It was Saturday afternoon in Nairobi and I was disappointed that the Salif Keita show had sold out before I was able to get a ticket. My new friend who I have not met yet, Simone, had planned for a group of friends to go to the show, but the plans came to a halt when we found out there were no tickets to be had. Instead, I took a long walk in the afternoon down to Uhuru Park.
Walking in Nairobi is not easy. First of all, it must be done in the daylight hours. More than one person has warned me that walking at night is dangerous due to petty theft and muggings. Even though Nairobi is quite diverse in its ethic composition, I stand out like a sore thumb and would be a prime target. There are dirt footpaths alongside the road just a few feet from the speeding traffic, with all sorts of obstacles such as holes, rocks, twisted metal, bicycles, motorcycles, and other people.
Kilimani Estates, where I am staying at the Kolping House, is known for being relatively safe. But it was a long walk and I truly did not know the way, just the general direction and I had studied a map. The suburbs, which is how I would loosely describe where I am, are quite heavily wooded and are in rolling hills. It is easy to get turned around. Every now and then I would ask a passerby, “Uhuru Park?” and point in the direction I thought it was. Everyone was friendly and affirmed my direction, except for one misstep.
I approached an intersection leading to a narrow street with walls on both sides. There was a security gate with two armed guards in green military fatigues, with seven or eight people walking along the passage way. At the end of the street was a heavily wooded area that looked like a park. I was now becoming used to security everywhere, even public parks and shopping malls, so it did not look out of place. I approached the guards and asked, as always, “Uhuru Park?” “No,” one replied, “The White House. The President’s house.” Fortunately, they were smiling. “Ah, Kenyatta!” I said, and turned around. As I walked away they said, “Go left and it’s down the street one kilometer.”
Uhuru Park is mostly for children. There are hundreds of kids running around, supervised by their parents and others. There is face painting, merry-go-rounds, horse back rides, little cars that attendants push around, and even camel rides. By the time I got back home in the late afternoon I must have walked 7 or 8 miles. My legs were tired.
But I started thinking about my time in Nairobi and the adventure of it all, the fact that a great Singer, Salif Keita, was doing a show not too far away. I remembered that Joshua Wood on Facebook had said that he was jealous that I might be able to see the show, and know Joshua has great taste in just about everything. I went on Facebook and was communicating with Don Jennings and he asked if I was going. I replied that it was far away, night time was approaching, transportation was dangerous and I thought I would just stay in. I got off of Facebook and thought to myself, “What a wimp. Just go for it. You are here in Africa and have already taken some risks, take another.”
I jumped in the shower and put on my best clothes, black pants, black dress shoes, and a clean plaid shirt. People dress up here. I put on a light black down jacket. I placed copies of my passport and VISA in one pocket with the name and address of Kolping House. I grabbed 7000 Kenyan Shillings and put them in my other pocket. Roughly, the exchange rate is 100 shillings to the dollar, so that’s about 70 bucks. That was a lot of money in Nairobi, but I didn’t want to be stuck without money for the night, and who knew what might come up. The key to preventing and successfully handing petty theft is to be ready to hand over everything without resistance. If I had my passport and wallet with me with credit cards and cash, I might hesitate to hand it over, creating an opportunity for a violent reaction. I had my important items locked away in my guest house room where theft was unlikely. If I got into trouble I would calmly hand over everything and hope for the best.
Earlier on my walk I had noticed motorcycle drivers stationed at many intersections. My plan was to approach one and find out how much the trip would be to the Bomas of Kenya, a theater on the outskirts of town that puts on traditional African dance shows and has model African villages from around the country.
I was just after 6pm, partly cloudy, and the sun was low in the western sky. I was excited and simply unsure as to how this was going to work out. I was headed out into the Nairobi night to a show that I did not have a ticket for, far away from where I was staying, right into the very night I was warned could be dangerous. Sure enough, just a block from my place I saw a motorcycle driver sitting at the corner. “How much to take me to the Bomas of Kenya? There is a concert there,” I said. “One thousand shillings,” he replied. I knew it was far away and was not in the mood to negotiate. “I have that. Let’s go,” I said. He handed me a neon yellow reflective vest. “Put this on,” he said. “How long to get here?” I asked. “Twenty minutes, half hour,” he replied.
