How I Spent My Holiday, Part II

It has definitely taken forever to finish writing Part two! Blame it on my new found success at Spider Solitaire (Difficult- Four Suits)- for years I have not managed to finish a game, then suddenly I complete three back-to-back games, so of course, I have to try and replicate my earlier successes. Plus, I had to deal with a ‘situation’ involving a volunteer position that I hold. Many moons later, here it is.

Nobody on this planet can convince me that I am not blessed with awesome friends. The majority of my friends were made before adulthood- either in primary school or high school. When I first got to high school, it was such a shock to my system! There I was, fourteen, and totally alone in what felt like a foreign country. My mother is of the tough-love school, OK, that’s not true: she is of the realistic-love school of parenting. So here I was,  at her alma mater, ready to start high school. Note, this is after living at home, good, hot meals each evening, hot showers and never really staying away overnight for longer than a few days, and always with family or friends. I remember, after my mother drove off, standing all alone in a sensible blue cotton skirt with a matching striped blue t-shirt (she had taken me shopping in town for ‘simple school clothes’). I escaped being assigned to mummy’s old dorm only because I spoke up to request a different one. I had no idea what to expect. I knew this was a school full of smart girls so there was the fear of not matching wits with the best in the country. There were the stories from my sisters’ own high school experiences that promised: catty girls, strict teachers, fun events, boys, the works! Who would have known that the next four years would be so meaningful? Even better- in the years since high school, I have made friends with other classmates that I might not have been so close to back then. In school, your life revolved around your housemates, classmates and the students in your extra-curricula activities, so there were people who were in my year but totally different classes or subjects who I knew by name, but rarely interacted with until after school.

When it comes to trusting people, I trust these gals (and the guys too- that is for another story) with my life. We had brunch just before I left. It was like plugging back into this ‘Big Power Source in the Sky’. We laughed (a lot), got caught up on our live- during brunch I’d lean back and think, “who are we? How did we get here?” because it was so strange yet so familiar…I got to hang out with two of my desk mates

Digression: Most people had 1 or 2 (max) desk mates through high school. I may have broken the record for most desk mates in our class. My first desk mate was M______. When T______ joined our school, I begged M______ to switch places with T_____ who became my desk mate (I knew her from before)…but that desk mate-ship was short lived. T_____ was driving me nuts scratching her head (don’t ask…but it really got to me, so for the sake of our friendship we parted ways). Next came J______, a meek, quiet girl who could really draw (as I discovered in Art class). But that didn’t last. I moved once again to share with F_____ who was really nice- nowadays I hear she is quite the chatterbox over at the bank she works at…go figure…when she was my deskmate she was quite the quiet person. With a good sense of humour. Then there was C______ my geography class desk mate, K________ my history class desk mate.

One of the interesting things we talked about was the transition from living at home to being the ‘mistress of the household’ Kenya-style. More importantly, the whole transition to being the employer of a maid has been full of adventure. The evolution from new employer to hardened, tough negotiator was tougher for some than others- I mean, what do you do when you have named a decent (by Nairobi standards) salary, provided the new employee with a relatively cushy maid’s job (by Nairobi standards) – no kids, little laundry, no demands to cook, then she ups and pilfers small small items from you two days into the job? It was quite the eye opener for me…basically the consensus was that there is more to maids in Nairobi than just  finding a well-recommended one or offering good terms of employment…it is a mysterious alchemy that few people ever master.  I now understand why my mother decreed that she would never employ a maid after years of trial and error- we had some maids who stayed with us for years, who were really kind to us as kids, or some who were really good cooks, but between the good ones, there were the ones who left for holidays never to return, the one who burned food all the time (my dad joked that she only knew two settings: Hi and Off…after months of training), the ones who got pregnant (and kept it secret or denied it, until it was too obvious to deny), the list is not as long as some households, but nevertheless, it is full of interesting experiences.

