1 Nov

We were on one of two airplanes to arrive in Nairobi at around 9 p.m. Everyone was funneled into a mass waiting area that eventually led to cordoned off lines and Customs Clerks. There was no clear indication of which line you should get into but it was not a problem. Outside of the Diplomatic queue, everyone was expected to find her / his way to any desk. There, each person had to stand in front of a camera, some were totally fingerprinted, some were partially fingerprinted, and I was not printed at all.

Outside of the building, we looked for the person who was sent to meet us but saw no one. Someone suggested that we look around the corner where they said the drivers must wait. Sure enough, in the darkness of the parking lot, there were more than a hundred persons lined up along a sidewalk. They were holding small signs, waiting quietly and saying nothing. To maintain order, this was what the authorities permitted. It was a strange, unexpected and welcoming sight. Daniel and I passed through twice before seeing our names on a paper held up by one of the Kisii University Students sent to fetch us. We had already been travelling over thirty hours when the plane landed. Tired and sweating, I was working to decipher this late night welcome to Kenya. About twenty students had come along to greet the international arrivals. We joined the rest of the group on the sidewalk of the pick-up area to wait for the bus and until all of the incoming poets had arrived. There were more waits as Students were dropped off at the places where they might stay overnight and finally we checked in at the hotel around two a.m. Several of us needed to decompress and instead of going straight to the shower and to sleep, we assembled in the 24-hour hotel restaurant to eat and to talk. This late night meeting fell into a pattern of stolen moments where we, as internationally based poets haunting various time zones, met at day’s end to unwind outside of the moving feast of the Kisii University bus.

Our welcome to Kenya was a complete cultural experience in itself and to re-think it is to slip back into the exhaustion of that first night in Nairobi, and the challenge of remembering each of the Students’ Kiswahili and English names. As the days progressed and we went out on field trips, read our poems, listened to poems, songs and saw dances of more students and other local people, I realized that the closeness of the personal encounters might not be remembered with names attached. The cultural exchanges, the faces and personalities of those I met only once, or only a few times remain committed to memory and to a wish of returning for a longer stay at sometime in the future.

Monday, Oct. 3 – bus ride from Nairobi to Kisii, arrival: at Kisii Dans Hotel around midnight. Throughout the Festival, there was a lot of assembling at the Kisii University bus. Our driver, David waited patiently for minutes and hours to drive us through city traffic and over highways. When I asked him how many hours he worked everyday, he said twelve and added that if he got a good three hours of sleep a day, he was fine. We saw him maneuver through many tricky passages and he always kept his cool!

During the trip over mountains to arrive in Kisii, we made three short stops; to purchase and sample fire roasted corn, to throw the remaining corn husks to a family of baboons who waited along the highway to catch a meal, and at a market / rest area with snack foods and washrooms.

Oct. 3 – 8
Co-presentation portions of essay: FLOW: BIG WATERS as published in the billie magazine and poetry from the Everglades project (2014-2016). After the first day of presentations, I read other poetry and short stories. The schedule was changed and augmented as the days progressed. No one seemed to mind as we all had chances to read and the days stretched out longer to accommodate all of the voices we needed to hear, and to attend events that we needed were scheduled to participate in.

Other poetry readings took place on the Kisii University Campus, at the Genesis Primary Preparatory School, the St. Charles Kabeo High School and at the legendary Lake Victoria, headwaters of the White Nile. On the way to and from Lake Victoria, we passed not far from the region of Kogelo. This small village is garnering attention as it the ancestral home of Barack Obama’s father. Along the highway, we saw businesses with names that wish to identify with America – The Whitehouse Café, The Pentagon, and etc.

The Kistrech Poetry Festival was held during the Kisii University Cultural Week. On one occasion, there were some poetry readings from our group and demonstrations of various tribal songs and dances before the rains, common to this time of year, necessitated an end to the afternoon’s festivities. This was after we had the chance to see a group of Maasai nomad warriors, in red robes, perform with their staffs. The group is one of the many tribes represented in the Kisii University Student body. The view was spectacular and historic as we sat and stood in the tents surrounded by high Kisii mountain backdrops. Later that day we were treated to a special dinner at the invitation of Professor John S. Akama, Vice-Chancellor of Kisii University.

Our group, the internationally based poets from the Kistrech Poetry Festival, and Kenyan Students from the University of Kisii and Nairobi, also visited the Bogiakumu Village. We were welcomed individually into homes to learn something of the lifestyle of villagers and to talk to the families about our own countries. The home of the two women I visited was started in 2014 and is still under construction. It is a wood frame and mud construction, a very sound construction base for the area. Many villagers now forego thatched roof construction in favor of galvanized corrugated steel. This was the case of the home I visited. The most important factor is that a generous overhang guarantees that the walls stay firm and dry during the rainy season. Seeing the roof of this home made me think of the problems that skimpy roof overhangs sometimes cause in Canada.

The woman and her daughter-in-law were introduced as the owners of the home but they were not named. They showed me some of the corn crop they were drying to be ground for flour and told me that this is their only source of flour. Two Kisii Students, Mandolin and Ombui had come along to interpret anything that was not understood and everyone took part in the conversation. The women cut sugar cane growing outside of the door and we all sat chewing the cane while talking. Everyone told me that it is good for the teeth.

Oct. 9 – 10
The return trip started with a nine-hour bus ride back from Kisii to Nairobi. Usually just six hours, the ride was extended due to traffic jams on the mountain roads and in Nairobi itself. Overnight at the Nairobi hotel gave Daniel and I the chance to get a good rest before starting the pattern of long airport waits and long flights to get back home. Students Elly and Justus accompanied us on the return bus trip. It was then that I realized how much shepherding those Student Ambassadors had done for us during the festival events. There was always someone looking out for us, explaining things and introducing each of the poets with great enthusiasm.

