" I had a farm in Africa..." says Meryl Streep as she plays Karen Brixen in the film "Out of Africa".
This sentence fired my imagination when I was nineteen years old and ever since then Africa became a place that I definitely wanted to visit. It took me over two decades to actually get there- get right there to Karen Brixen's estate, her house and see for real the rooms that I saw in the film, Probably what was missing was seeing Meryl Streep and Robert Redford sitting in there. It is an interesting story - a story of an extra marital love affair, somehow made more romantic by the beautiful Kenyan landscape around.
One of the first thing that strikes you when you get off at the Nairobi airport is a feeling of warmth. The accents are different but the smiles are broader. I actually saw an immigration officer smile at me when he took my passport in- very different from his Indian counterpart at the Chennai airport who quizzed me on why I was visiting Africa so often- " You have been to Cairo, Addis Abba and now Nairobi? Why Madam? What kind of work do you do?" I did my best to explain the kind of job I was doing but I am not sure if I convinced him.
Once out of the airport the interesting thing you notice are the number of placards that carry names of NGOs- Action Aid, OXFAM, IIRR- so different from Chennai where you see either hotel names or names of different companies. I think if I were to explain to an African taxi driver what I do he would probably understand it better than an officer from the Ministry of External Affairs in India. I wonder if that is the trajectory of how development shapes our thinking.
A 30 minute drive with three other South Asian participants takes me to the KCB training centre at Karen ( yes, named after my favourite Karen Brixen!) . Once I get into my room I am intrigued to see the mosquito net- reminds me of the romance scenes in Hindi movies- a white curtain draped over the bed . It certainly does not bear any resemblence to the white cage from my childhood which used to be tied to the four posters of the bed and tucked under the mattress!
I wake up at 5.45 AM- 8.15 Indian time when Airtel 121 religiously sends me a message telling me my unbilled amount (or is it billed amount? I dont know). Deciding to go out for a walk I realize how cold it is! I am glad I brought a couple of sweaters with me despite some well meaning well wishers who gave me advice like - "Oh why woolens in Africa? Isnt it near the equator always hot and sweaty"? or " It is in the southern hemisphere must be summer now so why warm clothes". Tells us how perceptions about Africa differ ..! I meet two crested cranes who look up at me curiously, 3 Maribu Storks who stand huddled in the cold and then meet some of the workers on the training centre. Every one of them smiles and wishes me "Good Morning"- this is a memory of Kenya that I will always carry with me - the smile and the cheery greetings!
Work begins and we start getting together at the "write shop" producing that book we came here to write. Interesting experience meeting so many people from so many countries. I must confess this - I always used to think of Africans as one group but this was the first time I realized that there were many Africans who were as foreign to Kenya as I was - participants from Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda..!! This interaction with Africans also told me something about how we Indians are perceived in Africa. The perception unfortunately is not a very pleasant one. "Indians do not treat people working under them well" said a Kenyan friend. " They dont want to live with others. They have exclusive buildings where they want only their kind to stay". Sad but probably true. We Indians have a ghetto mentality which prevents us from integrating with other cultures and we probably are as much a group of racists as the whites treating Africans badly. I try to explain to them about how I am from Southern India and racially a Dravidian and therefore closer to the Africans. " So you are not a Patel"? asks someone. " No I am not" I assure them.
Work goes on and as we get ready to go back to our rooms in the evening, some of us women spend time chatting about ourselves and our families - interestingly all conversations that we have some how comes back to discussions about mothers-in-law. This is probably a universally common topic that women across the world like to discuss! As development professionals all of us have faced disapprovals from our mothers in law for travelling too much- some have been more vocal than others in their disapproval.
The weekend appraoches and we take a break on Friday night dancing away till early Saturday morning. I am really surprised at the popularity of the Bollywood dance moves- people from as far away as Peru are doing the Bhangra Steps...! " I will show you some Bangla Dance steps" says Kohinoor from Bangladesh as she does "Rabindra Nritya" to the Salsa Music !!
We visit the Karen Brixen museum over the weekend, go to the Masai market in Nairobi and strike some hard bargains on the lovely bags and jewellery- I think this was more difficult than Sarojini market or Gariahaat.. though the rules of the game were very similar.
Sunday morning we leave very early to see the wild life at the Nairobi national park- we are lucky as we see 3 out of Kenya's big five - Lion, Buffalo and Rhino. Tiered we get back to the training centre and begin work again. A Kenyan friend starts laughing when I tell him that we have a dairy project here with buffaloes. "What about elephants? When are you going to start milking them?" I try and explain to him the difference between the Kenyan wild buffalo and the Murrah buffalo in our project areas. But he is too amused to listen.
I hear a participant from Ghana tell me about Shea Butter and how that goes into making cosmetics. I try to imagine women pounding it out of the nuts. He shows me a small video clip on his computer.
Suddenly I realize that I just have one day left. With good byes being said over the eveining I leave for the airport. At the check in counter as I try to manage my bags the airline check in clerk asks me if I am "OK"? I travelled by the same airline from Chennai but the check in counter clerk there did not glance beyond my ticket and passport- what a difference!!!
I board the flight to Dubai and from here I change flights to Chennai. The stewardess assumes that I would need a vegetarian breakfast- I tell her NO and ask for eggs and bread. I recall how on my onward flight from Chennai to Dubai another Stewardess had just assumed that since I was a woman I would not drink anything alchoholic. I had asked for wine with the same vengence that I now asked for eggs...!!!
Reached a rainy and wet Chennai- tiered but happy to be at last back home!!
Certainly folks.. this has been a wonderful experience. I want to do this again -this time with the rest of the family.