This time around I didn’t eat out as much but one thing happened that really made my day! We were invited to go out and eat meat with some friends a few days after Easter and so we trotted off to one of those joints that most Nairobi neighbourhoods have for our lunch. When we got there, a waiter came to take our drinks orders, so I requested a Gin and soda. He then asked me, “Quarter ama half?” which left me totally bamboozled. Half what? E. and E. (his friend) both suggested I order a Quarter, promising me that I’d soon figure out what was meant by this mysterious code. Sometimes when I am in Nairobi I feel like an alien- and I think people think I am being an alien. Sigh. Anyway, a few minutes later, the waiter came back with a tray full of drinks, my Soda Water (a full bottle, so that wasn’t it), and behind it, was my very own personal wee bottle of Gin!!! I was so tickled!!! Apparently, in a bid to avoid accusations of watered-down drinks and the like, enterprising bar owners now give you the drink straight up to do with or mix as you please (bartenders at the more upscale drinking establishments would probably sniff at this idea)! How novel! I was very amused and impressed by the whole idea- nobody can ever accuse Kenyans of lacking innovation!

Something else that was quite interesting was the 24 hour shopping concept that was introduced a while ago. I liked being able to go to Nakumatt at strange hours for anything, but I was more amused by some of my fellow shoppers at those times. You would see these people in near-zombie state, pushing carts around in a desultory fashion, reaching for items seemingly blindly off the shelves. I wondered where they worked that 2 a.m. was the most convenient time to shop for them. Still, I guess they might have thought the same about me, except I was too bright-eyed and bushytailed to be a shift worker home from the office. Next door to Nakumatt Prestige, there is a coffee shop called Books First (weird name if you ask me). For some reason it was now operating as a full-fledged bar in the evenings. I was really irritated by the loud music scratchily blasting out of their bad sound system until the wee hours. Even worse were the loud crowds spilling out of the place most nights. From my personal observation, Kenyans go out to bars to drink (a bit too often if you ask me, but that’s not for this post) and talk. When they want to dance there are clubs for that. So, how about turning the music down to conversational levels? It was just irritating. One Saturday morning I went shopping and dropped into Books First for a coffee fix and as I waited, I noticed a guy slumped over in one of the booths, dead asleep. At the same moment, the day manager (I guess) came in and asked the waiter who the guy was in the corner. Their exchange was comical to say the least:

Manager: “Nani huyo amelala hapo?”

Waiter: “Alikuwa hapa kutoka jana, akaachwa na marafiki zake, amelala na hakuna mtu alitaka kumwamsha”

Manager (loudly, shaking his head): “Amelipa? Kama amelipa, basi aamshwe an afukuzwe hapa! Sitaki kumwona hapa tena!!! Hii sii lodging.”

The poor waiter had to go over and shake the guy awake. The man woke up, drool all over his face, suit coat rumpled, his face quite perplexed as to where he was, and then, he bolted out of the booth staggering off into the morning pulling his coat around him. Isn’t that sad? I bet he didn’t leave work with the intention of passing out at Prestige Plaza, but there he woke up. Shame.

Clearly the employees at Books First did not sign on to work at a bar, but that’s what they were now: bouncers and bartenders rather than waiters. I don’t think the Books First-as-a-bar is a well implemented idea…but then, I guess turning your joint into a raucous nightspot is the way to pad your bottom line, consequences be damned eh?

Shopping in Nairobi:

This was so interesting (and much fun) that it deserves a heading of its own. Apart from the usual stocking up on Tea Leaves, Coffee, Spices and Chevra, I wanted to buy some clothes designed and made in Kenya, say a kanga dress or something. I spoke to several people about getting something tailored but I decided that there was no time to get an outfit made before I left, so I took the recommendations of stores to go to and set out. At Yaya Centre, I was heading to Kiro on the top floor but I stopped to browse around several other stores in the mall. My conclusion: There is too much overpriced, imported, synthetic fabric on sale for my liking in some of the stores, and the ones that had linen or anything half decent were overpriced and did not offer good value. Any wonder you would rather go to a tailor or wait until Mama so-and-so returns from a buying trip in Turkey, or brave the stalls at all these ‘exhibitions’ (why are they called Exhibitions? Of what? Sigh). Anyway, one store had these frothy dresses complete with sequined bodices that you should only ever wear if entered in the Ice Dance competition at an Olympics or something…I had to leave the store before I broke out in unstoppable giggles. Having had my fill, I headed off to Kiro, stopping at this store nearby that has kanga dresses. Sadly they didn’t have anything in my size (petite lengths are hard to find in the best of circumstances), but the did have interesting fabrics. I can’t say much about the fit because I didn’t try anything on. Nice colours of fabric though I didn’t buy any.

