Friday, July 29, 2011

Leo Ni Siku Yangu

Living in France the past seven years I was at first annoyed, and then slowly became habituated to, the fact that numerous internet sites were in French. The reasons for this were multifaceted. After all I was living in France, so many times these were just sites put up by local stores or offices that were naturally in the local language. Others were big multinational sites though - like airfrance for example - that would ask me to input what country I resided in, and when I ticked France, would then make the assumption that I preferred my websites in French. These sites generally would provide no obvious option for residing in a country but preferring a foreign tongue. This is not a marginal niche market but rather at least 20% of the residents of France, so it was never clear to me if this was simply a bad or lazy assumption, or perhaps some insidious pro-French language law put in place in attempt to save la belle langue from demise due to the encroachment of the ever maligned anglo-saxon culture and tongue. Presumably the same law that forces French TV stations, unlike those in most other European countries, to screen American movies only in the dubbed version, without the possibility of switching to a second audio track in version original. One of the trickiest sites was google, which would figure out my Frenchness, based on my IP address I suppose, and send me automatically to with French menus, search returns prioritizing French sites, and even customized advertisements in my googlemail in French for French holidays and French blind dates. Well, I noticed today that Google has caught on to my recent move, and I now have the wonderful opportunity to be at first annoyed, and hopefully slowly habituated to, all my menus and search results in Swahili. If you are wondering what Leo Ni Siku Yangu means, just check out the picha below. That's all for now, my early morning coffee is growing cold and its time to Ondoka and go to work.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Handmade in Kenya

Tourists and expats love to pick up handmade mementos in Africa. My parent's house was full of Tswana baskets and cloth prints. African masks and woodcarvings adorn many a high end Parisian apartment wall. The Capetown airport is chockerblock with stores selling ‘Out of Africa’ furniture, handicrafts, salves and art. All this would suggest that the handmade African craft industry is a big moneymaker and a great boon to the local economy.  At the same time, all this conspicuous consumption can make it easy to forget another interesting side of the made in Africa cachet. Even in cosmopolitan Nairobi, where pretty much everything can be found in the local Nakumatt (Kenya’s version of Monoprix) people will still make things by hand rather than buy them, not to sell to tourists, but simply because it’s cheaper to do so. 

On moving into our voluminous empty new house Min asked me to check all the light fixtures, about half of which were not working, to determine whether the problem was just burned out bulbs, or something more involved. As luck would have it one of the very few useful items left in the garage was a handmade ladder! Probably it required less than 5 dollars cash investment to make this product, though at least a full day of someone’s time and effort. 

Handmade Kenyan Ladder
Mass Produced Italian Ladder

Because it was enormously heavy and would be a pain lugging around to all the light fixtures in our apartment Min bought an Italian import, a lightweight aluminum Rossetti  (the Lamborghini of ladders). This required an upfront cash investment of 80 dollars, but no time at all (since she was at the store anyway). Clearly if you are cash poor, handmade is simply the best way to obtain a ladder. I’d also argue, comparing these two photos, that one can even see why handmade can also be so much more aesthetically appealing, and thus the seeds of the handicrafts industry that exists today.

Handmade Kenyan Scaffolding
Yesterday Min and I took an early evening stroll in our neighborhood, the leafy green suburb of Runda. It reminded me of Bethesda Maryland in a way, one enormous house after another along a quiet, nearly traffic free crescent, with no sidewalks. Standing out towards the edge of town, against the backdrop of mature estates, we came across the construction site in this photo. Of course I don’t really know what this is, but I like to think it might be the future dream house of a local Kenyan who made his way up the handmade ladder far enough to be able to afford a plot of land in this nice safe suburb, but not quite far enough to hire an expensive contractor.  

I wonder if the artistic wooden scaffolding is the creation of “SELF” or of “INBRED ARCHITECTS”?