As I write this post, I am sitting on a broken couch in a 40 USD/night accommodation in Kampala, the old-school standing fan is so loud that it gives me a headache, and the single dim light in the room is barely enough to see things. In the night, I will tuck myself inside the tented bed that saves me from bugs and crawlies and sleep off to the sounds of the busy streets and exotic birds that I didn’t know existed. The next morning, my generous Ugandan host will ask me how I slept and her honest smile would be enough to kick start the day. With a challenging day ahead, I would be relieved that if nothing else, the warm people of this kind region will be there for me.
Tossing between Uganda’s capital Kampala and Kenya’s small town of Kisumu, the region of East Africa spread along the shore of Lake Victoria, has been my life for half a year now. Alone and away from home, I have had no choice but to dissolve in life here and soak everything around like a sponge. Like any worthy experience, the memories of time here will come back to fascinate me in bits and pieces once it is over but for now, I’m only managing to swim through it without drowning.
The Slow Life In My Tiny East African Town
Let’s keep Nairobi aside. It is green, modern, vibrant, and quite a comfortable city to be in. It reminds me of Bangalore in so many ways and irrespective of its unsafe reputation, I find it very welcoming and safe (unless you are walking alone in the nights). Let’s also keep aside the luxurious Kenyan conservancies and safaris that barely reflect the everyday life a Kenyan (or a regular tourist) lives and experiences.
Kenya’s smaller towns like Kisumu, Nanyuki, Eldoret etc. are where Kenya thrives in and each feels different and unique. In Kisumu (my lovely base) that happens to be Kenya’s third largest city, life is suburb-ish even in the city centre. There are a handful of restaurants, two coffee shops, no fancy shopping brands, no ‘cool’ hostels, just the one (somewhat) regular bar, no food delivery options, and absolutely no budget accommodations. On top of that, there is no app-based taxi service to navigate the city. Instead, there are homy clubs where locals get together, lake-side resorts for sundowners, local taxi services to arrange hours before you need to go, and house parties where people indulge in Karoga.
As cosy as it sounds, this makes my life as an odd brown expat a bit challenging. My only means of transport are the Bodas (that I highly recommend in spite of what some other travellers may say), social life is about hanging out alone at the chain coffee shop called Java, and nightlife.. well, it doesn’t exist. Instead, I can watch the pink sunset from my window every day, go for a 5:30 PM dinner meal on lake-side shacks, make friends with the boda drivers, and spend a ton of quality time on my own. All of this, from a highly expensive apartment as all of my brave attempts at finding ‘budget’ accommodation fell flat on my face.
Having grown up in a small Indian town, I was always savvy in the art of living a non-city life and thanks to Kisumu, I feel I am back to my habits and roots that I had lost in the last ten years of living in big Indian cities.
The Fascinating East African-Indian Food and Culture
I wished history textbooks in India taught us more about the politics and geogro-psychology of Indian diaspora, besides those in Durban and London. Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India and Bahadur’s Coolie Woman got me deeply interested in this subject a long time ago and thanks to Kisumu, I experienced this fusion and tension first hand.
During and after the Ugandan Railway construction, a large number of Indian workers came and settled into this region and continue to do so. The food, the culture, the businesses and a lot more is highly influenced by this movement and I’m (neither a resident nor a traveller) an oddness in this otherwise somewhat harmonious community.
In Kisumu, the famous Kenyan ugali has a version called zeera ugali (ugali with cumin seeds and a few Indian spices), bhajiya is a common snack item, spiced barbecue called Karoga is highly popular, one gets ‘masala’ french fries at every other restaurant, and all Indian foods have completely adapted to the East African taste buds to a degree that I can barely identify them. Obscure Bollywood films that go off the cinemas in India in two days become popular here and the twisted soap operas are shown in a dubbed British accent. At the supermarkets, the mandazi mix shares space with curry powder and the rooftop vegetarian cafe serves paneer pizza.
Needless to say, alongside a beautiful harmony, there’s an unsaid tension that exists between the groups. Nevertheless, the intermingling cultures swirling together are fascinating to watch and a reminder of what should never repeat in the world. As a distant observer, it never stops fascinating me.
Being A Brown ‘Woman’ Expat
When a child on a street in Kampala yelled ‘Brown Mzungu’ at me, it was a moment of wisdom. A 7-8-year-old child could figure this status better than any sociologist would have. Other than the main cities, the expat communities in East Africa aren’t very used to seeing people like me (Non-NRI, Non-Swahili speaking, Non-traditional, Indian, and woman) in this part so nobody really knows what to do with the likes of me. In restaurants, the only people who appear out of place are the Chinese engineers and me. Unfortunately, I experienced my first major racism incident in Kisumu when a group of ‘educated’ white (deleting the nationality here) youngsters decided to pass through me as if I didn’t exist either as a person or their guest though they knew perfectly well how to behave with the rest. Thanks to the warm, generous, and highly respectful locals who embraced me with open arms, Kisumu became home irrespective and I became way more cognizant of the divided social world we live in.
Travelling In East Africa
East Africa is expensive to live in and even more expensive when travelling. Just like India, it’s been through enough trouble and is now picking up. Given the expensive costs, my plans to get away every weekend never worked. The cost to move around, stay, and indulge in experiences are higher than in most countries we have been to. This makes it all the more important to come to this region for longer and not jump from one safari to another or one experience to another. Instead, it’s much more valuable to experience the daily life of this region, to travel to obscure and offbeat places, and doing the normal mundane things that the locals do. To this, add a few getaways and you have a perfect East African experience.
Having lived in 20+ accommodations in Kenya and Uganda from a great 10 dollar experience to a terrible 50 dollar experience, I have understood a few things about making the best of this region on a budget that I wished I knew before. But, more on that later.
Should You Come Here?
Don’t think twice if you wish to slow travel or live here. No doubt, this region is not the most convenient yet, it is getting there. Though it may not have the most developed travel infrastructure, it is safe, raw, rugged, and so kind that your heart may melt and become a warm jelly.
To me, it has been an eye-opener in many ways – I see world politics differently now, I perceive global privilege not in the same way, I understand the subjective definitions of comfort and luxury, I see race as an important matter and most importantly I see my own country in a different light now (both, good and bad).
Besides, my definition of travel is now modified to ‘To be’. To Just go to a place and live – nothing more, nothing less. I would gladly come back to East Africa and live for longer. Maybe this time, I will bring my better half along.