I have never seen so many different churches of different denominations. Here are a few of my favourites. Some are painted in lurid colours, others are nondescript.
This is St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Embu. The red cross isn’t the mark of Satan, it’s the Kenyan Highways Authority indicating that the sign doesn’t conform with their regulations at the roadside. Two of the most enduring legacies of British Colonial rule in Kenya are privet hedges and topiary. Makes me proud.
With all the competition, churches need good signage. How about “Home of Signs and Wonders” on the road down to the Embu slum called “Dallas”? Or “How to be free from sin and curses”? But which to choose? When it comes down to it, location, location, location – Zion City, just down the road from the Slaughterhouse, opposite the Prison Farm. But when success is offered, 100% of worshippers can become 100% Kings. Or at least that’s what I think it is saying.
More varieties of church.
There are mosques, Hindu temples and even a Sikh gurdwara. And my favourite at the end, the Church of God Gospel Trumpeters.
Hopeland Hotel isn’t the most lavish or opulent place to eat in Embu. Its narrow entrance leads from an unmetalled road. If it wasn’t for the sign, you could easily miss it. The first time I ate there I wasn’t sure of the quality of the food. “We now serve chips!” said a poster on the wall. So to play safe, I had chips with a couple of samosas.
I haven’t had chips there since. My favourite meal is minji, which is peas in a thin beef broth with a lump or two of potatoes and some freshly grated white cabbage. I like madondo, which is a simple dish of stewed red beans, served with ugali (a bit like a dollop of polenta), pilau rice or chapatis. Sometimes I have a mixed plate of green grams (a type of lentil) with mashed potatoes and beans. It’s heavy on the carbohydrates, but we probably eat too much protein. An average meal costs about 50pence.
Occasionally, I lash out and have half an avocado. The last one I bought was so large, creamy and perfect that three people shared it with me. I don’t drink the water and I stay clear of any pre-prepared fried pastries in the glass cabinet separating the diners from the chapati production area. Oddly, the main kitchen is at the other end of the restaurant.
From 1-2pm, it is extremely busy. People get their heads down and eat fast. There is a high turnover. The tables and chairs are packed in, but people don’t mind moving to accommodate new customers.
After seven weeks the waitresses are getting used to me now. They know that I like a small bowl of spicy consomme to accompany my food and if avocados are available, they let me know. I lost a bit of weight in the first few weeks I was here and I noticed that I seemed to get bigger portions than my fellow diners. Now my weight is stable, I get the same sized meals as everyone else.
Sometimes there are troublesome flies, but when it is busy, they are shared out among lots of diners. The seats are uncomfortable, but service is brisk and we don’t linger. The worst thing is the massive amount of flatus the food creates.
Every good shop needs a great sign. How about these? I have arranged them in a logical order.
Of course, you can have signs on a matatu door, such as this. Lots of religious messages on bush taxis.
Or some interesting signs advertising hair salons, especially hair dying and blowouts.
Wall art is a popular way to advertise or get public health messages across. I like the second image where the lady is asking her boyfriend about his HIV status and his thought bubble says: “*?!!” She’s in an off the shoulder evening gown and he’s wearing a leather jacket and incredibly wide jeans (wider than my loon pants from 1971).
Pork Choma is barbecued pork. Why a chimpanzee would be advertising this is a mystery. I hope I’m not eating bush meat here.
Another set of doors, gates and doorways from the charming city (St Paul’s Cathedral is just a kilometre away from where I live) of Embu.
First up, Archimedes Elite Bookshop, “The scholars’ ultimate destination”, with its mauve doors.
Then there’s the Clever Home. I am not sure what it means, but the colour scheme is excellent.
I like the colour scheme of this shop, too. Favour or Flavour? With a blue picket fence around the al fresco dining area/bench.
This picture is obviously not from the UK, despite the sign on the inside of the yellow door beside the little boy in pink trousers.
Finally, here are twin doors to a VIP latrine – ventilated improved pit. The colour of the doors is British Racing Green – how fast can you get to the toilet? Can you see the candelabra tree just behind the ventilation pipe? It’s a giant euphorbia. If you cut a bit off, it oozes an unpleasant, milky latex. In Africa, it is used to poison fish.
There is a wide variety of shops in Embu. Some are small supermarkets, others are shacks made out of discarded lino, tin sheeting and wood, but they all have character.
People enjoy their meat in Embu and there are lots of butcher’s shops. The supermarket tries to butcher the carcass into recognisable cuts, but elsewhere you just buy a hank of meat hacked away by a man with a cutlass. There is a tradition of pairing hotels with butcher’s shops. I’ve no idea why. Better than pairing with a barbershop…
Hair salons can be quite smart, or just tin shacks. I was invited into one of the latter last night by Maggie. The walls were lined with lino and there was a standalone sink in the corner – the “shampooing area”, with an Afro comb with matted hair left over the plug hole. A shelving unit had a few bottles of “hair products” and there was a hairdryer “for special blow-dry”. I resisted the temptation.
There are some small department stores, such as Supa Shop and Miracle Shop, which sell just about anything, most of which is cheap “Made in China” rubbish. Ladies Outfitters and electronic shops are common, too. The mannequins are designed for the fuller figure.
