Sunday, August 29, 2010

21 July: Voi to Nakuru

We awoke in the morning, elephants sadly departed, and hit the road again, all the way back to Nakuru.  Not much to report, but I did manage to find a sort of nonsense reference in the following:

Groundnuts = peanuts
For any who don’t know, our own familiar “Yankee Doodle” is American Revolutionary nonsense and always delightful to encounter in the mom-and-pop shops of Kenya.  And in the same shop, this delightful parfum de l'homme:

Made with extract of ???
My only regret is that I didn’t purchase this, as I’m dying to find out more about Obama’s odiferous nature.  Many more hours on the dusty fusty rusty road brought us back to Merica Hotel, and looking forward to the next day, when we would do some field work at a local school…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

20 July, 2010: Mombasa to Malindi to Voi

Adrian, Beatrice, and I left Mombasa early in order to make our appointment in Malindi, a few hours up the coast.  I felt as if I had made the best of the ISOLA conference, even though my time there was somewhat brief.  At least I hadn’t heaved my huts into the Indian ocean the day before, so all was not lost.  On the way out of the city, we happened to pass by a critical tourist shopping stop:

We are headed to a section of Malindi known as the first village in East Africa (so I’m told), and I politely decline seeing the coral pillar set by Vasco da Gama (a noble name referring to his mother’s varicose veins), to mark his “discovering” it.  We have come here to witness a traditional dance and to sit on the performers firmly until nonsense oozes out from their prepostulators.  As we wait for them to dry their drums (for the rains are coming and going), we visit the nearby butterfly farmers’ collective, a project that pays villagers in the local forest to farm butterflies rather than to cut down the trees and make charcoal, or some other less-than-lepidopterrific activity.

We return to the compound, where we suck down some coconut water and watch the show.  They begin with traditional dances, but once they are through, we ask about children’s games, trying to edge them ever onwards to nonsensical activities.

They demonstrate a few games, including the following one that seems fairly common throughout Kenya:

The leader of the group goes to great lengths to explain various games, songs, traditions, and old stories.

Because Adrian and Beatrice don’t speak the local language, much of the material has to be roughly translated on the spot into Kiswahili, making our selection process more difficult.  By the end of the afternoon, though, we have much footage and a lot of translation work ahead, to see what gems may be within.  

After giving us gifts of medicinal plants and flowers, the performers see us off, and we tootle our way (that’s about 6 hours of tootling, making my tootler a bit sore) back to Voi, our resting stop before going back to Nakuru.  We end up, after much driving around, getting rooms at the Red Elephant, a game park hotel.  In the darkness, about 30 yards from our hotel-hut doors, on the other side of a substantial fence, and standing placidly by a watering hole, a family of elephants slurps us to sleep.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sunday-Monday, 18-19 July, 2010: ISOLA conference

On Sunday I was up early for the first session of the ISOLA conference, hoping that perhaps I could give my paper if a delegate did not arrive, since a scheduling snafu had slated my paper to arrive before I did.  I went to one of the panels that included Mubina Kirmani, an Indian Kenyan who had written a book on the large Indian population in the country—a topic that I thought might dovetail with my own research.  The panel members were all there, unfortunately for me, but they were kind enough to let me give a brief, 10-minute spiel on the Anthology.  Immediately after, I was called away by a conference worker because they had, at the last minute, found a spot where I could do my whole paper—a dollop of goop fortune on this, the last day and the last panel.  I was escorted to another open-air hut-like building, with a session already in progress.  After papers on music and dance, and the nature of conflict (not a bad preamble to nonsense), I was able to give my paper.  All went well, though there was an odd moment.  Just after I performed the throat singing piece, “Dürgan Chugaa” (from the group Alash), a whole troop of monkeys descended from the roof area and gathered on the rafters, looking on curiously.  The audience members found this most amusing, claiming that my grumbly kargyraa style of throat-singing had called the monkeys, which might very well be true. It was certainly a conference-first for me!

Yarn-artist's rendition of Mombasa monkey
mesmerized by throat singing. Note: the mesmereyes.
After the session, and over the next couple of days, I was able to meet many oral literature scholars from different countries, many of whom were interested in our project and may be able to contribute. 

The sessions having finished around noon, Adrian and I declined the conference trip to Mombasa in order to orchestrate our fieldwork material from the Osiri Beach area and even begin a little translation.  We sat in the lobby as the monsoon-like rains fell and darkness settled, finally able to look back on our long hours of recordings.

