A Gorgeous Woman in a Movie Theater

Walking across Bul, my old haunts, with Lorraine gave me mucho social capital. This was quite an improvement from the surreptitious caresses I had previously stolen while watching action flicks in a makeshift cinema hall. I was in form 2. This is the age when high schoolers begin to stretch, bend, or wholly ignore the rules. Form 1 is all about survival, and the excitement of finally leaving behind the churlish world of primary school. Often, you’ll be bullied as older and tougher students set you straight on how beneath them you are on the totem pole of high school hierarchies. Monos, the as the sniveling, low-life form ones are called, have two options: cry for help, and be mama’s baby for your entire high school career, or bite your lip, persevere, and look forward to meting out the same punishment to junior boys next year.

Well, Aga Khan Academy had no space for bullies. No government minister, or wealthy business magnate, was paying a fortune in tuition just for their kid to get knuckled every afternoon. Aside from that, my cohort never got a younger breed of monos on whom we could exercise our tyranny. AKA offered three kinds of high school education: the Kenyan national curriculum, the International Baccalaureate, and the British IGCSE. Students studying the KCSE paid the least in tuition. We were the poor distant relatives. No wonder the institution decided to do away with this option. We were the last class to take sit for national KCSE exams in 2001. and we knew better than to try and intimidate our richer compatriots.

That, however, did not stop us from breaking the rules in other ways. My favorite was making an unsanctioned (by my parents, that is) stop at an Indie movie theater. These venues were the height of ingenuity. Kids love TV. Unfortunately, in my version of suburbia, TVs were a luxury – not so much in terms of buying, but in regards to maintaining it. Sure, you could arm yourself with a cheap Chinese-made home theater – aka a 21″ black and white telly – but that didn’t solve the energy challenge. We were not connected to the national power grid. Up until the 2002 Kibaki administration, connection to power was a political largesse reserved for the well-heeled. You prayed that one of your local councilors or Members of Parliament was in the good graces of the Big Man in State House. If not, languish in darkness! You’d use kerosene lamps for the house, and run the TV using a car battery. Bul Bul was a major enough town center, right on Ngong Road, to warrant connection to the electrical grid. An entrepreneur rented space, placed about 10 wooden benches in there, all facing a 32 inch TV that, for security purposes, was always locked in a metal cage. Even when you paid the KSHS 10 admission fee to go watch a movie. This was such a rare treat, the proprietor must have been anxious someone would walk out with the electronic equipment just as the main actor was about to kick ass.

You could watch all kinds of things here. Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches. You may have been born in Kangawa, had no idea where the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was, but you lived, breathed, and bled Manchester United. Or Barcelona. Or Deportivo La Corona, Chelsea, Arsenal, and many more. But these team afiliations were also about glory. I’m yet to find someone who roots for Newcastle Upon Tyne. No space for losers here.

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Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches.

Weekday evenings, from about 5pm, featured action flicks. Think of the big global brands in action films: Rambo, Terminator, Bond, Jean Calude Van Damme, The Rock, Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared on the screens multiple times during the week. The movie operator decided to start showing World Wrestling Federation matches on Wednesday nights. These were apparently as big a hit with grown men as they were with school boys. In primary schools, we adopted WWF monikers: The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Papa Shango, Coco-T. if boys wanted to tease you, they snickered Yokozuna each time you walked by. If you’ve ever seen the 400 pound Japanese Sumo wrestler, styling a thong, you’d clearly see why this was not a complement.

I went in mostly for the action. Martial arts, close-quarter hand combat, crime thrillers with epic car chases, those were my staple. I craved the adrenaline. Loved the sweaty smell as strangers squeezed onto an uncomfortable wooden bench, craning their neck each time a new patron walked down the aisles. Since the cinema needed zero light penetration to ensure the best movie experience for its customers, this meant the theater was a claustrophobia-inducing cube. No light in or out. And no air, in or out. It was stuffy as hell. And by the time you exited, as the credits rolled on, you’d re-emerge almost as though from a cave. Blind as a bat.

And then there was the commentary. This is a unique phenomenon I’ve not seen replicated anywhere else. It’s kinda like having subtitles on your movie, except that they’re provided as live commentary. The same kind of commenting that accompanies sports events, soccer, baseball, football, or basketball. It’s often in Sheng or Gikuyu, and it’s amazingly hilarious to listen to. Since we were mostly watching Hollywood hits, American English was the default language. Which is fine until you’re faced with an audience that has not graduated high school, and whose comfort with accents is minimal. But why should that stop anyone from enjoying a movie. The solution Nairobi designed was to have commentator who, even though his level of English may not be much better, had pre-viewed the movie, and could walk the audience through the plot line. Hollywood action flicks have a fairly copy-paste plot line: good guy enjoying life; bad guy messes up good guy’s life; good guy has to kick some ass; bad guy is taken care of; good guy gets the girl and drives off into the sunset. The End. Commentators helped the audience figure out Good guy and Bad guy. And then they began to add their own sound effects. And, since they provided commentary in local dialects, their storytelling was inevitably colored by local colloquialisms.

