A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings
Let's call her Leo. White, thin, auburn-haired, South African. Clan mother to waifs, yet childless herself, monthly mourning missed chances. Fierce as the Chinese dragon, green and red inked, bug-eyed and fire-spitting, tattooed on her back, under her left shoulder. Rebel, polymath, denim-jacket-and-jeans-wearing Leo, swaggering helter-skelter in her grubby tennis shoes, puffing her reefers with a GI Jane sneer, holding her own with the playground bullies, the boys.
—If you're a white woman in Africa, penises are not your problem. Arse envy is.
That's Leo for you.
Leo liked factoids, UN statistics, Wikipedia. The first time we fucked, afterward, she said:
—You are the twenty-five percent.
(Seventy-five percent of men ejaculate two minutes after penetrating.)
The setting, Nairobi: the multiracial mix of people, the idiosyncratic weather, the sights, the sounds of that gray-stone city. I traveled to Nairobi for a change of scenery, and to get as far away as possible from my stepmother, who had started befriending my girlfriends in an effort to get me to settle down. With careful management of my savings, I figured I could afford a month of laziness. So I applied for a two-month visa, and flew second-class on the cheapest airline out of MMIA, the crappiest airport in the world. Lagos to Nairobi via Addis Ababa. It was my first trip outside Nigeria, and the more countries I passed through the better, I had thought; also, Addis Ababa was a beautiful city, everyone said, a city ringed by hills and steeped in mist and history. Wisps of mist and distant hilltops were all I saw through the glass walls of BIA's Terminal II, where I remained for six hours—unable to pass immigration because I had no Ethiopian visa, afraid to close my eyes for fear of bag snatchers, with nothing to do but ogle airline hostesses—waiting for my connecting flight, just another Nigerian in a noisy crowd of raffia bag-lugging cheapskates. After that experience in its best airport, at the hand of its national carrier, Ethiopia can keep its history.
JKIA is the second crappiest airport in the world.
The engine of Nairobi is fired by cash-crop farming, oiled by tourism, and steered by NGO money. Everywhere you turn in the city you find NGO people, camouflaged by straw hats and safari boots and the skin color of the tourist, white. In the super-markets (Indian-run), the swanky restaurants (white Kenyan-run), the bus parks, souvenir bazaars, immigration offices (black Kenyan-run), luxurious hotels and safari lodges (British-run), AIDS patients' wards and spoken-word poetry slams (American- funded), and, in small sightseeing groups, in Kibera, the largest zoo in Africa.
I had a Facebook friend, a Rwandan living in Nairobi, who met me at the airport and drove me to the apartment in Kilimani rented with money I had wired him. After removing my shoes to relieve my altitude-swollen feet, I walked in tow round the bed-sit shaking my head at the scuffed floorboards, the threadbare velveteen chairs, the bathroom tub rimmed by scum the color of lead, the shit-stained Armitage Shanks, forced to feign approval because the Rwandan thought we all lived in shanties in Nigeria. He worked for a Belgian NGO, wore Italian designer shoes, and affected French mannerisms. Four days after my arrival we quarreled over my intimacy with Leo, he unfriended me on Facebook, and that was that.
Leo worked for an NGO too, a British concern with regional offices in many parts of black Africa. Before she was dispatched to Nairobi for a special project, she worked in the Cape Town office. The main office in West Africa was sited in Accra, Ghana, and she had been there, but had visited Nigeria as well, several times. She liked Nigerians (passionate, assertive people) and she was proud of her grasp of pidgin. Her dope dealer in Cape Town was Nigerian.
Leo was not your average NGO person. She was no Mother Teresa, she did not like Nelson Mandela, she dressed like a Wonderboom roadie, she disdained Bob Geldof 's song and dance, and, unlike her colleagues—who fucked like goats, within the flock—she took local, non-NGO lovers. About her job, she said:
—You know how it is, it pays good money, and I've earned it, I've done my bit, I served the ANC when it was still high treason, I played my part in the struggle, and now, how do you Nigerians say it, man must . . . what's the term, it means eat . . .
—Man mus' wack.
—Ja, that's it. Man mos wack. No be so, broda?
