Tag Archives: “papa ken”

If you’re in Paris, you gotta see the fuckin’ Louvre.

These last days in Nairobi have taken a turn for the surreal, with Papa Ken’s mind unraveling, and an odd cast of characters popping in to bear witness to the inevitable demise of Backpackers.

Ken shows up one afternoon, having been discharged from the hospital with what passes for a clean bill of health in Kenya. Despite the damage done to his brain and liver by years of alcohol abuse, the doctors had no immediate reason to keep him around. (His brother John, meanwhile, visibly worn down by the ordeal of these past two months, couldn’t continue to justify a hospital tab that was costing him a cool €200-a-night.) A week after checking into the loony bin, Ken struts back through the front gate of Backpackers, pours himself a stiff drink, and asks why no one’s bothered to keep an eye on the fucking fire. There’s a salubrious gloss to his cheeks; the gin blossoms on his nose are in full bloom. In his eyes is the glint of a madman in that split second before he drops his pants, stuffs his dick into the Thanksgiving turkey, and asks grandma to pass the gravy.

Two days later, frail old Colin returns from his stint in Aga Khan Hospital, looking for all the world like he got up from the autopsy table before they had a chance to tell him he was dead. Dry blood is crusted to the tip of his nose, dead skin flakes from his forehead, and he’s giving off a musty, unwashed odor. In the morning his cough rattles from one of the bandas out back, and he shuffles into the yard – topless, shivering, his skin the color of candle wax – with a little nub of cigarette pinched between his fingers – a picture that probably won’t help Backpackers’ reputation as “the place to be in Africa.”

Later in the week, in perhaps the strangest twist yet, a ruddy old retiree from Portland arrives, fresh off a stint in Southeast Asia and an overland tour from Cape Town. He greets me by the bar with a booming, “Howdy!” giving the impression that this Tusker is hardly the day’s first. He asks me where I’m from.

“Brooklyn!” he says. “I took a bus across Brooklyn back in 1968. I met a chick from Levittown, so I stayed with her a few weeks. Then I went up to Bennington, because the chicks were easier and had more money. Two days later the crew from Penthouse magazine shows up. It was like a commune there, so they took pictures of us running naked across the field, and they took pictures of our teepee.

“We had a lot of sex in there,” he adds.

What David paints in the ensuing minutes is a series of portraits that would fit neatly into a gallery of Things You’d Rather Not See With Your Own Eyes, Ever, Even if You Had to Gouge Them Out With a Rusty Soupspoon. He tells us about sexcapades in Saigon and orgies in Auckland (“the ugliest, most expensive prostitutes of anyplace – except for Sydney”). He offers more grim snapshots from his hippie days. He even gives a long, rambling soliloquy about his erotic adventures in Malaysia, where the joys of retirement revealed themselves in all their Priapic glory.

“I knew I had it good when I was sitting in a bar in Kuala Lumpur. I’m eating Texas barbeque, drinking a Dutch beer, sitting in a reggae bar – in Chinatown – in Kuala Lumpur. And this Thai girlie-boy comes up to me and offers me a massage. And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’”

He grins mischievously and adds, “When in Rome.”

It would’ve taken a particularly randy Roman to top David’s exploits. What unfolded in the hours that followed was largely lost in a boozed-up haze; fortunately, he was left in his hotel room with a keepsake the next morning.

“I woke up with a picture of this Thai girlie-boy standing there – he had a really nice set of tits – and of course all his plumbing’s hanging out. I’m standing next to him with my arm around him. And on my left shoulder, there’s a fuckin’ iguana.”

At which point I start to wonder if his last acid trip ever really ended.

It’s been a strange coincidence to have this free-wheeling, free-balling former hippie roll in at the exact moment that Ken’s life has unraveled. Just a year ago, David sold his glassworks factory in Portland and took off for this round-the-world jaunt – a bold leap of faith for a guy who’d never left North America in his 59 years. At every turn in the road, he seems to be having the time of his life. He marvels at the discovery of Hellman’s mayonnaise so far from home, and cheerfully scratches himself at the breakfast table while explaining, “Yeah, I’m still getting over this – whaddyoucallit? – crotch rot I picked up in Saigon.” Seeing David – Ken’s senior by just a few months – thrilling at all the improbable twists and turns in the road of life is like seeing Ken’s luckless years distorted in a funhouse mirror. And for a few days, it feels like we’ve all piled on for the ride, as David goes shopping for whores at Annie Oakley’s and talks about his New Year’s plans for Paris.

“I’m meeting this English chick I met in Thailand,” he says. “But if you’re in Paris, you gotta see the fuckin’ Louvre.”

Almost on cue, a young Parisian arrives the next day – a dreamy-eyed kid in baggy trousers and a chocolate-colored vest who looks sort of like a cross between Baudelaire and Barnum & Bailey. He spends a few days sitting morose and handsome by the fire, scribbling in a bound notebook and staring abstractedly into the middle distance. One afternoon, wholly unprovoked, he takes a few bowling pins out of his bag and starts juggling in the yard. He explains that he’s come to Kenya to start a partnership with a Tanzanian friend – a young acrobat he met in Arusha a few months ago. He tells me they’re going to start touring the country, teaching circus skills to kids in the slums.

“Um,” I say.

He’s hoping to make his way to the coast, where he’ll juggle his way into the hearts of local hotel owners, entertaining their guests in exchange for a free bed. Once he’s made some connections in the area, he suspects he’ll be able to raise funds for his Street Kid Juggling Initiative. This all strikes him as plausible, necessary, and not at all ridiculous. The only hitch is getting to the coast, since he’s come to Kenya with all of €100 to his name. He shrugs his frail shoulders and makes a whimsical face, as if to suggest that he might just hitch a ride on a red balloon tugged by candy-colored unicorns. Then he juggles his little heart out in the yard, to the delight, amazement and astonished joy of absolutely no one.

Oscar’s been a welcome addition to Backpackers, if only because he’s given me the perfect opportunity to shake my head bitterly and say, “You know, this place is turning into a real fucking circus.” One night, watching football at Annie Oakley’s, he tells me that – through a marvelous stroke of luck – he’s managed to find a way to the coast. I tell him that’s really swell. He says he had a long heart-to-heart with Papa Ken the night before, and the old codger’s promised to fly the two of them out to Mombasa the next day. After Ken’s put the finishing touches on the latest in a long string of imaginary hotel acquisitions, he’ll introduce Oscar to his connections on the coast.

“I think that Ken knows many, many people,” he says.

“Creditors,” I agree.

I heave a mighty sigh and give poor Oscar a frank look and say, “Listen.” I explain that Ken has a teensy problem with making promises he can’t keep. I explain that many of his big, crazy ideas are – according to at least two former guests who worked in the medical industry – symptoms of dementia. I explain that he drinks too much, owes too much money, and would probably need Livingston, Stanley and a hundred-strong expedition of hearty natives to tell his ass from his elbow. Oscar scratches the stubble on his chin and nods carefully and stares off at absolutely nothing. Finally I say, “Oscar, look, I’m really sorry, but I wouldn’t believe anything at all that Papa Ken says. And I wouldn’t plan on going to Mombasa tomorrow.”

It’s at exactly this moment that the hope in his eyes flickers, diminishes, and dies. He leans forward and solemnly takes a few long pulls on his cigarette. There’s a weighty silence between us. Then he leans back, his eyes aglint with defiance, and says,

“You know, when I was in Paris, and I told my friends that I was coming to Africa, they told me I was crazy. They thought I just had these big crazy ideas. But sometimes” – eyes shining – “people need to have big ideas.”

“That’s great,” I say. “That really is. Just don’t pack your bags.”

Sure enough, when I see him juggling in the yard the next day, his one-ring circus has inched no closer to Mombasa. He sees me and makes embarrassed eye contact and does what can only be described as some really vengeful juggling. It’s a few hours before Papa Ken finally rolls out of bed. His benders have grown especially fierce this past week, and there’s a sense that even he knows – in some dim corner of his drink-addled mind – that the end is nigh.

When he gets up late in the day, there’s a pretty, groggy young Kenyan girl rubbing her eyes behind him. It’s the first time any of us have seen him with a prostitute, and it seems like a particularly dire omen. That night, by the fire, he introduces her to the staff and guests. She’s poured into a pair of jeans and tottering on pencil-thin heels; her hair is an unruly mess. Colin, coughing and wheezing into his tea, his face a pale rictus of suffering, reaches up and shakes her hand and says politely, “How do you do?” The hospital tag is still hanging from his wrist. After five months in Africa, this might be the most remarkable thing I’ve witnessed.

Things continue to degenerate throughout the week. The next morning there are three different prostitutes smoking cigarettes around the breakfast table. The staff has taken to angrily sulking around the yard, looking at Ken with undisguised scorn when he stumbles out of bed with his girls. Most of the employees haven’t been paid in close to two months, and when they confront him with this fact, he offers a baroque explanation involving funds trapped in his bank in England.

“I’ve got the bloody money to pay you,” he says, laughing nervously, “but the bloody bank is in England! How am I supposed to get the money out of a bank in England?”

A few of us suggest – in no particular order – an ATM, a wire transfer, or a goddamn carrier pigeon. Ken gets flustered and asks Morgan for a drink and stomps across the yard.

One morning the auctioneers arrive in a massive flat-bed truck. They take the computers and the TV, the DVD player and the refrigerator; they stack the lawn chairs and carry the tables, one by one, across the yard. They even go through the scrap metal out back and start dismantling one of the trucks. A big, bald, cheerless guy is scribbling in a notebook and punching figures into a calculator. Ken, sloshing a glass of cheap wine, flashes me a grin and gives a thumbs-up.

“They’re just taking the things we don’t need anymore,” he explains to the staff. “Let them take it! I’m doing them a favor!” He makes a shooing motion with the back of his hand. “ With this money, we’ll have the rent paid for another year. For two years!”

I look at the prehistoric PCs and the rusted, dented refrigerator and figure there’s just enough to cover the two months of rent he already owes. Some of the employees have walked out. The others sit around the fire, laughing bitterly and rolling their eyes when Ken mentions the new hotel he’s acquired in Zurich.

The next day he’s all smiles in the office. He’s brandishing a printout from FreeLotto.com, his name highlighted beside a $25,000 cash prize (“Status: Pending”), between Raymond Simpson of Temple Hills, MD (“PAID”) and Dorothy Morris of Oak Hills, IL (“PAID”). He has the high color of inspiration and drink as he prods us to marvel at this improbable stroke of luck. Backpackers, he exults, is back in business. The money is just waiting to be collected at the Posta. By the end of the day he has half-a-dozen printouts stacked on the corner of his desk. In just one frenzied afternoon, he explains, he’s won the lotto seven times over. Things are getting – even by Backpackers’ standards – a bit ridiculous. When someone corners Ken and offers to take him to the Posta, he mumbles something about having to get his ID from the apartment. He disappears for hours, coming back after midnight, angry and drunk. He tells a new arrival that she has to pay for the night in advance, threatening to kick her out unless she forks over Ksh550. Joost gives him 200 bob so he can buy himself a whiskey next door. At this point, neither of us expects Backpackers to make it through the week.

The crisis reaches its denouement one sunny afternoon, when Ken gathers the few remaining staff in the yard. They sit on lawn chairs and bar stools – the few pieces of furniture the auctioneers were good enough to leave behind – beside two stocky, middle-aged women in wigs and lycra pants. After a long, unconvincing monologue about the hostel’s future prospects, Ken introduces the two prostitutes – “my dear old friends” – and explains, “I want you all to meet the new managers.” The women flash embarrassed smiles and look nervously at the ground. One even stands on her clunky plastic shoes and gives a little half-bow to the crowd.

There’s a long, awkward silence as this new reality sets in. Finally, one of the mechanics pulls off his sunglasses, his eyes simmering, and says, “Ken, this is shit.”

With those four words, and with frightful force, months of pent-up rage and humiliation suddenly burst through the levees. For all their sulky acceptance throughout this improbable saga, the employees have finally had enough. Papa Ken, like a blundering Caesar, has crossed the Rubicon into a place of dire uncertainty. He stands lonesome in the yard, surrounded by a dozen angry men, pointing their fingers and demanding their money. And he has no idea what to do.

Credit the old guy’s nerve: he decides to take a principled stand, insisting that he’s the owner and they have no right to question his financial decisions. He spins on his heels and stomps indignantly into the office, but there’s a wild terror in his eyes. Before he’s even reached the stairs they’re fast behind him, hurling abuse and repeating an angry chorus: “Give us our money.”

In the office, cowering behind his desk, Ken has nowhere to turn. He holds up a few FreeLotto.com printouts and makes a half-hearted plea for more time, but no one budges. He says there’s money in the bank; then he mentions money owed by the landlord, by friends. Willie – a tall, fierce kid from Kibera in soiled overalls – slaps the desk with such force that he sends a pile of papers flying.

“Ken, we want our money,” he says. “Give us our money.”

Ken’s eyes drift around the room – they even try, fleetingly, to appeal to mine – before a clear, terrible, lucid light ignites them. For months we’ve watched his delusions stretch and grow; we’ve watched his lies contort and shift shapes; we’ve watched him spin myths of self-grandeur from thin air. But here, in all its horrible clarity, is the sight of a man finally overrun by his own sanity. Papa Ken has run out of lies – even to himself.

He regains his composure and offers to go down to the Posta to collect his FreeLotto winnings. There’s a sad stoop to his shoulders, and it’s not the first time that I feel bad for the poor old fool, in spite of it all. No one offers to go along to the Posta with him; partly, I suspect, there’s an embarrassment to see this train wreck through to the bitter end. Once the gate closes behind him, the mood lightens. The air is bright, crackling, exultant. We offer congratulatory handshakes and slap each other’s backs, reenacting Ken’s panicked flight into the office. There’s little doubt that if and when Ken returns, he’ll only have more lies to show for his absence. But for a few soaring hours, in what’s left of this tragicomic place called Backpackers, everyone has something to be proud of.

I’m not shouting at you. I’m shouting at Kenya.

It’s a cool, gray, drizzly afternoon when I touch down in Nairobi, and for a few ecstatic minutes I stand in the rain, tugging on my fleece and puffing into my hands and thanking the Lord that I’m a few hundred miles from the muggy torpor of the coast.

After the bank debacles and hungry nights of Mombasa, the return to Nairobi Backpackers feels like a welcome homecoming. It’s a feeling that lasts for all of twenty minutes. It doesn’t take much longer to realize that all’s not well, with a handful of new faces busying themselves around the hostel and a rash of whispered intrigues chasing me down the now-barren halls.

It’s been close to two months since I left Nairobi, and in that time, poor Papa Ken has visibly deteriorated. His skin has gone gray and lifeless; he’s unshaven; his hair is a mess. There’s something flickering in his eyes that, if I didn’t know any better, I’d associate with the onset of full-blown, off-the-wall madness. In recent weeks he’s begun to share wild plans for the future that, in a frightening twist, he genuinely seems to believe. Half of the staff has quit since I left in August; the other half is confused, concerned, and more than a little afraid.

