Monday, August 22, 2011

Friendly Kenyans

Today I digress again to ask myself a couple of important questions. Are Kenyans really the friendly, welcoming faces that tourists report about after their visits or are we just a masquerading angry mob? Two incidents in one matatu set me questioning the image we project to those who come a-holidaying on our shores.
I had just settled into my sit in the Nissan- which as we all know are not built for comfort- when in came a raving Kenyan to squeeze into the space next to me. He was livid and was going on and on about how the matatu operators had their hands around his jugular and would not let go until he slumped down dead. “Forty bob?…hawa watu wanatuua bwana!” I was just getting accustomed to the eerie smell in the vehicle as I tried to find an angle that would reduce the chances of my shirt getting ripped by the nails and mabati jutting out of the seat. Determined to grab my full attention, the man looked me in the face and repeated his plaint at higher decibels. I mumbled something in agreement with him as I came to terms with the discomfort I would have to endure on the bumpy sections of the road from town to Kangemi. I wasn’t in the mood for playing activist but he had a point- we are unaccustomed to paying anything more than thirty shillings at that time of day. But he wasn’t finished, after lamenting few more times about the astronomical fare, his attentions turned to the ultimate culprit- the Government. “Nakwambia hii serikali itatumaliza!”
He did not bother to go into details about exactly how Kibaki and Co. were pulling the strings of this driver and conductor, causing them to declare obscene fares, but on he pressed until the time the vehicle was put into motion. At that point he lapsed into silence, gasping slightly from the intensity of his monologue. But before he could catch his breath, a tiny incident that would degenerate into a street fight ensued.
In his urgency to leave the terminus, our driver encountered a slow-moving Nissan X-Trail that was almost grinding to a halt in the middle of the road despite the way being clear ahead of it. Incensed, the driver pounded on the horn- but the vehicle did not increase its speed. However, the next lane suddenly cleared, allowing the matatu driver to overtake the object of his ire. But he was hell-bent on giving the driver of the red-plated 4x4 a piece of his mind. So he instead drew level with the sleek Nissan and smashed his fist into its body while hurling a string of insults at its driver and passenger. I hope the mother of the child behind me had her hands firmly pressed against the boy’s ears.
Now, the occupants of the private vehicle both appeared to be young Muslims- decked out as they were in their long robes and sandals. This means they were meant to be participating in the Ramadan fast, which includes abstinence from evil and all fleshly indulgences. But they did not let religion get in the way of their retaliation against the blatant act of defiance committed on their car. They pulled the X-Trail to a halt and hopped out, faces projecting pure malice.
The passenger reached the driver (who had foolishly stopped the matatu) first and began manhandling him through his open window. Having already surrendered to his fury, the matatu driver freed himself from the young man’s grasp and threw open his door to confront his assailants. All the while, unprintable adjectives were flying between the irate trio, complete with their accompanying gestures. Somehow, the scene failed to escalate beyond shirt-tugging and name-calling; perhaps both parties finally realized that they had more to lose than to gain- and that they were blocking two lanes of traffic in a busy part of town. At any rate, they all re-boarded their vehicles and drove off, stopping to exchange a few more expletives at the junction before heading in opposite directions. My fellow passengers seemed united in the opinion that it was yet another show of might by the rich against the poor, despite the matatu driver’s role in the mayhem. “…ni hawa millionaires,” quipped my neighbor in disgust.
It may seem that I am reading too much into just two incidents, but this is a scene I have seen over and over, only in different places, with different faces. Are we really that flammable? Are our economic woes pushing us to the brink of sanity? Are we justified in seeing the failing hands of our leadership behind every single misfortune we suffer? Lastly, are we really still the land of ‘Hakuna matata’?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Money matters

Today I take time off of castigating media houses and their products to reveal the silent torture I’ve been enduring in the hands of our local banks. I’ve decided to finally speak out about this systematic molestation because it has cost me real revenue and plenty of time- which is money, so really we’re talking obscene amounts of mullah (sic). The footwork I’ve done in trips to various banks could have easily taken me to Bondo (city) – and back. I kid you not, if I had weight to lose, I would’ve taken the Slimpossible crown.

