In the Other World of Karen

A couple of years ago I was with a group from Kibera. We were pre-testing the teaching materials that were going to be used for Uraia – the national civic education programme. The facilitator passed round a photocopy of an old poster that was used way back in Kenya’s colonial days that was designed to attract settlers from Britain. The poster called the ‘Highlands of British East Africa’ a ‘winter home for aristocrats’ and it depicted Nairobi’s railway station, with the surround landscape peopled with wild animals.

We expected that the poster would provoke a discussion about Kenya’s colonial heritage – the imposition of British governance structures, for example, or the parceling out of the country’s productive land. But that is not how the discussion proceeded. The participants were much more interested in Kenya’s present than its past.

‘But we now have our own Kenyan aristocrats,’ one of the participants said. ‘They live in Karen and Muthaiga, don’t they?’

And the group went on to talk about what it was like in Kibera: about the cramped living spaces, the lack of sanitation or other amenities – and the lack of security.

The lead topics for that session were ‘What is Kenya?’ and ‘Who is a Kenyan?’

‘It’s not easy to feel that you really belong to Kenya,’ concluded one of the group, ‘when you know that there are such differences between the way we live here and the way they live in places like Karen and Muthaiga.’

Just this last Monday evening, the BBC broadcast a live discussion programme from Kibera – a programme on the post-election violence. And, again, there was the same contrast made.

‘The other day I passed through Karen,’ one of the Kibera residents said. ‘It is a very different world.’

Well, last Saturday lunchtime I indulged myself in that very different world. I had seen the new signs for the Karen Country Lodge and Conference Centre – directing down Warai South Road, off the Dagoretti Road not far from the Karen Dukas. So I decide to have a look – and I stayed for lunch. It was a very pleasant look – and a very satisfying lunch.

The main building is a renovated colonial house in Mock-Tudor style, with half-timbered walls and mullioned windows. (The British settlers must have been so afraid of the sun. Otherwise, why did they design their houses is such a way as to keep the light out rather than let it in?)

The lounges are tastefully furnished; there are some superb and sophisticated displays of Kitengele glass; the dining room is elegant – and the bar is comfortable and cosy. I understand that there are two owners: one a Kenyan African and the other a Kenyan Brit. Well, the décor reflects that fact – a creative mix of African and European styles in furniture, fabrics and fittings.

But the sun was shining again, so I decided to have my lunch on the wide terrace, shaded by a canvas awning and in the company of two tall metal giraffes. To one side, in a small conference room, a group of suited men were so intent on whatever they were discussing that they must have been well past their scheduled lunch break.

My own concentration was on, apart from the enticing menu, the magnificent garden. The sculptured lawns and flower beds lead down to fountains, with a backdrop of mature trees, some festooned with hanging bougainvillea. The food, when it came, was also well worth attention – though I opted for a simple pâté and toast, followed by apple pie and custard.

The restaurant and bar are open from Wednesday through to Sunday, lunchtimes and in the evenings. Of course, for conferences and other functions the place will stay open any day of the week. It is an ideal venue, then, for a smart wedding with up to 300 guests – or for an executives’ retreat.

I say ‘executives’ because this is certainly an up-market kind of place. It is not like the Lukenya Getaway that I was writing about the other week and that, with its plentiful but simple food – and without a bar – has far more appeal for pro-poor and parsimonious NGOs.

The Karen Country Lodge is an excellent place, too, for a relaxed business lunch in a Karen garden or an extended dinner with friends. But if you have to drive out of Karen and back towards town, then it as well to close your mind to how things are in the slums of Kawangware or Kibera that you might have to pass on your way home.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

Photo: http://www.safarinow.com