Despite the fact that the employees weren’t paid last month, despite the fact that the phone line’s been shut off and there’s a long line of angry creditors stretching from here to Kakamega, Papa Ken’s decided it’s time to remodel. He’s built an outdoor kitchen next to the pool table and moved all of the furniture – including the TV – into the yard. He’s added a second computer to the new Internet café, having declared one permanently off-limits, so that he can surf Facebook at a moment’s notice at any time of day (a peculiar new fetish, about which more later). He’s hired a few of the guys to paint a mural in the living room – a sad, strange portrait of chocolate-colored hills and orange-rind horizons that looks less like a fresh African morn than a new day dawning in the bowels of hell. They’ve painted the ceiling blue and added a handful of clouds – half-hearted dabs of white and gray smeared over the cracks and water stains.

The cosmetic changes are, it seems, the first deranged steps in what promises to be a wholesale transformation. Papa Ken’s been busily outlining his plans to turn “Papa Ken’s Family” into a global enterprise – plans that, as I’ll quickly learn, are already well under way. He hands me a wrinkled print-out that, he explains wearily, he’s been working on day and night for weeks. This is what it looks like, I suspect, when sheer, utter lunacy – slightly diminished by a low toner – finds its way onto a few pages of A4. From his base in Sheffield – which he’s optimistically described to me as “the outdoor adventure capital of England” – Papa Ken will sow the seeds of a vast, worldwide empire. The plans for Sheffield are modest: a youth hostel with easy access to hiking, biking, horseback riding, and “Tank driving and amphibious vehicle driving (later)”. But it’s in the rest of the world – where, I’m assured, Ken has “family” in more than 200 countries – that the manic vision will truly take flight.

All week, in a series of “Breaking News” reports, Ken’s assailed us with the latest updates from abroad. He’d clap his hands enthusiastically and say, eyes aglint, “I just got off the phone with investors in Italy,” or “I just picked up four new hostels in Sudan,” or “We’re in Czechoslovakia!” – a location that, no doubt, will work nicely along the overland route from Prussia to Yugoslavia. One night, drunk and flushed and on the verge of a long-overdue breakdown, he shouts, “I don’t need this fucking place! I have 999 other hostels around the world!” Morgan, mild and sympathetic, gently steers him to the fireside and tops off his glass of Vat 69. The guests around the fire quickly clear out, downing the last of their Tuskers, scurrying back to their dorms and bandas, and making sure to lock the doors.

All the bitterness of his failures, the desolate loneliness of those long nights by the fire, seem to have finally pushed Ken over the edge. Surfing through profiles on Facebook – a site which he sees as vital to the growth of Papa Ken’s World – he boasts of a global network of “more than a billion,” all the while lending a running commentary to his search. (“She’s Maltese….She’s Colombian….She’s a real fireball.”) He’s been sending long, rambling emails to his extended family, outlining his plans for the future and urging prospective investors to get in on the ground floor. For the modest price of $1,000 a share, anyone can buy into the burgeoning enterprise. They’d be in good company, too: All week, Ken’s boasted of the presidents, prime ministers, sultans and emperors who have the privilege of calling him a close personal friend. Even the late Haile Selassie, it seems, likes to pop in on Papa Ken for a drink, advising him on matters of life, love and liquidity from beyond the grave.

That Ken is desperate for cold, hard cash is obvious; equally obvious is the fact that his wild pleas are falling on deaf ears. I follow the train of his thought through a series of emails, the tone getting more and more dire with each passing day.

“For those of you who are still hesitating about partnership,” he writes, “you can see that if you don’t act now, you are going to miss the one opportunity to really become part of a Titan at it’s birth.”

A few days later, discouraged by the responses, he writes, “I will try to explain in detailed, but simple English, because for many of you, English is not your first language.”

Still later, in even more simple English: “THIS IS NOT A FRANCHISE, IT IS US, THE FAMILY, CREATING A UNIQUE, WORLDWIDE FAMILY NETWORK, WHICH WILL GIVE YOU ALL, SOLDIERS, DOCTORS, DENTISTS, LAWYERS, CONCERT VIOLINISTS, VETS, NURSES, TEACHERS, BUSINESS PEOPLE, FAMILY PEOPLE AND SO ON, a hobby if you wish, a further secure income, virtually free travel to anywhere in the world, a career in travel if you wish, the key to finding volunteer opportunities anywhere in the world, a unique, international family, and so on. Do not be blind!”