I met Leo the same evening I arrived in Nairobi. Some NGO people were throwing a party for a colleague who was returning to the mother ship, berthed somewhere in civilization, and the Rwandan took me along. A place called Sippers on Argwings Kodhek Road. (As we drove past the road sign I asked about the source of the name, but the Rwandan had no idea. Sounds Klingon, I said; and his rejoinder: Is that one of the Nigerian tribes?) The restaurant was packed, tables were arranged outside, several parties were going strong, and the noisiest was a mainly white crowd gathered around two pushed-together tables. The Rwandan headed straight for this group, and to a raucous chorus of animal noises, sat at the table. A hush fell as I, too, sat down.
—This is my friend from Nigeria. He arrived today. He's in Nairobi on vacation.
Among people of a certain economic status, the word vacation is as potent as open sesame. I was good people, a gourmand, a hedonist, a connoisseur of the finer things in life, their expressions seemed to say. The silence lifted, the smiles beamed forth, the drinking glasses tinkled, and soon I found myself plied with questions from all sides.
—What do you think of Robert Mugabe?
—Obama has been a huge disappointment, wouldn't you agree?
—Not to be rude, but why are so many Nigerians engaged in e-mail fraud?
—How about you get away from those wazungu and come sit beside an African sister?
That was Leo, slouched in her seat at one end of the table, her tennis shoe-clad foot propped on the table's edge, a reefer dangling from her lips. From the first she was brazen, meeting my startled gaze with a twinkle in her smile. I moved to her side.
Introductions were dispensed with. She was a fast talker, a nonstop talker, a fish in water with words, instinctively articulate. In twenty minutes I knew enough about her to be intimidated. By this time she had offered me her reefer to finish, and also pressed on me her glass of whiskey (Black Label, she stressed), though she borrowed it now and again to sip from, her eyes holding mine over the rim. She had crazy eyes, crafty eyes, bewitching eyes, benevolent eyes, depending on how the light reflected off them. Most times it reflected crazy.
—Let's get out of here.
Like a crash of thunder, out of the blue—clichés for a clichéd feeling, surprise.
Until she said those words I wasn't sure she was flirting with me.
—You're in Nairobi to play, aren't you?
I muttered that I guessed I was, and Leo, with a histrionic flourish to her actions, threw back her head and drained the last of the whiskey, slammed down the glass, swung her foot off the table, then leaned in close, so close that I saw the color of her eyes, gray flecked with green.
—Come on, big boy, she said. It's Friday night. Let me show you Nairobi.
Nairobi is a city of cats, abandoned creatures, conceited, territorial, basking on rooftops in the pale sunlight, yowling defiance through the long cold nights, hunting, frolicking, spawning in the grass of private gardens and public parks: once upon a time the roaming grounds of lion prides, lone-ranger leopards, man-eaters, now taken over by cast-off pets.
Nairobi nights. Essence of the city. Distillate of dissipation.
The life force of Nairobi resides in pockets of the Central Business District—River Road, Kirinyaga Road—and on the outskirts in Ngara, in Gikomba market, and extends more or less eastward all the way to Eastlands. Grotty, untamed Nairobi—the ground marshy with discarded ugali meal and rotting strings of sukuma wiki, the air reeking of goat and pork nyama choma and writhing under the snarl of matatu engines and outdoor speakers blasting Swahili talk shows, Sheng hip-hop, English-language commercials.
Nairobi's middle class, tourists, and NGO people steer clear of this part of town.
Leo took me to a tented restaurant cum live-band bar on the corner of Muindi Mbingu Street, a place called Simmers. It was an oasis of Congolese rumba and modish prostitutes right smack in the center of the office block-colonized CBD. As we walked in under the glare of halogen light and curious stares, she bumped me with her hip, hooked her arm through mine, and said:
—Welcome to Nairobi, drunks and lovers.
The rib of a young goat roasted to perfection and garnished with garden-fresh, zingy kachumbari, three glasses of Scotch whiskey, half of a reefer and a dozen sticks of Embassy Lights, two hours after arriving at Simmers, and the conversation with Leo began to flow. I became, I found, more appreciative of her wit, her acumen, less watchful with her, more confident of the nature of her attention. We talked about me, about my preoccupations, my impressions of Nairobi, and also about our two countries, our abused continent. Several times I fell silent in midsentence, surprised by the loudness of my voice. One of such times, while talking about an ex-lover whose image rose in my breast with the sharpness of heartburn, Leo said into the silence:
—You're sweet. And that's so fucking sexy.
Sometime after, during a lull in conversation, Leo gazed around, bobbed her head to the loud, percussive Lingala music, and then said:
—See that malaya, at the bar, the one wearing the orange kanga dress? Ja, don't point. Check out her bum.
The girl was built like a wasp, hips for miles and a Barbie waist.
