The story of a man, a city, and a piece of truth.
The estate where we live is not in the slums. It’s a nice middle-class neighborhood — about ten acres with a big stone wall around them, and a whole community of small shops and apartments and houses and cow-grazing patches inside, all connected by winding dirt trails that run through the scrub.
The long low buildings are communal houses where Swahili people live. The little shacks with signs outside are stores — butcher shops, beauty salons, convenience stores, phone top-up stands. Everything you want, you can find within the estate, sold by your neighbors.
The estate is also home to a half-constructed school building, a scattering of small wood houses where Luyha and Kamba people live, several herds of cattle, and a mosque that emits astonishingly loud calls to prayer at apparently random non-canonical times throughout the day and night. Sometimes the muezzin has a little kid sing the call to prayer, and sometimes the kid makes mistakes with the Arabic and the muezzin comes on the loudspeaker to correct him, which never fails to make me smile.
Our apartment building is painted bright yellow, and has very comfortable one-bedroom apartments with spacious balconies, from which you can look down on the tin-roofed Swahili longhouses below, where children and chickens run around freely, and men and women sit outside at a round wood table to gossip and chew the leaves of the plant called khat, known locally as miraa, which can be a mild stimulant or an overpowering one depending on how fresh the batch is.
On a lazy Friday evening, my landladies and some of their cousins and I are sitting out on the balcony chewing the leaves, which make you very alert and interested and talkative. You keep a wad of miraa in your cheek and chew on it like a cow chews cud; never spitting, just swallowing the juice; and chewing up a peanut every so often to keep your saliva flowing.
My landladies introduce me to their friend Gideon, who’s from their hometown of Nakuru. Everyone calls him Gidi for short.
“You should really to listen to Gidi tell his story,” they tell me.
Gidi is mta, “street” — from the streets. “He’s not a thug, though,” they explain. “He’s a whole different kind of person.”
“What kind of person?” I ask.
“Just let him tell his story.”
They bring out hot black coffee spiced with cardamom, which gives you a tingly feeling when you drink it with the miraa. Gidi and I start chatting.
He starts by teaching me some Mombasa ghetto slang. I’ve been picking up some basic Swahili over the past few weeks, but it all sounds pretty square to him. For example, instead of saying the textbook kuja twende, “Come on, let’s go,” in the ghetto they say jaku ndetwe, which means roughly the same thing, but sounds cooler. I try to repeat it, and Gidi coaches me until I get it right. Then I type it into my phone, and Gidi watches me, letter by letter, correcting my spelling several times.
When Gidi looks at you, you feel that he sees everything inside you — how you’re feeling; what you’re thinking; how you’re going to react to the next thing he’ll say. His eyes are friendly but sharp, and they light up when he starts telling stories.
Here’s what he tells me.
Gidi grew up in the ghetto of Nakuru, a small town in the west of Kenya where nobody grows up with much of anything. He and his family lived in a one-room shack they shared with three other families, everyone sharing one toilet. The little kids usually couldn’t be bothered with the toilet, and just did their business on the floor. The adults weren’t happy with this situation, but none of them could keep a job.
Gidi was a scrawny kid — the other kids used to call him “paperboy” because if you pushed him over he’d just fold to the ground. That made him angry; made him want to be tough. Most of all, it made him want to make something of his life, so someday he could cruise through that ghetto and watch those other boys stare at him with respect.
From second grade onward, he started picking up every odd job he could find. He collected fares on a matatu — a small van that works as a short-distance bus. He washed clothes for 20 shillings a garment. If he saw someone carrying something heavy, he’d run over and carry it for them. He didn’t spend his change on candy and weed like the other kids did. He stayed in school and he saved every shilling. By the time he was in high school, he’d saved enough to move out into his own one-room shack — a place with a nice clean floor, all to himself. He started to feel a taste of the respect he’d been waiting so long for.
Respect comes with responsibilities, though. By the time he was eighteen years old, Gidi had fathered four children with four different women in Nakuru.
