Tag Archives: nairobi

You Dream, We Fulfill.

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.

There’s no rules here.

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.

This is heaven.

Thursday, September 29.

Feeling energized today, the sky the blue of children’s picture-book drawings, I am on my way into town. The roads are crowded, the matatus doing their best to turn two-lane streets into four-lane highways. SUVs with red diplomatic plates move as solemnly as a state funeral. There are nurseries along the roadside, green leafy things tended by women with broad hips, great earthenware pots baked by the sun. Men in overalls scramble down to the river, carrying up jugs of water for their thirsty varied specimens of African flora. For a moment, the city seems so lush, pastoral. “Nairobi is beautiful,” a woman on the street tells me. “Everything you need is here. This is heaven.” Ads on lampposts for baby-sitters, doctors of a dubious medical bent with offers to cure marriage troubles, impotence, problems paying rent.

And so I get into the back of a matatu, remembering the claustrophobic heat of those shambling vehicles, the sharp oniony smell of body odor, the stiffness of the cushions, the jagged bits of metal, the engine heating up under your feet. I imagine the experience is not unlike that of a cut of beef falling into a bubbling pot of stew. No, you do not kick back in a matatu, flip through a copy of Town & Country, think idle thoughts. You are aware of every cramping muscle, every skin sensation, the hot bodies of your neighbors. (A billboard for a luxury housing complex, Five Star Meadows, lords over the avenue, promising “suburban comfort with urban proximity.”) The driver does maniacal things with the steering wheel, negotiates our passage by jumping onto a curb. Bodies flying, scrambling. Someone behind me answers his phone and proceeds to converse at high volumes. We are driving somehow perpendicular to a car in the next lane. Faith, the invocation of higher powers, is a given here. Little murmurs of gratitude tumble from our lips once we’ve arrived in town and are deposited into the bedlam of Tom Mboya Avenue.

Mboya, the trade unionist, a close friend of Kwame Nkrumah’s and a fervent believer in the Ghanaian’s pan-Africanist ideology, might have looked approvingly on the democratic tumult of the avenue now bearing his name. The young and old and poor and profligate all share the sidewalk, some moving with a distinctly Nairobi bustle, others shuffling about, soaking up the sun, idly flipping through piles of pirated DVDs. If Kenya has become a middle-income country of middle-class aspirations, then here you will find the shoppers and strivers who keep the economy thrumming. Stacks of blue jeans, knock-offs of popular American brands stitched in garment factories in Thailand and Bangladesh. Self-help books with titles like The Art of Public Speaking and How the Rich Think. A dizzying range of footwear. Bulletin boards plastered over with advertisements for obscure technical colleges offering IT training. Beauty schools. Help wanted and proffered. Glass display cases, enough to fill the Smithsonian, with the latest range of Nokia and Samsung and Blackberry phones. (A rumpled man in a worn overcoat, mistaking my ambiguous journalistic interest for intent to buy, quickly shanghais me on the sidewalk with a gorgeous iPhone which pretty much still bears the fingerprints of the guy from whose pocket it was undoubtedly picked.) Block after block of shopping arcades hung with mannequin torsos, the bright jerseys of English soccer teams, guys offering phone repairs. The quality is poor, the prices low. Money is constantly changing hands.

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since I last walked Tom Mboya, stocking up on full seasons of Lost and 24, watching the carnival-colored matatus – aglow with neon track lighting – thundering to hip-hop beats down the avenue. Two years, true, is not a long time in the span of a life, or a city. Perhaps the same grease-spattered chefs are working the deep fryers at Christie’s Café (“For that delicious taste”) and Kenchic Inn (“We are ‘kuku’ about chicken!”) and Big Chicken Inn (“Tasty chicken ‘n’ fries!”) and Chicken Spot (“Delicious”). Certainly the traffic looks unchanged as I cross onto Moi Avenue, the muscular thrum of the City Shuttles and Double M Expresses, the medicinal blue of the KBS buses, the ubiquitous green and yellow Citi Hoppas. (Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, on trial at the Hague, took umbrage with a certain prosecutor’s descriptions of the Citi Hoppa buses he allegedly organized to shuttle rabble-rousing youths to post-election flash points in the Rift Valley. “I wouldn’t describe City Hopper buses as ‘shiny and new,’” Kenyatta solemnly said on the witness stand.)

