Thursday, September 29.
Feeling energized today, the sky the blue of children’s picture-book drawings, I am on my way into town. The roads are crowded, the matatus doing their best to turn two-lane streets into four-lane highways. SUVs with red diplomatic plates move as solemnly as a state funeral. There are nurseries along the roadside, green leafy things tended by women with broad hips, great earthenware pots baked by the sun. Men in overalls scramble down to the river, carrying up jugs of water for their thirsty varied specimens of African flora. For a moment, the city seems so lush, pastoral. “Nairobi is beautiful,” a woman on the street tells me. “Everything you need is here. This is heaven.” Ads on lampposts for baby-sitters, doctors of a dubious medical bent with offers to cure marriage troubles, impotence, problems paying rent.
And so I get into the back of a matatu, remembering the claustrophobic heat of those shambling vehicles, the sharp oniony smell of body odor, the stiffness of the cushions, the jagged bits of metal, the engine heating up under your feet. I imagine the experience is not unlike that of a cut of beef falling into a bubbling pot of stew. No, you do not kick back in a matatu, flip through a copy of Town & Country, think idle thoughts. You are aware of every cramping muscle, every skin sensation, the hot bodies of your neighbors. (A billboard for a luxury housing complex, Five Star Meadows, lords over the avenue, promising “suburban comfort with urban proximity.”) The driver does maniacal things with the steering wheel, negotiates our passage by jumping onto a curb. Bodies flying, scrambling. Someone behind me answers his phone and proceeds to converse at high volumes. We are driving somehow perpendicular to a car in the next lane. Faith, the invocation of higher powers, is a given here. Little murmurs of gratitude tumble from our lips once we’ve arrived in town and are deposited into the bedlam of Tom Mboya Avenue.
Mboya, the trade unionist, a close friend of Kwame Nkrumah’s and a fervent believer in the Ghanaian’s pan-Africanist ideology, might have looked approvingly on the democratic tumult of the avenue now bearing his name. The young and old and poor and profligate all share the sidewalk, some moving with a distinctly Nairobi bustle, others shuffling about, soaking up the sun, idly flipping through piles of pirated DVDs. If Kenya has become a middle-income country of middle-class aspirations, then here you will find the shoppers and strivers who keep the economy thrumming. Stacks of blue jeans, knock-offs of popular American brands stitched in garment factories in Thailand and Bangladesh. Self-help books with titles like The Art of Public Speaking and How the Rich Think. A dizzying range of footwear. Bulletin boards plastered over with advertisements for obscure technical colleges offering IT training. Beauty schools. Help wanted and proffered. Glass display cases, enough to fill the Smithsonian, with the latest range of Nokia and Samsung and Blackberry phones. (A rumpled man in a worn overcoat, mistaking my ambiguous journalistic interest for intent to buy, quickly shanghais me on the sidewalk with a gorgeous iPhone which pretty much still bears the fingerprints of the guy from whose pocket it was undoubtedly picked.) Block after block of shopping arcades hung with mannequin torsos, the bright jerseys of English soccer teams, guys offering phone repairs. The quality is poor, the prices low. Money is constantly changing hands.
It is hard to believe that two years have passed since I last walked Tom Mboya, stocking up on full seasons of Lost and 24, watching the carnival-colored matatus – aglow with neon track lighting – thundering to hip-hop beats down the avenue. Two years, true, is not a long time in the span of a life, or a city. Perhaps the same grease-spattered chefs are working the deep fryers at Christie’s Café (“For that delicious taste”) and Kenchic Inn (“We are ‘kuku’ about chicken!”) and Big Chicken Inn (“Tasty chicken ‘n’ fries!”) and Chicken Spot (“Delicious”). Certainly the traffic looks unchanged as I cross onto Moi Avenue, the muscular thrum of the City Shuttles and Double M Expresses, the medicinal blue of the KBS buses, the ubiquitous green and yellow Citi Hoppas. (Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, on trial at the Hague, took umbrage with a certain prosecutor’s descriptions of the Citi Hoppa buses he allegedly organized to shuttle rabble-rousing youths to post-election flash points in the Rift Valley. “I wouldn’t describe City Hopper buses as ‘shiny and new,’” Kenyatta solemnly said on the witness stand.)
