Black And White

As has been the trend in my hitherto adventures, once I arrived at Nairobi, I hit the ground running. After sleeping a few hours, shaving my beard and listening to derogatory comments about the shortness of my hair it was time for my first African dinner.. As getting around in Nairobi is about as safe as juggling burning zippos at a gas station blindfolded, it pays to have a reliable taxi service that one can use without greater concerns for getting robbed. Sadly the driving habits of the locals, including the cab drivers, as well as the abysmal roads, ensure that death might always be around the corner, like 2Pac put it back in the dizzay. But hey, you only live once, twice or nine times, depending if you're human, 007, or a cat, right? Either way, a couple of the guys from the local taxi service, that the UN interns have found quite affordable and even surprisingly reliable, wanted to take us to a christmas dinner at a local restaurant. Thankful for the nice gesture we agreed and hopped in the cabs, that took us to the first "restaurant".

Now, generally I'm not too picky where I eat, especially considering the circumstances, but in my case the word restaurant usually provokes a mental image that includes food, glasses, cutlery, walls, door, waiter/tress and maybe even tablecloths. This place had none of the above. None. We walked in to the shack/saloon-like contraption, sat on two benches at a table that had things on it that I failed to recognize. After sitting there like a bunch of idiots for about 15 minutes, making small talk with the two cabbies that were our hosts for the evening, one of them hollered something in Swahili at a random drunken dude sitting at what must have been the bar to which the the dude grumbled an unclear reply. The cabbie smiled at us, got up, and curtly ejaculated: "We must go another place, here is no food left." To quote perhaps the most famous pet detective in the world: "AAAAAAALLLLLLLRIGHTYTHEN!!" We hopped in the cab and speculated in Finnish what the next place could possibly be like..

About 20 minutes later we arrived at "Chicken Palace". Again, the name was a bit misleading, since it was neither a palace, nor did they serve chicken, but we didn't let those pesky details slow us down. After carefully dodging the spike mats!!! leading to the parking lot and getting out of the cab we got the first good glimpse of the place. It was a three-storey wooden house/veranda/balcony unlike no building that I had seen. The Swalihi reggaeton music was blaring close to a pain-threshold volume while the children played in the swings outside. There was almost no light with the exception of a few dim lights from the inside, that was actually the outside, because they're not big on walls here. The place was packed and we had to elbow our way in, blindly following our native hosts. Past the dance floor and up the stairs we waded, desperately trying to keep up with the others. Halfway up the stairs a little girl froze in her steps, pointed at me with her finger and whispered loudly in mixed confusion and terror "MUZUNGU!!" ("whitey"). I tried to smile mildly and avoid scaring the poor girl more. As we finally sat down in a dark corner (the only kind there) one of our hosts, Anthony, explained that this was a popular place around christmas time, and that a lot of the people here came from villages outside Nairobi, and that I was probably the first white man she had ever seen. No wonder she freaked out.

The purpose of the visit was to enjoy njama choma, a local delicacy, which was basically roasted goat (or other) meat with no sauce. Having learned a tad of solidarity from my mentor in that area, F'baian, I smiled and looked excited. Actually I had probably never felt so out of place in my life. I was the only white (more like whiter shade of pale, actually) man out of the hundreds of people in the building (if you don't count a Korean/Swedish/Finnish guy with sunglasses on), I couldn't see anything because "the locals they do not like lights", and I didn't even have a beer in my hand to focus attention to. Slowly things started going our way as we finally got some cool beer, the cabbies arranged a candle for us, and some locals came up to us to introduce their children to us, so that they would stop being terrified. And I'll tell you this for free: THAT felt a little weird, but I suspected that wasn't going to be the last weird feeling of my time in Africa, so I dealt with it. After waiting for about an hour and a half, during which I had to explain to our dark-as-the-night-cabbies a couple of Eddie Murphy's nigga-jokes (which was kinda intense), we got out njama choma. Apparently there weren't any goats left in the country because of the season, so we got beef (lol). A solemn guy showed up with a wooden plank with a huge lump of meat on it, and an even bigger knife, which he started swishing around with commendable accuracy, to chop up the meat to edible bits, naturally. To my genuine surprise the meat was partly well done and all right, partly medium and delectable. Kudos to the chefs for concocting excellent food with just fire, meat and some salt, but I guess that's all you need.

After this highly original dinner and another round of beers we paid (nothing) and decided not to start a break-dance circle but headed back home. In retrospect, the second place didn't have glasses, cutlery, walls or tablecloths either, but at least they had food, a door, an even a sorry excuse of a waitress. :)

The next day we were scheduled to attend a Boxing Day brunch at James's house, which we did fashionably late. The house could not have been a more complete opposite of the Chicken Palace if it had tried. It has some serious walls, for one. First the outer brick walls with armed guards and guard dogs. Then sturdy house walls with bars in all the windows, and finally a panic room upstairs with bullet-proof doors and walls thick enough to take a missile at close range. The owner of the house had been one of the founders of the Nairobi stock exchange and currently ran his own investment bank, so it wasn't a great surprise that they had had THREE!! robbery attempts within the last year. Where is Macaulay Culkin when you need him?

After getting over the security arrangements I concentrated on the people, who were overwhelmingly white. The only ones who weren't, were the staff, which took some getting used to, but apparently they liked their jobs and got paid fairly well. There were people from all over from Nairobi, connected through international school, work and more importantly money and skin color. It sounds nasty, but it is the naked truth. Because of this realization I felt initially a little out of place as well, but soon one of the Americans asked me about the Finnish army and my frown turned into a smile. An hour later he offered me a job as a human resources supervisor in his firm. True story. I'm still considering his offer.

The food was western, tasty and abundant, and even the beer was cold. After careful consideration (six bottles) I decided that Tusker Malt was better than regular Tusker, and nodded politely when the host offered me another one of those frosty bad boys. Some more people showed up, including an Irish/Kenyan DJ, whom I especially enjoyed talking with. Being well-educated, a native Kenyan, but also a European, he offered a very fresh and all-around view on both the political and the sosio-economic situation in the country. Naturally we also viewed the current status of the melodic house music industry in Mombasa, where my natural skills of improvising (= bullshitting) showed to be very useful. Upon his exit we shared about 14 different rap-hugs and/or handshakes, which I pulled off without greater awkwardness and promised to hang out later. We stayed for a while and talked to the others, who all turned out to be quite amiable people, albeit a bit spoiled on some occasions. No offense, just being real.

All in all it was a very special double header for the J-Man. As a final note I have to add, that no matter how much people can (and should!) look beyond skin color, it is something that is always there, and it would only be naïve to claim that it would not be a factor in all interracial contact. But whether it becomes a positive or a negative factor is, of course, up to the people in question.

Peace, and remember: "We're all black when you turn off the light" (unless there are candles, or it's daytime..) [tags]restaurant, nairobi[/tags]

Rex Jenkins – A Modern Day Hero

Horoscopes for January 7, 2008