Archive for the ‘Kenya’ Category


Posted: November 13, 2014 in Africa, Habari: African Insights, Kenya

They are lean men, born in Africa and now in the last decade of their lives. Leathery, freckled skin folds over elbows and knees, their hair is mousy, white, dirty blond, usually worn long. They drive a motorbike from the 1940s, or a 40-year-old Land Cruiser, or maybe even an ancient Ford. They live at the simplest possible level – sometimes so poor that running water and electricity are real luxuries, forced to tinker endlessly with their broken down water pump, with greasy generators or with the dusty, rusty wires of their car engine, everything disassembling in parallel to their own bodily decay. The roof of their house leaks, in the evenings they read the discarded paper from yesterday accompanied by the solemn tik-tak of drips collecting in a metal sufuria. The curtains are mere shredded rags at their windows. The scant furniture is colonial issue brown wood from the 1950s -solid, ugly, functional. Sometimes animal skulls leer from the walls, or African artifacts crumble in a hand-carved bowl. A mask, a carving of an elephant, an antique beaded Turkana doll, a moldy leather chest containing – who knows what? The last love letters, the kitchen toto, photographs of the family farmstead 50 years ago, of a lost child.

Perhaps they are well off and own a magnificent old stone house in the upper class white areas of town – Muthaiga, Karen, Kitisuru, or “up-country” in Nanyuki or Eldoret. Spacious buildings with fireplaces, many rooms, carvings, masks, zebra skin rugs and leather chairs and an extensive library of tomes on African history or long-lost tribal rituals. They are not disturbed by current politics, nor are they involved. Their servants have been with them for decades, faithful and ever-smiling cooks, gardeners and maids. The co-dependency was established 60 years ago and there is no reason to change it. Who will die first is the secret question whispering in the folds of the heavy drapes.

 Perhaps they are foreigners – French, German, American, Polish – who arrived in Africa as young students or volunteers or even refugees and have contracted le mal d’Afrique – that insidious disease that infects so many people who have tasted the raw red dust of the highlands on a gritty tongue or become enamored of the indigenous ways of life and find in them some soul echo that resonates in their deepest being forever. They have renounced their homeland, forgotten their roots and found their path in the cluttered city or its outskirts, or in the last remaining areas of bush, committed to performing the good works that ought to make life better for the African but serve also to alienate him ever more from his own roots.

 There are the women, too. War correspondents who have traveled the length and breadth of Africa, found their dark lovers here,    adopted African children. Animal lovers who have devoted their lives to the rPa with African staff 3escue of one or other species, whose homestead features tame ostrich, giraffe or hyena. The women who came with their men, lost their men, maybe their sons as well, and stayed, hardened, saved by their gardens, saved by their cook, saved by the country club and the chocolate desert, immune to the ravages of their sun-drenched skin.

There are those, like me, compelled to document this Africa that shakes us at the end of a mighty pole, like the fluffy yellow mimosa, subject to the winds of time. We write books, make films, take photographs, publish academic tracts, speak Swahili poorly, sell our work elsewhere, endlessly fascinated, debating, questioning, worrying. We leave, we return, we have other homes, other loyalties, yet we cannot break free. We yearn to truly belong, we envy those who do, yet we enjoy the air of romantic exoticism and wonder expressed abroad when we say, “I am a White African.”Iki, Oscar, shooting

There are the young ones, third or fourth generation, born of British farmer or South African Boer families. At home in the wild, consummate lovers of nature, of wildlife, of the early morning dew on the starling’s wing and of the rusty smell of earth before the rains. They may hunt as well as they start a new business. They may organize a music festival as well as they run a farm. They are ignorant of racial divides and move within a totally integrated circle of African, Asian and European friends. Theirs is an uncertain future, for they have recognized corruption as the great enemy of the nation that does not spare even the fourth generation White African. Could their land be confiscated? Will they – or even their parents – ever get citizenship? A legitimate work permit?A resident’s permit? How many times can a person who has lived in Kenya for 50 years, is married to a Kikuyu lady and supports three charitable foundations travel over to Tanzania and back just to get a “tourist” visa? And what is the end result of the frustration felt by White Africans who support whole families of African employees, pay school and medical fees, behave as good citizens, even though they aren’t, and generally act as full-fledged, contributing citizens of this nation, even though they are not? Will reverse racism force them to take drastic measures to preserve what they have inherited or built? Will the New Kenya – this vibrant, explosive, truly African nation, accept the new breed of White African as an integrated part of society? Or will they be forever dreamers, spending a lifetime merely passing through on the way to somewhere else, nostalgic for the unspoiled lands of their grandfathers, for the crackling photo albums of bygone days, for the faded pictures of Colonial times shared on Facebook?

Defined as a person of European descent who is born and raised in Africa, the very designation “White African” may disappear altogether, for as time moves on and youth connects with the world through social media, there may truly no longer be the need for such divisive descriptions. May we come to a place where an African is an African, valid to the state of the nation no matter what color his skin may be or where his original birthright finds its roots? Is this a desirable condition for White Africans? Would we be as proud to call ourselves Africans as we are to call ourselves White Africans? What old ghosts might wave their flags in surrender? What new demons might make themselves visible in the corner of our eye? And if we are to call ourselves simply “Kenyans,” where is the validation that makes us so?