His firstborn son died in infancy. His second-born, a girl, was a caesarian birth, which ran up a hospital bill of 9,700 shillings — three months’ salary in Nakuru. Gidi was known around town for being careful with money, but not even he had that much saved up. He called on his mom in desperation, and it turned out that she and the doctor were old friends. She somehow talked the doctor into waiving the bill, and Gidi and his woman left the hospital with their new baby girl.
Gidi’s next two children — a boy and a girl — came within days of each other. Both mothers were in the hospital, and complications kept running up both their bills. When Gidi came by to check on the costs, they told him one of the mothers’ medical bills alone came to about 3,000 shillings — but the good news was, her condition was quickly improving. The other woman’s bill was 10,000, but she was too sick to leave her bed. Gidi managed to gather about 10,000 shillings from various family and friends. This drained most of the neighbors’ bank accounts, but they were glad to give. Still, it was nowhere near enough.
Gidi took the money to the hospital, and managed to talk the doctors into accepting the 10,000 shillings as a down payment for both women’s bills. He gathered up the woman whose condition was improving, even though she was barely strong enough to walk, and left the hospital with her, so her bill couldn’t mount any higher. He left the other woman to recuperate in bed.
He took the first woman back to her family’s village, and spent some time helping nurse her back to health. He felt very at peace during this time, like he was doing the right thing.
In the meantime, the other woman got well enough to leave the hospital, went looking for Gidi, and found out through the grapevine where he’d gone. She went and broke into his one-room shack, and in a rage she set fire to everything he owned — his few pieces of furniture, his TV, and all his IDs and papers.
When Gidi returned to the Nakuru ghetto, he found her waiting for him, baby in arms, still seething.
“I want you to know,” she said, “that it was me who burned everything.”
He hit her then, across the face, hard enough to knock her down. The baby survived the fall, and the woman ended up with a broken wrist. She reported this to her family, who launched a lawsuit against Gidi.
He decided it was time to get the hell out of Nakuru.
There’s a big cattle drive right through the middle of our estate every day. During the afternoon, you can see the cows grazing from our balcony. A lot of goats and chickens are running around underfoot all the time — and dogs and cats and rats and cockroaches the size of mice. Oh, and the ants. Those sugar ants get in everywhere, and there’s no getting rid of them.
When I mention the ants to my landladies, they shrug. “Sometimes there are a lot of them,” they say. “Sometimes they go away for a while, then they come back.”
People in Mombasa have this attitude about a lot of annoyances —just let it be; it might change tomorrow. Or you might be dead tomorrow. Who knows? Polé polé, slowly slowly.
This is not an attitude shared by all Kenyans. People in Nairobi rush around as frantically as New Yorkers, erupting into screams at drivers who cut them off. Nor is this laid-back attitude shared by the thousands of doctors who are trying to control Kenya’s epidemic diseases, or the developers who work to build the country’s roads and sanitation systems, or the advocates who fight the corruption that infects almost every level and branch of the Kenyan government. None of those people are feeling relaxed or laid-back, and this might make you want to pin the ignorance of a tourist on me, and say I picked up this attitude from people who work with tourists, who just want tourists to feel relaxed.
My only response to that is, live for a few months in Mombasa. Make friends here. Ask them what they really think.
Polé polé is in the soil here.
It isn’t the slow sigh of despair that passes for relaxation, like I’ve seen in Bulgaria and parts of Turkey and other places. At first that’s what I thought it might be, and I asked my friends about it, and they told me that’s not what it is at all.
It’s an old, deep calm. Mombasa takes it slow because they were taking it slow for hundreds of years before the Arabs came, or the Indians, or the British. Long before they heard of telegraphs or steel, they were sauntering out to pasture with their cows, calling out polé polé and hakuna matata to each other and smiling and nodding in agreement.
All right, so things weren’t really that simple, historically — but this is the story that people in Mombasa tell. It’s what they believe.