It all started one day when I decided that I needed to send and receive money online instead of incurring the burdensome cost of Western Union or of wiring money overseas bank to bank. “Self”, I told myself, “register for Paypal.” A bulb lit up in my head and I got on the Internet and tried to register my debit card for the service.  “Your card has been denied by your bank…” was the unsavory reply. Puzzled, I went to make enquiries at their Westlands branch since, according to the Paypal site, one should be able to register any card as long as it is a Visa card. The guy at the inquiries desk looked at me like I was speaking Martian and gave me the customer care number to seek further assistance. Maybe I’m expecting too much but the person sitting under the ‘Enquiries’ sign should know as much about what the bank does or does not offer as the voice that would answer a call to customer care. Anywho, dial the numbers I did- both Airtel and Safcom. Pick the phone they did not, no matter how frequently and angrily I hit ‘redial’. And I thought Safcom’s 100 was bad. Mercifully, I was led to an acquaintance who worked for the bank and he informed me that I had two options. One, try their credit card, which you needed to have an income comparable to an MP’s to acquire, or two, try another bank.  Being perpetually a hair’s breath away from poverty, I took door number two and went back to Westlands to open an account with one of my first bank’s rivals. I met a guy opening accounts for passers-by at the door of the banking hall, so I sat down and asked him if their debit cards could transact online.  In a rather uncomfortably fawning way he assured me they did; all I had to was give him my ID and photo (which he took right there).  I went home rubbing my hands, safe in the knowledge that in two weeks I would be sorted. To cut a long story short, I got the card more than a month later which, you guessed it, was useless for online payments. After a couple of deep breaths, I collected my shattered expectations and moved to the next option. Though this next bank has amassed the largest customer base in the country literally overnight, I hadn’t associated it with Internet-based services. Nevertheless, someone swore to me that his card from this bank was all that and a bag of chips. I changed my mind about trying this bank after seeing the static queue at the accounts-opening desk and it was in that very queue that a former classmate convinced me to check out yet another bank.  Since it was virtually next door, I decided to do so immediately. Opening the account was done and dusted before I could say ‘Paypal’ and six days later, an SMS informed me that my card was ready for collection. That was when my debit card demons resurfaced. On the day I picked up the card, I was solemnly promised that within two hours my card would be enabled for online transactions. Two days, and numerous fruitless customer-care calls later, I was- and still am- no better than when I began this Paypal odyssey two months ago. According to a reliable inside source, the bank enables the card when you request it and then disables it towards the end of the day because of the ‘risk’. What, in the name of all that’s good, is the point of making me fill a form in which I essentially acknowledge the risk of transacting online, if at the end of the day, the bank still decides it knows better and blocks the card?     

Still on money matters, but on a different tangent, you know how we’re always whining about pro footballers who get paid silly money just to kick a ball and roll around on mattress-soft turf, well I found a needle in that particular haystack. Balotelli, eat your heart out.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

For interviews that go on and on and on…

Have you ever watched an interview of your favourite celebrity and wished it wouldn’t end? Well my friend, I’ve got just the remedy for your pain. Take a healthy spoonful of E-Diary, K24’s entertainment programme once every week and you should be fine. In fact you will probably slip into a deep slumber and wake up feeling revitalized.  What I am on about, in case it’s not yet clear, is how guests on this show seem to be interrogated for days, leaving us wondering what hidden information the presenter is seeking to extract from them.  Maybe it’s a new torture technique, I don’t know.
Now, Remy, I have no beef with you, don’t get me wrong. I think you are intelligent and charming. But jeez, I don’t give a wit what Kenzo is going to have for supper or how conveniently close his barber is from his house. To be fair, maybe that knowledge will help some fainting fan get a photo-op but I’m sure most will agree that that is overkill. I stumbled upon that particular interview while channel surfing some time back (I don’t know about you, but I stopped reading the TV guide from the newspapers a few years ago). Believe it or not, my nails had grown a centimeter by the time they were running the credits. The interview started in a poorly lit cave (or at least that’s what it looked like) with the musician fielding questions about his craft. At that point I think his career consisted solely of the song in which he renounces his bachelorhood to his potential mother-in-law and asks her not to get in the way. With this in mind, I expected the exchange to consume less than three minutes. But lo and behold, the dialogue wouldn’t end. My impatience drove me to reach for the remote, and I flipped through the stations, found nothing interesting, went and made a cup of tea, washed clothes, brought the cows back in, climbed Mt. Kenya… When I came back to my sofa and turned K24 back on, I found that they had only been warming up. They were now showing us how they followed the budding musician home to give us a peek into his typical day. Again, if this was Susan Owiyo- somebody who has travelled the world and produced several albums- maybe the length of the interview would’ve been justified. But for a novice in the music industry?
   A few days ago they brought DNG in for questioning and I was happy to note a couple of improvements. First, the set was less hostile- rather than the previous dungeon with a single light-bulb, the subject was put in a well lit area. Next and more crucially, we were not taken out of the studio. Sadly, however, the interview still took ages- my brother downloaded an entire season of Top Gear in the process. Another problem came to my attention during this episode. It appeared to me that Remy, the hostess, was trying to counsel DNG. She kept telling him what he had experienced and how it had affected his life- “…I know you were going through a period of change in your life…” instead of letting him tell it to us. Talkative as DNG is (he’s a professional MC), I think I can count the words he managed to squeeze in on my fingers.
I could also talk about how plain and static the graphics of E-Diary are and how the cameramen always seem to find the most dubious and uninteresting angles to shoot from but I’m afraid this rant has gone on for far too long.

