Package Holiday | A Short Story

Damien’s tatty book blotted out the near-noon sun. He held the yellow block aloft with a pallid white arm, elbow locked. His stomach reflected heat skyward, and he held the pages between his face and the light to shade himself while he read. The page was in shadow, but enough light reverberated back up off the hot sand to illuminate things, the beach baking with such intensity he could hear it. The heat hissed and fizzed in his ear like television static, and the horizon wobbled to the thermal buzz.

Framing the page was the royal blue of sky, cloudless except for reedy threads of white cast by passing aircraft. With a sea breeze yet to fill in, the hot air hung dense and still for miles upwards. Heat blocked out all real noise. Only mildly aware of the other beachlife, the hawkers and their prey, Damien glanced at his two companions, slumped like belugas  on sun loungers. Both lay facing away from him on their left sides, turning pink, and glistened with the sweat of a deep hangover. He could wake them, he thought, but probably only for a moment. They would turn like sausages under a grill, and would at least cook evenly on all sides. He imagined the two-tone effect of sunburn on the right-hand sides of their body and decided to leave them. It would make for some fun that night. They had press-ganged him into this hellish holiday, so he was owed a few laughs.

What they had seen of the island of Gran Canaria was predictably shite.  Within it festered Puerto Rico – a noxious, sandy armpit of a town. It wasn’t a town, it was an ‘urbanizacion’ , a word which suggested it had imposed itself on the island forcibly. It’s concrete clung to the volcanic rock against the island’s will. Where there were rocks and shrubs, now there were shops and pubs.  Puerto Rico heaved with flourescent beachwear, junk food and cheap beer, day and night, in and out. It reeked of low-grade excess. Its heartbeat was hard house. Its eyes were lit with neon. For Damien, a self-possessed snob, this was his personal hell.

During the day, the slow-running river stank its way down the valley, a mass of fetid air above it building with the heat and crawling up the hills towards the hotels to be swept away into the mountains beyond by the sea breeze by noon. At night, the town howled and glowed neon. Everything screamed ‘get me drunk, fuck me carelessly and forget it all in the morning’.  The town had grown like fungus in a humid cranny, feeding on the abundant sludge of cheap tourism. Its bulging, sticky visitors wore tattoos and the scarlet badge of sunburn like war-wounds, pulling at short legs to compare scorch-marks. Pubs advertised football, pies, mushy peas and beers from home. Cheap, cheap, cheap. Nightclub touts offered free shots and the prospect of equally cheap sex. Kebab shops, pizza restaurants and pet-broiling Chinese takeaways clustered in a fear-inducing huddle within sight of McDonalds, Burger King and KFC.

The lads’ hotel was perched high on the northern headland, the balconies facing in toward the valley. At night the view of the action was spectacular. They had a birds-eye view of whatever spilled onto the streets – carnal, lager-fuelled lust and hate. They were close enough to town to hear most of the screams of anger but, thankfully, not the throaty moans of passion or the pebble-dash splatter of intermittent vomit. Continue reading “Package Holiday | A Short Story”

Bearing Witness

The first time I ever saw people checking under cars for explosives was in Arusha, the tourist capital of Tanzania, a safari springboard just two hours from Kilimanjaro. I was heading into the Arusha International Conference Centre, to see if I could sit in on a trial. I had finished a law degree a few months previously, and Arusha was the site of one of the most important courts in the world at the time – the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The words of a friend’s father rang in my ear. I was in Tanzania to volunteer, which didn’t impress him – a solicitor and former diplomat. In his opinion, I could do more by becoming a lawyer than I could by becoming an aid worker, which I won’t argue now. At the time I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to see how lawyers were doing at their job of prosecuting rapists and murderers in the wake of one of the most brutal genocides the planet has ever seen.

I followed others through the metal detectors and signed in to visit the hearings. Day one was uneventful, the accused refused to be present and the court and spectators were dismissed quick enough. The next day was different.

