Category Archives: Uncategorized

More blasts in Kigali.

On the heels of today’s post about the latest intrigues in Rwanda, reports are coming in tonight about one or more blasts in Kigali. Nothing more than unconfirmed rumors by text and tweet, but will try to update more as soon as possible. My friend @kigaliwire on Twitter has been on top of the latest reports.

Lessons from Tanzania: electoral edition

Idi Amin and Joseph Mobutu, looking for babies to eat

Rwanda, 1994

Yesterday I met a Tanzanian man who was visiting Burundi as part of an East African Community delegation. It is always interesting to talk politics with Tanzanians, since theirs is the only country in this troubled region that has remained virtually peaceful and stable since independence. Credit the late Julius Nyerere – the country’s first president, and one of the continent’s most venerated statesmen – with leading Tanzania out of the colonial era and forging a single national identity from more than 120 disparate tribes. Sure, his collectivist utopian idea to, er, relocate millions of Tanzanians into cooperative “ujamaa” villages might have wreaked havoc on the national economy, destroyed the agricultural sector, and claimed thousands of lives. But when compared to some of the monstrous ogres of post-independence Africa which surrounded them – think arap Moi’s Kenya, Idi Amin’s Uganda, the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, and pretty much everything that’s happened in the Congo – Tanzanians can be forgiven for thinking they got off easy.

(This fascinating article from TIME magazine in 1975 examines the failures of ujamaa en media res. It includes this remarkable quote from Nyerere, who was faced with the realization that farm outputs had declined drastically, just as drought loomed.

“We have no money and we have exhausted our foreign reserves,” he declared. “If we do not have adequate rains, we will be faced with serious famine in which people will die.”)

Yet despite the failures of ujamaa, Nyerere is like the Johnny Carson of African politics. “Mwalimu” – “teacher” in Kiswahili – was Mandela before Mandela. He supported the “freedom fighters” struggling for black majority rule across southern Africa, led the route that drove Idi Amin from power, and, after formally retiring from politics, was a prime factor in nudging along Burundi’s peace process before dying in 1999.

When he stepped down in 1985, he became just the third post-independence African leader to give up power without a fight.

Nyerere and Castro, doing some socialist socializing

Odd, then, to compare the venerable Nyerere with the ruling party thugs who managed to seize power here in Burundi – and who almost certainly won’t bow out graciously should the votes not go their way this summer. Mwalimu dedicated his final years to securing peace in Burundi; and yet it was the CNDD-FDD rebels – rebels who stubbornly refused to take part in the Arusha peace process over which Nyerere presided – who ultimately seized the reins of a new, post-war Burundi.

Beyond the thuggery up top, Burundians themselves are still adjusting to the realities – and demands – of multiparty democracy. Votes are still bought and bartered for with a sort of Tammany Hall-era crudeness. The very idea of accountability – of holding elected officials to their campaign promises – is in its infant stages. The ethnic card is still played on a regular basis.

My Tanzanian friend shakes his head as he looks at the challenges.

“In Tanzania, if they believe you are going to support a particular tribe, they will get rid of you,” he says.

Here was Tanzania, ruled by the same party since independence, fretting over corruption, propped up by the crutch of foreign aid, facing food shortages and power shortages, looking, at times, worse off than the country Nyerere inherited in 1961 – here was Tanzania, in whatever stage of democratic evolution, stumbling along the right path. It was a model for Burundi to aspire to.

“People want to know about your policies,” my Tanzanian friend says of his countrymen. “If you tell them, ‘I am going to build tarmac roads all across Tanzania,’ they say, ‘Good. Now where are you going to get the money?'”

In Burundi, the follow-up question is: now that you’ve got the money, who’s going to steal it?

First you salsa; then you coup.

It is 8:15am in Burundi right now, which means the government has had a good 12 hours or so to doctor its story regarding last night’s alleged foiled coup. I would like to say I’ve been diligently burning the midnight oil, working the phones and probing trusted sources for all the juicy details. Sadly, this has not been the case. Instead I’ve spent the better part of the past 12 hours at Le Kasuku’s salsa night, lending further credence to the time-tested wisdom that a good salsa, like a good coup, is all in the hips.

Little breaking news to report so far. Early reports, according to the BBC, uncovered a dubious plot of ambiguous provenance.

Thirteen soldiers in Burundi have been arrested for plotting a coup to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza, the army chief of staff has said.

