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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Trade Wind hair

My hair began to twist and tendril the moment I got out of the plane at Zanzibar airport.

It did that when we went to Mombasa every year of my childhood. But it doesn't respond to other coastlines that way. The Atlantic, the Pacific, the North Sea, just turn it frizzy and rebellious. The air of the Indian Ocean, the Trade Winds, bring out all its soft wild curliness.

twelve kinds of trees

I counted this morning, from the open upstairs breakfast terrace of my small hotel in Zanzibar's Stone Town.

So much green, in so many shapes and textures - succulent, fronded, foliaged, falling. Canopies of leaves, palmate, digitate, spiky, dense, delicate. Flashing with interwoven flowers and sky. Flocks of crows overhead - so much noisier than the swift skeins of swallows in Italy. Was that just last week? Which Shailja was that pair of eyes?

ZIFF opening ceremony

was last night at the Old Fort, where slaves were brought and held for auction. Amphitheater under the stars, filled with music, dance, film, vibrating against the massive towers at each corner of the fortress.

What stayed with me was the Maulidi ya Homu; Sufi dance and music, performed by a troupe of young boys in white kanzus and embroidered blue caps. They knelt on the stage, arms and torsos fluid as living coral. Bowed forward, swayed back, moved like one body, to waves and currents of sound.

Nimerudi nyumbani

I thought as the tiny, 36-seat Kenya Airways plane touched down at Zanzibar Airport. Kiswahili for I have returned home.

People repeat it back to me, when they hear that my father was born in Pemba. Aa, umerudi nyumbani. Karibu.

The longing for home, the quest for homeland - so deeply rooted in us, yet so infantile. I tend to be suspicious of it. It lends itself to romanticization, fantasy love affairs with place, at the expense of genuine engagement with socio-economic-political reality.

But there is the truth of my body, electric with joy, reaching out like anemone unfurling, to everything that surrounds me here. Maybe that's an and, rather than a but. Maybe I can hold both: the delight and the probing, questioning scepticism.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


there's more public internet / computer access in Nairobi than in San Francisco, New York, or London. Every post office here has pay-per-minute public computers with internet access. There are internet cafes on every commercial street, in every shopping center, even in kiosks down dirt roads and alleyways. Contrast this to western countries, where computer use, like phone use, has become totally privatized. You're expected to have your own laptop, just as you're expected to have your own cellphone. So payphones have disappeared, along with public access computers in commercial spaces - you can only find them in libraries.

quoted in the East African

A July 11 article in the East African, by Ugandan poet, Okello Oculi, quotes from my feature in Awaaz Magazine, on bringing Migritude home to Nairobi.

The article, Who Planted This Murder In Our Hearts?, explores the colonial roots of repressive regimes and inter-communal violence in Kenya and Uganda.

The Nairobi Strut

People have told me all my adult life that I have a "distinctive walk." Most of the time, it's not a compliment - it's been described as "military speed-walking", "defensive stride", and "for chrissake, slow down!"

Today, walking along Nairobi's Argwings Kodhek road, I realized where my walk comes from. It's the Nairobi walk. Eyes down, to scan for rocks, tree roots, ditches, puddles, trash, potholes. Arm wrapped round bag, bag in front of body, to guard against bag-snatchers. Nostrils braced, eyes narrowed, against exhaust fumes from the million vehicles that could use a smog check, and the ubiquitous dust. Purpose in every stride - the get-where-you're-going, don't-stop-for-hawkers-and-beggars forward motion. Constant vigilance, against rogue vehicles veering off the road, against debris flying off the road into your face.

what you can transport on the back of a bicycle

two bales of dried grass, stacked on top of each other
a crate of sodas
a bundle of firewood, almost a metre in diameter
a small girl, holding a baby
two chickens, with legs tied

urban garbage sample

along a 100-metre stretch of Gitanga Road:

maize leaves
black plastic bag
maize cob
yellow plastic bag
mango pit
white plastic bag
flattened cigarette carton
clear plastic bag
clear plastic bag
clear plastic bag
flattened tetragonal milk carton
white plastic bag
banana peels
black remains of a fire
clear plastic bag
juice carton
black plastic bag
cardboard scraps
white plastic bag.............

matatu names

along Gitanga road, 11am - 12 noon.

Kansas City
A couple in Arabic that I can't read (new-to-me phenomenon)

Matatus, aka death-traps, aka Mobile Discos, are the minibuses that make up Nairobi's informal public transit system. Overcrowded at rush hour, with people hanging out the back, lethally fast and immune to all road rules, they've been blamed over and over for the city's horrific rate of road fatalities. Everyone who grew up in Nairobi has at least one friend / relative who was killed in a car crash involving a matatu. But when they go on strike, the city comes to a standstill. Matatus rule the road. The name, Ma-tatu, comes from the original fixed fare of 3 Kenyan shillings. "Tatu" is "three" is Kiswahili.

writer's rescue remedy

when everything overwhelms you, and you're trembling with the overload of your thoughts and feelings:

Start where you are.
Name what's around you. Red and green wicker chair, cigarette box on the ground, dusty bougainvillea.
See what you name. In all its detail.
Write it. With all your senses.
Repeat, until the world is your friend again.

