Monthly Archives: September 2015

mombasa: the pull of the tide

South Coast Backpackers is located near Diani beach in a property that suggests holiday. There were maybe 3 dorms and other private rooms. The kitchen was a place of wonders. Ingredients would go in and food would come out, not just food but delicacies. Every morning after my nights of drinking and debauchery I would wake up walk to the kitchen and ask for bacon and toast. I never had bacon and toast taste so good and maybe this is why people stay in hotels. After my meal I would make my way to the hammock. The hammock is hung between these two palm trees, the very picture of tropical heaven. My eyes would close and I would swing my body back and forth as I lulled myself back into sleep.

Near the hammock is an outside bar. My all-time favourite place. The bartenders: friendly, the drinks: plentiful, the company: wonderful. The ashtrays as happens in Mombasa were shells filled with sand from the ocean. When they would fill up they would be disposed of back in the earth. Ashes to ashes… there was always music playing from the bar and I would have the kind of sleep that is aided, not interrupted by music. One day as I lay there a snake appeared and a long conversation ensued about what should be done to it. Finally it was decided and it was taken away. Through this  I lay faux-sleeping. This episode that should have been of huge interest to me just lapping at my consciousness and disappearing where it came from like waves from the ocean.

I only made it to the beach on one day. It was a cold, rainy day of the sort that visits Mombasa only once in a while. Perfect for beach visiting. The sky was grey and foreboding, ready to burst its load on the earth; that happy with the beauty that it had the opportunity to witness. The beach I walked to was a small slice of what the south coast has to offer. The tide had risen and I couldn’t see even one of the yellow sands. The ocean rushed back and forth breaking against the beach. Each wave becoming millions of little droplets that would have glittered in the sun but in the weather that I was walking through only became grey, as if a stonemason had been chipping away at a block. It makes me think of when Vassily Grossman wrote:

Yes, if the sea was able to think, then every storm would make its waters dream of happiness. Each wave breaking against the cliff would believe it was dying for the good of the sea; it would never occur to it that, like thousands of waves before and after, it had only been brought into being by the wind.

Then it began to rain. The rain was heavy and loud. I retreated to this little shack where I met a guy who makes his living driving a boat. The shack was all metal roofs and wooden pillars. Potholes in places where the water would gather after it had leaked. The wind could be heard, the spray of the rain felt on your face. The ocean continued to swish back and forth but the rain was trying to drown it. Not its noise, the persistence and energy of the rainwater would make you think that the sky god and sea god were at odds and it was time for the upstart to learn his lesson. We sat and smoked as we looked at this greyness. I had a pang of envy at the life of the baharia  next to me. He went out on his boat taking tourists snorkelling. He worked for himself. He worked in the world, on the ocean. Every day he tested himself against the world, doing something whose effect he could feel. Something that I felt brought him great pleasure while I would be going back to sit in an office all day. Sitting for so long indoors that it’s easy to forget how a breeze feels as it tickles the hair on my forearms or how the sea smells when it’s dangerous and just how beguiling it looks at that time. A greyness that can’t be seen anywhere else. A greyness whose beauty may lie just in its danger.

Many of the clubs are located on the beach. I failed to understand how anyone who did not live here could stand to be away from the beach, sitting indoors and swimming in pools as all this lay before us. I went to a party at some hotel. There were great cocktails poured into these pineapples that we used as cups. Large amounts of vodka and just enough tang that it didn’t burn you. Early in the evening the moon began to rise. I was lucky enough to catch sight of it. It was a red moon. Red and small. As red as a hangover. As red as a traffic light. The kind of moon that had bathed in the blood of sacrifices. It looked more than anything like a midnight cigarette. A round globe of fire surrounded by the smoke of the clouds that it was bursting through.

All this time the sound of the ocean’s waves washing the beach were repeated over and over again. The tide was low and there was sand all around. It was still slick with water and reflected light from the clubs all around it. The water itself was far, far away so far I could go and sit 200 metres away from everyone else and just contemplate the water. The rushing in and rushing out. The hypnotic sound that you can tell yourself is brimming with wisdom but that is so hypnotic you can almost understand that someone somewhere walked into it. Someone tired of the chaos of life. Someone enamoured by the  promise of that swish. That back and forth. That beautiful sound and that red moon. A girl came to talk to me as I sat out there. She was worried. She told me that the last time she had sat like that there were things in life that she had been trying to put behind her. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t. Not  really but I could imagine it as I sat there. The peace promised.

At yet another beach club I went as close as I possibly could to the ocean and stood there feeling the water come in and go out. I stood motionless and the water rushed around me creating a sort of vacuum behind me. It would come again and again and again and then finally there would be a huge hole behind me that I would sink into. Sometimes I would catch the waves just right and begin to flow backwards with it. I began to be pushed back to the earth and it felt like flying.

