Friday, September 30.
The mornings start slow, the overcast AM skies like a blanket for me to curl up under. I’ve worn a groove into the snooze button on my alarm; something about my life seems so marginal, inconsequential. Lazy mornings spent over a Nescafe; my ambiguous quests downtown, searching for something elusive, unnamable. You see me standing on corners, motionless, watching with rapid eye movements like some predatory lizard in the American southwest. Absorbing with the peculiar osmosis I’ve developed through the years: my skin is like a sieve. And then, later, hunched over my laptop, a crimp in my neck, lavish outpourings of words for which I’ll earn not a single cent. It doesn’t take much prompting for me to wonder about my place in the world, these hours of self-immolation for a blog read by roughly .000001% of the planet’s population. I’m blowing off deadlines I blew off last week, and the week before. The decimal in my bank account has moved to a place I swore, not long ago, it’d never move to again.
These stresses, these vague longings, seem to be stitched into the fabric of this city for me. Every time I come back to Nairobi my life feels unfinished; the scaffolding still shows. Four years ago I pitched up at Papa Ken’s place, the dawn still a good way off, the birds testing the early-morning pulse of their throats. I sat in the yard with a mug of instant coffee, zipped into my fleece, watching the sky slowly brighten behind a curtain of clouds. Raindrops clung to the branches; the ground was covered in pine needles. Already I could hear the sounds of the city waking, the domestic clatter of pots and pans in distant kitchens, the first of so many African mornings in my life.
Four years later, so much of the early wonder is lost; my African childhood has entered its adolescence. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Coming back to Nairobi, my life here has deepened, my friendships have grown old, accumulated miles. Life has a depth; before, it was only surface, texture.
And so here is Khaleed – Khaleed of the impossible journey to Maralal, Khaleed of the novelty t-shirt I’d given him four years ago, to which he still alludes with great mirth and feeling – here’s Khaleed grinning, strutting, handsome and impossibly cocky, reaching out to actually pinch the cheek of a girl smiling his way. He steers us down Tom Mboya, the matatus packed end to end like the cars of a freight train. Like human cattle we’re herded in, pushed together, wedged into the seats with our knees pressed close to our chins. Khaleed, some four inches taller than me, does a few dexterous things with his feet to clear some leg room. A rusty screw keeps jabbing me in the knee. High-decibel, low-frequency hip-hop thrums; the seats vibrate. You can practically levitate from the sound. We clear the traffic of Tom Maboya, pitch over curbs and potholes, then get flung onto some broad, unpaved thoroughfare whose vehicles’ angles of trajectory cover every last degree of the circle’s 360. Which is to say cars and matatus and buses are all pointed at each other, drivers laying on the horns, something panicky and apocalyptic about the whole thing, like an invasion flick in those minutes between the first contact with a hostile alien species and the inevitable immolation of 98 percent of the world’s population. “There’s no rules here,” says Khaleed, laughing approvingly. The conductor leans way out the door, notes folded crisply and wedged between his knuckles, whistling high-pitched whistles to passersby. Someone gets grabbed and quickly bundled onto our still-moving vehicle, like an abduction. People are standing in the narrow aisle, inching around for space. “These ones like money too much,” says Khaleed, pointing his chin at the conductor. More and more passengers are getting packed in. A man on a bicycle is improbably weaving through the traffic, his face frozen with this maniacal, self-destructive grin. A shell-shocked student of the Glory Driving School sits with his hands at ten and two.
The traffic begins to thin, grows coherent. Now we are just a single lane of busted Third-World vehicles, crawling along, surrounded by the tumult and bedlam of Nairobi’s rougher precincts. The Fast Moving Shop – Dealers in Buying and Selling Things. Blue Hut Club. Light rain is falling. A woman boards, holding a plastic bag over her head. Whispering Café. Wooden dukas, mottled and stripped, endlessly painted and repainted. Something familiar about the road we’re driving down – I remember it from my last visit to Faiz’s place in Eastleigh, two years ago. “You have such a good memory,” says Khaleed. “You’re eating a lot of watermelons, huh?” We turn down a narrow, rocky road, bicycles and schoolchildren scattering from our path. More dukas, selling fruits and airtime, plastic sandals, bars of chalky soap. A man sits on a bench, working at a pair of shoes with what looks like an icepick. Chicken coops. The matatu wobbles from side to side. Khaleed points to the passenger sitting in the front seat. “When you sit in the front you pay less money, because you help the driver in holding the side mirror,” he says. I cannot tell if this is a joke. We reach our stage; the matatu empties. Side-stepping puddles, more dukas, tin shacks, a woman roasting corn over a charcoal grill. We buy two cobs, squeeze a lime over them, dip them in red pepper. “Cheers,” Khaleed says, knocking our cobs together.
