Tag Archives: life in Kenya

The other side of life

I would like to tell you a story about an amazing individual. I was on holiday in Mombasa recently. You know how hotels organise entertainment in the evenings. One of the evenings, after dinner, I was seated in the space where this happens. A nice little piazza. The entertainment that evening was some dance group. Out came (pranced, I really should say pranced) these young, almost childlike dancers. Fit as hell, they proceeded to hop and jig about for a good 25 -30 minutes to a variety of music, from African to Asian to Caribbean to European. I must say, I was thoroughly entertained, if I’m to be honest probably just a tad more by the exhibition of raw fitness than the actual dancing, which I generally don’t care an inordinate amount for. So entertained was I that at the end of it all, I was by far the most enthusiastic applauder (I think Caucasians see these things a lot more on their holidays). I felt too that, as I am on holiday, I can get these guys a drink for their good work. The group was composed of I counted 6-7 guys and girls, about evenly split. I called the bartender and told him to get each of them a drink on my tab, and tell them I quite enjoyed the show. In my mind that was done, however I still had some wine so I continued to slowly finish it.

Turns out my drink purchase was taken as an invitation to join me. The group came, thanked me for the drink, and asked if they could have it in my company. I felt why not, I’m in Mombasa alone, it would be interesting to hear about this life of dancing. So they joined me. As the table was small, they split in two groups, some sitting with me, others on the next table. I asked them about their work life and the state of work in Mombasa. No surprise, due to the tourism challenges that have been experienced the last several years, they told me that work is not the best. They told me that they do on average this one show (i.e. tonight) a week, as it’s the only contractual work they have left. Once in a while, they may chance upon unplanned gigs, but not nearly often enough. The first emotions that crossed my mind at their work situation was frustration and anger towards the government, as the security situation in the country has had a huge role to play in the fact that travel advisories were issued against our country, the end result of which is tourists holiday elsewhere. Mombasa really has taken a massive hit. Huge numbers of people have been laid off from hotels, many have closed or are operating with a skeletal staff in order to survive…it is unfortunate. What I found very interesting about these dancers was they were not complaining. They were simply stating matters as they are. They told me how they will do dance routines in night clubs on some nights in order to pay the bills. Not the sleezy kind of dancing, I am not talking about strip clubs. This is a Mombasa thing – some clubs actually have a show time, usually midnight or one in the morning, where the music is turned off and dancers or acrobats come out to entertain the revellers. Think of the fracas that would ensue if such a thing was done in a Nairobi night club.

As they continued to regale me with their stories, in that beautiful Coasterian Swahili accent (it really is like listening to some sort of beautiful, enchanting song), one of the dancers caught my eye. She initially caught my eye as they came to the table because physically she seemed too small to be of age. She had a tiny physical stature. Child-like. If I met her holding an adult’s hand and was told she is the sixteen year old daughter I’d say no, she can’t be older than 14. Tiny. And yet when she spoke, there was a certain maturity about her. She described to me the show-time in night clubs, and how sometimes it’s what puts food on the table. There was something very intriguing about her. I struggle to say what, but it was there. So they continued with their stories, and soon one arose that I simply must repeat here. The ladies were planning their way home. Exchanging notes on how they’ll get home. One of them was complaining that she does not want to pay for a boda boda, to which a fellow dancer replied then just walk when you get off the matatu. This lady proceeds to say, “And what if I meet ComeKuja?” Obviously she said this in Swahili, so I am translating. My ears were pricked, but the little one beat me to the question. “Sasa huyu ComeKuja ndio nani, mwanangu?” “Now who is this ComeKuja, my daughter?” The first girl goes “Heeeheeeeeeee!” and claps her hands. I was already smiling. Kenyans, we can smell a story a mile away. And the best stories begin with “heeeheeeeeeeee” and a hand clap. The girl now knows she has our full attention, so she asks “Yaani you people haven’t heard of ComeKuja?” So after the requisite amount of coaxing, she acquiesced. It turns out in that area of Mombasa, there is a thief. He operates away from the main road, sort of in the un-tarmacked in-roads. He preys on people walking home apparently, and sometimes just when they are arriving. Now this thief apparently when robbing people, points his weapon at you and tells you…you guessed it. “Come, kuja.” For some bizarre reason he summons you to him, as opposed to coming up to you like a normal thief. ComeKuja. I laughed for days.

As these good folk left, I took the little dancer’s number. Before you get your knickers in a twist, there were no intentions. This was a solo, no physical (yes, that physical) activity holiday. I took her number because towards the end of the drink and stories, she revealed to me that she is 25. And a mother of two. That piqued my interest immensely. I wanted to hear her story. But we were many and it was late. So I took her number, intending to meet her and hear about her life. I was intrigued.

