacency.

Life in a general strike-reflections

Dec 6
Another quiet night. The general strike is keeping most traffic, specifically taxis, off the roads. The motorcycle riders are like young rebels everywhere,  nothing (or very little) stops them from trying to make a living ferrying people and goods about the city. This morning the activity/traffic seems especially intense. It appears we have a safe window between 6 and 9am to get get things done to shop and travel where necessary. I saw some buses arriving too. None left last night.
Yesterday after checking with friends we were advised to stay put. In any case there were no taxis’ running and a trip out to the farm on a motorcycle would be brutal. And to be stuck out there? It’s a great place to spend the night but some prep is needed to make it work.
As 9 am approached the traffic noticeably diminished to occasional private cars and a few motorbikes. The police vehicles make a lot of noise as they hurtle along warning everyone to “get out of the way!” with their horns. From our balcony we watched as they attacked some buildings and I assume dissenting citizens just beyond Hospital Roundabout with their water cannon. Much smoke on either side of the road. I’m tempted this morning to go view and photograph the damage. The street there is lined with small eating establishments, up one nearby road is a bus stand we’ve arrived at from south. But I won’t. Elke has pointed out I don’t run so fast (or at all!) and if this area is a hotbed of resistance, who knows what they or the military have planned today. My jokey manner belies the anxiety we are feeling.
I walked out mid morning yesterday looking for bananas, they can be found most days on trays atop the heads of vendors walking around the city but seldom if ever at the market. Usually at roadside stands here and there. None to be seen. Even the roadside stands themselves were missing, their wooden shelves and tables hidden from the possibility of use as fuel. I passed  quite a few pedestrians. One fellow accosted me , in pidgin, warning me “No taxis”.  I saw a couple of men standing in the road stopping motorcycles and encouraging them to disgorge their passengers.
Back in the apartment we watched through binoculars as tires were laid across the road as a barrier, then the police moved in and threw them aside, proceeded up the road blasting water into the buildings and side streets, lobbing smoke bombs or tear gas here and there. As soon as they were out of sight, the tires reappear. This looks more like mischief than open insurrection. And the response is like smashing a sledge hammer on a mosquito. The military/police seem intent on provoking a violent response so they can justify their behaviour.  From what I’ve seen (and it aint much) the citizens are exercising incredible restraint, operating with non-violence as a rule; racing on motorbikes in swarms honking their horns and pedestrians running away to avoid confrontation. The general population attempts to continue as usual, although  most everything is closed for business.
 The strike will continue till Wednesday, after that we intend to make our way, away. By bus if possible otherwise if not, we’ll charter a taxi out to the next large centre and thence to Douala where there is an airport.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016


Revolution is the turning of ideas and actions into the transformation of society. That’s how I see it. Numerous signs and indications are daily demonstrating the truths that many prescient writers from distant times have described. How the ruling players; oligarchy, plutarchy and the corporations undermine and control the media, money, transport and food, which in turn controls the populace. After being lied to and manipulated for years, I for one am no longer willing to entertain any trust in them. The status quo for many is a life of deprivation and dis-ease. Constantly played against each other, demonizing various portions of the population maintains an us and them that effectively isolates and distracts everyone from the elite perpetrators of this travesty.

I have felt the ennui and apathy of overwhelming fear in the face of this monster. My inability to deal with or fix the problem, which ever one has my attention, seems part of the strategy. Realistically I see it all as symptomatic of a society that has lost touch with actual culture. We are constantly bombarded with advertising promoting impossibly perfect visions of humanity. By playing on our latent desires and need for validation  it maintains a sense of insecurity, whether intentional or not,  so we are all always in a state of stress. Medications abound to alleviate or relieve this state, never dealing with the cause. Who wants to give up their toys? Comfortable lifestyles or out of season fruits and vegetables? It all has a cost and much of it falls on our organism; humanity. Where are the cultural  commonalities that speak to our actual essence in this?
History has many lessons for those who would examine it. Numerous groups of people, societies and cultures were quite able to maintain relative homeostasis, comfort and balance, living in harmony with their environment. And a number of movements driven by extraordinary individuals have wiped out those peoples. Greed, organized religion and a tremendous lack of empathy,  all possibly the consequence of crowding, are now part and parcel of the ruling paradigm.

Thankfully there are voices of reason, individuals and groups who share a common understanding of our empathetic nature, our need to be in community, connected to the earth itself. Through the magic of the internet the possibilities exist to mobilize large groups of people, disseminate truth and wisdom. Used with prudence! We must also acknowledge awareness of the insisdious elements wishing to mine our information. The tools of this age provide possiblities to dialogue across continents and oceans, cities and countries. However, it is the face to face, down to earth grass roots connections that weave us together into  community. Those opportunities to sing songs, share meals and read each others body language bring us into the cauldron of connection.
I’m afraid for the many who are complacent and in denial, ignorant intentionally or otherwise of the absolute meaningless of our popular culture. There is nothing sustaining about a society whose morals and ethics are for sale, that has no meaningful rituals or ceremony enrolling it’s members. Retail therapy notwithstanding.
The revolution begins when individuals have had enough of the bullshit, the lies and obfuscations preventing us from truly being part of our environment. It starts with growing our own food, speaking to our neighbours and connecting with spirit , however that looks. It maintains itself through joyous celebrations; in song, feasts and rites of passage for our youth. It thrives by establishing manageable community, harmonized and in balance with local environments, creating no waste, sharing surplus and using the least energy to create the maximum effect. It’s not rocket science- we don’t need to go to Mars to succeed in this experiment.