I jumped on the back and held on the the rack just behind my seat. Off we went. Nairobi traffic can be notoriously bad and Saturday evening can be especially congested. Tonight was no exception. Cars were stopped or barely moving for what seemed like miles. My driver used all the tricks. He went right down the middle of the road, between cars, which worked well until we approached other motorcycles and bicycles doing the same. He went off onto the shoulder dodging pedestrians, mud puddles, holes, and bicyclists. As we passed one group of guys, one of them yelled, “Mzungu!” I smiled and nodded my head. I was getting used to this way of referring to white people. Even in diverse Nairobi, I was a novelty.
I began to fear for my life just a little. We were dodging in and out of traffic. I had no helmet on. I wasn’t really sure where we were going. I reassured myself that the driver did this all the time, it was his job, and he didn’t want to die either. In ten minutes we left the smokey, dusty, traffic of Nairobi at nightfall, and entered what was basically a freeway. Hardly anyone was on it. Every now and then a car or truck would pass us on the right going 60 or 70 miles per hour. My driver had the throttle pegged as fast as the little bike could go, and the thing was vibrating like crazy. We must have been approaching 50 miles per hour, and my arms and feet were starting to feel numb, partly from the vibration and partly from my death grip on the rack. The wind picked up and blew my unzipped jacket from my shoulder. There was no way I was going to fix that now. “All is well,” I thought to myself, “This is my life and I am on my path. All is well and all will be well.”
I began to smell something odd and mildly unpleasant, like wood smoke and sewage mixed together. I looked over to my left and in the fading light I could see a sea of rusty tin roofs, with smoke rising from small fires. It was dinner time and people were cooking. This was the infamous Kibera Slum.
Traffic again, freeway traffic now. We were almost to the Bomas of Kenya and there was a line of cars moving very slowly as we entered the park. This was not a problem for us and we sped to the front of the line. There were huge flood lights with the hum of generators. There were two lines of cars leading to a gate. As the cars approached the front of the line, all passengers had to exit and the boot (aka, trunk) had to be opened. Two dogs, a German Shepard and an energetic black Cocker Spaniel, searched the wheels and boot. The German Shepard would put his front legs on the back and sniff around, the Cocker Spaniel would just jump right in.
To the left of the line of cars there was a Bomas of Kenya sign with about 20 people standing there, several sitting. I approached a black man and white woman who appeared to be a couple, “Are there any tickets available?” I asked. The woman said, “No, that is why we are all waiting here,” and they both looked away. “Okay,” I said and walked over to the base of the sign and leaned against its concrete footing, half sitting on the base. I turned to the guy next to me, a smartly dressed black man. “You think we’ll have any luck getting tickets? I asked. “I sure hope so,” he replied, “I drove in from outside of town 45 minutes and I’d love to hear Salif.” “Hey, where are you from?” he asked. “I’m from Tucson, Arizona, and grew up in California,” I replied. “Wow, I lived in Fresno for many years. Went to high school there,” he said. I told him that my mother lived in Stockton and my sister, nephew and his family lived in Porterville. I mentioned that I was there a few weeks ago for my mother’s wedding.
We chatted easily about all sorts of things, living in California and life in Nairobi. I mentioned that I did not have a phone and was waiting for a work permit for a job in Kakamega in Western Kenya. I wasn’t sure about the phone because I did not want to get something in Nairobi then find out the area code was different in Kakamega, had happened while traveling in Mexico once causing minor problems. The area code in Kenya is the same everywhere. You can get a phone now, just go with a large carrier and get a basic smart phone. It should cost 10,000 to 15,000 Kenyan Shillings ($100 to $150). “In fact,” he said, “Safaricom, the people who are putting on this show, would be an excellent choice. They are in the Yaya Malls all over town.”
Every now and then I would turn my attention to the scene in front of me. The line of cars went down the road a half mile or so, and the security team was working efficiently to screen the cars. One security member was especially loud and would occasionally lose his temper. Things would get backed up when the people in the car did not have tickets. No one was allowed to pass the gates without tickets, so the car would be pulled from the line causing things to stall.
