Fort Jesus

Don't ask me, I don't know.

Holy moly

I remember the first time I heard of Fort Jesus, it was on the Kazuri Bead Factory tour with my mom here in Nairobi.

But it wasn’t until my most recent trip to the coast that I had a chance to visit this legendary fort. I laugh checking the Wikipedia page for Fort Jesus because, despite having been in this fort and having had a tour guide, my takeaway messages were…slightly off.

Like most things in Kenya, you’re not really doing it for cultural edification but for an experience, and that it was!

Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese, and stands now as a remnant of colonialism by not only one group. From the rudimentary history lesson I got from my tour guide, it was sort of like Poland in the 20th century, constantly being invaded by one group of colonialists or another, which doesn’t really speak volumes for its ability to deter invaders, come to think of it.

Walk like a ...Portuguese?

Walk like a …Portuguese?

A key feature is that Fort Jesus is shaped like a person. And, if you take the photo literally and count the church structure at the bottom, it’s shaped like a dude. Our tour guide was really keen to point this out.

And, in the same theme, we also got a demonstration of many of the various Portuguese toilet facilities, built right into the fort!

Our guide was perhaps not the best informed, but he was incredibly enthusiastic.  “Come and see, come and see!” he kept insisting.  There was a lot to see!  The fort reminded me a lot of visiting the Tower of London, and it was fascinating to see the various eras of building as each conquest brought in a new collection of masons/needs.

The views were also incredibly beautiful, as Mombasa, a coastal down, is very lush and green and tropical.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fort Jesus also has some heavily religious influences, as, despite its name, it has served as a bastion of both the Christian and Muslim faith. It’s something special to see in the details of things like door carvings especially.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of my favorite rooms was filled with drawings by the Portuguese.  I might have appreciated it not only for the coolness of these century-old sketches, but for the coolness of the room, as at 9:30am, the Fort was already about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

And look! The Portuguese even wanted you to visit their Instagram account!

33-20140228_091428 The heat got so intense that we may have lingered in the museum despite the constant cries to “Come and see” other things.  The museum was pretty special, though. I’ve found after spending time in primarily-port cities like Dubai and Mombasa that places with long histories of trade end up keeping the best global histories. The museum was full of things from all over the world and a huge range of time periods.

After the hilarity of our tour guide, we were also glad to have plaques to read with potentially-more-accurate information on them.

Though some of his faux-pas were pretty hilarious. Dates he gave us were somewhat arbitrary and very clearly made up on the spot.  Not only did the British invade Fort Jesus “in 1898 to do slavery” but the 3 foot tall door on this cistern was clear indication that, to his mind, Portuguese explorers were hobbits.


Proof that the Portuguese were only 3 feet tall?

Proof that the Portuguese were only 3 feet tall?

It was, all in all, a really enjoyable 2 hours.  If you like history, or architecture, or hobbits, you’ll probably enjoy it too.23-20140228_084044 And if you have any suggestions on how to prevent corruption at Fort Jesus, please insert them into this very official-looking box.

Postscript: as a funny sidenote, my friend ran an RPG set in Mombasa and used Fort Jesus as a vampire nesting ground. When I mentioned this fact to friends in the taxi, the taxi driver may have misunderstood and is now anticipating a vampire invasion with fear and dread, if his questions are any indication.

Crafts in Karura Forest – the Bizarre Bazaar

The Bizarre Bazaar – Twice Yearly in Karura Forest

I’d only just arrived in Nairobi, when my fabulous friend Mo said “Let’s go to Biz Baz”


BIZ BAZ? What kind of name is that?

It may have a crazy name, but it’s a wickedly good time, twice a year in the sports pitch of Karura Forest here in Nairobi.


IMG_6752There’s a small entrance fee — I believe 300 shillings — but inside the pitch are a huge number of tents, all filled with exciting crafts and doo-dads.  Sure, a lot of it is stuff you might see at Blue Rhino or the Masai Market, but a lot of it is from legitimate artisans from Kenya, Uganda, and beyond, coming to sell their wares.

In the center, there’s food and drink (alcohol too) and generally, it is fun even to hang out after you’ve finished your shopping.



Felted animal baby shoes

And there are legitimately clever, fabulous things for sale. Some great bargains on Sunday, too, if you’re a haggler.


Do remember to bring cash. There isn’t an ATM at the forest and 99% of the vendors don’t take credit card.


Seriously, so worth it. Great finds. I hope you check it out! It’s only twice a year and the next one won’t be until June. Not to be missed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Thanks to Mo who introduced me to Biz Baz!