Some shops are basic. Coca-Cola is extremely popular here. Other small shops are rather ambitious, offering outside catering for birthdays, weddings, burials and baby showers. You can get chips, samosas, tea, chapati, chicken, pilau and Kenyan dishes. I like the steel chimney coming through the roof.
I like this family shop, Mumus, selling scratch cards at wholesale. Dad, daughter and mum with a cup of tea wanted me to take their picture. The sales assistants had Wrigley’s Doublemint gum overalls.
Dubai hires out materials for events, marquees and sound systems. As well as curtains, projectors and generators.
An interesting choice of items on sale – shoes and cakes – in this pink shop, with the Royal Households just along the street. Certainly not “By Appointment”.
The market in Embu must cover a square mile. The main part is like a warehouse with open walls, packed with stalls selling fruit and vegetables. On the outskirts, part of the market is shaded by rusty corrugated iron sheeting, or plastic sheets secured over a crude frame made from branches. Traders selling the same items stick together. I walked through the fake DVD section, past the cheap rucksacks and luggage (how do you spell Vuitton?), through the cheap Chinese vests and underwear to the shoes.
I must admit, I have a hankering for the black and white jobs with white stitching and laces.
Then past the football replica shirt section, mostly second hand.
The ironmongery section caught my eye. There were “home safes”, a tin with a slot for saving coins, a mousetrap and a shiny silver iron with a wooden handle on top. I have always fancied an iron like this, heated by red-hot charcoal inside. No fancy electric cords to get tangled. No steam spray. Just naked heat.
A tall elderly gentleman was poking through the items. He greeted me formally in his best English accent. We chatted for a minute or so, him asking me questions about my business here in Embu. “What do you want to buy?” he asked. “I like the look of the iron. How much is it?” The seller was an old lady, sitting in the shade behind her wares. The gent turned to her and they spoke in the local Embu language. “It is 970 Kenyan shillings,” he declared.
Usually, prices are rounded up to the nearest hundred shillings for muzungus. Quoting 970 KSh made me think it was genuine, with no markup.
“Look at the workmanship,” the elderly man said.
“I’m not impressed,” I replied, “The screws holding the handle on are very loose.”
“Pah, that’s nothing. Get a screwdriver and you will tighten them up in no time. You can buy one here, too.”
“It is very heavy, ” I said.
“All the better to press your clothes well. Solid steel.”
I wondered how long it would take to start leaving rust streaks on my shirts.
“Your woman will appreciate it,” he said.
“I don’t have a woman here,” I replied. “What about you?”
“I am a married bachelor,” he said, and we both burst out laughing.
I moved on. The mattress on my bed is very firm. I thought of buying another one “from the back of a lorry”. Literally. Does this remind you of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the Princess and the Pea?
Deeper into the market, the stench became overwhelming. A miniature digger was scraping up all the rotting vegetable matter which had been piled beside the overflowing skip. It wasn’t obvious where it was going to be dumped, but he was creating a clear area. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, wafting noxious vapours while he did so.
I moved on to the fruit. Two women were selling some brown, pear-shaped, hard fruit in a basket. “What is this fruit?” I asked. She looked blank, having no idea what I’d said. A well-dressed lady behind her said, “We call this one ‘pear’. Buy one for 20 bob.”
I said that the pears in my country are softer than this when they are sold. “Peel off the hard skin,” suggested the lady. “But it will still be very hard, impossible to eat,” I replied. “Then buy it for me and I will show you how to eat it,” she said.
“If I buy for 20 shillings, you will share the pear with me. And then you share my 20/- with her? Commission?”
“Ha! White man, we are not like this at all, just buy,” she said, guffawing with laughter.
I told her I wanted some ripe guavas and sweet oranges, and she pointed me in the right direction.
I must be getting Africanised again. I bargain for everything. I buy strange legumes like cowpeas, sugar beans and raw peanuts to roast in the oven. I am even beginning to know the difference between different types of local rice. I asked for the best quality and was shown some fragrant, fine-grained rice, reminiscent of Basmati. “How much is this?” I asked, holding up a handful. “It’s Pishori rice, 160 KSh a kilo,” the stallholder replied. “That’s too much,” I said. “Then buy the biryani rice, it’s just 120 KSh a kilo.” “But look at all the broken grains,” I protested. “It will cook better like this,” she replied. Codswallop.
We haggled a bit more and I agreed to buy a kilo. She scooped up two tinfuls of rice into my cotton bag and added another couple of handfuls. “Discount,” she said. “Can you weigh it for me, please?” She didn’t have her own scales, so she turned around and used her neighbour’s scales. As if to teach me a lesson, she then removed a handful of rice and handed me back the bag. I deserved that for doubting her touch.
She also had some fresh green French beans for sale, so I bought half a kilo, and she added another handful, to make me feel happier. Compounding my foolishness, I asked her neighbour how she knew the weight of the produce so accurately. “She’s been selling it for twenty years,” she said.
I waded through a swamp of cabbage leaves to the corner cafe for a cup of tea. I misread the sign – it wasn’t “Bates Motel”, but “Cates Hotel”. Psycho on my mind, I guess.