Lines from a poem I know I'm misquoting, by Mary Oliver (but this is the nearest I can get):

Whoever you are, however lonely
the universe calls to you
over and over again, announcing your place
in the mystery of things.

how is it that

a makeshift roadside stall in Nairobi, erected on planks and boards, stacked on rocks on the ground, spread with sacking material, carries a wider, more appealing range of fruit and vegetables than the chi-chi high-end Rockridge Market Hall in my Oakland, CA neighborhood? Passion fruit, bananas, melons, watermelons, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, onions, kale, maize, yams, cassava, pawpaws, avocadoes, mangoes .....all chemical-free (except for the coating of exhaust fumes from passing vehicles). A kilo of each costs less than a single avocado in California.

And how is it that a poor public primary school here, dilapidated buildings, peeling paint, cracked windows, still has a grass-covered playing field larger than the entire acreage of some of the Bay Area's best schools, in all their glass-fibre-optic-concrete, uber-equipped glory?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

here we have a focus

I had a long incredibly rich afternoon yesterday with Zahid Rajan and Zarina Patel, publishers of Awaaz, the progressive journal for voices of South Asian Kenyans. The kind of conversation that makes me think, What am I doing in the US, when there's so much I could be doing here?

Zarina captured the difference between her experience of being an activist in the US and an activist in Kenya:

Over there, there are so many causes and issues, you can get lost. But here we have a focus. We have a country that we want to change, we can see how to do it, we can see the direct, daily impact of everything we do.

It's what I've heard from others too, what I saw happen when I performed here in February. Nowhere else in the world can I generate the scale of response, the wave of impact, for the same effort invested. And yet, there's so much I still need to learn, so much work I still want to do in the US. I said to Zarina and Zahid yesterday:

I think I'll just be bouncing back and forth for the next few years. And if the time comes when it's really right for me to come back, I'll know.

smells and tastes

Early in the morning, Nairobi smells of rain and smoke. Later in the day, exhaust fumes take over, and a million cooking fires and charcoal stoves.

My parents feed me as if I'd just come off a month-long fast. Luscious mangoes, which my father has carefully ripened for me. With thin pliant spotted skins, so unlike the stiff chemically-engineered waxy coats of the mangoes you get in the US. Thick buttery avocadoes. Hot chapatis, straight from the clay griddle, gleaming with butter. Shiro (made with semolina) studded with raisins and almonds, gleaming with ghee. Chunky dhal fragrant with fresh chillies and ginger.

Mealtimes are a comical dance of both of them leaping up every few minutes to bring me something else - herbal salt, pickles, yoghurt - heaping more onto my plate, urging me to eat, eat, eat.

nairobi has never been this cold

everyone keeps saying. And it's true. If you'd ever told me I would come home and need long underwear with two layers on top for daytime, I'd have laughed. Last night I wore a hooded sweatshirt over my pyjamas to sleep in and still needed two duvets.

Europe is boiling, says my father sardonically, the Middle East is burning, and here we go from drought to floods to freezing. And the Americans still say there's no such thing as global warming.

After 29 hours of travel

Imola to Bologna to Rome to London to Dubai to Nairobi, I almost cried at my first mouthful of hot flaky aloo paratha and yoghurt at my parents' dining table.

Being Different Is A Right

Being Unequal Is A Crime.

The banner I performed under on stage in Guastalla, at the Un Po di Gange Festival last Friday. It was inscribed in Italian, French, English, German.

All my associations with the River Po were from reading Giovanni Guareschi's novels, set on its banks, as a girl. Performing there, on a rain-drenched night, for a multiracial, multigenerational audience of Indian, African, European migrants, activists, artists, local residents, Indophiles - was surreal, to say the least. And amazing. One of the things about my work that fills me with gratitude is how it constantly shakes up my view of the world and my preconceptions of my place in it.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Rome photo

With Maria, our wonderful generous hostess, on the balcony of her apartment in Garbatella, one of the older and lovelier neighborhoods of Rome.

survival rules of touring

Sleep at every available opportunity. Perfect the art of micro-napping.

Eat fruit and vegetables any opportunity you get. Whether or not you're hungry. It may be the last unprocessed, unpackaged food you see for the next 12 hours.

Never ever let your water bottle out of your sight. Never let it drop below half-full.

Don't ever stand in one place for more than a minute. If you're not sitting, you can be stretching, doing asanas, working out on the spot.

don't know where to start

Pulling my luggage over cobbled, Fellini-esque,eerily silent streets through Rome the night I arrived. Everyone was watching the Italy - Germany World Cup game. Then the whole city erupted into crazy jubilation at 11.30pm when Italy won.

My performance in Rome at Angelo Mai - and being told my work was like Picasso's: We don't always recognize the faces, but we recognize the life in his pictures. You perform life.

4-hour train ride to Bologna, through fields of sunflowers. Warm summer rain pounding down on us.
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