A lot is going on in Dr Zul Merali’s life. He has just moved from Canada back to Kenya. He is buying everything brand new. His house is almost empty, save for a brown leather couch that sits imposingly in the living room, where everything from cameras to books lumps together like a pack of Athenians gathering at the Pnyx Hill.
In what may well be his last dance, the Founding Director of the Brain and Mind Institute at the Aga Khan University still holds that childlike glee and boyish charm when he is talking about things dear to him: mental health, cooking and photography.
That is how he ended up shacking here, overlooking the picturesque Nairobi’s Karura Forest. It is also here that you will find him stalking birds, waiting, waiting, waiting…snap!
A photographer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the jungle hoping to scare something up. In person though, Dr Zul speaks deliberately, almost live-editing his words, his body cashew-coloured and nearly hairless, all those years cycling — another of his loves — rendering a craftsmanship that does not allow for an ounce of excess. In other words, the grey matter of his life.
When was the last time you didn’t feel smart?
Almost every day. You always have that impostor syndrome, questioning yourself.
Does that explain the Scrabble board?
Yes, but I am more into photography. I love nature that’s why I am very careful in picking where I live. I was actually born in Uganda; our town was very small but surrounded completely by nature. I left during the time of Idi Amini.
How did you land in photography?
Due to my love for nature. There are certain levels of excitement when you get to see a beautiful animal or a rare bird. I want to keep those memories alive and photography gives me the chance to do that. Photography is challenging because you are dealing with many elements at ago — the amount of light, the shadows, movement et al.
How often do you practise?
I can do it from here in my house. But whenever I get the opportunity, I like to go out to nature and just go on a safari. I love being out amongst the flora and fauna.
Do you have a favourite photo?
Every time I have a moment or two to reflect on the images I have captured or places I have visited, I would play them back and reimmerse myself in that moment. The challenge is how to capture something as is without having to tinker with the image.
What’s the most boring part about photography?
The opportunity to see the animals. It is a hunt, sometimes you see only the same animals, say zebras, but you don’t necessarily get to see the Big 5 animals. In that way it can be boring, quote unquote.
What did you know about photography then that has helped you now?
I am always learning. It is a combination of whether you get to see an animal and if your settings are right, and other factors that come into play, say light.
How was it growing up in the village?
It was a beautiful place, one of the nicest on earth if I do say so myself. It is often referred to by some authors as the Garden of Eden [chuckles].
What’s a special memory from your childhood?
It was a relatively simple lifestyle. When I got a bicycle, I was very excited, and I was having this conversation with my son, it never mattered to me what kind of bicycle I had. Now when my son wants to buy a bicycle it is a stressful experience: what kind of gear, which brand et al. A couple of days ago I went to the sokoni near Diamond Plaza and it was so nice. I wanted to buy everything: fresh potatoes, tomatoes and onions — the things I used to do as a kid. I like cooking.
What’s your go-to meal?
Depends. Sometimes Italian, sometimes Indian. I spent a fair bit of time with my mother because I loved her cooking. I’d ask her the recipe and she’d say a pinch of this and that, and I was like, what’s a pinch haha! Now I see what’s available and I throw it all together. The reward is enjoying the meal.
Do you have a secret recipe that you have not shared with anyone?
Haha! I am happy to share. If people enjoy my food, I’ll share.
When you think of the weekend what food comes to mind?
Sometimes I like simple things like stir fries, sometimes I like elaborate curries, be it Indian or Swahili. Sometimes, Thai. I change things depending on the ingredients that I have. When it is cold, I look for comfort foods haha! Say rice and beans and a special curry that goes with that.
What’s a special treat that you do just for yourself?
I certainly have a sweet tooth haha! If I get a nice cup of coffee and pastry, then I am in heaven.
What’s your typical weekend like?
Shopping and finding the right spices. I moved next to the Karura Forest for my walks and plan to spend a lot of time there hiking. Eventually, I will get myself a bicycle as well — but first I need to finish the house shopping.
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve bought?
Haha! Good question! I sometimes buy things for the kitchen that are useless. I got a garlic crusher…so useless!
What is an absurd thing or unusual habit that you love?
I tend to be a perfectionist. See this grease on the glass? It bothers me. And even crumbs on the table. I strive for uncluttered simplicity, but it’s not always easy to have when you have friends and family.
What is a small decision that you made that changed the trajectory of your life?
In life, you come to a fork on the road and you choose to go left, or right. Sometimes you have a reason, sometimes not. My parents were teachers and worked hard to send us to school. They hoped I would become a dentist but when I got to Canada, I got exposed to different things. I knew I didn’t want to be a dentist. I had to have a hard conversation with them, and they backed me.
What is something you long believed to be true but realised isn’t?
That people in the field of helping others are in it for altruism but that isn’t the case. Some are in it for the money or glory or other reasons.
Who is the most famous person in your phonebook?
The Aga Khan has been not only a spiritual leader but also a visionary. And the Dalai Lama whom I have a lot of respect for.
What’s something you are proud of but never get to brag about?
This institute that I am building here. I want to give back, and this is my opportunity to influence a gap area the best way I can. I am doing this for others, and giving as much credit to my colleagues. I want to see people thrive and the institute thrive as well.
Is there something new you’ve been considering trying lately?
Africa has half of its population under 20 years old. That is the time when mental ill-health starts expressing itself — young, able but vulnerable to develop mental illness. The challenges are many for these young people making them even more extremely vulnerable to the stress and trauma of life. That’s why I want to build quickly and help these young people.
What’s your superpower?
I am a very spiritual being. There is a destiny and a force in life that charts your journey, I know it is not very scientific but it is very personal to me.
What’s your weekend plan?
I am heading to the [Maasai] Mara because it is the time for the Wildebeest migration. I am hoping to be able to capture some of the images.
What’s a weekend hack that can make my weekends better?
You need to be true to yourself. We tend to be so focused on people around us that we never give ourselves time to be true to our needs and energy. Indulge in things that you like so you can recharge. I like it in the aeroplane when the cabin crew tells you to put on the oxygen mask on yourself first before you put it on others. Even the Bible says to love yourself as you love your neighbour. It’s okay to be selfish.
What’s life’s simplest pleasure?
Sitting down with a good cup of coffee just watching people go by. That way I am sort of with people but also with myself. Plus, I just love being in nature.
If you aren’t at home or work, which other place would you likely be?
A café watching people going by. Or hiking. Or shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables.
What is one book you read that changed your life?
Find Balance. It helped me learn through the eyes of the people who are the poorest of the poor and to experience their lives. It is a very meaningful read.
Who do you know that I should know?
That’s a tough one. The Aga Khan. He is a visionary from investing in the people and the communities to the fullest extent whether it is education or scientific development. Plus, he is also the chancellor of the university. And Donald Hebb. He is a Canadian brain scientist, very influential in understanding how the brain functions. I have been to many of his lectures, and one of the things he says that I remember is when a journalist asked him: ‘What is most important — is it nature or nurture?” and he said, ‘Young man, that is like asking me what makes the area of the rectangle — is it the height or the width? Obviously, it is both.”