—I'll invite her over.
Leo rose, pulled her denim jacket tighter around her shoulders, and weaved through the crowd of drinking, smoking, sweating dancers, headed for the bar. I watched as she drew up beside the girl, touched her elbow, bussed cheeks in greeting, and began speaking with her. When she turned to point out our table, I looked away.
Leo and the girl stood in front of the table. Leo rocked on her heels, her cheeks flushed with pink, her eyes darting between my face and some point over my head. The girl's face wore a rigid, I-don't-care expression.
—This is Agnes.
—Hi, Agnes, I said.
—Have a seat, Leo said, and pulled up a chair for her. What's your drink?
—Tusker malt, Agnes said. She had sat down across from me, and she looked up over her shoulder as she answered Leo, craning her limber neck, her coral drop earrings swinging.
—One Tusker malt coming up. Anything for you, babes? No? Right-o. Back in a flash.
With Leo gone, Agnes turned her attention to her purse on the table, then to the dancers swirling around us, and finally to me.
—The mzungu says she's your girlfriend.
I nodded yes, surprised.
—She seems older than you.
I shrugged. She was. Seven years older.
—Where did you meet her?
—Right here, Nairobi.
—You don't sound Kenyan.
—Ah, Nigeria, Agnes said, a wistful smile parting her bronze-glossed lips. I have a son for a Nigerian. Chinedu, that's his name, my son. He's six.
—And his father? Does he live in Kenya?
—No. He's in Tanzania now. Doing business all the time, like a Kikuyu.
—Where are you from? Your ethnic group, I mean.
—I am Maasai. But my mother is Kikuyu.
Leo returned. She handed the beer to Agnes, then turned her chair around, straddled it, and folded her slim, blue-veined arms across the backrest. Her posture announced she was in control.
—I saw you two talking. How do you like Agnes so far?
—Very much, I said, and smiled at Agnes. She smiled back.
—I thought you would.
Something in Leo's voice drew my gaze. Her face was turned to Agnes.
—He likes your arse. I guess that's all that matters. I hope you're cheap enough.
Agnes raised the beer bottle to her lips, watched Leo as she gulped. When she set down the bottle, it was empty. She picked up her purse and rose.
—Thanks for the beer. I'll be at the bar when you're ready.
The first time we quarreled I thought she would cry she was so angry, so full of feral energy. Afterward, when our breaths had calmed, as we shared a spliff in bed, our skins gummed with sweat, limbs entangled in exhaustion, I told her she fucked as she fought, like a cat.
—No, babes. I'm a dog, a real bitch in fact, she said.
We danced, Leo and I, swinging our hips to frenetic Soukous music—our breaths mingling, groins brushing, hands stiff with awkwardness, mine at least. At three-something Nigerian time (I hadn't reset my watch) Leo settled the bill, and we walked out of Simmers, Leo with a prance, me weaving side to side to keep my world in balance. We approached a parked taxi and Leo bantered with the driver, their voices floating to me as though through a long tunnel. When they were done I pulled the car door open, climbed in after Leo, and my last memory of that night is of the gentle rocking of sea waves.
We fucked as the urge came, Leo and I. She was playful, experienced, generous in sex, her pale skin exotic, her soft hair strange; and she had a "natural mystic" that I found irresistible, bags of it stashed around her penthouse, and half-smoked fat ones burning in crystal ashtrays beside the bed, feeding the haze in which we drank whiskey punches, snacked on Pringles and pawpaw, petted Sankara, and fucked again.
Sankara was Leo's cat, a gray-striped tom. He was still a kitten when she found him under a hedge in Nairobi, half-dead from starvation, abandoned by his mother. (When Leo was seven, her mother took her one summer day to Clovelly Beach in Cape Town, and while she played in the sand, her mother walked into the sea, never to return.)
I woke up to the smell of coffee and scrambled eggs. I was lying facedown on a settee, fully clothed except for my shoes, my cheek wet with drool, my head ringing like a kettledrum. When I got to my feet everything felt strange, the weight of gravity, my putty knees, the gnawing in my belly, the room I was standing in. Then Leo said from behind me:
—Rise and shine, sleepyhead. It's a beautiful morning.
Grinning at me. She stood in a wide doorway that opened onto bright sunlight, a reefer stuck in her mouth and a spatula in her hand. Her long hair was tousled, the wavy, reddish-brown tresses framing her face like a mane. She had on a loose white gown, under which her nipples were mauve circles, and through which sunlight filtered, showing her long pale legs and the shadow of her pubes.
