Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Day The Kiln Did Not Fire

This yellow batz glaze is highlighted with terra sigallata underneath to show off the great texture. The texture was hand stamped with an old batik stamp. My friend Todd over at Peace through Pottery was kind enough to let me illustrate the story using this lovely piece. It reminded me of the vibrant pottery produced over the years at our Gallery, Paa Ya Paa in Nairobi, Kenya. Please visit his blog and esty shop .

The Day The Kiln Did Not Fire - a Short Story by Hana Njau-Okolo

Saturdays usually started early, when Baba’s booming gramophone record player interrupted dreams and their endings.

Guajira Guantanamera
Guajira Guantanameraaa…

The 1970s song was Baba’s favorite; about a man’s longing for his chiquita bonita from Guantanamo Bay. I remember the chorus well since its first release; we had the 78 rpm vinyl.

Back then, I liked the way the singer held the “aaa” in “Guantanameraaa…” I still do, because endless possibilities lie within that note; it captures freedoms, young and old.

I remember an immense feeling of sadness on the day the kiln didn’t fire at the gallery. I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old and up until then, my worries were minor. Days were filled with episodes at school and escapades at home.

Classwork. Homework. Avoiding red ants. Ducking chameleons. Hunting for Black Mambas. Hands made of clay.

As sure as the cock cried crow Timothy had fired the kiln every day since he’d finished building it.

“Come,” he would announce, “look inside!”

All the mugs, jugs, heads, hands, plates, bowls, and vases would be lined-up, waiting to be fired. Some were baked clean, others with color and gloss.

The difference was in his face that morning. He moved noiselessly about, placing decorative items in the kiln. I was not sure, but the downturn in his lower lip hinted at a scowl.

“Good morning Timothy?” I smiled and looked for his every day honey-sweet grin.

“How are you?” His whispered and disappeared into the kiln.

Fresh and stale purple trumpet shaped Jacaranda blossoms littered the small paved area surrounding the kiln. Fagio [broom] in hand, I started towards a pile. I fancied the repetitive motion of sweeping the area every Saturday morning. It was soothing. It reeked of life and rhythm. I still to this day, fancy the repetitive motion of sweeping, of mopping the floor on my knees, of really connecting with labor. Question is how will I ever instill the value into my good wife, the one I am looking for?

In and out he went, his herky-jerky movements drawing attention to the muscles beneath the off-white T-shirt. A furrowed brow tentatively hovered over his eyes. They were the color of fury.

We all thought we knew him. He had single-handedly built the kiln and become a master at working with clay. And he was generous with his knowledge. Baba, Mama, artists-in-residents, and workers on the compound, we all regularly gathered around to watch him work the potter’s wheel.

He’d lean forward, to the left or to the right as he coaxed the sludge into shape. Hands gently melding soft moist clumps of clay; his thumb pressing, smoothing, widening, thinning, and applying the right pressure, all the time. And when he stooped to scoop water from the bucket, his movement was fluid, in rhythm with the foot pumping the pedal.

That day, like a ball of tightly wrought yarn, he began to unravel. As if he was trying to undo history.

That day, surrounded by his lovely works of art, something triggered the hurt rippling beneath the surface. The months of abuse endured at the hands of Idi Amin Dada the brutal, despotic dictator known as the “Butcher of Uganda”.

That day, Timothy the refugee, and matters previously inadequately attended to, reared ugly heads.

That day, I saw a grown man cry. I saw a man go mad. I heard the thunder in the clip clap of his malapas [flip flops] striking against soles hardened by life’s rough path as he stormed off the property, responding to a command only he could hear.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!”

I remember a torrent of abuse spilling from his lips; don’t ask me specific words. I remember he did not come back for many days…

The day the kiln did not fire ushered in a new consideration, one that revealed itself further in adulthood; a draft blueprint for navigating life’s more trying situations.

Au siyo?

Mama Shujaa

This story is a condensed version of one in a collection of short stories I am writing for publication.

Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Opportunity Knocks

I work at a national law firm, and in the single ugliest day for the legal industry since the economic downturn began, eight major firms announced a total of 748 layoffs last Thursday February 12th. Read more here.

The gloomy announcements in our office began early in the day, just moments after the switchboard opened, and folks had logged in and settled down with their first cup of tea or coffee.

One by one, my coworkers and friends were summoned, issued the bad news, provided with boxes to pack up their personal belongings and where necessary, escorted off the premises. As the morning wore on and the scythe continued to fly, the office grapevine seethed with suppositions. No one was safe!

It was almost the end of the business day when the survivors were advised of the final number of those who had lost their jobs.

I know all of them well, most are women, heads of households, with small children, with health concerns, and now without medical insurance. What are they all going to do?

Over the weekend, I checked on some of them. A few plan to file for unemployment insurance benefits which will provide some support in the short run, while next steps are mulled over.

The trouble is the worst is not over, there are going to be more job cuts. Just yesterday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "I don't think there's any doubt that we've seen this economy has gotten worse just in the last few months. The acceleration in job loss probably means that this economy is going to get worse before it gets better," he said.

And then there is the bigger problem for states and their competing priorities of figuring out how to spend the billions in infrastructure funds they will receive as part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan.

If there ever was a good time to get your entrepreneurial juices flowing, it is now. Tap into your god given gifts. Don’t leave all your eggs in one basket, allowing your 9-5 to define who you are, to stifle your creativity. Relying on that rat race has proven to be fruitless for all but obscenely greedy corporate giants; and witness all the out-of-work folk looking for government jobs.

