Of Cash, Women, & Public Spaces

I was sitting at the Green Pastures Hotel, Ngong, the other day. I’d just taken care of some errands at the bank and sent out emails. I spotted the Green Pastures café and noticed that although several tables were occupied by old Masai men, there was still space to sit and enjoy Kenya’s legendary chai. I decided to walk in and have a cup of tea and 2 mandazi. After ordering my snacks at the counter, and grabbing a seat, I became aware of two school girls in uniform eating fries. I  also began following a conversation between a security guard who’d walked in for lunch and the hotel staff. They were making fun of him for eating githeri and reminding him of previous visits to the joint when he’d ordered chapati and beef stew – a much more affluent meal than his current maize and bean stew.  He laughed off their remarks, intent on negotiating some beef gravy onto his plate. I thought about paying for his meal but he seemed a lot more at home in the restaurant than I was. On the other hand, I figured, two high school girls would love a free plate of fries. I decided to pay for their meal.

 

At the end of my meal, when I went to the counter and settled my check, I asked the cashier whether the two students had already cleared their tab. She said no, at which point I expressed my desire to pay on their behalf. Although she seemed a bit hesitant, I went ahead and handed her the KSHS 200. I had not calculated a quid pro quo –  at least in no more than an acknowledging nod of the chin, and a shrug of the shoulders. Essentially, a thank-you-but-it’s-no-big-deal response.  Nothing more. Putting myself in their same position, I reckoned that as a cash-strapped high school kid any benefactors, especially those engaged in public transactions would be quite welcome.  I get a free plate of fries and all I have to do is wave thanks and goodbye? Sign me up!

 

That, it turns out, was the exact moment of my miscalculation. These two young women were not operating under the same assumptions. I hissed at them as I was walking out the door – that “xsxs” sound you make with tongue partly jutting out from lips spread over barely exposed front teeth. They both turned to face me. I then ventured to say, “msilipe, nimelipa.” The reaction was fascinating, actually. One of them interpreted my words as an insult. Pointing her right index finger to just above her ear and behind the temple, she gestured asking, “wewe, uko na hii?” Essentially, my sanity was in question. How dare I openly pay for their meal? Her body language was extremely rude; that she was irked enough by my actions to also perform her displeasure in public is amazing to me and invites so many questions. I don’t doubt that at least one of the young ladies, perhaps both, harassed the cashier for having accepted the money on their behalf. I wonder if both female students understood accepting a free meal to also mean partaking in an exchange – for which their part of the deal was yet to be determined. Being that I’m a man, it’s not entirely inconceivable that I might have done so to elicit sexual favors.

 

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During the last couple of days I spent in Accra, I took it upon myself to bar hop extensively, in commemoration of the wonderful six weeks I’d spent in Ghana. East Legon was one of my favorite haunts. Close to the Mensvic Hotel where I was lodged, I could walk back from a restaurant as I surveyed the night scene.

 

I’d just had a lovely time at Jerry’s; this outdoor pub that sprawls from within the halls of a juke-box-furnished hall onto the busy Legon Avenue. Patrons not only sit at the counter, indoors, they also occupy plastic seats on what had historically been a sidewalk. They balance local and foreign brews – Star, Club, Heineken – on plastic tables and nod to the DJ’s efforts. Sometimes the DJ replaces the juke box; often they simply compete for an audience. The party spills over onto the busy two-way street. Young ladies in various stages of undress, saunter up and down the street. They familiarly walk into Jerry’s, order drinks, stand by the kebab/mshikaki grill and light cigarettes, then walk back onto the road waiting for the next client. These young women don’t ask for anyone’s permission to be present. If Jerry’s does not prove up to par, they easily walk across to Phillipo’s – a hip barbecue joint that boasts a long line of customers waiting to pick up their chicken, goat, or sausage meats-on-a-skewer. Dressed in wigs, black evening dresses, short skirts, sling bags, heels, and manicured nails, these young women are comfortably in place.

 

Alongside them, in between Jerry’s and Phillipo’s, a range of foreign vehicles drives up and down sometimes slowing down to let one of them hop in. Occasionally, a driver will simply pull up at Jerry’s and begin a conversation with one of the women. Drinks might even be ordered and consumed as the  couple chats, sometimes sitting inside the car, but more often simply leaning on the hood or the car doors. Understandably, given the large number of ladies present, it often seems like a buyer’s market.  Consequently, several ‘sellers’ chose to detach themselves from the Jerry’s/Phillipo’s crowd and stake out their own spots. About 200 meters in either direction, you’ll find seductively dressed ladies standing alone, as though waiting for a cab, or in twos and threes, sharing a smoke and surviving the night. Walking from Jerry’s to the Mensvic, I was fascinated by how the women chose a particular spot. Did everyone have a favorite spot; would others stay away and respect some kind of ownership? Was it more strategic to stand underneath a tree, next to a restaurant, or behind an electric pole? At what point in the conversation between a sex worker and a client did the issue of monetary compensation arise?