The testimony at the ICTR is trilingual. Some of the advocates speak French, some English, and the victims, accused and witnesses often speak Kinyarwanda. Testimony bounces from language to language and back in a pass-the-parcel legal linguistics nightmare. It makes for dull, stilted listening, but sometimes the voice of a witness will break the monotony.

The witness in question had been gang-raped, after which she had to watch a batch of other prisoners, her friends among them, gang-raped in sequence. The curtains were closed as the witness came into the chamber, and she sat in a curtained booth where the lawyers could see her. Her monotone, emotionless testimony painted her face for those of us in the public gallery. She spoke flatly, quietly, without any feeling, as if her rapists had pummeled all sentiment from her in the process of getting what they wanted.

Quietly, she told the story of her brutal attack by the interahamwe. Softly, she spoke of their unspeakable physical violation. And she described how, when they were done with her, they moved on to the next girl in line and did the same thing. The next girl also had her baby in her arms. The attackers flung the baby across the room like a rag doll so that they could rape its mother. Without missing a beat, our witness got up from where she had just been raped and walked to the baby, picking it up to nurse it to silence. Despite the trauma she had been through, she knew that the Interahamwe would kill the baby for the inconvenience of hearing it cry, and that its silence might save its life, and those of others.

Describing such an act of intelligence and compassion, with a complete absence of passion, was a startling thing. As a journalist, it’s rare to sit that close to someone telling the truth so barely. Most people have their own agenda, they’re hiding something crucial, trying to put a barrier between you and some element of reality. Working as a news reporter in Dublin, a few years later, became an exercise in gathering predictable obfuscations of the truth . You would bounce from politician to politician for comment after banal comment, none of them willing to say what they felt, none of them daring stray into an independent thought or expression that might betray an underlying ideology or, god forbid, individual competence.

This ICTR tribunal testimony was a rare half-hour of pure, startling honesty. The witness had been so exposed, laid so brutally bare by her trauma, that there seemed to be nothing left for her to defend. She gave up everything.

It’s eleven years since I sat there, and seventeen years since the genocide. Before going to Tanzania, I was apolitical in every way. What I saw during two months living in Arusha made me curious about the world for the first time. I saw testimony at the ICTR, witnessed the best & worst of expat NGO workers, gap year students & tourists. I crossed paths with Arusha’s amputee homeless, lived in a neighbourhood where thieves were killed by communal mob justice and met the people in small coffee & banana farms affected by my choices at the till. It was the ultimate crash-course in globalisation, before I knew what the word meant. I recommend it to everyone.

The Town that Doesn’t Exist

With all the mania since I’ve been back from Africa, I never got around to posting this piece, on my time in Kibera, which appeared as a four-page spread in the Sunday Business Post.  Incidentally, there’s a Viewfinder feature on the people mentioned in this piece on Storyful right now. Go check it out.
Sunday Business Post, November 7, 2010

In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, up to a million people live in a place that doesn’t exist. It does not appear on any government maps. It receives the bare minimum of services.

Officially, this city within a city is an uninhabited ‘forest’.

But the residents of the Kibera slum are no longer happy to be anonymous. Using free social media technology such as YouTube, they’re doing what no one else will: putting themselves on the map. Continue reading “The Town that Doesn’t Exist”

Trade delegation

Heading north-east to Thika to interview a coffee cooperative, I took a matatu (Hiace bus) from central Nairobi early on a Thursday morning. As I headed off, I had no idea that the road I took would be one of the most interesting things I observed that day. The ‘Thika Road’ has acquired legendary status in the Kenyan press. It is being seen as a major victory for the Kenyan government, a sign of Kenya’s movement into the future. When it is finished, sometime in 2012 if the hype is to be believed, it will become a main artery to the north-east from the Kenyan capital. There is no doubt that it will be one of the best roads in the country.

Despite only a few hundred metres being visibly paved with tarmac at this stage, it is already being hailed as a shining jewel in the Kenyan infrastructure, one other African countries hope to mimic. But it’s also a triumph that the Kenyan government can take little credit for.

The smart move, it seems, has been to get the Chinese build it, to delegate the job.

