By Ibrahim Korir – BIEA Graduate Attachee
It was a terrible place to experience a breakdown. Sachang’wan, located between Nakuru and Molo, is a black spot notorious for road accidents. At Sach4 (Sachang’wan), our otherwise smooth and composed white land rover showed signs of tiredness. Then the transmission box gave up. There were six of us in it, but none of us was particularly tensed. But we were concerned about the car which had become our temporary ‘home’ and ‘close friend’ over the past ten days, since March 5th, 2017 when we had left Nairobi for a long road trip to Kigali. The land rover, however, was not ready to give up on us yet.
On March 3rd, 2017, Lily Rice, Daniele Del Vicario, Doseline Kiguru, Joost Fontein, and I had a brief meeting at 10am in the BIEA gardens to confirm everything was prepared for our oncoming workshop in Kigali, Rwanda. Lily and I confirmed everything was packed and we were ready to go.
At 6:30am, 5th March, eight participants traveling in the land rover, started arriving at the BIEA in Kileleshwa. Nickolas Gakuu (Nick), a great pianist, guitarist and our driver had arrived earlier and double-checked if the car was good to go. We loaded our luggage tightly onto the roof with knots and ropes. Soon after, Lily, Daniele, Nick, Ngene, Joost, Craig, Elias and I were on our way. The journey to Kigali had begun.
A quick selfie by Joost was a great warm-up to start our journey at around 7:30AM that Sunday morning. Conversation on diverse topics entertained us until we were at Flyover, between Nakuru and Nairobi, where we stole a quick stopover to visit the bathrooms or, grab some coffee/tea. Soon we continued onto Nakuru for breakfast. Back on the road with full stomachs, some had a nap while for others conversations and music circulated inside the van.
At around 4pm, we were at the Busia border town between Kenya and Uganda. We ate a late lunch before clearing immigration and crossing over to Uganda. The weather was ready to welcome me albeit rather harshly. As we queued at immigration, I started feeling nausea and difficulty breathing. The air felt hot, full of humidity, and I felt horrible.
Nick came to my rescue with a sachet of antihistamine pills. I swallowed one of the tiny white pills then started looking for water. I rolled down the window of the land rover and shut my eyes to what was next to come. After an hour and a half, I woke feeling better. We were heading to Bilkon Hotel, where we would spend the first night of our journey to Kigali, at Jinja, Uganda. We arrived at the gate of the hotel at 9:35pm.
After a delicious buffet at Bilkon, all I wanted was bed to jump in. I was tired and sleepy from the pill. Some of the other stayed up late to drink beer and continue the talk of the day. The weather at Jinja was cool and kind. We all had slept in the well in the town of copper.
Through Green Valley Country
We were up early the next day and some had already eaten their breakfast by 7am. By 8 am we had left with Nick behind the controls. There is always a sense of welcoming ease with Nick. Sleek, swift with stamina, is his driving.
There were conversations about art with Craig Halliday (PhD student at University of East Anglia), Ngene Mwaura (a visual artist who loves ‘playing’ with lines, patterns and colours) on online platforms that artists can use to sell their work of arts, and finally with Lily, a fellow GAS at the BIEA, who kept everyone’s attention.
“Have you ever thought of people’s names in colors?” Lily asked, raising everyone’s ears.
Long large fish sold alongside the road, displayed work of arts, diverse vendors, and magical landscapes and the long-horned Ankole cows. The conversation by Lily was simple yet demanding- fascinating to think in such diversity, driving across the Pearl of Africa that is Uganda.
From comparison with colours came comparisons with animals, plants and shapes – What animal would you be if you were animal? What of a plant? And what shape do you think time is?
At around 7pm we were at Uganda-Rwanda border. The immigration officers on both sides were quick in processing our passports. With everyone stamped, Nick finished clearing the vehicle, and joined us after a couple of minutes. We were in green and clean Rwanda – a country with stunning hills and valleys.
We were up on a steep hill; Nick had to switch to driving on the right. Heavy trucks and small vans characterized the dark hilly road. We were in safe, experienced hands – driving right or left.