 

If Jerry’s and Phillipo’s are visited by the hoi polloi – folks who don’t mind mingling outdoors, assaulted by hooting taxis, mosquitoes, braving inadequate/non-existent interior décor – the new KFC joint 300m down the road is reserved for the upwardly mobile. Where Jerry’s is loud, chaotic, and characterized by cheap plastic furniture that breaks or bends – suddenly planting its occupier on the dirt floor – KFC is marked by shiny glass walls, polished daily to assist its clientele better reflect on their progress up the social ladder. The wood and metal furniture is largely immovable; the only fluid part of the restaurant is the drive thru section where customers lean out of Range Rovers and latest model Jaguars to order family packs of chicken nuggets and diet cokes.

 

Jennifer and Anita were standing together by the road side. I walked on the pavement behind them headed back to the hotel. Jennifer made first contact; not in any rude or heckling kind of way, but just a polite hello. I stopped and engaged them in conversation. They shared their names, after I’d told them mine. And then I began with the fifth degree. Where are you from? Jennifer said she was Liberian, but Anita was from Togo. I thought it was highly suspicious that none of them identified as Ghanaian. Was this to avoid some kind of stigma? For me, my antenna was doubly raised because I’d had several conversations with Ghanaians where crime and begging on the streets were social ills repeatedly associated with foreigners – not something Ghanaians did. Go figure! I couldn’t tell if Jennifer’s English made her Liberian enough, but I sought to check Anita’s French. I can happily report that even if she’s not Togolese, her French is more fluent than mine!

 

I was interested in finding out how long they’d been pursuing this line of work. And I was especially curious to figure out how, if at all, they read potential clients. I asked questions about how often they reach out to someone who’s walking. Jennifer remarked, “this one has a lot of questions!” In their position, I figured I’d only speak with men who drove, expecting them to have more disposable income. Jennifer and Anita made the argument that sometimes they actually make more from a man who walked to them. Anita was pretty clear that if she had a husband she’d not be on the streets at that time; she’d have someone to take care of her. We parted with me buying drinks for them. It was the least I could do. Having taken up their time with my questions, I could at least buy each of them a beer in return. The cash exchange was surprisingly comfortable for all parties involved.

 

 

 

Song for My Ancestress (Part II)

 

Grandma’s house had a green wooden door. The timber had been cut into thin bamboo-like pieces, polished and put together using carpenter’s glue and nails. My great grandfather, who had made a career working with wood, had built her home right next to their own on a plot of land Gathiri had helped her parents buy.

Later, after buying land in what had previously been a colonial sisal plantation, Juja, grandma moved. Not having the capital to purchase new material and build a permanent structure, she opted to tear down her tin shack three-roomed house and re-use the iron sheets for her new home. The tin roofing was carefully pried free from the nails; and the timber was cautiously set aside in the hopes of rejoining the house. After the whole house had been torn apart, her furniture was piled into a lorry and the long drive to Juja Farm commenced. That first night, after arriving and unloading everything, they slept in the open – exposed to the elements and, back then, woodland savannah teeming with a colorful array of wildlife.

Decades later, I’ve often heard that locals warned the arriving party not to build on the site they’d chosen but their advice fell on deaf ears. During the April school holidays when I’d visit grandma, the house would occasionally seep water through the floor or through the back wall. Every rainy season, behind the house, there existed a swamp – with the mandatory, obnoxiously loud, male bull frog.

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Grandma in a white blouse with a colleague during a 1961 trip to Israel

My mom says grandma was not an especially gifted businesswoman. Having spent much of her career in white collar positions, she was slow in adapting to the rigors of the jua kali (self-employed) sector. Some of my earliest memories of her are as a charcoal seller, operating a kiosk in Gikambura, on one of the back alleys that faced away from the market. It was in those same shadowy spaces that I’d hear Zaire’s Mbilia Mbel and Franco take over Kenyan airwaves with their seductive Lingala rhumba.

Grandma was, however, a gifted farmer. She could wrench the fruits of the earth from what had been previously barren soil. Her Juja neighbors thought her mad when she planted, of all things, trees on her farm. “Trees don’t grow here!” they vowed, using the same warning tone they’d invoked about the swampy building site. They were wrong. My grandma’s compound became one of the few where you could see trees. The area is flat, grassland savanna; trees can be seen from miles away. Whenever we went to visit, the landscape mostly populated with thorny acacia trees, the tall blue gums and the flaming Jacaranda outside her house served as a navigational bearing. Her fruit orchard was soon producing pawpaws and passion fruit – previously unheard of in Juja. During the passion fruit season, her visits to our house meant an abundance of fruit. It was from her that I first observed the, yet unproven, (pseudo)science of identifying male vs. female pawpaw seeds. Apparently, if you dangle a needle from the end of a thread just on top of, but not touching a pawpaw seed, the needle will be magnetically attracted to the seed if it’s male – or female, I forget exactly how this works. All the same, I have memories of my dad and I attempting to separate viable male vs. female pawpaw seeds under grandma’s keen tutelage.

Her attempts at animal husbandry were equally successful. She could turn a single ewe and ram into a worthy herd in no time. Sheep give birth about twice a year. We’d visit one year to witness her flock dwindle to 5 – courtesy of hyenas as the sheep were grazing, worms, or coughs – and return a year or two later to see a flock of almost 30, all reared from the original 5. We used to make fun of how lambs that were left behind as the rest of the herd went out to graze during the day, would follow her around the house and garden. She had Abel’s gift and was a veritable sheep whisperer.

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I’d travel to Juja in the company of my mother, younger sisters, and grand uncle and his family. Usually we’d use their cars – split between two convoys. Our first stop was often the newly opened Uchumi Hyper Supermarket. Over the years Uchumi Ngong Road has lost the prestige with which it was first opened. Back in the day, this was the height of middle class respectability. The red and white plastic shopping bags spoke volumes about a family’s ability to climb up the ladder. This was the spot to pick the (almost) mandatory groceries: packets of sugar, tea leaves, salt, cooking oil, maize and wheat flour, loaves of sliced bread, etc. On times when we’d make the journey without my grandma’s brother, my mom would hoist the package onto her back – the quintessential Kikuyu woman.

Using public transport to get to Juja was arduous. It meant a bus to town, then a number 237 van to Thika, though we’d actually alight at Juja/Muchatha. And yet that was just half the journey. At Muchatha we’d have to sit and wait until one of those fame-me-face-you trucks converted into passenger vans arrived, and got fully packed with people, goods, and often domestic animals. Kids such as myself and younger sisters, obviously didn’t need a sit so we’d stand in between rows of adults – lost in the dank, sweaty interior of the van. It was usually much better if the van was not covered with a tarpaulin sheet. That way I could stretch out and swing back and forth as the vehicle lurched in and out of potholes. But that also meant exposure to the midday savanna sun and dust. Often we’d alight at Juja Farm and embark on the last quarter of the journey by foot. This route often passed by the Harris farmhouse – a white family that had settled here ranching and practicing horticulture. With all these adventures, accompanying Baba Kamau to my grandma’s, his eldest sibling’s, house was always a lot more enjoyable. Often we’d get to grandma’s place by about midday; this gave us a couple of hours to prepare lunch – usually a couple of chickens or a goat if there were enough of us AND we’d informed grandma before hand so she could prep the barbecue. If we drove there, it was also more likely that we’d all head back home in the evening, often getting back to Ngong very late in the evening eager to forego dinner and jump straight into bed before school the next day.

Sometimes though, my sisters and I would be left behind – especially at the beginning of school holidays. We’d stay there for 2 to 3 weeks, until my mom came back to pick us up, or we’d head back home in the company of Njoro, my mom’s youngest brother. Staying in Juja for the holidays meant taking the animals out to graze in the morning. Sometimes I’d only have to get them to the herdsman and he’d keep them for the day before I picked them up in the evening. One school holiday I accompanied Wa Ngoiri, grandma’s herdsman, everyday. I remember having to do a lot of walking, and always coming back in the afternoon famished. Or I’d join other village boys and together we’d herd the animals, often under the supervision of an adult. Working in bands of boys, we’d get someone’s dogs and recruit them into a hunting party. I remember once capturing a baby antelope, courtesy of one of the dogs, killing it and taking half of it as my counterpart took home the other half.

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Sometimes Njoro would not only take us back home, he’d also visit Ngong at the beginning of vacation and take me back with him. Back then he was wild enough that my parents felt the need to warn him not to spend too much time in Nairobi’s movie halls before getting to Juja. He’d partly grown up in Maringo section of Nairobi – as a “born tao” (someone born in town) he was suave and cool in a way his village buddies could not comprehend. For instance, he could navigate the city’s traffic at a time when most of his Juja friends had only been to the city once or twice – if at all – mostly on day trips organized by the school.

