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Cultural Nairobi

Written by: Rachel Hamada

Musician and activist Juliani, who just performed at the Gatwitch Arts Festival, from 2-4 December

Nairobi, Nairobi. If ever a city got a bad reputation, Nairobi did. Nairobbery, it still gets called. This drives the Tourist Board crazy – “I would say though the term Nairobbery hasn’t been used for so many years now and is a pretty dated view,” says one representative. Living in East Africa, however, you tend to hear people refer to this huge teeming metropolis as Nairobbery time after time.

However, that reputation is unfair these days, given the city’s very positive side. Yes, it’s hectic, and you should keep your wits about you. There is extreme poverty alongside major league affluence. When you take the plunge, and explore, though, you will find that Nairobi also has the pluses of some of the world’s major cities. It’s vibrant, exciting, entrepreneurial and creative. It mixes the cultural spirit of European cities with the car culture of US cities. The traffic is crazy, the people are loud, it’s alive. After the slow, slow pace of a lot of East Africa, it’s a shot of adrenaline to the heart. It’s modern Africa – it’s people, not elephants on postcards.

If big cities are not your thing, you probably aren’t going to enjoy Nairobi. But if you love the buzz of London or New York, then you will have a good time. So how do you experience the Nairobi vibe?

First of all, think carefully about where to stay. Nairobi has its share of tried and tested ‘safe option’ hotels, such as the Intercontinental and Crowne Plaza. But it is also coming up trumps with a new wave of exciting and chic design hotels, of which Tribe is the grande dame. A hotel in the pleasant green suburbs of embassy land, Tribe is nonetheless edgy. All architectural angularity suffused with warm African colours, art and sculptures, Tribe embodies modern Africa. Hang out in the cool lobby and people watch – you’ll see tourists, business people, families with kids, celebrities, but most importantly, a lot of Kenyans. This isn’t a tourist ghetto, it’s a space used by Nairobians for events, meetings and fun.

Another cool hotel is the newly opened Sankara – with many materials imported from Thailand and the Middle East, it has a less African feel than Tribe, but is trendy and popular with the cool crowd. With a rooftop bar and swimming pool, European and South-East Asian designer restaurants, wine bar and a Willy Wonka-style patisserie likely to give kids a one-week sugar high, it wouldn’t be out of place in any of the world’s big cities.

If you like your accommodation less urban and more folksy, an extraordinary option is the unique Kitengela Glass estate. Situated outside Nairobi (not far in actual distance but with Nairobi bottlenecks allow for an hour to ninety minutes to get there), this estate features serious wildlife such as leopards, lions and the odd spitting cobra as well as a tame menagerie of pets and semi-pets from a crowd of dogs to parrots, bush babies and a vulture. Its real purpose, however, is as a kind of collective for creative thinkers and artists.

Started by German artist Nani Croze (whose parents were both artists – “my mother died with a brush in her mouth”), the grounds are littered with organic sculptures and buildings, festooned with bright, bold glasswork everywhere. It’s like a cross between the hobbit cottages in Lord of the Rings and a Gaudi sculpture park in Barcelona, plonked down in the African bush. There is a swimming pool, but inhabited by giant metal dragons. There is a sauna, but it’s made from glass bottles, and on our visit the Russian Ambassador to Kenya, who is planning to open an African sculpture museum in Moscow, has his technician working on it to make it more heat-effective.

It’s a difficult place to explain – a joyful, colourful chaos with purpose. Accommodation is available here in a number of bright, funky cottages, all decorated with glassworks and original features, and is very affordable. Dinner is usually in Croze’s kitchen with her family and other guests, and is home cooked, delicious and organic. It’s also invariably very entertaining. If you are the kind of person who likes to control your holiday experience, forget it. But if you relish creativity and the unique, and can go with the flow, you will have an unforgettable time.

You can also take away one-off souvenirs, from stunning cobalt blue and turquoise hand-blown glasses to more eccentric pictures, sculptures and montages.

See video

, with accommodation sorted, what is there to do in Nairobi for the culture vulture? Permanent fixtures include RaMoMa and the Nairobi National Museum. RaMoMa, which Kitengela Glass founder Croze is closely involved with, is the main modern art museum, with exciting modern paintings and sculptures. It also houses pictures produced by the Mobile Art School, which tours Kenyan schools and guides children in the creation of artworks promoting peace and unity.

Contemporary artists such as Allan Githuku, Eric Shitawa, John Kamicha and Mary Collis feature heavily here, and the range of styles on offer, from surreal to abstract, makes for a satisfying gallery visit.

Some of the modern pieces would be almost impossible to distinguish, out of context, from some of the pieces in the ‘cycles of life’ cultural exhibit in the Nairobi National Museum. This features objects significant to rituals and ceremonies in Kenya from birth through to old age. From diverse areas of Kenya, these include beadwork skirts, aprons and headdresses that some haute couture designers would die for.

The uses of these objects are not always obvious. Some are just to look beautiful, some indicate status and some invoke magic. Looking at some of these things, which have all performed a real function for the owner, it can be hard to know where the line is between ‘art’ and ‘cultural object’ – for example, one painted Maasai shield could easily have hung on the wall in RaMoMa. Either way, Nairobi has lots of options if you want to explore culture and arts, and the emotional and symbolic power man can create with colour and form.

For a one-off artistic experience, the Gatwitch Arts Festival is worth checking out. The first one just took place and was a big success, and is expected to take place again next year. It is organised by musician and activist Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier in Sudan who has written about his experiences in book and music form, and tried to turn them into something positive. It features an exciting selection of Kenyan musicians and talent from further afield as well as speakers chosen to inspire the city’s young people.

Jal isn’t originally a Kenyan, so why did he pick this location for the festival? “Nairobi is where I went to school and started my music career, and it's always been my second home. Coming straight from the war with a lot of bitterness in my heart, it's in Nairobi that I experienced the diversity one town can hold, and peaceful ways of living between people of different origins and religions,” Jal explains. If this first festival is successful, the plan is to make it a regular fixture on the East African festival calendar.

Yulia Holko, who helps Jal to organise the festival, says she agrees that Nairobi’s culture life has really taken off.

“Nairobi's cultural life is really happening. Weekends are full of concerts, art exhibits, fashion shows, literature nights and various fairs, to name a few. We do hope that the festival boosts the cultural image of the city in the eyes of the visitors. The artists people will see at the festival are the same ones who perform live music with amazing bands around Nairobi, many of them on a weekly basis.

"Before heading on  their safaris, visitors to the city should spend at least one evening exploring the rich cultural experiences that Nairobi has to offer.”

Check out the local Nairobi Now blog if you want to learn more about what’s going on in this exciting city.

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