All posts by Margot Kiser

I am a Kenya-based American correspondent, focusing on conflict in East Africa. I have contributed to Newsweek, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, among others. Follow me on Twitter: @margotkiser1 Best long read ByLiner 2011 for my Newsweek feature, 'Pirates in Paradise'

Monet’s Equatorial Hanging Garden

Tarzan was never keen on celebrating Xmas, Thxgiving, Easter (huh?), birthdays, etc., so. If I weren’t having lunch with a friend at the Norfolk hotel that day, I’d have never remembered “Turkey day”.  The  formal dining room was empty when smiling hotel staff wearing tall white chef hats served up the perfunctory holiday fare. I suspected the meal was available for American hotel safari wageni (guests), since most expats live in Muthaiga area, near the US Embassy. We dined on the open terrace over-looking the garden with its mature trees in the old section of the hotel.  Under a new shaded terrace solo backpacker types sat draped over their Macs – free loading off the swank hotel’s wireless internet.

My friend, a “Muhindi” (Swa for an Asian Indian), heaped his plate with fried chicken and mashed potatoes. I feasted on ham, stuffing and Papadams.

We talked about real estate and politics which is pretty much what everyone here talks about.

Speaking of movers and shakers, said my lunch companion spying over my shoulder, there are some over there.

Behind me sitting with one long leg thrown  over the other was a slick, overly self-aware African, whom I vaguely recognized.

Jeff Koinange, CNN’s former Africa correspondent. He was so tall,  he slouched in his seat as he spoke with two other Kenyans.

Media titans, my friend said. I Googled Koinange.  All I can say is…..oops. Apparently, he now works in South Africa.

Ha, unless they’re Bloomberg or Ted Turner, even at their peak correspondents are not movers and shakers. At the end of the day, they’re actors. In the end, maybe we’re all actors capable to some degree of dissembling to get what we want.

Thought Thanksgiving was all but over until my friend, Liz, took me to Sunday lunch at the Muthaiga club, where  I encountered more turkey, ham and stuffing served again in cursory fashion.

Did I double take in the women’s bathroom when I noted something wrong with a large print of Monet’s waterlilies. The waterlilies were hanging upside! My first instinct was to turn it right side up. Liz came in and we tried righting it, but it was nailed to the wall.

After posting the image on FB, ET said that her son was responsible for the prank. Turning art on its head?

Of course, I wondered how long it had been hanging that way. My friend, Erin, was at the Muthaiga club when she checked her FB. After inquiring at the front desk, she reckoned that the print had been hanging that way since 1978.

Eid al Hajj celebration in Lamu, Kenya

Seems only fitting that an ancient Muslim tradition was celebrated today with  a race between ancient Arab fishing dhows. This part of Eid is less about fasting (Ramadan,  a word that reminds me of Papadam) than it is about the journey to Mecca in November.

Who goes to Mecca anyway?

A successful, middle-aged acquaintance, Hamid, left for Riyadh two weeks ago. Another friend of mine, Salim, tells me the rich at heart  – and wallet – get to go to Mecca, since he can prove to Allah and his peers that he can leave home for an entire month and still provide for his family. Maybe it’s a maccho thing, but this show of stamina reminds me a little of my Montana peers who abstain from alcohol for the month of February (perhaps not coincidentally the shortest month) to pr
ove to themselves and friends they are not alcoholics.

Today, as with every Friday, men wear kanzus (long white robes) and white Kofias (Swahili for hats). Women with henna-painted hands and wrists are linked with their best friends and sisters. Salim says the celebration is not unlike Christmas – family and friend-focused.  Here in Lamu, though,  the men give each other fresh new kanzus; the women exchange food and Oud (perfume). Little girls are dressed up in frills and khol eye make-up and little boys scuffle on the beach playing football (soccer).

I look over to where the “Heckling Hyenas” are usually draped over the Peponi wall eyes blazing red. But today they are supplanted by mirth –  people participating in life.  Little doubt they’re cloistered behind coral walls sucking on bangi, poor things.