Mombasa has reacted to modernity in a way I’ve never seen in any other country. Each tribe has borrowed the parts of it they liked, integrated those tools and materials into their existing ways of life, and then gone right on living in the same ways they always have.
The Swahili now build their traditional longhouses of tin and concrete. The Kikuyu keep their cattle in pens of sheet metal. The Maasai weave intricate patterns in sheets of plastic, and wear chunks of rubber tires as sandals.
All the tribes still demand marriage dowries of ten or twenty head of cattle for a girl — although shillings, or better yet, dollars, can substitute. In the rural villages, they still sacrifice infants and the elderly for the survival of the tribe — then they argue about it on Twitter.
This isn’t an ancient culture becoming modern. It’s a culture that borrowed clocks from the Arabs, electricity from the British, and the Internet from this global culture we have today, but wouldn’t particularly mind if all that went away and they went back to simple country living. This is exactly how my friends have explained it to me. They don’t need electricity or concrete to make music and dance, to tell stories and jokes, to build their houses, to make love, to catch and kill and cook local delicacies, or to do any of the other things they feel are truly important.
Those things are what they’ll be doing after the skyscrapers and telephone lines have sunk back into the mud. These are people who know how to stick around.
They don’t shrug because they despair for their country’s modernity, as people in many other places do. No, they shrug because — in their own words— they really, truly, could take it or leave it.
Gidi caught a bus from Nakuru headed west for Migori, a small town near the Ugandan border. He didn’t know what he’d find there, but he figured it couldn’t be too different from Nakuru — except maybe they’d have more jobs. He knew no one there and he had nowhere to crash. But right then, just about anywhere was a step up from Nakuru.
He started talking up his skills to the local matatu drivers and laundry services, and within a few days he had some small but steady trickles of familiar income flowing in. One afternoon, he was collecting fares on a matatu that followed a winding road up through the mountains, across the Ugandan border, and down into the town of Tarime on the other side. He noticed that some passengers brought on cartons of cigarettes just before the matatu crossed the border — so he asked them about it.
“A pack of cigarettes costs 400 shillings here,” they told him. “Cigarettes in Uganda are terrible, plus the government taxes the hell out of them. We sell them for fifty shillings apiece in Tarime and Musoma.”
Gidi had always hated math in school, but these days his arithmetic was quick: these people were more than doubling their money.
“Is that legal?” he asked them.
“Of course not,” they laughed. “But it’s worth it.”
At the next stop, Gidi bought a few packs of cigarettes.
When the matatu arrived in Tarime, he found out those small-time smugglers were right: he more than doubled his investment that night. Within a few weeks, he was smuggling everything he could get his hands on: cigarettes, eggs, fresh fruit, jeans, DVDs — whatever the Ugandans would pay a premium for. He’d ride the matatu along its route across the border, collecting fares along the way and taking his cut off the top. On the Ugandan side, he’d sell his goods — then he’d ride the matatu back to Migori and collect his share of the fares for the return trip.
On these trips, he learned to read people —which ones could afford to pay 200 shillings for a trip, which ones could only afford 100, and which ones truly needed a free ride. He sharpened his gift for hustling every passenger; getting them to pay as much as they could afford, and making them feel good about paying it. He made friends with the border guards; got them laughing at his jokes; greased their palms a little when he needed to. At the end of each trip, he’d split the profits with the matatu driver. Everyone was getting paid; everyone went home happy.
Until one day, Gidi met a border guard who wasn’t corruptable. A rare breed in those days. The guard was furious about the smuggling; enraged at Gidi’s sweet talk and his attempted bribe. Gidi very nearly went to Ugandan prison that day, but he managed to talk the guard into kicking him and the matatu driver back into Kenya — after cleaning out their wallets.
Gidi decided this would be a good time to cut his losses and head back home to Nakuru for a while.