There was one club that we went to and this girl that I had never met looked at me with aggression that should be saved for former lovers  she shook her fist at me and grimaced. So I apologised for whatever I may have done wrong and walked away trying not to think about what happened. But that’s bullshit I couldn’t stop thinking about it and then I began thinking that this is what she wanted. To do something to make me think of her.

At the next place we went to I met her again. She asked me to buy her a blunt and I did. We went to the parking lot to talk. Well everyone had an ulterior motive. Hers was to smoke. She asked me if I thought she was beautiful. I did and I said so. She almost smiled. There was the sense of a struggle for the smile to come through that went over her whole body. Her eyes looked almost blank. Black and bleak, breaking. She tilted her head back as she took another puff. The compliment had no effect on her. The smile had withered and died on the way out of her body. Only silence and the smoke from the joint leaked out.

She looked at the moon more closely and with more intensity than I had ever done. She told me she was going to miss it most of all. Something ominous settled between us as she talked. Slowly, lightly, more seriously than I had heard all trip long.

“Kuna kitu kwa kichwa yangu, si aids .lakini itaniua. Mwezi…” there’s something in my head it’s not aids but its going to kill me. The moon….

She looked at the moon again as she took another puff. When I tried to talk to her she turned away and walked back into the club. Telling me that it was all a joke.  I’ll never now know the truth or otherwise of that.


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mombasa: oh the people you’ll see

There is a difference between a hijab, a burqa and a bui bui. All three are worn by some Muslim women as a physical expression of their faith. The hijab covers the hair, the burqa is worn on top of the hijab, the bui bui is a term that can be used to mean both but seems confined to the black kind worn on the East African coast.

So I’m in south coast and I see this lady in a burqa. I know it’s a burqa because I can’t see her eyes. All trip I have been distracted by eyes and the shape of the nose. Swept away by eyelashes and the colour of the irises. Falling in love with as much skin as I can see in a ninja. The allure of a hijab has everything to do with mystery. Allure is the right word; there is something there that you can almost make out, a beautiful view shrouded in mists but all the more beautiful due to the precipitation gathering around the mountain peaks. Then I see a lady in a burqa that has a veil over her face, I can remember it as being dark blue, almost purple. It’s translucent so that I can almost see through it and can almost, just almost see her face. This is a different kind of charm. It immediately makes me think how beautiful something like this can make her feel: it is a wedding veil. That’s all, the kind that people from other cultures hope to only wear once and then do it on the day that they feel the most beautiful. Yet there are ladies who wear these veils all the time: to the shop and to work, to walk and to shop. All day they are veiled until they present themselves to their husbands at the end of the day who with loving care and eminent grace take off the veil revealing not just their wives to themselves but also, and every night, their brides.

While in South Coast I make my way to South Coast backpackers in Diani. I recommend this place to anyone who wants a place to stay in the Coast and is young and wild and free (and also wants something that is nearly free-their rates cannot be beat.) it takes me a while to get there mostly because I have my bag on my back. I had booked earlier and the guy who runs it is sited at the bar ready to check me in. he’s a German named Michael who if you remember nothing else about him you will remember he is a chain smoker. I ask him for a shot of vodka. I am tired and cranky and want to get this trip cranked up. He offers me the choice of the cheap one or the other one. I will let you in on a trick with vodka-past a certain price it is all fermented potato juice. There are no great vodka tasters in the world. There are no connoisseurs. A kibao is as good as a ciroc and will give you as much of a hangover. So I take the cheap one. Find out its 100 and take another one.

The room I’m staying in is a dorm like room near the bar. It has the space to contain 8 beds and the accommodation is mixed for those who feel prudish about these kind of things, there were no orgies though for those who feel excited about that kind of thing. So I sit at the bar and there’s a Frenchman,  a Kenyan of colour (is this the right name for our white citizenry?) and a South African lady. They are sitting and chatting and I, employing the rule that holds in every backpackers lodging in the world join their conversation. We talk about vegetarianism which is something most people don’t understand. I don’t know why you would turn your back on meat but people insist on the health benefits. The conversation turns to cock tails or more specifically a whatsapp group with the awesome name cocks.  Made up of a group of women who engage in such punny behaviour as:

I so badly need a cock right now.

I’m enjoying a great big one?

Where are you I’m coming.

And then we segue into whether or not cocktails are all vegetarian.

“You don’t have to worry bone marrow cocktails went out of style decades ago.”

