As we sat listening to Salif Keita, my new friend Gerald received a text. Cell phones are common in Nairobi, and almost everyone seems to have one regardless of economic or social status. I have seen people talking and texting while walking, riding a bicycle, and driving motorcycles, cars, and big trucks. It is not much different than in the US, although some US states now have laws against it. I don’t think there is a law against it in Kenya, although the police can stop you for just about anything and I think I heard a taxi driver say he was stopped for talking on his phone. The concert we were attending was sponsored by Safaricom, one of the leading communications providers.
I had just finished my first Tusker and excused myself to get another. “Want anything? I asked. “No thanks, I am fine,” said Gerald. I headed down the uneven stairs to the circular ground level, then up the stairs in back to the bar. “A Tusker, please,” I said to the bartender. “That will be 250 Kenyan shillings,” he said. The exchange rate is about 100 Kenyan Shillings to 1 USD at this time. The US dollar is strong, close to record strength, and goes a long way right now.
I returned with my beer and looked down. Without intending to intrude on Gerald’s privacy, I saw the text “Miss you, sweetheart, can’t wait to see you soon.” Gerald was busy responding. I felt comfortable with Gerald. He was Kenyan, and during high school he had lived in Fresno. He was excited to connect with someone from the US, and even more so someone who had lived in California. His English was perfect. I told him I had driven through Fresno just three weeks earlier to attend my mother’s wedding in Stockton, California.
“So, your sweetheart is out of town, huh?” I said. “Yes, Dan, he is in Europe on business. He will be back in a few days.” “That’s good, Gerald. I am sure you miss him,” I said. “Yes I do, but he is the jealous type and I would not dare tell him I am out with another mzungu,” said Gerald. “Well, your boyfriend has nothing to worry about, Gerald. I am not gay, but have many friends who are gay,” I said. “Oh my god, Dan, that is so refreshing. I miss that about the states. Here in Kenya, I can’t talk about it to anyone except my boyfriend and a few others who I know are gay. I think my mother knew before she died, but we never discussed it,” Gerald said. “I am so sorry to hear that, Gerald. My condolences. How did she die? I asked. “Cancer, a few years ago,” replied Gerald. “My dad died last year, from Alzheimer’s Disease,” I said. “I am sorry to hear that,” Gerald replied.
We sat and listened to the incredible performance. Salif Keita’s voice truly was the “Golden voice of Africa,” and his female back up singers were so beautiful as they danced and sang with their high pitched voices in unison. During the last song, Keita invited members of the audience to get on stage and dance. It was a big, fun free-for-all. Everyone was respectful and having a great time. Keita faded into the background while people danced on stage and then came out for one final bow. “Asante Kenya! he half said, half sang.
When the concert ended we sat and talked, waiting for the crowd to thin, and more importantly the vehicle traffic to clear. “What kind of work do you do? I asked. “I am a manager at a coffee farm,” he said. “Mostly for export?” I asked. “Yes, that is right.” After about half hour we walked out to his car. “So, are you going to show me the night life in Nairobi?” I asked. “Yes, of course, I said I would,” he replied. We drove to the city center, passing Uhuru Park, the same park I had walked to about 8 hours earlier.
Gerald said, “The first place we are going to is a gay bar, everyone knows its a gay bar, but actually it’s a very mixed crowd and if it were known it was a gay bar it would be raided and closed down.” “Is it that bad here?” I asked. “It’s kind of like, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ and I am sure that bribes are paid to the police to keep it open,” said Gerald. “When people get too bold, like making out in public, then the police will shut it down,” he said, “But if you keep it hush hush there is no problem.” We entered a packed bar with booming dance floor to my left and high tables to my right, each seat taken. “Follow me,” Gerald said, “The restaurant is upstairs.” We passed another bar, also packed, and went through double Western style swinging doors to the restaurant. The place was empty, lights were dimmed, and a female server sat counting receipts. Gerald spoke to her in swahili and she nodded. We sat down at one of the tables. “How about a burger and fries?” he asked. “Sure, sounds good,” I replied. “What would you like to drink?” “A Tusker,” I replied. “You drink a lot,” he said. “I hope you are a nice drunk.” “I can assure you I am,” I said. The server arrived and Gerald ordered the burgers, beer for me, and a coke for himself.
“I am impressed that they let you in, Gerald,” I said. “They know me here. I’ve been coming for years,” he said. I looked through the swinging doors to the packed bar. Most people seemed to be in their 20’s and 30’s. As Gerald said, it was a mixed crowd with groups of men talking and drinking, and groups of men and women. I noticed that Gerald kept looking over at a group of guys. “Do you think those guys are gay? I asked. “Oh, you noticed, huh? he said. “I don’t know,” he replied, “They could be British soldiers from a nearby training base. I would not assume they are gay.”
