Flying over the 400-mile wide Mozambique Channel that separates Madagascar from the African continent, my heart raced at the prospect of visiting a remote island that separated from the African continent some 165 million years ago.
Imagine an island more than 1,000 miles long in a blue tropical ocean uninhabited for most of its history. Forests cover vast areas, interspersed with swamps where eight-meter-long crocodiles lie in wait to prey on pygmy hippopotamuses. In the rain forests and in dryer parts of the island live some of the strangest primates to have ever existed on earth. Some 110 species of these lemurs live throughout the island and range in size from the world’s smallest primate, weighing about one ounce, to a lemur the size of a gorilla (now extinct).
Peering out of my aircraft window, I watched the stratocumulus clouds tower over the many swollen rivers draining the rainwaters as we descended towards Antananarivo (Tana), the capital of Madagascar located in the cool central highlands. With golden paddy fields blanketed by green clusters of trees, I was descending into what appeared to be a paradise of forests, paddy fields and rolling hills.
At the arrivals area, I was surprised to be greeted by faces that displayed a unique blend of African and Indonesian bloodlines. First populated 1,600 years ago by ancient sailors from Borneo, in today’s Indonesia, its early history is being slowly peeled by anthropologists one excavation at a time.
Nearly all the species here evolved in isolation since it broke off and drifted away from east Africa many million years ago. What I found here is a lost world of unique animals and plants, unseen by humans until their first arrival.
My planned take-away from this trip included photographing colorful chameleons, trekking the lush rainforests, navigating spiny thorn forests and climbing the spectacular rock formations. At the end of it all, what left me with a deeper sense of this country was its unique people following ancient customs, despite their wanton destruction of a paradise.
My guide in Antasibe, Maurice Ratsesakanana, was instrumental in me tracking down the apex lemur, indri. Its haunting calls are reminiscent of the songs of the humpback whales. Each morning in my bungalow, at the Hotel Fenny Ala at the edge of the rain forest, I woke up to its call. The indri is the largest lemur in existence today and tracking and photographing them in rain was a trophy to be had. Indris have never been successfully bred in captivity and this is the only place on earth that one can see these unusual primates.
Maurice also exposed me to some of the 600 amphibians and reptiles that inhabit the forest, most of them endemic to Madagascar, meaning found nowhere else on earth. Frogs of every imaginable color and pattern leapt in this wet jungle. Chameleons, some brilliantly colored, and others shades of mottled brown, crept invisibly about. The largest can capture mice and birds, while the smallest, measuring only an inch, feeds on insects.
More than 80% of Madagascar’s 14,883 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. The rain forests had many orchids growing on tree barks and stems. Maurice indicated that three-fourths of Madagascar’s 860 orchid species are endemic, as are six of the world’s eight baobab species. I found orchid nursery’s lining all along the Antasibe road, simply harvested from the rainforest each day.
At the World Heritage rain forest of Ranomafana, Theo Farafidison, my guide, educated me on so many aspects of the fauna there. Theo worked with filmmaker David Attenborough during the shooting of the BBC series there. Almost all the amphibians and reptiles in Madagascar, half the 300 birds and all its 110 species of lemurs are endemic. Theo and I spotted a Parson’s chameleon that was almost two feet long and capable of grabbing birds with its sticky tongue. I could not help but coax it to walk on my arms, a small violation of the park’s rules. The bamboo lemurs are a specialty here, along with seven other species.
My personal highlight was that of grabbing a six-foot tree boa at night while we were looking for nocturnal lemurs and chameleons. He was quite docile and surprisingly comfortable in my hold. After studying him in my confines, I gently eased him on to a tree, not realizing that they hunt on the ground. After photographing many species of frogs, scores of geckos, including those that mimic leaves, several chameleon species, five snake species, including a very large Madagascar tree boa, I moved to the drier side of the highlands. The unique animals of this country, especially the tree boa constrictor, are a target for pet suppliers from all over the world.
Some of the amazing landscapes I found in the country’s national parks included spectacular rock massifs, canyons, aquatic environments, savannahs and dry lands. Isalo, Zombitse, Kirindy and Andatringa come to mind as places that cannot be missed. Waterfalls abound, cascading down tall cliffs into rivers and lakes, the central highlands are a mosaic of woodland and savannah, while the eastern regions are covered in dense, humid rainforest.
