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February 20, 2019

G-Spot: How casting a fresh eye over everyday things can remind one of the extraordinary

Congested Ngara bus stage in Nairobi on December 16, 2016
Congested Ngara bus stage in Nairobi on December 16, 2016

think it’s funny — in the sense of peculiar, not laugh out loud — how when a person lives in a place for a long time, they stop marvelling at certain things that visitors to the same place cannot help but notice.

Back in the early 1990s, the late great journalist Brian Tetley wrote a hugely popular column in the Standard newspaper, titled Hole in the Wall. 

As much as Tetley was writing for what was then for me a rival newspaper ( I later worked there, briefly), it didn’t diminish the fact that for me and many of my then colleagues, the column was essential reading.

Tetley, who had lived in Kenya since the 1960s, had left at some point in the 1980s to resettle in his native England. However, the call of his Kenyan home was so great, that despite having been diagnosed with and operated for cancer, he returned in the 1990s and picked up from where he had left off.

One of his first observations in his column was about the numerous corrugated iron hoardings built around building sites scattered around the city that Crown Paints Kenya had cleverly utilised as advertising space with their then motto: “If you like it, Crown it!” Tetley wrote wittily about how he had noticed that the City in the Sun had now been “Crowned”.

While myself and many others had doubtless seen the hoardings, nobody seemed to have bothered to take notice of the then novel advertising gimmick. Previously, the hoardings had been left blank and looked rather ugly, but the paint company, as well as spreading their message, had helped beautify the city with their colourful adverts.

It took someone who’d been away for a while to cast a fresh eye on things and draw everyone’s notice to what had otherwise become part of the background and so taken for granted.

My mind reached back to those days as a result of spending a day here in Cape Town with friends from Nairobi, who kept noticing and pointing out little things about the city and its people that I have long since stopped paying attention to, even though some of them are calling out for attention and mention.

One of the many things they pointed out was the road network and how even when the roads are busy, traffic flows much faster than it does in Nairobi. Good roads and orderly traffic flows have become so ordinary to me that I only appreciate them after a trip to the chaos of Nairobi.

This reminded me that when I first moved to Cape Town and encountered people complaining about how “congested” the roads were, I used to laugh and suggest that they visit Nairobi to get a better idea of congestion. 

Five years later, I tend to get irritated when a 20-minute journey takes 45 minutes because of  heavy traffic, forgetting that in Nairobi I have spent up to two hours making the same trip.

Speaking of which, perhaps Kenya could do a deal with SA on road construction; we sell them oil, they build our roads network. This would be promoting intra-African trade, while reducing our dependence on our Chinese friends. It’s worth thinking about.

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