Monthly Archives: September 2013

Why I’ll still be flying home to Kenya – even after Westgate

ON July 8, 2005, I watched with a sense of admiration as London commuters steadfastly made their way to work.

Heads down, grim faces and square shoulders, displaying that particular kind of dogged British stoicism, Londoners trudged to tube stations and bus stops as if the worst terrorist attack on British soil hadn’t happened the day before.

This week I, along with fellow Kenyans and adopted Kenyans all over the globe, glued myself to live updates on news websites as the unfathomable horrors of the Westgate attack in Nairobi unfurled.

I ran my phone battery down refreshing pages, mumbling monosyllabically at interruptions to my internet vigil and refreshing the pages last thing before I went to bed and as soon I woke up in the morning.

The mounting feeling of horror spread over four long days, a tight knot in my belly muddled with anger, anxiety and the bitter pull of homesickness didn’t leave me for a moment.

Scouring Facebook for news of Nairobi friends – a one line status, or the changing of a profile picture to a Kenyan flag signalled they were ok – became a nervous twitch.

Sliding underneath the hard anxiety was the same admiration I’d felt when Brits pulled together in 2005 as Kenyans all over the country queued to pump the blood from their veins into blood banks so that it might save another’s life.

Volunteers camped overnight by the besieged mall, cooking meals for the red-eyed ranks of journalists, police and armed forces, restaurants delivered pizza, celebrities delivered water and members of the Nairobian Somali community made their own brave pilgrimage to the site to show solidarity and deliver food.

The message from home was one of unrelenting solidarity, a show of togetherness that transcended race, religion and social boundaries.

I have no doubt that Kenya’s fighting, uniting spirit will be vital in healing its wounds, but there are longer term fears that trouble my mind – we in Kenya have seen violence before and the disastrous effect it’s had on the Kenyan economy.

It doesn’t feel long ago since I returned from Kenya following a Christmas visit in 2007, the year election riots bubbled up like lava as the delicate thread holding together ancient tribal wounds was ripped apart and hatred and unspeakable violence erupted through the cracks.

We sat clenched and huddled in front of our TV screens which showed images of armed and inexperienced riot police beating men in cotton shirts who held no weapons. Children howled as bullets rained down and innocents fell to the ground; women and children were burnt to death in a church in Eldoret as they sought sanctuary.

And the effect on the tourist industry was enough to see visitors opt to avoid Kenya this February surrounding the next set of elections, which thankfully turned out to be peaceful.

Before that tourism has plummeted following the 1998 American Embassy bombing – barely recovering in time to be hit another blow by the Israeli hotel attack in 2002 – and of course has suffered at the hands of well-publicised Somali pirate attacks partially prompting the Kenyan invasion of its unstable neighbour that has apparently sparked the Westgate shootings. 

Post-1998 I remember deserted hotels, run down restaurants with hopeful staff tentatively waiting on scant customers and large resorts on Kenya’s famous coast turned to ghost towns. 

Foreign owned tour businesses went under, leaving their owners penniless, often unable to afford their plane tickets out of their adopted country.

I don’t want to see that again.

Sometimes the only tool you have to counter shocking acts of brutality and violence is to carry on as normal, denying the perpetrators of violence and terror the thing they set out to take from civilians – a sense of security, hope and freedom in your own society.

Already a large tourism conference scheduled for this week is set to go ahead with Kenyan and foreign hoteliers united in trying to deflect the impact of the attack onto their own industry.

I have plans to travel back to Kenya, it’s my home, I’ve travelled back regularly for over 20 years, and I don’t intend to change them.

While I may not be in Nairobi now to donate blood or ferry food to emergency services, I can show my solidarity in another way – by going ahead as normal.

Along with thousands of disparately spread Kenyans, I’ll be returning to spend my money in the Kenyan economy; eat in Kenyan restaurants, drink in Kenyan bars and shop in Kenyan shops.

I’ll be taking care and paying close attention to travel advice, avoiding large gatherings and soft targets, but I’ll support the economy in my own small way.

The attack in Nairobi joins devastating past acts of violence on civilians in Mumbai, London and New York, and as names of the victims emerge, a global picture is painted.

A renowned Ghanaian poet, a British-Australian architect and his brilliant Dutch health-worker partner, much loved sons, daughters, mothers and fathers from Peru, Canada, France, South Africa, South Korea and China as well as of course, Kenya – the slaughter was indiscriminate and globally impacting.

But there is one way in which the globe can counter the cowardice, brutality and destruction – by not giving in to the fear and panic terrorism set out to instil.

Tourism is Kenya’s second largest economy, second only to agriculture, employing millions and without it, the country is brought to its knees.

While individuals must prioritise their own safety, closely following travel advice and taking care, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you scroll back through major attacks bearing al Quaeda’s stamp – the group al Shabaab have linked themselves with, cities include Jakarta, Casablanca, Madrid – the worst Islamist attack in European history – and of course London and New York.