And the streetscape, too, has an old familiarity. Behind me is the Hilton, with its two fluted towers, and across the congestion of Moi Avenue the neo-classical façade of the Kenya National Archives. To its right is the weather-stained hulk of the Ambassadeur hotel, no doubt even unfit for low-rent diplomatic delegations from like N’Djamena and Banjul. After the Ambassadeur the Eureka Highrise Hotel, and across from them the Kencom building, buses idling along its curb. Further down Moi ‘60s- and ‘70s-era office buildings in various gray-scales. Exhaust hanging over the avenue like a raincloud. A woman clopping by in a thick orthopedic shoe. A man in a sweater-vest is preaches to a decidedly disinterested lunch-time crowd, slapping his Bible and gesticulating like a madman, which in fact he might very well be.

Outside Kencom is a small pavilion, a Condolence Tent for the Late Prof. Wangari Maathai, beside which Kenyans of all stripes are lined up to sign their names and scribble two square inches’ worth of condolences in the ledgers. A dozen saplings sit on the sidewalk in dirt-filled plastic bags, a tribute to the late environmentalist. Maathai, so widely celebrated abroad, had a more checkered history in her homeland. She was beaten and jailed for her opposition to former president Daniel arap Moi, dragged through the mud over her messy divorce, criticized when she decided to reject the mantle of global green crusader in favor of a more humble – and, perhaps, difficult – place in local politics. Yet many credit her stand against Moi and his ruling-party cronies in the late-‘80s as the first salvo which emboldened civil society to finally, a decade later, topple the old tyrant. The contrast between her selfless struggle and the disreputable actions of Kenya’s ruling kleptocrats today couldn’t be more stark. “Prof. Maathai was a woman way ahead of her times,” eulogized one long-time friend in the Daily Nation. “We have yet to catch up with her.”

I am thinking these solemn death-thoughts, brooding under a rapidly graying sky, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s an improbable coincidence: my friend Khaleed Abdulaziz, tall and grinning, having picked me out on a crowded sidewalk in a city of three million plus. It takes a second for me to compose a thought, and then we both laugh at the remarkable smallness of Nairobi. (Later, having dinner with Liz and her friends at an Ethiopian restaurant in Lavington, we’re joined by an old friend I’d met nearly two years ago in Burundi.) Our greetings are long, warm, full of complicated handshakes and shoulder-clapping. “Long time,” he says. “Long time,” I say. It’s been a very long time.

Khaleed is on his way to the Railways bus rank; he’s heading to Adam’s Arcade to meet with the producers of a popular TV show, Churchill Live, on which he has a recurring stand-up role. Though we’ve been in touch on and off for the past two years, this is the first I’ve heard of his new gig. It sounds like the perfect fit. Four years ago, I’d met Khaleed and his older brother, Faiz, on my way to Maralal, in Samburu country, for the annual camel derby. It was a terrible journey: rain had washed out the roads north of Nyahururu; the only vehicles heading to Maralal were lorries transporting supplies to the frontier towns of the north: Maralal, South Horr, Baragoi, Loyangalani. Crowding into the back of a truck, paying extortionate prices, we were pitched around at every bump and ditch, cases of Kenya Special Brandy toppling on all sides. Then we hit a long stretch of road that had turned to mud; two, three dozen lorries were lined up end to end. Some had been stuck there for days. Darkness began to fall. Two hundred meters from where we were stuck, armed bandits robbed a matatu, then vanished into the bush. This was hardly a month after I’d arrived in Kenya; it was my first great African journey, and I was scared shitless. Khaleed’s good humor, Faiz’s unswerving calm, were what steadied me for that 15-hour journey. In Maralal, they introduced me to their family; we exchanged gifts. Faiz gave me an old ceremonial gourd, used by the Turkana tribesmen of his father. I left Khaleed with a novelty t-shirt: it said “My First Ride” over the picture of a tricycle. Four years and a half-dozen meetings later, it’s one of the first things he recalls for me as I walk with him along Moi Avenue.