At around 11pm, my mind still clung to magnificence of the River Nile, which we had crossed the day before. But it was miles away now; it was time to receive what Kigali had to offer. Doseline (Research Fellow, BIEA), had flown in to Kigali from Nairobi that Monday morning, and had already catered for our accommodation, dinner. We were looking forward to the events of the days to come.
We checked in at Mubwiza Resort. The first floor balcony gave us an exquisite view of Kigali and her outskirts: ‘staircases’ of separate lanes of roads lined the hills, mushrooming buildings, standing towers and the air of a promising future. Dinner from Murugo Rwanda Hostel was superb – it wet our appetite for Kigali and – for the Arts in Society, Eastern Africa (AiSEA) workshop that would begin the next day.
AiSEA: How-do-you-dos, Art and Curatorship
AiSeA was organized by the BIEA and the Rwandan Arts Initiative (RAI), and was about bringing artists and scholars from Nairobi and Kigali together. The programme was spread over 5 days from 7th-11th March, 2017, and involved practical activities as well as discussions on various topics in arts and academia.
Mist covered the city on hill that Tuesday morning at around half past six as I stood outside the balcony. The programme was to begin that afternoon, so there was ample of time to rest from our long journey. The mood of Kigali is calm contrary to the bustle of Nairobi. Motorists in Kigali are graceful and careful road users, bodaboda riders provide helmets for their passengers.
At around 12 pm, we were on our way to RAI. There we met artists from Kigali. In the RAI’s garden we introduced ourselves, and began insightful discussions about curatorship, led by Jon Stever of The Impact hub, an arts collective based in Kigali, which lasted the rest of that afternoon.
But we began with lunch, lunch prepared by Murugo Rwanda Hostels, which was delicious. The room was neatly organized with chairs forming a U-shape, breeze danced around the room, until the coolness of the morning was swallowed by the hot sunny afternoon. After everyone settled down from lunch, it was time for Jon, from the Impact Hub in Rwanda, to lead the first discussion of the event; Art and Curatorship.
Lively and articulate as usual, Joost Fontein, the BIEA’s director, said a few words before welcoming Jon, to talk about curatorship. The most heated debate was about the term and title, curator, itself.
Some simply did not prefer the term ‘curator’ as a name they should go by. These were constructive debates about names and meanings. There was a lot to be discussed. Discussions focused on the roles, responsibilities and rights of curators, and how they affect decisions on how/if artist(s) will perform. After a tea break the discussions continued, and focused on the collective event we were to organize by the end of that week. A performance date was already set, and different duties assigned to separate groups. Everything promised fun. 11th March was going to be fun.
Time elapsed and at around 5:30pm, the first session of AiSEA wrapped up. It was a success. Meeting together after that for drinks before dinner ended the day well. Tomorrow, we would all meet again – this time with Joost and Doseline leading sessions.
We had dinner at a restaurant called ChapChap – which in Kenyan slang translates to quick/faster- dinner was rather taking long, or was I just hungry?
I opened my eyes and pressed my phone, it read 6:00am. I stayed silent in bed for about fifteen minutes listening out for the sounds of Kigali in the morning. I hardly heard any whistles; majority of the town must have been still asleep, or just so silent.
Artists and Scholars; Knowledge Producers
“Scholars need to get out of their comfort zone, we know that, but so do artists as well,” said Joost during his early morning presentation. “There is a need to question scholars if they publish in way that readers have difficulty understanding them – it could be their style of writing – but artists too should be ready to talk about their artwork explaining to audience who don’t understand,” he explained further.
Joost presentation was on; ‘Arts, scholarship and knowledge collaboration’. He started with revisiting, Remains, Waste and Metonymy which was held in October 2015. He then followed with recently concluded, Sensing Nairobi; Remains, Waste and Metonymy II held in February 2017.
Like these two previous events at the BIEA, AiSEA sought to bring scholars and artists together as key players in collaborative knowledge production. “This workshop seeks to explore collaboration forms of knowledge production between scholars and artists as fellow intellectuals working with different registers” Joost said. Joost talked everybody through what Remains, Waste and Metonymy had involved, and how the different installations and contributions had spoken to each other, using the example of his fossil installation to raise questions about metonymy, and the transformation of substance in order to preserve form, which he suggested linked fossils to castings and perhaps even to visual art.
