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Published: January 11th 2008
It’s a cool, gray, drizzly afternoon when I touch down in Nairobi, and for a few ecstatic minutes I stand in the rain, tugging on my fleece and puffing into my hands and thanking the Lord that I’m a few hundred miles from the muggy torpor of the coast.
After the bank debacles and hungry nights of Mombasa, the return to Nairobi Backpackers feels like a welcome homecoming. It’s a feeling that lasts for all of twenty minutes. It doesn’t take much longer to realize that all’s not well, with a handful of new faces busying themselves around the hostel and a rash of whispered intrigues chasing me down the now-barren halls.
It’s been close to two months since I left Nairobi, and in that time, poor Papa Ken has visibly deteriorated. His skin has gone gray and lifeless; he’s unshaven; his hair is a mess. There’s something flickering in his eyes that, if I didn’t know any better, I’d associate with the onset of full-blown, off-the-wall madness. In recent weeks he’s begun to share wild plans for the future that, in a frightening twist, he genuinely seems to believe. Half of the staff has quit since I
left in August; the other half is confused, concerned, and more than a little afraid.
Despite the fact that the employees weren’t paid last month, despite the fact that the phone line’s been shut off and there’s a long line of angry creditors stretching from here to Kakamega, Papa Ken’s decided it’s time to remodel. He’s built an outdoor kitchen next to the pool table and moved all of the furniture - including the TV - into the yard. He’s added a second computer to the new Internet café, having declared one permanently off-limits, so that he can surf Facebook at a moment’s notice at any time of day (a peculiar new fetish, about which more later). He’s hired a few of the guys to paint a mural in the living room - a sad, strange portrait of chocolate-colored hills and orange-rind horizons that looks less like a fresh African morn than a new day dawning in the bowels of hell. They’ve painted the ceiling blue and added a handful of clouds - half-hearted dabs of white and gray smeared over the cracks and water stains.
The cosmetic changes are, it seems, the first deranged steps in what promises to be a wholesale transformation. Papa Ken’s been busily outlining his plans to turn “Papa Ken’s Family” into a global enterprise - plans that, as I’ll quickly learn, are already well under way. He hands me a wrinkled print-out that, he explains wearily, he’s been working on day and night for weeks. This is what it looks like, I suspect, when sheer, utter lunacy - slightly diminished by a low toner - finds its way onto a few pages of A4. From his base in Sheffield - which he’s optimistically described to me as “the outdoor adventure capital of England” - Papa Ken will sow the seeds of a vast, worldwide empire. The plans for Sheffield are modest: a youth hostel with easy access to hiking, biking, horseback riding, and “Tank driving and amphibious vehicle driving (later)”. But it’s in the rest of the world - where, I’m assured, Ken has “family” in more than 200 countries - that the manic vision will truly take flight.
All week, in a series of “Breaking News” reports, Ken’s assailed us with the latest updates from abroad. He’d clap his hands enthusiastically and say, eyes aglint, “I just got off the phone with investors in Italy,” or “I just picked up four new hostels in Sudan,” or “We’re in Czechoslovakia!” - a location that, no doubt, will work nicely along the overland route from Prussia to Yugoslavia. One night, drunk and flushed and on the verge of a long-overdue breakdown, he shouts, “I don’t need this fucking place! I have 999 other hostels around the world!” Morgan, mild and sympathetic, gently steers him to the fireside and tops off his glass of Vat 69. The guests around the fire quickly clear out, downing the last of their Tuskers, scurrying back to their dorms and bandas, and making sure to lock the doors.
All the bitterness of his failures, the desolate loneliness of those long nights by the fire, seem to have finally pushed Ken over the edge. Surfing through profiles on Facebook - a site which he sees as vital to the growth of Papa Ken’s World - he boasts of a global network of “more than a billion,” all the while lending a running commentary to his search. (“She’s Maltese….She’s Colombian….She’s a real fireball.”) He’s been sending long, rambling emails to his extended family, outlining his plans for the future and urging prospective investors to get in on the ground floor. For the modest price of $1,000 a share, anyone can buy into the burgeoning enterprise. They’d be in good company, too: All week, Ken’s boasted of the presidents, prime ministers, sultans and emperors who have the privilege of calling him a close personal friend. Even the late Haile Selassie, it seems, likes to pop in on Papa Ken for a drink, advising him on matters of life, love and liquidity from beyond the grave.