On Monday, I went on the conference excursion to the “marine park” and Wasini Island.  After an hour and a half rough boat ride, during which many folks got sick (not I, with a steely stare at the horizon and a steady chew of my South African biltung (jerky)), they cast out the anchor in the open sea and told us to don our swimming costumes—for the marine park turned out to be under water!  Most of us, dressed in our conference casual, were not quite prepared to go snorkeling—and besides, our green pallor would have made us difficult to distinguish, and pluck out, from the heaving seas.  We headed to Wasini Island for a lovely lunch, a tour through the village, and a look at the coral gardens, a green plain bordering mangrove swamp, dotted with jagged coral boulders in fantastical shapes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Saturday, 17 July 2010: Voi to Mombasa and ISOLA conference

I didn’t want to make the first pizza from the last blog entry too obvious, but I have tell you now that our hotel last night was called the Silent Resort, and true to such a topsy-turvy adventure, it turned out that all night long, I listened to the dulcet thumping of a delightfully repetitive African pop bass line.  And when I say all night, I mean all night…music still pumping as we left… Whence the beat, you might ask?  No doubt the natives in the secret underground caverns that stretch from Egypt to the Grand Canyon, via Voi and surely a right (or wrong) turn in Albuquerque.

Adrian, Beatrice, and I packed ourselves back into our trusty car—which has by now had a flat tire, a punctured gas tank, and alignment perfectly calibrated for Moon craters, and hit it bright and early for Mombasa and the 8th conference of the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA).  The terrain went from scrubby des(s)ert to coconut cream pie as we hit the coast, where the heat and humidity are fairly staggering (though they’ve got nothing on a Delhi summer). 

We arrived in the afternoon at the conference hotel and venue, called the Leisure Lodge, which, despite its name, is not a retirement home in Florida but rather a lovely beach-hut-turned-circus-tent kind of resort, complete with monkeys inside and outside the main structures.  Because we had arrived after the start of the conference, Adrian and I had to slide into conference mode immediately, as we attended papers, meals, and schmoozing sessions.  I was fortunate to be able to meet with Judith Jefwa, a professor at the University of Nairobi, with whom I had been in touch via email a few month earlier, and who had expressed some interest in contributing to the anthology.  I also briefly met Dr. Peter Wasamba, chair of the Literature department at Nairobi and head organizer of the conference, who was kind enough not only to insert me into the conference late, but also to distribute among the delegates the Call For Papers flyers for the anthology.  The sessions on this day and the following were fascinating, especially for a scholar very much of the page such as myself.  As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the performative aspect of oral literature represents a whole new dimension to art, and it was eminently and elementally edifying to be among top scholars in the field.

What better way to top off a day of oral literature scholarly discourse than to enjoy the massive hotel buffet while listening to a local musician’s Casio goodness renditions of John Denver? 

I would have preferred the Beatles, or at least this Beetle.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Friday 16 July, 2010: Nakuru to Voi

Note Bene: For all those who have tried to post comments in the past, I believe I’ve fixed the problem—so please do post your comments!

Today was another slog of driving, from Nakuru to Voi, a town much closer to Mombasa and also where Adrian and Beatrice’s son, Paul, goes to college.  The drive was long, but completely rewarding.  We went away from the green climes of western and central Kenya and were moving into the eastern part, which is much dryer and hotter.  The grassy plains, with waves of tall brown grass hiding, no doubt, many a lion and lesser quangle-wangle, are dotted with gorgeous acacia trees which soon gave way to baobobs.  I realize now that the trees that I’ve been drawing all my life have actually been baobob trees, even though I’ve never met one. 

Massive, sectioned trunks that narrow dramatically into branches twisted fantastically.  After a long drive, with Adrian bravely taking on the endless random speed bumps and bribe-baiting police, and overtaking the black-cloud-spewing overloaded trucks moving 20 miles per hour, we arrived in Voi, where we immediately met with Paul, who introduced me to a young man and two elders from a local tribe, from the hills nearby.  We went to our hotel balcony where our guests recited nursery rhymes, game rhymes, and my favorite (even if not nonsense), the “beer blessing,” a ceremony performed by the father to the son when the son is to have his first beer.  It involves the father spitting/spraying beer on the son’s forehead and rubbing the beer into the scalp in long massaging motions, all the while warning him of the dangers of drinking.  We found one interesting nonsense piece that seems to be in many versions throughout Kenya, a rhyme recited when the children are going through the crops with sticks to kill the locusts (locusts which, by the way, I saw today… apparently quite a delicacy, as well).  Many thanks to all participants, especially those who came from the hills…

After the session, we had dinner, only to encounter these pizzas:

 If anyone can explain the naming of any of these, I would be most appreciative.  I know you have all missed the menus from last summer in Eastern Europe, so I hope this begins to satisfy you…  Suggestions in the comments, below??