Walking into Kiro, I read on their door that they sell clothes from designers like Ann McCreath, Jon Kaveke (I think he is v. cute in a skinny-black-boy way) and others. I liked the vibe of the store- welcoming and well laid out without the hauteur that some stores in Nairobi’s ‘better malls’ have honed to perfection. I don’t remember their names but the two sales assistants were really pleasant, they didn’t hover or ignore, they just gave me the space I needed to browse (and ooh and ahh over the merchandise). I settled on two maxi dresses by KikoRomeo; one a stunning azure and the other a vibrant red-orange colour. The fabrics reminded me of dresses which my mother owned from the 70s…the designs were retro and very cool- the word for that particular kind of design escapes me, but I will put up a picture of the blue dress to give you an idea. Furthermore, these dresses were made for an African shape ie a woman with curves or a bust, the darts are very well placed, the stitching is high calibre, there are interfacing on the inside of the v-neck to keep the neckline flat and the end result is so much better than any synthetic dress on sale in the whole of Yaya.I respect Ann McCreath because she’s been doing her design work doggedly- I can’t imagine it was easy to make a living in the bad old ‘90s economy, or when everybody wanted Karl Kani rather than KikoRomeo outfits. I respect her because the quality of workmanship on these dresses speaks for itself. It is flawless.

Kiro is worth visiting because they bring Kenyan ready-made fashion together in one place, and they will do alterations with a 24hr turnaround (key when you are leaving soon). Their sales staff is knowledgeable about sizes and the fit of all their outfits. I tried to convince E. to try on one of the men’s jackets but he wasn’t really feeling it. At Ksh 8,000 each, these dresses are probably not going to compete price wise with the  offerings from the stalls and exhibitions, but they are very good value for what you get- excellent tailoring, great fit and good attention to detail. With proper care, I will be wearing my maxis for a good long while. I would rather have a few good things in my wardrobe than a ton of cheap/disposable clothes, so the dresses were an investment for me. The compliments that have come when I have worn the dresses tell me it was money well spent. Plus, it feels good to support Kenyan businesses when you can.

Digression: I was reading a recent edition of Vogue (May I think) and there’s a section on ‘African/Tribal/Some-other-silly-fashionista-name-for-it’ inspired fashion (did you know ‘Tribal’ was all the rage this year?). In it, they featured a guy who grew up in Kenya but now lives in NYC who has a ‘collection of kanga fabric’ which he has turned into couture. Yes, Ann McCreath and Jon Kaveke may have been in Kenya dressing us up in kanga, kitenge, cotton, denim fashions, that wasn’t edgy or fashionable enough, according to Vogue, this man has ‘discovered’ the use of kanga to make dresses- in 2009! Ack! I was pissed! And what were all those fashion spreads many moons ago in True Love about? Wasn’t that kanga fabric? Oh. I guess that until a ‘Smart Mzungu from Across the Waters’ ‘discovers’ it, it doesn’t exist.

Digression on digression: What is this love affair that magazine editors’ and/or writers have with the guy who goes to Africa or was raised in Africa (preferably one who grew up in the wilderness, was suckled by black women-who he called mama until Mama corrected his mistake, played with the totos and had a pet snake called Mamba) who ‘discovers’ then brings back ‘Africa’ to the ‘world’? Ack Ack Ack! Sigh. Anyway, the clothes were OK. Then there was a woman making swimsuits out of Kitenge (?)…which were again, OK- I didn’t dislike them, I just didn’t quite feel that they were visually compelling- but I guess ‘Tribal’ can be just ‘OK’ to get into Vogue- the standards for ‘tribal’ are different. I’d rather go to the Vlisco website and view their latest campaign (and yes, I know, this is another example of: ‘White man goes to Africa, makes millions selling its people merchandise’)…digression-time: I have often wondered how African fashion and fabrics would have evolved and developed  without the arrival of the likes of the Dutch wax merchants and Masaai-bead sellers. How much of what we consider ‘African’ e.g. Kitenges is actually African in origin or is it just someone else’s idea of what ‘Africans’ would like or should like? What did the Maasai wear before someone sold them beads? Someone at work saw me dressed in red, and he complimented me, then ruined it all by saying, “…Africans like bright colours eh?”…like, what? We have a gene for it? Note, I usually wear monochromatic, dark colours, but the one day I wear red, it’s like I have proven the rule. Sigh.