I have never seen so many Swahilis in one big family outing. It’s slowly becoming a tourist attraction. Some twenty meters away around a corner, just past a mosque and gleaming new white house built for Europeans, local Swahilis are festooning a newly-constructed public area on the sea front with pink bougainvillea for this evening’s Eid festival. I’d never seen it so beautiful and bright, especially as this spot was ground zero for a recent clash between locals and Europeans. When I raised my hands to capture the scene with my camera phone, I was ordered not to take photographs. “Don’t make trouble around here”, said a frowning man with a kofia.

Who, me?

Nanni Moccia — A Serious Old Lion

The “burial-at-sea” took place at 5 pm. About two dozen close friends, acquaintances, Italian compatriots, neighbors, and a few curious souls arrived around 4:45  in a motorcade of small taxi boats. The sun was still high and everyone wore sun-glasses in defense against the striking Equatorial sun. Some wore black, some white, as if in equal parts respect to a man in life as in death.

Nanni died alone last Saturday morning in the single engine plane he was piloting. The newspapers identified him as Gianmocia Piero, but we, his neighbors in this tight sea-side community of Lamu,  knew him as “Nanni”.

Claudio Modola is an architect and good family friend, and bears a close resemblance to the actor, Tom Berenger. Claudio had been in charge of organizing the funeral.  He hopped onto our small boat and pointed to me by way of asking me to introduce myself.

“We’ve never met, but you and I are Face Book friends”, I said. Then he pointed to a man I was sitting next to and asked if we had arrived together.  (Claudio emphasized that he did not mean ‘together’ in the Biblical sense). “Oh, no,” I said, “That’s Herbert; we’re just Face Book ‘friends’, too”.

I had first met Nanni’s wife, Elena, a petite, kind and no-nonsense Italian, on my first and only visit to Rome. A mutual Shela acquaintance had encouraged me to look her up. One afternoon, exhausted and  lost, I rang her from a cafe near the French embassy, which turned out to be just a few streets away from her flat. Though she didn’t know me from Adam,  she had graciously treated me and her good friend, Livia, to a sea food pasta brunch at the Hotel de Russie.

At last the Moccia family arrived, gliding toward us in an elegant dhow called Taqwa. Elena, and her three sons, all wore white. I sensed that the white they wore represented  the celebration of pure family love as well as a new beginning. Lars and Carol Korshen, proprietors of the legendary Peponi hotel, were the last to arrive after which the all boats were joined  together by hand forming what must have  looked from a distance like a floating market in a Bangkok klong. A Kenyan Christian pastor, though his fevered pitch went on for about five minutes too long, was the perfect segue to break the ice and introduce why were were joined together for the intimate celebration and mourn the passing of a man, who possessed the generosity if willfulness of a great king. After the sermon, a moving silence set in and seemed to lay to rest the small town petty-minded bickering and gossip even if for just one hour.

Claudio eulogized that the controversial Nanni was all too human in his determination ” to get it right”, to make the most of his autumn years. Even if it meant laying under water pipes from Shela to Manda to supply his Majlis hotel. Like it or not, the man managed to succeed in forging a lion’s paw-print in this area almost through sheer force of will.

One of Nanni’s three sons stood and presented a eulogy written by an old friend, who could not make the trip from Italy. The rest of the family sat quietly heads bowed in grief. One of the sons whom I knew but not well looked beautiful in his vulnerability.

Next to Elena sat a precious tiny wood and brass antique Zanzibar box. “Oh, what a cute purse,” I was about to say.

From a distance disco loud-speakers set inside a boat played “The Race of Bulls”. Over-sized kikapus (straw bags) full of pink red bougainvillea that the family had brought were passed around and every one had a chance to  toss a fistful of  flowers  into the sea along with Nanni’s ashes.

Like my own father, Nanni had the good fortune of eluding a protracted death in some anonymous anti-septic hospital. Nanni died “with his boots on”,  in the wilds of Africa. Not a bad place to die.

Later at Peponi, I asked Lars to sum up Nanni Moccia. Without hesitation, he said in his British drawl, “He was a serious old lion”.

I didn’t know Nanni well, and I’m not sure what that would even mean. He was always exceedingly polite to me.  Perhaps it was because he and I shared a curious common “cause” that only a few, including Elena, knew about.