At the tea break we dispersed into smaller groups to do an assignment suggested by Joost. It provoked a great brainstorming session, and Joost’s session could not have ended any better than that. It was around 12pm by now, and after a short break, Doseline was ready to lead the second session of that day; Creative Writing.
“Do we have any people in the room who consider themselves creative writers?” Doseline asked.
Several hands of individuals who are writers were raised up. There were poets, playwrights, music composers, and recipe writers among other more professional writers of journals, news, feature stories and editors as well.
Participants shared challenges they face as writers which included cultural barriers, censorship, lack of appreciation, and language constraints, among others.
People write for different reasons; for fun/pleasure, as catharsis, to bring awareness, to express oneself, for entertainment and for recording/documenting and finally as a profession.
Thereafter, before breaking for lunch, Doseline asked everyone to write anything using any style without necessarily having to follow rules of grammar or any writing. These were swapped around and read out to show everybody how diverse good writing could be. It was a fulfilling day.
After lunch we gathered in previously formed groups in preparation of Saturday’s event. The groups were categorized as map, show & tell, and the jam session group. Our plans were coming together.
After discussing what each group had been planning for Saturday’s collaborative event, it was time to call off the second day of AiSEA.
Everything was going according to plan, but soon my tooth changed matters on my side.
My lower left jaw was swollen. The chill that comes with Kigali evenings made it worse. I couldn’t eat my dinner that evening and tea was enough. I needed to ‘switch off’ in bed.
To the Dentist
In the morning of 9th March, I woke up unusually late at around 8am. The rest of the team was already up and most of them had finished their breakfast. The workshop that day was to cover; Art, Entrepreneurship and Sorting it Out, in the morning hours, and African art, Just art, and Pan-Africanism, which was later postponed to the next day. But I could not attend the workshop that day.
My jaw was still swollen but with a little less pain. It was time to get this sorted out. Arrangements were made to drop my colleagues for the workshop, and then Nick came back to take me to the dentist.
We had no clue of any dental hospitals in Kigali but Umuhoza Aline, the kind receptionist at the guest house was ready to help. At around 9:30am, Nick was back at Mubwiza, where Aline and I were ready to go to the dentist.
Aline was helpful. She gave directions to Nick as I folded in pain in the front seat of the land rover. In less than thirty minutes, we were at the third floor in Dispensaire Amizero Iwacu, where a nurse offered a warm smile which I could reciprocate.
I was directed into the operating room. I lay in bed preparing for more pain. I was ready for it especially, from knowing that relief will come after. The doctor wasted no time. He soaked cotton wool in some antiseptic and roughly rubbed as he pressed the gum at the aching tooth. I remained as calm as I could. The syringe was out, my mouth was wide open then followed multiple injections- there was no more pain.
I could feel him exerting pressure on the tooth. I was restless with eyes wide open as he removed the first piece. The second piece was no different but I remained still and let the residual pain have its share of me. The tooth was finally out, broken in three pieces and blood filled my mouth. It was finally over.
I was given some painkillers and antibiotics. I could contain the pain and sleep would help. We drove back to the guest house where I spent the day sleeping. Lunch was later brought by Nick but I could hardly eat – there was the soup- I sunk in it.
At around 5:30 pm my colleagues were back at Mubwiza Resort. They were concerned about my wellbeing and I was particularly concerned on what I had missed that day. They rested for a while before heading out to an art gallery and this time I was not going to remain behind.
The drawings and paintings were incredible. Outside in the garden, two Volkswagen ‘beetles’, turned into art, stole my attention, they had multiple stripes of different colours and lighting reflected plants germinating inside them.
We left for dinner. Tomorrow was coming.
African Art, Just Art, and Pan-Africanism
Learning that I would not miss the discussion on, African art, just art, and Pan-Africanism, was some sort of healing for me. Neo Musangi was to present it but could not make it for AiSEA, and Joost led that session.
