Friday, 29 November 2013

Please Don't Ask Me These Questions!

I love my country Bermuda and my fellow Bermudians. We're friendly people. Beautiful people of all shapes, sizes and colours. But one thing that always gets on my nerves without fail when I return are some of the really dumb questions that I'm often asked. It's true, we Bermudians love to make conversation and most of the time we don't really listen to what we're saying when we say things.

I've thought of a list of questions that I'd most likely be asked upon returning to Bermuda for the holidays.  If you, your granny, your aunty or well-meaning uncle feel the urge to ask any of these questions please refrain from asking and refer to the list of 8 questions below:

List of Questions that I really do not wished to be asked upon return to Bermuda. Answers provided.

1. Do you have cars in Africa? 

A. There are millions more cars in Kenya than Bermuda will ever have.

2. You look like you're eating well. Isn't everyone starving over there?

A. Actually it's pretty easy to stay fed in Kenya. There's always maze, bananas and beans around. Let's drop the stereotype of starvation across the African continent please.

3. Do your children speak African?

A. The language that is spoken here is called Kiswahili. The nationality is Kenyan.

4. How was it when you were up in that mall with all those terrorist?

A. So you're telling me that you want me to recall the worst day of my life while standing on the corner of Reid Street chatting?? Seriously?

5. Have you changed your religion?

A. Ummm..last time I checked no. Have you changed yours? .

6. Are you home for good?

A. What does that even mean? Sounds like a prison sentence to me.

7. Weren't you afraid to move to Africa?

A. First of all, do you refer to Bermuda as North America? Can we name the country for starters? The answer is 'No.'

8. How come you just came from Afri..I mean Kenya and you don't have a tan? Isn't it always hot over there in Afri..I mean Kenya? 

A. Nairobi never gets as warm as Bermuda because of the altitude plus the seasons are switched. Today I'm wearing a scarf and a sweater.

So to my beloved family and friends in Bermuda. Feel free to refer to this list upon encountering me and my family in Bermuda this December. Even if you feel the urge...a strong urge to ask one of the questions on the list. Please, please DO NOT ASK ME THESE QUESTIONS!!

P.S. Somebody just asked me, "And if I do?"

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Behind Chiziqa

Every life has a story. Every music video has a story. Here's mine...

My first music video called ‘Chiziqa’ launched last week at Tribeka in downtown Nairobi. Willy Tuva, the host said was said that it was the most well-attended launch they had ever seen with press, media personalities, dancers, fans and friends in attendance. Most people here in Kenya didn’t know that I sing and were not even sure if I could dance since mostly they see me sitting behind a desk critiquing dance crews rather than actually dancing myself.

Launching Chiziqa at Tribeka October 29th

It started at the beginning of this year. For a while I’d been wanting to enter into the Kenyan music industry but I didn’t know where to begin. In between filming I’d ask my fellow judges questions. They were very helpful with suggestions and ideas but the crux of the work was still up to me to find a producer.
Whenever I was at a music event and someone was introduced as a producer I would try to make conversation and tell them about my aspirations however the response was always the same. They’d look at me with a smug look on their faces as if to say, “Oh such a cute girl. Now she thinks that she can sing…”

Finally I met someone who said that they wanted to work with me. This was in April of this year. I would drive all the way to the Industrial Area from Limuru to record in the studio. I felt happy. We would shoot the music video in a month’s time. After a while I noticed that the producer would disappear on long trips and not contact me for a while. The reason was always the same; lost phones, family problems and other gigs.
I thought this was strange that the project was being delayed and began to realize that this person was only about taking money from me rather than seriously working on a project. I felt sad, misused and deceived. 
I had heard about Grandpa Records and their reputation for producing hits all across East Africa. I assumed that they were an exclusive club of sorts and that I would be treated in  the same patronizing manner that other Kenyan producers has shown me. I was surprised when I asked to meet with them that they gave me an address in Kibera. For one of the largest production houses in East Africa I expected differently. But my past experiences here have also taught me that the simplest of locations can produce beautiful work and industry without having the ‘look’ of a typical place of business.  

