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:
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.