Back in Nairobi, I’m saying my goodbyes and tying up loose ends – a process that, after nearly five months in Kenya, will take the better part of the next week. There are endless commiserations with the staff at Backpackers, who have watched the place’s slow decline these past few months with the boundless, long-suffering patience of your average Kenyan. There are doctors’ visits and souvenir binges and free-flowing Tusker with the whores at Annie Oakley’s (“The Place To Be”). It’s a sad end to this long, unexpected odyssey. While countless adventures undoubtedly await in Uganda, I’ve grown attached to Kenya in ways I didn’t predict when I first showed up in July, hell-bent on making it out of Nairobi as quickly as possible, preferably in one piece. Now, oddly at home in Nairobi, I’m steeling myself for whatever unexpected twists and turns might beckon on the road ahead.
One afternoon I meet with Peter, the young footballer I last saw with his overmatched squad getting chased off the pitch in Naivasha. We’ve sent each other periodic updates these past few months, his terse emails charting the anxious path most Kenyans follow in their rootless lives. He’d lost his job in Naivasha – despite a contract with a team in the country’s National Division, he worked as a laborer five days a week – but rather than returning to his home in Kitale, he packed his bags for Nairobi. There he found some space with a cousin living in Eastlands – the poor counterpart to Nairobi’s tony Westlands area – where he again joined the hunt for work. He’d had and lost a job; he was briefly ill, but was now fortunately on the mend. In his last email, he passed along his friend’s phone number:
am still pushing life here in Nairobi,unfortunelty my phone ceased i have diverted to my friends number. his able to get me any time u arrive in Nairobi.i hope to see you soon have a good day,my friendsname is kings
When I meet him downtown, a slight figure in a loose-fitting jersey and a crisp pair of jeans, he clasps my hand and hugs me twice, in the Kenyan manner. His friend – stocky, bald, slightly nervous – smiles cautiously and walks a few steps behind us. They take me back to their place in Eastlands, a half-hour walk that will spare us the horrors of Nairobi traffic. The cars and buses and dusty matatus are backed up for miles down Tom Mboya, exhaust billowing and tires spinning in the mud. The rains have been heavy these past few days; there are wide brown puddles in the buckled tarmac, women stepping cautiously in their open-toed shoes. The guys take me down muddy side-streets, dirt roads lined with wooden dukas and clucking roosters and pantless kids chirping “How are you? How are you?” from the doors of their tin-roofed homes. Men sell pots and pans and corrugated sheets and piles of rusty scrap metal on the street. They stoop in the mud, hammering, banging, sawing: a raw, cacophonous soundtrack, an aria of sorrow. Gruff guys in worn sports jackets set up shine boxes on the side of the road, squatting on a thin patch of grass surrounded by gravel and trash and sludge.
We pass rows of government housing, poured-concrete barracks with colorful shirts and church dresses flapping on the lines outside. Peter explains that these are choice apartments, largely subsidized and available for under Ksh1,500 – about twenty-three US bucks – a month. They’re painted bright orange and blue and decorated with advertisements for Dimbo vegetable oil and Crown pens. We pass burning piles of garbage and old men lying on the ground with their crutches beside them, begging for change. Everywhere there’s smoke, rags, plastic bags full of vegetable scraps, empty bottles, animal bones, excrement. Crying kids, screeching kids, kids with mud and snot and porridge crusted to their smiling faces.
We tramp down a few narrow, muddy alleys close to their apartment. Women recline on blankets, selling tomatoes and potatoes and yellow blocks of vegetable fat for cooking. Some heat pots of chai they sell for Ksh10 a mug, or tend to unnamable porridges and stews spooned out into tin bowls. The air is musty, heavy with the smell of rain and trash; rivers of filthy water flow down the streets. This is home: Blue Estate, so named because the walls and roofs of these narrow tin shacks are painted a bright, optimistic shade that mimics a cloudless sky. Kings swings a heavy metal door open and welcomes me into his pad, a single room about the size of my old college dorm, hemmed in by walls of corrugated tin. Another cousin, Joseph, is sitting on the edge of his bed, buttoning a crisp white dress shirt.
“Welcome to the ghetto,” he says with a laugh, then points to the wall, where the words “Ghettoh life” have been scrawled with black marker. Beneath them, optimistically, is written another message: “Sportsmen never give up.” There’s a single bed and a beat-up couch and a couple of laundry lines criss-crossing the room. Peter clears some space for me on the sofa, and we sit and talk about football and work and his girlfriend in the Ukraine.
