Today is Jamhuri Day, Independence day in Kenya. All the shops are closed, apart from the large supermarkets. Yesterday I walked to Fort Jesus and sat on the harbour wall looking out to sea. There are old, rusting canons strewn about everywhere around the Fort, even some laying on the small, rocky beach. And lots of people swimming in the water: groups of tourists milling around, mostly Africans. People selling carvings, trinkets, paintings; men offering to guide you even to the most obvious and unnecessary places. I came across the same man I had argued with before, a lean, older man, with a lot of missing teeth and grey grizzled hair. He told me he remembered me, and we had almost the same argument as before. No, I am not going to the Fort today, and no, I don’t need you to take me down to the harbour wall. Yes, I have been to the Old Town too.
“So, you like Kenya?” he says.
“Yes,” I smiled.
“Where your friends?”
“They went back to Germany.” He means the girls I met in Kakamega and then in Mombasa. He follows me a little way, shakes my hand, we wish each other a good day and then he leaves, going back to stand beside the wall at the Fort entrance, poised to attach himself to any tourist who walks by.
I sat on a bench opposite the Fort to photograph it, having recently developed a curious bravery for whipping out my camera in public. There is a fantastic shot of the Fort in the Rough Guide, and I was trying to recapture that look. I failed; something was wrong, the light, or the angle I was looking from. Perhaps the sky just wasn’t a deep enough blue. As I was frowning at my camera, two boys came past, dressed in ragged clothes.
“Jambo,” the first boy said.
“Jambo!” I replied.
The second boy came up.
“Mizuri,” he told me, with a bright grin.
Confused, I hesitated and then replied: “Mizuri.”
He grinned even more and walked away. Mizuri means “fine”; it is the answer to “Hibari?” /how are you?
The first boy was still standing in front of me.
“Which country? Which country you come from?”
“India?” he said, looking confused.
“England,” I said, stressing the ENG… “England, sawa?”/OK?
“Poa,” (/cool) he nodded, and walked away, looking back at me.
I went to sit on the wall, beside the towering edge of the Fort, watching men swimming in the water, where Adam told me there are sharks.
After a while enjoying the breeze and the view, I wandered back through the city. On my way to a shop I noticed a large building with yellow pillars, an open veranda and a roof made of palm leaves, off the main road down a side street. It looked like a bar or a club, and I know enough about Africa by now to know for certain that this would be a place where other white people went. On my way to the shop I was heading for, I saw another, more local-looking bar, with a cold drinks case just inside, packed with Tusker beer. This gave me a thought, as I hadn’t had a drink in over a month. Coming back from the shop, I decided to pass this bar, as the one with the yellow pillars had caught my eye. I thought I would go and see what it was like.
As I came in, it was a large open place, and I thought about going upstairs but then ended up just sitting at the downstairs bar. A woman leaning on the bar eagerly tapped the stool beside her for me to sit down. I found this off-putting, but sat at the next seat along from it so as not to be impolite. The bartender came up to me: there was no-one else in the room. Perhaps I had misjudged the place. I saw a drinks case of Tusker behind him, and asked for one.
“And could I have a look at the menu?”
“You want to eat?”
“No, I just want to look at the food. Maybe I’ll eat here later, for dinner.”
“Sawa.” He handed me the menu and my Tusker.
As I was flipping the pages of the menu, which weren’t many, and nothing looked very promising – meaning that my extensive search for good food in Mombasa would continue – the woman sidled over to me and came to sit on the stool right next to me. She had long, curled hair, and dark lipstick. From the way she was behaving towards me I thought it was quite probable she was a prostitute.
It would have been easy enough to move away, but I didn’t; I had a Paul Theroux moment and started a conversation.
“It’s good food here?” I said.
“What?” she said, looking at me as if just waking up from a dream. I repeated.
“Yes,” she said. But that was zero information, and no endorsement of the food; I understood that it was just something to say. After a few more introductory comments, she asked me if I would have a massage, confirming my first suspicion.
“No,” I said. “No. Thank you, but no – and anyway I have no money.”
“Oh, OK,” she said, and we continued to talk. She told me her name was Winnie, that she lived in Tudor, which is the opposite side of the creek, on the mainland behind Mombasa. She has a one-year-old son and she lives with him and her housegirl, who takes care of him during the day. She is 27 years old, a single mother. Her mother is in Nairobi, with the rest of her family and is trying to find another home there so that Winnie and her son can move there too. As she told me this, I was thinking, God knows where in Nairobi they live, with sobering images of the River Road area swimming in my brain: a decayed, swarming, littered, impoverished area like a hive or a huge bus depot, and that isn’t even the slum.
