Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A nice essay by John Ryle, from Granta , in 2005

Introduction: The Many Voices of Africa

Kwani? is a literary and political magazine published in Nairobi. (The name means ‘So What?’ in Sheng.) Although most of the contents of Kwani? are in English, the magazine includes pieces where Sheng gets one of its earliest outings as a literary language. In the same spirit, the editor of Kwani?, Binyavanga Wainaina, has celebrated the visual art of matatus, intricately customized vehicles whose paintwork is startling enough to cause a traffic accident. ‘Brash, garish public transport vehicles,’ he calls them, ‘so irritating to every Kenyan except those who own one, or work for one‘. On the streets of Nairobi the turnboys hang from the doors of matatus, half-cut on miraa (the stimulant leaf favoured by Somalis, grown in central Kenya), calling out destinations at the stopping points and cramming passengers into the vehicle until the wheels splay outward and the transmission hangs a few inches from the ground. Herds of these matatus careen around Nairobi with cool disregard for other road users. It is hard not to be struck by them, or be struck down while trying to make out the intricate typography of the slogans that bedeck them: HARD TARGET, SWEET BABY, HAPPINESS, SLANDER, DOWN WITH HOMEBOYS, TOLERANCE OF LADIES, DESTINATION. And, seeming to confirm the upbeat conclusion of the Commission for Africa, NO CONDITION PERMANENT. Another Kenyan commentator, Joyce Nyairo, compares the traffic in Nairobi to music. Matatus, she says, are jazz.


No comments: