IN THE BAR AT THE NORTH RIDGE
What do you get for sixty-five dollars at the North Ridge hotel?
A room with air con, bugs, a dirty towel and your own prostitute. Her
Name is Gifty and she wants to know what kind of work I do. I tell her,
And a little devil on my tongue asks “And you? What do you do, too?”
A seamstress, she says, but she is raising money for a sewing machine so
She doesn’t sew. Will I buy her a beer, she wants to know, and I who have just
Left my wife, ugly and crying, at Kotoka, and shouting at the police woman
That she is happy to be leaving “your fucked-up country,” lay 5,000 cedis on the bar
And ordered a Star. I am shell-shocked and unhappy, feeling I’ve sentenced
One of us to purgatory and the other to hell. Who is where we have yet
To tell. Life for an African woman is hard, Gifty says, a head-load and a baby
On your back and a man to strike you if his food isn’t right. Sweat beading on her
Round face, her mouth, a beautiful round wound, like a talking vagina,
Pours out woe, every word believable, but my mind is with another woman, one
I’ve never struck so deeply as this parting we’ve just made. Columbus never sailed
So far, or Odysseus faced so dangerous a heartbreak as now. When the music
Starts, we dance under the paper lanterns and harmattan-hazed sky. I do some kind
Of booga-loo and she moves her pleasantly thick body as freely as her tight,
Sleeveless mini-dress allows. Soon she is exhausted, but I want to go on,
Pumping my arms and jerking my head until the lights, the women, and the night
Are all spinning in a dizzy blur. I must cool down, Gifty says, and we sit for another
Star and gin and she dares to touch my hand. I recoil, alas, again, a married man.
And your wife, she asks, is she pretty? And do you think that I am pretty, too,
And if you do, do you have a brother or a friend I could send my picture to, who would,
I think, say “I do,” and carry me in his arms onto that big bird that flies from Kotoka?
Marc, the owner of the Oasis Biergarten, is body proud, sleeves rolled
like a thug; it is told how he beat "a British" in the face and took away
his woman. Swiss-German, Marc tells the story differently: He looked
all over the map for a place to build a bar, and found his oasis on the African
shore. Here the pirates blow in from Europe and America and mix with the fresh
well-to-do girls and their “brothers”, straining at taboo, and the poor, who are both prey
and who prey alike—The liquor is bad, bad, but the beer and food are good—
the toilets, logical, Western: An oasis.
Al fresco, the sea is constant music, and
outside of the light, Orion twists into a crab in the sky, and a piss is a private affair.
Africa has many kings, native and interlopers. For every Prempeh, with rolls of fat
at his neck, is a midget Leopold, fists on his hips, dreaming away wintry gloom
and its numbing, know-nothingness of the world. What riches he seeks are his own
un-treasured heart, and here is a power that comes from a little money, white skin
and a bit of cruelty. “This I don’t like!” Marc sneers at the waitress and whatever
the problem is, is removed. He pets a serval, taut in his taut arms, ready to spring
for the bush at a second of slack. In spite of it, I like him.
Marcus Garvey declared himself the Emperor of the Kingdom of Africa, as much
as Victoria, he thought, though his armies were conquered by postmen; At life’s end,
shorn of feathers and epaulets, small boys spat and threw sand at him who was even
then dreaming of saving all the black people of the world. Africa loves the strong man
who performs, the big man who wears the leopard’s hat, the aviator’s glasses and chests
upon chests-full of metals. No zhing-zhong, but only the true suffering of the people.
Heads must roll, when a big man takes control.
Even the pole thin guard, with high saluting
wave and terror in his sockets has a swagger when he serves such a king.
Marc, the owner of the Oasis Biergarten, cocks his head toward the small bedroom
Next to the bar, and a woman rises, giggles, goes with expectation to the door. She stops
In the light to see who notices. Marc gloats at the white men with half beers to their lips,
Though the homeliest could have a girl twice the looks. The serval struggles,
but the arm holds it tightly in the pit. It growls, then submits.
term used by East Africans to refer to poorly made Chinese imports.
When District Six was in vogue, the Muslim children
"All of us together,
Methodist and Muslim, we played in the streets. We celebrated
The Muslim Christmas, and they celebrated ours. God
Doesn’t care what you are, only who you are." She wipes a crumb
From her cheek. "That is why they removed us, not just
For the techicol but because we were too many together."
The technicol is dilapidated, but the old Methodist church stands,
Full of maps, dead street names, poems by Peter Clarke and
Photographs: a Malay strong man, a cross-dressing hairdresser,
An Indian businessman. Menisha Collins points to herself
A girl of six, full of promise, in the streets of the slum
She now calls Utopia:
Table Mountain is my protector.
No boogie man can climb over it.
It tells me the weather. If I see
It in morning, expect sunshine;
If I can not see, it will be cool. If clouds
Drape the Lion’s rump, expect rain.
Then let it rain.
We have never taken the cable car; it costs
Too much. Don’t ask us about the Garden
Route; We have no cars for driving.
Once our fathers saw Robben Island; It cost
Them much. Come, come and go to the Water
Front. See Victoria Water front, children,
Then let it rain.
The leopard is spotted, the cheetah is spotted and so
This is the meaning of "mara," William
Osono explains. It is the name of the river that waters
these plains. When the river is running clear, in the dry,
season, the stones mottle it like a leopard’s skin.
William, head draped in a red blanket with thin
blue stripes, carries an iron bladed spear taller than
he. He's not tall, is slender, and a good
talker, sure-footed, in sandals on the slick black
stones that hide in the wet grass. We are on a walk
through the bush with the moran, the Maasi
warriors, William, the talker, Young Moses, the big,
grinning boyish man, and Dorobo, the hunter. Perhaps,
we will spot a lion, and that is the excitement of the walk.