There is something about the South African girl. It may be her accent. Her sense of humour (she loves this t-shirt I was wearing on which was printed m&ms for magic mushrooms and later when i thank her profusely for a compliment given she says “you had me at magic mushrooms”). It may be the fact that she is going to Zanzibar to teach yoga for a few months and make a living off of that in that goddamn beautiful island. Zanzibar my friend is beautiful. All coast and white sands and sea salt. It may be that I am primed by all these women walking around in burqas at the coast. It may be that I am floored by her beauty but I fall immediately and head on. She leaves that evening never to return and I don’t think that I’ll see her again but travelling is good for allowing you such intimacies. When your life is as short as a firefly’s every encounter means more, every feeling is exaggerated. There is something about it that is not the real world.

I hang around the bar and get pulled into a drinking game. There is this Israeli couple staying there too. They strike me as the stereotypical Israeli couple. The woman is all sex, smoldering and smoking. Coolly mysterious and refreshingly beautiful. The guy is tall but not too big at first I think that he is an Italian they share something of that macho posturing but his is a little more hard-won not born of passion but something else discipline, perhaps pain. They had just finished their compulsory military service which is three years for guys and two years for women just after high school. So like a lot of young Israelis they pick a continent and go to see the world. Israel is small the guy tells me and he wants to know how people think so he talks to the local population. He questions them about life and tries to see a bigger world than the one he lived in. the girl tells me that the two of them actually met in Ethiopia during this trip. They knew each other in Israel but not (and excuse me for the awesome pun) biblically. Later after I have drunk down five beers I have the guts to ask for her opinion on the Israel- Palestine issue. She says Israel is Israel and I can see that, I can agree with what she says. It is her home, the only home she has ever known. She like our president is an innocent inheritor.

There are these two British guys there who are having an epic mid-semester vacation. 4 weeks travelling around, drinking, thinking, meeting, talking, reading, swimming, diving. They tell me that they once spent a night under the stars. I’m not sure where this was but I think it’s a great idea to sit and look at the world as it is with nothing between you and the atmosphere . In the arms and protection of our mother staring deep into her eyes. The next day they point me to this shack that sells food very near the backpackers saying they bought chapatti there for 80 kes. They actually say “kes” and it takes me a long time to remember that this is  international abbreviation for Kenya shillings.

I go to this shack for lunch a couple of times. Chapatti and beans once. Pilau the other. Great place.  Small wooden structure that can fit perhaps 10 or 15 when fully packed and familiar to anyone who lives in Nairobi as a kibanda. It is run by this matriarch with a smile. She sits and makes conversation behind her is a lady who cooks and occasionally and very hilariously joins in the conversation. Mombasa like  Nairobi is a place of confluence. There are people there for work: Maasai watchmen, Luhya labourers, Luo show-offs, Kikuyu entrepreneurs whatever you can find in Nairobi you find there. And they are just as frustrated with the pace of things as people from Nairobi are.

One guy makes the kind of dowry conversation everyone seems to engage in at least once upon a time.

“na mather huyo msichana wako anaitwa nani” madam what’s the name of your girl?

“anaitwa amina” she’s called Amina

The lady looks shocked and displeased and says with much more verve than I had her pegged for.

“APANA naitwa faith.” NO i’m called Faith.

Another time.

“mathe kuna chapati” madam are there chapatis

“iko” yes

she says very indifferently even though everyone can see there is no chapatti.

“simama tu kidogo” just stand for a bit

there is a certain charm to Swahili spoken as it should be, the same thing we feel when we hear one of the English speak English. The nativeness of the language that we can only ever imitate lends them some power over us. We will stand transfixed and forget to be pissed.

This guy stands for a while. I assume he is Maasai as he has a stick, the coloured shuka and holes in his ear. Then he goes to look at the kitchen and sees nothing.

“hapa hakuna kitu” there’s nothing here.

Faith(or Amina) was on her lunch break eating some Pilau back there. When she sees the Maasai men leaving she calls after them.

“mimi nitawapikia!” me i’ll cook for you.

They are immediately placated and she goes back to her meal. They go back to see what is going on after five minutes and realise there is nothing.

“kama hakuna chapatti si tuambie tu.” if there are no chapatis just tell us.

“Chapati itakua” great pun here either chapattis will be here or chapattis will ripen

says the matriarch. They leave though shaking their heads at this coastal culture.

The same night I met the Israelis I also met an Irish guy and a girl from Canada. I like Irish people. I can’t tell why. Maybe it’s their lack of colonial history and the fact that they too were mistreated by the world at large. It could be that they wear their bag of inequities with pride and a shrug at the world’s indifference and unfairness. Mostly it’s that they can drink. They can put away their liquor and store it somewhere out of sight. There is always some incredible story about a night of drinking or in this case three nights where for his 21st birthday this guy got hammered beginning at noon one day stopping just for food and sleep. Crawling from bar to bar under the Irish weather (no idea if they have sun or cold or if they have both. the Canadian girl shows us a shot at the bar later on. You set a glass of Sambuca on fire, put out the fire on your bare stomach(what would you be doing in Mombasa without a bare stomach) drink it down, turn the glass upside down on the bar and inhale the vapours. Fuck that is a shot that wakes you right up. I haven’t had cocaine but this is how I imagine it feels.

