Tag Archives: football

Sportsmen never give up.

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.”

The white man is watching.

I’ve rented a tent at Fisherman’s Camp, a popular campsite tucked behind the reeds on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The rain’s already let up as I stake my tent into the mud; there’s a riot of birdsong in the trees above me, squawks and trills and little calls of longing. Black-and-white colobus monkeys – their scrunched-up, Oriental faces taking me in with hostile regard – scratch and nibble at the scraps of fruit others campers have left behind. There’s a massive, thatched-roof restaurant at the far end of the site, music softly piping from the eaves, and a few tourists are sitting around in safari shorts and hiking boots, nursing coffees and staring out into the treetops.

Because of the lake and the national parks nearby – Hell’s Gate and its dramatic gorge, the long-dormant cone of Mt. Longonot – Naivasha’s a busy stopping point for tourists. But it’s also the hub of Kenya’s lucrative flower trade. You see the long, plastic shade houses sprawled out around the lake, their otherworldly bubbles puffed out against the sun. Women with the hair wrapped and knotted above their heads stoop among the even rows; men in bright orange uniforms walk through jets of water, bending to tug at a stray weed. Someone in town mentions that most of the laborers make Ksh30 a day – about the price of a cup of coffee. Their families live in long, gray concrete barracks set back from the road, laundry flapping on the clotheslines and kids running barefoot through the mud.

For the Europeans who own them, the Germans and the Dutch, these flower farms are big business. Planes take off from private airstrips in the morning and have their bright bulbs in Brussels or Paris by the afternoon. Hundreds of millions of dollars are made each year. You pass the farms on the lake road, one after the other: Shalimar and Oserian and Longonot. There are armed guards at the gates. Outside, sitting on the banks of the road, are dozens of men in broken sandals and tattered jeans and shirts worn out around the collar. Most have come from around the country – Kitale, Eldoret, Nyeri, Meru – fighting for jobs in short supply. They sit and stare at the road and dig their toes into the grass; there are colorful blossoms tumbling over the chainlink fences behind them. Nearby women are roasting corn over smoky basins, the shredded husks in piles that a goat or cow will stick its curious nose into. Men pedal by on bicycles, wobbling and swerving over the bumpy road. Every twenty paces you find another repair shop – bike parts and rusted frames spread out under a canvas tent, and men with greasy hands bent over the broken chains and the flat tires.

There’s a scruffy village just up the road, some poured-concrete cafeterias and wooden dukas selling chewing gum and bunches of bruised bananas. I meet a few young guys standing in the shade outside a cousin’s restaurant; they’re in soccer jerseys and running pants and flip-flops, and one is cradling a boy with bright, inquisitive eyes against his chest. We exchange some remarks about the heat, and they clear a small patch of shade for me. It’s Sunday – their day off – and they’re killing time until the afternoon. The four play for a local soccer club, in the lowest ranks of Kenya’s four divisions; they have a match later in the day, against a team from a neighboring village. As it turns out, one of the guys was just recently cut by World Hope – the team I’d watched in Nairobi a week ago. When I point this out it leaves everyone in hysterics, and we spend the better part of the next ten minutes discussing the strange coincidences that bring people together.

A few women and young girls pass in their church dresses; one is carrying an old, tattered umbrella and has an infant slung across her back. We talk about Kenyan politics and American soccer. More questions about the global implications of David Beckham’s arrival on American soil. The fruits of professional soccer have hardly ripened in Kenya. Even playing for World Hope, in the National Division, Johnny had to hold down a full-time job. Only the top corporate squads – sponsored by Sony, Tusker – have money to burn, in the manner of their European counterparts. Johnny’s come to Naivasha to find work as a laborer; like the others he’s from Kitale, in the west, where job prospects are slim. The four are sharing a couple of gray concrete rooms behind their cousin’s restaurant, around a leafy courtyard littered with patio furniture.