Last May, I was invited to be a presenter in a panel of seven delegates at ATA’s 33rd Annual Congress in Arusha, Tanzania, entitled Bringing The World To Africa and Africa to the World: Africa's Competitive Edge In Tourism. It was such an exciting occasion for me, especially because I was able to return home, and spend time with my cousin and her family during the five-day event. I accepted the invitation to participate and about a week before the congress, I learned the names of the other panelists.

Me, Eddie Bergman-Executive Director of the Africa Travel Association, and Ambassador Daudi N. Mwakawago.

How thrilling to learn that I was to present alongside achievers such as Professor Pius Z. Yanda, Joint Recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore; Dr. Alhaji Dantata, Director of Nigeria’s National Institute of Hospitality and Tourism; Dr. Chika Onyeani, CEO of African Telecom; Mr. Fred Nelson, Consultant on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, Mr. Darol Kubacz, Founder of Freedom For Life, a paraplegic who lost use of his legs while he was in the U.S. Army in 1992; and Mr. Eliseo Neuman, Executive Director of the Africa Institute.

Ambassador Mwakawago, Me, Hon. Eduardo Jonatao S. Chingunji, former Minister of Hotels and Tourism, Republic of Angola.

The Congress was formally opened by His Excellency Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, President of the United Republic of Tanzania who highlighted the important role tourism plays in promoting socio-economic development across the continent. You can view the complete program in pdf format here.

Day two of the Congress was dedicated to fleshing out Africa’s Competitive Edge in Tourism, and our session titled Trends In Africa Tourism was chaired and moderated by Ambassador Daudi N. Mwakawago, former Tanzanian Ambassador to the United Nations. As the only woman panelist, I felt that I was at an advantage considering the subject matter of my speech.

My dynamic seven-minute speech on the Essentials and Benefits of Sports Marketing and How It Compliments Tourism in Africa; the Emergence of Sport Tourism was extremely well-received.

I captured the attention of all the attendees, Ministers of Tourism, delegates, who were present; to the extent that quite a few cornered me for a word or two during the coffee and lunch breaks.

I raised points of discussion/questions such as:

- in a changing world where boundaries are being broken it is imperative to be different to stay ahead;
- the difference between the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro, Maasai Mara
- Are the lions in Tanzania more ferocious?
- Are the elephants in Kenya more weight conscious?

Day four was Host Country Day sponsored by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. Delegates were treated to a Safari to the Ngorongoro Crater. Here, a Ngorongoro style "Karibu!" [welcome] at the gates.

We traversed the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where animals coexist naturally with the Maasai. Our tour guides tried their best and we were treated to the Big Five; we saw three lions, a leopard, buffalo, elephants and the black rhino. We were very lucky.

I did my best with a borrowed camera...

A delicious lunch was served at Serena Lodge. I wish I had a shot from the window of the lodge, an amazing view of the huge caldera (collapsed volcano) that is 600 metres deep and hosts over 20,000 animals.

As the economic downturn continues it is imperative that each one of us look for ways in which to ameliorate our personal lives; and here I come with the old clichés: Who’s got your back, if you don’t? Have a back-up plan.Believe in you. Do not let the shoe drop before you start looking.

As my buddies in the hood would say, if you work for The Man, have a back-up plan.


Mama Shujaa
All content, images Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I keep revisiting a photo album containing pictures of the Paa Ya Paa ruins after the fire in 1998. Maybe it's because I was thousands of miles away, on the receiving end of an international call alerting me of El Nina and her wrath, when it happened.

The phone call that put my fears to rest; the news that Baba na Mama were okay, that Baba had been hospitalized for smoke inhalation because he kept running back to retrieve some of the gallery's permanent collection of over 500 works of art, produced in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The record of contemporary East African art from pre-independence to the present.

Do I wander through remembrances path perhaps because I need (here's the tired word) closure? Or is it simply because I have been slow to recognize the unquestionable life-force embedded in the photographs?

Look at the strong facial features that survived. They intrude upon the darkest places of the heart.

Baba's lifesong still emblazoned on the front: DO NOT COPY. COPYING PUTS GO...

...And in the many years that have softly gone by, I grope instinctively to a higher purpose, to remain whole in my search for invisible stories, the truth that will set me free.

DO NOT COPY. COPYING PUTS GOD TO SLEEP.(Copyright © Elimo P. Njau 1961-2009)

How profoundly alive is the century old farmhouse? A capacity for originality still resonates to this day, even with a new main gallery reconstructed; while much of the original stone structure remains on site, a pile of rubble that continues to speak to the value of tradition, of honour, and integrity.

Pole pole nitafika.

Mama Shujaa.

Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Oh, Dear Ambassador!

Got this from a friend today. Rather funny. Could not resist sharing here...vichekesho!!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Do. Me.

Baby, break the boundaries
between what I see, what I feel, what I do.
In the order and sequence of every fibre of my being,
help me reach the unseen.

These last few days contemplative,
elemental in many ways.
My brittle body weakened.

Prompting a perspective focused inward
on renewal, like never before.

The imperatives
manicure, pedicure, shop, dance, sleep-in
manicure, pedicure, shop, dance, sleep-in.

Remote-control in hand, agitate the crew.

Do. Me. Baby, and I'll emerge
fully able to deal with existence.

Play hookie,
girls' night out,
put the mind at ease
search no more for unfinished business.

Do. Me. Break the boundaries
between what I see, what I feel, what I do.

Mama Shujaa.

Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.