Back to the rest of the post.

To say that I am an ardent Kazuri beads wearer/lover would be an understatement. The first time I visited Kazuri it was on a school trip organized by our Art teacher. I was really taken with the forming of the beads, and to be honest, working in Clay was one of my favourite classes because you could smoosh the mistakes away and perfect your work endlessly. There were women everywhere working on the beads, and I bought a pair of earrings that were painted and glazed so that they looked like shiny hematite. I lost that pair of earrings but that started me off. Now, each visit to Nairobi comes with a stop at Kazuri. There are so many beads that poor indecisive me can only take in a few at a time, but each visit I manage to pick something new. My favourite purchases are a pair of earrings that are a beautifully understated, matte, creamy-yellow flecked with dark dots, and a necklace of bright, glossy, orange beads which have artistically-applied indigo-ish ‘freckles’ on them. I think the heavy weight of the beads is what I like most. The necklaces feel substantial and profound against your neck, and the earrings hang just right. Each passing year the beads become more and more interesting to see. I was pleased too to see they have some dishware- bought a large platter for a friend to give her boss as a gift…the colours are really something especially when removed from Kenya, they really stand out on a table set with more sedate dishes.

One last shopping suggestion- get an Annabelle Thom bag! I got mine at Junction mall…at a store called Zebu (I think)…the leather work is beautifully crafted and there are the large artsy totes which I would have bought if I had the balls to pull them off. One cute touch- her sales tags are postcard sized, with a picture of (a person that I assume to be Annabelle) holding a bag. I was surprised at how high the taxes were- close to Ksh 1,000 of a Ksh 6,800 price…but I was glad that I was helping to fund free primary school education LOL. My bag is a beautiful green suede mid-size hobo with beadwork on the outside. I have seen some covetous looks on the way in to work. (In hindsight, I will go back and get the extra large tote just because I like it!).

So, sitting here in Vancouver surrounded by good things which I got in Kenya, I feel a bit Kenyan. Miles away, but every bit Kenyan.

Let me put the kettle on for some Ketepa tea!

And that was how I spent my holiday!! Enjoy!


Filed under Miscellaneous Meandering Musings

8 responses to “How I Spent My Holiday, Part II

  1. You are right there are good and bad maids. I can’t keep track of the number that we have seen over the years. There are a number that I will never forget, who used to crack me up, as a kid.

    The last time I was home, there wasn’t 24 hour shopping. How is the security in Nakumatt, after midnight? I need to get my head round shopping at those hours in Nairobi. I have a number of friends who have been carjacked coming back from clubs, or the airport after midnight, I guess I am too para to shop at that time in Nairobi.

    ROFLMAO@the guy asleep in Books first. That is so funny.

    Thanks for the tip on Kiro. I am not sure whether I noticed it at Yaya, when I was last home. I can remember buying a kikoy dress at Yaya, but cannot remember the name of the shop. But my dear, 8,000shs, I am converting that to sterling, and wonder what your dress was like. Looking forward to seeing the pic. I have never seen any dress made locally that I would cough up 8,000 shs for. Just haven’t seen that quality. But will have a look when I am next at Yaya.

    I saw the article about the guy you mention in Vogue. Time did a feature on him in April, last month. I have a post about it on my blog, re Kenyan Kangas. I think you are talking about Suno New York.

    I like Kazuri too, and get my gifts for colleagues there. I knew the woman who set Kazuri up, may she rest in peace.

    A friend sells Anabelle Thom bags here. They are nice to touch.

    Waiting for your pics.