When we met it was all about business and acceptance. I asked him if my being not Kenyan was a problem since I had also had problems with that in the past. He laughed. A week later I was in the studio with Vesita working on what would later be called, Chiziqa. I had typed the song in my phone a while back and hadn’t had a chance to use it. It was one night while out with some very special girlfriends of mine where the inspiration came. We laughed and joked about ‘winding from your waist’ while enjoying the Afro-jazz and dancehall tunes of the live performances at Choices. I had jokingly promised in a bit of a tipsy state to produce a song called “Wind from your Waist.”

Vesita assisted me with parts of the song as the beat was coming together. While we were listening to the first verse and the chorus Refigah, the President of Grandpa Records ran up the stairs and said, “I hear magic coming from this studio. Let’s shoot the video in a week and a half.” 

Of course I said, “Yeah!” It was only a few hours later that I realized the significance of what I had agreed to and the preparations that were needed to make this video happen.

The day of the shoot was a whirlwind. My car was in the shop getting the engine repaired. We had stopped for gas on the way home a couple nights before and the attendant put diesel into our petrol engine. Of course the rest was history…

The car that was sent for me was 4 hours late. When he finally arrived I was seething mad and told the driver off Bermuda style only to find out later that he had been arrested on the way to pick me up and the police wanted a bribe. One of my dancers was pregnant during the shoot so she was extra hungry. I thought that we were headed to Thika but at the last minute the videographer got an artistic idea to film at a car garage instead. The dancers were complaining about dust and the makeup artist couldn't find the location.

When we finally got started everything began to flow like magic. I danced my heart out. We sweated, and danced some more and sang. The whole day I felt so free as if my singing, dancing and song writing had come together beautifully in one moment for all of the world to see. The word from the producers and camera men was that they had never seen a female artist in East-Africa dance like I did in their own music video. 
                              Behind the scenes of Chiziqa

The day was soon over. We waited. The video was edited. Then Westgate happened and I was glad for the six-week buffer between filming to launching so that I could begin to heal and create a new normal within myself after the narrow escape. 

Now Chiziqa is out and  is being received well by both Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Bermuda. Now that you know the story behind Chiziqa, have a look at the video and let me know what you think:)


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Trauma and Lemon Tarts: Life after Westgate

I walked into Mama’s today. That’s the French brasserie where I've been purchasing lemon tarts as my earned guilty pleasure since a couple of weeks ago when I was stuck in the bathroom for over three hours while AK-47 gunshots sprayed like steel rain outside the bathroom door. Today as I walked timidly into Mama’s with my eyes wide and darting back and forth I spotted the owners of one of my favorite clothing boutiques in Westgate. Their faces looked like mine – eyes wide gazing at something horrible in the past rather than what was in front of them. Once in a while their gazes darted towards the exit  while their faces displayed softened features of a life grateful for being given a second chance.  Back in Westgate these were confident faces – the look of success and comfort-ability  The look of two people who would retire in a few years while bouncing their grandchildren up and down on their lap. Today they sat shrugged in a corner trying to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives with French delicacies.

            As I walked towards them I hugged both of them tightly. “So glad that you made it out” I said. This is the phrase that’s become common for me lately. I didn't know their names but somehow seeing them alive was another sigh of relief on my heart’s spectrum. It was the same for the hairdresser, the jewelry maker, the Israeli Artcafe managers and my favorite sushi chef although he seemed more depressed that he was now jobless.
            I recognized the friendly Nakumat store attendant in the newspaper. In the picture he was standing with an army officer. Although I remember him with two eyes the picture displayed an almost limp man, still in his Nakumat uniform with only one eye. The eye socket was not bleeding.