During his months in Migori, he’d lived simply, and had saved up a small fortune of 50,000 shillings. He cruised back through the ghetto where he’d grown up — and heads really did turn, just like he’d always dreamed. He paid the legal settlement for the woman he’d injured — paid it in full, in cash, straight from his pocket. Paid the rest of her hospital bill, too. He rented a nice clean shack for his parents— all that space, just for them. He bought drinks and dinner for the whole neighborhood.
After a few weeks of relaxing in splendor, though, he found he was itchy to get on the move again. He’d made it out of Nakuru and gotten his first glimpse of the world, and it hadn’t been all that hard. Now he wanted more. If he could make a small fortune in Migori, he figured, then he could make an even bigger one in paradise. He dreamed of Mombasa.
The word “traditional” carries a very different meaning depending on where you use it. In America, for example, the phrase “traditional job” calls up images of white-collar workers putting in their fifty years until they earn a gold watch, or of teenagers filling out summer job applications at the mall.
In Kenya, on the other hand, those kinds of jobs are new and strange. They’re not quite as unusual as they once were — especially in the big cities like Nairobi — but they’re not required stepping stones to success, either. When someone like Gidi comes to a new city to make his fortune, he’s not likely to bring a CV, or to inquire about vacancies or browse the classifieds or fill out applications.
All those things exist in Kenya, of course — but most of the country’s economy moves under the table. It’s all about who you happen to meet, what skills you can demonstrate, and who else you’re willing to shoulder out of the way — sometimes literally.
In our estate, for example, we’ve got our own ad-hoc community police force, which is a bunch of guys who chase down thieves and beat the living hell out of them. We also have a pack of nosy old women who spot strangers and criminal acts more effectively than any CCTV system, and report them to our enforcers. They get paid in favors, food and street cred, mostly.
We have our own electrical and internet services, too, installed and run by people who live here. Water gets trucked in and stored in big community water tanks; we pump as much as we need into the smaller tanks in our apartments each morning. Those people get paid in cash, and their companies have no names.
The electricity cuts out almost every day, and so does the internet — but they fix it. On the whole, everything works pretty consistently, given that no one’s overseeing any of it in any way.
This is how things get done in Mombasa: you meet the right people and get the products and services you need. Red tape is for suckers.
Gidi had spent most of his 50,000 shillings in Nakuru, but he had enough left for a bus ticket to the coast. He had nowhere to stay in Mombasa, no money to rent a place, and only some vague leads on friends there — but none of that had stopped him in Migori. Anyway, he reasoned, Mombasa was a much bigger city, so it must be that much easier to find work.
All Kenyans grow up hearing stories about Mombasa — the white-sand beaches, the resort hotels, the all-night parties and the gorgeous women and the banquets of food and drinks and drugs from all over the world. If Nairobi is Kenya’s answer to New York City, then Mombasa is its Miami, Las Vegas and New Orleans all rolled into one.
On the bus ride to the coast, Gidi pictured all the postcards he’d seen growing up: thatched beachside huts, clear water under the hot sun. Those images kept him smiling through the all-night bus trip.
Then the bus chugged to a stop in Bambolulu, a Mombasa slum that looked even more miserable than the ghetto in Nakuru. Barefoot children shuffled amid piles of trash and raw sewage—and behind them, endless rows of tin-roofed shacks with black smoke billowing up, choking the air. Gidi wondered if this might be harder than he’d thought.
He knew a friend in Mombasa. Back in Nakuru, this friend had told Gidi that if he ever made it to the coast, he should look him up at a place called Pirates. Gidi figured this must be a hotel or a bar, so he made his way through the streets on foot, asking for directions.
Hours later, he arrived at Pirates, to find out it’s Mombasa’s largest public beach — miles of sand filled with hundreds of hustlers selling necklaces and boat rides to tourists, and not a single person who recognized the name of Gidi’s friend.
Gidi was disappointed, but not defeated. He made his way to a nearby matatu stop, and started offering his services as a fare collector.
“Where’s your uniform?” the drivers asked him.
“I don’t have one,” he said. “In Nakuru we don’t wear uniforms.”
