In the Kawangware slum, Nairobi

Kawangware Revisited II (Pic du Jour)

This was taken in the Kawangware estate, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, so by default among the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. Densely populated, it’s home to more than half a million people. When I prepped for this photo of two players on a local club soccer team, they were stoic, taking on a very, very serious pose. Then I asked them to smile and they quickly, effortlessly obliged.

Nairobi, Kenya, 01-Apr 2007
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Kawangware Revisited

I was looking for a photo for today’s #SunsetSunday on twitter and remembered this scene at an informal trash dump in the Kawangware slum, or Estate, in Nairobi. Kawangware was then the second largest urban slum in the Kenyan capital which by default makes it one of the largest in Africa.

Shooting into the sun left most of the picture underexposed, but I still kind of like the effect. Or maybe I think that just because I was there. Thoughts?

I spent the day with a few colleagues who grew up and spent much of their lives in Kawangware. Five years and one month have passed and I still think about that day often. About these impromptu dumps, the desperation, the stench, the poverty. But also about the hope, the hospitality and the smiles. The smiles were everywhere. Here are a few:

When I prepped for this photo, they struck a very stoic, serious pose. I asked them to smile and they happily obliged.

A few more pics from Kawangware are on my flickr stream here.

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Collection of Vintage Luggage Labels

This is a luggage label for the Nile Hotel in Wadi Halfa, the Sudanese border town at the only overland crossing with Egypt. It’s part of a massive collection of similar vintage labels on a flickr stream cleverly entitled, Luggage Labels by e-effe, with 3728 currently on display. The stream’s last update was over a year ago, so if you’ve got any to add to his collection, I’m sure he’d be happy to hear from you.

Of course, I wasn’t looking for luggage labels, but rather recent photos of the Nile Hotel after coming across a mention of it in a Lonely Planet blog post. The city sits at the south end of Lake Nubia (Lake Nasser to Egyptians), at the end of the once-a-week 16-hour ferry journey to and from Aswan. I’ll be heading south towards Khartoum from there late next year in the early part of my RTW, and was curious about lodging options. And how long I might stay. Given the apparently once-a-week travel options in either direction, my choices will be limited to either one day or one week.

And I did find several pics of the hotel. Here’s a standard room shot. And Michael Palin spent day 63 of his 1991 Pole to Pole trip there as well. A week shouldn’t be a problem.

Rabat notebook

Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, Rabat

What I’ll mostly remember about my first visit to Morocco will be the reception: two stops by policemen one afternoon, and a pair of roadside random checks on another.

Let me be clear: I’m not in any way suggesting that this north African Kingdom, the USA’s closest ally in the region whose No. 2 industry is tourism, is a police state. This is merely anecdotal evidence underscoring my uncanny ability to attract police wherever I go.

I spent the majority of my 72 hours (4-6 June 2011) on the ground in Rabat working, sequestered in a sprawling five star resort compound on a beautiful stretch of Atlantic coast beach. This isn’t a complaint about my accommodations – I’m just not generally a big fan of places like this, even when my cozy room is larger than some apartments I’ve lived in.  There’s little differentiating these all-inclusive escapes to give them their own unique sense of place. I could have been dropped blindfolded here by helicopter and I’d have little clue as to whether I was in Morocco or Mombasa. Or somewhere in the south Pacific or Caribbean.

This compound, protected by gun-toting guards at each end, happens to be about 30 kilometers south of the Moroccan capital. (Just up the road is one of King Mohammad VI’s sprawling palaces – this one has the famous golf course – where a soldier stands guard every 100 feet or so.) But it’s a world away from interaction with typical Moroccans. I hate to think that some guests at the L’Amphitrite Palace Hotel never leave their comfortable holiday confines.

I managed to get away briefly on the Saturday afternoon, a four-hour visit to the city proper, which included pleasant strolls through the vast market area of the Medina, the grounds surrounding the impressive Mausoleum of Mohammed V, and the hilltop Kasbah of the Udayas. It was at the latter that a plainclothes officer made his presence known.

He was straight out of film: appearing from the edges of the scene, wearing midnight black-tinted sunglasses, a folded newspaper in hand. He asked my driver/guide who I was and what I was taking pictures of. The encounter took a more relaxed turn when I showed him my credentials for the event I was in town to cover. He then went on to explain how some visitors and tourists are “very aggressive” with their snapshots and videos which too often and too easily wind up on Youtube and Facebook. That was the second time I heard a Youtube and Facebook reference that day.

