Stuck in Nairobi on a random Saturday, Gloria Mari explores Kenya National Archives and meets Ferdinand.
The day started the way most days begin for any Nairobian who is running on fumes but is about to see the bailing and emergency loan service that is also known as Mummy. Slowly. We were to meet in town at 2.00pm that bright Saturday afternoon.
Now, Mama Pedestrian redefines African Timing. I am no neophyte when it comes to tardiness but Mummy is the expert when it comes to running late. I never hold it against her though. Especially when I know she’s going to top me up on the month’s rent when I show her my adorable gap teeth. When I got to town she called and told me that she had just left the house. For a second, I contemplated throwing a tantrum, but I realized it would have been ridiculously hypocritical of me.
However, impatience wasn’t the only reason I was a bit unnerved my mother’s unpunctuality. I also have this other disease. It’s called spendthrift-itis. It manifests subtly. Unlike a cold which warns you with a migraine, blurred vision, near death, dying lungs, a drowning nose, a burning throat, and lethargy to rival Hercules’ after he completed his twelve trials, spendthrift-itis isn’t as pronounced.
It starts with a seductive siren’s song. Vendors who adorn the streets of Nairobi with the grandeur of a Lorraine Schwartz diamond necklace on Blake Lively’s neck shout,
“Skirt mia mbili! Top ni soo!”
And this was before I alighted my bus.
When I got off at Ambassadeur, I was immediately accosted by a book seller.
“Madam, kuja, nilipata ile Agatha Christie…” he grabbed my hand and directed me to a bookstand overseen by another book seller who happened to be a friend of mine. I felt panic bubbling within when she smiled that smarmy smile that salespeople unleash when they know they have exactly what you want. I stared at the young devil who had brought me to temptation reincarnated wondering how he had even recognized me. But the all-knowing book seller pointed out a copy of an Agatha Christie I had been scouring the earth for.
“450 tu. Bei ya kuongea.” I was in trouble. If I used that 450/- I wouldn’t have enough to make it to the next Saturday. Somewhere in the background I could hear another peddler sent by Lucifer.
“Boots ni elfu ni elfu! Bag mia tano mia tano!”
What the hell? Was it National Pick on Broke Pedestrians Day? I could hear the demons of spending on my shoulders coaxing me to go ahead and buy already. Mama Pedestrian would be in town soon anyway. I took out my phone to call her but she didn’t pick up. Mama Pedestrian is one of those who don’t pick up phones when they are in noisy matatus. Or in the city centre.
I had no choice. I had to flee. I had to look for a place to hide. A refuge away from these enemies of saving and progress. I thought of dashing to the McMillan Library but I wasn’t sure if they would be open. I spun on the spot and suddenly paused. I had had a haven all along. The Kenya National Archives loomed unobtrusively before me. The red pillars surrounded by dirty white walls were beckoning.
I darted to the entrance, up the steps with the eagerness of a Chihuahua whose owner had just come home. I paid the fifty-bob entry fee and was let in upon the swish of a turnstile. Having never been to Archives before, I followed sage advice from a questionable wise man, “When in doubt, always go left.” I went left.
After the bronze bust of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, there is an inviting corridor with shrines to Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s first Nobel Laureate, Tom Mboya and in a crevice just up ahead, collages of Dedan Kimathi, Kenya’s most famous and celebrated Mau Mau warrior.
The Kenya National Archives is a nerd’s idea of orgasmic nirvana. It’s the lovechild of a museum and a library and a gallery. It houses Joe Murumbi’s collection of artefacts from all over the world and especially from Kenya. Two floors of photos, paintings and relics that would probably rank in the billions (USD) should they be auctioned at Sotheby’s.
To the right of Tom Mboya’s shrine, is a collection of Nigerian, Congolese and Madagascar art. There were stencilled metal panels, gigantic masks, Madagascar lesos and photos. One particular piece caught my eye. The piece itself is not the most eye catching. Beaten into the silver or stainless steel panel are stencilled drawings of characters straight from my class 1 art book. But the story it tells is something else.
It was about a king who had a four breasted daughter. He decided to marry off the (un)lucky woman and she agreed but only if her intended wouldn’t insult her breasts and in turn she wouldn’t cook certain leaves. But the husband ended up calling her “you know what” and she cooked them leaves. Them leaves though. They ended up making her turn into a river. And the king was happy that he got a river (huh?!).
Next to that was a giant picture of a young Queen Elizabeth. On the other side, was a collection of tobacco pipes used in tradition Kenyan society. There was a pipe for every tribe. The most fascinating one being from the Kamba. Although I had to wonder what drugs our forefathers used to get altered states considering tobacco wasn’t introduced to Kenya until 1965.