The news from his family is good; the Abdulaziz clan, it seems, is ascendant. Four of the five brothers have reunited in Nairobi; Faiz, the second-born, has married, as has their only sister. Khaleed, too, has seen his fortunes improve since landing his TV gig. He’s become one of the show’s best-known comics; girls on the street stop us, giggle, pay me exactly no mind. A Nairobi radio station has named Khaleed one of the country’s top ten comics. When he was younger, growing up in Maralal, Khaleed and his brother Ahmed performed comic sketches for high-school friends. Their skits were famous; they had a small crew called the “Green Mattress Boys,” so named because of their sexual exploits in grassy fields. This is one of the many inside jokes which constitute a good 60 percent of our conversations. Do not ask me about Supamambo. Do not ask about mikono juu.

We make plans to meet on Friday, to see the new apartment Faiz has moved into with his wife, Aisha. I watch Khaleed walking slowly across the avenue, the jeans low on his slender hips, a slight roll to his shoulders. If you had spotted him on some Nairobi street, lost in the crowds of unemployed youths with the same low jeans and the same shoulder-roll, would you imagine him one of the country’s top ten comics? Would you imagine such things as Supamambo, Maralal, the Green Mattress Boys?

The day feels impossibly light now, my first stroke of great fortune in a country that, oddly, after all these years, still feels like my true African home. Walking back toward Kencom, a few cold drops of rain falling, I stop in front of an ad display by a group called Powerpoint Media. (“….trying to do business without Advertisementis like winking to a girl in the dark…nobody knows but you!”) A small crowd of job-seekers is gathered, jotting down numbers, scouring the postings. A Denish-Kenyan Linked Company is Seeking to Employ. Over 500 jobs available at Diamite international. WONDREFULL OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!! Emanex Computer College. German Institute of Professional Studies. Over 100 posts available at Diamite international. Cotech Training Centre (“For best computer packages”). Sponsorship!! Immortal Tattoos Kenya (“Tattoos at your own convenience”). Glory Celebration Centre. Believe it or not H.I.V is curable now. Potion 21 (“Liquid from heaven”). Get Immortalized, Get Inked. HIV AIDS CURE. Sales Executives Needed. Designers’ Showcase. NOT A LIE. Abou Kante, Master of the Secret Knowledge. Faith Opticians. Leading Locks Limited (“Beauty + Security = Timeless Love!!!”). H.I.V victims have been corned, misused and cheated, that is no more. Call Dr. Clement. NOT A JOKE. Are you tired of being tired of not reaching your goals???

Jacaranda blossoms litter the pavement.

Crossing toward Kenyatta Avenue now, the last daylight trying to break through the clouds, the temperature about 10 Celsius degrees below what it was when I left the house, a short man comes bustling up beside me. As a white man, you get used to all manner of importuning on the streets of Nairobi. But no, this man is harmless, he just has a safari to sell. He hands me his card: John Mbithi, Tour Consultant. Bencia Africa Adventure & Safaris. His brown slacks, about four sizes too big, are heavily cuffed; he wears a brown droopy fleece which sags down to his thighs. I introduce myself. “Like in the movies, there is that Christopher,” he says. Sure enough, I suppose. John’s got a big brown crooked tooth on which I unfairly, though perhaps not unreasonably, fixate. He is cheerful, persistent if not persuasive. Having shot him down on the safari front, I have narrowed his options. There will be no trips to the Maasai Mara, none to Amboseli or Nakuru. He recites his litany of low-rent Nairobi tourist options – the Giraffe Centre, the Bomas of Kenya – the way I suspect certain Catholics recite the rosary. “Pole sana,” I say. John shakes his head and brightens: he is still pleased to meet me. “When you see me, you just greet me,” he says, hopping off the curb, dodging a bus, and quick-footing it across Kenyatta Avenue.