Major Gen Godefroid Niyombare said the 12 soldiers and one officer had been caught in a meeting near Lake Tanganyika earlier on Friday.

Investigations were ongoing and more arrests should be expected, he added.

Opposition candidate Alexis Sinduhije, as I noted last night, was wary of where those investigations might lead.

“They are going to arrest me again,” he said. “They are going to arrest me and say Alexis has plotted to overthrow the government. They have been working on something to destroy the whole parties.

“Everyone is calling me. They think we are targeted.”

The popular wisdom around the bar last night held that the coup plot was cooked up by anxious ruling party cadres desperate for an opposition leader to pin it on. At least one cheeky ex-pat – who may or may not have been this reporter – suggested we start a betting pool on which presidential hopeful would be behind bars before the weekend was through. He also recommended, given this country’s troubled history, that a new term – beaucoup d’etat – be introduced into the political lexicon to describe a country in which the military coup has supplanted the democratic election as the preferred means of transition.

On-the-ground reports here in Bujumbura, meanwhile, have provided the sort of levity that only a failed coup can provide. There was the much recycled rumor that the alleged plotters were arrested in pirogues – i.e., dug-out canoes – in Lake Tanganyika. (“We don’t do coups by water,” said one Burundian.) Then there was the claim made by at least two ex-pats that the Minister of Defense was seen boozing at a Chinese restaurant with the Chinese ambassador, a full two hours after details of the alleged coup surfaced. This is, you have to admit, a funny way to react to a coup.

I will be following the latest news – no, seriously – throughout the day, and should have a better sense of where things stand some time this afternoon. Also, for what it’s worth, I would like to note that I broke the coup story on Twitter a good 20 minutes or so before the BBC. I suppose that makes me the no. 1 trusted news source for stories you care nothing about.

I went all the way to Burundi and all I got was this lousy failed coup.

Word is still trickling in about the arrests of 12 soldiers and one officer involved in an alleged coup plot tonight in Burundi. I have heard nothing but skepticism so far around town. One analyst texted me: “Weird and staged thing.” Another: “Staged – almost certainly.”

More arrests, according to the BBC report, are still forthcoming. President Nkurunziza, it seems, continues to tighten his grip.

I just got off the phone with Alexis Sinduhije, the opposition candidate.

“They are going to arrest me again,” he said. “They are going to arrest me and say Alexis has plotted to overthrow the government.”

If you’re in Paris, you gotta see the fuckin’ Louvre.

These last days in Nairobi have taken a turn for the surreal, with Papa Ken’s mind unraveling, and an odd cast of characters popping in to bear witness to the inevitable demise of Backpackers.

Ken shows up one afternoon, having been discharged from the hospital with what passes for a clean bill of health in Kenya. Despite the damage done to his brain and liver by years of alcohol abuse, the doctors had no immediate reason to keep him around. (His brother John, meanwhile, visibly worn down by the ordeal of these past two months, couldn’t continue to justify a hospital tab that was costing him a cool €200-a-night.) A week after checking into the loony bin, Ken struts back through the front gate of Backpackers, pours himself a stiff drink, and asks why no one’s bothered to keep an eye on the fucking fire. There’s a salubrious gloss to his cheeks; the gin blossoms on his nose are in full bloom. In his eyes is the glint of a madman in that split second before he drops his pants, stuffs his dick into the Thanksgiving turkey, and asks grandma to pass the gravy.

Two days later, frail old Colin returns from his stint in Aga Khan Hospital, looking for all the world like he got up from the autopsy table before they had a chance to tell him he was dead. Dry blood is crusted to the tip of his nose, dead skin flakes from his forehead, and he’s giving off a musty, unwashed odor. In the morning his cough rattles from one of the bandas out back, and he shuffles into the yard – topless, shivering, his skin the color of candle wax – with a little nub of cigarette pinched between his fingers – a picture that probably won’t help Backpackers’ reputation as “the place to be in Africa.”

Later in the week, in perhaps the strangest twist yet, a ruddy old retiree from Portland arrives, fresh off a stint in Southeast Asia and an overland tour from Cape Town. He greets me by the bar with a booming, “Howdy!” giving the impression that this Tusker is hardly the day’s first. He asks me where I’m from.

“Brooklyn!” he says. “I took a bus across Brooklyn back in 1968. I met a chick from Levittown, so I stayed with her a few weeks. Then I went up to Bennington, because the chicks were easier and had more money. Two days later the crew from Penthouse magazine shows up. It was like a commune there, so they took pictures of us running naked across the field, and they took pictures of our teepee.