Unlike other sessions, this was held in RAI gardens. It took around ten minutes before every participant had arrived. The last but not final event began. Joost started the discussions engaging members who contributed with the majority sharing their personal experiences as artists.
It came as a shocker to learn that there are artists from Africa who do not want to be called African artists. Even more so, I was also surprised to learn that some artists prefer to appear poor, so as to qualify as artists. Then there was discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of funding from outside Africa – how the funders determine agenda for African art/artists – and the question of exporting of knowledge from research outside Africa.
It was not long before we garnered inspiration from Elias Mung’ora, a visual artist from Brush Tu in Buruburu, Nairobi, who had come with us on our long drive from Nairobi. Brush Tu comprise of artists with different skills and a common goal. They are united.
“We basically do not charge any artist who comes to work in our workshop. All is required is of them is to help contribute in paying monthly rent for the workshop. This way, we have managed to remain independent, and together build and live from our artwork,” Elias explained.
The session ended a few minutes past 1pm and we went for lunch, after everyone focused on making the final preparations for tomorrow.
Easy When You Know What to Expect
At around 4pm we were at The Impact Hub. We had gone to set up what needed early preparations; arrange chairs elsewhere, stick posters, set up blurbs and installations.
As soon as we were done we headed out for dinner. The following day, on Saturday, we were all free until around 4pm. Some of my colleagues opted to take advantage of the free hours from that morning to go to market to buy souvenirs and gifts to take back home, and others visited the genocide memorial. I chose to remain at the guest house and practice my poem which I had just composed.
Time was flying and 3pm was here. We were all ready to leave for The Impact Hub, where, performances and art showings were going to take place. It was the last event of AiSEA.
There were an impressive number of people when we arrived at the hub and many more were still coming. In some lone corner, I was still rehearsing poems/spoken word to perform. I was happy that everything was working according to my plan.
“Ibrahim, other artists whom you are performing with at the jam session are asking for you. I think they want to start,” Yannick, a Rwandese traditional dancer and percussionist notified me.
I went back up the fourth floor of the hub; space was getting smaller and smaller as people kept coming in. The drums (djembe and kete) were placed near the fire where meat was roasting and potatoes boiling with savory aroma. We were ready to start the jam.
I was expecting noise, massive turn-up, food, and drums and intoxicating feeling of some kind pouring joy. Slowly the drums soothingly stole everyone’s attention in the hall.
The mood gradually hyped up. The air was full of base, tones and mid tones, there were smiles, and lips near ears exchanging conversations, and then the dance broke. Impact Hub was now fully awake.
Eyes were glued on Ngene who was drawing near the percussionists at the back wall of the hall. Before starting, Ngene was giving chance to audience members to apply color on his canvas as they want. I was curiously eager to see what the drawing will look like after Ngene – who has great technique – finished painting his piece.
We fused spoken word with drumming and contemporary dancing. My fingers were itching and my voice grew sour- I enjoyed it all- especially since I had never worked with the artists from Rwanda before, and we managed to entertain.
The jam session was over at around 10:30pm, but not the event yet. After jam session, people continued enjoying their drinks, music and each other’s company for the rest of the night. AiSEA could not have any other better way to end the event than like that. It was awesome.
The journey back to Nairobi was calling. At around 10 am, later than we had planned, we left Kigali for Kampala, where some of us would spend the night. We had a slight delay caused by police on the road to Kampala. By now Doseline had already arrived back to Nairobi after travelling in the early hours of the morning by airplane. In addition, Lily was going to remain at Mbarara in Uganda to start her research project in the region.
The journey was smooth as before. There were conversations, music and sleep, as people rested from several late nights in Kigali. At around midnight, we were in Kampala at Ministers Village Hotel, where they we were waiting for us. I was hungry.
After a quick cold shower, I was ready to fill my stomach. I joined my colleagues who had already started eating and together we enjoyed our buffet and delicacies of Uganda. Full and satisfied, I wanted no more than a good rest sleep. Tomorrow, we were to spend the day visiting art galleries in Uganda. Others however were restless to see Kampala and went out again to see Kampala’s night life, until the early hours.