Later in the day I meet some Kenyan Americans. 2 girls and a guy. The guy travelling by himself also meets them there. It’s very interesting listening to Kenyan Americans talk. Their English has been mangled and bent  by their stay in their US. If you say water without making sure to pronounce the r Americans will have no idea what you are asking for. However their Swahili is still unadulterated it sounds like Nairobi Swahili if anything. Though the guy had a lilting coastal accent as this is where he was from originally. This language has been held tight by them, they have refused to allow it to bow to the culture surrounding them. It is a mark of who they are- the ability to speak Swahili and have it sound like the Swahili back home.

They talk about their various experiences in America. The schools they went to, the people they know. I notice the lack of integration in America. They don’t talk much about any white friends. They hardly mention African Americans except to say that they act very rowdy. They lump Nigerians in with these guys saying they are always ready for a fight, at a look, at a glance they are ready to go. They tell how Ethiopians refuse to believe they are African  despite huge geographical evidence to the contrary. They also talk about how tight-knit the Kenyan community is. And how moral. Here are grown women worried about gossip getting back to their mothers about them being in a liquor store. While in Nairobi you just have to look at any supermarket at around 8 on a Saturday during the pre-mututho rush.

There are these people I meet later on. A Spanish guy with an ego the size of a very, very big ego. He is calmly smoking his marijuana in a club when some cops take him in. he takes out a thousand shilling note and asks them if that is what they want before proceeding to rip it to shreds in front of them. They bundle him into their car.

“are you going to kill me?”

“no you are only being arrested.”

“ok that’s much better, in fact that’s fine.”

On one of the days I have sat with these two swedes and a Finn. It’s the morning after a long night. Something lies heavy in the air some kind of emotion and she begins to talk about how sad she is to leave Kenya. A song comes on and it’s a beautiful love song capturing the moment exactly in its rhythm because all love songs are really songs of loss

I would give you the stars….” It begins

The swede observes that even the music is sad that day.

if you were a hooker you know I’d be happy to pay” the song continues

And we dissolve into laughter. That’s what it feels like there. There are a lot of goodbyes and a lot of hellos. There is a lot of love and laughter and sadness but there is always something to remind us not to take it all too seriously.


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mombasa: paradisical moments

It was time to leave the North Coast. I got to the ferry terminal and waited for one of the mammoths to make its way back to us. The ferries in Mombasa move ploddingly, almost contemplatively. They walk across the ocean and it seems slow but big things cover a lot of ground in tiny strides.

When it stopped we all rushed on. After a few minutes it struck me that the top of the ferry would be much more comfortable than the bottom plus it would provide me with a view of the ocean as we crossed. I always imagined that if I lived in Mombasa I would take a day and cross the ocean back and forth and forth and back observing the ferry and its passengers, the way they would change as the day turned from morning to afternoon; schoolchildren and workers, messengers and idlers, businessmen and travellers taken from the north to the south and back again.

The north terminal of the ferry is led into with a matatu stage and a road for all the trucks and cars getting into the belly of the beast. The south terminal has a lot more life and colour. It was while getting off and walking the almost half kilometre road to the entrance that I noticed there was a ferry announcer. His job was to keep an eye on what was happening and communicate it to the people being ferried. A truck that was being driven up the road lost its steam as trucks do and began to reverse. This is a moment of not great fear but quick panic. People run around but not really worried and children laugh at the happenstance. It is a moment that can morph in almost no time at all from gaiety to sobriety. A curtain separates this from that as thin as the one put between us and the other side. But there is something about the sunshine in Mombasa that does not let such thoughts stay long in my mind.

I walked on and through the market that comes immediately after the ferry. It’s a nice market. Wooden stalls and shafts of sunlight. Snatches of Swahili and scents of sea food inhabit it. As I walked all I was thinking was that I needed to eat some fish. I wasn’t sure that there was fish or why I had this sudden craving until I saw a guy selling fried fish at 50 shillings a half. I stopped and had some of this fish. Soft, salty and succulent.

