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Published: July 24th 2018
I was about to board the matatu to Malindi I had got up early to avoid any trouble but because of the early hour the matatu was taking time to fill up. I decided to sit down and have a cup of kahawa chungu at the roadside stall next to the matatu stage. Around the table a few Swahili wazee were drinking their coffee and talking about the election and post-election violence they looked up with surprise to see a tourist as I moved to sit by them.
Life was beginning to get back near normal some shops were opening and a lot more matatus were moving on the roads. A phrase the old men kept repeating that reflected the return to normality was “kazi iendelea” (work continues), it was also an election slogan used by the ruling PNU party of Mwai Kibaki as he wanted to continue in the post of President. I exchanged greetings with the wazee and ordered my bitter, dark and strong coffee laced with a good pinch of ginger to give it an extra kick. Which was what I needed at 8 in the morning after feeling the effects of the previous nights beer. As
I went to pay the coffee seller the old boy nearest to him gave him a coin and refused to let me pay for my coffee. This bloke was obviously not the richest man in the world and although the coffee would have only cost 5 bob he could have done with the extra silver himself. I’m sure the only reason he paid for my coffee was in a way of thanks for me actually being in their country at a time of crisis. Needless to say I didn’t mention that the reason I was going to Malindi was because I was scared ***less in Mombasa!
I got up from the table put my pack on my back and as left their company and went to board the matatu I groaned and said “kazi iendelea” which brought agreeable chuckles from the assembled old boys! Arrival
Even on arrival at Moi international Airport in Mombasa things were weird. The customs guys at their desks who are usually quite happy to spend ages going through your belongings and hopefully getting some kind of “import tax” from unwary tourists bleary eyed arriving from a long flight who just
want to get their hotel and relax with a cold drink. This time though they were more than happy to wave people through without a glance at our bags or passports. More worrying though was that both FOREX bureaus were closed, they obviously didn’t want to hang around in an airport that had seen protesters burning barricades on the approaches to the airport the day before. And there was I at the airport with a fists full of pounds and no shillings.
I managed to get some help from a taxi driver who was willing to take me to Mombasa town and find somewhere to change my money probably on the street before dropping me at my hotel.
As we left the airport you could smell the rubber from the burning barricades of the previous day and as we drove through Chamgamwe my taxi driver was pointing out where the fires were and the few small Kikuyu owned businesses that had been trashed. Being of the same tribe of president Mwai Kibaki was crime enough for the mob. Most of the trouble in the Mombasa area had been here in Changamwe and in the estates of Bamburi to
the north of town and Likoni to the south of the island.
I’d been in Kenya on Xmas and New Year before on various occasions and a lot of businesses are open all the bars are open not wanting to miss out on all the merry makers celebrating on their days off from work; but I’d never seen the town so quiet as I did on January 1st this year. After a quick scan round I managed to change money from one of the many mainly Somali money-changers that hang out near the central police station. It’s always struck me as an odd place to hang out to change money but these guys for years have operated openly. Arrival ritual
As a creature of habit when I arrive somewhere its usually a quick shower change and a cold beer. I had spotted from my taxi ride from the airport that a couple of my favourite bars were closed so it wasn’t going to be the Itiopia or the Mega Bar today, thankfully (maybe because it is tucked out of the way) I found the Hide Corner open for business but because of the trouble after
the elections they had put the prices up to 100 Ksh from the usual 85ksh a bottle!
Finding a beer in Mombasa was tricky, finding a decent meal proved harder; I was really disappointed that after a delayed 10 hour flight all I managed to get to eat was a plate of chips from an Asian owned snack bar I had ordered eggs as well but they had just run out and without scouring the town that’s all that I could find open.
Later that night I ventured to Casablanca night club that place at least had a few customers but with very few matatu owners risking the safety of their vehicles after dark meant that there was no affordable transport for most of the revellers still celebrating the new year and most of them would have to spend the in the club till a few brave soles put their matatus back out on to the streets.