In my quest for soaking up this paradise I swam in cool pools inside canyons, trekked the Tsaranoro massif, a sheer rock 800 meters tall known for world-class rock climbing, went sapphire prospecting on river banks, walked in wet, dry, semi-humid and spiny forests enjoying everything from insects like the endemic kung fu cricket, which takes on a martial posture when approached by the diverse ethnic groups that populate this island.
One great adventure that will last in my memory was my attempt to reach the spectacular limestone karst formations of Tsingy de Bemahara in the rainy season. It is an impenetrable wilderness of limestone spikes and sharp rocks that dominates the North West. The Tsingy is an ancient 200-mile long coral reef lifted from the ocean and carved over the millennia by wind and water into dagger-edged pinnacles. Crossing rivers on barges and driving through the dirt roads that had become three-feet deep streams during the rainy season, I reached this remote area to be hailed as the first tourist to arrive there that season. A nine-mile trek and climb ensued my visit to this world heritage site from the top looking down since all road access was inundated.
Deforestation has been present on the island since its colonization by humans, approximately 2,000 years ago, with 90% of the original forests lost. With an unprecedented population growth, extreme poverty (one of the highest in the world), and a brewing political crisis, the nature of the island is helpless and besieged by multiple fronts including corruption at the highest level. There is a police stop almost every few miles; they find something wrong with every vehicle in order to squeeze a few arriaris out of innocents and crooks alike. Thankfully, they do not bother tourists. One interesting behavior that I wish to write about is that of the gendarmerie (national police) who offered a full ceremonial salute when all our papers were in order.
In addition to the traditional system of slash and burn deforestation, which allows local people to open forests to cultivate, international players in cahoots with local officials selectively log rosewood tree species and have become the main threat for the biodiversity of the island. Lorries of hardwood leaving forested areas forced me to enquire about its legitimacy to everyone I met. They all shrugged almost helplessly even though their future was being stripped one day at a time.
Other threats include killing lemurs for meat, poaching reptiles and amphibians for the pet trade (the ploughshare tortoise fetches $200,000), habitat alteration and the clearance of forests, primarily for firewood and charcoal production. En route to the rainforests of Antasibe, I could see virgin rainforests burning outside the limits of the park for agriculture and cattle grazing that brought tears to my eyes. At every turn during my trip, my driver Tony Rebetsitonta, reflected on the different forested areas that had disappeared in his 25 years of driving around the country. It is anticipated that all the island’s rainforests, excluding those in protected areas and the steepest eastern mountain slopes, will have been deforested by 2025. As a result, several charismatic species such as chameleons and lemurs that evolved for millions of years here may become extinct by the end of the century.
The urgency to conserve the habitat has long been noticed by western scientists and conservation funding for Madagascar is at its peak. From protecting flora, fauna, habitats and large swathes of remaining forest, organizations are finding new ways to compensate the locals, educate them on sustainable land use and above all deal with a complex system of taboos that hold back progress.
While at Ranofamana National Park, I came to realize that this large virgin rainforest was protected and later converted into a park by none other than Dr. Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University in 1980, while studying bamboo lemurs as a post doctoral research worker there. This is another example of a driven woman scientist challenging government officials, locals and vested interests to create a legacy for mankind.
By the 16th century, the central highlands where the bulk of Madagascar’s population resides had been largely cleared of their original forests. It was small wonder that I saw red top soil getting washed off into the rivers from the air with no roots to hold them down. More recent contributors to the loss of forest cover include the growth in cattle herd size since their introduction around 1,000 years ago.
I met a professor from the University of Pretoria who is studying land grabs and cattle rustling in Madagascar and did not want his name publicized. This is a country where people still keep their wealth in cattle and not cash. He told me that rustling cattle is big business and as a result big groups of heavily-armed men attack villages and run away with the several hundred heads of cattle. I am told that the Malagasy people register their Zebu cattle at birth with the authorities, and not their own children.