The streets of Pangani are lined with boxy concrete apartment blocks, children in school uniforms spilling from all the doorways. Suddenly, in front of one building, a familiar face: it is Khaleed’s older brother, Jaffar, tall and wiry with little bristles of moustache scratching at his upper lip. He gives me a warm embrace: it’s been three years since we last met, in Maralal. He’s newly arrived in Nairobi, staying with his brothers, looking for work. He takes me by the wrist and guides me up the stairs, women in headscarves smiling, watching from the doorways. When we reach Faiz’s door Khaleed parts a curtain. “Guess who I found?” he says. Faiz comes out to greet me, smiling, arms out wide, hugging me close to his chest. He has filled out, an extra couple of inches of padding around the midsection, and much ribbing commences at how good married life has been to him. It’s hardly been six months since his wedding day, yet he looks healthy, vigorous, competently aged: a budding paterfamilias. Aisha, his wife, a pretty, short, demure young woman, comes out of the kitchen, extending a hand. She is from the coast; her skin is pale, her eyes big and luminous. Behind her comes her mother – a taller, older version of the same – in town from Mombasa for the week. One whiff of the smells coming out of the kitchen is enough to explain Faiz’s extra pounds: the culinary reputation of the coast, with its Arab and Indian inflections, its exotic spices, is legendary. Holding Aisha’s hand, giving Faiz a big pat on the stomach, I comment on how well he’s chosen his bride. Aisha laughs big and brightly, hides her smile with her hand. “Karibu, karibu,” she says, welcoming me into her home. Faiz leads me into the living room with his arm around my shoulder.
The place still looks unfinished, just-moved-into. The living room is furnished with two sofas and an armchair and abundant throw pillows. There’s a wall-sized entertainment console with a Samsung flat-screen TV and DVD player. A small picture of Mecca engraved with Arabic script adorns one wall. The place is a big step up from the last apartment Faiz shared with Khaleed, in Eastleigh. (Ahmed, the youngest of the brothers, has since moved down from Maralal to take his place.) We arrange ourselves on the furniture and the floor, laughing, joking, catching up on two years’ worth of gossip. Every few minutes there is a knock at the door, and some new well-wisher – a distant cousin, a friend from Maralal – arrives to join the rapidly growing party. The smells from the kitchen are growing richer, more complex. Faces, both familiar and un-, poke into the doorway. I ask Faiz why I still haven’t seen pictures of his wedding (only Khaleed, a rising media star and world-class pussy hound, is an avid Facebook user). Quickly he jumps to his feet and pops in a DVD, the screen going blue before the climactic chase scene of some low-rent action flick that’d been playing in the background while we talked.
Music, strains of taarab, bright graphics with Faiz and Aisha’s names written in ornate script. Images of the happy couple appear, merging and spinning and melting away with the ostentatious visual effects so beloved by East African wedding-video producers. The photo montages give way to a scene from Mombasa on the eve of the wedding day; the female relations – magnificently dressed, hair piously covered, their hands and arms mapped with intricate henna designs – are arranged in a semi-circle outdoors, singing, banging out rhythms on cow horns in the tradition of their coastal tribe. It is the married women who perform; their single sisters and daughters sit on the ground, singing along, pulling at the loose ends of their headscarves. Faiz says he spent that day quietly, with his brothers and close friends, counting the hours of his waning bachelorhood.
The video cuts to the inside of the hall where the reception is being held. The sexes are kept separate: here it is just the men, a hundred at least, sitting barefoot and cross-legged on the floor, laughing, scooping up handfuls of biryani which the cameraman had shown just moments before being stirred in vats roughly the size of Oldsmobiles. Faiz, the nervous bridegroom, sits resplendent at the front of the hall, wearing the dress of the Omani Arabs from which East Africa’s Swahili people are descended: a brocaded vest and turban, loose-fitting pants, a decorative sword sheathed in front of him. “I look like the king of Morocco,” he says. (Khaleed, less magnanimously: “He looks like Al Shabaab.”) More panning shots as waiters circle the room with large serving trays, close-ups of Faiz solemnly conferring with the imam, the father of the bride stroking his fat, well-fed tummy.