So we met. The next day. We sat down and had a drink, and she proceeded to tell me one of the most incredible stories I’ve heard in person. She was born and bred in Mombasa. A true native. Her father is a porter at a hotel not far from the one I was staying at. Her mother is unemployed. Her education needless to say did not go far. Neither did that of her siblings. Generally, in such households, once you either drop out of school or finish form four, the parental work is done and life is now in your hands. Life dealt this little girl a blow at a very young age. Her family’s life already had lots of difficulty, as you can imagine. Fees, food…it was an exceedingly humble upbringing. Then at age seventeen, she was raped. By someone she knew well, someone everyone knew well. You know the African rape story – it is much too (simply unacceptably) frequently not a stranger. She conceived a child from this rape. I needn’t waste too much time on the police side of things…it never went anywhere. Before she delivered, she was seeing her rapist in her home town, walking about happily. I was dumbfounded, and yet her story went on. She gave birth, and started working wherever she could. She manned an Mpesa at some point…that sort of thing. There were long stretches of no work, of walking everywhere and asking for work in vain.  Making ends meet was a constant battle that she frequently lost. Eventually she ran into a lady who had a dance group. Dancing being something she enjoys, she signed up. Initially it was decent, she told me, those days when tourism at the Coast was booming. Then as things started to go south, so did the work. In her personal life, she met someone. Her child was about two or three at this point. They hit it off, had an interest for each other. He was fine with her motherhood, so they started something. At some point, she felt comfortable enough to tell him about the circumstances surrounding the first child. She told me he seemed to take it well. She told him nice and early, before things got too heavy. Wise move, I thought. Men…we can be absolute bastards. They moved on, and actually moved in together. She moved out of her parents’ house and into this guy’s house. They shared rent, expenses such things. But one day, not too far into things, there was an incident. He had gone out without her (I’m sorry, but how many stories for people in relationships start like this – including mine, so no judgement here) and came back a little tipsy. He wanted to have sex. She told me that the day the fucker raped her back then, he was intoxicated. Something about the alcohol breath and insistence from her boyfriend took her back to that experience; she froze up. Completely. She couldn’t do it. He went berserk. He beat her. He beat her so bad she couldn’t leave the house the next day. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t speak to anyone. She felt she couldn’t leave. Needless to underline, her life had not exactly equipped her with the confidence to get up and walk out. So she stayed. Life went on. Except, the beatings became a habit. Not daily, but periodically. Before long, they were accompanied with insults. She told me she can still remember the time he told her that maybe if she didn’t do x, she wouldn’t have been raped. Yes. You read that right. I will not bother on elaborating what x is. This became her life. She was unable to leave. And the next expected step followed: she got pregnant. With this fellow’s child. Who wants to guess what the reaction was? He denied it’s his child. Threw the rape in her face again. How was he to know what she’s been up to? He walked out. This incredible lady pressed on, gave birth. Two kids now, doing as many gigs as she could. About a year into the delivery, he came back. Said he wants to work things out. She agreed, and they resumed cohabiting. But the beatings soon also resumed. Still sporadic, not daily, or even necessarily weekly (not that it matters really), but they were there. Eventually, almost two years later, one beating was bad enough that she couldn’t dance. Her employer stepped in and talked her into leaving. This was about two months prior to my meeting her. She moved out, into a little one room space. With her two children. Now fully fending for herself, with all the attendant challenges.

The range of emotions I went through as I listened to this girl’s story is indescribable. I was dumbfounded that someone this young, this little, this innocent little girl and simultaneously this strong, amazing woman, could have gone through so much. She told me her story not with a woiye-look-at-me-and-my-difficult-life air, but with a since-you-asked-but-I’m-okay mentality. She was not looking for pity. She was ploughing on with life. I felt deep disgust. Then anger. Disgust again. Followed by even more intense anger. Mixed in with all of this was the outmost admiration for her. For her strength. Her courage. I hear it said and experience it myself time and time again, but such provide undeniable confirmation: guys, women are made of far stronger stuff than we are. Look and speak to the women around you. I talked to this physically little girl but really this incredible woman, with awe. Because if my life had gone anywhere near like hers, I don’t know where I would have been. But I certainly would not be where I am today. And I doubt I would be psychologically okay. This woman was okay. She was hurt, still hurting, but she was okay. Her name…is Mapenzi.

So many things went through my mind after sitting down with Mapenzi. Immense respect. I cannot underline that enough. Just, massive respect. Like I said, I am pretty certain I would not have taken the kind of hits she has taken and be in the same psychological predisposition she was. She exuded no anger, no man-hate, no self-pity. She did not ask me for money and she did not even seem sad or depressed. When we had that drink at the hotel after their performance, she was exuberant, laughing and joking with her dance-mates. I do not think I would be able to tell such as story if it was mine without lots of anger, bitterness and other emotions taking centre stage. But….she was okay. She told it like she had read it in a fiction novel. Of course one can only be so okay after such experiences. I sashayed rapidly from that thought to anger, not just at men, but at our leadership. So here comes my little rant.

Kenyan leaders, we are letting our people down. And I speak to the current, past, and long dead leaders. We are and have let our people down. When we rallied for independence across the continent, it was because we wanted self-rule. We did not want the white man making our decisions, running our economy, and reaping all the consequent benefits. We entrusted the leaders who initially took the mantle with these responsibilities, to represent us and ensure a happy, comfortable life for all citizens. But look at the country we have now. From the very first leader, we dropped the ball. The first government took over and continued to fuck over the populace, just like the colonialists. “When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” This was said by none other than Jomo Kenyatta. I need not underline the flabbergasting irony of this statement considering the present day Kenyatta land holdings. Moi took over and continued in Jomo’s footseps. Subsequent governments have proved little better. Kenyan leaders, the story I have highlighted above is the story of your people. The people you take oaths to protect, empower, enrichen. You are failing us. You are failing your people. It is your responsibility to equip the populace with dignity, comfort and security, whether fiscal or physical. Dignity. It is your responsibility to enforce the rule of law and ensure justice is served regardless of social status. You have broken our country before it even had a chance to be repaired. The broken country you have built and continue to hold at ransom makes achieving these core human needs many, many orders of magnitude more difficult than it ought be. I am very angry. We are very angry. We will be only angry only for so long.

Mapenzi, you will almost certainly never see this and that was not the intention in any case. I salute you. You are the epitome of female and human strength, courage and spirit. You are simultaneously the epitome of everything that is wrong with this world and everything that is right with it.

I will repeat. Kenyan leaders. It is the right of every Kenyan to have basic human dignity, comfort, security, happiness. You as a collective are making achieving this a damn near impossible task. I am angry. We are angry. And anger only simmers for so long before it converts to action.