That made the matatu drivers laugh at him, just like the boys back in the ghetto had laughed at him. They laughed even harder when they learned he’d just arrived in Mombasa, and had no idea about the city’s layout. How could he work on a matatu if he didn’t know where anything was?
He found a place where some women were washing clothes, and offered to help with the laundry. But in Mombasa, the laundry services are controlled by a few families, and the old women didn’t want his help. He tried to carry heavy packages for people, but they screamed “thief!” and he had to run away before an angry mob formed. Mobs kill people for thievery in Mombasa. By the end of the day, Gidi was dying from the heat — and he had no water, no food, and no place to stay. He wandered the dark streets until he collapsed from exhaustion in the doorway of a butcher shop.
That was the next month of Gidi’s life: go into town to try to hustle a job, get rejected, try to hustle something else, get chased off again, find somewhere to lie down and wait out the brutal afternoon heat, find someone to share a bite of food with him, find a safe place to sleep.
Sometimes, walking in the slums, he’d come across some kids plotting a robbery or a drug hustle. When he heard what they were discussing, he’d sit down with them, smile his big smile, and explain to them why their hustle was a bad idea. He’d ask them to walk him through the steps, one by one, in clear detail. Then, still smiling, he’d poke holes in each step of the plan. With relentless, ruthless logic, he’d explain how it would land them in jail, or in the grave — or how the math didn’t add up to a profit.
They’d glare at him, furious — but they couldn’t say he was wrong, and that drove them crazy. The drug dealers and stick-up kids started avoiding Gidi. They didn’t fear his strength— they feared the things he’d tell them.
Through that whole long, hungry month, Gidi never stole. Never assaulted anyone. Never ran a scam. Never got into selling drugs. His scrape at the Ugandan border had taught him just how hungry the world’s prisons are for desperate kids from the slums, and he had no interest in becoming another of those kids. Mostly he slept a lot, looked for work when he had the energy, and waited for things to get better.
He wanted to tell someone about how bad things had gotten — maybe write a book, or make a movie. But he didn’t know how to do those things; knew no one who knew how to do them, or had the money to make them happen. He wanted to tell his women, the mothers of his children back in Nakuru, what he was going through, but he had no phone, nor did they. He started to realize that no one can hear you from the ghetto in Mombasa, no matter how loud you shout.
So Gidi saved his stories; retold them to himself at night, keeping every detail fresh in his memory. Someday, he told himself, he’d find a way to make the world understand him, and understand this place.
Mombasa is home to more than 40 tribes, each with its own distinctive style of speaking, cooking, dressing, dancing, marrying, making money, and interacting socially.
At first glance, you (a foreigner) might struggle to distinguish members of the different tribes, since most of them dress in modern Western fashion — the main exceptions being the Swahili, who prefer traditional robes; and the Maasai, who wear brightly colored togas.
The rest of the tribes are distinguished by their customs, their manners, and the roles they hold in society. Kikuyu men, for example, are proud of their deep, booming voices — the other tribes say the Kikuyu love to shout instead of speaking — and of their negotiation skills; they tend to go into sales and politics. The Luyha love to eat and fight, and are intensely protective of those they work with — making them ideal soldiers and bodyguards.
The Luo, my Luo friends tell me, are more polite and analytical. They tend to become scientists and academics. They’re also known for name-dropping their connections with famous people, which are usually fake.
“Oh, the governor?” a Luo man will say when he goes back from Mombasa to visit his village. “Yes, we’re great friends. Had lunch with him just last week. Wonderful guy, so nice in person. Can’t give out his number, of course. You understand.”
I tell my friends this sounds just like Los Angeles. They find that hilarious.
Some of the tribes, like the Kikuyu and Luo, boast millions of members, including political leaders. Others, like the Kamba and the Taita, only number in the thousands, and struggle for representation. Compared to many places in the world, though, the tribes in Mombasa get along without much serious conflict. They can recognize each others’ members at a glance, and have their own jokes and stories about each other — but this is just teasing among neighbors. Intermarriage between the tribes is common, and any given estate or street is likely to be home to people from at least five different tribes, all in their own unique styles of housing, following their own ways of life.
