Matt Groening once said that people go into cartooning because they
are shy and they are angry yet this cannot even begin to describe the
vibe of the six Kenyan cartoonists whose works are currently on
exhibition at the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi. Using the tool they
understand best, the pencil, these artists colorfully trace president
Obama’s life from his father’s homeland in Kogelo to his visit to
Kenya in 2006 and his long awaited visit as president of the United

That  the different artists’ themes intersect with underlying common
themes and bitingly funny captions  is what  keeps art lovers glued to
the walls on the first floor art gallery at Alliance;  giving it
popularity at a time when other  people complain of experiencing too
much Obama talk, a condition social media enthusiasts  have since
termed #overobama.
A number of themes are explored and the artists manage to show us,
albeit tongue in cheek, the ridiculousness of some of the traditional
stereotypes we hold as a nation. They do so flawlessly, fluidly
transcend touchy topics like tribalism and political myopia and
brilliantly spreading rays of humor and wit over current world affairs
and right into Obama’s Kenyan heritage.

The issues highlighted range from African leaders’ obsession with
clinging to power, tribalism, America-Kenya-China relationships, the
toa kitu kidogo mentality, the strange travel habits of overloading
and carrying all belongings home and even the hypocrisy of hiding our
dirty side and showing guests our best side
The showcased works belong to six of Kenya’s best cartoonists among
them Celeste, Gado, Gammz, Gathara, Maddo and Victor Ndula. It was
curated by Patrick Gathara and is supported by Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

One theme explored, African leaders habit of clinging to power issue
is best illustrated in Victor Ndula’s Africa Advises President Obama
where an anonymous African president informs Obama that ‘African’
Presidents always get re-elected, a tongue-in cheek proclamation
given how in  many of this continents’ countries, the so called
‘re-election’ presidents force themselves back to power  by altering
constitutions and rigging votes.
Another widespread theme explores the relationship between Kenya and
America with Ndula suggesting a softening of the relationship after
years of not seeing eye to eye. The cartoon captioned ‘Thawing
Relations’ shows the ice cubes that hold presidents Uhuru and Obama
thawing and thus giving way to warmer, friendlier relations.

The cartoonists too speak a similar language on the
China-America-Kenya relationship turning it into a delightfully funny
tale of rivalry and jealousy. The first is Gado’s cartoon Obama to
Visit Africa which shows Obama getting off Air Force One and being
received by Chinese officials. He then loudly wonders if he is in
Africa or China and is promptly informed that he has to do more if he
is to curb Chinese influence here. Celeste however, carries the day on
this particular matter with her drawing which shows an unfaithful
Africa arm in arm with a bouquet carrying America but secretly holding
China’s hand behind America’s back. This, maybe a loud statement of
how distrustful African nations have become of the West.

It is hard for one to resist bursting into laughter at the biting
satire engrained in the artworks dealing with Obama’s Kenyan-ness and
our right to receive goodies from ‘our’ son. The artists vividly take
on expectations of a country that claims the man as one of its sons.
Gammzs’ Obama Presidency sets off this theme perfectly with Kenyans
expecting ridiculous goodies from Obama ranging from forgiveness of
Kenya’s debts to payment of fees in American Universities to green
cards for his relatives from Kogelo and even  kitu kidogo for the
parents whose  child is named after him. His other cartoon, Nyumbani
Tunasija shows the typically Kenyan habits of carrying all our earthly
belongings from mattresses to seats and overloading when going to
shagz for a visit.

In the end, even as economic analysts argue that Obama’s visit was
meant to change America’s relationship with Africa from the its
traditional elements of humanitarian aid towards a new focus with
Africa as a potential trade  partner, I like more the cartoonists
version of Obama as jealous and angry at China for overtaking the
United States as Africa’s biggest trade partner; and of him as the
good ‘native’ son, arriving home bearing gifts and goodies for those
of us fortunate enough to share our homeland with this son of a Kenyan
father working abroad. The exhibition is on till 23rd August at
Alliance Francaise first floor gallery.

This article was first published in the Saturday Nation.