Today, there are around 18 different ethnic groups living on the island. These include the Asiatic Merina (who make up over a quarter of the population), the Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Antaimoro and the Bantu Sakalava. The Malagasy language is very similar to the Indonesian language Minaan; spoken only in Borneo, it has accepted some Bantu/Swahili words over time. Their customs especially of burials, land ownership, taboos and professions are very unique for the traveler to see and experience.
The Malagasy burial customs matches closely with cultures from Indonesia where I have traveled extensively to study them. This includes periodic exhumation of the bones and huge celebrations, keeping the corpse at home until it dries before burial or placing them inside rock cairns in hard to reach places, all of which bankrupt families in pursuit of satisfying their forefathers. Their philosophy, much like the ethnic Indonesians of Sulawesi and Borneo, is that life on earth is very ephemeral when compared to the soul’s journey through the universe.
This beautiful land and its people are in a ticking time bomb of land loss, top soil erosion and desertification in a few centuries. While western agencies are doing their best to stem the degradation, it is inevitable that it cannot be reversed. Added to this, poor education, absent healthcare and a corrupt government have kept the people very poor, just living under an annual $500 per capita.
It is a paradise in retreat and all our efforts to decelerate this decline is all I can hope for these wonderful people and its other living denizens. It is a travesty created by man in his effort to conquer nature. – Words and photos by Ramdas Iyer
Executive Travel: Nomzamo Mbatha’s Kenya
The South African actor immerses herself in all things Kenyan, from the natural wonders to cultural experiences, and has an awakening.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Sandton, South Africa, and the sun is a couple of hours away from its daily disappearance down the horizon. FORBES AFRICA makes a phone call. A voice at the other end says a deep “hello”. It is award-winning South African actor and entrepreneur Nomzamo Mbatha, who is in New York City and has just woken up.
From the Big Apple, her mind travels to Africa.
When she’s not scorching television screens, in the award-winning South African drama-series, Isibaya, Mbatha spends a lot of time traveling.
She has been to 13 countries, but as an African, none has made her feel at home quite like Kenya.
She describes it as the warmest place in Africa and speaks of her endearing memories of the East African country.
“Kenya makes you feel like you should live there. Kenya makes you feel like you’re at home…” says Mbatha.
She traveled there for the first time when she was 16, handpicked by Save the Children, a non-governmental organization promoting children’s rights, as one of three South African children representing the country at a conference hosted by Kenya.
Mbatha recounts her first impressions.
“I remember seeing furniture doors just piled up on the side of the road and thought ‘whoa! I’ve never seen this’ and then I just remember Kenya having lots and lots of bananas.
“Because we were always on a bus, we didn’t get to see it (Kenya). My misconception of it, as a child, was that there’s not much to do as a tourist.”
In 2018, Mbatha was in Kenya again, flying first class on Kenya Airways with a carry-on and two big bags. “I don’t know how to travel light,” she confesses.
She recalls there were times in the earlier years as a traveler when she would pack everything, leave the house and get to the airport only to realize she wasn’t carrying her passport.
“So passport… that’s like your golden item! The number two [must-have item] I’d say is sneakers. It’s always great to have comfortable sneakers so you’re able to walk around the city, around the towns and just be comfortable. So always carry sneakers no matter what!
“Number three – I always have a nice little bag of small decanted toiletries. I have like 20 different things that I use.
“So when you’re traveling, especially long-haul flights, you want to be able to have your [face] cream because you don’t want to end up using what the airline gives you…
“When I’m traveling and connecting flights, I always make sure I go to the bathroom and use my products and keep my skin hydrated and clean.
“And, of course, the fourth must-have, is a book; it’s always a great travel mate.”
On her last trip to Kenya, Mbatha traveled with her manager and they were scheduled to fly out to Kakuma on a United Nations mission, however, she requested three days to be in Nairobi before the trip.
“I really just wanted to experience it and see more of it. Also, I was in a space where I hadn’t traveled in a while.
“It completely changed me. I went to the K1 Flea Market which is so amazing. Everybody has a smile. Everybody is so welcoming.