—Morning, Leo, I said. Then I stretched; the pain in my stiffened muscles made me groan.
—Come sit on the terrace, the fresh air will do you good. I'm rustling up breakfast.
She turned and went through the doorway, and I followed. It led to a rooftop patio, and her kitchenette was there, built to one side. Leo stood in front of an open fridge, arm stretched out in blessing, fingers rummaging in the frost. A cat was sprawled on its side beside the fridge, its head turned to watch me with ginger eyes, its banded tail sweeping slowly across the floor. Leo swung the fridge door shut with a whump.
—Haai Sankara, he's a friend, she said to the cat, and bent down to stroke his pricked ears. She straightened up, turned away, and Sankara eased to his feet, padded to the end of the patio, leapt lightly onto the wall, and dropped from sight.
I stood watching as Leo popped bread slices from the toaster, then sawed an orange in half and squeezed out juice. She brushed back hair strands from her forehead with her wrist, blew out weed smoke from the side of her mouth, and darted glances at me as she worked. Then I moved forward, to the wall of the patio, and looked down at Nairobi, stretched out under me in every direction. Judging by the nearest buildings, identical apartment blocks in a walled compound, Leo's penthouse was eleven stories high.
Leo laid out breakfast on a wrought-iron table on the patio, poured steaming coffee into two cups (she drank nothing but Kenya AA, the best coffee in the world, she told me later), and then called me to eat. As I sat at the table, I asked:
—How did I get up here last night? I have no memory of climbing stairs.
Leo answered, straight-faced:
—I carried you up.
I was the same height as Leo, or maybe slightly shorter, but besides being a man, with bigger bones and a thicker build, I was black and she was white. So I laughed at her joke, and picked up the butter knife.
—I'm serious. I piggybacked you. You were snoring like a tuk-tuk. One hundred and eighty-seven steps to the top. Know what that is? Pure murder.
Her nipples were tender, she felt queer in the mornings from the life growing inside her, she was sure of the signs. Happy days, those days when we both were nervous with hope. We'd gone days without a fight, days of weaving dreams about motherhood and second chances, the childhood we never had. Then her period came. The fights started again.
After breakfast I told Leo I had to go, but she persuaded me to spend the day in her apartment. I didn't take much convincing. She had a Jacuzzi, a comfortable four-poster bed, food and weed and lots to drink, and a Venus de Milo-shaped bottle of eucalyptus oil with which she planned to massage my tired muscles. The only problem was she also had plans for another night of clubbing, and I didn't have a change of clothes. So she offered to take me shopping.
We drove to the supermarket in her official car, a tinted-glass Land Rover. She parked by the door of the butcher's, right next to the medium-sized supermarket with an Indian nameplate. We got down, she beeped the car locked, and her mobile phone rang. She pulled it out and glanced at the screen.
—I have to answer this, babes. You go on ahead, take anything you want, it's on me.
The last time we fought I had just told her I loved her. She said actions not words, and that if I did truly I would give her a baby, I would never leave her that way, not really.
—Love means coming back even when you can't.
Then we quarreled.
I got my things and left.
First thing I noticed when I entered the supermarket was the checkout counter, three cash registers squatted on it, manned by a triad of Indian women, who by their ages could have been daughter, mother, and grandmother. I greeted them as I passed by. The daughter looked up and nodded, the mother turned her face aside, and the grandmother, her watery eyes magnified by spectacle lenses, stared fixedly at me. I picked up a shopping basket and turned into the nearest aisle.
A clutch of shoppers browsed through the supermarket, and the attendants, five that I counted—three women and two men, none of them Indian, all wearing yellow aprons—were busy assisting shoppers or stacking shelves or mopping the floor. I had come shopping for undershorts, T-shirts, socks, haberdashery. While searching for these items I found a few other needs: a toothbrush, a can of deodorant spray, a graphic novel of Othello, two bars of milk chocolate, one for me and one for Leo. Then I stopped in front of the pastry shelf, checking out the cookies. Overcome by choices, I decided to pass, took two steps, and changed my mind. Whirling around and starting forward, I almost bumped into the youngest of the cashiers, the daughter.
—Are you looking for something? she asked. You've been standing here for a while.
—As a matter of fact I am. I need some T-shirts and boxer shorts.
—Well, you won't find those among the cakes. Please come this way.
She walked to the front of the store and called to a female attendant who was arranging milk cartons in a glass-front refrigerator, asked her to leave that alone and show me the clothes section.