“We had a lot of sex in there,” he adds.

What David paints in the ensuing minutes is a series of portraits that would fit neatly into a gallery of Things You’d Rather Not See With Your Own Eyes, Ever, Even if You Had to Gouge Them Out With a Rusty Soupspoon. He tells us about sexcapades in Saigon and orgies in Auckland (“the ugliest, most expensive prostitutes of anyplace – except for Sydney”). He offers more grim snapshots from his hippie days. He even gives a long, rambling soliloquy about his erotic adventures in Malaysia, where the joys of retirement revealed themselves in all their Priapic glory.

“I knew I had it good when I was sitting in a bar in Kuala Lumpur. I’m eating Texas barbeque, drinking a Dutch beer, sitting in a reggae bar – in Chinatown – in Kuala Lumpur. And this Thai girlie-boy comes up to me and offers me a massage. And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’”

He grins mischievously and adds, “When in Rome.”

It would’ve taken a particularly randy Roman to top David’s exploits. What unfolded in the hours that followed was largely lost in a boozed-up haze; fortunately, he was left in his hotel room with a keepsake the next morning.

“I woke up with a picture of this Thai girlie-boy standing there – he had a really nice set of tits – and of course all his plumbing’s hanging out. I’m standing next to him with my arm around him. And on my left shoulder, there’s a fuckin’ iguana.”

At which point I start to wonder if his last acid trip ever really ended.

It’s been a strange coincidence to have this free-wheeling, free-balling former hippie roll in at the exact moment that Ken’s life has unraveled. Just a year ago, David sold his glassworks factory in Portland and took off for this round-the-world jaunt – a bold leap of faith for a guy who’d never left North America in his 59 years. At every turn in the road, he seems to be having the time of his life. He marvels at the discovery of Hellman’s mayonnaise so far from home, and cheerfully scratches himself at the breakfast table while explaining, “Yeah, I’m still getting over this – whaddyoucallit? – crotch rot I picked up in Saigon.” Seeing David – Ken’s senior by just a few months – thrilling at all the improbable twists and turns in the road of life is like seeing Ken’s luckless years distorted in a funhouse mirror. And for a few days, it feels like we’ve all piled on for the ride, as David goes shopping for whores at Annie Oakley’s and talks about his New Year’s plans for Paris.

“I’m meeting this English chick I met in Thailand,” he says. “But if you’re in Paris, you gotta see the fuckin’ Louvre.”

Almost on cue, a young Parisian arrives the next day – a dreamy-eyed kid in baggy trousers and a chocolate-colored vest who looks sort of like a cross between Baudelaire and Barnum & Bailey. He spends a few days sitting morose and handsome by the fire, scribbling in a bound notebook and staring abstractedly into the middle distance. One afternoon, wholly unprovoked, he takes a few bowling pins out of his bag and starts juggling in the yard. He explains that he’s come to Kenya to start a partnership with a Tanzanian friend – a young acrobat he met in Arusha a few months ago. He tells me they’re going to start touring the country, teaching circus skills to kids in the slums.

“Um,” I say.

He’s hoping to make his way to the coast, where he’ll juggle his way into the hearts of local hotel owners, entertaining their guests in exchange for a free bed. Once he’s made some connections in the area, he suspects he’ll be able to raise funds for his Street Kid Juggling Initiative. This all strikes him as plausible, necessary, and not at all ridiculous. The only hitch is getting to the coast, since he’s come to Kenya with all of €100 to his name. He shrugs his frail shoulders and makes a whimsical face, as if to suggest that he might just hitch a ride on a red balloon tugged by candy-colored unicorns. Then he juggles his little heart out in the yard, to the delight, amazement and astonished joy of absolutely no one.

Oscar’s been a welcome addition to Backpackers, if only because he’s given me the perfect opportunity to shake my head bitterly and say, “You know, this place is turning into a real fucking circus.” One night, watching football at Annie Oakley’s, he tells me that – through a marvelous stroke of luck – he’s managed to find a way to the coast. I tell him that’s really swell. He says he had a long heart-to-heart with Papa Ken the night before, and the old codger’s promised to fly the two of them out to Mombasa the next day. After Ken’s put the finishing touches on the latest in a long string of imaginary hotel acquisitions, he’ll introduce Oscar to his connections on the coast.