SinoHydro are overseeing the project, and their countrymen are clearly visible in their blue overalls, dotted among groups of Kenyan labourers as foremen, or driving shiny 4X4s.

What’s completed of the road, or even that which is in a halfway state, is of good quality. The road network at large, in comparison, is a slapdash criss-cross of pockmarked byways, and reflective of that is the battered national fleet. All vehicles become old before their time, aged by the terrain and kept alive through the palliative care that passes for mechanical maintenance here.

The sight of a Mini Cooper, of which I’ve seen only one, is a bizarre folly. Among the clapped-out, or soon-to-be clapped out vehicles bouncing around Nairobi, a glitzy, expensive little hatchback built for smooth city streets makes little sense at all.

But the Thika road will add to the Tsavo Highway (The Nairobi-Mombasa stretch known as the ‘China Road’) a second high-standard stretch of motorway across Kenya, built largely by Africa’s favourite trade partner – the Chinese. To overly compliment the Chinese influence puts one at risk of belittling African workers, their ineptitude an inferred corollary of the efficiency and capacity of the high-powered immigrants.

A more optimistic analysis would suggest that Kenya may merely have spotted a good thing, a source of skills transfer and, at the same time, infrastructure. Much-needed infrastructure.  Kenya has a long way to go to bring its road network up to scratch, by employing Chinese help to get it done, the by-product could be a drastically upskilled construction force. And that model is replicable across a variety of sectors.

And to the cynic, it highlights the continuance, best use and positive reversal of a tactical choice that has been a long-standing favourite here, from colonial times on to the present day. Delegation.

But that simplifies things far too much. The fact is, China and Kenya’s trade relationship pulls them ever tighter together as time passes. It has done more to enable commerce and development, the visible sort, than anything other international intervention on a surface level. Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, many of them cheap Chinese knock-offs of familiar designs. Their ubiquity has led to a price war between operators, opening their use up further to customers. The number of motorbikes on the streets has increased by a factor of five, nearly all of them ersatz Chinese brands that would struggle to sell a single unit in Ireland or the US, where top-line marques have things cornered off. The short-lived phones, the bikes, and the tuk-tuks that now pepper the cities, are an environmentalists nightmare. There is no way of recycling end-of-life phones in Kenya, meaning they end up on the side of the road, leaching heavy metals into the watercourse, and  all of the bikes are two-stroke affairs, spewing particulate matter into an already smoggy atmosphere.

But they are a new vector to prosperity for many Kenyans. Someone who can stockpile enough Kenyan shillings to buy a motorbike can become a revenue-generating piki-piki motorcycle taxi driver. Phones allow access to markets (an anomalous term – see this quasi-relevant post) and save on unnecessary journeys, a godsend when two valuable hours or more could be lost making a redundant trip by foot.

So the bikes, the phones and the roads (along with myriad other examples including the toilet roll in the header shot) are all representative of something that China has cottoned on to ahead of all other countries: Africa is not merely a pauper continent, it is an extremely valuable market. The margins may be slim and the RPU low, but there are millions of people on the continent, heretofore abandoned by global commerce.

Kenya may not have oil, it may not have strategic importance, but it has 40 million consumers and a growing middle class. And despite our prolonged ‘engagement’ with the African continent in Europe and America, China somehow got to them first.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant.

God’s Cabbie

It’s amazing what business prospects strangers will pitch to you in East Africa. While walking along the street, I’ve been given the option to sponsor the university education of total strangers, and help them fund major business investments, often within minutes of having met someone. And for that reason, I’m out.

I had another Dragon’s Den experience on the road from Mombasa to Kilifi last week. Komaza, the NGO I was visiting in Kilifi, had recommended a driver to pick me up at Mombasa airport, and Osito appeared when I walked off the plane, friendly and prompt.

We chatted for the journey, and when Osito heard I was a journalist, and better still, one shooting video, he got excited. He hoped that I’d be able to film a music video for his Gospel group, or, better yet, find them a sponsor. I didn’t have time or money to fulfil his wishes on the spot, but we recorded a bit of his singing in the hope I could put it to some use.