“I got to go to the Maasai Market which is absolutely fantastic. And there is so much art and craft you can find there… And then the fanciest restaurants; five-star restaurants they don’t tell you about, that they don’t show you. The party scene in Kenya is amazing. And what I really loved about Kenya is I felt completely safe.”
She then explored the Karura Forest, saved from deforestation by conservationists led by the late Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize laureate, leader of the Green Belt Movement, and environmental and political activist). Karura presented the most memorable moments for Mbatha while in Kenya.
“It was lush. And it was just inspiring to know that a woman’s name was behind all of this. I just remember thinking how massive it was. We just stood there and it was one of the best experiences of my life… it was beautiful. For me, it was better than seeing the Eiffel Tower. It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen.”
While the visit to Karura Forest left Mbatha in awe, it also taught her a valuable lesson.
“It was emotional in the sense that there is so much we can do for the planet. And it implores one to really do better in terms of our own social responsibility when it comes to environmental sustainability.”
Mbatha says the African continent has much to learn from Kenya.
“A lot of innovative businesses in Kenya [are] self-started. The government of Kenya is very cognizant of the fact they are not going to bring international brands. In fact, they empower local brands to start their own businesses, down to potato crisps. It’s very motivating for people to have the entrepreneurial spirit,” says the globetrotter in love with Africa.
Fancy A Butler While Camping?
The great outdoors now come with all luxury trappings. Glamping offers comforts that, at times, exceed services provided by five-star hotels.
Tourism in Soweto, a township in the south west of Johannesburg in South Africa, has grown exponentially over the years, contributing millions to its economy. And with disposable incomes in such urban township economies increasing, more people are finding ways to spend money through means they historically didn’t have.
Thato Mothopeng is one of the few entrepreneurs in the tourism sector here without a formal degree or training, but has a roaring business nevertheless.
His passion for enterprise and fun made him pour all his savings into his startup, Ghetto Mentality Entertainment, which birthed four other products: the Township Small Business Showcase, an annual event showcasing township businesses to other businesses; a restaurant called Sanchos outdoor kitchen that’s a food and art kitchen; then the Soweto Tourism Association with a mandate to develop tourism businesses in Soweto, creating employment opportunities and skilling the youth; and last but not the least, the Soweto Camp Festival that has been running for seven years now.
“This is one of my difficult projects because you have to get everybody into the [singular] vision of creating an economy using our own products. I try and show that potential at the Soweto Camp Festival where I fuse small businesses together to render services for people coming to the festival,” Mothopeng says.
The festival happens every Easter, on the long weekend, boosting Soweto’s tourism prospects.
This year, the camp is offering free stalls to emerging businesses in the art, craft and fashion industries.
The festival started as Camp Chair Sessions, a weekend event promoting outdoor activities in 2010 prior to the Soccer World Cup, at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, 17kms from Johannesburg. In 2011, it was converted to the Soweto Camp Festival after guests wanted to camp with the hosts.
The Soweto Camp Chair Sessions encourage artists, entrepreneurs and people from different disciplines to promote the idea of camping, says loyal attendee and now the general manager of the Soweto Camp Festival, Kgomotso Morotolo.
“I met Thato at the camp chair sessions. At the sessions, we would have between 2,000 to 4,500 people coming with their camp chairs and it was housed at Lebo’s Backpackers. So, we were creating a lifestyle of traveling and camping, entrepreneurship and socializing,” Morotolo says.
The first three festivals were hosted at the same venue where the sessions were held. Slowly, the camp site was getting smaller because of the sheer volume of attendees; Mothopeng had to look for another space.
Mothopeng and the owner of Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, Lebo Malepa, had to part ways.
“Thato saw the bigger picture, one of the reasons we parted was because he wanted to go big and I wanted to go small. He was used to hosting big gigs and I’m not used to hosting such because I deal with tourists and tourists usually want smaller groups of people for the safety. That’s when we agreed that he can move on and he had a lot of ideas which he is including now in his package,” says Malepa.
Mothopeng was looking for something with sentimental value, a place that spoke to the inhabitants of the township, and in 2014, Mofolo Park, 3kms from the iconic Vilakazi Street seemed fitting. This is also where FORBES AFRICA is doing this interview, under one of the many trees, on a bench with the passionate entrepreneur who is wearing a colorful bucket hat; symbolic of a young Sowetan.