One such trip from Ngong to Juja unraveled into much drama. We’d already made it to Nairobi CBD, embarked onto a 237 minibus, and we were just about to alight at Muchatha. As we standing up, and Njoro was maneuvering a bag of dried maize my mom had given him for grandma, he accidentally hit one of the window panes next to him and broke it. The bus conductor as well as the driver were up in arms. There was no way we could leave, they said, without having paid for the damages. Needless to say, we missed our Muchatha stop and kept on bickering with the bus operators all the way to the final stop at Thika. I think there was even mention of police station to force Njoro to hand over cash for the damages. I’m pretty sure he had some money on him, courtesy of my mom, but being the smooth operator that he believed himself to be, he had no intention of parting with it. The decision was finally made that I’d head back with the bus, get down at Muchatha, go see grandma about some money for the broken window and return with it. Meanwhile, Njoro plus all our luggage would be held ransom until I returned.

Disembarking from Muchatha, I caught the face-me-face-you truck and made it to Juja Farm. My twelve-year-old mind calculated that instead of walking all the way to grandma’s house it made more sense to go to Mr. Harris’s house, take money from him which he’d surely get back from grandma, and hence set right back on rescuing Njoro. I walked to the white farmhouse, raised on a platform above ground, and with a verandah all around it. I’d never been here before, and we’d not been previously introduced to each other. I knew of him based on what both grandma and Njoro talked about. Grandma would visit his house once in a while; and Njoro would eventually work on the family farm tending vegetables. I’m fascinated to think about what they’d have talked about – grandma and Mr. Harris. Language was certainly not an issue. Grandma’s English was impeccable, so much so that her Juja neighbors nicknamed her Mama Njoroge wa Githongo, i.e. Njoroge’s mother who also speaks English. That she could converse with a white man in his language, without any fear, must have endlessly astonished her neighbors.

For them, this was another reminder of how much Gathiri, or Nyina wa Njorogo, as most of them knew her, had attempted to break away from the female gender roles pre-assigned to her. If I remember correctly, I met Mr. Harris and 2 or 3 other family members. I introduced myself and explained what had happened. I underlined that grandma would get him his money back but that I needed it urgently, before Njoro ended up in prison. Mr. Harris indeed handed over KSHS 500. I can’t imagine what he’d have thought of the tale! I rushed back only to meet Njoro at Muchatha. He’d walked away by leaving my bag full of clothes with the driver, and made it home with the bag of maize. He was to return the next day to retrieve my clothes and compensate the bus operators for the broken window. There was nothing else to do but to get back onto another face-me and finally head to grandma’s house, minus my luggage. In the subsequent weeks, a never-ending twist of events resulted in me permanently separated from my luggage. Njoro went back a few times but never came back with the clothes. One pair of jeans had plastic gems embedded underneath the front waistband and I was quite fond of it. I hated having to part with it!

The rest of the vacation was thankfully uneventful. In addition to herding grandma’s cattle, goats, and sheep, I’d run errands to the village shop. When my cousins were around, grandma only entrusted me with  purchasing cigarettes for her. This was a big job for me; and I remember her asking me to bring them straight back to her without showing my cousins. It felt thrilling to be entrusted with such an important task. Eventually, however, smoking prematurely ended grandma’s life – a result of lung complications, most likely lung cancer.

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Years later, Gathiri would move in with us in the last months of her life. One day, grandma was out in the yard; she’d taken a walk outside the house, and was re-entering the house through the kitchen. Just a few meters from the door, she slipped, probably tripping on one of the many stones and pebbles that litter our yard. Weak, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her frail voice from such a distance; on my way out the kitchen for an entirely different reason, I spotted grandma struggling to get off the ground and back on her feet. Her previously full bosom had now turned flat and emaciated; and she was hoarsely calling out to my mother, “Annie, Annie!”

 

Of Bananas, Coconuts, & Oreos (Part I)

So, the other day in class I was introduced – by my students – to two fascinating concepts: bananas and coconuts.

Bananas are yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Coconuts are brown on the outside, white on the inside. Have you caught on to the similarity: white on the inside? Students from mainland China and Hong Kong explained that bananas are used as a metaphor to define people of Chinese ethnicity who have adopted European mannerisms: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Along the same lines, explained an American student of Indian descent, coconuts are deployed to describe a younger generation of Indians who grew up in the United States, speak no Hindi, Punjabi, or Gujarati, but have ties to Mother India through their parents: brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Aside from the retrogressive use of brown and yellow, terms that have not quite transcended their history of oppression in the same way “black” has, there was much that intrigued me about this kind of cultural analysis. On the one hand, I’m in the midst of writing an article about the use of African cuisine, especially in urban areas, to explore hierarchies of (symbolic) power. That bananas and coconuts are, first and foremost, fruits opens up a host of questions as to why communities repeatedly resort to food as a motif to discuss race relations, power differentials, and discrimination.