After the market, at the place where the matatus are there is a huge group of ladies selling this fish too. Their wares are arrayed in the sun and there are streaks of red in some of them. I didn’t have them then but came back a few days later to have lunch here. I stopped in front of one of these ladies and had a piece for 50 shillings and then realised I was wasting my time and had three more pieces for 60 shillings. These fish had just ended their lives in order for me to experience what was happening in my mouth. A death had occurred so that I could remember that life can be wonderful and wondrous. I remember that in school we were taught that the tongue can taste sweet and salt, and bitter. From the mixture of these in different degrees we have the whole world of taste arrayed before us. From the most noxious to the heavenly. I have read somewhere that Muslims are told if they enjoy the wine of the earth then they will never taste the wine that awaits them in heaven. That it tastes sweeter than anything on this earth and for this reward all they are asked is the supreme sacrifice of not imbibing while they walk through this place that demands over and over that we do. It’s a huge sacrifice but there was something about that fish that carried the divine in it. The spark of god or everything that we hope is god. The flawed version that we can create on earth and if this was the flesh of the deity corrupted and broken it’s hard not to believe that the wine they are promised when they make it to heaven is worth the sacrifice.

I left the ferry terminal and got on a matatu to get to the place I would be staying for the rest of my stay in Mombasa: South Coast backpackers located in Ukunda near Diani. The road from the ferry to Ukunda is almost exactly straight there are no corners to navigate just a gentle curve. A long, slow road but gentle and one in which you don’t feel like you could be in much hurry. The conductor and driver carried on an animated conversation in volumes so loud everyone could follow it. It concerned a man and his wife. The kids were away for the night and the man decided that this night he would walk around naked. However a female acquaintance of the lady had decided to visit that night. I didn’t catch whether it was the mother, sister or a friend. Anyway he bumps into this lady in the middle of the night as he goes to fetch a glass of water. She sees him naked and complains to his wife. When confronted he immediately asserts his right to walk around his garden naked if the only other occupant is his Eve. The conductor heartily agrees with this state of affairs. He swears that when his time comes he will walk around naked as the day he was dropped onto the earth.

On my way back to the ferry a few days later to sample the fish that I fell in love with I was slightly intoxicated. This one guy was having a cigarette as he waited for the matatu to fill. The conductor sat him down like he was Napoleon himself. He implored him to smoke his cigarette. He told him there was no need to rush just get on. I took the window seat and looked up at the sky, something that I haven’t done in years. There I saw childhood friends that for some reason I foreswore as I got older. They were white and in hundreds of different shapes. They inhabited a world with a blue background and have always been present.

The clouds took my attention for the thirty or so minutes that it took to get to the ferry. The sky was a perfect contrast. The blue deep and bright. The whites billowy and huge. I saw this cloud that looked like a fairy. I could see her wing and her want. I could see her stretch forward in order to set a spell on somebody. As I watched her she began to change. She suddenly wasn’t just this tiny fairy, that became her face and behind her a bust began to blow out. She turned into this angry goddess. Huge with a face filled with rage. She was flying in the sky on tiny little clouds and suddenly next to her I could see her sibling gods, two male deities angry at whatever it was they were rushing at. This trio became angrier and angrier and then they lost shape unable to contain in themselves all the fury needed to sustain the war they ran towards. They lost substance and shape and became little wisps. Feathers. Not shadows of their former selves, all they were was a fish that had died just that day and made somebody believe in snips of the divine.

It is a beautiful painting, the one in the skies. The one by the clouds on the blue. Especially in a matatu. It is a revolving sculpture and you can imagine it has another side where the darkness begins. The clouds lose shape as the wind blows through them and since you are moving too your perspective of them changes. A three-dimensional sculpture that is changing in aspect and perspect.  One of the more magical things I saw in Mombasa.

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mombasa: thoughts in the north

So, on Wednesday I got up to go to court. I had been warned over and over about the traffic that I would experience on the way there and it’s always better safe than sorry.

When I got to the courtroom it was 8 in the morning. By this time the sun has not only made an appearance it has made its presence felt. I had an hour to kill since in Kenya court proceedings start at 9 a.m. a time which in legalese is written as 9 a.m. in the forenoon.

As I waited this old British guy came into the court. He had the bluster of an American, loud voice and loud opinions but the charm of an Englishman. I don’t know where this charm comes from but most Americans who are as opinionated as him would come off as abrasive he just seemed funny. He was a big guy with a big voice. He started talking to the police and remarked on the crumbling nature of the courtroom. I previously said how grand they looked to me but as relics of colonial architecture of course they crumble. There is though a beauty in ruins and near ruins that things that gleam and sparkle can never hope to match. Memories and life have fed them and worn them down. The line running from the ceiling to the floor could very well be the story of a life lost or an anger spent, ruins remind us that life no matter how grand disappears slowly and slowly. Nobody beats time but that war provides some with beautiful battle scars.

He complained about the parking lot and the cars there and he wondered why lawyers do this if not for the money and I told him it was a public service. That the provision of justice was so important to us that we would almost do charity in order to ensure that it was provided to all. He laughed, as any sane person would at such a suggestion.  “You know that they are just prostitutes right? malawyers” I’ve heard the old joke about the only difference between a prostitute and a lawyer is that one screws you before you pay them and the other screws you after you pay them many times. This profession demands a thick skin.