I introduced myself to my new acquaintance, “My name is Dan, good to meet you.” “I’m Gerald, good to meet you too,” he replied. “What time does the show start? I asked. “8pm, but there is an opener,” replied Gerald. I looked at my watch and it was 7:30. I told Gerald about my motorcycle ride adventure and he agreed that it could be a harrowing experience, but he had done it too many times. “Do you have a car? I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “It’s parked right there.” “Are you going into Nairobi after the show?” I asked, “I am not going to take a motorcycle at night time, and I don’t see any here anyway.” “Yes,” Gerald replied, “After the show I am going to enjoy the night life, and you can come with me. I’ll show you a good time.” “Thanks so much!” I said, “I am sticking with you.”
“Now we just have to get tickets,” I said. “I have a feeling something is going to open up soon,” as I looked around at the thirty or so people patiently waiting with us. Just then a car pulled up for the security check. A white woman exited the car and walked to the back to a man who was probably her partner, a tall white man who was carrying a ticket. She spoke to him but I could not hear what she said. She nodded in the direction of the group waiting for tickets. I could see what was happening. I immediately stood up and approached the man as he took a few steps toward us. “Do you have an extra ticket? I asked. “Yes, in fact I do,” he replied. “How much? I asked. “How about 2000 shillings?” he said. I had the money ready and handed it to him, taking the ticket. “Thank you,” I said. I turned and walked back to Gerald. “How did you do that? he asked.” “I just could see what was happening and went and got the ticket?” “Wow, can you do the same for me?” he asked. “I think so,” I replied. “That’s some mgunzu magic right there,” he said. Mgunzu is the swahili word for white person. “Well, I’m not going in without you, so if we both can’t get in I’ll sell this ticket,” I said.
Now it was 8:00pm, the show was starting. “How late should we wait? I asked Gerald. “How about 8:45? he replied. “Sure, sounds good to me,” I said. We sat and talked about all sorts of thing about California, Nairobi, and Kenya. I told him about my trek up Mt. Kenya. I kept my eye out for a spare ticket but nothing came up. I looked at my watch again and it was 8:45. “Times up,” I said, “Nothing.” “Oh, I really want to see Salif Keita, can we wait a little longer, Dan?” Gerald said with a pleading tone that children sometime have. The people waiting were starting to filter away. We were down to about ten. “I am in no hurry, and you have the car. I want to get in too. How about 9:15?” I said.
As we waited, two beautiful women walked up and stood in front of us, talking quietly. One was an elegantly dressed, slender and tall black woman. Her friend had skin the same color as mine with orange braided hair. I looked at her eyes. The left eye wandered slightly to the left, and both eyes showed a rhythmic movement back and forth. This is called nystagmus and is an indication of visual impairment, almost always present in albinism to a varying degree. The genetic difference that causes a defect in creating melanin in the skin, also affects the visual pigments in the retina necessary for normal vision. I quietly said to the women, “Are you looking for tickets too?” The woman with albinism answered and said, “My friend has a ticket, but mine is with a group coming in a car. They should be here soon.” “Good,” I said, “We are hoping to buy another ticket. My name is Dan and this is Gerald.” “My name is Brenda, and this is Tisha,” she said, “Good to meet you.” Brenda said to Tisha, “Go ahead, and I will see you inside.” Tisha gave her friend a hug and walked toward the entrance with her ticket.
“We are here with a group that educates people about albinism in Africa.” Brenda said. “There is so much misinformation here, and a lot of suffering results. Sometimes people raise funds for people with albinism and then keep the money for themselves. We give talks at community centers and in schools to educate the people.” I told Brenda about my profession and upcoming job appointment at the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. “If I can help in any way, please let me know,” I said. “Thank you,” said Brenda, and then her phone rang. Brenda held the phone inches from her right eye and pushed the screen to accept the call. “They are here,” Brenda said. I saw her scan the cars and people in front of us but she did not move. I did the same and saw a group of six people exiting a SUV for the security check. A couple of the people were looking around, and two also had albinism. “There they are, Brenda, in that direction.” She thanked me and carefully stepped in the direction I had indicated. As she walked away, she stopped and turned, “I hope to meet you again,” she said. Her friends saw her and greeted her with hugs. Once the security check was over she got into the vehicle and headed in to the concert.