The talk around the bar needless to say was about the previous days violence and robberies. The old man behind the bar was telling how residents all the way along the road from Kisauni to Bamburi were woken the previous
night by armed masked men saying “we are ODM (the opposition) it is our turn” and demanding household goods and furniture from every house which were then carted away. I spoke to another Bamburi resident the next day who told me that her neighbour must have been one these masked men as his compound had suddenly filled up with TVs and refrigerators. She also told me he certainly wasn’t a member of ODM and that he couldn’t have even voted cause he doesn’t even poses an ID card, he was just a petty criminal taking advantage of the chaos! Royal Court Hotel
Listening to Network Africa on the BBC World Service while I was in Kenya one morning the proverb of the day was "when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers". This seemed to be the case in Kenya at the moment, whilst the leaders of the two main parties in the country were refusing to back down it was the wananchi (the people of Kenya) that were suffering. That was cetainly the case in Mombasa that morning as a few shops started to open queues formed around the block as people in
Mombasa desperate for maize meal and sugar waited for hours to be let in to the supermarket. At least things on the coast were not as bad as up country where hundreds of people had been killed either by opposing ethnic groups or in the case of Kisumu police "heavy handedness".
There was still very little traffic on the city streets for the next few days, and I didn't think it was safe to venture to far from my hotel, even if there was transport I didn’t think going to the beach was too wise. I decided to instead go to the Royal Court Hotel on Haile Salassie st. That day a gaggle of people gathered around the pool and bar doing the same thing as I was trying to stay out of trouble. Because of the situation the crowd around the roof-top bar soon became chatty and after a few beers the humour became dark as we whiled away the day trying to see how long it would be before we actually saw traffic move on the streets below. Gangs of youths waving branches and chanting passed by briefly and later in the afternoon you could clearly hear
the police using gun shots to disperse the crowd that had assembled after prayers at the mosque. Malindi
The first time "president" Mwai Kibaki was seen on the TV after his ever so swift swearing in ceremony was over a week after the elections and it wasn't an appeal for calm in the country, it was to announce his new cabinet full of his people and none of the so-called opposition who actually got more votes than Kibaki's party.
Malindi usually is and certainly was on this occasion a lot calmer than Mombasa. The journey up the coast road was pretty uneventful but on arrival in Malindi town it was obvious that this place had been affected much less than Mombasa, and unlike Mombasa there were a few white faces in the streets, most probably Italian tourists who in recent years have replaced Germans and Brits as the most prominent visitors to Malindi.
I alighted from the matatu and headed straight to a Swahili owned café in one of the main streets of the town. It was loud in the café with the sound of raised voices. I sat down at a table and
ordered a chai, a boiled egg and mkate kwa mofe the 4 inch round loaves made from millet flour that have a more solid consistency and a taste more similar to wholemeal bread than white.
I washed my hands at the basin and on the way back to my table greeted an Indian chap seated behind me. “They are discussing the make up of the new cabinet” he said pointing with his chin in the direction of the Swahili guys standing near the counter, “nobody here is happy about it”. They may not have been happy about it but at least they didn’t run amok on the streets of Malindi to vent their disapproval as people had done in Mombasa.
Malindi town was understandably quiet that night but not on edge as it had been in Mombasa. I was sat at the bar in the New Wananchi Day and Night Club, 6 or 7 years ago before the “New” was added to the name of the place it had been a regular haunt of mine. It had had a much needed coat of paint since my last visit but the fact that it didn’t get busy until after
midnight was exactly as I remembered it. The woman behind the bar was speaking to one of the waitresses in Kikamba I was earwiging their conversation trying my best to remember the little bit of Kikamba that I knew from previous visits. I must have made it a bit too obvious that I was listening to them as the barmaid asked me in kikamba what my name was. Luckily that was one of the phrases that I knew so answered telling her my name was Mutuko (a typical Kamba name). This caused both women to double up with laughter with the thought of a mzungu who can speak kikamba. I was asked if I was a resident and was about to get bombarded with more questions when the barmaid was side tracked by the WWF wrestling on the TV where the bad guy was repeatedly getting hit on the back “mgongo, mgongo tena” she was shouting as she finished off with a serious of tuts and a shake of the head.
