Calling all Kenyans

May 6, 2010

Jenn, Bill and Komande photographed the 13 cairns around Mpala Ranch and found four more. The cairns seem to pop up everywhere, but it takes a keen eye to distinguish a random pile of rocks from a burial cairn. They usually have a reinforced edge around the perimeter, but this isn’t always obvious.

Peter, from the Mpala Research Center sits with James and Robert from the nearby village.

The clouds were finally cooperating and parted to give us a clear view of Mount Kenya. At 16,000 feet, it’s the second highest peak in Africa next to Kilamajaro. I was finally able to interview Kathleen in front of it’s azure majesty and I got some more footage of Mulu talking about stone took technology. It’s hard to get them to stop laughing at the thought of being taped sometimes. The perfect spot to put Kathleen was unfortunately marked with a big pile of elephant dung. This distraction forced us to record several takes because Kathleen insisted on giggling.

We drove back to Nairobi and stopped in Karatina again for lunch, this time at the Ibis Hotel. Every time Mulu goes to a restaurant in a rural town, he can’t help but add up the prices of the entire entree list to make of point of how cheap it is. So our collective obsessive compulsion led us to determine that the entire list of 21 entrees would only cost you 6,121 Ksh (Kenyan shillings) or $83. The list of 19 “snacks” including samosa, sponge cake, spanish omelette would cost a total of 1,320 shillings or $17.

I was enjoying my ugali with peas when a giant truck passed by the window pulling a flat bed with about five people dancing with an oddly Up-with-people sort of theatrical zeal. Some very loud, distorted pop music was coming from the truck. It was the Independent Interim Electoral Commission trying to get the people of Karatina to get out the vote. Paul told me they were playing a patriotic song called “Calling all Kenyans.” I was already aware of Paul’s pessimism about politics and social justice, and I could already see his expression starting to sour at the sound of this inspirational truck going by. Apparently they’ve been trying to pass a draft of the constitution for the past twenty years. Mulu tempered the pessimism by saying that no change has ever come without conflict.

Just then, the news came on about the constitution draft. Some political figure had said that a “no” vote would be a vote against the poor. I couldn’t really get a clear answer about the whole thing, so I decided to stick to asking questions about subsistence farming, swahili, and stone tool technology. The news had interrupted a Nigerian movie which was in English, but I still couldn’t understand a word of it. For about 20 minutes, a woman was waling with her arms in the air. Her histrionics were interrupted only by a cartoonishly painted shaman guy who seemed to be giving her bad news that sent her into another crying jag that involved more wild gesturing. Mulu said these plots always involve witchcraft or a church minister gone astray. Sure enough, the next scene involved a minister doing something he oughtn’t.

I wandered around the busy dirt parking lot while everyone mustered in the usual desultory way. Kathleen would disappear, then someone would go look for her and she’d reappear. Then someone would go look for the person who’d gone to look for Kathleen and start the whole vicious cycle all over again. I stood there amid the back and forth of people and cars and I didn’t see a single mazungu face. The guys told us that mazungu means “foreigner,” but more specifically, it means “funny-colored people.” Occasionally someone would look at me or do a double take. It was more curiosity or confusion than anything. I didn’t get the feeling that I was the target of any mazungu misgivings, more like a walking opportunity to buy bags of tea or the odd fake Kenyan passport.

We finally got back in the car and headed up the road. People wait in clumps in the most unthinkable spots on the road to get picked up by the mutatas. And the mutatas are randomly painted or festooned with vinyl stickers that usually declare some positive message like Christian slogans or the odd platitude like “Pleasure and pain are all aspects of the game.” One had “Jesus Rocks” in a scratchy font that I imagine might be called something like “Attitude italic.” Another one just had MADONNA slanted across the entire side. Another one had “Texas Ranger” stuck to the front windshield in such large letters, it’s a wonder the driver could see anything. I guess he was willing to sacrifice the safety of his passengers in order to express his feelings about Texas.

Another phenomenon was the cinderblock houses along the side of the road painted with ads for Safaricom (one of the main cell phone companies), Nescafe, and Coke. They were all hand painted. I wondered if these companies paid the person living in these places or maybe they just got a free paint job.