Trip to Eastleigh -A Tree Grows in “Little Mogadishu”

As a primer for my impending trip to Somalia, my friend, an attorney, picked me at Muthaiga club this Sunday to stroll the “streets” of Eastleigh, an ad hoc city within Nairobi that first sprouted as a refugee camp of sorts after wore broke out in Somalia in the early 90’s. It has since mushroomed into a full-fledged sized city – albeit not officially recognized as such. As far as I know it lacks a proper post office, schools, and

A Tree Grows in Little Mogadishu

elected or appointed officials who represent the area. It’s believed that %99 of Somalis living live here illegally. Police routinely arrest random Somalis, who within hours, bribe their way out of jail.

Chaos prevails and young men carrying several pounds of clothing or charcoal on their backs have right of way, often bumping us into the streets.

And yet, in Eastleigh, you can buy almost anything — the Louis Vuitton might be fake but the grenades and handguns are not.  My friend and I were looking for computer bags. We found a “maradadi” (nice-looking) one made of green canvas. But a zipper broke immediately.

It’s no accident that the larger complexes — essentially multi-story malls — are dubbed “Bangkok” and “Hong Kong” for the acres of smuggled goods, mostly cheap and they all looked the same. Mercifully, I didn’t see any animals for sale. I kept losing sight of Adeel, who wore khaki safari-type clothes.

I felt safe and soon realized you didn’t have to be alert as much for pick-pockets as cars that race through streets, consisting of three foot standing waves of dirt. Drivers seemed to have no qualms of running anyone over. Every car seemed to be backing up looking for a parking space. A pair of shoes lay strewn and abandoned on the sidewalk. How did they get there? Adeel explained that the owner of the shoes was likely run over.

We looked at  cheap “cotton” shirts and shiny jackets with Marks and Spencer labels sewn inside. Each suq or kiosk seemed to be peddling the same less than desirable quality goods. We resisted the urge to buy because it was inexpensive.

My friend was particularly interested in buying gold bricks. Somali men and woman selling gold-plaited jewelry had no clue, but an Ethiopian clothes salesman said he could find us “black rocks” – green, yellow and pink inside.

Let’s go, I said. He promised to organize a viewing the next day. He warned us to be wary of salesman. Most are “faruidsters”. What? Ah, fraudsters.

But we had no intention of returning.

We left empty-handed.


Lamu Painter’s Festival 2011

Artists at work outside in the elements are often – correctly – labeled “street artists”, and pass their time sketching kitsch for tourists in big cities. But nothing could be farther from how Herbert Menzer, a wild and wacky German visionary/ real estate developer/accidental politician/friend to all, envisioned the first annual Lamu Painters Festival.

Menzer’s idea was that artists, mainly from European Realist and Impressionists styles, would capture en plein air the essence of the Islamic island and Swahili life, providing a reminder – and perhaps a record – of Lamu’s value as a UNESCO world heritage site as it rapidly becomes Westernized. An avid art collector, he arranged for nineteen professional painters from Germany, Netherlands, and Kenya to express Lamu’s traditional culture and natural beauty through their artwork.

Artists who had never set foot on the African continent – let alone on Lamu – met all manner of logistical challenges — getting their paint tubes through airport security, navigating the cat and donkey-jammed Byzantine alley ways, coping with sand flung onto their works-in-progress and the incomprehensible Swahili language. No less, though, were they delighted to find a variety of exotic subject matters; palms on sugar-white sand dunes, 15th century Swahili architecture, impenetrable Burka-clad khol-eyed women, donkey and cat-clogged Byzantine alleys, Herbert Menzer, and the Lamu District Commissioner.

But did these artists, most familiar with stormy or wintry landscapes wrought in “moderate” tones, feel they captured the Equatorial East African light, warmth and sultriness of it all?

Dutch painter, Piet Groenendijk, stuck to the subdued European hues, worrying that turquoise skies and peachy sunsets could become easily appear maudlin, like from a souvenir stand.

When he returns next year, he vows to use colors like cobalt blue. “It is a lot to absorb here,” remarks Piet, “and you cannot paint culture shock.”

Not surprisingly, Kenya-based artist, Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, originally from Eritrea, ventured from near life-size portraits of locals to landscapes, keeping to his trademark bold, broad strokes with the breadth of house-painting brushes. He was intrigued to note that by the end of the three-week marathon that he began experimenting with smaller brush strokes typical of his European colleagues.

Leningrad trained Natalia Dik, produced works with an epic 19th century feel. Some of the best paintings avoided gilding the lily by denying how Lamu has changed; inserts of satellite dishes, telephone wires, new vacation houses on Manda island added charm to the otherwise postcard perfect scenery.

Coming to Africa with its warm, tropical colors was like coming home, said Dutch painter, Deiderik Vermeulen. What was he taking away from the experience? How “cheerful” everyone was – especially those at Peponi restaurant after 5 pm.

Unfortunately, most of the painters had left by the end of the festival’s three weeks, taking their art with them to sell in European galleries.

But one can view the hundreds of works they produced during the festival on Lamu Painters Festival’s Facebook page.

“The festival was just my funny idea,” insists Herbert, who was given and/or bought many of the best paintings, “it is not about the money.”