These are the questions we face if Africa is our true home, the place where our soul lives, the irreplaceable font of our dreams, our work and our daily encounters with the “other.” These are the questions that the Kenyan power structure must ask itself if “white” is indeed included in the “One Kenya, One People” rainbow that makes for such a facile slogan. Or is white, after all, the one invisible colour today, left out of the kaleidoscope vision for the nation’s future? After all, following the famed advertisement for Omo detergent – “Omo Washes Whiter!” – we used to joke that “Jomo Washes Whiter.” Could it be that we were entirely washed out? I say “No!” to that suggestion. It is up to White Africans ourselves to define our identity within Kenya, to be proud citizens even without citizenship and to share the nation’s future, whatever it may be. We may be the only drops of milk in the Kenyan coffee – but it’s damn good coffee!!

I come from Kenya and have spent my life writing about Africa (see my website at for information on my books and films). In the past two years, I’ve completed two documentaries on African topics. The first, THE SWAHILI BEAT, outlines the fascinating history of East Africa’s Swahili coast through the music and dance of its indigenous people. The second film, WALKING WITH LIFE – HUMAN RIGHTS, ISLAM AND REVOLUTION IN SENEGAL, documents the profound impact of Tostan, an organization teaching human rights in Senegal and other African countries.

In both East Africa and Senegal, Africans are generally suspicious of white people with movie cameras. It is not only their governments that tend to frown upon such activities – in Kenya, you must have a permit to even be seen with a movie camera – but also individuals who are rightly fed up with being exploited for their exotic images with no return to themselves. For this reason, I always travel and work alone. It’s just me – a single woman – and my two cameras. One is an ancient Sony TRV30, a prosumer product that does a truly excellent job and is small enough to fit into my purse. I have often used it secretly, when I feared arrest or attack. The other is the wonderful Sony VX2100 which cannot be so easily hidden. Unfortunately for me, both these cameras use only miniDV and HD is the required format today. Nevertheless, they both produced excellent color, especially in low-light situations, and the VX2100 allows an operator to switch lens filters at the touch of a button – very useful in tropical, blazing sunlight conditions.

In making THE SWAHILI BEAT, my working knowledge of the Swahili language was most helpful. I simply wandered about and acted like a tourist, smiling nicely and telling people that I was filming an educational film that would help audiences abroad to more fully understand the area. Most people were eager to participate, and I always paid musicians as much as I could. In Nairobi, however, I was almost arrested as I attempted to film activities on the street outside the main Post Office. A policeman tried to grab my camera and threatened to arrest me. I wished him a good day and walked quietly away. That taught me to do most of my filming off the streets – from the roof of a parking garage, for example, or through an office window where I could not be seen by authorities. I had already learned from other filmmakers there that doing it “right” and trying to get a proper permit to film was such a drawn-out, unpredictable nightmare that it is not worth the trouble.

In Senegal, I was almost always accompanied by someone from Tostan, the organization whose work I was documenting, and as long as they were with me, I had the full cooperation of everyone we met. As soon as I tried to film on my own, though, for example, in the streets and markets of Dakar, people yelled at me, shook their fists and warned me to stop. Even when I was filming through the window of a moving car, anyone who noticed became extremely aggressive.

For this film, I wanted to document Senegalese in Paris. Innocently, I tried to shoot at the African Market at Chateau Rouge and within three minutes, was surrounded by an angry mob of Senegalese and other West Africans. I finally understood that they thought I might be an undercover agent filming illegal immigrants and I had to move away fast.

Another major issue on both films was NOISE. In African villages, there is a constant hum of chatter between people, punctuated by sheep bleating, cows mooing, camels farting, children screaming, women banging pots as they cook, chickens screeching….it is extremely difficult to find a quiet corner anywhere if, say, you want to conduct an interview. In Senegal, I had to recruit people to try and keep the curious children away from the open windows of houses where I was filming – usually a bag of sweets did the trick – and even indoors, doors were always slamming, someone was singing, a radio or TV was on, people bustled in and out. African life is not like ours – they do not live alone and isolated, but surrounded by extensive family and hospitality is de rigeur. In addition, on the flat plains where I worked there was always wind – sometimes stronger, sometimes just a breeze, but a real detriment to good sound quality recording. While filming in Senegal, I had brought along a huge fuzzy windshield for my shotgun microphone, only to find when I used it for the first time that some kind of worm had got into the fuzz and eaten most of it away! It just dropped off in ugly wormy chunks when I pulled it over my mic. So out in the field, I was left with only the foam protector that came with the mic, my socks and my shirt. No need to go any further – I borrowed someone’s blue turban, took off every piece of my clothing that was decent to remove and wrapped my mic in 8 inches of cloth. It helped – but made the mic cumbersome, lopsided and heavy. Finally, I paid a few tall young men to stand around me holding up the stiff posters that the organization used for teaching human rights. They actually formed the best windshield of all, and so, like a Roman battle formation, we moved in unison across the plains and through the villages. I used the same technique when interviewing people who were sitting or standing in one place. I got excellent results!

The main thing to remember when filming in Africa or any foreign country is to respect the people and their beliefs and fears. If someone doesn’t want to be filmed, don’t film them. Should you get arrested or have your equipment confiscated, don’t expect the same legal rights and help that you would get in the USA or Europe. Most of all, people want to feel that they are not being merely exploited but are helping their own people in a good cause. I made WALKING WITH LIFE over a period of three years, visiting Senegal three times. The first time, I rarely had to pay anyone for permission to film. The last time, in 2008, I was forking out money left, right and center. Tostan, the organization I was filming, had won two major humanitarian awards earlier that year that brought many foreign journalists to the country. People were tired of being filmed and interviewed ad nauseam and receiving no money for their time and efforts, nor ever seeing the results of their cooperation. I made them a promise that no matter what, I would donate a finished copy of the film to Tostan and ask that it be shown in their regional centers around the country. So if you’re filming an NGO,make sure that the people who help you get credit and that the people you filmed are given an opportunity to see your work and themselves in it.