He told me a story to illustrate his point. A true story he swore even though it had the structure and markings of fable. There was this town. In this town there were two men who both ran transportation companies. The biggest company had 600 trucks the other had 400 trucks. These men were best of friends and every month they would meet for lunch. They would have a big lunch. Spiced with the things that make food taste good anecdotes and company and of course salt. At the end of lunch the one with the 600 truck company would ask the other to sell him his company. The other would refuse. This went on for almost twenty years. One day the guy said yes I will sell you my company for whatever million pounds. Why he said yes is not important only that he did. They shook on it and they called their lawyers to finalise the deal. When the lawyers arrived gleefully imagining the legal fees that they would collect they received a rude shock with their instructions.

“I’m selling him my company. I want a document ready within 30 minutes for us to sign. It cannot be longer than one page. If you can’t do it give me the number of a lawyer who can.”

The lawyers protested of course. They pointed out due diligence and proper procedure but they were shot down. 30 minutes and one page or a phone number. “He has been doing due diligence for 30 years.” 30 minutes and one page later the company was sold. The seller called his employees and told them.

“Right, I’ve sold my company to this guy. I’m going down to the pub for a drink anyone who wants to join me is welcome.”

Good story. Great story. It illustrates the only reason we need lawyers in this world; because people do not trust each other. As a lawyer your bread and butter comes from the basest of human instincts: mistrust, dishonesty, theft and its possibility, crime and its consequences, the errors that happen in the investigations of crime and their consequences. Without these failings of humans and systems that humans design then we would not need lawyers. The larger the number of lawyers in the society the worse off it is in terms of trust and goodness. We stand there to make sure things can function even with absolutely no trust. This is why there are lawyers because people simply do not trust each other. In Game of Thrones bastards are shunned because they are children born of lust and weakness and violence. The reasoning being that nothing born out of this could possibly good. The truth being that we don’t want to be reminded of our weaknesses. That’s why there are so many lawyer jokes and why people don’t like lawyers so much. Their very existence points to a fault in ourselves.

He told me a story about Fidel Castro, Raila’s dead son and an amazing show of arrogance on his part. This guy was closing his bar for whatever reason and Fidel refused to order or to leave because “do you know who I am?”

The guy stops everything. Clinks his toast glass and asks everyone.

“Does anyone know who this guy is because he seems to have forgotten.”

He then makes it clear he has to leave if he values the body paint on his car. (Let me be clear Fidel had aggravated the situation according to this telling.) He then tells me that because of this incident he is convinced that Kenya is much better off with Uhuru as president than it would have been with Raila. I want to tell him that you can’t judge kings by the behaviour of princes. That an incident caused by a young man who never felt the pain of acquiring power and holding on to it, who never made the sacrifices that his father did so that power was wrested away from a dictator should not inform his opinion of an old man who understands all this.

But, I stop myself because before I went to Mombasa, right after Obama came to visit I noticed a worrying trend in myself. Every slight, every insinuation against Raila I had began to take personally. I was defending him even when I thought he was wrong because… I told myself that there were many reason. The way these people spoke with such glee and such obvious disdain in their faces and their voices. They were happy about any humiliation dished out on him and I couldn’t understand why. Someone told me once that her mother believed that Raila was using illicit alcohol to kill off kikuyus so that when the time for elections came he could win more easily. Such bold-faced and dangerous propaganda walked around and I had a responsibility to defend him, to stop this from going around. But I don’t. I can admit to his infallibility but it’s harder to do it. It’s harder to do it to certain people. It’s just difficult because how can they be so smug and I realised I needed to ask myself why do I call them “they” as if they are not Kenyans as if Uhuru did not actually win an election and is not all our president.

I was talking to someone a little later on and he said about his tribe , “at least we have the presidency.” A guy my age, I went to the same high school with him. We all had this remarkably cosmopolitan upbringing that Nairobi provided in the 90s then something happened not just to him but to me too. I was defending Raila even when I did not agree with him and if I searched myself long and hard I could find that it was just because he was Luo like me. It’s almost impossible to admit that we are tribalists. But many of us are. Many of us youth are. I don’t know where it came from. The thing is though I didn’t vote for Uhuru because “what sane person casts a vote for a man suspected of crimes against humanity.” Lots of kikuyus didn’t vote for Raila because “have you seen how red his eyes are it is a sure sign of rage and the hell he will unleash on our people.”