            I still don’t know what ever became of the ladies who worked at Linton’s. They sold me lip gloss and did my nails once in a while. They often asked how Sakata was going.  I think back to when we were walking out of the Oshwal Centre - happy to be alive and still in shock. There was a father frantically looking for his daughter. He looked to be in his upper 60’s. He said she worked at Linton’s. My mind was still in a swirl from my own trauma that I had just experienced. As he spoke 5 different images of women who worked at Linton’s flashed across my memory and I wondered if any of them could have been his daughter. I wondered if they were hiding or if they had been shot beside their own beauty products. I stared at him in a silent daze while my husband directed him to the Red Cross for locating missing persons. 

The other day I opened the paper and noticed a former student of mine in the obituary in the special section for Westgate victims. She was a Muslim girl. I think I’ll quit reading the paper for a while…

            Nowadays I’m tired of telling the story but the story continues. The interviews have stopped coming, the phone has stopped ringing and the search for the new normal has begun. Laughing has returned and I am more thankful now than ever for dance, music, singing and family. And of course the occasional lemon tart from Mama’s. 

Note: Don't be confused about the nationality. I am both Canadian and Bermudian:)

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Pseudo-Naturalist Part 1

Back when I lived in Jerusalem I used to complain about the smog in the city, the over-crowded traffic, grimy streets and lack of yard space for children to play. There weren’t many single houses but there were loads of apartments piled on top of each other.

            Throughout the week I would make my way to the various organic markets to purchase organic, unpasteurized goat milk, buffalo cheese, organic fruits and vegetables and a whole host of other items that I felt added health value to our lives. I also shopped at the open markets and felt a sense of connectedness to the produce, spices and meats being sold. I tried hard to overlook the flies and bloody hands of the butcher who never wore gloves when he prepared our meat for purchase.

            With my few square inches of grass, we planted tomatoes, a fig tree and some spices.  We bought a bunny on Janglo and allowed it to hop around the house since there wasn’t space for it outside. Our mini harvest was enough to feed our toddler with fresh tomatoes and the herbs did fairly well in the Jerusalem sun. During those days I’d moan about the need for fresh air, yard space for kids and all the gardening I would do if I had more yard space.

            The time for living in Jerusalem quickly came to an end as my husband’s studies finished up and the Haredi Jews  were amping up their terrorist demonstrations against the non-Jews and “illegal Africans who were moving into the neighbourhood. I wonder who they were talking about….?


We arrived back home in Bermuda where I was also surprised to find less grass and yard space then I remembered when I was a kid. I was happy when I managed to find fennel, butterflies and snails as these were becoming scarce on my island.

             I made my weekly trips to the farmer’s market, scoured the grocery store for natural and organic items and purchased goat milk when I could afford it. I had given up on my expectation of consuming all-things-organic but as much as I could I ate healthy foods.

            On Sundays we would scavenge the island for wild local fruits. The definition of wild being any fruit that was within reach or reasonable climbing apparatus. These fruits would become snacks for the kids during the week, jams, chutneys, syrups, cakes, pies or pancakes. Once again I bemoaned the lack of free space, the inability to purchase my own cow, and what I would do if I had more yard space.

            My husband made a good go of planting what he could and soon we had peaches, figs, guava flowers and loquats growing in our yard seasonally. Some parts of the yard were off limits to us since he had also constructed beehives for honey harvesting.  As the honey flowed so did the ants-many of them but it was ok because in my own way I was connected to the nature that I longed for.

            As the recession hit harder and the glass ceiling began to feel that it was pressing against my head our time in Bermuda came to an end. We moved to Nairobi, Kenya. As we alighted the plane the thick air began to fill my lungs as the noisy traffic filled my ears.  As we walked out of the airport I noticed the grimy sidewalks. Once again we were in the city. My first mission was to find an organic store. Thankfully even though we were in the city we had a little garden where we planted vegetables and had space enough for proper bunny cages.