Have a listen to Osito.

Nota Bene: This podcast was edited at midnight after a long day tramping around Kibera, while waiting for videos to render in Final Cut. Apologies for levels, popping, etc.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.

Karibu Kibera


Before going any further, the word Karibu means ‘welcome’ in Kiswahili, and it’s one you’re likely to hear on a regular basis here.

This post issues after a flying visit to Nairobi, where I arrived on Friday after a long journey from Dublin with delays at both ends. In Amsterdam our engines wouldn’t start. In Nairobi, the visa queue moved with all the urgency of cold honey. Thereafter, things picked up pace. Less than twelve hours after stepping off the plane, I was in Kibera meeting with the Kibera News Network team. KNN film news in Kibera as it happens, videoing the footage on small Flip cameras and uploading their edited clips to Youtube. They’re often the first on the scene, and get some great interviews from major events that would otherwise go unnoticed. They deserve more attention than they get.

The KNN team came to my attention through Map Kibera, one of the projects I’ll be examining in detail as part of a project funded by a Simon Cumbers Grant. ‘What you measure, you’re more likely to improve’, an athlete once told me. Map Kibera has helped civilian teams measure every inch of the Kibera slum, mapping resources, sanitation facilities, black spots for crime and everything in between, quite literally putting Kibera on the map. Go to Google Maps, and Kibera’s a blank, just as it is on Kenyan government maps. It is a vast nebula of humanity, hunkered under a wavy canopy of rusting tin rooves and a hum of commerce, music and motorized mayhem. Nebulous things are hard to map, or so the excuses run.

We spent yesterday talking to several Kiberan residents about some aspects of their lives in the city. I passed on what little filming and photographic skills I had to help them with their interviews, and together we set about putting together some material for an upcoming project of theirs. I also introduced them to two Kodak zi8 cameras donated by the good folks at Storyful, which they’ll add to their arsenal.

There was a group of eleven of us tramping around Kibera at times, so I won’t name everyone, but the KNN team was hugely hospitable. They were fun, welcoming, and rightly proud of their home town and the people within it.

Kibera, for its troubles, fulfils many of the slum sterotypes. The houses are small, dark and close together. The roads are muddy. The sewers run as trenches in the middle of alleyways, shallow and fast in some spots, deep and fetid in others. It’s not a nice way to live at times, and the KNN guys, all Kibera residents, acknowledged the problems their home faces. Their whole raison d’etre is to draw attention to the highs and lows of Kibera life in the hope that the good stuff will be recognised and the bad stuff rectified.

Highlight of the day was meeting a man called Mike Aziz. Mike was a KNN interviewee in a story produced by Joshua on a fire in the area. I recognised Mike and we bumped into him at one point when the KNN guys were filming some material on that topic. He was gobsmacked (as were the KNN crew) that I knew his face from an online video, and we interviewed him in English for the piece.

On to Mombasa, where I’m currently visiting Komaza, a sustainable forestry NGO based in Kilifi. I visited Kilifi in 2003, and plenty has changed. More on that, Map Kibera and the rest a little later.

Editors/producers interested in contacting Markham for material from Kenya & Tanzania, please email Markham (dot) Nolan (at) gmail (dot) com or call +254-732-580-147.

Sir Bob, Mint Tea & Deerskin Jeans

Tea is a global panacea. A good portion of earth’s inhabitants believe that for any and all stressful situations, a nice brew will pull you back from the edge. The gurgle of the kettle, the burble of tea from spout and the gentle glug of milk (if you take it) is the normal Irish ritual, along with a trowelful of sugar. Other countries take their tea green, minty or spiced.

Little girls start early, dragging their older brothers to imaginary tea parties with teddy bears and Barbie dolls, sitting in the middle of the garden.
The most interesting tea party I ever attended was made up of six grown men sitting on the side of the road. One of those men was wearing home-made deerskin pants. We were in Africa.