Me 'n' Mo

Me ‘n’ Mo

The Kazuri Bead Factory



Lots of people will bring you back treasures from Kenya, but the likelihood that they were MADE in Kenya is pretty small. Wooden salad tongs, carved with tiny impalas, and beaded sandals are typically imported from India.

It’s one of the reasons that I really appreciate local industry in Kenya, and, in particular, small projects that really help out Kenyans.

Kazuri Beads was originally started in 1975 by an expat born in West Africa to missionaries, who wanted to give some single mothers a job. It now employs 350 ladies, and some men, and it’s almost entirely local.

The clay comes from the base of Mount Kenya, it’s all processed in Kenya, shaped, fired…the only import is the paint!



The factory is on a part of the estate of Karen Blixen, who is famous for Out of AfricaAnd, while there are tons of places to buy Kazuri necklaces, mugs, earrings, and ornaments around Kenya, it’s really fun to see it all being made. I’m particularly fond of their collections of fat animals.

My mom had an absolute blast, marveling at all the incredible detail – teeny tiny polka dots, gentle golden lines – that the ladies put into each bead.

My mom is SUPER jazzed by the gift shop

My mom is SUPER jazzed by the gift shop

The best part of any tour is being routed into the gift shop at the end.  Like that elephant bead you saw being made?  BUY IT.

I even decided to get a full tea set for my friends to celebrate their wedding, since an exquisitely-made handmade gift from Africa is, I’ve found, to be the best kind of present.

We all walked away with extremely heavy bags, and big big smiles.

The Kazuri Bead Factory is in Karen (also named for Karen Blixen), about an hour from my house.

Another visit is definitely in the future — someone needs to come and visit me to give me a good excuse.

Deconstructing the Maasai

The traditional Maasai jumping dance

We sat in a big queue, waiting to enter Maasai Mara national park, a line of pop-top matatu minibusses, and like rats in a trap, we were deluged by Maasai ladies, elegantly beaded with their earlobes swaying delicately just above their shoulders, trying to sell us “traditional” Maasai beaded jewelry.

I was at first sour that the plain beaded bracelets were not as exciting as their own jewelry, but, on further thought, I wondered: how did Maasai people get plastic seed beads?

The Maasai are a one of the most famous “tribal people” of Kenya, and, in fact, when most people think of “Africans” they’ve probably cobbled together some mental image of a Maasai warrior with a character from The Gods Must be Crazy. 

I found this quotation easily on the internet:

“The Maasai have come to represent Africa at its most primal, a fiercely independent tribe of legendary courage who sternly shun the modern world in favour of traditional rites and customs. The Maasai are undoubtedly one of the most famous traditional cultures on earth. “

You can just hear this caption from afar: AFFFRRIIICAA

What is the culture that we’re really ascribing to the Maasai, though?

Asking most people – even people who live in Kenya – what is “Maasai” and they’ll come back to you with lore and aesthetics: beads, clothes, long earlobes, and “lion killing.” Some people know about cattle herding too, and about the drinking of some mixture of blood and milk.

These things are considered to be tribal, primitive , and a representation of “THE REAL KENYA”.  But are they really?

Really nice beadwork, with really colorful plastic seed beads

The pictures are beautiful – the beadwork is often extraordinary. Beadworking, done by women, has a long history among the Maasai, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. But before contact with Europeans, beads were produced mostly from local raw materials.

White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass. It was only when, late in the nineteenth century, great quantities of brightly colored European glass beads arrived in East Africa, that beadworkers replaced the older beads with the new materials and began to use more elaborate color schemes.

So that’s that. “Traditional” Maasai beads have really only been around 100 years.


Next stop: Kenyan haggis to go with these tartans

What about their tartan plaid blanket-outfits? The shuka look like blankets, and are often used and sold as such to white people. In fact, there’s been a REVOLUTION of Maasai shuka fabric being used in extremely high end fashion collections, so much so that a lot of Kenyans feel like “their heritage” is being stolen.

But who’d ever think that red plaid fabric is a Kenyan heritage?

Well, it’s not. Traditionally, Maasai shepherds wore capes made from calf hides, and women wore capes of sheepskin. The Maasai decorated these capes with glass beads.

In the 1960s, the Maasai began to replace animal-skin with commercial cotton cloth. Women tied lengths of this cloth around their shoulders as capes or around the waist as a skirt.