Okeny Charles and our Tour of Kampala
Kampala town is similar to Nairobi in a number of ways; the traffic is same, active noisy nights, roadside vendors and people fill the streets – our task was to learn more about art and culture in Kampala. Okeny Charles, a former GAS at the BIEA currently working at Ministry of Tourism Wildlife & Antiquities, Department of Museums and Monuments, was going to lead us on that tour.
We started with the museum in Kampala where Charles works. Displays about traditional ways of life in Uganda are interspersed with more contemporary displays about Ugandan life, making a visit to the museum rich and fascinating.
“This is the car that was used by Idi Amin; its engine still works despite not having wheels and being so dusty inside,” Charles explained as we took pictures of Amin’s Mercedes Benz.
There was also the Rolls-Roy that had belonged to Kabaka, alongside traditional huts of various communities from around Uganda, and displays of attires, weapons, sports, leisure, and many more, all well documented in the museum.
After the museum, we left for the second venue of the day – the Kabaka’s palace in Uganda. With our time constraints we had to choose between visiting the traditional king’s parliament and or his palace; we all agreed to the palace.
Not far from each other, the parliamentary building and the palace are strategically constructed a mile apart – a royal mile that is reminiscent of Edinburgh’s famous royal mile, and confirming for us rumours we had heard about the particular fascination in Uganda for all things Scottish. The gates of the two institutions lie directly opposite each other, albeit a mile apart.
“Hey! Please, you can’t pass through the middle of that round-about, it is strictly meant for the king only,” Craig stopped after our guide at the palace saw him nearly entering the round-about.
Both at the palace and the parliamentary buildings have roundabouts which are directly opposite from each other. They have a passage way between which only the King can use, whenever he moves between the palace and the parliament.
“Apart from acting as symbol of honor and respect for the king, these direct passage ways though the roundabouts ensure the king does not take unnecessary corners whenever he goes to the parliament” However, our guide continued “the king does not live in this palace, its only for official purposes and ceremonies. The palace where he lives in is about ten kilometers from Kampala in Jinja,” explained our guide.
From the palace we went to visit the underground chambers created by Idi Amin, and used first as an armory and later as torture chambers. The chambers are a short some distance from the palace. Thousands of individuals lost their lives these chambers.
“One of the ways in which people were tortured here by Amin’s soldiers was using electrocution. When it rained, water drained in the floor down the tunnel in the chambers and the soldiers used that. They (soldiers) would switch off electricity in the chambers before getting in, and then switching them back on after putting wires in the rain water and making their captives stand in them,” explained the guide. “If one survived the electrocution, they had suffocation to escape too, since the rooms were packed beyond their capacity, and there was no proper ventilation once the chambers doors and the main entrance door were closed.”
From the chambers it was around 1pm and hunger was knocking. We went to the last place within the palace’s vicinity where we were taken back to history of the Kabaka especially, the current king, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II. That marked our end of the palace visit and we left for lunch.
After lunch, we went to visit the national art gallery. The traffic in Kampala had started building up and we took longer than we should have trying to escape the traffic. We didn’t take a lot of time at the gallery since we needed to rest from journey from Kigali and in preparation of one to Nairobi the following day.
We drove back to Ministers village where spent a couple of hours resting before heading out for dinner. The meal was superb and people discussed over it on various things. I particularly remember having an insightful conversation with Charles and Dr. Lilian Mary Nabule from College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University. We talked about consumption of archaeological research projects in Kenya and Uganda by the wider public. I remained keen listening to their views as I am to conduct my research as GAS in the BIEA on this specific topic. I am glad we had that conversation.
After dinner we left in two separate groups where some went to enjoy the last night in Kampala and others including I, left for the hotel to sleep. It was an incredible night and day, thanks to Charles.
Breakfast was ready by 6am. The final leg of our journey back to Nairobi from Kigali had started. After breakfast, Nick and I were up on the land rover roof tying on our luggage. At exactly 7am, we left the gates of Ministers Village. The sun was glamorous yellow. Kampala was awake and busy as Nairobi, and; green and hilly as Kigali.