In a strange twist, a member of Ken’s actual family has finally turned up at Backpackers: his brother John, a clinical psychiatrist who’s arrived from Madrid. Pale, concerned, nursing Tuskers behind a pair of card-shark shades, he spends long hours sitting by the fire, keeping an eye on his brother and taking notes on a legal pad. When he wants to unwind he rests his cowboy hat on the table and dips into Noam Chomsky. Things are getting really fucking weird. One night in the yard, debriefing me and Joost – a portly Dutch kid who somehow became the nominal manager while I was gone – John explains that he can’t force Ken to get help – Ken has to want to help himself. That Ken might be in no position to ask for help doesn’t seem to make matters any easier. And poor Joost, who flew to Nairobi on a one-way ticket at Ken’s urging, spends a frightening amount of time staring grimly into the middle distance, wondering just what he’s gotten himself into.

It’s a question I’ve begun to ask myself, too. After all the weeks I’ve spent here, I feel committed to Backpackers, and I’ve managed to grow close to much of the staff. But the situation is approaching unbearable. Ken’s nightly tirades send us all shuffling out of our rooms in bare feet and PJs; when one guest asks him if he can please keep it down, he tells her to go fuck herself. Later that night, he tears into Morgan for letting the cooks go home early, because Ken’s decided, at half-past two, that he needs a sandwich. When Morgan tries to pacify him, the veins in Ken’s neck begin to bulge. He lets loose a rain of abuse and profanities, only to apologize, at the top of his lungs,

“I’m not shouting at you, I’m shouting at Kenya!”

Kenya, it seems, doesn’t care to take notice.

The days go by in fits of desperate fantasy and blind fury. One morning, after a particularly frightful night, Ken gathers the staff by the fire. He’s gotten his old tweed jacket off the moth balls – his favorite conciliatory gesture after a night in the sauce – looking very much like he was just upholstered in a suburban Ohio basement circa 1973. He wants to have what he calls a “reheartening.”

“We’re going to bring enjoyment and love and peace back to this world,” he explains, while the employees hunch around the fire and scribble God-only-knows-what in their notebooks.

The fire has become an important symbol for Ken, an eternal flame that perhaps sums up his undying faith in a future that only he believes in. “Fire is life,” he maintains. (While the poor, superstitious staff keep insisting, “Water is life. Fire is for devils.”) He insists that it’s stoked day and night; sometimes Morgan has to chop firewood in the darkness – anything to keep the flames going – the sound of his ax ringing out and echoing through the hostel’s halls.

That Papa Ken can’t face the darkness inside or out is a sad commentary on his emotional unraveling. I’m reminded of those famous lines of Auden’s:

The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

This fort, this sand castle, is all that’s left of Papa Ken. And when he shouts in defiance, “I don’t need this place!” it’s not a cry for help: it’s a cry to be swept away.

One night he flies into a fit of rage that has even Morgan keeping a safe distance. We try to call the police at half-past two; in typical Nairobi fashion, there’s no answer. It takes more than an hour for us to pacify him with drink and reassurances, and it’s close to four when we finally leave him by the fire, drunk, loveless, lost: a disconsolate soul on another sleepless night in Nairobi.

Mungiki, matatus, and why Nairobi is nothing at all like Mogadishu.

Saturday, July 7, 2007.

When even the locals have come to affectionately call their home “Nairobbery,” you can’t help but arrive in town with your guard up. For weeks I’ve been girding myself against what my guidebook cheerily describes as “the most dangerous city in Africa, beating stiff competition from Johannesburg and Lagos” – a statement that’s probably ruffled a few feathers in Mogadishu, and has certainly done little to calm my nerves. In recent weeks there’s been a thwarted suicide bombing downtown, while a rash of brutal murders have been traced to the mysterious Mungiki sect – a clan whose members are rumored to drink the blood of their victims. Arriving in the cool blue pre-dawn hours, with ominous packs of men shuffling along the airport road and dozens of matatus – Kenya’s famous minibuses – careening left and right, I’m already wondering what it will take to get settled, book a safari, and get out of town in one piece.

