Mombasa Days

I’m here in Mombasa on the coast. Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest city and a popular holiday spot for its beaches and laid-back lifestyle. It’s also a different culture from the interior. Here, the Swahili, Arab, Indian, Portuguese, and British colonial influences blend into something uniquely Indian Ocean. It’s tough to tell where one culture stops and another begins, or which person belongs to which group, or even if such concerns matter at all.

There are auto-rickshaws plying the streets (called tuk-tuks here), people in every variety of Islamic garb from skullcaps and robes for men, to scarves and full purdah for women—or no special dress at all. With its colonial architecture, palm trees, blue ocean, and cultural melange, Mombasa seems a lot like Pondicherry. The tourist development is elsewhere, so the place is surprisingly “local,” and the people are friendly. In the late afternoons the streets are full of schoolkids in uniforms. Mildew grows on the yellow and white apartment blocks, with laundry drying outside.

I took a tour of the Old Town and have posted some tourist snaps below. It’s the poorer quarter of the city but the most interesting, with architectural flourishes from all the contributing cultures. My guide was Mahir Mohammed (who also goes by Ali Mohammed and Ali Baba). Photography wasn’t particularly welcome in Old Town, but he smoothed most things over. The issue seemed to be that I would make money off the photos and was therefore exploiting people commercially, so I didn’t take many pictures or press the issue. At one point, we were in a narrow lane looking at a coop of pigeons. Ali was telling me about them and clucking at them (I wasn’t photographing), and a woman came out of the house and yelled at him. We walked on. He told me she was accusing him of using her pigeons for his business.

The Indian presence is very strong in Mombasa. All the restaurants serve more than one Indian dish (curry, biryani, somosas, chapatis, etc.). There are Hindu temples and Ismaili mosques. Well-off Indians own shops in town and estates on the ocean, but there are poor people in the mix in Old Town. My hotel, a colonial-era three-star with mosquito nets, a fan, and a dipper in the bathroom, has Preity Zinta calendars at the reception desk and behind the bar. (There are also a large number of a craggy old single European men in shorts, and this is the tourist off season, which makes me wonder how Mombasa figures in the sex trade.)

Some tourist snaps from Old Town and the rest of Mombasa are on the flip. Continue reading

Kenya’s Political Gadfly

Salim Lone turns the car down a winding driveway in Nairobi’s diplomatic enclave to a bright bungalow with a terraced garden. The house is separated from the thick overgrowth in the back by a high fence topped with electric wire. There’s a gate and guard.

“”When I was a young journalist,”” he says, “”I never came back here. This area was all white.””

Today, he says, he lives here by accident. He and his wife, Pat, rented this house because it was one of the few they could find that had a downstairs bedroom, which they needed for his mother. But it is a peaceful spot for a man who has spent his forty-odd years in journalism making other people uncomfortable.


For his political commentary and muckraking style, he ran afoul of both the Kenyatta and Moi regimes in the 1970s and ’80s. He was jailed, stripped of his Kenyan citizenship, exiled in 1982, and made stateless. He went back to the United States, where he had attended Kenyon College in the 1960s and where he had worked for the United Nations. Later, President Moi sent word that all had been forgiven and that he was free to return. He did so, only to find himself in jail again.

Kenya has matured politically since the return of multi-party elections in 1992 and the end of Moi’s reign a decade later, but Lone still takes to the pages of the Kenya’s Daily Nation to criticize the current president for failing to complete his promised reforms and to call for greater participation in opposition politics. Continue reading

Kenya’s Man of the Match

Kenya is one of those rare Commonwealth countries that has a large Indian diaspora population but where cricket isn’t so popular. It used to be. Kenya is only an associate member of the International Cricket Council, as is the United States, and so does not play test cricket, but thanks to some good qualifying tournament play, it has made it to the World Cup. It did so in 1996 and 1999 under the leadership of Aasif Karim. The spin bowler came out of retirement when his side qualified again in 2003 for the last world cup in South Africa. He had served as captain of the 1999 side.