“I think that Ken knows many, many people,” he says.

“Creditors,” I agree.

I heave a mighty sigh and give poor Oscar a frank look and say, “Listen.” I explain that Ken has a teensy problem with making promises he can’t keep. I explain that many of his big, crazy ideas are – according to at least two former guests who worked in the medical industry – symptoms of dementia. I explain that he drinks too much, owes too much money, and would probably need Livingston, Stanley and a hundred-strong expedition of hearty natives to tell his ass from his elbow. Oscar scratches the stubble on his chin and nods carefully and stares off at absolutely nothing. Finally I say, “Oscar, look, I’m really sorry, but I wouldn’t believe anything at all that Papa Ken says. And I wouldn’t plan on going to Mombasa tomorrow.”

It’s at exactly this moment that the hope in his eyes flickers, diminishes, and dies. He leans forward and solemnly takes a few long pulls on his cigarette. There’s a weighty silence between us. Then he leans back, his eyes aglint with defiance, and says,

“You know, when I was in Paris, and I told my friends that I was coming to Africa, they told me I was crazy. They thought I just had these big crazy ideas. But sometimes” – eyes shining – “people need to have big ideas.”

“That’s great,” I say. “That really is. Just don’t pack your bags.”

Sure enough, when I see him juggling in the yard the next day, his one-ring circus has inched no closer to Mombasa. He sees me and makes embarrassed eye contact and does what can only be described as some really vengeful juggling. It’s a few hours before Papa Ken finally rolls out of bed. His benders have grown especially fierce this past week, and there’s a sense that even he knows – in some dim corner of his drink-addled mind – that the end is nigh.

When he gets up late in the day, there’s a pretty, groggy young Kenyan girl rubbing her eyes behind him. It’s the first time any of us have seen him with a prostitute, and it seems like a particularly dire omen. That night, by the fire, he introduces her to the staff and guests. She’s poured into a pair of jeans and tottering on pencil-thin heels; her hair is an unruly mess. Colin, coughing and wheezing into his tea, his face a pale rictus of suffering, reaches up and shakes her hand and says politely, “How do you do?” The hospital tag is still hanging from his wrist. After five months in Africa, this might be the most remarkable thing I’ve witnessed.

Things continue to degenerate throughout the week. The next morning there are three different prostitutes smoking cigarettes around the breakfast table. The staff has taken to angrily sulking around the yard, looking at Ken with undisguised scorn when he stumbles out of bed with his girls. Most of the employees haven’t been paid in close to two months, and when they confront him with this fact, he offers a baroque explanation involving funds trapped in his bank in England.

“I’ve got the bloody money to pay you,” he says, laughing nervously, “but the bloody bank is in England! How am I supposed to get the money out of a bank in England?”

A few of us suggest – in no particular order – an ATM, a wire transfer, or a goddamn carrier pigeon. Ken gets flustered and asks Morgan for a drink and stomps across the yard.

One morning the auctioneers arrive in a massive flat-bed truck. They take the computers and the TV, the DVD player and the refrigerator; they stack the lawn chairs and carry the tables, one by one, across the yard. They even go through the scrap metal out back and start dismantling one of the trucks. A big, bald, cheerless guy is scribbling in a notebook and punching figures into a calculator. Ken, sloshing a glass of cheap wine, flashes me a grin and gives a thumbs-up.

“They’re just taking the things we don’t need anymore,” he explains to the staff. “Let them take it! I’m doing them a favor!” He makes a shooing motion with the back of his hand. “ With this money, we’ll have the rent paid for another year. For two years!”

I look at the prehistoric PCs and the rusted, dented refrigerator and figure there’s just enough to cover the two months of rent he already owes. Some of the employees have walked out. The others sit around the fire, laughing bitterly and rolling their eyes when Ken mentions the new hotel he’s acquired in Zurich.