Winnie and the bartender were both watching me quite closely as I was drinking my Tusker. It dawned on me that they were forbidden alcohol and I probably shouldn’t be drinking it in front of them. But, they must serve it all the time, and Winnie had opted to sit next to me, and the bartender didn’t have to stand right up against the bar in front of me, watching the golden liquid in my glass.
“Do you take beer?” I asked Winnie. In Kenya everybody uses “take” with alcohol, rather than “have”or “drink”.
“I can take soda,”she said, angling for a drink.
“But do you take Tusker?” I persevered.
“So you’re Muslim,” I concluded.
“Yes. Muslim. And you?”
I think at this point I looked pained, and grimaced.
“Christian?” she asked me, quite dogged in her questioning now.
“…Yes,” I said. “But I don’t go to church.” And then I started talking about how things are different in Britain, that being Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you believe in anything or go to church, it’s normally just the absence of anything else, i.e. it just means you’re from a Christian background rather than, say, an Islamic one. I knew I would fail in my effort to explain this. People in Kenya are generally religious, and passionate about it. It’s an important aspect of their lives and a lot of people find it difficult to grasp the prevailing apathy towards religion in parts of the West.
“So, you don’t go so much to church?” Winnie concluded.
I nodded, swallowing a mouthful of welcome Tusker.
“That’s OK,” she told me. “Many people, they pray at home. It doesn’t matter so much about going to church, as long as you believe.” At this last phrase she looked me directly in the eye. I made some vague sound of assent, knowing I had failed again to explain the difference in the significance of religion between our cultures.
I was also finding the whole scene very entertaining; my drinking beer in an arbitrary bar in Mombasa, in front of a disapproving Muslim prostitute. It made me laugh.
“What is the name of this place?” I asked her.
“This place? Casablanca.”
“Casablanca?!” I cried with mirth. It seemed too absurd; everything was too absurd, as I have felt many times since I’ve been here.
“First time here?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “Do many people come here? Is it busier in the evenings?”
“Yes, many people.”
“Tourists, or Kenyans?” I asked.
“Tourists, Kenyans, sailors.”
Sailors, of course, I had forgotten, but my Rough Guide tells me that in Mombasa, visiting sailors are just as important to the economy as the tourists.
**The Muezzin is calling outside in the street, from the minaret tower of one of the many mosques. This is one of the most memorable aspects from my time in Mombasa, the very frequent calls to prayer that sound throughout the city: before dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, before sunset, and in the early evening.**
Winnie went on to tell me, “In fact when I met you, I thought you were German, because a German ship came in yesterday, and I met a boy from there last night.”
“Right,” I said. “So you thought I was German?” I told her I actually lived in Germany for a while, and she was interested. I asked her if she spoke German, because many Kenyans who have dealings with tourists do.
“No,” Winnie said, “only French.”
“Ah, French? That’s good.”
She then asked me again if I wanted a massage; I said no. She told me “But I am very good at massage…” We looked at each other and both cracked up laughing.
Sunday 13th December
Yesterday the internet cafe closed early so I had to leave my note incomplete. Yesterday morning I saw a large, uniformed brass band parading up the road, playing loudly through the main street, as part of the celebrations. It seemed the begging and hounding for money was worse than ever yesterday, perhaps because of the independence day holiday. Also it is the end of Hajj, where people pester for money more because Muslims are required to give alms. On Saturday it was so bad that I got chased down the road by two men, shouting at me for money. I had wanted to explore some unknown streets, but I didn’t get very far. Today I tried again, and it turned out similarly; more men offering to take me to temples, mosques – a friendly offer if only I didn’t know there was going to be an excessive demand for payment at the end of it.
Tonight I am leaving Mombasa for Nairobi, where I will arrive tomorrow morning. Then it’s back to Kitengela for a short stay, before going to the airport to fly home. It’s been a fantastic trip, but I am really looking forward to getting home. I don’t mean home so much, as, London – Britain in general. As soon as I get on the BA plane I will be back on another planet, in a different universe, it feels like. Britain may be cold, dismal, grey, rainy, and rather dull, but, I don’t know, at least I can walk down a street in peace, which just isn’t possible here.
So – I am almost homeward bound, and tonight I get another trip on the wonderful train, which is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done, winding through the African bush on a slow, clackety, dilapidated train, nothing but miles of wide savannah, red earth and green trees, passing villages of mud and stick huts, people staring, looking up from their farming. Nothing could be more fun than that train! It feels like taking a trip in the past, because nothing on or outside of the train has really changed in a hundred years.
I see no signs of Christmas here, because there is no consumer culture to drive forward the shopping phenomenon. Also, to my conditioned mind, it doesn’t really seem plausible that Christmas can be anywhere near when it’s so hot! I am planning to wear all of the clothes I possess when I fly back to Britain, to try to combat climate shock!