Saturday, October 1.
Three weeks ago, a speedboat full of Somali gunmen cruised into the narrow channel separating Kiwayu island from Kenya’s northern coast and landed on the beachfront of the $1,300-a-night Kiwayu Safari Village resort. The attackers burst into the bungalow of the resort’s only guests – a middle-aged couple from the UK – killing the husband and making off to Somalia with his wife before Kenyan security forces could respond. The attacks seemed to catch everybody off-guard, despite the fact that Somali pirates have been operating in East African waters for years, targeting large merchant ships whose crews would typically fetch ransom pay-offs worth millions of dollars. The resort, too, had had a troubled history: according to recently published news accounts, armed robbers – presumably from Somalia – had targeted KSV before.
I visited the resort in 2007, and it was remarkable in that understated way of East Africa’s best beach resorts. More remarkable was the fact that its location – on a narrow isthmus that gave it not one but two iconic no-need-to-Photoshop-this-puppy’s-photograph’s-cerulean-skies-and-seas tropical beachfronts – was just a few clicks south of the Somali border. With the benefit of hindsight, one could wonder how such a brazen attack hadn’t happened before. And if there was any consolation for worried hotel owners and tour operators in Lamu, it’s that Kiwayu Safari Village was in fact closer to Somalia than to Lamu itself.
Saturday morning, though, a second kidnapping in the archipelago turned the story into an escalating crisis. A Frenchwoman was snatched from her seafront home on Manda island, this time just a short boat ride across from Lamu’s Shella village – the exclusive ex-pat enclave where Princess Caroline of Monaco, among other glitterati, keeps a home. Hotel guests and villagers reportedly heard gunshots during the late-night attack; according to local news accounts, the woman – who was confined to a wheelchair – was dragged out onto the beach and unceremoniously flung into a boat that sped off as Kenyan security forces scrambled to give chase. The police were quicker to respond to this second attack, though word is that they were forced to borrow the boat of a local hotel owner because their own had an empty gas tank. They pursued the attackers throughout the day, exchanging gunshots as the kidnappers raced toward Somali waters. But the response fell short: despite the high-speed chase and aerial surveillance by a local pilot, the attackers vanished into the heavy forests around Ras Komboni in southern Somalia.
By late morning, news reports of the abduction seem to be playing on the radios of every taxi driver and barber in downtown Nairobi. Outside the Terminal Hotel, where I’ve come to meet a writer-friend who’s visiting from the States, the sidewalk philosophers are weighing in on the morning’s events. “Those things are spoiling our business,” says a taxi driver, leaning against his car with a rumpled copy of the day’s Standard. Mutters of agreement from other drivers, a shoe shiner, a fat man performing some ambiguous watchdog function outside the Terminal’s threshold. My writer’s pulse has been operating at a sickeningly high level since I heard the news this morning: somewhere in all this grim piratic news is, I suspect, a scoop that a certain travel writer should be able to cash in on. The congregation outside the Terminal moves on to meatier subjects: they parse the day’s headlines like some street-corner equivalent of Meet the Press. The current ICC hearings at the Hague are discussed and dissected, viewed with the sort of well-honed skepticism of a public who have come to expect so little of the men working the levers of power. Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta – believed to be one of the principal architects behind the post-election violence in 2008 – has been on the witness stand all week, and his performance is critiqued as if this were an Oscar jury debating best supporting roles. Kenyatta – cool and defiant throughout the week – has won no small measure of support in Nairobi. Pop-art graffiti, spray-painted silhouettes and slogans, is overtaking public spaces. Uhuru Pamoja. Uhuru Strong. Uhuru Hero. A voluble man is declaiming loudly in Kiswahili. “He says they don’t have any evidence and those ones are coming back,” explains a man beside me. “He doesn’t know what he is saying.” Another man, leaning forward as a rag does expert things to his loafers, wags a finger at the crowd. The ICC circus, he says, isn’t the usual political theater. “This is a starting,” he insists.
The volume grows, the debate degenerates. It’s broken up, as is so often the case in Kenya, with peals of laughter. Before we can take up the next topic my friend Frank has come down the stairs, smiling, hand extended for a big warm shake. It’s the first time we’re meeting face to face, after a few months of emails and the fortuitous timing of us both being in Nairobi this month. He’s arrived to spend a few weeks reporting around East Africa, and our talk, as is so often the case in our racket, is of the shop variety. Notes on magazines and editors are swapped; pay rates compared; contacts promised. There is something heartening in all this professional banter, as if I’m being reunited with the lost kin of some dwindling tribe. It is an article of faith among travel writers, I think, that few are the tears which are shed on our behalf. It’s nice to bitch without fear of being judged. Me and Frank knock back cold Tuskers at a pub overlooking Accra Road. A drunk man lurches up to us, asking over and over if we need a driver to show us the countryside.