They invite me inside to have lunch, which their cousin has been stewing in the kitchen. They’re tall, lanky guys – the shirts hang from their bodies like they’re strung across a clothesline – but as soon as the food arrives, there’s an absolute free-for-all. There’s stewed greens with potatoes and pieces of tough chicken you have to tear from the bone; there’s a plate of chicken feet that I steer clear of, watching the others pull the pale gray-yellow skin off with their teeth. The ugali’s been molded into a massive round loaf. Their cousin brings it to the table on a giant dinner plate, bearing it aloft like a birthday cake.

Later in the day I go to the village stadium to watch them play. The field is tucked away from the road, down a long, rocky driveway that leads to a neighboring flower farm. There are boxes being loaded onto the backs of flat-bed trucks; a few guards eye me warily, as if I might be snooping around for a rival farm. I can hear some voices carrying through the trees, and I follow them to a scruffy pitch hemmed in by a chainlink fence. I’m early; there’s a friendly being played by a bunch of local teens, half wearing the national colors of Kenya, the other, oddly, wearing the blue and white kit of Argentina. I see Johnny and Chris and Peter stretching on the side, where a bunch of toned, topless guys are going through their warm-ups. When they see me coming they wave enthusiastically. The referee’s paused on the sideline, whistle between his lips, and he does a full 180 to watch me as I head toward the wooden grandstand.

The place is filling quickly. There are old men in faded blazers and dress pants; young guys in blue jeans and high-top sneakers; men in light windbreakers that rustle whenever they turn in their seats. There are old-timers in brown leather sandals and homburg hats who lean forward and fold up their newspapers and laugh a sort of whooping cough when someone makes a wisecrack. There’s a man in a marvelous, double-breasted suit that looks like it’s made from crushed velvet. There are boys everywhere: barefoot, or in cheap plastic sandals, or in knock-off Nikes that look like they might unravel if you tug on the wrong thread. There are teenagers in soccer jerseys – Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona – wearing sunglasses and baseball caps resting low on their foreheads. Men of all ages, of all shapes and sizes, united by their singular love of sport, and by the sepulchral silence that settles over them as they follow me with their eyes. Already I’ve become a spectacle here, sitting with my backpack tucked between my legs, four rows from the top. Whatever interest the crowd had in the game has shifted to this more fascinating phenomenon: a white man behaving with such unremarkable frankness – scratching his leg or coughing into his fist – carrying on as if he were no different than your average African.

After the rousing disappointment of my first soccer match, in Nairobi – when hardly more than a dozen spectators filed into the cavernous Kasarani Stadium – the village version seems to be an entirely different breed of sport. The grandstand is packed; there are hoots and laughs and shouts of encouragement, as a dazzling display of ineptitude unfolds before us. One of the men, boisterous and gesturing wildly with his arms, is getting egged on by the crowd. It’s clear that this guy’s a character – a snug fisherman’s vest hugging his stomach, a broad smile flashing beneath his trim moustache. At one point I hear the tell-tale word “mzungu” getting tossed toward the pitch. I ask a neighbor to translate.

“He’s telling them they have to play better,” he says, “because a white man is watching.”

These Kenyans are a ruthless crowd. They don’t applaud goals or crisp passes, they don’t cheer brief bursts of skill. Instead they laugh at errant kicks and laugh when a missed tackle sends two players tumbling to the pitch. They whoop loudly when a goalkeeper mishandles a lazy ball into the box, letting it slip between his fingers and into the net. The loudest laughter of all comes when that same keeper goes sliding into one of the uprights, crotch-first. There are hoots and catcalls as the medic goes trotting out onto the pitch, a neat leather satchel swinging in his hand. The injured keeper limps toward the sideline, making anguished faces, and his replacement jogs onto the field with grim forbearance, already being mercilessly razzed by the crowd.

By the end of the first half I’ve attracted a following: a pack of barefoot boys in ragged t-shirts and hand-me-down pants. They’ve gathered slowly – one by one, or in pairs – drawn by the mysterious magnetic energy that seems to make young African boys materialize from thin air. I tease them and poke at their stomachs, twisting my eyes and drawing my lips back in cartoonish masks and leaving them in stitches. Soon they’re feeling emboldened. They touch the smooth skin of my palms and tug at my arm hair, jostling one another, trying to draw closer. Before long their elbows are pressed into my side, their knobby heads bobbing as they jockey for position.