“When Nelson Mandela came back from prison and wanted to address students, he came to this park; the late jazz musician Hugh Masekela performed here, among others, this is a very historic space. That’s what we are trying to do, to revive the history because we also want to play a part in the making of history. We also want to be part of the history writers; we also want to talk about the greats within our time,” Mothopeng says.
Their current venue is a source of pride.
“It’s a green site. This is a place where people get to come and relax, chill and unwind with nature; it’s something we don’t experience because of lack of greenery in the township. With that being said, we have over 100 trees in this venue.”
Running the venue and providing the best service is not without challenges.
“Having to convince City Parks [parks and zoos run by the City of Johannesburg] is a challenge and [upkeep] costs us about R100,000 ($6,900) to utilize for a weekend with toilets and fencing. It was stressful but at the end of the day we did it without a cent and we made a bit of money after that. Now I have a bit of a budget that I saved up for rainy days,” he says.
The festival has reached the 1,000 people mark from its inception when they hosted about 200 campers at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, and about 60% of them are non-Sowetans, accommodating guests from Lesetho, Swaziland and America, among others. In 2018, the project made R1.4 million ($97,168), comprising youth-owned township businesses and service providers, and is targeting R2.5 million ($173,514) in 2019.
“I remember in 2017, we faced a loss because we were focusing on paying people we owed. We had a loss of about R250,000 ($17,351) in 2017. We had to chase that so we could recoup our name before 2018. With all the hard work, we left 2018 debtless,” he recalls.
Mothopeng attributes his growth as an entrepreneur to the many challenges he has faced along the way. Last year, their ticketing service provider went on strike for two weeks before the festival, which was detrimental for the team as it impacted negatively on sales. Since then, they have learned to take responsibility for their product by handling all bookings and ticket sales, and outsource if their work load was beyond their capacity.
The vision of the Soweto Camp Festival is to create a ripple effect where other city parks are used as camping parks like they do at Mofolo Park which showcases the history of Soweto, the artistry, culinary finesse, fashion and music. Moreover, the conventional forms of pitching a tent, starting a fire and hiding in a bush to relieve yourself, has evolved over time.
Glamping, which is a combination of glamor and camping, provides people with all their creature comforts while also immersed in the great outdoors.
About 60kms from Mofolo Park in Soweto is a glamping farm in Magaliesburg in north Gauteng called Koesterfonteinfarm founded by Zai Khan, a coastal girl and beach lover who has been living in Johannesburg for 20 years.
“I worked in the media for 18 years until I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I like being my own boss, I wanted that life and didn’t have an idea how I was going to carve it, so I bought a beautiful farm in Magaliesburg. My dad is a bee-keeper, he makes honey and thought I should continue my father’s legacy, I bought the farm to keep bees but it didn’t work because the farm didn’t have flora,” Khan says.
Although the farm was bought to continue a legacy, it is in the heart of an enterprising environment. Magaliesburg is home to the Cradle of Humankind, as well as Maropeng and the Sterkfontein caves, among other natural wonders. Magaliesburg serves as an escape from the city and is about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg.
Tourists also make stops in the mountain range while heading to the North West Province which is home to Sun City, an upscale resort with hotels, a casino, and a water park in inland South Africa that borders Botswana.
Khan was stuck with a farm, and was unemployed, but selling fire wood she had found on the property. Not long after owning the property, she decided to branch into hospitality, a decision she regards as the best because travel companies had contacted her to do her marketing. She has been fully booked since.
“When I bought the property, it had a beautiful barn house, a rock cottage and a structured tent and I liked it [the tent], so [I thought] if I like it, someone else might like it. So, it started with a tent and I wanted people to experience what I had experienced, and that is how I found out about glamping,” she recalls.
Khan used a local artisan to refurbish the farm and give it an unruffled feel; she liked it so much that she is currently working on replicating two more because of the demand from guests.