The next day he’s all smiles in the office. He’s brandishing a printout from FreeLotto.com, his name highlighted beside a $25,000 cash prize (“Status: Pending”), between Raymond Simpson of Temple Hills, MD (“PAID”) and Dorothy Morris of Oak Hills, IL (“PAID”). He has the high color of inspiration and drink as he prods us to marvel at this improbable stroke of luck. Backpackers, he exults, is back in business. The money is just waiting to be collected at the Posta. By the end of the day he has half-a-dozen printouts stacked on the corner of his desk. In just one frenzied afternoon, he explains, he’s won the lotto seven times over. Things are getting – even by Backpackers’ standards – a bit ridiculous. When someone corners Ken and offers to take him to the Posta, he mumbles something about having to get his ID from the apartment. He disappears for hours, coming back after midnight, angry and drunk. He tells a new arrival that she has to pay for the night in advance, threatening to kick her out unless she forks over Ksh550. Joost gives him 200 bob so he can buy himself a whiskey next door. At this point, neither of us expects Backpackers to make it through the week.

The crisis reaches its denouement one sunny afternoon, when Ken gathers the few remaining staff in the yard. They sit on lawn chairs and bar stools – the few pieces of furniture the auctioneers were good enough to leave behind – beside two stocky, middle-aged women in wigs and lycra pants. After a long, unconvincing monologue about the hostel’s future prospects, Ken introduces the two prostitutes – “my dear old friends” – and explains, “I want you all to meet the new managers.” The women flash embarrassed smiles and look nervously at the ground. One even stands on her clunky plastic shoes and gives a little half-bow to the crowd.

There’s a long, awkward silence as this new reality sets in. Finally, one of the mechanics pulls off his sunglasses, his eyes simmering, and says, “Ken, this is shit.”

With those four words, and with frightful force, months of pent-up rage and humiliation suddenly burst through the levees. For all their sulky acceptance throughout this improbable saga, the employees have finally had enough. Papa Ken, like a blundering Caesar, has crossed the Rubicon into a place of dire uncertainty. He stands lonesome in the yard, surrounded by a dozen angry men, pointing their fingers and demanding their money. And he has no idea what to do.

Credit the old guy’s nerve: he decides to take a principled stand, insisting that he’s the owner and they have no right to question his financial decisions. He spins on his heels and stomps indignantly into the office, but there’s a wild terror in his eyes. Before he’s even reached the stairs they’re fast behind him, hurling abuse and repeating an angry chorus: “Give us our money.”

In the office, cowering behind his desk, Ken has nowhere to turn. He holds up a few FreeLotto.com printouts and makes a half-hearted plea for more time, but no one budges. He says there’s money in the bank; then he mentions money owed by the landlord, by friends. Willie – a tall, fierce kid from Kibera in soiled overalls – slaps the desk with such force that he sends a pile of papers flying.

“Ken, we want our money,” he says. “Give us our money.”

Ken’s eyes drift around the room – they even try, fleetingly, to appeal to mine – before a clear, terrible, lucid light ignites them. For months we’ve watched his delusions stretch and grow; we’ve watched his lies contort and shift shapes; we’ve watched him spin myths of self-grandeur from thin air. But here, in all its horrible clarity, is the sight of a man finally overrun by his own sanity. Papa Ken has run out of lies – even to himself.

He regains his composure and offers to go down to the Posta to collect his FreeLotto winnings. There’s a sad stoop to his shoulders, and it’s not the first time that I feel bad for the poor old fool, in spite of it all. No one offers to go along to the Posta with him; partly, I suspect, there’s an embarrassment to see this train wreck through to the bitter end. Once the gate closes behind him, the mood lightens. The air is bright, crackling, exultant. We offer congratulatory handshakes and slap each other’s backs, reenacting Ken’s panicked flight into the office. There’s little doubt that if and when Ken returns, he’ll only have more lies to show for his absence. But for a few soaring hours, in what’s left of this tragicomic place called Backpackers, everyone has something to be proud of.

Sportsmen never give up.

Back in Nairobi, I’m saying my goodbyes and tying up loose ends – a process that, after nearly five months in Kenya, will take the better part of the next week. There are endless commiserations with the staff at Backpackers, who have watched the place’s slow decline these past few months with the boundless, long-suffering patience of your average Kenyan. There are doctors’ visits and souvenir binges and free-flowing Tusker with the whores at Annie Oakley’s (“The Place To Be”). It’s a sad end to this long, unexpected odyssey. While countless adventures undoubtedly await in Uganda, I’ve grown attached to Kenya in ways I didn’t predict when I first showed up in July, hell-bent on making it out of Nairobi as quickly as possible, preferably in one piece. Now, oddly at home in Nairobi, I’m steeling myself for whatever unexpected twists and turns might beckon on the road ahead.