There’s no end to their fascination, and even my simplest gestures seem to be a subject for great scrutiny. What makes a white man sneeze? How does the hair grow so long on his leg? When I reach into my backpack for water, there’s an almost reverential silence, and soon they’re fighting to see what other mysteries of the universe my bag might hold. A notebook, a headlamp, a stick of deodorant I uncap and theatrically wave beneath their noses. I open my book to an empty page and trace an outline of my hand; one by one they dutifully place their own hands inside its silhouette, laughing hysterically, clambering to try again, as if it were some wondrous game of chance. When I ask them to write their names they’re eager to show off, grabbing for the pen to write in solemn block letters:

MIKE MIKOTSI
MUSA OKUTOI
SAMWEL OTACH 16
DANIEL OSIHKO eleven years old

A few of the boys want to draw pictures, and soon they’re scrunching their faces over the notebook with monastic rigor, drawing solemn little A-frames and mirthful housecats and sailboats gliding beneath soft, puffy clouds. But before long a grave sort of arithmetic has reared its ugly head – too many boys, too few pens – and a great show of grabbing and shoving ensues. With a remarkable burst of stupidity, I decide to start handing the drawings out as gifts, but rather than appeasing their ravenous appetites, tiny fists begin to fly. One of the smaller boys begins to bawl. I laugh nervously.

“Okay, that’s enough,” I say, trying to steer them to their seats. But now they each want a present; one boy brazenly asks for my headlamp. I laugh again, still more nervously, and point to the action on the field, where there’s a flurry of sloppy goals.

“Give me five shillings,” says one of the boys. The others take up the chorus.

While the crowd was amused by my antics earlier, it’s clear they’ve abandoned me to my fate. “Now who’s Mr. Hot Shit with the fancy notebook?” is sort of implied in the looks I’m getting. The game is delayed; the ball’s sailed into a tree along the sideline. Twilight is falling. My friends are getting trounced by a wide margin, and slowly the grandstand begins to empty. Suddenly these boys with their big bright eyes and tiny hands seem like the worst sort of menace. They’ve grown more persistent, more hostile. A few have started to fiddle with the zippers on my pockets; another tugs at my backpack. I stand up and say, “That was a good game, ha ha,” and they look at me blankly and say, one after the other, “Give me candy. Give me five shillings.”

I switch tactics: “Give me five shillings,” I say, extending a hand. The boys are slightly puzzled, not entirely sure what to make of this new development. Then they regroup and redouble their efforts, following me down toward the pitch. The players are coming off the field, pulling off their shirts and wiping their brows. I make a few plaintive eye signals to Peter.

“Tough game, huh?” I say, which savvy readers might translate as, “Help me. Please.” He shrugs and laughs and shakes his head, then notices the boys tugging at my shirt and shoos them away with a few angry words. For a couple of minutes they linger nearby. One does some cartwheels and leg splits, laughing wildly, with a sort of lunatic menace. The others are watching me with vague, distant eyes. Then a harsh old man comes waving a newspaper in their direction, and they scatter like sand flies into the creeping dark.

Tha blacker tha berry, tha sweeter tha juice.

I’ve spent a week tramping through the bush and sleeping in a smoky room and sporadically washing from a basin of hot water, so it’s no surprise that the first words I hear when I get back to Nairobi are, “Man, you look like shit.” What’s more surprising is who they’re coming from: an American named Mel, last spotted sharing my dorm room in a Beirut hostel in April. At the time he’d been making his way toward Egypt, from which the real trip – the famous Cairo-to-Cape-Town route – would begin.