Terrorist factions are a global threat, not limited to Kenya or any one country, and sometimes the most effective weapon in the face of such atrocity is the strength to carry on as normal, to not dignify brutality with the terror, hysteria and panic it aims to create.

Take care, heed advice, but if you have a holiday booked to Kenya, perhaps think twice before you automatically cancel it.

I’ll be flying home – and I know I won’t be alone as Kenyans around the globe resolutely pull together to support their country.

Hannah Marsh is a freelance journalist who splits her time between the UK and Kenya where she grew up, counting both as home.

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Arts, science and a trip home to Kenya

I’ve wanted to go freelance for a long time. So why didn’t I? Well it’s pretty bloody scary actually.

It’s possible that no one will ever publish a story I write again in my life, that I’ll have to jack it in altogether and get a job on the dark side (PR). Not that there’s anything wrong with PR. My many ex-journo buddies who’ve crossed over earn a helluva lot more cash than the ones scribbling away on this side.

They generally work for nice, kind people, get raises, promotions and have good perks. But…it’s not journalism, and I love writing, it’s my passion, and I hope I’ll always earn enough through writing to keep it a viable career.

Anyway, last year I made some tentative forays into freelancing. I wanted to see whether my ideas were really any good – it’s one thing having confidence that you’re good in the role you’re in, in my case heading up the arts supplement at large daily newspaper the Echo in Essex, but another thing altogether when you’re pitching at publications as an outsider.

This was one of the pieces I got commissioned to write, it involved a trip home to Kenya, a visit to Nairobi and it consolidated my ambitions to go freelance and have the freedom to write about anything I wanted to.

It was published in Msafiri in their November-December issue, 2012.

You can read it below or in PDF format here: A New Dimension

ART and science are seemingly worlds apart.

But as part of a pioneering global project, Kenyan artists James Muriuki and Miriam Syowia Kyambi are exploring the links between their world of art and that of medical research.

Curated by the Wellcome Collection, photographer James and mixed media artist Miriam have been commissioned to delve into the relationships between researchers, doctors, community members and the politics surrounding it all at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi.

The work – still in its early stages – will go on display at the National Museums of Kenya in December, along with work from artists working at Wellcome funded research centres in five other countries.

But before they even started, Miriam and James had challenges of their own to face up to – as partners and parents to their six-year-old son Simora, they’d never intended to collaborate, preferring to keep their professional lives separate.

“It’s amazing how many people ask if we’re still together,” laughs James from their home studio in Nairobi, where russet-red miniature clay bricks are strewn across one surface while tiny tin trunks lined with photos are lined up with military precision on another.

“ Luckily we are.”

The pair originally competed against each other – and even agreed not to talk about their ideas as they developed proposals, but on seeing the potential began to think about joining creative forces to explore the work.

“We did have reservations,” admits Miriam. “Every single aspect of our lives would be completely connected and our working styles are very different.”

“Both of our artistic egos are quite dominant, which isn’t the case in our relationship at all – it’s the opposite.

“James likes working at night, I hate it – and James needs pressure, he’s a last minute worker and I don’t, I’m like ‘no you should’ve gotten it last week, what’s wrong with you?’”

Art meets science

The two found the links between the art and science worlds as fascinating as the differences as they spoke to scientists and doctors.

“Everything was very organised, very logical,” observes Miriam.

“We were kind of overwhelmed by the acronyms – they just go ‘oh the CCL’ or ‘the ASSCR’ and you’re like ‘what’s that?’”

But James adds: “We spoke to one scientist who really got us excited – his philosophies and ideas were very similar to ours as artists.

“We’re both supported to explore certain possibilities within a certain field without saying ‘the outcome has to be this or that.’”

Key to James and Miriam’s research was the centre’s relationship with the Kilifi community, linking with community representatives and opinion leaders – schemes set up by KEMRI to engage with community members, who they’re always working alongside.

“I guess some of the issues KEMRI faced in the past are very different to the ones they face currently – in terms of engagement,” says Miriam.

“It felt like people understood a lot about what KEMRI does, what research and data collection means.

“But they also felt like they also had something to offer in terms of traditional medicine and knowledge – and wanted it to be a two way exchange.”

Miriam and James divided their findings into ideas of trust, context, money and power, exploration and experimentation to work with.

Miriam explains that the little clay bricks will be used to recreate tiny traditional houses which they’ll photograph in the lab – while the tin trunks play with the idea of education – the larger versions being a regular sight at Kenyan boarding schools.

“It’s quite interesting to venture into the scientific world,” says James.

“And yet it’s familiar.”

Further info

The Wellcome Collection is a free London destination exploring the connections between medicine, life and art.

The Art in Global Health project sees artists working in residence at centres in Kenya, Thailand, Malawi, South Africa, Vietnam and the UK to explore the personal, cultural, philosophical and political contexts of health research over a six month period.

The KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme is a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Photographer and curator James Muriuki, 34, explores transition in social environments while Miriam Syowia Kyambi, 32, works with various media around identity and history.