“I want to show you,” he says, pulling a pile of yellowed Polaroids from a manila envelope tucked under the cushions. For the next ten minutes we look through the pictures, Peter watching my face with a faint, anxious smile. He shows me his girlfriend, standing demurely in a yard in Kitale, her hair elaborately knotted and wrapped around her head. “She’s very pretty,” I say. He glows. He shows me pictures of his mother – a stocky, no-nonsense woman with a look of frank disapproval etched onto her face. He shows me brothers and uncles gathered around a tractor, cousins in graduation gowns, sisters and friends dancing at a party. He shows me his different football squads through the years: a village team in knock-off England kits, a secondary-school squad in bright yellows and greens. There’s a picture of a younger Peter in front of a school building, a silhouette oddly cut out beside him.
“Was that your ex-girlfriend?” I ask. He laughs and blushes and rocks forward, holding his knees.
He shows me more pictures of his girlfriend from Kitale. They’ve been together for four years, though she’s spent the last two in the Ukraine, pursuing a medical degree. It will be another five years before she returns to Kenya. Peter smiles wearily and sighs and says that he will wait, because he loves her. The others nod appreciatively. I ask Kings if he has a girlfriend, and he erupts in laughter.
“No no no,” he says. “No no no no no.”
I reach over and shake his stomach and say that he’ll never find a girlfriend like that. This sends the whole room into hysterics. We sit back and settle into a weighty silence, broken by the shrieks and cries of kids playing in the yard outside. Joseph neatly folds a few button-down shirts and stacks them on the bed. He works as a security guard at a local cornmeal factory; his shift starts in a few hours. He’s been working there for just over a month, hoping to get hired on a full-time basis, but he isn’t optimistic: because it’s cheaper to hire short-term labor, the company’s notorious for laying off workers every few months. Still, he’s the only one of the three with a job right now, and it’s up to him to make up the bulk of the rent: Ksh2,000, or about thirty US bucks, a month.
Peter gets up and fills a pot with water from a five-liter jerry can. He turns on the portable gas heater and sets the pot atop it, crouching to chop tomatoes and greens on the coffee table. When the water begins to boil, Kings adds the cornmeal, stirring slowly as it thickens. Joseph spoons some vegetable fat into the pan, and Peter adds the vegetables. When everything is ready they set the ugali in the middle of the table like a birthday cake, sprinkling some salt on top. Joseph spoons out four bowls of tomatoes and sikuma wiki and we begin to eat hungrily, the guys shoveling with their fingers, me throwing back forkfuls. Afterward Joseph squats on the ground and fills a basin with water and a bit of cleaning fluid, washing the bowls with his hand.
I ask about their hopes for the upcoming election. Peter, a Kikuyu, plans to cross tribal lines and vote for ODM candidate Raila Odinga. Raila, he explains, is a sportsman: he goes to all the games when the Harambee Stars – the national team – play at Kasarani.
“Kibaki, he only likes golf,” he says, wrinkling his nose.
Peter suspects that a Raila presidency will do a lot for footballers in Kenya, starting with a boost in salary. He talks about the Kenyans playing in Europe – one at Italian powerhouse Parma, one at the French team Auxerre – and the others who have left to play in Uganda and Tanzania.
“There is a boy from Kitale,” he says “he plays in Tanzania and drives a car.” We all marvel at his good fortune. Peter hopes his own fortunes might soon improve: he’s been practicing with Mathare, which this weekend finished the season in second place, and hopes to get signed in January. The top teams like Tusker FC can pay Ksh19,000 – $300 – or more per month. It’s a figure Peter struggles to get his mind around. I tease him about the change in lifestyle we’ll be seeing a few months down the line – the flashy clothes, the pretty girls at nightclubs. He laughs and blushes and shakes his head, though he’d be happy to test the waters of the good life. Until then, he’s sticking with his modest hopes. He sits back on the sofa and looks up at the scribblings on the wall.
“At least, when there are a few of us, it is easier,” he says, and the others agree.
We head back into town, taking a detour through a vast complex of concrete bungalows – government-subsidized housing for railway workers. Peter points to the new marketplace being built nearby, about the size of a football pitch. For months the government has been pushing its vigorous campaign to get hawkers off the streets – election-year pandering, as Peter sees it – planning to relocate them to permanent stalls in the market. We watch a few bulldozers push piles of rubble around. Peter shakes his head. He doubts it will accomplish much: once the election is over, everyone will lose interest, and the hawkers will be back on the streets. More than in its western counterparts, the political scene in Kenya is rife with cynicism. And it’s hard to look around us – with kids playing in heaps of dirt, and piles of trash strewn on the grass – and not feel like the status quo will be in place long after the campaign promises have ended.
A chubby little boy in blue galoshes looks up as we pass. He breaks off from his game and hurtles toward me with bright, beaming eyes, his face lit with rapture. He grabs me by the hand and tugs with all his might, bending at the waist, straining with effort. A few women smile nearby. They ask him where he’s going, and when he answers, they all burst into laughter. I ask Peter to translate.
“He says he’s going with the mzungu,” Peter says. “He says he is going wherever you’re going.”