The vanishing jungle
Having previously painted in the tranquility of singing birds and stray lions, fine artist Theodora Stone laments that, with the increasing human encroachment of the Nairobi National Park, this serenity is quickly fading. By BENSON KIMATHI
When Theodora Stone first moved into her house in Ongata Rongai, just next to the Nairobi National Park, her home was a jungle habitat. At the time, 10 years ago, this place was the perfect residence for a fine artist, who liked and still loves to live and work away from the distractions of modern civilization.
When I first paid her a visit in 2001, and again in 2005, this bushy neighbourhood, located about 20kn from Nairobi, was a haven of peace. Only one or tow lone houses could be seen in the vicinity. Antelopes grazed in the foreground. An occasional giraffe galloped right before our eyes. Venturing into the tall grass, I recall feeling that a large cat might leap at us from the bushes.
Today, as I disembark from a vehicle on Magadi Road, the first observation I make is that a collection of commercial motorcycles camps on the dirt road that leads to Theo’s place. This is a new development. During my last visit three years before, there was no form of public transport here.
It is a bumpy, windy and dusty ride to Theo’s house. As Newton navigates the bike past the treacherous configuration of stones and potholes that pad the road, I ask: “When did you motorcycle people come to this place?”
“About a year ago,” he answers and explains that there has been much development here. Look at all these buildings that are coming up,” he adds. “Many people are moving away from the city to this place.”
After getting off and paying up, I watch as Newton rides off, having giving me his cell phone number so I can call him to pick me after my interview with Theo. Although there are signs that more people now live in the neighbourhood, the place is still quiet and serene. The few sounds that one picks in this deserted grassland include the twitter of birds high up the trees and the chirping of crickets. There is also the occasional drone of planes that are taking off or landing at the nearby Wilson Airport.
As before, the vast carpet of wild pasture, acacia and shrubs spreads before my eyes. Sadly, this time there is no antelope or giraffe anywhere in sight – and there won’t be any for the rest of my four-hour stay at Theo’s place.
Suddenly, Theo materialises. She is still the small-bodied, gracious woman I remember. She’s dressed in a white blouse and a brown skirt. Her hair falls with simple elegance to her shoulders. After exchanging pleasantries, she motions me to a plastic chair, one of several that are set around a simple folding table, just outside her house.
Wedged between the branches of the tree under which we sit is the skull of a zebra, one of several that Theo picks in the neighbourhood and uses as adornments around the house. Visible through the house’s casement window are metal models of birds Theo has painstakingly painted to a realistic finish.
As we catch up on the years gone by, Theo briefly talks about the human encroachment on Nairobi National Park. “You know what is sad?” she asks: “It is the development that is slowly pushing the wildlife away.” The animals of the park, which were once regular visitors in this home don’t come any more.” The only thing we get are antelopes and impalas. And if they come, it is only at night.” Of the hyenas, she says, “We only hear them.”
She turns and points to a pit within her compound and talks fondly about three spitting cobras that were once regular visitors to her home. “I have not seen them in a while,” she says, discernibly saddened. Theo also reminisces about a donkey that was once grazing just outside her fence. A lion, she recalls, came and grabbed the donkey. Luckily, one of the Maasais in the neighbourhood shouted until the lion released the donkey and ran off. The donkey was left with neck injuries, “but survived.”
She almost jumps to her feet when, as we talk, there is a rustle of leaves a few metres away and an animal slowly takes shape. “Look, it’s the mongoose! He is back!” Once the animal emerges fully, however, Theo’s jaw drops. “It was only a squirrel,” she says cheerlessly.
A reserved artist
Theo is a reserved, exceptional artist who hardly ever discloses her thoughts and feelings. Even in the briefest of interactions, one quickly discerns her reserved nature. When she speaks, she chooses her words carefully, and then is not easily drawn into mundane subjects. Theodora is almost bored by enthusiastic talk about everyday conveniences like cell phones, the Internet and motor vehicle technology. She uses technology, yes, but only as a means to an end, not as a tool of luxury.
Belying the demeanour of reticence, however, is a gifted artist and spiritually inclined woman from whom the younger generation can learn a lot about life and living.
She says what takes the fun out of living is the trait of neediness that has become endemic in our modern way of life. “We have too many conditions, expectations and needs.” Life, she says, is a spiritual journey. “People have become removed from themselves and are more needy because they have lost touch with nature. I am very concerned about what we have done to our planet and what we are leaving behind for our children.”
“Look at us cutting forests and shoving fossil fuels in the air!”
Set under the tree outside her house are two ceramic bowls that Theo placed there for the many birds that are her welcome neighbours. One bowl is filled with water. On the other are crumbs and food placed there for the birds. These birds form a major theme of Theo’s artwork.
The interior of her house is bedecked with all manner of artwork. In one corner are many cartons filled with tiles, which, once painted, will go into the swimming pool of a hotel in Mombasa. There is also a mural of a Maasai family. This is ready and awaiting collection. She motions me to a different section of the wall and explains that the painting there is a “mixed media”, made up of a patchwork of realistic and abstract art.
A prolific artist, Theo privately works for discerning Nairobian among them prominent businessmen. She has also done a large mural for Nairobi’s Fairview Hotel, and countless other commissioned artworks, large and small. She has also painted on utensils, on greetings cards and on lampshades.
Unlike the last time I was here, however, she now has no painted ostrich eggs, which for many are the catchiest piece of art. One of her eggs, for instance, bore the realistic-looking painting of an Egyptian vulture whose claws were crafted to deceive the eye, so that the claws appeared to have grabbed the egg on which they were painted. On another egg she had painted a dung beetle that was in the process of edging its way through animal dung.
Theo, a Greek and her husband moved to Kenya in 1972, having relocated from Uganda, where her Greek father, Theodore Spyropoulos, had first moved to prospect for gold. It was in 1998 that she moved to Ongata Rongai, where she continues to live today. Besides having very strong feelings about art, the environment, conservation and life choices in general, she has lately broken from her solitary of art and has reached out to HIV-positive women to share her skills and knowledge, and to inculcate in them the spirit of self-reliance.
At about 3pm, Newton’s bike roars to a stop outside Theo’s house. As I leave, I am quietly aware that when I come next, if at all, the vegetation may be no more, and Theo may have moved away in search of the next tranquil neighbourhood to carry on with her life of art and painting.
Title: The Vanishing Jungle | Section: She’s Got It
Publication: SATURDAY (Saturday Nation) – page 10
Date: Saturday March 7, 2009
Writer: Benson Kimathi | Location: Nairobi, Kenya