Writer Eric Wamanji, who recently attended the Astana Expo, brings you the sights and sounds from the capital city of Kazakhstan.
1. Liberal Muslim society – When you hear of a Muslim society, images of hijab wearing women and kazu clad men instantly hit you. Well, not so much for Astana. This world is 70 per cent Muslim and 100 per cent European or American culture. They have all the trappings of the west including pop-culture, music, dressing food, leisure and entertainment. Rock music rocks the clubs here, beer and finest Chilean wine, flows and patrons gyrate to the dance floor.
2. Everyone wants a selfie – I thought I had seen it all – the narcissistic and trite obsession called selfies. I have been disproved. In Astana the fad is on a dizzying scale; every Kazakh wants a selfie with an African. They intercept you on the pathways, restaurant entrances and open spaces, begging or even dragging you for a snap. To be framed with a black skin is a one-time achievement it seems. In some cases, kids touch your skin then check if the black “ink” comes out.
But while in this selfie haven, learn to say no. It is better; you never know where your picture will land. But there is a Kenyan who has thrown all caution to the wind turning himself into a poster boy of selfies. And he is choosy, first, no selfies with men, two, he holds the women so cordially, squeezing their frame to his, after that he returns to the group with a sheepish grin and bleats: “Unajua njaa is real,” then he giggles waiting for the next prospect.
3. Hire us to boost population – It is easier, they say, to make tots; caring for them is another not to so exciting enterprise. The troubles of child caring are one of the reasons most folks wake up predawn and return home at night tired like a bull from a fight.
But in Kazakhstan, it is a different story. If you have four kids and more, the state takes responsibility. It provides a raft of social welfare packages including free medical care and free bus rides name them. This news has been lighting up some Kenyan men at the Expo Astana. They cannot imagine how, for instance, the Kenyan government can wake up one morning and say: “bring forth all your tot troubles, and I shall shoulder for you.”
But then, here, the state is awash with petro-dollars, and the population is roughly 17 million yet in terms of landmass, Kazakhstan is the fourth largest in the world.
“Why can’t they hire our men to increase the population? We are strong enough; good enough,” a guy, quipped to our guide one night on our way to the hotel.
4. Baby boom – Well, it is not that Kazakh men are inactive. Nope! Far from the truth. And if you want to know this, you don’t have to pry over the bedrooms but take a casual walk in the malls, at the Expo Astana 2017, or coffee shops. At the turn of every corner, there is a baby bump, another tot on baby-trolley and another in jumping here and there like a little bunny.
Since the government committed to social welfare, couples here seems to have gone overdrive in reproduction. It’s a baby boom, and a brisk business for maternity homes and baby-cloths shops too, which are registering a booming business.
5. Scramble for mshikaki – There is this little embarrassing habit that folks have bested in back home: pinching food and leftovers at parties, funerals and even in office. From such revelry, paper-bags and ciondos are heavier homewards. A folk is said to have dropped pieces of meat in his gumboot, another pieces of drumsticks in his pockets. There is a time I entered an office unannounced; an officer had hoarded piles of takeaway boxes containing mandazi and sausages, pinched from the boardroom.
But relax; Kenya is not an isolated case. Recently at the Expo here in Astana, on the Kenyan Day, locals came, heard our songs and then scrambled for lots of snacks, fruits, samosas, nuts, mshikaki and all. They elbowed each other; they looked at each other meanly as they carted the oodles in paper bags, their tots in tow cheery, as others whimpered for a bite. I was speechless.
6. Still a soviet – This country may have broken off from the former Soviet Union but it is still heavily policed. Here, they respect traffic, even at night, midnight, when you come from the airport and your van driver takes you home, you need to be patient as the red iris stops you from proceeding; no one flouts the traffic rules here.
But this is not the old Soviet habit. Besides the visa, which is grudgingly granted to Kenyans at entry, you must be registered by security if you plan to hang around for over five days, lest you be detained then deported. Your communication is also under constant surveillance.
7. Snake oil merchants – There is something salesmen all over the world have mastered – to look the part. They always appear convincing. They have even mastered the art of living their brand. Not so much for the much of Kenyan delegation in Astana. Here, some heads of delegation donned tuxedoes, finely polished Bruno Magli shoes and Boss Carlos round cufflinks yet they were supposed to market the Kenyan culture including the red Maasai shuka or something.
In contrast, the junior fellows from Bomas were serious in business donning their usual traditional attire – sisal, beads, feathered headgear- as they entertained guests during the Kenya Day. Holy Mary Mother of God, some of our big men are nothing but snake oil merchants.
8. Tea and coffee diplomacy – There is something folks in Kiambu don’t know about their labour of love – their coffee and tea is golden once it leaves our boundaries. You see, a coffee junkie like myself has to pay pilgrimage to the cathedral of coffee.
So here I am on a breezy Thursday night (it’s summer here and the days are longer), at the Silk Way Mega Mall. The Coffee Shop Company is vivacious with patrons as the espresso machine gushes its thing and the smell of freshly-ground coffee bursts into the air to my nostrils.
The barista looks at me as if I’m an alien, then she gathers courage to ask: “Where you from?” “Kenya,” I reply proudly. “Oh, Kenya, great tea and coffee. Great country. I love it,” she chirps. “I also grow coffee,” I reply. “Part of this beans come from my plantation,” I emphasize. Everyone on the counter goes “Wow!” in admiration and then ask for, you guessed right, selfie, as if a coffee farmer is a celebrity of sorts.