    • Imagine Nakumatt after midnight is not bad…I guess the issue is how close you are to the Nakumatt to begin with…if you have to cross hill and valley to get there, it increases the odds of something bad happening. I actually liked going in very early in the morning when I needed to do a big shop. Late night visits were for drinks mixers, cigarettes and the early edition of the paper.
      Kiro is in a hidden corner of Yaya- I believe it’s the third floor…I had to look for it, you wouldn’t stumble upon it. I know, 8,000 sounds like a lot except that Nairobi is expensive, plus taxes are high- probably 1,500 of that price is tax. I also did the conversion but when I factored in the cost and the finish, I figured it was worth it…too often out here I have trouble finding clothes because I’m not tall…sleeves that reach the tips of your fingers, pants that are too long (even in petite length)…those are the bane of my existence :).
      I went to the Sumo website and some of their stuff is interesting…I wish Vogue didn’t make it sound like nobody in Africa is designing anything so that the ‘Smart mzungu from across the waters’ had to come and ‘discover it :).
      I went through my pictures but I’ll have to take one that shows the full length dress properly…coming soon.

  2. Wambui – You and your many deskies :-). But come to think of it – I had a diff deskie for Geog, History, Home Ec, – but I didnt change my “Regular 4Y” deskie at all it I recall….

    I believe we were in the same Geog Class and there was one time most of us were kicked out of the class coz we had not done the NUMEROUS maps we used to do:-) Memories! Like you – High School was priceless – we need to do a post on Drama Club, Kisumu etc 🙂

    I LOVED your Kiro dress and nothing is going to stop me from getting one….Hata kama….

    24 hr shopping – that’s new! – but I think I am also a little skeptical about Shopping @ night in Kenya – No?

    I am looking forward to my upcoming trip ( ok that’s an understatement!)….Yaani I am the most positive and productive worker my company has this month – Hehehe! – coz I know Farmers Choice Sausages, Fresh Sukuma ( Imagine that!) and just sitting outside the house with my Mum drinking endless cups of tea and talking about I dont know what awaits!! Some good time away from this madness…..

    • …Yes, we were in the same Geog class! I recall we were told by the exasperated teacher that “A good student, when sent out from class, corrects their mistakes and hurries back. You people are behaving as if you would rather not return!” Seriously! That was so funny. I was hoping to go to Kisumu when I went in Jan 2008…eh, let’s say my plans were soon hastily revised. Still, I think next Jan, I shall make that trip.
      Go to Kiro…there’s also a store across from them that sells the kanga fabric and/or dresses/skirts…check it out.
      There’s no need for me to tell you to have fun ’cause I’m sure you will!
      24hr shopping is good- I think it actually makes the security better since there’s safety in numbers. The interesting thing is that on the way down to Mombasa, I realized there has been 24hr shopping going on along the highway for ages :)…embrace it, enjoy it (you will be glad to know that you can go to Nakumatt at 6am to buy sausages for breakfast LOL…

  3. Hello Miss Wambui. 🙂

    Sounds like you had a good holiday. I did too though I was unable to check the Viraj apartments you’d mentioned.

    I did however, get to go to Sarit and bought two dresses for my two girlfriends there. But that’s about all I got there, other than books.

    Hope you’re good!


    • Hello traveller- too bad you didn’t see viraj- maybe you can get one of your readers in Nbi to take pics for you :). Am great, busy (for summer), have barely had time to get over to read your travelogues! Anyway, all the better for me to have something to read this Friday afternoon when am sure it will be really dead here…

  4. Liz

    Lol, this has made me laugh. Especially the Books First’ drunk intrigue. The one at Prestige is actually called Sherlock’s Den… Books First started as a franchise @ Nakumatt selling books. You could sit and have a cup of coffee after you got your book. Then they added a meal. Soon being Kenyan, they started offering alcohol. Am not sure why Books First is Sherlock’s Den @ Prestige but there you are….Be happy you missed the Karaoke on Fridays! Come to think of it there is a Books First inside Nakumatt that sells books… hmm.

    Am surprised you resisted the Obama khanga…. And now I hear there is an MJ one.

    • Sherlock’s Den? You’d have to be a ‘Sherlock’ to figure out how people choose names for their businesses. Even here, in Canada, I don’t like the idea of people being able to read books in the store…I want to buy books whose spines have never been cracked, whose pages do not have telltale oils from anothers’ fingers!
      Kenya Bizna School 101: when business revenues decline, start selling alcohol…no matter the industry!
      An MJ Khanga is as ghoulish as it gets.

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