The color and tumult of Nairobi street life. The sky is like a circus tent. Along River Road, along Lenata, the terrific crush of bodies, the white matatus lined up like a mouthful of rotten teeth. Receive more money when your loved one pays low fees. Hand-painted signs promising Instant Cash, Safaricom imploring us to Top Up Here (“Bamba Hapa!”). Guys in beat-up tennis shoes loitering outside Jack’s Communications & General Merchants, outside Vineyard Butchery (“Delicious food joint”) and Travellers Café (“Step in for delicious food”). Frank cleaves the crowds like the prow of a ship. A glamorous African woman on a billboard, her head tipped back, with the words Burudika na Coke written beside her long neck. Dream Hotel. Destiny Hotel. Texas Bar & Restaurant. Relax Pub & Restaurant (“Deep down refreshment”). Bright print dresses hanging from the balcony of New Blessed Fashions (“John: 14:14”), overlapping like the scales of an exotic fish. Sunlight paints the storefronts. Men in blue overalls are sorting through electrical supplies: piles of extension cords, 40W bulbs, outlet adapters, sockets. Ubiquitous signs offering mobile phone repairs. Coach buses idling, loading, their roofs like bazaars, women with dark sunken faces in states of long-suffering repose. Young men calling out destinations like carnival barkers. Kampala Coach. Crownline. Modern Coast. Spider. Sleep-deprived drivers willing to transport you to East Africa’s far-flung cities at budget prices. The swift promise of Dolphin Express. The aspirational Dreamline (“You Dream, We Fulfill”).
Frank, too, an old Africa hand, seems at home amid all this clamor. He taught English in northern Tanzania more than a decade ago; the last time he was in Nairobi, it was during the bad ol’ days of President Moi. He remembers eating dinner with his wife at Trattoria downtown; they were wolfing down their pomodoros and carbonaras at half-past five, eager to get back to the hotel before dark. Whenever I bump into travelers who remember Nairobi from the dark days of the ‘90s – when the nickname “Nairobbery” actually seemed fitting – they find it hard to reconcile their memories with the city they see today. So much of the seediness is gone, the sinister alleys, the twilight blanket that seemed to muffle city life. With afternoon fading to dusk, the downtown streets now are filled with weekend crowds. Soon the day-time tipplers watching English Premier League games on barroom TVs will give way to Saturday-night party-goers: guys with shoes shined to a military sheen, girls in spaghetti-string tops and hair that looks less styled than constructed. Taking a taxi back to Westlands, the head- and taillights along Waiyaki Way are like rivers of light. The city pulses in my temples, in my throat. I’ve been working my cell phone all afternoon, making plans for tonight. The radio is advertising a concert at the Carnivore – Shaggy, the American rapper Eve, some local acts. Duncan, my driver, tells me about a show a friend had once seen. A Jamaican reggae star was onstage, working up the crowd. Some of the women began to lose their composure. “The lady removed her underwear and threw it at the stage,” says Duncan, “and others followed the suit.” He says it with more than a hint of disapproval – not for married, church-going Duncan such carnal scenes. He has a studied, detached, almost anthropological interest in these things. “Rich people, they do every kind of nonsense,” he observes. Aware that such nonsense might not be altogether unappealing for certain foreigners, though, he offers to take me to Carnivore later in the night. “You will get the fun there,” he assures me. But I’ve already made my plans, I tell him. I will have to save the ladies’ undergarments for next time.
By twilight the terrace at Artcaffé is packed. It is a Westlands scene: tables of attractive young Indians, dolled-up Kenyan girls, pot-bellied Arabs, older white men with the ruddy faces and alpha-male demeanor of foreign correspondents. I had made plans in the afternoon to have drinks with Mercy, a local TV editor I’d met on my last visit to Nairobi in 2009, and she is already there when I arrive, a short, pretty, smiling girl in an orange dress clinging to a body whose curves I am being forced, after more than two years, to reappraise. We had met at a house party not far from where we’re now sitting, at the home of a BBC correspondent whose friends were a mix of Kenyan media personalities and foreign journalists. It was a side of Nairobi I’d never seen before, holed up at my backpackers across town watching pirated DVDs. That night, for the first time during two years of sporadic visits to Kenya, I could see myself calling Nairobi home. The party was long, and after we’d polished off the wine and hard liquor, we hit the popular strip of bars and nightclubs that’s Westlands’ equivalent of Mardi Gras. It was a beautiful, messy night, the dance floors crowded, the streets full of drunken revelers who preferred to drink six-packs and listen to music from the sidewalk than to pay the clubs’ cover charges. Toward the end of the night I was standing with Mercy on the balcony of one nightclub, watching the street traffic, our arms touching. I don’t remember what we talked about. We haven’t spoken in the two years since.