Three months later, though, beaming, flashing a what-are-the-odds grin, he admits it’s been a bumpy road. He hadn’t so much as left Egypt before hitting his first snag, when the Islamic regime in northern Sudan denied his visa. Backtracking to Cairo, hopping on a flight for Nairobi, he was planning to sneak in Sudan through the backdoor: the country’s autonomous, Christian south. From there he was off to Ethiopia, then back to Kenya, via the treacherous northern roads: an ambitious plan that makes my time in the bush seem like some sort of tribal Club Med.

Back in Nairobi, I’m readjusting to the civilized comforts of hot showers, high-speed Internet, and British co-eds in short-shorts watching BBC News in the lounge. Yes, it’s good to be back. Nairobi’s been abuzz with catastrophic rumors, after a series of minor earthquakes rattled the city on three successive days, but after a few restful, uneventful nights, life is more or less back to normal. The shoeshine boys are again eyeing my scuffed-up sneakers with covetous eyes downtown, and the tabloids have replaced their emergency checklists and earthquake DOs and DON’Ts with sex tips and ten-day diet plans.

On a Sunday afternoon I take a matatu to the outskirts of town, where I’ve gone to watch a soccer match with Neil, an English friend from the hostel. Kasarani Stadium is the centerpiece of the Daniel arap Moi International Sports Centre – a sprawling complex built in anticipation of Nairobi’s successful bid to host the 1987 All-Africa Games. At a modest cost of Ksh21 million – about US$320,000 – the impoverished city could at last proudly point to the world-class aquatic center and tae kwon do arena it so desperately needed. Say what you will about African leaders, but they don’t pinch the purse when national prestige is on the line – especially if the president himself is lending his name to the project. The sign welcoming you to the sports center is mottled with patches of rust; little burnt-red blossoms cling to the letters. Inside, the showpiece stadium is wracked by years of neglect: gates swing from their hinges, snack bars are dusty and shuttered, the restrooms deserve an official UN inquiry for crimes against humanity. Later I’ll learn that the utensils were long since snatched from the kitchen, and someone made off with the furniture from the VIP lounge.

At the door we get hustled into buying two tickets at four times the going rate, not tipped off by the fact that the game being advertised on the face – a friendly between Kenya and Tunisia – kicked off at 4pm on a July afternoon in 2004. At Ksh200, though – about three US bucks – the prospect of my first professional soccer match is too much to resist. I picture Mexican waves and pulsing drum rhythms and the lion’s roar of thousands cheering on their hometown heroes. But as a few lazy clouds puff above the pitch, we realize that we’ve practically got the place to ourselves. There are a few pockets of fans scattered around the grandstand, mostly young guys in European soccer jerseys who will jog onto the pitch for a friendly contest once the match is through. A couple of older men rustle their newspapers and spit into the aisle. Two stocky young girls are selling bottled water. They unload a few bottles and then sit a half-dozen rows behind us, cackling and exchanging gossip. Now and then one will hiss at us under her breath, and I’ll turn to see her dangling a bottle suggestively our way, the slender throat beaded with condensation.

The day’s contest pits Tusker against World Hope, and it’s hard not to feel that something bigger is on the line when a team sponsored by Kenya’s premier beer is playing a team sponsored by a Christian charity. We can hear the players cursing each other, and the goalkeepers shouting instructions at the defense. A few vultures circle ominously above, dipping toward the grandstand, swooping up in graceful arcs. There’s a man in front of us wearing spiffy, pointed shoes and a green blazer; he’s working the keypad of his cell phone with nimble fingers and keeping one eye poised on the pitch. He shouts something toward the bench in Swahili – the sound in this empty stadium carries like a kite – and one of the Tuskers players turns, shields his eyes against the sun, then waves a long, spindly arm. The man introduces himself – he’s an agent from Malindi – and gestures toward the bench with frustration.

“This man, he does not know how to coach a team,” he says bitterly. “He does not see talent right in front of him.”

