“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” Oliver Sacks. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart,” Henri Cartier-Bresson
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. (King James Version)
This estate car is parked over the storm drain beside the Nairobi-Meru Highway. It has been there for several days, “steadfast, unmoveable”. I think it is the same vehicle which brings fruit to sell at the roadside. The tailgate is normally raised to reveal a mass of pineapples or oranges so I might have missed the inscription. Certainly, he works very hard. He drives a hard bargain, too.
I did a short trip to Brussels to be briefed before my next mission. But I couldn’t resist an early morning walk before the meetings. Lots of lovely doors. This is my favourite, the Hotel Solvay, a beautiful Art Deco building designed by Victor Horta.
Ixelles is a quiet, beautiful district in Brussels, not crowded with tourists like the Grand Place. There are tranquil parks, such as the Bois de la Cambre, isolated from the hustle and bustle.
I could not get over how deserted it seemed. Away from the main boulevards, there were lots of side streets, with plenty of doors. I was not the only door photographer – people place “To Rent” (A Louer) signs in the fanlights of houses which have been split into apartments, so people looking for a flat will snap a photo on their phone.
It is really easy to get around by public transport in Brussels. You just need to follow the map…
Albert and his son, Samwell, run a plant nursery about a kilometre away from my home in Spring Valley Road. One of my colleagues had bought a plant here last month and another colleague wanted to know if she could buy a basil plant. “It is good for making tea to treat respiratory infections,” she said. They asked me if I wanted to accompany them on a visit to the nursery and I gladly accepted.
The dirt roads around Embu have been a quagmire for the past month but we have not had any heavy rain for two days and the mud has dried out. We found Albert using a scalpel to whittle away at a shoot of a macadamia plant. He slotted it into a “V” shaped notch in the top of a sapling which was also a macadamia, but a different variety. Then he bandaged the two together using clear plastic tape.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“Tell us what you are doing,” I replied.
He explained how grafting would make the macadamia bear nuts in three years when the tree would only be about two metres tall. There were several different varieties of macadamia, which he called by their Latin names. Some were quick to produce, some gave large nuts. These newly grafted plants would be taken to the greenhouse to bring them on under polytunnels. After a month or so, they would come out into the garden centre and harden off under black nylon mesh covers.
“Macadamias are big business here in Kenya,” said Samwell. “One kilo of nuts fetches 240 Kenyan shillings. And the nuts are heavy.” I replied that tea pickers only get 14 Kenyan shillings for a kilo of tips. He told us that once established, the trees will go on producing for many years.
He invited us to look around the nursery. There must have been tens of thousands of grafted seedlings, all growing in black plastic bags, at different stages of development in the nursery.
There were grafted saplings of mango, Pink Lady apples (which have just blossomed) and avocados. His roses smelled wonderful, but unfortunately, they had a fungal disease, black spot. I asked Samwell’s uncle if he was going to spray with copper sulphate, which is what my father would have done. He said that once the dry season began, the spots would disappear. I wonder…
We looked for basil, but couldn’t find any. There were some very healthy rosemary bushes, soft and green, which felt almost sticky with essence when I caressed the shoots. I need some of this for cooking – it is far better than the desiccated bits of twig we can buy in the supermarket.
“Where is the river?” asked a colleague. “Not here, there is just a swamp at the bottom of the garden,” replied Samwell. “But I thought you said there were fish,” she said. “They are in a fish farm pond.”
We walked back up the hill, through the ranks of grafted seedlings. At the shop, Albert gave us some unripe avocados and small green lentils as a gift. I pointed out that his sign said, “Anglo Forest” seeds. “It doesn’t look like an English garden centre,” I said. “Oh yes, we have a couple of English trees,” he replied, pointing out some nondescript shrubs and a shady tree whose Latin name I immediately forgot. “And the landscapping (sic). When you want to put down roots in this beautiful place, I will come and make you a beautiful garden. As a Muzungu Daktari, you will make a lot of money if you set up a private clinic here.” I explained that I was a volunteer and he told me that God would smile on me, instead.
As we walked home, I could hear a whooshing sound overhead. Half a dozen big black and white birds flew over us to roost in a huge tree. They were casqued hornbills, but unfortunately, I didn’t bring my long lens so I couldn’t get a decent photograph in the gloaming. Some other time, perhaps.
Steak and chips is my favourite meal. In Kenya, people generally prefer fatty cuts of meat, with a chunk of bone to give extra flavour. Fillet steak is considered less tasty and is reasonably priced. It isn’t always on display in the butcher’s glass cabinet at our local supermarket. I nipped in last week over my lunch break to see if any was on sale.
The display was filled with slabs of beef, capons, broilers and fish fillet, but not what I desired. I asked the butcher when the next beast was being slaughtered in an attempt to reserve the fillet. He told me that there was some fillet steak in the cold room, but it was still attached to the carcass. I jumped at the chance.
He used his machete-cum-cleaver to deactivate a switch high on the wall and sent his assistant into the cold room. I’d never noticed the cold room before. It has a large picture window where the meat is displayed hanging from hooks. I could see the assistant hacking away at the inside of a cow cadaver. He was using a heavy knife, stabbing downwards within the ribcage. It reminded me of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s film “Psycho” where Janet Leigh (actually it was her body double, Marli Renfro) was brutally murdered.
I stood transfixed as he bludgeoned the psoas muscle free. It only took a few minutes. He came out of the cold room with the steak draped over his outstretched hands, his face beaming with satisfaction. Job (sort of) well done.
To be honest, it looked a real mess. It was ragged and torn, certainly not a classic filet mignon. He used his bare hands to pull away plaques of yellow fat and slapped the thick, long slab of gore onto the scales. He prodded and primped it up to look as pretty as possible, trying to conceal the crude, ripped edges. It weighed 800 grams and cost about £4.50. His boss asked me if I wanted another one. It suddenly dawned on me that the cow had two fillets. I was tempted, but I thought I’d try this one first before splashing out.
I took it back to the office in a freezer bag and left it in the staff food fridge until it was time to go home. I trimmed off the irregular edges, dissected away the silvery band of fascia and fashioned four thick steaks – two for now, two for later and the trimmings for beef stew. It was slightly chewy rather than melt-in-the-mouth, but it tasted delicious.