On Sunday August 16th, amid the sweltering Nairobi heat, the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi hosted the 57th edition of Slam Africa competition. A stiffly contested and vibrant affair, the event started off with recitation of well crafted pieces by nine poets  and ended with one of them, Sanaa Arman taking home the trophy and the  Slam King title.
 The event, under the Nandi flame tree that towers over the Alliance gardens, attracted hundreds of slam poetry lovers from all spheres of life, from activists like Boniface Mwangi to academics such as Dr. Wandia Njoya and communication specialists like Dennis Itumbi.
The competitors thrilled the audience with creatively crafted poems that contained memorable lines and saw slam lovers snap their fingers in glee. They tackled a number of issues affecting youth in contemporary Kenya. The issues ranged from yellow fever (the youth obsession with light skin which leads to bleaching) to single parenthood, relationships and politicians’ greed.  Sanaa may have taken home the trophy but the first runner up, Willie Oeba won over the hearts of the audience with a very intimate and moving  piece dedicated to his Mother
The festival also featured guest performances by former slam kings and poets. El Poet performed his well loved piece The School bell Rings alongside a more recent one, I am who I am which spoke of the stereotyping of Somali Kenyans by suspecting them of being terrorists. Another poet, Ngartia performed a moving piece ’Mpeketoni on My mind’ a poem fused with guitar music from Ciano. Former Slam king Teadrops, ended the guest performances with a powerful piece Hii Street, a sheng tribute to the ghetto streets which, in spite of  thuggery and toughness still raise successful  youth.
So what exactly is a poetry slam and when did it start in Kenya?
A poetry slam is a competitive poetry reading in which poets perform their own writings  for scores. There is elimination at each stage with only those who score high marks moving on to the next round. It originated in a Chicago barroom   in the 80’s when a man named Marc Smith let the audience judge by boos and cheers, poems performed on stage.
In Kenya, slam poetry was first staged in 2006 with the help of poetess Shailja Patel on behalf of Kwani Trust. It has since acquired a life of its own, drawing poetry lovers and improving in quality.
 ‘Poetry contestants are finally getting into mature spaces with the quality of their poems. For a long time slammers would always go for things that make crowds shout and scream, however, that was done at the expense of real, quality poetry. So Sunday’s slam poetry stage looked quite grown up, which is a good thing’ said  slam lover, poet and Love FM radio presenter Kyansimire.
Slam poetry has a number of tight rules governing it; the piece being performed must be a writers’ own. Maximum time given is three minutes thirty seconds and performers are penalized if they take more time. There is also no use of costumes, props or musical instruments.
This type of poetry is however, not the sort of thing you’d expect to find in schools and university lecture halls thanks to its  language, flamboyancy and color. Instead of the somber mood of the school poems whose writers are almost always dead poets with strange names like T.S Eliot or D. H Lawrence, this particular pieces are recited by their authors. They  also give keen interest on their performativity and aim at reaching the audience’s soul  with deep feelings. Slam poetry is thus a timely gift-a trojan horse- to sheng poets who can seldom find space for their art in the rigid academic sphere our society is.
So, do academics consider this ‘real’ poetry since it wasn’t devised after deep intellectual reflections but was instead born in a bar?
Dr Wandia Njoya is positive and enthusiastic about slam poetry as a modern form of engaging with creative works. ‘I’m happy that poetry has moved from the corridors of the university to the streets where it belongs. I don’t agree with that notion passed on in literary discourses that poetry is dead, it just needs innovation. If you package it nicely then it becomes engaging, entertaining and full of soul’ added the Daystar university lecturer who invites slam poets to her classes whenever she is teaching poetry.
University of Nairobi don Dr. Tom Odhiambo  shares Dr. Wandia’s views ‘This argument that ‘real’ poetry is dead in Kenya is just a lazy argument perpetrated by a bunch of people who are nostalgic about the past and who associate poetry with particular big names. Just last month, Amka and Goethe Institut launched an anthology of poetry, yesterday I was editing my students’ collection of poetry so as far as I am concerned, poetry is indeed alive and vibrant in Kenya,’ he said.
Though still somewhat a literary novelty and oddity, slam poetry has experienced exponential growth in Kenya. Yet only time will tell whether it will be around for a long time to come or whether, as claimed by writer Dana Gioia, it is just a populist revival of verse inspired by the oral culture of radio, TV, film and the internet and which will pass soon.
‘Slam is definitely here to stay. A lot of people think it’s this new phenomenon but it’s been around for years. Even when media wasn’t covering it, it was alive and thriving. So definitely it’s not going anywhere. Says Kyansimire.
When all is said and done, it is of essence to note that slam poetry has succeeded in achieving something  old school  poetry didn’t; creating a  successful marriage of diverse personalities; self-taught and  trained academics recite side by side, old school and new age poets compete on a similar platform in sheng and English. It also creates a very intimate authentic connection between poets and their audiences, giving poets the pleasure of seeing how their pieces resonate with audiences.
 Its growing influence is evidenced by the sponsors who came on board to support the competition that was judged by veteran poets Nana Poet, Richie Maccs, Kevin Oreto, Mufasa and Wanjiku Mwaura.
This article was first published in the East African Newspaper.