Even the reasons I know are skewed according to tribal affiliation. Notice the way the Uhuru one is perfectly reasonable but the Raila one is intended to make Kikuyus seem like the most tribal people on earth. The truth is I don’t know what reason they told themselves for not voting for Raila. I don’t know what non-tribal reason they gave but mine was that, the excuse of crimes against humanity. And next time it will be “I can’t vote for a president who presided over the most blood shed by terrorists Kenya has ever seen. Hundreds and hundreds died.” But I need to be honest with myself and ask if it may be tribalism. The knee-jerk defence is and I need to stop it. So I waited and thought about what this man said before I go either way and i did not defend him for Fidel’s actions.

When Court began I found out that

  1. The magistrate I was supposed to appear before was on leave; and
  2. There are a lot more female litigation advocates in Mombasa than in Nairobi.

I’m not sure what happens to women in our profession. They perhaps deal with the transfer of land or go work for any number of corporations. There just aren’t as many in court (at least in Nairobi) as there are men. Mombasa though felt good. The presence of women is great for many things. It feels like a garden, beauty and scent mingling. There is a sense of relaxation. Things aren’t as competitive. Things can take their time give you time to look around. I loved it. Most men love being surrounded by women. Yes we do need time off of it quite frequently but its great being surrounded by women. Also people in Mombasa in general are much more friendly than they are in Nairobi. Great place.

When I left court the first thing I did was go to a G4S so that I could send the file I had lugged around back to Nairobi and allow my holiday to officially begin. All I had was a K. The tuk tuk  guy had no change and neither did the G4S so they directed me to Imperial Bank. It was a tiny branch. It was so small in fact that on this day because the door was being repaired we entered through the ATM booth. There were few people in there and all I wanted was change so I didn’t think I would wait very long.

As I waited I listened to the incessant banter of Mombasa. The employees knew the people making lines and they talked and joked as they waited. It was warm and friendly. Nothing combative about waiting in line at the bank, friendship abounded even here. I also took my time to make as much eye contact as I could with an employee who was not behind the glass booth. I looked at her and she looked at me. She finally asked if she could help but we found out that she couldn’t. I like to think that I had the same effect on her as she did on me; heart racing, possibilities expanding, hope growing. So when I finished my line I gave her my card.

I paid the tuk tuk and went on to G4S. I handed them the file and then they asked me for an envelope. I had no envelope on me. They directed me to the Nakumatt next door. So I went, looking for a large A3 envelope. All that was available was this pack of ten for more money than I was willing to spend. So I left the nakumatt and walked around the storefront. I saw a guy with just the kind of envelope I was looking for I asked him where he got it and he told me they were sold all the way in town. Then I thought that maybe the bank would have A3 envelopes. I knew that this being Mombasa the bank would give me these envelopes if they had them in their possession.

So I wore my best smile and went back. Looooong story short I got my envelope ( but not my date) and sent the file back to Nairobi. Had a shawarma and then turned my eyes towards south coast.


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mombasa- the day before the suit

The Mash Auto offices in Nairobi are small and are located somewhere on river road. To get there you walk away from the National Archives down a place that somehow seems dusty even though it’s really not. At night this road is full of people  there’s noise, there’s life, there’s light and a slight sense that your bags could be stolen. The light comes down from what seems like yellow light bulbs, the kind used in a dingy bar where second generation alcohol flows like a cut when you have vitamin k deficiency- free and dangerously.

The ones in Mombasa could put an airport to shame. You enter and go up to the second floor where you find this nice air conditioned room. Free Wi-Fi. White lights. Row upon row of seats. A television. An announcer who tells you when it’s time to board.

While in North Coast I was staying in this place called Mombasa backpackers. It’s hard to find-somewhere near sunrise hotel. The place looked deserted from the entrance and I had to keep asking if there were actually open for business. Once I got in though it seemed like just the kind of place I would like to stay in. there was a big compound and at one corner  a huge swing, a bench swing that could easily fit 3 people. I sat there one afternoon and swung myself back and forth. It’s perfect to sit on with a girl, it seems to trigger some memory I had of swinging when I was younger and a girl I had a crush on coming to the swing next to mine and the way I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to show off just how high I could go or how far I could jump. I just wanted to synchronise our swings so that we could go back and forth together, too shy to talk to her but in this shared rhythm there was more than enough.

When I walked in there was an old guy in his towel  with a cigarette in his hand and a vest on his chest. I would later find out he was the proprietor and I immediately envied this life he had where he could conceivably work in nothing but a towel. While i on the other hand was there for work and I had to wear a suit to court the next day. I came a day early because I needed to know where the courts were and to file some documents in preparation. So on that morning I had a beer for breakfast- this is the only way anything can be a working holiday.

