Celebrating Wangari Maathai

On Saturday, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai passed on. I feel the loss — her mission was yet incomplete, and in the most recent appearances she exuded such youth that you would never expect the end was near. Take a look at this nice three-part CNN bio to get a feel for her character, her grit, and her vision.

Professor Maathai’s championing of environmental rights speaks to me in a special way. Growing up enjoying the forests, mountains, and open spaces of California, I have a deep respect and affinity for the wonders of the wild. But the degree to which our society is divorced from the land in its wild state has meant that the enjoyment of nature has nearly become thought of as a luxury activity (falsely, however — I can put you in the mountains for a week for $100), sought out mostly by upper middle class white Americans. By extension, conservation of the environment sometimes seems a preoccupation of the well-to-do. This perspective seems more obvious in poor countries, where the pressures of daily life make sentimental hang-ups about the view seem almost cruel.

Professor Maathai showed another way: there are more choices than preservation versus prosperity. Indeed, true and sustainable prosperity will only be enjoyed when it is accompanied by good stewardship of the earth. A thriving environment is a right, not a luxury — and one worth fighting for just as much as other basic rights. And she spoke these truths as someone who came from a community that uses land — gains sustenance from it directly, is born on it, lives with it, dies with it. She did not come from a community that builds subdivisions and malls on 95% (or most) of its territory, and rails off a tiny fraction to be saved. That made her message all the more profound.

Thank you, Professor Maathai.

*UPDATE: A reader notes that my 95% figure is a bit off: “the USA has 9.83 million km2 land mass and that the combined area of the National Forests, National Parks, and BLM land is 2.2 million km2 — or about 22% of the total land mass of the US.” Fair enough, and I’m glad the figure isn’t smaller. (The 95% was intended to be figurative, I’ve edited it above.) The point is that the American tendency is to be OK with trashing places that we develop, while maintaining the purity of a small fraction of the land that we have specifically protected. I think a better version of conservation would be one that is more integrated in our lives.

Music break: a song for the hypocrites

“Kigeugeu” by Kenyan artist Jaguar. This song has been around for a few months, but I just started listening to it. (Clearly, urgency is not this blog’s forté!)

Kigeugeu means “changing” in Kiswahili — as in the way chameleons change color (Google translate says “vascillating”). The saying is kigeugeu kama kinyonga — changing like a chameleon. The characters in this video — the pastor, the wife, the politician — change according to their circumstances.

I think the song bumps, and is kind of soulful, too.

Apparently, Raila Odinga is also a Jaguar fan.


Weekend jam: Kare by P-Unit from Nairobi

Alright, get over the corny name. P-Unit has come out with one of the catchiest songs of the summer, as far as I’m concerned. Makes me want to pour up some Famous and tonic and peep the scene from a corner in Bacchus.

Apparently one of the singers is actually a doctor. He says so in the song: “mimi ni daktari.” (That he is a doctor in real life is completely unconfirmed, but I’m told this is reported somewhere.) You will notice that all the words rhyme with kare, which may be a colloquial way of pronouncing kali, which in standard Swahili means something along the lines of “harsh,” but in slang maybe means something along the lines of “hot.” As in, “Ooh, that’s hot.”

There are a lot of maybes in the attempted translation above because my sources are a little hazy on the exact meaning (I don’t speak Kiswahili, let alone Sheng). So if you’ve got a better idea, please let me know.

I’ve been criticized by some Kenyans (OK, one Kenyan) for blogging music that has already made the rounds on the Kenyan webosphere. Well, whatever… If it you don’t like me giving East Africa its propers, I can always move onto another region next week.

Until then, I’ll be bumpin’ Kare out of my personal listening device (no brand names will get shout outs here).

Weekend jam: allez Décalé Chrétien!

Nairobi’s Daddy Owen has taken Coupé-Décalé, the Franco-Ivoirian dance craze, to church with his praise song, Kupe De Kalle.

The song is at least six months old, though NPR just picked it up, so it’s been making the Internet rounds a bit more in the last few days. (The NPR article is oddly incomplete in describing the origins of Coupé-Décalé — doesn’t even name the style, which is several years old. For that, read the Wikipedia article.)

