The SAMOSA Festival was started in 2005 as the cultural arm of the AwaaZ magazine, which is a Kenyan publication debating and analysing issues regarding minorities, social justice and human rights. SAMOSA originally stood for South Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts, at the time illuminating the Asian presence in Kenya’s national history and culture. However, the festival has grown beyond emphasis on the South Asian community to include an ever-increasing diversity of the cultures that make up Kenya.
Through the years, SAMOSA Festival has expanded from a photo exhibition and concert, to fusion bands and dance groups (2006), to adding in debates and spoken word (2008), to a rebranding as a vibrant festival promoting cultural integration through music and art (2010). The festival has grown through the 2012 and 2014 editions to also include film screenings, debates, university colloquiums, storytelling and plays that address the question of Kenyan nationhood and enhance cultural mixing and appreciation.
This year, the festival took on a new twist with the decision to focus on a specific neighbourhood in Nairobi. This neighbourhood is famous for being the economic hub of the city, with thousands of shoppers daily milling the vibrant streets lined with diverse merchants selling anything and everything you would want, at very affordable prices. The area is also renowned for its tasty cuisine of camel meat, biryani and camel milk tea, due to its large Somali-Kenyan population. As one walks down a typical street, the air is filled with excited negotiations of shoppers and merchants, Islamic prayer calls, and aromas of sundry dishes from the many restaurants. You guessed it – this year, SAMOSA Festival decided to explore Eastleigh!
Unfortunately, the area has been labelled as the terrorist centre of Nairobi, along with the stereotypes of insecurity, violence, and falsely equating Muslims/Somalis and terrorists. Of course there are some insecure streets and security incidents, like in every other neighbourhood in Nairobi. But the labels and stereotypes do not accurately portray a part of Nairobi that is in fact very friendly, culturally unique, welcoming, vibrant, and a great place to hang out. I myself have gotten rid of many stereotypes as I spent time wandering all over Eastleigh during the SAMOSA Festival.
The residents of Eastleigh, who are mostly hard-working, religious, friendly Kenyans, have suffered great discrimination from the general Kenyan population as well as marginalization and human rights abuses by the government. A once beautiful neighbourhood with smooth, tree-lined streets, Eastleigh now suffers from neglected roads, litter, pollution, and erratic water and electricity. During 2014, the police through ‘Operation Usalama Watch’ carried out a terrible ethnic cleansing of Eastleigh. Claiming to be rooting out terrorists, they in fact terrorized innocent residents of Eastleigh, forcing money out of them, carrying out arbitrary beatings, arrests, torture, rapes, murders, and pushing much of the population to Somalia, whether through deportation or fleeing out of fear. Today, people in Eastleigh still walk in fear, especially those who have been denied ID cards – a further example of discrimination. And then there are the marginalized within the marginalized: the Nubian community struggles beyond belief to get within sniffing distance of an ID card.
The 2016 SAMOSA Festival 7, ‘Samosa Goes East!’, explored a range of locations and issues in Eastleigh. To really understand and connect with a community or a neighbourhood, it is important to celebrate and enjoy the beauty, while acknowledging problems and discussing how to tackle them. The festival took place in a range of locations, from the Eastleigh Mall to the Nomad Hotel to the Desa ground and ICT building in California to the St Teresa parish to the Pumwani Social Hall to the streets of Eastleigh, and beyond to the Sarakasi Dome, Pawa 254 and the University of Nairobi.
There were film screenings, art exhibitions, public discussions, poetry, storytelling, dances, a play, a concert, a yoga training, a university colloquium, football matches and colourful Grafitti. We deliberated a range of issues including identity, belonging, citizenship, security, ‘Operation Usalama Watch’, resilience, migration, integration, patriotism, and what it means to be (or not to be) ‘Kenyan’. We celebrated Somali culture, food, history and poetic styles. We explored the Eastleigh neighbourhood through a walking tour, which I insist must happen again. We expressed ourselves through poetry, music, discussion and debate. We learned and shared. We joined hands in dance and song during the Hadithi storytelling, as we took each other on imaginative journeys. Lifetime friendships and connections were made. To me, Eastleigh is the place to be – catch you in Esich!