Nestled in the foothills of Mount Kenya, Embu is a small town of about 50,000 inhabitants. I will be living here for a year. Those of you who read my other posts will learn about what I am doing here. I have just been here for a week, so I’m just getting used to the place. It is very colourful.
Starting off with a crude wooden gate, between chicken wire fencing, topped with barbed wire, with no doorstep, just muddy, red earth. This is a garden gate to a cottage behind the Embu Level 5 Hospital.
The corrugated tin sheet shack is close to the previous door. It is a funeral parlour of sorts. There is a doorway, with no door. I suppose it allows easier access to the coffins inside, but I don’t know what they do for security at night. But who would steal a coffin?
Pink is a popular colour for African doors. Well, all colours are popular. Blue, orange, yellow and green here.
Red is an appropriate colour for the door of the Paradise Butchery.
Like Montreal, there are many churches in Embu, like this one, “Jesus Healing Pool Ministries, Intl.”
Jo’s Cereals has a light blue door, with what looks like heavy raindrops falling on water painted on the lower wall. I wasn’t expecting Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, but the grains displayed on the poster look more interesting than wheat, corn, oats, barley, millet, sorghum and rye. I’ve just finished reading one of Jo Nesbo’s crime stories about Harry Hole, the Norwegian detective, one of Jo’s Serials.
Sorry about that joke…
I saw this poster on the back of a shelter in Embu on the main Nairobi-Meru highway.
Now as it happens, I have seen someone with Guinea Worm Disease (Dracunculiasis if you must). I have seen lots of people. I have even removed a few female worms from their bodies. But in Burkina Faso, not Kenya, so I guess I am ineligible for the reward of 100,000/- Kenya Shillings. The proof?
There were only 30 reported cases last year in just two countries. I remember being told by Professor Richard Feacham at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that the disease would be eradicated “in the next few years”. That was in 1981.
But Kenyans can now relax, as WHO has declared Kenya “guinea worm free”.
Maggie was painting the inscription on the wooden cross which would mark the grave of Francis Thumbi. In the obituary columns of the newspaper, people eschew “Born” and “Died” for the terms “Sunrise” and “Sunset”. She was waiting for the family who had commissioned the casket to confirm the exact dates. “Well, sunset is going to be 2018, isn’t it?” I asked. She laughed and agreed with me. “I think he was born in 1990,” she said. “And do you know how he died?” I asked. “Yes, it was suicide. He killed himself, aged 28. He was not even married.”
I said that in England many years ago, people who committed suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground, in a churchyard. “Why is that?” she asked. “I suppose because it is against God’s law to kill yourself.” “Then you should burn the body,” she said. “Here, he will go into the ground in this casket, under this wooden cross.”
“When I die, I have asked that my body should be used for medical science. They will take it so medical students can cut me up and learn anatomy,” I said. “Waaaah!” said Maggie, “We would not do that here in Embu.”
I turned to scrutinise the coffin. She proudly showed me her handiwork. There was a metallic sign saying “RIP” above a small inspection panel, with a fancy metal knob. I pulled it down and looked inside. The casket was lined with pale blue shiny cloth. There was also what looked like a pair of pants, which Maggie whisked away before I could make a positive identification.
I asked Maggie if she thought that being married might have helped prevent Francis from killing himself. She said it might have, but there were too few women around to marry here in Embu. I begged to differ. “There are many nice Kenyan girls here,” I said. “What about you, Maggie, are you married?”
“No, do you want to marry me?”
“I don’t, Maggie. I am too old for you.”
“Age doesn’t matter. Do you want me?”
“We hardly know each other!”
“Well, take me with you to Japan,” Maggie said.
“But I am from England,” I replied
“No matter, England is better,” she said. “If you won’t marry me, then sponsor me.”
“I can’t do that, Maggie. I am a volunteer working here in Embu.”
“What is your work?”
“Mimi ni Daktari,” I said.
“Then you have plenty of money to sponsor me!”
I heard gales of laughter coming from the neighbouring corrugated iron shack, a hair salon. Obviously, they were enjoying eavesdropping on our conversation.
I tried to change the topic of conversation. “Is this funeral shed your business?” I asked, hoping she would say yes.
“No, I just work here. The business is called Leemak,” she replied.
“Lee Mack is a comedian in my country,” I said.
“Never mind”, I said. “Can I take your photograph with the coffin?”
She refused but invited me to take photographs of the coffin. As I did, I noticed some of the white paint used on the cross had dripped onto the metal rail at the side. I tried to rub it off, but Maggie said she would use some spirit to clean it all up.
She went inside the shed and I took my leave, saying, “Faida – goodbye.”
As I walked away, I wondered about poor Francis who had killed himself. In last weekend’s newspaper, there was an article about a schoolboy aged 15 who committed suicide after his family failed to pay his school fees and he was turned away.
Our project here may well expand to cover mental illness. We already have anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs on standby in our store. I know that there have been successful primary care psychiatric projects in Uganda and Tanzania, so I am optimistic it could work well here in Kenya. And we might be able to help prevent young men like Francis and the schoolboy from taking their own lives in future.