“The tent has a king-size bed. It’s like you’re sleeping in a tented structure but its an en suite, which has a shower, a bath, and a fire pit, [to keep] you warm when you’re inside. It’s cocoon-like and cosy, it has a delta gusto coffee machine and a kitchen. Everything is there and that’s what I went with it [glamping]. Now I have a lot of big companies copying the idea of glamping, that’s how I realized I’m onto something and stuck to it,” Khan says.
Khan’s plans are to grow the glamping industry in South Africa and become a “glamping guru”, a specialist in that field, she says.
“If the tourism industry is worth trillions, then the 1% of glamping is not a market to ignore, because it hasn’t reached its potential growth, there is so much potential to grow in it.”
Today Khan is a part of on incubation program with flight centre, and is learning about hospitality as she doesn’t have a qualification. She is also sitting on the board of Cradle of Humankind Local Tourism Association to increase her knowledge of the tourism and hospitality sector.
Khan’s farm accommodates 12 people and is being expended to house 20 people with an additional two tents. The property has 21 hectors of land and employs two people with a turnover of R250,000 in 2018.
“Glamping is a combination of glamor and camping, its where you get to experience the great outdoors without ever having to pitch a tent because we have the tent ready with 300 tread count linen, Le Creuset pots, a delta gusto coffee machine and everything is there ready and waiting. We have no Wi-Fi, but we promise you a better connection,” she says.
Glamping is a novelty and is a growing industry that’s exploring various ways to make the experience as convenient as possible. Ever imagined having a butler at your camp site?
Karabo Sepharatla is a 35-year-old from Soweto who runs a camping butler service he calls Camping Khapela; (khapela is a name taken from a character who was a butler in popular South African soapie, Generations).
“About five years ago, I went on a camping trip with the boys to a weekend music festival in Mozambique and it was a horrible experience. We had only bought alcohol and food and some of us couldn’t even set up tents so we’d sleep in other people’s tents, and we had cramps.
“I had invited other friends who do VIP protection and they had everything; the whole set up. What they did was hire a local guy to clean and look after their camp site and prepare food while they were out having fun. I thought to myself I would pay top dollar for that and city people would pay top dollar for that as well,” he says.
He went back home and did research on why many black people were not camping. “I found historical reasons because black people were not allowed to travel. Now that there is freedom, we don’t know where to go,” Sepharatla says.
On his return to Johannesburg, Sepharatla received a warning from work for skipping work but wasn’t bothered because he didn’t enjoy his job anyway. On the same day, he turned on the radio and they were talking about how black people didn’t camp. He called in and erroneously told them he provided a camping service as though the business already existed. A few minutes later, he a received a call; a gentleman and five of his friends wanted to go to Coffee Bay, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa over New Year 2014.
“I sent a quote in three days, the client paid a deposit and I bought my first tent, and I started from there. I didn’t make profit, but we managed to get everything that was needed. Improvements continued, and we started taking pictures for social media to promote our services and the black people market showed interest,” he says.
Sepharatla says when Camping Khapela started, there were only five service providers of such and currently there are six in Johannesburg doing the exact same thing.
“The turnover is good. In my first year, I made about R60,000 ($4,164) doing six trips and this year, we’re looking at a million rand. Our services cover the SADC region and we’re aiming to expand to Zanzibar and Uganda and take over the African continent, and share our secrets because it seems like no one is doing it,” he says.
Their services range from R2,000 ($139) to R5,000 ($347) on weekend services and prices vary depending on requirements.
“Camping Khapela is the ultimate camping experience it’s like having your own butler at the camp site 24/7 who will pitch a tent, prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner and make sure your site is clean, basically a Khapela at your camp site,” says Sepharatla.
Such experiences seem to have certainly given outdoor hospitality a new look.
Is Nairobi’s Storied History Quietly Disappearing?
If distinctive architecture marks a great city, then, Nairobi, chief among the great capitals of the continent, has plenty to appreciate. Unfortunately, faced with the urgent needs of development, the preservation of its historical buildings has often been overlooked.
Nairobi, as some may know it, presents a bewildering range of architectural styles. Influences conflict from religion and the decadence of imperial culture to the studied modernism of post-independence and the synthesized futurism of late.