And the streetscape, too, has an old familiarity. Behind me is the Hilton, with its two fluted towers, and across the congestion of Moi Avenue the neo-classical façade of the Kenya National Archives. To its right is the weather-stained hulk of the Ambassadeur hotel, no doubt even unfit for low-rent diplomatic delegations from like N’Djamena and Banjul. After the Ambassadeur the Eureka Highrise Hotel, and across from them the Kencom building, buses idling along its curb. Further down Moi ‘60s- and ‘70s-era office buildings in various gray-scales. Exhaust hanging over the avenue like a raincloud. A woman clopping by in a thick orthopedic shoe. A man in a sweater-vest is preaches to a decidedly disinterested lunch-time crowd, slapping his Bible and gesticulating like a madman, which in fact he might very well be.
Outside Kencom is a small pavilion, a Condolence Tent for the Late Prof. Wangari Maathai, beside which Kenyans of all stripes are lined up to sign their names and scribble two square inches’ worth of condolences in the ledgers. A dozen saplings sit on the sidewalk in dirt-filled plastic bags, a tribute to the late environmentalist. Maathai, so widely celebrated abroad, had a more checkered history in her homeland. She was beaten and jailed for her opposition to former president Daniel arap Moi, dragged through the mud over her messy divorce, criticized when she decided to reject the mantle of global green crusader in favor of a more humble – and, perhaps, difficult – place in local politics. Yet many credit her stand against Moi and his ruling-party cronies in the late-‘80s as the first salvo which emboldened civil society to finally, a decade later, topple the old tyrant. The contrast between her selfless struggle and the disreputable actions of Kenya’s ruling kleptocrats today couldn’t be more stark. “Prof. Maathai was a woman way ahead of her times,” eulogized one long-time friend in the Daily Nation. “We have yet to catch up with her.”
I am thinking these solemn death-thoughts, brooding under a rapidly graying sky, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s an improbable coincidence: my friend Khaleed Abdulaziz, tall and grinning, having picked me out on a crowded sidewalk in a city of three million plus. It takes a second for me to compose a thought, and then we both laugh at the remarkable smallness of Nairobi. (Later, having dinner with Liz and her friends at an Ethiopian restaurant in Lavington, we’re joined by an old friend I’d met nearly two years ago in Burundi.) Our greetings are long, warm, full of complicated handshakes and shoulder-clapping. “Long time,” he says. “Long time,” I say. It’s been a very long time.
Khaleed is on his way to the Railways bus rank; he’s heading to Adam’s Arcade to meet with the producers of a popular TV show, Churchill Live, on which he has a recurring stand-up role. Though we’ve been in touch on and off for the past two years, this is the first I’ve heard of his new gig. It sounds like the perfect fit. Four years ago, I’d met Khaleed and his older brother, Faiz, on my way to Maralal, in Samburu country, for the annual camel derby. It was a terrible journey: rain had washed out the roads north of Nyahururu; the only vehicles heading to Maralal were lorries transporting supplies to the frontier towns of the north: Maralal, South Horr, Baragoi, Loyangalani. Crowding into the back of a truck, paying extortionate prices, we were pitched around at every bump and ditch, cases of Kenya Special Brandy toppling on all sides. Then we hit a long stretch of road that had turned to mud; two, three dozen lorries were lined up end to end. Some had been stuck there for days. Darkness began to fall. Two hundred meters from where we were stuck, armed bandits robbed a matatu, then vanished into the bush. This was hardly a month after I’d arrived in Kenya; it was my first great African journey, and I was scared shitless. Khaleed’s good humor, Faiz’s unswerving calm, were what steadied me for that 15-hour journey. In Maralal, they introduced me to their family; we exchanged gifts. Faiz gave me an old ceremonial gourd, used by the Turkana tribesmen of his father. I left Khaleed with a novelty t-shirt: it said “My First Ride” over the picture of a tricycle. Four years and a half-dozen meetings later, it’s one of the first things he recalls for me as I walk with him along Moi Avenue.