So I’ve checked into a hostel on the outskirts of town, at precisely the point where the infrastructure goes from slightly suspect to downright shoddy. In the morning, bringing my coffee onto the rocky, muddy road out front, I watch a group of young guys in plastic sandals and frayed t-shirts washing cars with filthy rags. They’re sloshing their towels into soapy buckets and assaulting the hubcaps with vigor, though I suspect their work will be undone before these spiffy, sparkling cars make it to the corner. A young kid with a black baseball cap and moth-eaten t-shirt comes up to me with a wide, yellow grin.

Jambo,” I say.

Jambo,” he says.

“How are you?” I say.

He looks at me, slightly puzzled, and grins again. We watch the men stooping and wiping at the panels of a late-model SUV. The boy turns to me and says, “I want to work,” with a sad sort of urgency. It’s at exactly this moment – perhaps the first time I’ve thought this thought – that I desperately wish I had a car for him to clean. I clap him on the back and squeeze his shoulder and nod. Across from us, in an overgrown field, a man in a smart black suit is sitting on a tree stump, reading the paper. A few matatus kick up clouds of dirt, punctured by shafts of sunlight. Chickens are clucking everywhere. Well-dressed men and women in thick, practical heels keep clopping by, emerging from fields or dusty roads, swinging briefcases and handbags. There’s a slow migration toward the skyscrapers downtown, a procession that’s given a particular pathos by the fact that there’s not a single proper sidewalk in sight. They shuffle down the street or in gravelly furrows on the side of the road, as if some bureaucratic carnage had created masses of white-collar refugees.

Having steeled myself with the gravest reports about this city, I spend a couple of afternoons in downtown Nairobi and wonder if I’m in the right place. Prepared for a dire town on the brink of calamity – a grim collection of vagrants, hustlers, panhandlers and travel writers – I’m surprised by just how many people are going about their normal lives. There are office workers walking briskly down the street and church women chatting on a park bench; there are businessmen sharing a laugh outside a restaurant, their well-fed bellies straining against their shirts. The streets are clean, the sidewalks are paved, there are broad, leafy parks straddling the main avenue. Men and women patiently queue for buses or window-shop in front of clothing stores, and about the only difference I can spot between Nairobi and any other city I’ve visited is that – imagine the odds! – everyone around me is black.

Back at the hostel, the white folk are keen to make themselves useful. Just about anyone who comes to East Africa has to pass through Nairobi, and just about anyone who comes to Nairobi Backpackers seems to be gearing up for volunteer work: building schools in the bush, reading to orphans, mopping up pools of urine in some remote village clinic. The good intentions around this place are enough to make you kick a kitten, though you get the sense that the most these people will manage to accomplish here in Africa is to leave the place feeling awfully swell about themselves.

Africa’s NGO racket is notorious, with hundreds of programs seemingly designed to achieve the least amount of good for the most amount of people. Adele, a wry Brit with long, plaited hair, who spent three months volunteering in Ghana, has little good to say about the program she signed up for. Though her and dozens of others were paying a whopping £1,000 a month to volunteer at an orphanage in Accra, the place was still in shambles, the mattresses were filthy, and the organization’s staff – accounting for its massive overhead – seemed to amount to no more than the guy who drove her to the orphanage and the guy who graciously accepted her check. Others gripe about the complacency in the Africans they’ve worked with: the light bulbs left unchanged, the floors unswept, the general sense that another white volunteer will be along sooner or later to tidy things up. One girl talks about a project to build a school in a small village a few hours from Nairobi: the locals admitted that a school had been built just a few years ago, but it was harder to maintain the place than to wait a few years for another batch of volunteers to show up and build a new one.

