Kenya day 1: It’s a conference Jim, but not as we know it.

 Dear Sir,

RE: 2-6th JUNE 2008 NAIROBI CITY, KENYA PEACE CULTURAL AND CREATIVE ARTS EXTRAVAGANZA – LETTER OF INVITATION

In respect to the above, it is my humble and sincere pleasure to take this opportunity to officially invite you in this occasion as both a participant as well as our Chief Guest Speaker. The theme of this event will be ‘The role of Culture and creative arts in Eliminating ethnicity and violence and child Abuse’. As you may be aware, Kenya recently was recently involved in post election political violence. God, through foreign countries helped us get out of it. But we will never want this to happen again in our country and the rest of the world hence this Forum….

There’s an early sense of this whole event being a complete fiasco: there’s no ‘event’ or ‘conference’ to speak of at all and a real sense of being spun a complete yarn. But today that’s ameliorated a bit what with the trip to St Filomena’s orphanage: small kids choirs complete with a matriarch and semi-pissed music teacher  who seems to sing out of tune during most of his contribution. The setting cannot help evoke a sense of sombreness, as you soon find out that one kid (at least) has HIV / AIDS (+) who went (-); another has TB and sweats gently but persistently throughout the time we’re sat in a small water closet of a room, in which all give thanks, refer to the Lord a lot and emphasise the challenge they face.

Kids do impromptu, rehearsed skits or tricks for us visitors.  One boy ripples his stomach in such a way to make it look like he has no stomach; another wriggles through the scrubby grass, worm like; another stalks the scrubland, shoulder blades pushed back to suggest a small, impoverished, rather pathetic lion. We clap, impressed, more wanting to encourage and appreciate the efforts they’ve gone to.  As another girl is to point out later in the week, just being given a platform to be heard and seen is good for the morale, suggesting at it does that at least people are heard and seen here and haven’t become invisible to the rest of the world. One of the adults in the orphanage makes the same point towards the end of our visit: the biggest curse they face is that of invisibility.  It’s in vain, it’s all in vain, they sing to us as we leave them.

One lad shows us a drawing of an aeroplane and his text of “I want to be a pilot” underneath makes you realise the only knowledge he has of planes is when one flies overhead. It transpires later that the orphanage is the site of many visits, many donors and that many children are taken out and entertained and made to feel a bit special for a moment or two.

This specialness is a bit of a set up. We visitors go there for the first time and it’s a special event for us and it comes laden with feelings of authenticity, uniqueness, walking on new (albeit scrubby) pastures: but actually this path is well trod, often trod and for these kids there is nothing special about having another gang of overseas tourists and foreigners comer to gawp at them, feel solemn and express feelings of wonderment and shock and horror and surprise: almost like a pilgrimage. There’s a potential funny side to this, with kids wiseing up to the daily gawping adults and playing it for all its worth.

Later, we head to a community centre in Dandora in the throes of being (re?)built / newly built, in the middle of which  a dance troupe, Waza Afrika, take centre place. They go through aspects of their act for us ; good quality, entertain-the-tourist fodder it seems now, entertaining for all that but you wonder: after their talk of ‘preserving the culture’, about who the culture is being preserved for, by whom, for what purpose and at what cost (not just financially but ethically, aesthetically and spiritually).

This time we gawp without guilt, but in pleasure, tapping our feet along to the frenetic rhythms and the energy and enthusiasm which is stereotypically infectious, as are the whites of the eyes and teeth of the black boy and girl faces. Memories of the black and white minstrel show on English TV hovers in the background, as does the more pathetic routines of celidhs we have been to in which white adults jointly, severally, uniquely and individually, engage in some very half hearted, watered down grey tone routines and drills in a spirit that is equally grey , watered down and half hearted. At least the Kenyans do this kind of stuff in Technicolor and in stereo.

Meanwhile, a gang of youths, hover by the back window of the space, looking on silently, immobile and immune to the spectacle before them. A choreographic feast I call it later when talking to the group. They’re not let in as it could, according to Jackson, cause a security problem. But it is funny how un-infecting and how un-infectious these performances are to the audience who are perhaps most familiar with it: although perhaps not surprising either. The ‘dance-for-the-tourist’ is not the same thing as the ‘dance-for-our-community’ and local people can easily spot the differences and remain untouched and disinterested in the former, sensing and knowing that it bears a peculiar relation to the latter; perhaps having become a gross distortion in its desire to please the white visitor.

The day is held together by the heroic madcap driving of Joseph, the manager / finance officer / would be PhD student in London: but who didn’t get his visa in time and so who missed the plane. He drives through some pretty vile slum lands and places of the internally displaced persons – tyres, filth, dust, miniscule shops, ramshackle, chaotic, shit in the streets, vegetable stalls, chickens cooped up ready for slaughter, dangling off poles as they’re walked to meet their malign maker; pot holed roads with intermittent speed bumps so large they scrape a hefty layer of rust and metal off the bottom of the overladen hire car every time they’re driven over, burning grassland, Man Utd emblems, flame grilled burger hoardings, and row upon row upon row of people selling bedsteads – four posters by the look of them, as if its obvious that you’re going to have 2 kids / bed, you may as well have four per bed. 18 were crammed into one of the ‘bedrooms’ at St Filomenas: allocated into 4 beds, packed tightly together, one of which had a bed pan underneath it with something indescribable in it.

Here, even the shit looks worse than western shit. Consistency, colour, fluidity, solidity, smell, particularly the smell: all tell their own story of the undernourished peoples who have still managed to fill this pan with their overflowing guts and bladders. Despite not eating or drinking much, these peoples’ guts still manage to generate waste of a particularly malevolent type and in quantities which make you wonder where it’s all come from.

And what of the conference? Well, we and others are conferring although you wouldn’t call us delegates in the usual sense of the word. There are plenty of presentations in context, but no Powerpoints or data projectors are to be seen which distance the event from its context, or even extract the event and the context and re-package them both as a series of texts into the usual Microsoft package. Just what is this phenomenon of event / context / presentation all about? Yet more simulacra I guess.

There are a few discussions, of the adoring and praising type, but little critical conversation save what we ruminate about in the car and afterwards at the social part of the ‘conference’ -at  the bar. Jackson refers, rightly, to this  event as a remote conference , although its hard to suggest that there is any more than one delegate in this scenario, surrounded by a plethora of contributors, supporters and security surrogates.

Through the day we talk about what might be:  trips to Liverpool for the dance troupe, possible student interventions in St Filomenas, my need to go to the British High Commission; possible strategic project building,  all between blokes who haven’t met each other ever before.  And here we are, planning a pioneering arts education event together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Have we gone mad or what?

The presence of the Lord was felt this morning but was absent in the afternoon. It has permeated the last 48 hours though, with a sense of is there something brewing up here which would be potentially life shaping, and a sense that we’re in some deeper, faster flowing waters than we might care to admit to or feel comfortable with.

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