When I met him in his home, we tried to determine if his Indian descent and national team captaincy represented any sort of “first.” We wondered if he was the first desi to captain a national team (other than a team from the subcontinent) in a world cup (any cricket-mad mutineer know differently?).

Kenya won total of five matches in 2003, and Aasif was named Man of the Match for his performance against Australia (the world champions), even though his side lost. He enjoyed playing at the highest level but after the cup decided it was time to move on. Kenya’s commitment to cricket was small (professional sport here is hardly funded at all; even soccer, the most popular sport, lacks facilities, organization, and a commitment to development). But wouldn’t he like to be Kenya’s Brian Lara, perpetual captain and national cricket icon? “Better to go when they ask, ‘Why did you retire?’ and not ‘When are you going to retire?’”” he says. Continue reading

Public and Private Spaces

Some more musings from Nairobi . . .

One thing a photographer likes to be able to count on is the presence of his subjects in public spaces: streets, parks, shopping malls, out in front of their homes, etc. In other countries where I have worked, Indian people are out in the open, going about their lives, so photographing has been relatively easy. I meet people, we chat, drink tea, I take some pictures, maybe I come back again the next day, etc. I don’t really like photographing strangers, so getting to know people is essential to the way I work.

In Nairoboi, where the Indian community is fairly small, it’s harder to find people. Since security is the ever-present issue, city dwellers here avoid public spaces. This is not a city of walkers [edit: except by necessity]. People drive or are driven. Houses are gated and guarded. This is true for everyone who can afford the trappings of security, which includes the vast majority of the Indian community.

So I am concentrating on taking portraits of people in their homes.

Photography is all about space–in both the metaphysical and the physical senses. Space defines the subject in the frame. What’s included vs. what’s omitted are important questions the shooter has to ask himself before he trips the shutter.

So the matter for discussion here is, What does it say about community when its cultural expression occurs outside the public sphere? Does the space help define the culture?

Indian culture as I have witnessed it in India and elsewhere is all about the public space: parades, wedding processions, music, long-winded speakers at the public address system, big family events that draw in a larger community.

Granted, in Nairobi, the fact that much of the community here is Muslim has something to do with the reticence of expression, as do the obvious facts of minority status and the presence of crime.

Things are different here. Being Indian is different here from the way it is in other parts of the world, including other countries in Africa. There is no sense that Indian culture has to be hidden or subdued–just that it doesn’t seem to fit comfortably in the public realm.

Your thoughts? (I’ll post some portraits in the next few days). Continue reading

“They don’t hire their own people. They hire Kenyans.”

Greetings from Nairobi. Many thanks to Abhi and the gang for letting me guest-blog, so here begins a short series (illustrated!) about Indo-Africa.

Amardeep’s recent post about Indo-African writers brought up the big question about Indians (East Asians, as they are called here) and the other communities:

And indeed, anecdotally, one hears that the Asians in Africa tended to hold themselves aloof from “native” Africans, at least before Idi Amin.

That question is a good place for me to start since, quite coincidentally, it’s where I started.

Visiting a place for the first time, especially one defined by a confluence of cultures, requires peeling back the layers of the onion, at least rhetorically. What is said or not said, and how it’s said, can reveal a great deal about a place, and it’s important for a journalist to get a handle on the terms of the discussion if he wants to engage it in any meaningful way.

Best way to orient yourself to the local situation? Ask a cab driver.

Daniel, a black cabbie in his forties attached to my hotel, took me to Diamond Plaza, a shopping center in Parklands, the Indian section of Nairobi. He said he had grown up nearby. I told him why I wanted to go there.

“”Indians are rich,”” he said. “”They don’t come from farms. They are in business.”” It’s always a little dicey when a person of one race makes comments about another to someone who belongs to neither. But I thought he sounded admiring. “”They are good employers,” he said. “”They hire cooks, housekeepers, drivers, guards, lots of staff.””

And then we reached something close to the center of the onion: ““They don’t hire their own people. They hire Kenyans.”” Continue reading