“Basiiiii, wapenziiii, watazamaji!” “So noooow, dear audience!” You inevitably smiled when you heard the DJ begin his film commentary. These folks actually have a lot of fun at work. If you get the movie’s dialogue, it’s annoying as hell to have to listen to their often inaccurate voice-overs. But once you give yourself into the experience, it’s actually super funny. The descriptions of the villain and the hero are laced with innuendo, and whatever insults are currently hot on the street. In case you’ve missed the “Word of the Day” during your matatu commute, the DJ makes sure you’re all caught up.

There was more than language to be appreciated from these spaces. Did I mention that the space had an air of debauchery? I’m pretty certain they’d air blue movies after a certain hour. Movies Za-Kaende, as they’re known in Sheng, needed a 21+ rating. No Kids allowed. I couldn’t stay out past 9pm on a school night, so I never had the pleasure. I did indulge, however, in flirting with a regular. I never quite figured out why she was often in the audience. She could either have been the proprietor’s daughter, or the DJ’s girlfriend.

But she was more comfortable in this macho theater than I was. And that was sexy to watch. One time I was lucky, her usual spot next to the DJ was occupied. Her only other option: the empty bench beside me. I scooted over in a welcoming gesture. I didn’t dare hope that she’d take me up on my offer. I struggled to hide my excitement when she did! We whispered hello to each other. The best thing about chatting up a gorgeous woman in a movie theater is that you have to get real close. The sound track is booming, and other patrons don’t appreciate being interrupted. No choice but to get inside each other’s personal bubble. Her shoulder brushed up against mine, our fingers were soon dancing, seemingly on their own. They yawned for each other, before filling up with the other’s palm and warmth. Our only acknowledgement for this pleasure: an occasional  smile, barely visible from the light bouncing on our faces from the TV screen upfront. That is one film I’d replay ad infinitum.

 

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Living Life Between the Tracks: From “Lunatic Express” to the “Standard Gauge Railway”

In the late 1890’s, as British East Africa”s most important colonial venture was underway – the Mombasa to Kampala railway – a young girl from the Kamba community watched, amazed. More than a hundred years later, that young soul is bearing witness to yet another grandiose infrastructural initiative: Kenya’s new Standard Gauge Railway.

It’s hard to believe that Shosho was Nzova is that old. There were no records of native births in the early years of Kenya’s Pax Britannica. Just like pre-segregation United States, there was minimal interest in the lives of colored folks – unless that interest had to do with men’s labor or women’s reproductive capacity. In any case, the reach of Britain’s East African empire was puny back then – usually restricted to the tiny commercial centers that were set up to support rail construction. Indentured laborers from India were often left behind to man this seedlings of European civilization in the midst of a vast savanna. Quite a number of these Gujarat traders learned local languages and integrated into the community. Many, however, had no clue what lay more than 10 miles on either side of the track. “Bush!” they’d say, “mere African bush … full of savages.”

The railway construction Shosho Nzova witnessed was to encounter numerous challenges before completion. Some of these problems had to do with the ecosystem. Like the man-eating lions of Tsavo that dragged numerous African and Indian laborers from their work camps at night. Other forms of crisis emanated from the imperialist nature of the railway project, and the manner in which indigenous communities reacted, and resisted. The Nandi people, for instance, were known to vandalize telegraph wire that ran alongside the rail line. The Nandi would then strip copper from these wires and use it for jewelry.

Shosho Nzova’s life was not smooth either. She bore 8 children, and brought them up on her own as a single mother. We were neighbors for almost 2 decades towards the end of her life. On some evenings, I’d go into her house and help her light a wooden fire. It was during those moments that she’d narrate incidents from her adulthood. She’d moved from her ancestral home to Ngong in the late 1940s or the early 1950s. In any case, she was in place to benefit from the restrictive regime that followed Kenya’s 1952 State of Emergency. Like her neighbors, she too was corralled into a concentration village. I was so poor I wore sisal sacks, she’d tell me. I did this while working for one white man in Karen and he was so moved he got me a new dress. Never one to simply lay down and give up, Shosho got into the brewing industry. She set up her own home beer and liquor production unit and made a living entertaining her fellow villagers. Mark you, selling beer from one’s residence was very illegal and warranted harsh punishments from both the colonial and post-independence governments.

Her parenting skills were remarkable. Despite having minimal education herself, she educated her kids to become professionals. Joakim, one of her boys, went to a teachers’ training college and got a job as a primary school teacher. With his government salary, Joakim pulled together enough savings to buy a plot of land. His property had a weird shape; or so it seemed to my young mind. It was very long, spanning two municipal-designated main roads, but it was extremely narrow. It was almost as though the land itself had once been demarcated as a roadway.