"If you see the Buffalo," Williams cautions, "lie down flat.
He will not step on you, and his horns are curved so that
he can not touch you. If you see the elephant, his eyes
are very bad, stay down wind, and he will not see you.
If you see the lion, stand very still even if he charges,
do not run. If you run, you will die."
His sister is near
death, down with malaria. This morning as he walks
he seems distant from that fact, focused on clients
he has taken under wing. Young Moses is young
in two ways: He is twenty; he is full of enthusiasm
for the world. He has been to Nairobi where he says
"The vehicles are more than the gnu." He likes the city,
and he wants to see the world, first Sweden, then
America. "Is America cold?" He can not read or write
but he has studied to be a game guide. He speaks Maa
and Swahili and enough of four other languages to get by.
Once he went on a long Safari. He had to get a passport.
He walked twenty-five days through the bush, all the way
to Kilimanjaro. The trip is posted on the internet,
but he doesn't know the address.
was young, he went into the bush and disappeared.
Four years passed and every one thought he was dead.
"the hunter,” and that's what
his name means. He is tall, lean, about forty years
and looks fiercely serious, until he breaks into a grin.
He has never married; He owns no cattle. Unlike
most Maasi, he carries a bow rather than a spear. A true
bushman, a tracker, he has killed many animals. But now
he, too, works for the tourists, though he only speaks
Maa and Swahili. He is old for a Maasi, but he seems
happy as he leads his brothers in the lion hunt song. He
"Gra-humm, Gra-humm," to the delight
of tourist and brother alike. Standing on a rocky crest
he points out a family of giraffes, then a troop of vervet
monkeys and the sack of twigs that's a hammercock's
nest. "This is where the elephant slept, and this is where
"he says in Maa. The ant-galled eluai
and the rough leaved oseki do not escape his notice. He picks
a gloriosa and presents it to my wife. When we return to the town,
William's wife of just four months flags him down. They
talk in Maa and give each other serious looks.
Eluai/ Oseki: kinds of acacia trees.
“I owned a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills, where in the day-
Time you felt high up, near the sun, and the mornings and evenings, limpid
And restful”—and “I am a thousand Maasi moran,” McKenzie declared in
Something of Value, “I am on a cattle raid. I am the Nandi who kills you.”
Then the Emergency came and the trains rushed Colonists from Nairobi
To the Kikuyu Reserve and they hammered and anvil-ed the Land
And Freedom Army—Mau-Mau no more.
Now a skyline of grand constructivist shapes arise —The Times Tower
Is the tallest in East Africa. Viewed from the City Square, it makes a triptych
Of giants, with the Conference centre tower and Kenyetta’s statue, be-cloaked
And be-hatted and be-sceptered—Mau Mau no more.
Along crowded Banda
Street tourists cloak their watches and strap their monies into secret places,
Impervious to the tentacle-fingers of pick pockets. Girls in plaid and blue
harp on a woman to buy tickets for their school team until the woman pulls
at her red hair, “I don’t want your damn tickets!” Whether frightened or shocked,
the girls stop, and the lights change. The woman is pulled with the surge into
Moi Avenue, and she thinks, “C’est moi, c’est moi” and soon finds calm
In the damp air-con cool of a tourist shop.
One in the legions of flip-flopped Euro tramps with dirty toes and tobacco
Where the beer is cheap and no mzungu has ever drunk without being robbed.
Bo plans his escape. Eyeing the thugs who guard the opening, he
Orders a second, feigns to sit, and bolts for the street. Long and joyous
In his strides, he is soon in matatu-bustling River Road, pushing shoulder to
shoulder with hawkers of soap, katt and prostitutes and Euro-voyeurs, when
suddenly, he is thrown down, kicked in the ribs, his pockets stripped. Poor Bo. “Welcome to Nairobbery.”
Kiberia, by the river, is a thousand twisted spines of shanties—tin roofs—
Cardboard—on a belching landscape of steaming rubbish. Hens pick at the scraps;
Goats, with scraps in their mouths, shake flies from their ears; and children,
Their bellies distended, kick a football in the slick lanes between drains, fetid
with “flying toilets” and mosquitoes.
For a few shillings, Eshe draws a jerry
can of water at the pump. The can is heavy and her feet slip down the path. Tonight,
she thinks, her children will eat porridge—until their tummies are tight. They will
sleep altogether, head and feet, head and feet, under a good blanket from the NGO.
At dark, when others light their smudge pots and bhang blunts and stagger and sing,
high on chang’aa, when thieves beat down the swaggers, and the mungiku—mad
on the icons of the long-haired mau-mau—roam for heads, she will bolt her door
against damp Kiberia by the river.
Frederic, a rally driver by calling, has left his clients in the bush—the fat
American from Des Moines, who wants Africa to look like Des Moines—
They are safe, but Frederic must get to Karen and the rains have come un-
Expectedly and there has been death. He speeds along the road, his mind
Full of the image of his child, the truck skidding and skiing over the black
cotton soil, and splashing through the wild creeks, with muddy water
the color of oranges—ahh oranges, he thinks. He must get to Nairobi, to Karen,
To oranges and gin, to his stone house tucked among the Ngong foot hills,
so close to heaven in the day, so limpid in the morning and restful at the sundown.
Matatu: A taxi van; Katt: an herb that is chewed for its intoxicating effect. Bhang blunts: Marijuana cigarettes. Chang’aa: moonshine Mungiku: Kikuyu—The multitudes: A cultist criminal group. Karen: A wealthy white suburb of Nairobi, associated with, but not named for Karen Blixen.
is the author of Bombingham, a novel, and Trouble No More, stories, both winners of the Lillian Smith Prize. He teaches creative writing at Kennesaw State University.