The most impressive thing to me about this place was not gayness or straightness, it was that people were clearly from all over the world. They were young, good looking, and international. As we passed through the bar I could hear Swahili, English, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, and German being spoken. There were college students, it seemed, and locals, and probably more than one trust fund kid. It wasn’t the kind of place I would normally go to, but it was interesting and lively. It reminded me of the bar scene from the first Star Wars movie that I saw so many years ago.
Our burgers and fries arrived. We ate them, drank our drinks, and talked about all sorts of things. I offered to pay the bill and it came to 2,200 shillings, about 22 dollars. Gerald took care of the tip, normally 10% in Kenya, but I think he left a little bit more. “The next place I am going to take you is even more of a trip,” Gerald said. We exited the bar and I felt a little relieved to be away from the loud music, although it had not been so bad in the restaurant.
We walked the Nairobi streets at night, passing people walking, street vendors, and groups of men gathered on the corners. I was doing precisely what I was told not to do. The difference was that this was an entertainment district. There were people everywhere and it felt safe to me, not unlike an evening out on 4th Avenue in Tucson. “Where we are going now,” said Gerald, “Is an even more diverse crowd. I like it because the music is good and I love to dance. At this place, well, you know what goes on at the bars, right, I mean with the ladies.” I said, “I think I know what you are talking about, Gerald, the ladies of the night, right? I have been warned.” “Exactly. They are going to like you for sure,” he said.
We walked through a wide entryway, between stores, with plate glass windows on each side, mannequins displaying clothing on one side, electronics on the other. People were coming and going. We walked up a slightly dirty white marble stairway. As usual, security checked us out with metal detectors. As we entered, I noticed a wide dance floor to the left, bar on the right. Gerald said, “You pick a place.” I walked along the periphery of the dance floor, dodging people and dancers, to an outdoor covered patio that fortunately wasn’t as loud. It had high rise tables on the left, all full, and a bar on the right. “Oh my, Dan. Here you are going to get hit on for sure,” said Gerald. The only two empty seats in the place were at the bar. I pulled up to the seat on the right and Gerald took the other one. “What do you want? I asked Gerald. “I’ll take a Sprite,” he said. I ordered a Sprite for Gerald and a Tusker for myself. The drinks arrived and I paid for them, with a small tip.
“One more thing,” Gerald said, “Watch your drink carefully. Don’t leave it alone, even for a minute.” “What would they put in it? I asked. “I don’t know. All is know is that you would wake up somewhere with a headache, your wallet with all your money in it, and cell phone would be gone,” he said. I reflexively put my thumb at the top of my beer. I looked around at the scene around me. This was a more diverse crowd, at least in age. There were men and women, young and old, black and white, quite different than the first place we went. “You don’t have to be so obvious, Dan, with your thumb, I mean,” said Gerald. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize I as doing that,” I said.
“I am going to go dance,” Gerald said, “You are on your own. Good luck.” “Thanks,” I said. I looked up at the TV screen in front of me. They were showing a soccer game, and it was a good one, full of action. The woman to my right, in a tight red dress leaned over and said, “You are so handsome. I do not know if I can resist a man so handsome,” she said as she leaned toward me, so far into me that a bit of her straightened hair went into my mouth. I moved her hair away. “You are going to have to try,” I said dryly. “I will have to try?” she said confused. “You will have to try and resist, you know, my handsomeness,” I said. She did not talk to me again.
I drank my beer in silence, watching the soccer game on the monitor in front of me. People kept coming up and ordering drinks at the empty bar stool to my left. The music pounded from the dance floor inside. I could not help but notice another women just beyond the bar stool. She was slender, perhaps 5’4″, in a tight red dress. Her black skin had a slight reddish tone and was perfect. Her nails were painted, each one a different color…red, blue, yellow, purple, and hair was pulled back in a sort of 1950’s Motor City style. She moved to the music, drinking her beer. She did not look at me. As I watched the soccer game, I noticed a man come up to her and talk with her for five minutes. He was a black man, bald, with glasses. He had an intellectual look, like he was quite intelligent, but more like the villain in a James Bond movie than a kind professor. She shook her head and he walked away.
Several minutes later it happened again. This guy was a young black guy. He seemed okay, and they spoke in hushed tones. I watched my soccer match, but subtly monitored the progress. After five or ten minutes he walked away. She gently grabbed her beer, took a sip, and moved to the music. Slowly, she sat down next to me, with not even a hint of interest in my direction. “So, how do you do that?” I asked. “Do what?” she asked, looking at me a bit startled. “Send those guys away like that? I said. “I just tell them I’m not interested and they eventually go away,” she said. “It’s that easy?” I asked. “Not always,” she replied.
