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.