The news from his family is good; the Abdulaziz clan, it seems, is ascendant. Four of the five brothers have reunited in Nairobi; Faiz, the second-born, has married, as has their only sister. Khaleed, too, has seen his fortunes improve since landing his TV gig. He’s become one of the show’s best-known comics; girls on the street stop us, giggle, pay me exactly no mind. A Nairobi radio station has named Khaleed one of the country’s top ten comics. When he was younger, growing up in Maralal, Khaleed and his brother Ahmed performed comic sketches for high-school friends. Their skits were famous; they had a small crew called the “Green Mattress Boys,” so named because of their sexual exploits in grassy fields. This is one of the many inside jokes which constitute a good 60 percent of our conversations. Do not ask me about Supamambo. Do not ask about mikono juu.
We make plans to meet on Friday, to see the new apartment Faiz has moved into with his wife, Aisha. I watch Khaleed walking slowly across the avenue, the jeans low on his slender hips, a slight roll to his shoulders. If you had spotted him on some Nairobi street, lost in the crowds of unemployed youths with the same low jeans and the same shoulder-roll, would you imagine him one of the country’s top ten comics? Would you imagine such things as Supamambo, Maralal, the Green Mattress Boys?
The day feels impossibly light now, my first stroke of great fortune in a country that, oddly, after all these years, still feels like my true African home. Walking back toward Kencom, a few cold drops of rain falling, I stop in front of an ad display by a group called Powerpoint Media. (“….trying to do business without Advertisementis like winking to a girl in the dark…nobody knows but you!”) A small crowd of job-seekers is gathered, jotting down numbers, scouring the postings. A Denish-Kenyan Linked Company is Seeking to Employ. Over 500 jobs available at Diamite international. WONDREFULL OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!! Emanex Computer College. German Institute of Professional Studies. Over 100 posts available at Diamite international. Cotech Training Centre (“For best computer packages”). Sponsorship!! Immortal Tattoos Kenya (“Tattoos at your own convenience”). Glory Celebration Centre. Believe it or not H.I.V is curable now. Potion 21 (“Liquid from heaven”). Get Immortalized, Get Inked. HIV AIDS CURE. Sales Executives Needed. Designers’ Showcase. NOT A LIE. Abou Kante, Master of the Secret Knowledge. Faith Opticians. Leading Locks Limited (“Beauty + Security = Timeless Love!!!”). H.I.V victims have been corned, misused and cheated, that is no more. Call Dr. Clement. NOT A JOKE. Are you tired of being tired of not reaching your goals???
Jacaranda blossoms litter the pavement.
Crossing toward Kenyatta Avenue now, the last daylight trying to break through the clouds, the temperature about 10 Celsius degrees below what it was when I left the house, a short man comes bustling up beside me. As a white man, you get used to all manner of importuning on the streets of Nairobi. But no, this man is harmless, he just has a safari to sell. He hands me his card: John Mbithi, Tour Consultant. Bencia Africa Adventure & Safaris. His brown slacks, about four sizes too big, are heavily cuffed; he wears a brown droopy fleece which sags down to his thighs. I introduce myself. “Like in the movies, there is that Christopher,” he says. Sure enough, I suppose. John’s got a big brown crooked tooth on which I unfairly, though perhaps not unreasonably, fixate. He is cheerful, persistent if not persuasive. Having shot him down on the safari front, I have narrowed his options. There will be no trips to the Maasai Mara, none to Amboseli or Nakuru. He recites his litany of low-rent Nairobi tourist options – the Giraffe Centre, the Bomas of Kenya – the way I suspect certain Catholics recite the rosary. “Pole sana,” I say. John shakes his head and brightens: he is still pleased to meet me. “When you see me, you just greet me,” he says, hopping off the curb, dodging a bus, and quick-footing it across Kenyatta Avenue.
The daylight dwindling, the air cooler, the city’s foot soldiers off on their evening commutes. Sitting on a park bench, I feel something wet in my hair: a bird in one of the trees above has offered its own version of “Karibu Kenya!” Njiwa akimnyea mtu kichwani, mtu huyo atapata bahati njema, goes an old Swahili proverb. In Kenya, too, animal turds are a harbinger of good things to come. I take this as a happy portent. Fortune is both smiling and shitting on me.