            A visit to Masai land afforded me a chance to get a milking goat-with Masai markings and all!  We were still in the city so the goat would eat plants that were for decoration and bleat all day until someone came home and gave it attention. Let’s just say we weren’t the most popular neighbours in town…

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Vitambi - Kenrazy Makes a Comback in Style

On Wednesday, August 14, 2013 it was a rainy day in Nairobi. The streets were flooded and Thika Road Highway looked like the residents would need life jackets. I walked hurriedly in the rain as my shoes sloshed along and the bottoms of my slacks became wet from the puddles.

I had been invited to attend the launch of Kenrazy’s new single, Vitambi. I hoped that this wasn’t just another music album that would hit the shelves and then disappear into the noise of the thousands of songs that come and go. My steps quickened as a boom of thunder shattered the sky. Kinrazy’s new single marked the reunion of a relationship between Grandpa Records, the largest music label in East Africa and Kinrazy himself.
When I arrived at the venue the air was full of expectancy as journalists, photographers, dancers and fans filled the location. DNA was the MC for the evening and after making a formal introduction he introduced the artist of the hour to describe his music journey and music style. Kinrazy spoke of the versatility of his music, his pride in his country and the need for Kenyan artists to be original in their sound.
At a time when many Kenyan artists find comfort in copying popular culture from the West, it was a breath of fresh air to hear Kenrazy calling for artists to incorporate their own ethnic backrounds into their music style. I wish Kenrazy well as he makes a comeback to the music scene and hope that he will lead the way for other artists in uniqueness and versatility.
What do you think of Vitambi? Watch the video here and share your views in the comment section below.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013


I’ve been reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest book entitled, Americanah. While reveling in the similar ways that I experienced America coming from Bermuda and the opposite cross-culture shock of experiencing Kenya I felt inspired to blog my own version which I will call Africanah.
         This month marks two years of living in Kenya for me. They say that it takes at least two years to get over experiencing culture shock before one can truly begin to enjoy the new location. Like the opposite of Ifemelu in Adiche's Americanah , I’ve gotten used to saying, “Sorry” to someone after they've tripped over a crack in the sidewalk or if something bad has happened to them. I’ve grown to understand that when someone doesn’t call you back it actually means, “No” but not wanting to disappoint you, the person would rather let you figure out the meaning of the subliminal silence on your own. If anyone wants to know by the way, I STILL GET DISAPOINTED!

I’ve also discovered that my English accent is what separates me in the eyes of Kenyans from being truly African but simultaneously grants me a privilege that I did not have living in my own country. “You have the right accent” someone once told me. I think back to the many times I called a business to make an inquiry back home in Bermuda and realized that the person on the other end could hear my slurred, Bermudian tongue and knew that I did not have “the right accent.”

In Kenya I have “good hair”- must be mixed with some muzungu. In Bermuda my hair is picky, knotty, can’t get a comb through it, needs a good conditioner, will only grow if you lock it.

From afar I look at Bermudian politics as a plethora of cloudy philosophies and repeated points in history rather than current happenings. I observe food programmes and religious charities as a mockery of developing nations. I prefer benevolent dictatorship to fascism disguised as democracy. I’ve decided that the tribalism in my own country may be more lethal than the tribalism expressed here in Kenya except that Bermudian tribalism is a slow-killing poison that will subdue and silence the lesser before it kills.

I’ve concluded that it will be at least 50 years before being a hippie, hipster or hobo is fashionable in Kenya. To be retro is now and to be postmodern is to be lost.

While I live trying to prove how African I really am; “We eat cassava and dance to Soca which sounds like Lingala or Luo Benga,” upscale Kenyans live trying to prove how Western they are; “We eat red jelly like the British do and only wear European-brand clothes.” The Africanah becomes caricatured into Shaka Zulu turned Kunta Kinte while the Kenyan caricatures him or herself into a bedazzled version of Queen Elizabeth.

I’ve come to embrace wide skies and yellow Acacia trees even though I miss palm trees- especially ones covered with Christmas lights. I am a real Africanah now. But somehow I feel like I always was. 