The daylight dwindling, the air cooler, the city’s foot soldiers off on their evening commutes. Sitting on a park bench, I feel something wet in my hair: a bird in one of the trees above has offered its own version of “Karibu Kenya!” Njiwa akimnyea mtu kichwani, mtu huyo atapata bahati njema, goes an old Swahili proverb. In Kenya, too, animal turds are a harbinger of good things to come. I take this as a happy portent. Fortune is both smiling and shitting on me.

Nairobi’s growing up.

Tuesday, September 27.

It’s like being born again, shot into the daylight.

Chadrak has my bag over his shoulder, hauling it across the parking lot. The light is white, flat, it rinses everything of color. I shield my eyes with the palm of my hand. “That is the sun of Kenya,” says Chadrak, laughing. I suppose it is. The flight from Johannesburg has brought us a few thousand miles closer to the equator; the sun just sits there in the sky, fat and belligerent, looking to do you harm. Already I am sweating profusely. The pilot had announced our ground temperature as a not unreasonable 23 degrees – somewhere in the low-70s, for the Celsius-challenged – but this sun is oppressive. Has life in Joburg’s temperate latitudes made me so unfit already? Chadrak, pitched into a state of mild hysterics, clucks his tongue with sympathy. How many white men has he seen before, squinting, bitching about the heat?

Just a few minutes before our plane had taxied across the tarmac. We were all business and bustle disembarking, setting off for our safaris and conferences and closed-door meetings with low-ranking parliamentarians and foreign delegations of Bretton Woods eggheads. Kenya, Kenya, my first African love, under my feet once again. It has been more than two years since my last visit – four since my first – and my stomach tightened on my way through the arrivals hall. Low-ceilinged corridors, flanked by pictures of romping antelopes and grinning Maasai and hot-air balloons casting oblong shadows over the savannah. Déjà vu: I’d seen these same pics four years ago. Customs was a room of low-pile carpeting, lights of flickering fluorescence; we waited behind a ragged strip of yellow tape. Two German tourists, a middle-aged couple in crisp khakis, bantered with the immigration official. They had tripods strapped to their backpacks, zippers firmly secured with Swiss Army combination locks. A woman, pleasantly smiling, beckoned me forward, processed me quickly: I smiled for the camera, allowed each finger to be biometrically scanned. Crowds of taxi drivers and tour guides waited outside, holding up signs with magic-markered names. The walls were garishly plastered with signs for forex bureaus and dubious Travel Information Centres whose information was of a decidedly commercial bent. Men leaning forward, hoping to make significant eye contact. Then there was Chadrak, smiling, extending a hand, pitching my backpack over his shoulder and making his way toward the parking lot.

I have spent the past few days in a state of high agitation, burning off the nervous energy on shopping sprees that were both shameless and -ful in their scope and duration. Much has changed in the years since my first visit, perhaps nothing more so than my desire to look crisp and fresh from the moment my feet touch the tarmac. I have done away with the old convertible pants, the thick-soled Gore-Tex boots, the hiking gear in high-tech breathable fabrics. No, this time around, I would not walk the streets of Nairobi looking like a safari guide. There would be dinners in Karen, drinks in Westlands, all manner of attractive preening persons around whom I would like to attractively preen. I’ve packed seven pairs of footwear for my five-week trip. I’m nervous about the fit of certain shirts and convinced that I look fat in these jeans. Yes, my fears have certainly changed since my first visit to Nairobi. I am less concerned with getting robbed than getting laid.