LAKE BARINGO: Mythical Waters of Seven Islands

An hour’s drive from the sweltering Marigat town will set you safely on the shores of one of the two Rift Valley fresh water lakes; Lake Baringo. Unlike its sister lake Bogoria which is salty and thus contains no fish, Lake Baringo is animate with aquatic life, from five types of fish to friendly crocodiles and  huge hippo’s. The numerous local tribes that live around the lake make it a colorful place to visit for you cannot fail to bump upon Tugens, Njemps, Maasai Fishermen and Pokots coexisting peacefully.

There are numerous myths and anecdotes that you will hear from the fishermen and the fishmongers about the 130km lake but the first thing you will notice is that the water levels have increased and thus moved towards land and submerged trees and hotels which were once on dry land.
And if you are a fish lover, you may as well whet your appetite as you head to the lake, for there is a small market by the lake where fresh fish is fried and hawked for only 50 shillings a piece. And what’s more, you could simply take your pick from the many varieties like tilapia, catfish, barbers  or lung fish fished using nets or hook and line.
This lake that lies to the left of the breathtaking Tugen hills is also home to hundreds of species of  fauna. Because of the fish, there are over 400 species of birds that hover around the lake, diving to get some fresh food for themselves. Bird watching is thus an excellent recreation here too especially around Kampi ya Samaki area.
A boat ride on the lake is inevitable if you wish to see the friendly crocodiles therein. If you care to ask, you will be informed of how to tell their ages; slaughter the crocodile(you are not told how), then count the stones you get in the stomach. Each stone represents a year! Alternatively, you could simply check its back, if grass grows on it, then it is an old crocodile.
 Lake Baringo also has hippopotamus which are said to be territorial and live in groups of fifteen, fourteen females and one male. Of course it is heartwarming to know that the money you pay for the boat ride will go a long way in supporting the locals, for the boats are owned communally and the income belongs to the whole community.
Yet the most intriguing tale of the lake lies hidden behind the seven islands that are visible from the shore but which are only a boat ride away.
 Parmolok Island, the island of love, is the most popular and is said to be owned by one man, famously known as Baringo’s Akuku danger because of his five wives and 27 children. He also has numerous cattle which are said to swim across the lake to the marketplace on market days.
Ol Kokwe island, the biggest island on the lake is populated by the Il Chamus and also contains hot springs where one can boil fish.
The Devil’s Island is deserted and named so because the locals believe the devil lives on it. Apparently, they hear ghosts mooing like cows and bleating like goats during the day. At night, flames of fire are seen.
There is Samatian island, the green island with lodges and campsites. The other three islands are seasonal and thus submerged during high water seasons.
When all is said and done, a visitor to this lake cannot forget two things; coming face to face with the only Maasais  in Kenya who are fishermen and meeting Pokots and Tugens who actually sit togather peacefully to share a meal of fried  fish.
This article was first published in the Daily Nation


