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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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!


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.


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.






Mombasa to Nairobi by Bus

Nairobi — I asked several people what I thought would be a relatively straighforward question: Approximately how long is the 460 km bus journey from Mombasa to Nairobi?


The answers I got varied wildly, from five to six hours, to six or seven, and even seven to eight. Today it wound up taking just under 11, thanks largely to the traffic we crawled through as we reached the edges of Nairobi, where it took about two hours to cover the final 20 kilometres or so. Friday afternoon and early evening traffic is quite dense in the Kenyan capital, even worse, according to my cab driver, at the end of the month when people get paid and scurry out of town.


But it you’ve got the time and patience, it’s certainly worth riding through this bit of flyover country. (For a point of comparison, the flight between Kenya’s two largest airports was about 45 minutes.) From Mombasa, much of the first two-and-a-half to three hours will be extremely bumpy and slow over a dirt road, thanks to a badly needed construction project (it’s a brand new highway that’s being built, actually) to fit the trucks pulling containers from the Mombasa port. Thankfully, most of those –at least a few hundred anyway– were held up at the Customs and Transit station in Mariakim, about an hour out of Mombasa, where truckers are greeted with a large billboard that reads, “Stop Bribery, Save our Roads.” But the road is quite good the rest of the way, allowing time for a relatively brief nap or two and plenty of sightseeing.


Along the way you pass dry rivers and creeks, ghost towns, ruins of modest hotels, a few prisons, lots of goats, fewer cows, and plenty of baobab trees, to me, the king of all trees. Locals wave as the bus passes, oblivious the dust and deisel sputtered their way, and eager hawkers descend upon the bus at every stop, selling everything from nuts and water to marinated baobab seeds to bananas and potato chips.

This particular bus stopped twice: a brief stop at Voi, a dusty town still in the coast district, and again near near Mtito Andei, where most of the passengers enjoyed a modest but good lunch of rice and extremely well done beef (with a drink, 185 KES/2 EUR/2.75 USD).


There are apparently a few other companies operating this route several times daily; I picked Coastline for no apparent reason other than they seemed to be the only one with an office in Central Mombasa’s gritty main bus hub. 1000 KES (11 EUR/14.50 USD) one-way for regular bus, 1200 (13 EUR/17.50 USD) for the air-conditioned version. It was hot on board but not uncomfortably so, so don’t fear if you can’t get a seat on the AC’d line.




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Jesus has a fort…

… and it’s here in Mombasa. Construction of the massive structure –named Fort Jesus– was begun by the Portuguese in 1593 following the design of an Italian architect, it’s built in the shape of a human figure, and Jesus apparently did little to protect the Portuguese invaders as they tried to maintain control over the following 140 years or so.

[Updated 05-Jul-2014: The museum’s official website is here, listing current admission fees and other news.]

Over the course of its first few centuries, possession of the fort changed hands nine times between the Portuguese and Omani Arabs to control what was then –and remains today– an important Indian Ocean trade route. It’s an imposing figure, and getting to it back then was not particularly easy. Facing the open sea, it’s surrounded by a long reef which managed to take out quite a few ships. The fort itself is built on a thick foundation of natural coral.

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There was plenty of raping and ravaging –the order of the day, of course– for which the ambitious 27-year-old captain of the fort, Francisco de Seixas de Cabriene was eventually given the Order of Christ by the Portuguese King after he saw to it that a mass number of locals were executed –some women and young children were spared– for their uppity behavior.  Omani Sultans laid seige again in the waning years of the 17th Century, and after most of the Portuguese inside the fort died of starvation and plague, the fort fell in 1698, and after one more brief intrusion in 1727, the Portuguese left for good.

Soon after the British took over in the latter part of the 19th century, it was turned into a prison. If you ever make it here, be sure to visit the waiting room for those sentenced to hang. After several days in total darkness in a hole hollowed out from the coral foundation, death probably didn’t seem like such a bad option.

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It’s been a museum since 1958, and absolutely worth a visit. Admission for non east-African is 800 KES (about 9 Euro), and I would strongly suggest you accept the services of any one of the number of registered guides who will swarm you as you approach. The 1000 KES or so will be a terrific investment, and includes a tour of the Old Town which begins just opposite of the fort entrance. One of the main buildings houses a large exhibit room which is also worth a look, and provides a great escape from the heat.





Mombasa, Kenya – I’m still being held captive by work here in this heavily-guarded resort for a few more days, so thought I’d post a few pics of some others with whom I’m sharing my captivity.

white_sands_monkey.jpgThe first is one of an extended family of monkeys that freely roam this sprawling compound. He’s got a stump for a left arm, doesn’t have a name and likes to hang out in front of a gift show run by an extremely friendly third generation Indian couple.

papaya_head.jpgThe second is a lizard I’ve seen the past few days that’s been hanging out on or near my veranda who I decided to nickname papayahead.

30 Second Third World National Police Escort Advisor

2007-03-23-07-mombasa4.jpgMombasa, Kenya – If you’ve never been in a car, bus or van that’s had the privilege of having a national police escort in a third world country, here are a few survival tips to take to heart:

You have to give credit where it’s due, and these guys know how to drive. But bear in mind that this ain’t no ride at EuroDisney. The rundown cars, beat-up trucks and rickety three-wheeled taxis that are abruptly ordered aside after being nearly driven off the road, and the people in them, are all real. So are the pedestrians and those pulling carts full of bananas and papayas to market.

2007-03-23-07-mombasa1.jpgDon’t be too freaked out by the humiliating look of terror that takes over the face of an oncoming driver who’s been pointed to and scolded by the heavily armed police officer as he speeds by. They’re used to it, and they’re probably just playing along.

2007-03-23-07-mombasa2.jpgWhen a policeman firmly suggests that you don’t take his picture, he’s not joking.

Sit back and enjoy and don’t be a back seat driver. Your driver knows as well as you do that the traffic light he just sped through was red.

escort1.jpgThank your driver. He’s only doing his job. It’s not his fault that some of the people he’s forced to follow are mildly insane when they get behind the wheel. He’s got little choice in the matter.


whitesandsview1.jpgThe sprawling palm tree-lined private beach that belongs to the White Sands Hotel and Resort is certainly a sight and setting to behold. The most invigorating breeze one can imagine is blowing from the Indian Ocean, the sands are indeed white, and the stars on this night too numerous to count. For many holiday makers –it’s high season and there are many– it’s an ideal setting. But the problem, if you want to characterize it as such –and I certainly do– is that, besides the ample supply of Tusker beer, this isn’t really Kenya. I could be sitting on a Club Med veranda in Haiti, Nicaragua, Tanzania or Sri Lanka. Or Florida, for that matter. The primary, indeed only language spoken is English. The music coming from the scratchy speakers at the beachside cocktail bars is British and American pop, there’s nothing particularly Kenyan about the cuisine on offer at the various open air restaurants, and nothing is particularly cheap. In short, everything about this heavily-secured tourist compound makes you easily forget that you are Mombasa. Some people like that, but it’s not my cup of tea. I’m stuck here for a few more days but am already looking forward to moving on.

2007-03-23-07-mombasa3.jpgThat said, the throngs that such a resort employs are charming, friendly, knowledgeable, and extremely hospitable. Even the gun-toting security guards, polite as can be, greet you with a smile. Earlier I was showing Ernest, the young man on night watch on my end of the beach, some pictures of Slovenia, and he’s now a big fan.

“Oh my,” he said, his gun resting against his long skinny left leg, “such a very, very beautiful place.”