Joakim built a 3-bedroom stone bungalow, and put up a wooden structure for his mother. Much of the land was left to grow grass, and in these spaces he planted fruit trees. As young kids, we’d vandalize his guava orchard – using small gaps in the Kei-Apple hedge to rush in, grab as much fruit as possible before dashing back out. Speed was essential. Mwalimu Nzova, as Joakim was more called, did not mess with his garden and he was known to cane any village miscreants he caught impinging on his land rights. Often, one would have to dive head first into the thorny bush to avoid him spotting you. Getting caught was bad; being spotted and evading capture was not much better. The latter scenario usually ended with him making a report to your parents, in which case you still got punished. His farm was between our house and the Kinyanjui’s, family friends. To get to their house, it was possible to walk down hill and use the main road. But frankly, it was so much more tempting to simply cross Mwalimu Nzova’s shamba – damn the consequences!

Joakim’s reactions to neighborhood kids tramping across his farm was not unusual. Many residents in Kangawa village jealously guard access to their farm. Unless you’re in good terms, it’s highly unlikely they will look favorably at your attempts to trespass. And yet these sentiments are in complete contrast to what has been happening lately, all part of Kenya’s shiny new railway line.

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At the moment, if you visit Kangawa, there’s an excitement in the air. The thrill is often punctuated by the words, “Mchina.” Word has it that a Chinese construction company is laying railway track for Kenya’s new Standard Gauge Railroad. There is good cause to believe these rumors. For the past 3 or 4 years, there’s been rail construction from the port of Mombasa. After almost 500KM, the line is outside Nairobi, it’s first major station. Just a few miles south east of Kenya’s capital, at Athi River, workers are putting final touches for overhead rail tracks. Clearly, the rail line is on its way west, towards Kisumu and perhaps even further on to Kampala.

The distance between Mombasa and Nairobi is littered with work sites, but unlike 100 years ago, there aren’t enough lions left in Kenya’s wilderness to ambush workers. However, just like a century ago, rail construction is the biggest economy in the small and dusty villages that the track has passed through. In Kangawa, able-bodied young men have signed up en masse to work under the Chinese company. All skills are in demand: electricians, plumbers, woodworkers, masons, etc. Even those with no handyman skills have been fortunate enough to apprentice in a trade of their choice.

Never mind the language barrier. Work hours are calculated in Chinese script as well as in English. Laborers have become adept at gesturing and non-verbal communication. They have also worked hard to pick up phrases and words from their Chinese bosses. On the other side, Swahili words are slowly making their way into the vocabulary store of those managing railway construction.

Several times a month, 2 or 3 Chinese surveyors are seen mapping out Kangawa. They lay out their theodolites, tape measures, and even 3D scanners on roads, farms, riverbeds, etc. Each of their move is well studied and scrutinized. Villagers are attempting to predict where the line will pass through, who will be relocated, and if/when monetary compensation will take place. I spoke with a former headmaster who jokingly talked about trees being compensated at the rate of $600 each. He suggested that after report he’d happily started counting all the trees in his backyard and saw that it all added up to a tidy sum. Perhaps, he said, I should start planting more seedlings even now so I get more money if my home is moved.

Yet, not everyone is eager for the monetary compensation. Even as folks point out that if a major train station is built close to Kangawa, job opportunities will really increase, others are worried about what will happen to the community and its nascent sense of togetherness. I think we’re going to get separated, and will have to learn how to re-build community wherever we all end up, Mochu said. He acknowledges the need for infrastructural investments, but he pointed out the costs of that in terms of relationships between people.

The rail line has already started off with a bang. There was a demonstration when local youth felt sidelined for employment opportunities at the hands of outsiders. Unsurprisingly, a similar conflict erupted in Narok. Young men who identified as Maasai Moran, violently clashed with Chinese managers as well as with Kenyan security personnel as they were voicing their concerns.  Expertise is highly valued by the construction company. Perhaps in attempts to keep the railway construction on schedule. This means that an electrician who worked with the company in Mombasa will be preferred to an applicant who hails from Kangawa. Consequently, there arises animosity between those who live in the areas where the track passes through, and outsiders who have managed to get construction jobs. To the Chinese, their workers are all Kenyans – in the way that foreigners are never savvy of localized competition and rivalry.

Kangawa is currently the site of an 8km tunnel that has to go through a hillside. This means that for the next couple of years, a lot of work will be happening underground. Ominous. To ward off any lingering malicious spirits, foremen set up an elaborate sacrifice on the first day when tunneling began. The offering, consisting of oranges, a bottle of banana wine, flowers and candles was meant to placate any malevolence. So far it has worked; there have been no work site injuries. More importantly, it won over the spectating group of workers. In the eyes of Kangawa’s youth, their Chinese workmates are more than tech-savvy foreigners, they are also a culturally-grounded people who have not discarded their customs and traditions. This won them major brownie points!