Almost on cue, Aisha’s bare feet come padding into the living room. A plastic sheet is laid across the carpet, and we sit down to a great communal tray of pilau with mutton and roast potatoes, bowls of piri piri sauce and spicy kachumbari. Fresh mango juice is poured. It’s as if Aisha has brought the life of the coast with her. We ball the pilau and mutton with our fingers, stuff it into our maws. Already I’ve made a mess. Faiz asks if I’d like to use a spoon, but he knows, from past meals, that I prefer to downplay my white ineptitude: I’ll do my best. The action onscreen has moved to the women’s reception. Puffy, sweating faces are arranged in long rows; a few ceiling fans whir, but I’ve felt the terrible heat and humidity of the coast: I know these fans are mostly ornamental. At the front of the hall, two dozen women dance in a circle, round and round in a sort of Swahili conga line, lifting their henna’d hands to the sky. Well-wishers rush forward, pinning money to the mother of the bride’s dress. Khaleed begins to assess the girls in the crowd. The video is paused, rewound, played in slow motion. Certain blurs are studied and debated. It is clear this is not the first time the boys have used Faiz’s wedding video as a kind of dating website. “We have all their numbers,” says a cousin, asking if any of the girls have piqued my interest. “We can call straight away.”
The meal is cleared, and we recline in a post-prandial stupor, staring at the ceiling, scratching our bellies. Faiz turns off the wedding video and puts on a VCD of music videos: reggae from Kingston, hip-hop from Brooklyn, genge from the slums of Nairobi. We bob our heads slowly, sleepily, conversation drifting in and out of the music. We are far past the point in our friendship where things need to be said. Before long the doorbell rings: a young guy in a puffy jacket and cocked Yankees cap arrives, carrying a plastic bag. He pulls out two plastic-wrapped bricks and tosses them across the room. He is the guys’ miraa dealer, delivering the equivalent of two dime bags to the party for 1,000 shillings a pop. Jaffar, a particular aficionado, begins picking at the stems, parceling them out into smaller serving-sizes. I reminisce with the others about a night out in Maralal, Jaffar at the Nest, a local nightclub, working his jaws like a hungry goat while the miraa worked its narcotic properties on him. I pantomime the movement of his jaws, the bug-eyed look he got when he suddenly popped up and stormed the dancefloor like a Borana cattle-raider. Everyone laughs. The boys begin to rib him. Soon the talk turns serious. Jaffar has just arrived from Maralal two weeks ago, but he’s distressed, he hasn’t been able to find work. He is ready to pack up and go home. The boys’ mother – working back-channels through the other brothers – is trying to dissuade him. There are no jobs in Maralal, no eligible young women for him to marry. If he returns, he’ll spend his time sitting around with his friends, chewing miraa, dreaming of nothing. At least here in Nairobi, he has a chance to find a job, a wife. I can picture the boys’ mother – stout, kindly, fiercely protective of her children – sitting in her kitchen and literally wringing her hands. Jaffar sits there stoically, tying the miraa stems in tight bundles, saying nothing. His jaw is going through complex motions. Eventually everyone lays off him. I can tell they’ve had this talk many times before.
The family’s fortunes, rising and falling, divvied up between a daughter and five sons, have a sort of epic quality. I can imagine such a story being written in 19th-century London or St. Petersburg. Faiz tells me he’s thinking of reviving his political career here in Nairobi. When we’d met on the truck to Maralal all those years before, he’d been planning to run for local council. (The other passengers called him “councilor,” though it was an election he eventually lost.) Now he wants to do something for the marginalized communities of Eastleigh: the countless Somalis, the Samburu, the Swahili tribes from the coast. There is a year until the next election, but it’s impossible for him to say what his chances are. “If I lose in Eastleigh, I have to go to Libya,” he says, laughing.
The rain has finally stopped; the street outside has turned to mud, puddles like crater lakes. Wet newspapers, ears of corn, empty milk cartons. Faiz has called a friend, a taxi driver, to take me home. The brothers pile into the car with me: despite the traffic, they will drive all the way and then back to Pangani, refusing my attempts to pay even a single shilling. We join the slow procession into town, the thrum of matatus, the chorus of horns. Fried chicken joints on every corner, men grilling meat in the open air. A Babel of radio voices – DJs, rappers, guests on call-in shows – stretch a cocoon of sound over the city. Nairobi, Friday night. By the time we’ve reached downtown my pulse has quickened: surely there’s time for a drink at Simmer’s, at Club Soundz? Not for the first time do I remember the Lonely Planet’s warnings about downtown Nairobi which I’d memorized so many years ago, how “the whole city center takes on a deserted and slightly sinister air.” Guidebook writers still seem to be living in the Moi era, the rampant violence and criminality of a different chapter in this city’s book. Kenyatta Avenue is packed: guys in crisp shirts and pressed slacks, girls wobbling on impossibly tall heels. Neon from the SunRise Casino. Taillights refracting through the streaky windshield. Wipers going at half-tilt, the city lights like halos and shooting stars.