Monday, 15 July 2013

Modern Mom? Escape of the Un-evolved, Modern Mammal

As Sakata gets underway, Zahari's cast comes off and he begins physical therapy, Shai's football trip, book projects, music projects, dance and yoga...this article rings true more now than ever. This article was first published in artlife magazine but I thought I'd post it here as well:).

Flight is an essential anthropological instinct that goes back to the earliest human beings. The ability to protect oneself in response to present or pending danger is linked with the desire to survive, evolve and continue the cycle of life. Millennia later, there are no dinosaurs to outrun and no mammoths to hunt but the instinctual desire to avoid stressful situations is still an essential part of the human reality and shapes our day-to-day existence in more ways than one would like to admit.
The need to escape is not gender specific or solely work-related but a mechanism that allows us to either deny or acknowledge that a problem exists. During the denial or acceptance process of the stressful condition the escaper consciously makes an effort to neutralize or eliminate the problem for a brief moment in time through physical or mental avoidance.

The Hungry Dinosaur

Sometimes life’s mounting pressures are comparable to a savage dinosaur running hungrily towards us. We imagine ourselves as leprechaun-size Neanderthals as the ground below our bare feet begins to quake. The dry earth crackles and our eyes grow bright with fear. As the unruly noise stomps closer and closer towards us, fear grips our entire being as the very earth we stand on feels unstable.
Suddenly the trees nearby begin to rustle violently and we realize that this could be the end of life as we know it. Our feet begin to kick up dust without consent while we run with arms flailing wildly into a nearby safe cave. We know that eventually we will have to come out of hiding and face the grave beast but for now, inside this cool haven, we are safe.

The look of the modern cave has changed in appearance over the millennia. Today’s caverns are no longer jagged rocks with a dark, hollow interior and small-mouth opening that contain lively pictograph inscriptions. Spas, virtual games, Disney World, nightclubs, movie theatres, alcohol, hallucinogens, television, bug spray, air conditioning, junk food … the list could go on. These are the caves that have been invented for the modern, evolved, human when life feels unsafe. We know that soon we will need to come out of hiding and face whatever stressors we left outside but at least for now, we are safe.

Escape of the Neanderthal Mom

Every month, I engage myself in writing for the Mom’s Corner Column. I’ve written about my over-obsession with playing classical music for my son while in utero, the stress of cooking for the holidays, internal conversations during play dates and my lack of energy to manage my two young children while baby food globules drip from the ceiling. The funniest thing about all of these articles is that when they were written exaggeration was unnecessary. I smile cheekily when I imagine the usual coffee drinkers reading my articles as humorous fiction.

What I failed to mention during these written depictions of my life is that with every subsequent mom event the need to escape from the mounting pressures of life grew substantially. I love my family and kids but sometimes, especially in the early days, I found almost unknowingly that my feet began to run without my consent even though there wasn’t a dinosaur to outrun or a mammoth to hunt. Suddenly, I’d find myself dashing down the road with arms flailing wildly and sweat pouring down my face and into my eyes. Some would call this exercise but I knew better.

At other times the running was metaphorical. The kids knew that chocolate was only for adults. This was the slogan that I created as an attempt to consume the majority of sweets that dared to enter into my house. “Mommy’s throwing up because she’s sick” my oldest child innocently told my mother-in-law one morning after a night of neo-teenagerism. My feet were once again running off without my consent. Perhaps I should’ve chosen the spa treatment instead?

Feeling helpless and powerful at the same time for my growing need to escape and my growing knack for creating escape routes for myself, I decided that I needed to locate a safe pictograph-like cave before the raptor was in sight. I could decide to where or if my feet would run and thereby choose my response to the stressor before it arrived. Perhaps I had evolved or perhaps I had maladapted to a variety of coping mechanisms? Either way, my desire to persist through the jungle of life was robust and if I could help it, the cycle of life would continue.

By Joanne Ball-Burgess