We’ve just ordered drinks at Artcaffé when her friend Lizzie arrives. They begin to gossip, speaking the universal feminine tongue of single urban girls in their 20s. Dates are dissected, prospects parsed. They hold their smartphones aloft like cocktails. It is not hard to attune yourself to the discontent of single girls in Nairobi. The city’s thriving talk radio scene is full of call-in shows where luckless women air their man problems. Women’s magazines, as with their Western equivalents, offer sex tips and relationship platitudes from women who are themselves, in all likelihood, single. Confusion seems to reign. A feature in the Daily Nation’s Saturday Magazine, trying to negotiate a new and unfamiliar landscape of sexual mores, observed that “the debate on chivalry, or the lack thereof, has turned into another battle of the sexes.” The underlying causes of all this sexual tumult, the seismic shifts in Kenyan society that have seen the rise of the modern, independent career woman in just the past one or two generations, are themselves worthy of a good book. Mercy and Lizzie, both single, sigh and sip their drinks. “There just aren’t any men in Nairobi,” says Mercy. Lizzie sits there, glumly nodding her head. Either the men are players, or they’re hitched and looking for something on the side. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that she and her friends are up to date on the relationship literature of the day, not a single one has found a good man. Most of her friends, Mercy says, prefer to date foreigners (presupposing a number of things about white guys which, as someone familiar with the species, I might not entirely agree with). Saturday nights are like trench warfare. The bar is a battlefield. I can picture these two attractive girls, standing in front of the mirror with their lipstick and eyeliner, armoring themselves like medieval knights.
Late in the night we arrive at New Florida, a seedy nightclub whose reputation for prostitutional bawdiness and low-rent hedonism is like a cross between Studio 54 and Caligula. The familiar lilt of some Jamaican roots reggae staple pulls us up the stairs; when we reach the club, sure enough, the girls inside all seem to be on the clock. Their heels are tall, their skirts are short, their breasts are like eager toddlers, desperately in search of your attention, admiration and approval. They circle the single guys like sharks to buckets of chum. The men are not unwitting participants in this sport and, it is safe to say, not here on first dates. A few incongruous couples take slow turns on the dance floor: septuagenarians shaking their surgically repaired hips off-beat, rubbing their ruined genitalia against girls who belong on magazine covers. Mercy, unperturbed, possibly blind, pays these tawdry scenes no mind (and, in fact, somehow manages to miss the fact that a Chinese guy in an expensive suit is literally balling a girl against one of the speakers). She has only brought me here for the Show – the weekly performances by like Cirque du Soleil cast-offs which, as we squeeze into a booth, are about to begin. A man sitting across from us is sandwiched between two girls whose combined ages are just a fraction of his own. You can only hope that the banquettes get a good scrubbing with a quality disinfectant at the end of each night. Needless to say that it doesn’t take much for the Show to draw our undivided attention.
It’s a marvelous spectacle, the air thick with manufactured smoke, the strobe lights strobing, the male dancers coming out and doing kicks and flips and grinning the high-wattage, shit-eating grins of professional figure skaters. It is like black Ice Capades, without the ice. A couple in poofy circus pants and Arabian Nights-style tops run through some fruity modern-dance motions, to scattered applause. Another troupe, from the Comoros islands, do some impossible things with their hips. The beats are wild, relentless – you half-wonder if the strobes haven’t sent a bunch of epileptic drummers into a fit. For the finale, three pairs of male-female dancers perform some increasingly X-rated routines, some of which include audience participation from the over-zealous and under-cliented prostitutes in the crowd. One woman does an impressive little acrobatic leap and wraps her legs around the neck of a muscular young man, who either pantomimes or performs actual cunnilingus on her. Genuine shows of appreciation from the audience. For one night, and in one corner of Nairobi, at least, the battle of the sexes seems to have reached a happy stalemate.