The other reason why I was fascinated by this discussion was more personal. What fruit, if any, would be most appropriate in describing the kinds of cultural mixing that forms my own personality?

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Let’s step back to kindergarten. I attended Silverbeck Academy for pre-school at a time when academies were still portent symbols of bourgeois social mobility. This counted twice as much in the rural Gikambura area where Silverbeck was located. The institution had both interior and exterior markers of class. On the one hand, its facilities were made of stone and mortar; windows had glass panes, unlike Gicharani Primary School – a public school up the road where paned windows were largely a foreign concept. Internally, Silverbeck used class trips to set itself apart.
There’s one particular excursion that is ingrained in my mind. The school took us to Wilson Airport, a small commercial airport outside the Nairobi CBD. Then, and even now, the airport is frequented by smaller planes, not the international Boeing 737s that one would find at the much bigger Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It was a great day for an outdoor trip; the tarmacked runway was blindingly sun-lit when we arrived. After all 10 or so kindergarteners got off the bus, we walked around the airfield amongst the planes. Just touching the sleek metal must have been fun. The tail license numbers on the small engine Cessnas must have looked erringly familiar to the numbers and letters activities we did in class. The coolest part of the trip was getting into one of the 8-seater planes, sitting in the cockpit, and having my picture taken holding onto the controls.
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In other words, the sense of being different has always been with me. As I’ve grown older, I’m less perturbed by this outsider-looking-in feeling. I think this is part of why what’s foreign/unfamiliar has always been attractive to me. Back in those Silverbeck days, there was an outdoor cinema once a month in my village. Folks from the government’s Ministry of Sports & Cultural Affairs would show up in a van, rig up a white sheet for a screen, crank the generator, and project old westerns after dusk.

You can’t imagine how big of a deal these events were! They served as a lifeline for teenagers and young adults, connecting them to a “modern” world that barely condescended to visit the dusty market square that we called a town. Those images, those accents, and that music all pointed to a life larger than any of us could comprehend. And this is before we even begin to break down what it meant to view white people with guns riding at high speed towards, or away from, danger. Missing a movie show was tantamount to a midlife crisis, or worse.

My dad’s side of the family tells stories about their escapades attending these movies in the late 80s. The venue was often the outdoor pitch where our local soccer club hosted weekend matches against other teams in the region. One evening when a film was showing, aunt Wanja decided to attend. She sat upfront, on a rare patch of grass, and bundled up to keep warm. She had on an oversized coat, perhaps borrowed from an older sibling to keep the chill away. It goes without saying that there were no public restrooms available at the movie showing. As a result, movie-goers invented all kinds of ways to cater for their bathroom needs. The men, as you can imagine, would simply find a bush to the side and “do” it. Women had less options. And attending to a number 2, by either men or women, required even more skill.

On this particular night, my aunt must have sat next to a member of the audience who was particularly skillful. He/she did their thing, and wrapped it up using a polythene bag. They then deposited the package into my aunt’s coat pocket. Somehow, as she concentrated on John Wayne surviving, yet again, a fusillade of bad guy bullets, she missed both the stench and the newly added weight in her garment. It was not until the film ended, and they were heading back home, that she drove her hands deep into her coat pockets to warm them up and keep away the numbness. Her scream must have woken up any sleeping devils. Her curses would have made a sailor blush. She pulled her right hand out of her now very heavy, very smelly pocket and shook it till her fingers almost dropped off. Running to a patch of a grass, she proceeded to rub her hand and wipe off the offending goo. Getting it out of her coat pocket was another story altogether. All this time, the big village boys were having the time of their lives: pointing and celebrating her misfortune in between sending missiles of rotten eggs across the departing audience.

Getting home from a movie was rarely a peaceful affair; it generally involved fist fights or stone throwing. But not even the threat of human feces could keep us away. It was always a welcome addition of excitement to our usually mellow rural hamlet. Most importantly, however, the screen helped us imagine novel identities we’d otherwise not have experienced. A few days after watching a western, I put on a yellow rain coat and swaggered just like I’d seen the main character to. The coat was new, and came to just below my knees; the proportions couldn’t have been better if it had been meant to be worn out in the wild, wild west. And with my hands deep in my pocket, I thought that my twirling coat tail would have done any cowboy proud.