Monday, August 1, 2011

TPF fabric stretched too far, too thin?

Tusker All Stars. I don't know about you but this title sets the grey matter underneath my cranium alight with images of grim faced, red eyed, bestubbled men in their forties surrounded by crates of brown bottles. Maybe this is a bit extreme, but think about it, it does sound like the name of a drinking competition. But anyway, for the unschooled, it is the latest instalment of the yearly reality TV show sponsored by EABL (East African Breweries) that purports to unearth the brightest musical talent in the East Africa region.
This errant offspring of Tusker Project Fame thumbs its nose at the go-to-the-grassroots-to-do-auditions routine and instead rounds up the previous winners (and almost-winners) and seeks (I suppose) to find the fairest of them all. I must admit at this point that I am as much in the dark about the programme's objective as an Al Shabaab look-out chewing twigs of khat in Mogadishu.
Oh yes, back to the previous winners- curious how the winner (and almosts) of the original copy of the programme are conspicuously absent. Not enough star material to be salvaged? Search me, but it does bring me to the crux of my rant. I am essentially questioning the legitimacy of TPF in all its shapes and forms as a means of discovering and nurturing the latent musical talent in this region. Do TPF's unseen string-pullers really care about growing those hitherto unheard voices into real globe-conquering (or at least continental)artists?
I am well aware that there are no free lunches in today's world and that the chief reason behind this whole circus is to promote EABL and its various products. But wouldn't it be more to their credit if world class entertainers were actually spawned by their 'project' as opposed to a clutch of half-baked, overhyped 'stars' whose musical renown has spread no further than their front porches? I am careful to say 'musical' because many of them have indeed gained fame- as radio presenters, TV show hosts, reporters, actors etc. Forgive me for sounding a bit blonde but I thought the fame was to come from record sales and gigs, not telling us how clogged Museum Hill round-about is at rush hour.
Before you could say 'Project Fame' the show had swallowed Uganda and Tanzania. And before I could memorize the name of that edition's winner, a panel had docked at Juba and started auditions. I must say at this juncture that TPF's contribution to the EAC (East African Community for those who live in caves) is by no means insignificant. But my point is, apart from the growth in viewership, has there been an upward trajectory in the fortunes (musical- not just economic) of the winners of subsequent TPF editions from the first to the present? How is this for a trend; Valerie Kimani, winner of the first (Kenya only) TPF hopped to South Africa and came back with an album put together by Gallo Records. Judging from the airplay and publicity it got, I don't think she could've afforded a meal at the Sankara Hotel from its proceeds. She also had the good fortune of starring in Eric Wainaina's acclaimed musical drama Mo Faya (which clearly landed in her in more fire off-stage). Apparently she was the lucky one. The rest of the winners-rien. I keep hearing they've released albums, but all I've seen is Tanzanian weeping-boy-turned-model Hemedi's video to his single 'Ninachotaka'- and he wasn't even a winner! Ugandan songbird Esther Nabaasta who broke much-vaunted Kenyan David's heart on her way to bagging the Ksh. 5million cash prize for the second TPF seems to have moved to Mars (or Pluto for that matter). In an effort to find out what became of Rwandan winner Alpha I did a frantic Google search and landed on his MySpace page. It informed me that since his 2009 triumph, Alpha has released just 3 singles and a video. There was literally nothing under 'Shows & Events'. I don't know what David, the last TPF winner, is up to but if the fortunes of his predecessors are anything to go by, he has scant reason to be optimistic.

It can be argued that the show's sponsors and organizers have done their part- having blinded some obscure shower singers with the limelight and given the pick of the litter more money than they can stuff into their shower caps. And a number of these former TPF contestants now have well-paying jobs, majority of whom arrived at the auditions with only enough fare to take them back home. I agree, and faced with the leviathan of unemployment, we can't be too picky regarding swords.
Then there is our fickleness as 'fans'. How many of us render these budding artists our support after they have won (or been evicted from) TPF? Do we clamour for their songs to be played on radio? Do we attend their album launches? And how about this- do we buy (not burn) their music?
I don't pretend to know the answer to this apparent stuntedness in the musical growth of TPF winners but are success stories of the caliber of Ruben Studdard and Fantasia too lofty for East Africa?