Having squared myself with Islam and eaten more prawn curry than my waistline can bear, it’s time to finally leave Lamu behind. It’s an emotional scene on the terrace at Casuarina, watching the wind shake the trees and the tortoises mount each other like sex-charged stallions for the last time. Downstairs I say my goodbyes to the staff, sharing a sad parting with the Prince of Peace. He’s a sweet, smiling, self-conscious kid who, for the past month, endeared himself to all the guests with oddball flourishes like his baroque handshakes and, well, his habit of introducing himself as the “Prince of Peace.” At times he was moody, and would grow suddenly sullen; he was at his best when there was a crowd around to keep him company. On the rooftop one night, playing DJ as he scrawled through the songs on my laptop, he pumped his fist energetically and called out, “Uh! Uh! Yeah! Yeah!” He might’ve been working the crowd at a New York superclub, instead of playing to a handful of barefoot backpackers from my computer’s struggling speakers. When the rest of us left to go to the bar he grew quiet and withdrawn, and he wouldn’t cheer up until we promised to bring back a couple of beers to share with him on the terrace.
I give his shoulder a playful squeeze and note that I haven’t seen him all week. He says quietly that he hasn’t been around; he’d gone back to his up-country home for the week. His mother died after a long, painful battle with “stomach problems,” and he went home to attend the burial. In the span of the next few breaths, he tells me that his father died just four months ago – leaving him, the eldest son, in charge of the care of his three siblings. His face is tremulous, his mild eyes filling with tears.
“I want to cry, but I can’t cry,” he says. “I know I have to be strong. I have to. I have to.”
Already I’d heard about the staff’s misfortunes; one of the guests explained to me that they’re paid Ksh40 – about 65 American cents – for a half-day’s work. The Prince of Peace puts in six 12-hour shifts a week – a terrific burden, even if he didn’t now have a family to look after. Watching him fight back tears under the hostel’s awning, his bony shoulders trembling inside an oversized t-shirt, I feel a cold, hard knot in my stomach. You meet so many desperate souls around this country, people whose lives are a steady string of misfortunes, and you try to make sense of their persistence: how anyone could build a life around such heartbreaks and sorrows. A man in Nairobi once told me that the only thing he knows with certainty is that each new day is a little bit worse than the one before it. There are lots of prayers for better fortunes in a place like Kenya, but this is a place that’s long on faith and short on miracles.
Before I leave I give the Prince of Peace Ksh1,000 – about fifteen bucks: a small fortune under normal circumstances that feels sad and futile today. He thanks me and hugs me and struggles to keep himself from losing it. Upstairs on the terrace, I shed enough tears for the both of us. Then I heave my bags onto my shoulders and trudge through the rain to the jetty, where the ferry is thrumming and full and ready to take us to the mainland.
After six weeks on the coast, I’m ready to make a hasty retreat to Nairobi. It’s a wet, bumpy drive south from Lamu; curtains of rain are draped along the coast, and it’s with relief that I check into my hotel in Malindi, knowing that I won’t be around for long enough to unpack my bags. That night I have dinner with Basilio – the sports agent I’d met all those months ago in Nairobi. Over grilled fish we talk about the difficult year he’s had – a messy divorce; a long legal battle for custody of his kids – and he says with a grateful sigh that he’s finally turned a corner. Things are looking up. We talk about the upcoming elections, and he shares some of his own political designs for the future. He already has an eye toward the elections in 2012, when he hopes to represent his district in Nairobi. There’s too little time to make a serious run in December, but he’s been busily making his rounds – not just in Malindi itself, but in small villages in the bush.
“The other candidates do not go deep into the bush,” he says. “But I want to make sure they know me in all the villages. I want them to know I will help build them schools and new dispensaries.”
In a country where long-term vision always seems to be compromised for the sake of quick-fix solutions and empty promises, his plan sounds like a revelation. Partly because of the personal hardships he’s endured, I suspect, Basilio has deep reservoirs of patience. Things take time – for people, for countries. And as he talks about more ambitious plans for ten or twenty years down the line – to become a minister, to maybe make it as far as the president’s cabinet – I feel a surge of hope that’s unfamiliar after all this time in Kenya. Just this morning, in Lamu, I was desperate about the country’s state. Now I’ve managed, however briefly, to find someone and something worth believing in. It’s a strange, unexpected feeling to grab hold of. And it’s reminded me that most of us can never fully understand what a bold and hopeful thing it can be in a place like this, just to get out of bed and face the new day.
The night in Malindi ends on a high note, but it doesn’t take long for things to take a turn for the oh-shit. It’s not like I have anyone but myself to blame. I’ve lived it up for the past few days, treating Basilio to a nice dinner in Malindi – then treating myself to the same in Mombasa. At Tamarind, in an elegant Moorish building with whitewashed walls and soaring archways, I gorge on red snapper and spicy prawns harissa while the city lights twinkle over Mombasa’s old harbor. Though I’m not the type to bemoan a bit of fine dining, I probably picked the wrong time to splurge on an $80 dinner. With my latest paycheck held up by the inscrutable whims of the banking Fates, I wake up to find 52 cents in my bank account – a development that will send me scurrying for a lifeline these next few days.
In a strange way, the last week in Lamu’s prepared me for the trials ahead. During the long, hungry days of Ramadan – culminating in my day of fasting – I’d discovered just how much my body can endure. Now, with that same asceticism being thrust upon me, I again channel my inner Muslim. Having paid for my hotel in advance, I’m left with Ksh800 – about twelve US bucks – to hold me over until my check clears. For three excruciating days, I get by on samosas – Ksh5 – and greasy potato katlisses – Ksh10 – and five-shilling bags of peanuts. Each morning I check my bank balance; each morning, my stomach grumbles as I realize I’ll have to wait another day. By the time the money’s cleared I’ve shed a few pounds in the sweltering heat, and I throw all thoughts of frugality to the side as I book the first flight to Nairobi, ready for the city’s cool heights and a long-overdue dinner at Annie Oakley’s.