Gerald said, “Wow, she really couldn’t see.” I replied that she could see but her vision was impaired. I glanced at my watch. 9:05. Time is running out, I thought to myself. There were only two more people now waiting for tickets. I said to Gerald, “If I see those guys start to walk away, I’m going to offer them the ticket. I don’t want to be stuck with it.” Gerald looked up and saw a man walking around with a ticket in his hand. He was on the other side of the security line under a big flood light. “Look, Dan,” Gerald said, “That guy over there has a ticket in his hand. Would you go over there and check it out? Perform your mzungu magic.” “Sure, I”ll go check it out.”
I slowly walked through the line of cars, not wanting to concern the security team. Only five or six vehicles were waiting. I stood under the bright light and looked around. Huh, this feels kind of cool standing in the bright light, I thought to myself. It felt like something good was going to happen, but what? Go with it, Dan, I said to myself. Now, where was that guy? Oh, there he is, but he doesn’t have a ticket in his hand. He seemed to be directing the security team but he was in plain clothes. I didn’t want to startle him so I let him come to me. “Sir, do you have an extra ticket?” I said as he approached. “No, I don’t anymore, but that man right there has one for you,” he said. I turned in the direction that he was pointing. A man stood with an envelope in his hand just a few yards away. I took a few steps in that direction. “Do you have an extra ticket?” I asked. “Yes I do,” he replied. “How much? I asked. “It is your lucky day, for you it is free. Buy Safaricom,” he said as he reached into the envelop and handed me a ticket. “Thank you,” I said and turned toward where Gerald was sitting.
I slowly walked through the line of cars again toward Gerald, ticket in hand. “What happened? Did you get one? asked Gerald. “Yes I did. Here you go,” as I handed him the crisp ticket. “Oh my god, oh my god, I knew something good was going to happen. Thank you, thank you, Dan,” Gerald said excitedly. We walked over to his car and went through the security check and found a place to park in a large clearing made for such events. As we walked through the parking area toward the lights and sound of people, two tall and slender, elegantly dressed ladies were trying to negotiate a drainage ditch in their stileto high heels. Gerald stepped in front of me, said something in swahili, and offered his and to the nearest woman. She took his hand and hopped over the ditch, landing lightly on the grass on the other side. Then he offered his hand to the other woman and she crossed easily.
Safaricom had gone all out on this event. There were long red carpets leading to outdoor food tents, bar tents, displays, and merchandise for sale. There was an air of elegance to the event, with beautifully dressed people chatting quietly as they sipped a cocktail. We headed toward the faint sound of music.
The venue was a circular amphitheater with a rustic domed ceiling. The performance space had tiered platforms with individual chairs along the platforms, with rows of seating in the ground floor. There was a group of people dancing right next to the stage in the front. Salif Keita was singing, and as we entered the doorman said, “Welcome, Salif Keita just started. This is his first song.” The lighting was elaborate, bright, and beautiful. The audience was quiet, almost reverent, as they listened intently. We stopped at a bar in the back and I ordered a Tusker. Gerald declined even a water or juice. “I am fine,” he said.
Gerald pointed to a group of empty seats, stage left, and we made our way down the unevenly spaced stairway. This happens a lot in Kenya where building codes are either non-existent or loosely enforced. It makes for a quaint but challenging descent, although after climbing Mt. Kenya I was up to the task. We then ascended the stairway and found a couple empty seats, perhaps 40 yards from the center of the stage.
I was in musical heaven. Salif Keita is an afro-pop singer from Mali. According to Wikipedia, “he is unique not only because of his reputation as the “Golden Voice of Africa” but because he has albinism and is a direct descendant of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita.” He was in Kenya with his band which included a drummer, electric guitar, two female back up singers, and traditional African instruments including the Kora and Ngoni. After the first song, Salif Keita said, “I am happy to be here in Kenya. Merci!” There was an awkward silence. “Ahh, asante Kenya! he said and the crowd cheered.
Salif Keita and his band. A big view photograph from the left side of the stage.
Salif Keita and the adoring crowd dancing
The two female singers, singing in unison with high pitched voices, were one of my favorite parts of the show. As things heated up they pushed their stools back and danced as they sang.
All in all it was a magical evening, and I enjoyed meeting and hanging out with my new friend Gerald. At the end of the show we chatted and waited for other concert goers to filter out and clear the roads. A half-hour later, we walked to his car and headed to Nairobi for a night out in the city. And that is another story.