If Mombasa old town was to be a person, then, he’d without a doubt be that old Swahili pirate with lots and lots of delightful ancient travel tales and relics and a single eye as evidence of his numerous adventures.
A ten minutes ride on a tuk-tuk from downtown Mombasa town, past tall whistling coconut palms, will deliver you, safe and sound at the entrance of Mombasa old town. The ancient town will then, as in a time travel tale, stretch out its arms and enfold you into its rich history, taking you years and years back.
 Yet it is not Mombasa Old town’s history that will take your breath away at first but its 18th century artful architecture; carved and curved beautiful old buildings, elegant balconies and coral walls whose designs were influenced by Portuguese and Islamic Arab traders of old.
A stroll around the old city through its narrow streets and boulevards is as pleasant a tour as you can possibly make though it is highly unlikely that you will cover the whole 180 acres of land which make Old Town Mombasa.
A rich cultural melting point, Old town Mombasa is home to a blend of people among them Arabs, Asians, local Swahili’s and who knows, you might even  bump upon the occasional Portuguese who decided to stay behind after completing the construction of Fort Jesus.
Historically, the architecture of the old town was influenced by Mombasa’s trade culture. Trade came about as a result of  the town housing old port, the first harbor in Kenya. The old port, it is said, still brings in spices from Zanzibar.
The people of old town are as delightful and mysterious as the town itself. The women and girls, clad in buibuis and kangas and the men in long white kanzus will sure send a warm smile your direction. And if you happen to have a minute, nay, an hour to spare, then these good natured people, famed for their rich oral history, might tell you winding tales of invisible Djinnis that live on the ancient walls in the town.
If, like me, you have a fetish for keepsakes, then Mombasa Old Town will charm you some more, for the many old buildings are but, alas! Antique and curio shops full of treasures like Arabian vases and Aladdin lamps, Portuguese art, Asian rags and Swahili artifacts.
And if this treasure hunt leads you to Ali’s Curio shop, then know right there, that you are standing on a history house. For Ali’s, with its coral walls, was built by Brits in 1898 and it housed the first police station in Mombasa.
A keen listener might hear in the distance, the sound of swash and backwash waves slapping the sandy shore. For the town is located on Tudor creek and thus behind the town buildings is the vast Indian ocean. And if you listen some more, then, you might just hear the rustling palm trees whispering dark secrets of 15th century ivory trade.  
This article was first published in the Daily Nation


Dear Professor Ngugi,
Even I, agree that come back  home is a very beautiful phrase. Especially when spoken to a prodigal child, an embittered spouse or an exiled writer. It could even be more tempting when uttered by not just a fellow ‘cowardly’ writer but the head of state himself. And what’s more, in your case, it was told as you received a smile here, a Ketepa cup of tea there and a handshake somewhere. Therefore, I wouldn’t judge you too harshly if you were already thinking of packing your bags once you landed in the good city of California. However, I’d like to give you some counsel on why you shouldn’t move to Kenya just yet…
First of all, moving from University of Irvin to University of Nairobi will mean that you take a huge salary slash.  As you might be aware Mr. Ngugi, our local universities can’t afford to pay you even half the salary you are receiving at UCI. That will then mean that you will have to join other intellectuals in the country in carrying placards from time to time  and singing along to ‘mapambano’. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of a legendary Kenyan pioneer writer being tear-gassed at Uhuru park. Professor, please spare this ardent fan of yours such pain.
Because you are a creative mind professor, I know you will soon start contributing to newspapers to supplement your meager lecturer’s earnings. Sadly though, that will be as bad as brain drain because your well thought out, well crafted newspaper articles  will be used to wrap meat in butcheries. so No Professor, do continue writing for the New York Post and the Iowa Review, at least you are assured we cannot use the online editions to wrap our nyama.
I read somewhere that your latest book won an award and you were celebrated by your University. Here, sir, things are slightly different. You will win  a prize yes. A whooping fifty thousand shillings for the Jomo Kenyatta Literary Prize. I suspect  you may  have two problems with that. First, the current inflation makes fifty thousand quite a small amount. With it, you cannot even afford to rent a house in Westlands as you wait for your   lecturer salary savings to grow.
Also, I doubt you’d be particularly enthused about having the name of the man  who  had you detained you at the back of your books.
Professor, it is indeed true that  the Kenyan citizenry is no longer lying  warm and quiet under  the blanket of fear as we did during the dictator Moi’s Era  but admittedly, this is as bad a time as any other to come  back home. Can you name one street in Nairobi that was named after a writer and not a politician? As you toured the city sir, have you seen a monument erected for a writer like the one put up in  Dublin- Ireland for the writer James Joyce?  We might need talent now sir, but we are still not able to appreciate it or pay so it handsomely.
Another thing bwana Ngugi, you are not exactly a mason and so building the nation requires not your physical strength but your intellect, which can be harnessed even as you sit in your house in California.
Lastly, if we really want you to contribute intellectually to our country, then,  surely, we can engage you as a visiting professor from time to time. If as taxpayers we can easily enable our county government officials  namely MCA’s to  travel back and forth in the universe, then, it can never be too difficult to  pay the good professor a few shillings for chai and airfare.
And yes, I might sound like Soyinka’s proverbial guest who mourns louder than the bereaved family. But then which writer wants to see her country’s greatest writer underpaid, unappreciated and drowning in a flooded city when he can has a better alternative? As far as I am concerned, I want to see what my country can do for you,  professor Ngugi, not the other way round.
This article was first published in the Saturday Nation.