Yet, even in this dazzling array of constructed expression, the city’s architecture will not be recommended by many, if any, of its locals.
One might notice that a lot of the older buildings, some survived from the colonial era and others erected in the fleeting euphoria of post-independence, are taken for granted. Their relevance now narrowly defined by current occupants and not by what they were and how they came to be.
The more anonymous international-style towers made of glass and steel that define the city skyline enjoy more frequent limelight, locating the ambitions of a modern African city in an increasingly globalized world.
This attitude has been explained by a popular theory frequently offered in the niche but studied debate within Kenyan architecture. One that often dominates any headline to do with the designs of the capital.
Evelyne Wanjiku, an aficionado of African architecture and co-author of a book on the history of Nairobi’s buildings, lambasted the tastes of her fellow countrymen as a crisis in the city’s property fashions.
“Buildings in Nairobi are a testimony to the influences of various industrialized countries. A walk around the city reveals buildings of British, Indian, and even Dutch influence,” she notes in a particularly disgruntled article in one of the papers of record, Daily Nation.
Beyond the alien persuasions of the Nairobi skyline, she says that even the well-to-do homeowners in the country reinforce this pattern through the “Victorian houses or fancy Tuscany structures” that they have built for themselves.
The assertion is heavy. Kenyans as, consumers of architecture, are all too willing to be swayed by those of an ‘imported culture’.
The reality, however, is a lot more complex.
In just a number of decades, Nairobi has spread, from its traditional center, to a sprawling network of settlements. In this frantic urbanization, the designs of architecture have been subordinate to the needs of development; conditions that the discipline has traditionally tried to avoid.
This phenomenon inspired a tangent in a conversation with Dr Bitange Ndemo, a popular newspaper columnist and professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
“The beef I have… is that once we are all dead, nobody will say that architecture existed in Kenya!” he laments.
To those new to the argument, the beef is two-fold.
Nairobi’s history is quietly disappearing. Some of it claimed in a recent spate of demolitions such as those of the colonial-era bungalows in and around the neighborhoods of Kileleshwa and the famous Kariokor Estate, home to the African porters of the ‘Carrier Corps’ during the first World War.
Their replacements, brutally modern apartment blocks, allegedly erected for immediate commercial return that the professor, and other proponents, maintain, do not redefine these areas in any language but instead deprive them of all identity. Worse still, with average rental prices per month averaging upwards of $800, only a small slice of the city’s inhabitants can now afford to call these places home.
Nairobi, often dubbed as the ‘green city in the sun’, has a storied history which is told rather vividly through its buildings.
Founded at the turn of the 20th century, as a depot on the Uganda Railway, it quickly rose to prominence as a trading post in what would become British East Africa. It was the industrial center of the country’s colonial economy – the main artery in the trade of coffee, sisal and tea. Eventually, in 1907, it was declared the capital of that region of the British Empire, a title furtively snatched from the bordering town of Machakos.
As such, Nairobi’s architecture cleverly accommodates the country’s diverse indigenous and settled cultures along with their individual histories.
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Even today, monumental buildings, commissioned by the colonial government of the day, show a pride in Kenya’s position within the empire. Designed by a ‘rebel’ architect from the British School of the Arts in Rome, Parliament House, the home of the country’s legislature, is not a carbon copy of its archetype as was intended. Instead, it is a cheerful interpretation of Westminster, showered by the equatorial sun and in constant conversation with the towering palm trees around it.
The South Asian community, among the city’s early settlers, is responsible for a large part of the architectural kitsch. Forming the bulk of Nairobi’s established merchant class, they have left an indelible stamp in the Art Deco styles prominent in some of the older downtown blocks such as Nanak House, which resembles a distant cousin of London’s Commonwealth House on New Oxford Street. An example of the generous extravagance of 1930s design, it is today better known for the upmarket hair salon on its first floor, than the conditions that inspired it.
While overshadowed by a clustering of modern towers, Jamia Mosque, in the center of town, is a beautiful specimen of Islamic architecture in the Arab tradition typical of the period of its construction, the first decade of the 20th century. Now a central place of worship for Nairobi’s sizable Muslim population, it is also well known for the businesses that have sprung from it, including an eponymous shopping mall several yards away.