The first came at the Mausoleum about an hour earlier, where, following the lead and joining with other visitors who were standing directly beside me, I snapped a few shots of one of the ceremonial guards standing watch at one of the stunning building’s entrances. Taking my guide aside, he explained in a painstakingly long and detailed diatribe that locals taking pictures of him was different than visitors taking pictures. After checking my passport, he bid farewell. Unlike the plainclothes officer, his goodbye didn’t come wrapped in a smile.

The Arab Spring hasn’t blown through Morocco as forcefully as it has its neighbors to the east, but that doesn’t mean that all the King’s men aren’t dutifully keeping an eye on things. The roadside checks I saw were set up at regular intervals, both along the four-lane toll highways and the local two-lane byways. On both sides of the road, strips of metal spikes sat at the ready. The officers who stopped us there were extremely polite, pleasant and professional as they checked my driver’s documents. After engaging in some small talk, they allowed us to proceed.

The heightened security was put in place, my guide said, after the 28 April bombing in a café in Marrakech killed 16 people and injured another 23. It was the deadliest blast in Morocco in eight years. According to the national news agency, an al-Qaida group took responsibility for the remote-controlled nail bomb.

The incident was a major setback for Mohammed VI, who has managed to placate – for now – demonstrators with promises of constitutional reform. When he ascended the throne in 1999, he promised to take on poverty and corruption, to create jobs, and improve Morocco’s human rights record. (More in his wiki entry). But his reputation took a bit of a battering last December when cables in the Wikileaks dump suggested that corruption in the Royal family – Forbes estimates that Mohammed’s wealth tops $2 billion and that he shells out nearly $1 million per day on Palace operations – is alive and well and remains standard operating procedure.

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There was little time for sight-seeing, but what little I saw was certainly well worth it. The Mausoleum of Mohammed V, built in 1971, is stately and beautiful, situated across a square from the 12th C. Hassan Tower, an unfinished minaret. The square itself is an unfinished Mosque.

The  Kasbah of the Udayas provides nice views towards the neighboring Salé to the north and northeast, and the open Atlantic and some public beaches to the west. The walk to the top through narrow streets lined with blue and white-washed houses is pleasant, as are the few street musicians.

But it’s the Medina, or old city, that was most interesting to me. I didn’t do any shopping, but enjoyed the browsing, the scents, the sounds, the bloody butcher shot and fish market stalls. Don’t leave without having some absolutely exquisite mint tea.

A few more pics from Rabat on my flickr stream here.

Music in the video is Destroy! by ¡para!helion. CC/Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License

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Some recent news updates:
21-June-2011 – Al Jazeera: Democracy protesters face violence in Morocco
25-Apr-2011 – Al Jazeera: Inside Story (video, 25min)

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Kenge Kenge’s Obama For Change

Via World Music Network comes this song by Kenyan band Kenge Kenge, their humble tribute to Kenya’s current favorite son of the diaspora.

Song in both Luo and English, the music features the oruto, a single-stringed fiddle. Whether the lyrics do anything for you or not, it is undeniably mesmerizingly danceable. If Obama wins, Kenge Kenge really should get an invite to an inaugural ball.

The band, which formed in the 1990s in the western part of the country, shot much of the video during last summer’s WOMAD tour, and it also features clips of Obama and wife Michelle dancing along during a visit to Kenyan villages.

A little more about the band here, where you can also purchase a download. More samples from their CD, Introducing Kenge Kenge, are here.

Here’s another nice ditty (minus Obama), Otenga.

Gadling Photo of the Day!

This pic I took of a humble butcher shop in Voi, Kenya, last week was selected as Gadling’s photo of the day yesterday, almost exactly two months to the day since this pic of Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj was picked. Excellent, thanks! Am already looking forward to June!

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Voi was the first bus stop on the Mombasa-Nairobi route, a small dusty town with a busy market and a few such butcheries where I couldn’t quite muster the bravery to shop.

If you’re not familiar with Gadling, check it out. Especially now that Kelly, who lists Piran as one of her favorite places in the world, is back on the Gadling team to continue her ‘One for the Road‘ travel book reviews.
 

Kawangware.

On Sunday I visited Kawangware, one of the biggest slums in Nairobi. By most estimates, about half a million people live in this densely populated area of a few square miles, but no one seems to have an exact figure, and officials don’t really seem to care enough to even try to count. Officially, many slum dwellers are squatters, thus many of these areas lack the most basic services –all services, for the most part. Many here have no running water, no electricity, no garbage pick-up.

The squalor is numbing, the smells at times are gagging. With few communal toilets, human waste oftentimes winds up in plastic bags, which eventually wind up scattered in the dirt makeshift streets or in any of a number of larger makeshift dumps where cows, pigs, goats and chickens rummage for food.

A few stories are forthcoming. In the meantime, here are a few pictures; more on my flickr page.

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