There were two TVs in the bar one with the wrestling or football on and one that later on that night was showing the film ‘Pulp Fiction’. A
group of girls were looking at the TV in horror as the syringe was thumped into the chest of Uma Thurman and I tried my best in my drunkenly bad Swahili to explain what was happening “Amefania overdose!” Shortly after that I staggered back to my hotel that overlooked the beach, and in my room I fought through the mosquito netting and flopped onto the huge Swahili bed. There I fell asleep listening to the Indian Ocean and the occasional speeding tuk-tuk that thumped into the speed bump on the beach road outside the hotel. Following the initial grim days after my arrival I really felt I was properly relaxing for the first time on my holiday.
The next morning in the same café that I was in the previous day the same Indian chap was there telling me about his upbringing in Kenya. “After an argument with my dad as a teenager I ran away from home in Nairobi” he was telling me. “I boarded the train and came to Mombasa, the train only cost a few shillings in those days and look at it now, it only runs thrice a week.”
“So you stayed in Mombasa”
I asked him.
He leaned forward over the table “You know Kenya can be such a small place at times my dad would have found me straight away in Mombasa so I came up the coast and stayed in Kipini on the mouth of the Tana River. A beautiful place I stayed there for months learnt the local language, I was mainly living off the fish that I caught myself spending my days fishing, a simple life”.
“Then one day, we heard a car approaching. You know Kipini is right in the bush even now there is not much traffic there, so any transport arriving in the village would have been a rarity. The whole village turned out to see the big event. The car entered the village and pulled up along side me “Get in” my dad said and that was it, off I went back to Nairobi. How the bugger found me I never knew!” Back in Mombasa
Back in Mombasa more shops were open, bars had a choice of beer. There was certainly more traffic on the streets. FOREX bureaus were open so I could change money at a decent rate and
not in hotel for a poor rate or on the street with a shady bloke in the back of a taxi. The hide corner bar was busy again.
The TV in the corner of the bar was on and was mostly ignored by the drinkers but the whole room would turn silent as soon as the news came on. The news was reporting the few ethnic/political skirmishes that had occurred and was also showing pictures of displaced people escaping the violence around Nairobi and the rift valley. The news reported that there were still some tourists arriving in the country and there were a few chuckles around the bar when there were scenes of tourists relaxing by a hotel pool.
“Paul Newman, Paul Newman I remember your films” I don’t know why Omar's brother was calling me Paul Newman but a lot of what Omar’s brother says doesn’t make sense. I was sitting at a table a bit too near the gents with some of the regulars from the Hide Corner Bar. One regular I’d known for years Omar, was halfway through an all-day session. His brother who was sitting at an opposite table was now making cat like noises and making half-hearted attempts to grab the waitresses as they walked passed. These 2 elderly Arab brothers were both as mad as each other and were busy shouting sibling abuse at each other.
“Look at those trousers” Omar was pointing at his brother who was wearing a well faded Kaunda suit; he raised his eyebrows and said “1963”.
Omar's brother was now making comments about Omar's hair and beard pointing at him “Paul Newman, you have heard of Australian aborigines” as he had another big sniff of tobacco.
These guys are big drinkers and quite happily spend all day drinking in this bar. It’s not unheard of for Omar after an all day session to appear in Casablanca, I once saw him staggering onto the dance floor around about midnight doing his best to dance to ‘Buffalo soldier’. But fair does to him he was still smiling as the huge bouncer escorted him out of the night club.
The conversation drifted from language to language mainly English but with a lot of Swahili, some Arabic, and his brother muttering to himself in Kigiriama. They said something between each other in Arabic and turning to me smiling Omar said “what a wonderful religion Islam is”. He very briefly came over all serious looked at and said “Tell all your friends back home what Muslims are really like”.
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