One afternoon I meet with Peter, the young footballer I last saw with his overmatched squad getting chased off the pitch in Naivasha. We’ve sent each other periodic updates these past few months, his terse emails charting the anxious path most Kenyans follow in their rootless lives. He’d lost his job in Naivasha – despite a contract with a team in the country’s National Division, he worked as a laborer five days a week – but rather than returning to his home in Kitale, he packed his bags for Nairobi. There he found some space with a cousin living in Eastlands – the poor counterpart to Nairobi’s tony Westlands area – where he again joined the hunt for work. He’d had and lost a job; he was briefly ill, but was now fortunately on the mend. In his last email, he passed along his friend’s phone number:

am still pushing life here in Nairobi,unfortunelty my phone ceased i have diverted to my friends number. his able to get me any time u arrive in Nairobi.i hope to see you soon have a good day,my friendsname is kings

When I meet him downtown, a slight figure in a loose-fitting jersey and a crisp pair of jeans, he clasps my hand and hugs me twice, in the Kenyan manner. His friend – stocky, bald, slightly nervous – smiles cautiously and walks a few steps behind us. They take me back to their place in Eastlands, a half-hour walk that will spare us the horrors of Nairobi traffic. The cars and buses and dusty matatus are backed up for miles down Tom Mboya, exhaust billowing and tires spinning in the mud. The rains have been heavy these past few days; there are wide brown puddles in the buckled tarmac, women stepping cautiously in their open-toed shoes. The guys take me down muddy side-streets, dirt roads lined with wooden dukas and clucking roosters and pantless kids chirping “How are you? How are you?” from the doors of their tin-roofed homes. Men sell pots and pans and corrugated sheets and piles of rusty scrap metal on the street. They stoop in the mud, hammering, banging, sawing: a raw, cacophonous soundtrack, an aria of sorrow. Gruff guys in worn sports jackets set up shine boxes on the side of the road, squatting on a thin patch of grass surrounded by gravel and trash and sludge.

We pass rows of government housing, poured-concrete barracks with colorful shirts and church dresses flapping on the lines outside. Peter explains that these are choice apartments, largely subsidized and available for under Ksh1,500 – about twenty-three US bucks – a month. They’re painted bright orange and blue and decorated with advertisements for Dimbo vegetable oil and Crown pens. We pass burning piles of garbage and old men lying on the ground with their crutches beside them, begging for change. Everywhere there’s smoke, rags, plastic bags full of vegetable scraps, empty bottles, animal bones, excrement. Crying kids, screeching kids, kids with mud and snot and porridge crusted to their smiling faces.

We tramp down a few narrow, muddy alleys close to their apartment. Women recline on blankets, selling tomatoes and potatoes and yellow blocks of vegetable fat for cooking. Some heat pots of chai they sell for Ksh10 a mug, or tend to unnamable porridges and stews spooned out into tin bowls. The air is musty, heavy with the smell of rain and trash; rivers of filthy water flow down the streets. This is home: Blue Estate, so named because the walls and roofs of these narrow tin shacks are painted a bright, optimistic shade that mimics a cloudless sky. Kings swings a heavy metal door open and welcomes me into his pad, a single room about the size of my old college dorm, hemmed in by walls of corrugated tin. Another cousin, Joseph, is sitting on the edge of his bed, buttoning a crisp white dress shirt.

“Welcome to the ghetto,” he says with a laugh, then points to the wall, where the words “Ghettoh life” have been scrawled with black marker. Beneath them, optimistically, is written another message: “Sportsmen never give up.” There’s a single bed and a beat-up couch and a couple of laundry lines criss-crossing the room. Peter clears some space for me on the sofa, and we sit and talk about football and work and his girlfriend in the Ukraine.

“I want to show you,” he says, pulling a pile of yellowed Polaroids from a manila envelope tucked under the cushions. For the next ten minutes we look through the pictures, Peter watching my face with a faint, anxious smile. He shows me his girlfriend, standing demurely in a yard in Kitale, her hair elaborately knotted and wrapped around her head. “She’s very pretty,” I say. He glows. He shows me pictures of his mother – a stocky, no-nonsense woman with a look of frank disapproval etched onto her face. He shows me brothers and uncles gathered around a tractor, cousins in graduation gowns, sisters and friends dancing at a party. He shows me his different football squads through the years: a village team in knock-off England kits, a secondary-school squad in bright yellows and greens. There’s a picture of a younger Peter in front of a school building, a silhouette oddly cut out beside him.