It is to that end that I won’t soon forget what the good pastor said; that in many ways the dead are closer to us now than they ever were in life.

Maasai smuggling my dogs from Tanzania through Namanga border to Nairobi

I have two aging yellow Labs, the off-spring of Zoe, the Lab I brought to Tanzania from Montana in ’94.  Katy and Ginger grew up in a pack with Zoe, of course, and later, Joe, the Ridgeback, and a male ridgeless Ridgeback/Lab mix with a ridge. Technically a “back”. His name was Fred, but Fred is dead. Zoe died in ’03. Ginger and Katy are now with Joe and his son, Chui.

They have seven acres to run around in and have rarely been let outside this electrically fenced compound. My husband is often away on safari, so they are alone tended to by staff, but without much love.

I no longer live on the Tanzanian ranch I bought in 2001 and had necessarily to leave in ’05. I have since returned to EA, and now live in Kenya.

I miss my dogs terribly.

Katy and Ginger are reaching 10, the general life span of a Lab. Katy a bit older, incontinent, and can hardly move. Ginger is three years younger, mobile, but getting mzee. I don’t want them to die loveless in Tanzania.

I had been thinking of moving them to Kenya, where I can board them with the Queen Bee of Labs in Langata, a suburb of Nairobi. Dogs are everywhere at Biddy’s, especially Labs, which she breeds, along with the off-spring of a few Irish Wolf hounds that played bit parts in the film, Out of Africa. It’s a three acre compound. Humans are second banana to the dozens of dogs there that occupy nearly every flat space in her living room. At least there I can occasionally see and be near Katy and Ginger before they head to dog-heaven.

Moving them would be for my sake, thus an admittedly selfish motive.

The question I’ve been struggling with is  — would the move be too traumatic for Katy at her age? They’ve never been in a car and would likely vomit all over the place. But that is minor if I don’t feed them beforehand. Maybe I will take only Ginger, the younger of the two and more likely to absorb the shock of the move. Besides, Katy is technically my son’s dog.

Our Maasai secretary in Arusha has offered to help with logistics and paper work involved with getting them across the border. But, of course, Tanzania being Tanzania, the process would be ponderously slow.Customs and immigration itself at Namanga a pain in the ass process that would add hours to the five hour drive from the ranch to Nairobi.

I may just drive Ginger near to the Namanga  border,  grab a random Maasai, who I  could ask to stick her in pack of goats and walk her through the bush on a “panya” (“rat” or smugglers) route near the border and pick her up on the other side.

Or would it be best for their well-being to leave them both to die with the pack back at the ranch?

Si jui.

Lamu versus Nairobi

Oppressive gray blanket of cloud finally lifted and with it my spirits.  Most days are now sunny and cheerful. This weekend took long walk along Mbagathi ridge, past Kazuri beads, w C  and the dogs – a happy, panting black Lab and Ginger, a small terrier. The kind friends I stay with are Danish and their house is just around the corner from Karen Blixen’s coffee estate. I would walk there every day, but as it’s a museum, they want to charge a thieving 800 kenya shillings ($10) just to stroll the gardens without even entering KB’s house.

During the work week, I often walk alone twice a day, along Mbgathi Ridge and then down the wide and aptly named Forest Lane. Friends ask if it’s dangerous to walk by myself. A palpable rigidity divides locals and the wazungu they work for, but I don’t sense danger. Not in this leafy and insular suburb. I usually greet stony-faced workers commuting by foot in Swahili, or, if I’m listening to my Iphone tunes, I smile or make eye contact. I almost always get a smile back. That said, I do stash my Iphone in my bra so that only the earphones are exposed. Most locals under 30 have Ipods anyway. Still, it’s sad to have hide these things.

If I walk between commuting hours, the avenues are empty and I usually only encounter this mzee (Swa for older person).

Nairobi is expensive – between hiring a driver (I’m never here long enough to justify buying a car). Food at Karen  Provision store and Nakumatt adds up.

Lamu beckons. I love that there are no cars on the island. Donkeys, boats and legs only modes of transport. I miss the place and its donkey-clogged alley ways. Ass-jams.