As I was busy admiring a mural about the Price of Independence in Kenya, a fellow in a lab coat approached me.
I had been liberally taking photos with my cell phone and Lab Coat Man promptly told me it wasn’t allowed. To add insult to injury, if I wanted to take photos, I had to consult management (him) and I would have to pay 100 bob per photo. Forget 60 bob newspapers and sugar that’s doubled in price. This is where government shamelessly steals. I tried arguing with him, telling him there wasn’t a sign prohibiting photography. I look for those signs the way smokers look for No Smoking signs. But he was unmovable. I had to think fast. I didn’t want my photos gone. And so I overinflated my career.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Now Ferdinand, I was only taking photos for my blog. I am a travel blogger with over a thousand readers per post and have very many followers on Instagram who like me to share my stories. This will be free publicity for Archives.” It was miraculous that my nose remained the same size.
He asked for a tutorial on how to navigate Instagram and after that we became fast friends. After insisting I take a photo of him and follow him on IG, he let me take photos. Surreptitiously. I nodded and went on my way.
In the middle of the floor is a display for Swahili art. Ivory horns, a bed, kitchenware, pots, baskets, those wide things used for winnowing, and a separated room where porcelain pieces were carefully laid out. Sample pieces of silver were displayed and right next, an accompanying picture talking about how those were pieces from a treasure chest salvaged from a Portuguese ship back in the 1500s. After staring at the silver longer than is considered polite- and not suspicious- I couldn’t help but wonder, where’s the rest of the treasure?
As I moved on, Mama Pedestrian finally joined me. We ended up intrigued by a very unique statue. It was a caricature of the origins of the Kikuyus. Legend has it that we descended from the nine daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi-or were they ten? This statue showed that. Kinda. It showed Mumbi giving birth and having nine breasts. Uh… Yeah.
We went on to view showcases of African jewelry. The metal revolution, the bead revolution- which even had an accompanying Msafiri article. There was Ethiopian Orthodox regalia, dresses from Africa Heritage events and art that would make Ezekiel Mutua blush and splutter. They were eye-catching, riveting, and breath-taking. Especially one which looked like an upheld hand but upon closer inspection was five nude ladies very evocatively- er- arranged.
To the far right was an assortment of more paintings and shields. Shields that were made from rhino and hippo hide. I’ve heard that rhino skin is inches think and near bullet proof. And I have seen photos of our forefathers and those blokes were really svelte. How on earth did they skin rhinos when I need Lucozade to get out of a pair of skinny jeans?
There were ceremonial daggers that belonged on the set of a Greek mythology blockbuster. One outstanding artefact was a belt that was made from antelope hide (or whatever wild herbivore was available) that had the most beautiful intricate patterns I’ve ever seen. It was amazing, and apparently a utility belt. Hmmm, probably what a Somali Batman would have used.
We then headed upstairs. There were pieces from the Swahili trade, BM, Before Mzungu. A monstrosity of vintage photos festooned an entire wall, showing practices of Kenyan Tribes BM. There was also a photo of Teddy Roosevelt on Safari in Kenya. On a donkey cart with a mbwa koko for security. Considering Obama’s entourage on his last safari to Kenya, I have to say, tumetoka far. We then went on to take cursory glances at historic stamps that cost more than my kidneys. Both of them. And concluded our tour with a stare down with Jomo Kenyatta’s portrait. In 1935, he looked exactly like his son, our current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
We took a few photos, promoting Ferdinand’s and the Archives’ fleece-tourists-out-of-their-cash photography business next to the seat which Kenyatta the first was sworn in on as president. Mama Pedestrian almost got a chance to sit on it but sadly not even another free Instagram tutorial could convince Ferdinand to let us put our butts where the first president’s butt once butted.
After taking a few more photos, and watching Ferdinand clumsily try to flirt with the beautiful but impenetrable fortress that is Mama Pedestrian, we decided to wait for our printouts outside. On my way down the stairs, we saw the records room. Unfortunately, it didn’t open on Saturdays and was only open on weekdays from 8-5. Thus, being the policy of government departments to be unavailable when working pedestrians are free, I discovered that I was matching with the fire extinguisher. I took a consolatory selfie and then had to utter the words all who displease deign to hear, “I garra go, I garra leave.”
Sadly, after that impromptu outing where she had to promote a charlatan’s photography career, Mama Pedestrian refused to top up my rent.
Mari Gloria often thinks of herself as eccentric. She dreams in text and is unafraid to admit that her cat owns her. A firm believer in Wi-Fi for all, the rest of her thoughts, beliefs, ramblings and unique insight can be found on her blog Nairobi Pedestrian [Link].
Kenya National Archives Nairobi
Last modified: February 12, 2020