“My name is Dan,” I said. “My name is Ja-,” she said. “Jane?” I asked as the music surged. “Yes, Jane,” she said as she moved closer. “I like your nails. Nice touch.” I said. “That is what I do. I am a nail stylist,” she said. “Well, you did a good job.” “Thanks,” she replied. She looked down at her cell phone. I could see a picture of a woman dressed up in a sassy outfit with colorful tights on, posing for the camera. I looked at the face. It was Jane. “You have a picture of yourself on your phone?” I said smiling. “Yes. I have myself. I must take care of myself so I put a picture of myself on my phone,” she said.
A young woman, bold and a little drunk, came up and gave Jane a hug from behind. “How are you, cousin?” “I am fine,” Jane said, shrugging her off. Her cousin looked me in the eye. “Now you take care of her. She is my cousin, so you take good care of her.” I looked at Jane and she smiled shyly and looked away. “Go away,” Jane said to her. The cousin walked away. “Don’t mind her,” Jane said, “She is tipsy. When she is tipsy she gets like this.”
I noticed that Jane’s beer was almost empty. “Do you want another beer?” I asked. “Sure,” she said. I ordered a beer for Jane, I think it was a Peroni, and I got another Tusker. I could feel that warm, relaxed feeling come over me. I had lost count. It might have been my fourth or fifth beer of the night. The beers came, we toasted to the evening, and talked some more. I asked about her brothers and sisters. “I am second of four,” she said. “We live not too far away.” “Would you mind if I ask how old you are? I am 51 years old,” I said. “Guess,” she replied. “Twenty-three,” I said. She looked surprised, “You are right. I am twenty-three.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure walking towards me. I looked up and Gerald veered away, passing by a couple yards beyond Jane. He was looking at me and smiling. He nodded as if to say, “It looks like you are doing okay.” I nodded back. Jane and I chatted some more about Nairobi and living in Kenya. Jane checked her phone again. Another picture came up, this time a close up. “That’s you again,” I said smiling. “Yes, I must take care of myself. These pictures remind me of that,” she said. The music surged from the other room, the boom-boom-boom-boom of the kick drum on every beat. Dance music. “Do you like to dance?” Jane asked. “No, not really,” I replied. “You just like to talk and watch sports,” she said laughing.
I noticed that Jane had moved closer. Part of that warm feeling wasn’t just the beer. He had her arm half way around my back. I took a sip of beer. “You know, I am going to have to go soon,” I said, “I know what is going on and I am going to have to go.” “What is going on? she asked, moving away slightly. I was silent. “What is going on? she insisted. “I don’t know, but I am going to leave soon,” I said. “Are you upset? she asked. “No, I am not upset,” I said softening a little, “I just will need to go soon. For one thing, I have no money left for a taxi and I am far from my place. I just spent the last of my money on the beer. And the other thing is that,” I checked my watch, “it is 3:45 in the morning and I need to find my friend Gerald to take me home. What I know for sure is that I have to pee, so I’ll be back in a moment.” I grabbed my beer and asked where the restroom was located. Jane, pointed to the far side of the bar.
I walked to the restroom and waited in line for a couple minutes. I put my beer in my pocket and covered it up with my jacket. It was my turn, so I found my spot at the urinal, then washed my hands. I slowly walked back out to my seat next to Jane, but did not sit down. “Okay, it’s time for me to go,” I said. “Are you sure you need to go?” she said, “I like talking to you.” “I must go,” I said. “How can I contact you?” she said. I had a pen in my pocket and wrote down my e-mail address on a napkin. “This is my e-mail address,” I said. I leaned over and gave her a light kiss on her left cheek. She leaned toward me. “Good night, you are very sweet,” I said and walked away.
I found Gerald sitting on a bar stool near the dance floor. “I just stopped dancing,” he said, “You have a good night?” “Yes, I did but I think I’d better go home. You still up for driving me to my place,” I asked. “Of course, I’m not going to leave you here with no way to get home,” he said. We walked to his car a few blocks away, and he started driving. “Do you know how to get to your place?” he asked, “Because I get lost pretty easily.” “I think so, Gerald. We aren’t that far from Uhuru Park and I walked to the park today. Just head to Uhuru park and I’ll tell you when to turn right. Then we go up Ngong Road a ways, and you’ll turn right again into Kilimani Estates. I am staying off of Ndemi Road.” Before long we were pulling into the Kolping House driveway. I had already given Gerald my e-mail address, and he gave me his phone number. “Thanks, Gerald, it was a fun night,” I said. “Great to meet you, Dan,” he said. “Wait a second before you leave, okay? I said. It’s probably locked and I want to make sure the security guard is up.” “No problem,” Gerald said as I closed the car door and he flashed his lights. I heard the heavy gate deadbolt slide open and the security guard invited me inside.