Not surprisingly, the player on the bench is his client; a recent acquisition from a village team in Malindi, he’s spent most of the young season relegated to the sidelines. Soon Basilio and Neil have launched into a complex debate on formations and strategies, most of which soars over a certain American’s head. But before long he turns his attention to me; like most Kenyans, Basilio’s eager to talk about the state of American soccer, and whether the high-profile move of David Beckham to the purgatory of the MLS will bring about a sea-change in American sport. There are a few toots on the pitch. The ball goes sailing over the goal, and a few barefoot kids milling around the sidelines go running in hot pursuit. Tusker is storming out to an early lead – it will be 3-1 when all’s said and done – and Basilio folds up his newspaper, stomps down to the railing, and offers a few choice words for the coach.

Afterward he’ll walk us out to the road, shaking our hands energetically as a matatu slows to a crawl in front of us. It’s lime green and gently rocking with bass; there are decals on the windows – lightning bolts, flames – and pictures of American rap stars plastered to the windshield. Basilio offers his well-wishes and waves as we hurtle off into the Nairobi dusk. Inside a flat-screen TV is playing reggae videos – women in short-shorts swivel their hips like they’re on a pivot – and a few young girls are popping their gum and sending text messages on their cell phones. I’ve lost thirty percent of my hearing before we’ve reached downtown, the conductor briskly changing money and counting seats and urging a few slow late-comers to hurry up and clamber aboard. On the ceiling are pictures of pretty white women wearing next to nothing; on the window, a sticker observes, with a touch of pride: Tha blacker tha berry, tha sweeter tha juice.

We’ve rumbled into downtown and then switched matatus. For a change of pace we’re having dinner at Village Market, an upscale shopping complex in the swank suburbs of Karen. When we arrive there are SUVs and luxury sedans in the parking lot; the place is decked out with palm trees and floodlit pools and little waterfalls that splash and tinkle like musical chimes. The place has an air of Southern California about it, as if Aaron Spelling played a prominent role in the design. There are leather-goods shops and shops selling glass-blown curios, and a travel agent promoting luxury safaris that include four-poster beds in the bush. Downstairs, in the food court, there’s an Italian restaurant and an Indian restaurant and a Chinese restaurant and a Thai restaurant. There’s a German restaurant selling bratwurst and a café proudly touting its Kenyan coffee – the implication being that all the other guys are brewing the cheap shit from Costa Rica. We sit and smile and stuff ourselves on Chinese combination plates, while a Kenyan in a white linen suit bangs out tropical melodies on a Casio keyboard.

Taking a taxi on the way home, we’re flagged down at a police checkpoint. The officer – tall, slim, draped in an overcoat – leans close to the window and says a few words to the driver in Swahili. He looks at Neil, taking a drag on his cigarette in the front seat, and says, “You are smoking,” as if this were somehow news. Looking from Neil to the cigarette, then to the driver, then to me, he adds, “You cannot smoke in Nairobi.”

Now, in spite of the best efforts of local government, this isn’t entirely accurate. True, a public smoking ban was put in place just a week ago; truer still, the legislation swept into being virtually overnight, so that the first word many Kenyans got of the new ban came from the policeman who was scribbling out his ticket – a hefty fine of Ksh3,000, nearly fifty US bucks.

Neil points out that he’s smoking in a private car, and the officer – straightening, scratching his head, showing off a remarkable bit of ingenuity – says, “Yes, but this is a public road.” He seems pleased at his own cleverness, and he leans forward again and gravely observes, “Your cigarette smoke is bothering me.” But Neil, cool as the proverbial cucumber, notes, “It wouldn’t be bothering you if you didn’t stop the car.” This tactical side-step catches us all off-guard. Though he probably pegged us for an easy mark – a couple of hundred bob, at least – the officer’s plan is quickly unraveling. He shines a flashlight on each of our seatbelts, dutifully buckled, then turns to the driver with a trace of desperation.

“Did this man ask if he could smoke in your car?” he demands.

Yes, he did.

A long silence follows. You can see the mental gears turning and grinding, going through a list of potential offenses, both real and imagined. Finally, reluctantly, he straightens and waves us through, looking forlornly to see if we don’t maybe have a broken taillight.