It’s the old donor paradox that doesn’t just plague these bright-eyed young do-gooders, but the international aid organizations and foreign governments who have been pouring money into Africa for decades. Aid always seems to end up in the wrong hands, where there’s virtually no transparency and absolutely no accountability. Projects move forward at a glacial pace, terribly mis-managed and with funds getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle; at times, some good might actually be accomplished. But in the end, the prevailing attitude is that if Africa has a problem, the white man will eventually come along with his checkbook to fix it.

And at Nairobi Backpackers, the volunteers keep arriving by the dozens. A group of feverish young Brits talk about their ambitious plans to spend a month “playing with schoolchildren” in Uganda; a pack of Canadians have arrived with four duffel bags crammed with books: they’re building a library in Kampala. The group’s leader – an athletic fifty-something with a bushy beard and muscular calves – tells us about their ordeal at Charles de Gaulle, where overzealous airport officials wanted to charge them a fortune in overweight fees. In the end the problem was resolved without a single euro changing hands; there’s a look of immense self-satisfaction on his face. “If you don’t believe I’ve got a heart of gold,” his sparkling eyes suggest, “you can just suck it.”

One evening a group of young English girls arrive in a giggly swarm. They’re wearing matching blue sweatshirts with nicknames on the back: “The Short One” and “The Tall One” and, oddly, “The Sporty One,” a handle that seems to ignore the rather obvious fact that the combined body fat of the lot of them could hardly stop a drain. They’ve quickly overrun the all-girls dorm, piling up backpacks and hanging mosquito nets from the ceiling, though the odds of catching malaria in Nairobi are exactly the same as the odds of catching it in Oxfordshire. Rumors begin to swirl about the program they’re working with. There’s talk of a mysterious remote control held by one of the team leaders: a device with a red button that, when pushed, will summon a helicopter to whisk the girls to safety.

Intrigues abound around the hostel. In just my first few hours at Nairobi Backpackers, I’ve watched the owner, Ken – a libidinous old Brit whose face is to gin blossoms what Alpine valleys are to wildflowers – make no less than a dozen girls feel profoundly uncomfortable with his innuendos. Showing off an odd flair for referring to himself in the third person, he’ll ask nervous 19-year-olds to “give Papa Ken a hug” – a comment that makes the skin crawl, no matter how much context you try to give it. He’s talked about the ten women around the world who pine for his love – eager to note not only that they’re younger, but that they’re “much, much younger” – and generally worked so hard to assure us he’s not some sad, lonely old man, that he can’t help but come across as awfully sad and terribly lonely.

He’s been planning to go back to Sheffield all week – a dramatic homecoming some 35 years in the making. Yet for three days running he’s missed his flight, with one improbable circumstance after another – a missing passport, a lost ticket – getting in the way. Sloshing a glass of whiskey by the fire pit, he flings a few tender insults at the staff, who – he’s convinced – are conspiring to keep him in Nairobi.

“They won’t let me leave,” he complains with great affection. “These people are my family!”

But as more and more details about his life back home emerge – the divorced wife, the estranged son, the parents dead and buried – it’s grown increasingly clear that this imaginary family is there to fill the void left by his real one. And added to the man’s great pathos is the sense that he is – as a literary figure, at least – something of a giant cliché.

Still, there are tearful rounds of goodbyes every afternoon, outpourings of immense feeling toward young backpackers who – still rubbing the sleep from their eyes – only arrived in the morning. We follow his taxi to the gate and wave goodbye to “the Wild Rover,” heading back to Sheffield “because it’s where my mother’s ashes are.” Then we sit around the fire and share a few beers until his car pulls back into the driveway an hour later.

“These bloody bastards!” he says, eyes dancing. “They won’t let me leave! They love Papa Ken too much!”

He asks Morgan, the bar-man, to fix him another whiskey, and he stands by the fire with his hands on his hips, staring into the embers. Later he’ll make a crude comment about his prowess with his fingers that practically clears the room, and by the end of the night he’s dozing off in front of the dying flames, while Morgan wraps a blanket around his shoulders.