And that’s not even getting into the countryside. One day, driving through the surrounding hills, we pass little villages of mud huts where women in colorful shawls carry jugs of water on their heads. We ride through slums of tin shacks that seem to stretch on forever, where I catch glimpses of extension cords running power from nearby shops to lamps and flatscreen TVs inside the houses. And we pass through a big trash dump, acres and acres of rotting garbage and plastic bottles and burning piles of paper, and in the middle of the dump squat shacks built of smashed car bumpers and shattered windowpanes, and people dig absently through the surrounding trash looking for things to eat or sell.
“People were supposed to dump the trash in the valley there,” my friend tells me. “But no one controlled it. They just dumped it here.”
“And people just started living here?”
My friend shrugs. “I guess.”
Early the next month, Gidi was down at the matatu stop near Pirates again, getting laughed at, when a driver jumped out of a matatu and ran toward him. What am I in for now? he wondered. Does this guy think I stole something? But then he recognized the driver — it was his friend; the one who’d told Gidi to come looking for him at Pirates. And here they were.
“What are you doing for work?” his friend asked.
“I’m trying to get a job as a matatu conductor,” Gidi said.
“Well you’re not trying anymore,” his friend said. “Hop in. My old conductor just quit. You’ve got the job.”
“But I don’t have a uniform,” Gidi said.
“I don’t know the layout of the city.”
“Just yell ferry, ferry, ferry,” his friend told him, hurrying back to his matatu. “Now come on! We’re wasting time.”
Gidi rode along in the matatu all day, collecting fares from passengers, keeping them entertained with the endless stream of banter that had become his trademark on the Migori route. The driver was impressed that Gidi knew exactly how much fare he could get out of every passenger — and no one seemed to mind when Gidi yelled ferry, ferry, ferry even when they were heading away from the ferry station, back to the beach.
After a few days, Gidi had earned a few hundred shillings — not enough to rent a shack yet, but enough to buy a uniform, which he did. A few weeks later, tourist season kicked off, and Gidi’s matatu was winding its way through a record-breaking traffic jam. Most of the matatus were packed full of passengers — and every time Gidi’s got an open seat, he’d hustle fares higher than anyone had paid before. People were paying 100 shillings — 200 even —just for a ride across town in Gidi’s matatu. And the crazy thing was, they were happy to pay it. They loved listening to him talk. He kept them laughing for the whole ride. He always asked for the highest fare they could afford to pay, and he always got it out of them. They didn’t know how he did it, but he always did.
In one single traffic-jammed day, Gidi collected 8,000 shillings in fares — nearly three months’ salary back in Nakuru. By tradition, he split the profits fifty-fifty with the driver — which still left him with more money than he’d seen since his smuggling runs in Migori. He found a one-room apartment to rent for 1,500 shillings a month — not a shack but a real apartment, with electricity and running water — whose owner didn’t even ask for a deposit; just the first month’s rent. Gidi spent a few hundred more shillings on rugs and furniture and miraa. He stayed up the whole night chewing the stems and leaves, trying to come to grips with his sudden wealth.
He didn’t know it, but that apartment was insanely, absurdly cheap by Mombasa standards. And there was a reason for that.
Late on another night, my Luo landladies confide in me that one of the apartment buildings in this estate isn’t safe to live in. It’s a well-constructed building, and has water and electricity and everything, but it’s owned by a man who has made a deal with dark powers.
Late one night before construction started, my friends — and many other people in our estate — witnessed that man slit the throat of a goat at the building site, and scatter the blood around the foundation as he muttered strange incantations. Tenants tend to move out as soon as they discover the truth — that place is haunted by a djinn.
One of my landladies tells me she once lived in a building like that — a place whose owners had made a deal with a djinn for the sake of profit. The building was well known to be haunted, but my friend decided to take the risk and move in.