Then I got into a matatu to get to the city centre and on to the courtroom. It’s hot in Mombasa. It’s hot and humid. Everyone knows this. Still it’s a shock. You need shorts. You need a t-shirt. You need sandals. The matatus are different from Nairobi matatus; because of the heat everyone leaves every window open. In Nairobi the prime property in matatus, the front seat furthest from the driver is hogged by anyone who feels like they can. In Mombasa they will move for you  as soon as they see you paying no attention to differences in weight or age. The conductors will tout their matatus. Convince you to come in with more than just shouts and tugs. They will persuade you, they will promise you, they will make sure you are comfortable. Then the matatu will begin moving and they will talk to the driver.

For as long as the trip goes they talk to the driver. One of them explaining why a particular route had traffic quoted the bible verse about nobody going to the father but through the son, the lesson-life, my friend is hard don’t take shortcuts. There is either amiable chatter between the driver and the conductor where their life views are affirmed and jokes cracked or there is anger with each of them pointing out how bad the other is at their job. But there is always energy . And warmth of a kind we forgot in this city. A policeman, plains clothed  got into a matatu and immediately started talking to this guy. They talked long and loud. As he left his friend warned him that “it” was peeking and the guy slowly, even languorously tucked his pistol out of sight as he made his way out of the matatu-he had paid his fare by the way.

You get to the courtroom by way of tuk tuk. I thought the Mombasa Law Courts looked epic. Huge and stretching away. Relics of colonial architecture. A reminder that if you have slave labour you can make things that last and last and last. Just outside there is an open air lunch area. You sit under these trees and ask for what you would have. I had wali-maini. The best meal of rice and liver I have ever tasted in my life. Then I had a bottle of tamarind juice for 30 bob. Sweet and full of something substantial and refreshing. This kind of thing is a necessity in coastal cities where the heat leaches water of you adding it to the atmosphere and the ocean. When I was done with my reconnaissance I made my way back to the hostel.

First I went to the ferry terminal because I had forgotten my shorts in Nairobi and in Mombasa you need shorts. This guy sold me shorts for 30 bob. They were perfect shorts. This is what I need from shorts: an elastic waistband so that I don’t wear a belt with them shorts need to flow easy and free and pockets so that I can pocket (on a side note I find dresses with pockets very hot there is something about a girl putting her hands in pockets while wearing a dress that looks so remarkably chill.) these ones even had a back-pocket that I could put my wallet in. For 30 bob.

Then I made my way back to the backpackers hostel and went to the beach. The beach surprises you every time. There is a timeless beauty to the ocean. A beauty that seems to try to match itself with wisdom, it whispers to you as the waves come back and forth cleaning and depositing, cycling and recycling all the things that the earth gives us. I walked down the beach as long as I could. I saw people jogging, I saw people engaged in some kind of photo-shoot where everyone has a camera and is shooting everyone else, I saw beach volleyball and rocks and seaside restaurants. I heard the wind in my ear and the waves on my feet. I walked barefoot and saw my footprints washed away behind me. When I knew that I wasn’t going to get to the end of the beach I turned around and went home.

I met one Dutch guy there who said that he changed his major to philosophy because he wanted to do something more practical. I looked at him wondering what in his life had made him think philosophy of all things was practical. I met another guy half Pakistani half American who studied film and documentary. He wanted to move to Argentina and help his godfather make a film out of this script that he(the Godfather) had written and had been attempting to shoot but the old man just needed a touch of youth and life and enthusiasm because he had been flagging. He told me that he was meant to stay at another place but when the taxi got there the watchman said it was closed. When asked why he simply said “she’s dead” and repeated it ominously. The quality of the words must have hang in the air like the smell of sea salt. He had just had a gruelling journey from Nairobi and must have been tired and disoriented, it surely sounded like a dream. He told me that the lady went to bed and woke up dead and I couldn’t help saying that no one wakes up dead. They just don’t wake up.

I met a lady from some country in Europe, I can’t remember which. She is also a film-maker. She was staying there with her daughter, her son and her daughter’s boyfriend. The friendliest of the bunch. Quick with a laugh and curious. She must have been in her forties. She was beautiful, glamorous. The kind of beauty that seems hard worn, or at least that is hard to wear down. Lines and frowns creating mystery around a face.

I went back to Mombasa town for shawarma before I went to sleep. It was quite a distance to the town by matatu. It’s not the kind of trip I would have undertaken at home just for food but there is something about being there. There is something about being away that allows you to risk. Following various instructions I got to the shawarma joint near the post office. He took the flour and spread it out. He cut pieces of chicken off the roasting spit. He laid them out and packed them tight sprinkling in mayonnaise and chilli. Then he put them in some kind of sandwich making machine and handed it to me. The last time I had these shawarmas was on my first trip to Mombasa back in 2006. They were heavenly then. I had looked for them everywhere I went. I’ve had shawarma in many places looking for this but I never found it. I never expected to again until I took my first bite and wanted that chew to last forever. One of them was enough of a meal that I went back to the hostel and closed my eyes ready for court the next day.


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