This is interesting and unexpected to me for a few reasons.

  • The distance between East and West Africa often seems vast. It is usually cheaper and easier, after all, to fly from Nairobi to London than it is to fly from Nairobi to Abidjan. (Read about some of the shenanigans involved in intra-African flights here.) Thus, talking to some Kenyans, for example, one often feels that people sort of think of West Africa as the bizarro world on the other side of the continent where life is unpleasantly loud and in your face. This song is an example of the digital breakdown of that distance — something that is increasingly common with high speed web connections.
  • There is a mild East African flavor to this version of Coupé-Décalé. It’s hard to describe. It’s not quite as hard-hitting, but a little easier to listen to while kicking back, than those joints from the Jet Set.
  • And Coupé-Décalé is a style that epitomizes raunchiness, ridiculousness and excess — not the genre you’d expect to be mined for church music. (Cue comment from reader revealing that there’s been a gospel Coupé-Décalé movement in the Ivory Coast for the last five years that I don’t know about.)

Check it.

Of course, music has always been one of those things that crossed African divides — borders, languages, politics, religion, great distance — with relative ease. So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. In any case, this is awesome. Makes me want to go put on some pointy shoes and spit some gibberish raps.

Referendum Kenya

The big vote is tomorrow. (Pretty good article (I think) by Gettleman.)

In addition to the news, here’s what I’m watching: anti-apathy clips from Kuweni Serious :

(Browse through their stuff for some others featuring Makmende, like this one where dude is complaining about government efforts to encourage birth control.)

(HT to LL.)

7 songs that rocked Kenya and Tanzania last year

I was sharing links to music that was popular in East Africa last year with my brother (find his alter ego here), and he asked me to put them in a list for him. That’s a good idea for my blog, I said. Only trouble is, having recently been endorsed as a blog that will make you “a better person” by the Scarlett Lion, the bar for new posts is now a bit high. A simple countdown of my faves will not suffice. Luckily, I have deep experience describing pop musical phenomena in a way that makes them seem like they have social significance (see, for example, my interview of K’naan).

So here’s a list of seven songs that I liked that got a good amount of play in East Africa in 2009, along with some context that explains why each shows something “deeper” about society. Enjoy. Continue reading

My profile of Kwani? for the Christian Science Monitor

Alas, everything’s getting published on the day I leave East Africa.

It might be just another club night in party-hearty Nairobi. In a little, second-floor downtown bar bathed in red lights and decorated with funky paintings, crunk music thumps from a high-quality sound system. Couples at tables sip drinks.

But then, after a few measures, the music stops, and a poet takes the stage. Wearing dreadlocks and an orange scarf tied around his head, Kennet B begins a spoken-word tirade against environmental degradation and corruption.

“Something revolutionary is going to happen tonight,” he announces. The crowd shouts its approval. Read more.

Leave her, Johnny, leave her: Top 10 things I’ll miss about Kenya & Tanzania

"Oh I thought I heard the old man say, leave her, Johnny, leave her..."

It’s time to sing sea shanties and lift the parting glass: I’m leaving East Africa. For now, at least.

I head to New York City this evening. I have plenty of thoughts about freelancing, opportunities and career decisions, but I’m going to save those for another post. I also have a bunch of undigested material from East Africa, so readers of this blog may feel like I am still here for a few weeks (I haven’t even put up the Uganda and Kenya sections to my Ridiculous Roadtrip (TM) account. I’ve actually been without consistent Internet for about the last 10 days, which has kept me from writing and engaging more.)

But now, here’s something in the way of goodbye to this beautiful region, which now firmly occupies a large place in my heart. (When you’re about to leave a place, you somehow begin to remember only the good things about it; and those things loom larger and larger as the hour of departure draws near.)

In a nod to the conventions of blogging, here are the top 10 things I’m going to miss, each, about Tanzania and Kenya, the countries where I spent the most time during the last six months. (This reflects my personal experience, so if you think something’s missing – make your own list!) Continue reading