Leaving the airport, traffic slowing, lazy-eyed policemen stopping, peering inside, waving us through. Cumulus clouds drifting like dirigibles. Tons of open spaces. I had almost forgotten, after the manicured neatness of South Africa, just how raw these Kenyan landscapes are. Goats are chewing on the dry medians. Bird nests in the acacias. The brown unloveliness around the airport gives way to the gray unloveliness of industrial parks. Men in dress slacks walk with slow purposelessness along the road’s shoulder. There is not a sidewalk in sight. A hotel like a factory from Dickens’ London, called Nice & Lovely, looking neither. Work crews laying tarmac. A new overpass spanning the airport road, hung with signage for the China Road & Bridge Corporation. Cars and matatus pinballing from side to side, lifting clouds of dust. A driver grins, raising his thumb, as if to assure me that everything will be okay.

Memory is a peculiar thing. It’s been two years since I last drove along this airport road, but a mental map is imprinted on my gray matter. New buildings jar some stray neuron, look out of place. Ole Sereni, a new upmarket hotel. The Sameer Business Park, offering a few million square feet of prime office rental space. I tell Chadrak how much the city has changed, and he laughs. “Nairobi’s growing up,” he says. Business complexes and shopping centers. Vision Plaza. Plaza 2000. Mirage Plaza. Super Bargains (Kenya) Ltd. (“Live Life King Size”). On my first visit four years ago, I was no doubt struck – as most first-time visitors are – by the roughness of the roads, by the blind beggars at traffic lights, by the dark sullen faces crowded into the backs of matatus which clunked and groaned with their doors rattling. Now all I can see is this city’s wealth, the spectacular growth, the rapid development. My nerves are on high alert, my skin tingling. Even stuck in traffic, it feels like we’re racing forward at improbable speeds.

Chadrak steers us clear of the city center, negotiating the back roads. Upper Hill, Kilimani – the names are coming back to me. Through the tree cover I can see the office buildings downtown – the blue-glass windows of some bank tower, the thrusting phallus of the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre. A caller on a talk-radio show is complaining. “These wives are stupid,” he says. Newspaper sellers on the side of the road. Men with dozens of belts draped around their necks, holding up shoes, as if in offering to some pagan god. The leanness of these times, the crumbling of the Kenyan shilling – it has dropped more than 20 percent against the dollar in the past month. “Here in Nairobi, life is hard now,” says Chadrak. I try to suppress my glee at all this favorable forex news. In my last weeks in Joburg, the rand took a similar plunge. I had returned from Ghana with the rand at 6.8 to the dollar; just two weeks ago, it had sunk to 8.4. This set off a frenzy of currency Schadenfreude on my Facebook feed, hailing the fall of the mighty rand, no doubt irritating the hell out of my South African friends. Here in Kenya, the shilling’s tailspin has alarmed the local punditocracy, with embassy staffers and other foreign-currency earners the only ones likely to cash in on the increasingly favorable exchange rate. For expats, life in Nairobi has gotten dramatically cheaper. This taxi ride costs less than it did two years ago.

We turn onto Waiyaki Way, its Guernican chaos. Buses spewing smoke like locomotives, lorries moving with the slow, steady grace of ancient caravans. Another new overpass has been built across the road. “Vision 2030 Flagship Project,” reads a sign. “Upgrading of the Nairobi-Thika Road into a Superhighway to Enhance Connectivity.” On Waiyaki Way, no enhancements necessary: we’re connected bumper to bumper. All this construction, it is hoped, will improve congestion around the city, but the traffic now is appalling. Was it this bad when I visited two years ago? Here it is hard for my memory to serve me well; on past visits, I spent most of my time hunkered down at hostels in leafy suburbs on the other side of town. I had rarely tried to get across the city on a weekday afternoon. I am seeing a new side of Nairobi already.

Finally, we break free of the congestion. The road bends, we pass apartment blocks with pastoral names, laborers in blue overalls squatting on the roadside, eating roasted corn on the cob. The unmistakable, acrid smell of burning trash: scraps of food, vegetable rot, plastic bags. Soon we’re honking the horn at the gate of a leafy compound of stylish apartment blocks – the home of a friend who’s offered me a place to crash these next two weeks. She’s out for the day; she welcomes me into her house with a brisk note and urges me to make myself at home. I drop my things in the guest room and unfurl on the bed, stretching my plane- and cab-cramped limbs. Birds chatter in the trees outside my window. Nairobi – less big and bad than it had once seemed – stands before me like an open door.