Some nights she’d finish cooking dinner and step into the next room for a moment, then return to the kitchen to find all her fresh-cooked food vanished and the dishes stacked neatly in the sink. She took to drinking heavily before she went to bed, because every night she’d glimpse a shadowy figure staring into her window — which was three floors up.
When she announced she was moving out, the owners begged her to stay — even told her she could delay the rent payment as long as she wanted. She left anyway, and when they refunded her deposit, they included some extra money. She sent that money back to them right away. Once you’ve spent free money from people like that, there’s no telling what might start following you around.
A lot of people in Mombasa have stories like that — about djinn, curses, spells, and other dark magic. It’s not to scare little kids at night. It’s serious business. Voodoo in the Caribbean, my friends tell me, is kid stuff. Here in Mombasa, there are no fun voodoo parties; no eerie little shops for tourists to visit.
No, Mombasa is the mother lode, the real heart of the beast, and you’d better be very careful who you talk to about those kinds of things here. If a stranger invites you to come to his house and eat meat, don’t go. If one day a goat or cow goes missing from your estate, watch out for anyone who gets rich soon afterward. Always steer clear of cemeteries at night. Beware old women carrying charms.
Mombasa wears the skin of a modern city, but its bones are made of very old magic.
Gidi’s apartment was cursed. When Gidi told his friends which building he was living in, they looked ill. Didn’t he know that building was constructed on the site of a sacrifice? Didn’t he know it was inhabited by a djinn? All his plans would turn against him as long as he lived there. Everything he attempted in life would turn to ash.
“I don’t know if I believe in djinn,” Gidi told them, “But if they do exist, they can’t be scarier than some of the people I’ve met on the street.”
But maybe his friends were right about the curse. His friend’s matatu ran into engine trouble that month, so he was out of that job. He started trying to sell shirts and jeans at the market, but that was only netting him a few hundred shillings a week, after expenses. His other hustles weren’t amounting to much of anything. But Gidi decided he wasn’t going to let a vengeful djinn get him down.
He sent word to his friends back in Nakuru, and invited them to crash at his new pad rent-free. Ten of them took him up on the offer. For the next few weeks, they burned through most of Gidi’s meager savings, sharing food, blasting music, and stinking the place up with the best weed they could find.
Finally, one night, the landlord came banging on the door.
“I want you out!” he shouted. “All of you!”
Gidi laughed. “I thought your kind never kick tenants out,” he said. “You should be glad I’m still paying the rent.”
“Forget your rent,” the landlord shouted. “Just get out. Now. Tonight!”
Gidi and his friends packed up, and most of them went back to Nakuru, thanking him for the good time. He’d thought it’d be easy to find another apartment, but it turned out that apartments without vengeful djinn were a lot more expensive — 5,000 a month and up. And Gidi had blown through most of his money entertaining his friends. He wasn’t ready to call it quits on Mombasa just yet, but it was time to recharge and regroup.
He bought a bus ticket, and called his mom to say he was coming home for a while.
Gidi’s second trip back to the Nakuru ghetto wasn’t as celebratory as his first. He knew, though, that everyone would be asking him about his successes in Mombasa. You don’t just go to Mombasa and come back with nothing. So Gidi brought the only assets he had to his name — the shirts and jeans he’d been selling in the market.
He handed out those clothes like he’d handed out cash on his previous visit — and discovered that his old friends were surprisingly thrilled with them. Maybe they overestimated the value of the clothes; maybe they were getting a taste of high fashion for the first time, and wanted more. Whatever the reason, Gidi soon had a whole list of people signed up to buy clothes from him next time he was in town.
As he talked about his frustrations with his mom, she suggested that those clothes might be the key to his success.
“But I only make a few hundred a week from them,” he told her.
“Have you really been trying?” she asked.
And he realized he hadn’t really been putting his whole heart into hustling clothes. He’d always had the matatu job, and after that he’d spent most of his time partying with his friends in the haunted apartment — but he’d never devoted himself to selling clothes as a full-time gig.