Fake ochre gingers


Why red? One theory has it that the tradition started with the dyeing of clothes with the red ochre pigment obtained from Mt. Kilimanjaro earth, which used to spew out red volcanic dust. Yet another says that because red signals danger to animals, bulls, buffaloes, and lions will attack any color except red.

A fascinating hypothesis suggests that the Maasai – warriors and soldiers by instinct – are the descendants of a lost Roman legion that either deserted or became lost in the southern fringes of the Roman Empire. The red color of the traditional Maasai shuka is similar to what is believed to have been the uniform of the soldiers who were fighting for the Roman Empire.

The tradition of rubbing red ochre on the skin falls in line with the love of red, and, once, Maasai hides were made red with ochre as well, becoming a sort of camouflage with the red dirt of this part of Africa.

Thakoon’s models – herding sheep

Shocked yet? Most of the Maasai shuka for sale in every tourist curio shop in Africa are not even made in Africa. Huge quantities of them are acrylic, and mass produced in China. There’s been a push in recent years to bring manufacturing back to Africa; companies like Shuka Duka who are trying to discourage the sale of “Faux Maasai Culture” (har har).  There are actually a number of local Kenyan producers of Maasai shuka, even though most of these companies don’t really seem to know the history of the shuka at all. From one of their websites:

the shuka has been the traditional piece of clothing for the Maasai tribe for hundreds of years

And this is where wording trickery comes in. The definition of  shuka has changed for the Maasai in the last 50 years alone, so sure, the shuka is traditional, but hundreds of years ago there weren’t Maasai running around in Scottish plaid. (Buy some anyway! buy some anyway!)

A mixing of cultures

If anything, it’s not the unchanging nature of the Maasai that’s made them successful, but their mutability.  The Maasai have cleverly adapted to increasing globalization. They charge a fee for any photographs taken of them, using Western curiosity about traditional African cultures to their advantage. It was precisely a Maasai willingness to adapt that allowed them to integrate the tartans they traded for and the beads they traded for into a new conception of what it meant to be kimaasai.

The Maasai no longer wear cowhide sandals, but buy plastic flip-flops or make shoes out of old tires. The process of earlobe stretching has been altered by Westernization, too. Where previously the earlobe holes were gradually enlarged by inserting rolls of leaves or balls made of wood or mud,  plastic film canisters now may serve this purpose.

White safari

When I visited a Maasai village in 2002 (somewhat by force), the chief had just come back from university in Europe. He wore a shuka over a pair of pants (extremely unusual for Maasai) and had a shiny wristwatch. He told us, inadvertently, about some of the Western influences on his village: a European-built clinic, primary and secondary schools, and of course his own attendance at university in Europe. But as he spoke, ladies continued to come by and parade their children in front of me, begging me for money and offering to let me take pictures. Because Maasai bring their cows, sheep, and goats inside the village wall at night, like you do when you live near lions in Kenya, the ground and walls and air and your nostrils are just filled with poop. And with poop comes flies, and when you’re standing there in your Westernness and some lady wants you to take a photograph of her child or to buy her necklaces and there are flies in your eyes and her eyes and her child’s eyes – it is not fun. Does it feel like the Maasai know exactly what they’re doing?  Absolutely.

Some tourists lament what they perceive as a tide of modernity in East Africa. They’re vacationing from the Western World in order to see cultures that they think are ancient, and uncompromisingly “traditional”.

The Maasai are, even more than people think, a reflection of Kenya in that they were because they are a perfect example of how colonialism has fundamentally changed Africa while everyone pretends that everything is the same.

Will the Maasai culture continue to change? Almost certainly. Cattle herding is limited now that land is restricted, and Maasai aren’t really nomadic anymore either.

So who cares if Maasai culture is a loose definition of “tradition”?  We forget in the USA anyway that most “landmark” buildings are less than 100 years old. Is “culture” really meant to be static, or isn’t its very definition an echo of learning and changing? How many quotation and question marks can I use in this post?

The important takeaway is – the Maasai mythos really means one thing – money

Try visiting

So the next time someone tries to tell you to celebrate something that’s unchanging, by paying money to see a Maasai village and the “real Africa”, take a minute, examine it closely, realize that nothing ever stays the same and pay attention to the fact that when you’re a tourist, everyone is trying to sell you something.

…Even the idea of the STOIC unchanging Maasai.



***I should mention as an addendum that, while researching this post, it was almost impossible to find information that wasn’t just “ Colorful bead necklaces and plaid cloth are a longstanding tradition of the Maasai”. It behooves people to maintain the myth. It looks good on a brochure, and Maasai crafts are big business for Kenya.