We had a smooth ride to Busia. It was hot here, but not as intense as the first time we passed here the week before. We cleared with the immigration offices and Daniele was to end her journey with us here. She was going to climb Mount Elgon in Ugandan side and descend into Kenyan.
On entering the Kenyan side at Busia, we ate our lunch. In familiar grounds now, we passed Maseno University and just after the rocky lake town of Kisumu, we stopped 20 kilometers ahead to stretch, grab some refreshments and relieve ourselves.
Kericho was cool and green as always. Joost was at the back of the van, Elias with Nick at the front, and Ngene, Craig and I shared the middle seats. We passed the Eldoret junction and cruised down to Molo. Nakuru was near, or was it?
Just kilometers away from Molo town, the grizzly sound from the land rovers transmission box began, and then it stopped. We continued a bit but had to stop immediately – the sound was here again and louder.
We all got concerned now and Nick pulled over besides the road. After we all alighted from the car, Nick drove the van down a shallow trench further from the main road then alighted to inspect it.
“It is the gearbox of one of the two four-wheel gears. And it must be affecting its propeller,” Nick said coming underneath the van.
Elias who was at the front seat, helped press the gearbox in place, but we would go for only a few meters before the car seemed to jam producing the previous noise. We were at Sach4.
A passerby who had shown concern the first time we stopped was not far yet. He came closer and asked if we needed a mechanic. “How far is he and how long will it take before he is here?” Nick asked him.
“Just a few meters down the hill. We can call him. He will board a bodaboda,” the passerby replied.
Conversation between Nick and the concerned passerby did not end before a mechanic appeared. “Hello gentlemen? Are you having any problem with your van? I can help, I am a mechanic,” Kamau, who was in oily overall asked.
Nick signaled him and he crossed the road. They conversed in Kikuyu for a few minutes. “How long will it take before your colleagues get here?” Nick asked the mechanic.
“Just a phone call away and in less than five minutes they will be here with the tools,” Kamau responded.
After a quick look, the mechanic agreed with Nick that the gearbox had jammed. The other mechanics soon arrived with spanners and other tools. They immediately went under the car as lifesaver signs were placed around 20 meters away from the land rover.
At the end of it all, the land rover left us with only one option. “We have to disengage one of the propellers of the four-wheel gears and drive on two-wheel until we arrive at Nakuru where we will look for a garage and properly fix the problem,” Nick explained. “Disengaging the propeller means that we will be driving at 20km/hr and that is too slow to drive to Nairobi.”
After Kamau and Kimotho together with two other mechanics alighted after a short test-drive, we drove some few meters off-road before getting back onto the main . It was difficult to overtake but we were moving. “Such occurrences remind you that car is not a person. It cannot tell you what its problem is,” Nick said as we drove towards Nakuru.
We agreed that we would spend the night in Nakuru and board a shuttle in the morning or wait in Nakuru for the land rover to be fixed.
After checking in at Avenue Suits, on Kenyatta Avenue in Nakuru, we headed out to look for dinner. It was around 12am; clubs were alive and restaurants were closed. We finally located a diner called, Springs. It was late and we were all very tired, we ate and then took two tuktuks to the hotel to sleep.
The following morning Doseline, who was at work in Nakuru, joined us and we went for breakfast at, Java. It was agreed that we would travel back in a shuttle. We emptied all of our belongings from the land rover. Nick, together with Elias had located a garage. Nick was to remain in Nakuru to ensure the land rover was properly fixed. The Mololine shuttle was here with Ngene and Doseline inside it.
We packed our belongings quickly. I was at the back seat of the Nissan shuttle. The zebras, antelopes and baboons at Gilgil told me that Nairobi was near. We stopped at Flyover for a while before stopping again at Kikuyu to drop off Ngene who had arrived home.
Not long later we were at the BIEA gate. AiSEA met all of my expectations. I learnt from Kigali how much we have in Kenya and what we lack. And it remains my hope that artists in Rwanda will be more united to overcome their challenges and push forward their works. Even more so, workshops like AiSEA need to be more and constant ongoing events. AiSEA was an eye-opener and interestingly interactive, and showed us all what potential there is for genuine and productive interaction between artists and scholars based in different cities across East Africa.