After three jet-setting weeks around the country, I’ve finally wrapped up my gig for Concierge.com – a five-star orgy of gourmet food, king-sized beds, and thin-lipped pensioners mumbling, “My, that’s a fine job!” into their gin and tonics. It was a swell time. Back in Nairobi, I even decide to relive those heady, luxury highs with a night in Ngong House – a creative, $600-a-night interpretation of the humble tree house. The rooms are decked out in hand-carved furniture, in batiks and bronzes and colorful Congolese fabrics; the blue-tinged silhouettes of the Ngong Hills roll away in the distance. It’s as pleasant and genteel a way to get myself reacquainted with Nairobi as any. And it’s not until the next morning, returning to the drama of life at Backpackers, that things take a turn for the odd – and, for that matter, the oddly Nairobi.
Apart from a few pit-stops in the city these past few weeks, I’ve been mercifully out of touch with life around the hostel. But the staff is brimming with gossip when I walk through the gate. Just days ago, Ken was apparently shipped off to the loony bin – a story whose details, logic and legality all seem to be a bit fuzzy. Rumors abound about a heavy dose of sedatives dropped into the old man’s whiskey one night; others describe some late-night intrigue involving a female guest, who lured Papa Ken into the yard in his birthday suit – only for a half-dozen musclemen to force him into the back of a van. Whatever the case, there’s a miraculous calm around the hostel. The staff is all smiles; young backpackers are again cozying up to the fire, knocking back Tuskers and swapping heavily embellished stories. There’s a cheerful air about the place – a shock to the system, after all these weeks of feeling like I’d checked into a mortuary.
Things aren’t all as rosy as they seem, though. One gray, wet afternoon, I’m approached in the yard by Julius – one of the hostel’s long-standing, long-suffering employees. “I have some small problem,” he says, shyly taking a few steps to the side. I take a few steps with him. He’s holding his hat – a red-and-black-striped baseball cap with a Yankees logo – and twisting it in his hands. Some of the other employees are circling nearby, and he waits for them to shuffle out of earshot.
Julius has been, since my first days at Backpackers, a sweet, endearing enigma. Quick to laugh, resting a hand on my elbow and speaking with great deliberation, he struck me from the start as a good-hearted, guileless, affectionate guy – or, stripped of the euphemisms, as a bit slow. Still, I enjoyed his company, and the more I spoke with him, the more embarrassed I was by my early assumptions. He was sharply inquisitive, grilling me about the American presidential race or my travels in Europe and the Middle East. And he’d spent years working as a cook for an overland tour company, seeing most of a country I was still, after four months, trying to scratch the surface of. He told me stories about Lake Turkana – the “Jade Sea” of the north – and about the time he had to sleep on the roof of his truck because a lion was prowling around the campsite. As I listened to him talk with his usual deliberation, I realized he was probably just a bit self-conscious about speaking his second tongue. In fact, at every turn, Julius made me realize what a judgmental douchebag I could be. And when I overheard Ken – joking with one of the chefs – saying that Julius was “a real good guy, but doesn’t have a lot going on upstairs,” I was probably most upset because it was the same verdict I’d once reached myself.
Lately, Julius has been running into all sorts of trouble. A few weeks back, an angry local woman came looking for him at the hostel. It seems Julius had been running a side-racket selling charcoal – a racket that involved swiping wood from property owned by the woman’s son. He sold the charcoal to Backpackers with a modest mark-up, claiming their usual supplier had raised his prices. Khadija, who’s taken over much of the hostel’s day-to-day management, was harsh but forgiving. The woman, predictably, threatened to call the police. A few days later, when Julius didn’t show his face around the hostel, I suspected he was laying low.
Even in the best of times, I could tell his life was a constant grind. But with the prospects for Backpackers growing increasingly dim, it only seemed natural that he’d scramble to get by. Already he’d told me about plans to rejoin his old overland company, which he fatefully left after meeting Papa Ken on one of the company’s tours. Ken had talked him into leaving them for Backpackers – a move that, in the dire days of late, he’s come to regret more and more. The main hitch was the exorbitant cost of a passport – more than a hundred US bucks – a necessary step to pick up work traveling into Uganda or Tanzania.
Later Julius tried to enlist my aid. Now and then he would stop me in the yard, or approach me by the pool table. “I have some small baskets,” he would say, “statues – hippopotamus, giraffe. Maybe your mother and father could sell them to their friends.” Later he asked if my parents might send him some seeds for his garden: string beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas. He thought the foreign seeds might grow better in African soil. I told him I would see what I could do.
When he turned up the next week, after the charcoal debacle, I learned he had more than cucumbers and wood carvings on his mind. His aging mother had been taken to the hospital, coughing severely and complaining of chest pains. The family was watching her in shifts – the hospital was a two-hour drive from Nairobi – and Julius had been keeping a vigil by her bedside. He shook his head sadly, describing the tubes running into her arms and nostrils, and we both prayed for a quick recovery. Whenever I saw him over the next few days, he’d give me a hopeful prognosis: she was breathing better; she was on her feet; she would be leaving the hospital that week. He grinned broadly as he said it, pumping my hand furiously and accepting my warm wishes. But it was just a week later that he took me aside, complaining of his small problem.
In the yard, turning his cap in his hands, he tells me that his daughter was raped near her home in Kibera. He says it with a mild, passing sadness, though in his eyes is a look of suffering, of almost bottomless sorrow. The man threatened her at knifepoint. He was a Ugandan who’d been terrorizing Kibera for months, going around the estate with his sister, picking out young girls to prey on. Julius shrugs and sighs and twists his cap, looking up at the clouds. The police are planning to arrest the suspect that day, but he needs Ksh2,000 – about thirty bucks – either to retain a lawyer or pay the doctor’s fees or grease some official’s palm. He’s vague about the details, but his distress is so frank that it’s clear he’s sincere and has nowhere to turn. He unfolds a rumpled piece of paper in his pocket and shows it to me – a letter from the doctor, describing in careful, clinical English the trauma suffered by the victim. I modestly gloss over the details, shaking my head and offering my apologies and condolences.
A few minutes later I get my wallet from my locker and take out two Ksh1,000 notes; outside, I discreetly pull Julius aside, folding the bills into his hand. He thanks me effusively, slapping my back and grinning broadly, and it could almost pass for a beautiful moment, if things had been different that day. The next afternoon he tells me the man was arrested, adding, “I hope they put him in a jail for a long, long time.”
I watch him in the yard, working through the rain: stacking cases of empty beer bottles, loading piles of soggy firewood into a wheelbarrow. He says his daughter will be okay, and he will be okay, whether at Backpackers or somewhere else. And he probably will, pushing on in his own way, hoping some good can grow in this African soil.