Even as antiquated foreign fashions identify some of its streets, there are vernacular interpretations of them shrouded in the edifices of Nairobi. The Catholic Parish of St. Austin’s, at the edge of the middle class Lavington suburb, is a glorious showpiece of Gothic Revival with an African accent.
With its colossal mabati (corrugated iron) and timber roof trusses, it is a firm favorite of Ndemo.
“I get satisfaction from good architectural design… and if you go inside [the church], you can feel that someone put their thoughts together to do this,” he says.
The preservation of these Kenyan relics is not a recent concern. There is, in fact, a government agency dedicated to this crucial mandate at the National Museums of Kenya. However, for many of these buildings, the costs of safeguarding them for posterity far outweigh those of constructing anew.
Perhaps no one in the country is more aware of this conflict than the Head of the Directorate of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments, Dr Purity Kiura. While adamant that the task of preservation, in an effort to conserve history and memory in Kenya is important, she insists that there are other factors that weigh the equation.
“There is agriculture, there is education, there is health…and all of these are competing with other needs for the nation so monuments are not a priority,” she says.
She does admit that attitudes are slowing changing. With so many of the buildings in need of protection poignant reminders of a difficult period in the country’s past, the need to conserve them is often set against embittered sentiment.
A younger cosmopolitan population, a few generations removed from that time, lends a more sympathetic ear to the obligations of architectural conservation.
“We are starting to see a more positive response… they seem to be understanding their history and accepting that history,” she continues.
Outside of public office, there has also been, in response, a modest movement building. Sometime in 2013, the Architectural and Heritage Advisory Committee (AHAC) was convened. The group, comprised of an eclectic mix of brand name architects, lay enthusiasts, a prominent journalist and an architect-turned-photographer, set out to protect Nairobi’s built heritage.
Its architect, an economist by trade, Aref Adamali, was compelled to organize it after returning home in 2008. Having lived in some of the world’s great architectural cities, among them New York and London, he was met with a fast-changing metropolis in the midst of a property boom.
To him, these developments were not convincing evidence that it was heading in the right direction.
“We were losing older buildings… not just old colonial buildings made of stone but [some] from the ’60s and ’70s with post-independence modernist architecture and even cool buildings from the ’80s… that we could [never] recover,” he recalls.
After a number of conversations, Adamali began the initiative that would form AHAC. Looking to avoid the taxing listing procedures of the National Museums, they took their campaign to the interwebs.
“Listing can be contentious [so] we decided not to take the regulatory approach… our interest was in casting our net further than the city center and into the neighborhoods that were quickly changing,” he explains.
The result was an online poll open to all of Nairobi and a blog cataloging the capital’s aging architectural gems. After a period of voting, AHAC compiled a list of 50 of the city’s most treasured historical properties informed by a broad spectrum of its residents. They also collaborated with local artists and photographers to immortalize these structures in exhibitions that appealed to the greater public.
The committee is still contemplating a longer term approach but they do have a few ideas.
“We’d want the owners of these buildings to be, in effect, the unofficial custodians of them,” Adamali proposes.
Some of the buildings that feature on the list include some of Nairobi’s most photographed landmarks like the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
Inspired by the vernacular structure of an African hut and constructed using locally-sourced materials, it was designed by Norwegian, Karl Henrik Nøstvik, in close consultation with the country’s first architect, David Mutiso, in 1968.
The exercise was a particularly important one for Nairobi. As the architectural debate blares on, in local newspapers or in intellectual salons, along with its interpretations of identity, it remains far removed from the wider Kenyan public.
Offering locals and laymen an opportunity to locate and share their own ideas of the city’s heritage gives the preservationists some support and a lasting shot at success.
Nairobi is host to not just one but a cornucopia of cultural connotations through its buildings. Each making conversation, in the language of design, about their origins and place in the city. Taken for granted as they are, these monuments of old will continue be lost without memory by the modernizing nation around them.
As Adamali insists, this cannot be allowed to happen.
“We’ve got to appreciate what we’ve got and together try to do what we can to preserve them for future generations,” he says.
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