“Why not go back and give it a shot?” she said.
So he did. He pulled together enough cash for a bus ticket, and for some initial inventory from the clothing wholesalers, and he went back to Mombasa, and back to sleeping on the street. He didn’t mind it quite as much this time. He already knew all the thugs and drug dealers, and they mostly avoided him anyway. He knew the safe spots to sleep, and the ways to stay out of the heat.
On his first day of selling clothes, he made enough to use the municipal shower the next morning after he slept in the street. That left him looking and feeling clean, and he made a few hundred shillings more that day. The next day, he made a few hundred more. It wasn’t as quick and easy as the matatu money — but it also had no limit. He set his own hours; sold to whomever he wanted. He saved every shilling he could spare, eating at the cheapest food stands and trading kitchen labor for what he ate. By the end of the month, he’d saved enough to move into a cozy djinn-free apartment.
A few months later, he felt ready to head back to Nakuru for a little break. This visit was more like the first, but lower-key — he paid some bills for his family, but didn’t splurge on dinner for the whole block. It was enough that people could see he was living in Mombasa, doing well. He could see it in their eyes; read it in their faces. That was plenty reward for him.
As the sky turns dark and starry, Gidi wraps up his story, and the landladies and I move into the living room. They put on YouTube videos of songs we remember from high school, and we all start dancing. I’ve danced with people from all over the world, and Kenyans dance with a skill and ease I’ve never seen anywhere else. My friends teach me dances they did in high school to pop and hip-hop and local styles of music. They seem to have a specific dance for every song, and they know them all by heart.
Then they put on some Luo music and decide to teach me some Luo styles of dancing. If the beat sounds one way, you shake your hips and rotate like a hula dancer. If it’s slightly different, you stand very still and do a bellydancing sort of move. If it’s another variation, you make a deep slow scooping motion with your hands.
Those are just the Luo dances. Next they put on some Kikuyu music, which is deep and triumphant-sounding; and they teach me some Kikuyu dances, where you pump your fists and shake your shoulders a lot. Then they teach me some dances of the Luhya tribe; lots of kicks and fancy footwork. They want to show me how to dance like the Kamba, whose traditional moves look like a cross between James Brown and MC Hammer, but every time they play that video they start laughing too hard to continue.
We dance for about six hours straight, the Luo dances and the Kikuyu ones and dozens of others they’ve invented, until the sun comes up. The miraa wears off and I keep trying to sit down, but my friends keep pulling me back up, begging me to try just one more dance. Finally we collapse on the couches, hot and spent, and I drift into sleep, my friends’ voices still in my ears, telling me it’s too soon to give up on the party.
The next afternoon, Gidi takes me to an outdoor bar covered by a thatched roof, where locals gather to chew miraa and drink the coconut wine known as mnazi.
I take a seat next to a guy who’s already well beyond tipsy; he calls me “brother” and launches into a litany of complaints you’d hear in any bar: his job sucks, he can’t quit smoking, he’s fighting with his wife. We sip the mnazi out of small glass jars through thin bamboo straws, and it tastes exactly like wine and coconuts, and by the time we’ve gotten through most of the bottle this guy is telling me very emphatically that we are brothers; we share the same blood.
“We stick together,” Gidi tells me. “That’s what keeps us strong. I’m not sure if you understood that about my story. You looked a little fuzzy on some of those parts.”
“I was thinking about how to write it,” I tell him. “I want to make sure I put it right, just as you told it.”
“In the ghetto,” Gidi says, “it’s not the strong who survive, or the fearless, or even the smart. It’s the ones who keep smiling. The ones who endure.”
Two Maasai men stride by, tall and thin in their red and blue patterned togas, each of them carrying a long wood staff in one hand and a big plastic jug of fresh blood in the other. A little girl trots along between the men; one of them leans down to pat her on the head with his staff. She looks up and smiles.