It is likely to be a busy stay. I’ve timed my visit to coincide with the Kenya International Film Festival, which kicks off in late-October; until then, I’ll be filing dispatches on Kenya’s film and TV industries for Variety, and hoping to cash in on the odd travel story once I’ve managed to tear myself from Nairobi’s clutches. My return flight is booked for November 1, but already that seems unlikely: friends in Kigali and Bujumbura are just a short flight away, and I’d undoubtedly prolong my stay at the first sniff of interest in one of the proposals currently shuttling between editorial departments of magazines in New York. I might be homeless, again, until the middle of November. By then summer in Joburg will be in full swing. And then the holidays, just around the corner.

The excitement, the nervous energy of the past few days, has finally caught up with me. Hunger and an urgent need for caffeination are the only things that compel me to leave the house. The afternoon has turned mild, and the neighborhood is lovely in the late-day light – the red blossoms of flame trees, the jacarandas. I walk back to Waiyaki and, feeling tired and indecisive, continue walking: away from the congested skyline of town, looking for the first welcoming restaurant I might find. Early traffic, drivers looking to beat the worst of the rush-hour crowds. Crosswalks sit there like animal skins in the living room, strictly ornamental. There is not a working traffic light in sight. Heavy-set men cross the road with the quick-footed grace of certain fat people. Women with babies on their backs, barefoot boys in shirts the size of ponchos. I reach the Mall, a small shopping plaza, and settle into a so-called cappuccino with a copy of the Daily Nation. The paper is filled with news of the passing of Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s green crusader and Nobel Peace prize winner. Condolences pour in from around the world: Nelson Mandela, President Obama, Kofi Annan. “She was a true African heroine,” wrote the office of Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu. The country has declared a two-day period of mourning. Maathai alone has managed to push the ICC hearings at the Hague from the front page.

The last embers of daylight. Commuters jostling on the sidewalk, packing into matatus, horns calling back and forth as drivers engage in some abstract conversation between their vehicles. An unending stream of cars and matatus and buses flowing up and down the avenue. I am tempted, almost compelled to step into this swiftly moving stream and get carried away. Already, though, I can feel my energy dwindling. I want to buy some groceries and make it home before I stumble blindly into oncoming traffic. Across the road is an Uchumi – the sort of Kansas City Royals of the Kenyan supermarket scene. Sadly, there is no Nakumatt in sight; I will have to make do.

The aisles are crowded with shoppers stocking up before the commute home. Tired mothers filling their baskets with cooking oil and bags of rice. Solitary men, security guards, laborers, clutching loaves of brown bread, single cartons of milk. People look washed-out, stricken under the pale fluorescence. Here, among the Uchumi’s thrifty brands, I should be able to clean up: this week the Kenyan shilling has hit a historic low, at 102 to the dollar. Only I miscalculated before leaving the house; still adjusting to the new currency, I only brought a 1,000-shilling note with me. After the cappuccino, I just have a few hundred bob to spare.

I resort to backpacker mode, that feral state I know so well from past travels. Six sachets of Nescafe, a loaf of brown bread, a small jar of Nuteez brand peanut butter. Not without a certain grim irony do I realize that, four years and more than a few literary laurels later, I’m almost exactly back where I started when I first came to Africa: counting my last few shillings on an Uchumi check-out line. “Two thousand is not a lot of money these days,” the man ahead of me complains to the cashier. Neither is the rumpled 500-shilling note I present to her, like a badge of all my past failures. She hands me a shopping bag with my sad haul inside. I had expected to return to Nairobi a conquering hero. Instead I carry my groceries outside like wounded soldiers, into the pitch and tumult of rush hour, looking for the cheapest way home.

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.