“Was that your ex-girlfriend?” I ask. He laughs and blushes and rocks forward, holding his knees.

He shows me more pictures of his girlfriend from Kitale. They’ve been together for four years, though she’s spent the last two in the Ukraine, pursuing a medical degree. It will be another five years before she returns to Kenya. Peter smiles wearily and sighs and says that he will wait, because he loves her. The others nod appreciatively. I ask Kings if he has a girlfriend, and he erupts in laughter.

“No no no,” he says. “No no no no no.”

I reach over and shake his stomach and say that he’ll never find a girlfriend like that. This sends the whole room into hysterics. We sit back and settle into a weighty silence, broken by the shrieks and cries of kids playing in the yard outside. Joseph neatly folds a few button-down shirts and stacks them on the bed. He works as a security guard at a local cornmeal factory; his shift starts in a few hours. He’s been working there for just over a month, hoping to get hired on a full-time basis, but he isn’t optimistic: because it’s cheaper to hire short-term labor, the company’s notorious for laying off workers every few months. Still, he’s the only one of the three with a job right now, and it’s up to him to make up the bulk of the rent: Ksh2,000, or about thirty US bucks, a month.

Peter gets up and fills a pot with water from a five-liter jerry can. He turns on the portable gas heater and sets the pot atop it, crouching to chop tomatoes and greens on the coffee table. When the water begins to boil, Kings adds the cornmeal, stirring slowly as it thickens. Joseph spoons some vegetable fat into the pan, and Peter adds the vegetables. When everything is ready they set the ugali in the middle of the table like a birthday cake, sprinkling some salt on top. Joseph spoons out four bowls of tomatoes and sikuma wiki and we begin to eat hungrily, the guys shoveling with their fingers, me throwing back forkfuls. Afterward Joseph squats on the ground and fills a basin with water and a bit of cleaning fluid, washing the bowls with his hand.

I ask about their hopes for the upcoming election. Peter, a Kikuyu, plans to cross tribal lines and vote for ODM candidate Raila Odinga. Raila, he explains, is a sportsman: he goes to all the games when the Harambee Stars – the national team – play at Kasarani.

“Kibaki, he only likes golf,” he says, wrinkling his nose.

Peter suspects that a Raila presidency will do a lot for footballers in Kenya, starting with a boost in salary. He talks about the Kenyans playing in Europe – one at Italian powerhouse Parma, one at the French team Auxerre – and the others who have left to play in Uganda and Tanzania.

“There is a boy from Kitale,” he says “he plays in Tanzania and drives a car.” We all marvel at his good fortune. Peter hopes his own fortunes might soon improve: he’s been practicing with Mathare, which this weekend finished the season in second place, and hopes to get signed in January. The top teams like Tusker FC can pay Ksh19,000 – $300 – or more per month. It’s a figure Peter struggles to get his mind around. I tease him about the change in lifestyle we’ll be seeing a few months down the line – the flashy clothes, the pretty girls at nightclubs. He laughs and blushes and shakes his head, though he’d be happy to test the waters of the good life. Until then, he’s sticking with his modest hopes. He sits back on the sofa and looks up at the scribblings on the wall.

“At least, when there are a few of us, it is easier,” he says, and the others agree.

We head back into town, taking a detour through a vast complex of concrete bungalows – government-subsidized housing for railway workers. Peter points to the new marketplace being built nearby, about the size of a football pitch. For months the government has been pushing its vigorous campaign to get hawkers off the streets – election-year pandering, as Peter sees it – planning to relocate them to permanent stalls in the market. We watch a few bulldozers push piles of rubble around. Peter shakes his head. He doubts it will accomplish much: once the election is over, everyone will lose interest, and the hawkers will be back on the streets. More than in its western counterparts, the political scene in Kenya is rife with cynicism. And it’s hard to look around us – with kids playing in heaps of dirt, and piles of trash strewn on the grass – and not feel like the status quo will be in place long after the campaign promises have ended.

A chubby little boy in blue galoshes looks up as we pass. He breaks off from his game and hurtles toward me with bright, beaming eyes, his face lit with rapture. He grabs me by the hand and tugs with all his might, bending at the waist, straining with effort. A few women smile nearby. They ask him where he’s going, and when he answers, they all burst into laughter. I ask Peter to translate.

“He says he’s going with the mzungu,” Peter says. “He says he is going wherever you’re going.”

A small problem in Kibera.

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.