That Ken is desperate for cold, hard cash is obvious; equally obvious is the fact that his wild pleas are falling on deaf ears. I follow the train of his thought through a series of emails, the tone getting more and more dire with each passing day.
“For those of you who are still hesitating about partnership,” he writes, “you can see that if you don’t act now, you are going to miss the one opportunity to really become part of a Titan at it’s birth.”
A few days later, discouraged by the responses, he writes, “I will try to explain in detailed, but simple English, because for many of you, English is not your first language.”
Still later, in even more simple English: “THIS IS NOT A FRANCHISE, IT IS US, THE FAMILY, CREATING A UNIQUE, WORLDWIDE FAMILY NETWORK, WHICH WILL GIVE YOU ALL, SOLDIERS, DOCTORS, DENTISTS, LAWYERS, CONCERT VIOLINISTS, VETS, NURSES, TEACHERS, BUSINESS PEOPLE, FAMILY PEOPLE AND SO ON, a hobby if you wish, a further secure income, virtually free travel to anywhere in the world, a career in travel if you wish, the key to finding volunteer opportunities anywhere in the world, a unique, international family, and so on. Do not be blind!”
In a strange twist, a member of Ken’s actual
family has finally turned up at Backpackers: his brother John, a clinical psychiatrist who’s arrived from Madrid. Pale, concerned, nursing Tuskers behind a pair of card-shark shades, he spends long hours sitting by the fire, keeping an eye on his brother and taking notes on a legal pad. When he wants to unwind he rests his cowboy hat on the table and dips into Noam Chomsky. Things are getting really fucking weird. One night in the yard, debriefing me and Joost - a portly Dutch kid who somehow became the nominal manager while I was gone - John explains that he can’t force Ken to get help - Ken has to want to help himself. That Ken might be in no position to ask for help doesn’t seem to make matters any easier. And poor Joost, who flew to Nairobi on a one-way ticket at Ken’s urging, spends a frightening amount of time staring grimly into the middle distance, wondering just what he’s gotten himself into.
It’s a question I’ve begun to ask myself, too. After all the weeks I’ve spent here, I feel committed to Backpackers, and I’ve managed to grow close to much of the staff. But the situation is approaching unbearable. Ken’s nightly tirades send us all shuffling out of our rooms in bare feet and PJs; when one guest asks him if he can please keep it down, he tells her to go fuck herself. Later that night, he tears into Morgan for letting the cooks go home early, because Ken’s decided, at half-past two, that he needs a sandwich. When Morgan tries to pacify him, the veins in Ken’s neck begin to bulge. He lets loose a rain of abuse and profanities, only to apologize, at the top of his lungs,
“I’m not shouting at you, I’m shouting at Kenya!”
Kenya, it seems, doesn’t care to take notice.
The days go by in fits of desperate fantasy and blind fury. One morning, after a particularly frightful night, Ken gathers the staff by the fire. He’s gotten his old tweed jacket off the moth balls - his favorite conciliatory gesture after a night in the sauce - looking very much like he was just upholstered in a suburban Ohio basement circa 1973. He wants to have what he calls a “reheartening.”
“We’re going to bring enjoyment and love and peace back to this world,” he explains, while the employees hunch around the fire and scribble God-only-knows-what in their notebooks.
The fire has become an important symbol for Ken, an eternal flame that perhaps sums up his undying faith in a future that only he believes in. “Fire is life,” he maintains. (While the poor, superstitious staff keep insisting, “Water is life. Fire is for devils.”) He insists that it’s stoked day and night; sometimes Morgan has to chop firewood in the darkness - anything to keep the flames going - the sound of his ax ringing out and echoing through the hostel’s halls.
That Papa Ken can’t face the darkness inside or out is a sad commentary on his emotional unraveling. I’m reminded of those famous lines of Auden’s:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
This fort, this sand castle, is all that’s left of Papa Ken. And when he shouts in defiance, “I don’t need this place!” it’s not a cry for help: it’s a cry to be swept away.
One night he flies into a fit of rage that has even Morgan keeping a safe distance. We try to call the police at half-past two; in typical Nairobi fashion, there’s no answer. It takes more than an hour for us to pacify him with drink and reassurances, and it’s close to four when we finally leave him by the fire, drunk, loveless, lost: a disconsolate soul on another sleepless night in Nairobi.
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