Since returning to Canada I noticed on one news website that the Student population in Kisii is largely made up of young people commuting from rural areas. It comes as a surprise to me as they all seemed to be well informed and they project an urban image in their adaptability and manner of dressing. One thing that seems sure is that these Students worked hard to keep up with the schedule that we followed during the Festival while also commuting and studying.

Stray Observations
According to the nature of travel and its unexpected paths, participating in the Kistrech Poetry Festival, Kisii, Kenya was not something that I could ever have imagined. Even today as I look through the Festival magazine, I see images that reveal only the smallest sense of the close cultural exchanges that the event sponsored. Everything seemed to differ from the North American experience.

Throughout Kenya, many places are under construction and in Kisii, they are building more high rises. We noticed that some cement foundations looked porous and hastily constructed. One schoolteacher told us that the city is on a fault line and that there is some concern about the strength of the new towers.

Televisions in the hotel restaurants play all day and there were only a few times that I listened to the TV in the hotel room. Sometimes in the morning, if there was a bit of extra time I would put it on to listen to the news, local talk shows and, surprisingly enough, African wildlife shows were always playing. Without looking, I easily recognized that low, almost whispering voice telling the story of the wild life habits of the Serengeti’s big animals.

I visited North Africa for a month during the year after I left high school. I have always taken personal offence when people refer to Africa as a whole and not as a place made up of many individual countries and alliances. Going to East Africa has made me aware of the wish expressed by many Kenyans, to be considered as part of a coalition of countries. By that, I mean that many of the people I met spoke not firstly of Kenya, but of Africa’s place in the world as a whole.

Since leaving Kenya, I have looked in on news reports of political unrest and student protests that erupted as we were leaving. Facebook posts show armed soldiers occupying those same peaceful hallways and grounds where we met and read during the Kistrech Poetry Festival. Caught in the middle, the student-poets are fighting back with words.

There was always talk of being given Kenyan names during the visit. I was surprised when, after waiting at the hotel and speaking at length with the security guards, who originally hail from Kisii; that their co-worker, the hotel clerk, also from Kisii assigned Kenyan names to both Daniel and myself. This man who was unnamed to me has called me Kwamboka – crossover. As a Writer / Artist often working in the interstice, I’ll keep this name for my return to Kenya.

The Last Airplane In The String Of Airplanes
During my travels from Moncton, NB to Nairobi, Kenya on October first and second, 2016, my expectations were suspended and they remained suspended until I returned home. After two days of travel back from East Africa on October 10, we came in on an Air Canada Beechcraft flight from Halifax in the tail end of Hurricane Matthew. Yes, the biblical reference was not lost on me as my body shook in the passenger’s seat across the aisle from Daniel and behind two big game hunters from South Africa. Daniel and I returned home from Nairobi via London and Heathrow during the throws of a rough landing in Halifax on an Air Canada fleet Boeing 767-300.

When I saw the flight listing: Halifax – Moncton, AC7762 – BEH, I could never have guessed that we would be flying in an even smaller plane than the ones that usually land on return flights from Toronto or Montréal to Moncton. That is probably because the BEH – Beechcraft is not listed on the fleet card in the pocket of information available on most planes. (and coincidentally, not on the BEH Beechcraft) In the end, our lives were lifted up in Halifax and set back down in Moncton through the coordinated skills of the Pilot and Co-Pilot, skills that we saw them demonstrate to a science as we sat mere feet from them. They tweaked each minute control on their craft while navigating paths through radar and thick clouds. Any fear I had of ‘not making it’ was suspended by the motion sickness I experienced and my fingers continued to vibrate for an hour after landing. HAIL to the Pilot and Co-Pilot who also looked greatly relieved to have landed! And yet, another shocking detail of the flight stands out more in that memory of suspended life expectancy – the first flash of the land below revealed that all of the leaves had died. They had turned from summer green to those shades of red, orange and yellow that catalogue copywriters boastfully describe as glorious. One flash and then cloud cover hid it all from view until we touched down.

Images captions: 4th Kistrech Poetry Festival, October 3-8, 2016: Kisii University; Genesis Preparatory Primary School; Bogiamuku village; Lake Victoria; the St. Charles Kabeo High School with Beatrice Ekesa, Martin Glaz Serup, Hagar Peeters and Abel, Eric Tinsay Valles, Seth Michelson, Godspower Oboido, Erling Kittelsen, Tete Burugu, Gunnar Wærness, Sofia Eriksson, Daniel H. Dugas, Tony Mochama, Jennifer Karmin, Christopher Okemwa, Elly Omullo, Ombui Omoke, Roberto de Khalifa, Mandoline and so many others.

I would like to thank the Canada Council for the Arts and the New Brunswick Arts Board for their support. / Je remercie le Conseil des arts du Canada et le Conseil des Arts du Nouveau-Brunswick pour leur soutien.

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1 Comments

  • Dear Valerie,
    This is a great site indeed. I didn’t know your coming to Kistrech Poetry Festial was of great experience and learning. We wish that you come again in future. Christopher Okemwa

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    About Valerie LeBlanc

    Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, pluri-­disciplinary artist and writer Valerie LeBlanc has worked in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia. Her creations travel between poetry, performance, visual and written theory. Valerie LeBlanc has been creating video poetry since the mid 1980’s, and is the creator of the MediaPackBoard (MPB), portable screening / performance device. In the fall of 2012, she published her play The Raft, through Basic Bruegel Editions.

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