She is also head of art and design at Hillcrest Secondary School in Nairobi.

They both work in Nairobi where they live with their six-year-old son Simora.

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Some old favourites…an audience with Johnny Rotten

Now that I’m a freelancer, I’ll be posting stuff up on this blog, some of it published, some of it just me tapping away – but it’s also a nice chance to go rooting through some of my old stuff and dig out bits and pieces that I’m proud of, think might entertain some of you on your lunchbreak, or just want to keep somewhere.

First up, one of my fave pieces ever, an interview I did over the phone with ex-Sex pistol John Lydon, aka notorious hell raiser-turned-butter-peddlar Johnny Rotten.

I felt relatively safe (he’s had some pretty nasty accusations thrown his way in the past) as I was on the other end of a transatlantic phone line, but boy was I nervous. I’m not moaning, one of the main things I love about journalism is really getting your teeth into an interesting interview and chewing the fat with someone amazing – whether it’s a mega star or just someone doing something inspiring. But Johnny Rotten…well he is kind of massively famous, not to mention controversial, and the thought of calling him up in his LA pad did make my palms ever so slightly clammy. Luckily he was nothing but friendly, and we ended up nattering away for over an hour chatting about this and that.

The piece was published in the Echo on November 19 all the way back in 2010.

You can read it below or as a PDF here: Johnny Rotten PDF

He’s rumoured to have slammed terrified pop starlet Duffy against a wall and he generally enjoys a reputation for being one of the most foul-mouthed, obnoxious, unashamedly toxic stars in the business.

Fortunately John Lydon, aka Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten, is at the other end of a transatlantic phoneline, and not in close enough proximity to do me any harm.

But I’m still a little nervous about interviewing the man who virtually led the Eighties punk movement.

“You’re very loud and talking very fast,” he groans, as I introduce myself. I’m clearly more nervous than I think.

“That’s better,” he adds, as I slow down.

“It’s early in the morning here.”

It’s difficult to imagine the pale, sneering face of Lydon basking in the LA sunshine, but he explains he moved there for his health – the punk icon was famously ill with spinal meningitis as a child.

“I was prone to childhood illnesses,” he explains.

“As soon as I got two pennies to rub together I was somewhere where the sun shone permanently.”

Lydon is talking to me about his new book, a scrapbook of memories filled with photos, sketches and jottings, dating back to his childhood days when he was a regular visitor to Southend.

“That’s where I used to go when I was a kid,” he enthuses.

“I remember the Teddy Boys and the Kiss-Me-Quick hats they used to have. My dad used to tell me to watch out for them.

“He said ‘they’ll kill you with a razor’, that was an odd thing to tell a child. Southend was where all the kids from about 100 miles in any direction went to and I loved it. I always associate the place with candyfloss.”

A snapshot from the book shows a smartly dressed, pint-sized Lydon patting sand down in a bucket with his brothers, Bobby and Jimmy, and his suited father John.

“That was the order of the day,” Lydon recalls.

“People would go to the beach in their suits and bake all day. The smell of sweaty people was overwhelming.”

The Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited frontman says he was keen to show the public another side to himself by releasing the book.

He says: “I’ve always tried to keep my family and friends out of the public glare, but I think it’s safe now to show some honesty. They can’t go on forever and ever trying to demonise me.”

To my surprise, Lydon is unfailingly polite and willing to talk about pretty much everything I put to him.

Those Country Life adverts that saw the anti-establishment figurehead peddling butter in a tweed suit?

“Butter did me no end of good,” he says.

“The money wasn’t endless, but it was enough for me to start Public Image again.”

He explains the money paid for his post-punk outfit, PiL, to get back together and back in the studio.

“How’s a man supposed to do anything in life without cash,” he says, at the suggestion that he might have sold out.

“I don’t see any of these people who know about what’s right and wrong in my life actually helping me. Where are these people when I’m in dire straits?

“Most of that criticism is just a load of middle class toffs who think if they supported Tony Blair then they know what’s what. They’re a load of twots.”

That is the only moment when Lydon reveals a glimpse of his past as the proletarian hero, swearing and furiously flicking V signs.

Instead, he becomes understandably melancholy when he talks about how PiL were forced to take a break from recording after the death of his step-daughter, Arianna Forster, better known as Ari Up, dreadlocked founding member of the Slits, last month.

“We had a family tragedy,” he says.

“There’s no way of going off to a studio and making happy music. The public can be a demanding vulture at times, but I think most people understood.”

He has plans to finish the album and set foot on British soil once more with a post-Christmas tour in the pipeline.

So is he really the starlet-bashing, obscenity-spitting figure he’s usually portrayed as? He’s still as anti-government as ever – his comments about the Cameron/Clegg coalition are too rude to print.

“My way of life is that I don’t mean bad to anyone,” he surmises.

“I’m generally a passive person. But if you try hurting my friends or family, quite a different beast comes out. But if left in my own space, I’m quite a happy chappy.”

Happy Chappy

Happy Chappy

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