—Assist him with any other thing he wants, she said as I was led away.
The attendant stuck to my side for the rest of my shopping. She watched as I selected three colors of Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, two sets of cotton boxers and an undershirt, some socks, and a pair of gray woollen gloves. I moved across to the pastry section, and she plodded after me, not bothering to turn away when I threw glances at her. My plan was to browse through until Leo arrived, but I felt so uncomfortable that I decided to pay and leave.
I walked to the checkout counter. The mother and daughter were attending to shoppers, but the grandmother was free. I halted in front of her and placed my basket on the counter.
—No, no, no, go that way, she said, shaking her head and pointing toward the other cashiers. So I picked up my basket and went to stand behind the shopper who was being attended to by the mother. While I waited my turn, a straw-haired man with sun-reddened, peeling skin, dressed in a sleeveless T-shirt and faded canvas slipons, approached the grandmother and plonked down two packs of Marlboro, a six-pack of Coors Light, and a box of Durex Ribbed.
—Shikamoo, Mrs. Desai. Habari gani?
—Jambo, the grandmother answered with a smile. Then she rang up the items and called out the total. While he counted out shillings, she bagged his purchases. You have a good day now, you hear, she said as she handed him the change.
The shopper in front of me picked up her bags and moved off. I stepped forward, set my basket on the counter, and drew out my wallet.
—Remove the items from the basket, the mother said, without looking at me. Then she beckoned to the next in line, a plump, mixed-race woman with an empty baby carrier strapped to her chest. The woman hurried forward, jostling me aside with her shopping trolley crammed full of baby things, and began unloading them onto the counter. The mother picked up a pack of Pampers from the woman's pile, checked the price tag, and tapped the cash register keys.
—Excuse me, I said. I was here first.
She picked up a box of cereal, ignoring me.
—I'm talking to you, madam, I said in a hoarsened voice. My chest was tight, and I felt like reaching forward to grab the woman's shoulders, to shake the neatness out of her primped hair. If nothing else, that would force her to look at me.
—Don't raise your voice here, she said in a firm, quiet tone, as if speaking to a child. Then she picked up another item, a jar of yogurt.
A lifetime in a country of a hundred and fifty million black people was the worst preparation for what I was faced with. Shame, incredulity, emotions too fresh to label, washed over me. But the inflammable, anger, rose higher fastest. I drew in breath to bellow, but caught myself when a hand fell on my shoulder.
—What's going on, babes?
Sandwiched between the urge to vent my anger and the burden of explaining, I spluttered, swung my face back and forth, glared at Leo and the cashier.
The mother had stopped tallying the items; she stared up at Leo with tight-lipped haughtiness. Then her eyes shifted to my face. Saw me for the first time.
—I'm sorry, there's been a mistake, the grandmother said. She had risen from her seat, and now she hurried forward, grabbed my basket handle. Please come this way, I will attend to you.
—No, Leo said. Her hand gripping my shoulder tightened, and her voice hardened, unsheathed its steel. Let this bitch do it. I saw everything. So what's the problem, his money ain't good enough for you?
—Now, now, the grandmother said, wheedling. No need to be abusive.
—Fuck you too, old woman, Leo said in a high, quivering voice. You bloody coolies fucking disgust me. You do this pussyfooting apartheid shit all the time, everywhere you go you take your shitty caste mentality. You picked the wrong bitch to try it on this time, I can tell you.
Leo was so angry I felt my own anger dissipate. I felt protected, and proud to be so fiercely defended, and, at that moment, watching the rage rise crimson to her thin-boned face, I felt my chest expand with something close to love. But I also felt a shiver of pity for the three generations of women watching dumbstruck from behind the counter.
I faced Leo, placed my hands carefully round her waist, and drew her tensed frame against my chest. Then I spoke in a whisper, lips brushing her ear:
—You're sweet. And that's so fucking sexy. Let's go home.
She sank against me, purring without sound, and her hands crept up my back, rubbing, tugging my shirt. Her arms were stronger than they looked; they squeezed the breath out of me, tightened vicelike until I felt her heartbeats against my chest, matching my wild heart blow for blow.
And then we left.
Because I said I loved her. I did, at that instant, coming in her. But love does not mean marriage, a baby, forever. Love means you make me happy until you don't.
A. Igoni Barrett is the winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition and the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Center Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. He lives in Nigeria. This story is from his collection Love is Power, or Something Like That, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in May. (4/2013)