London, November 2016.
Allow me to show you the kind of situation that I felt really mattered in my life when I was a young adult. Looking back I now realise how insignificant that and many similar situations were. They were mere inconveniences and in the grand scheme of things – they really didn’t matter. Decide for yourself. This is an email I started to write to a multi-national fast food chain:
Leeds, July 2008
DEAR KFC CUSTOMER SERVICES
I recently purchased a Variety Meal from your Burley, Leeds branch. I was shocked to find when I got home that I was two pieces of chicken short. Yes, there were Hot Wings, chips and one piece of chicken. But I was short two pieces. I mean how hard can it be to put chicken into a box? I know it isn’t hard because I worked at KFC in Bedford while at college and I managed to successfully put pieces of chicken into various boxes and buckets for three years with relative ease and few mistakes –
It was at this point in my life that I felt I was so busy and important – living in a big northern city and touring the country with a band that I didn’t feel I had time to be robbed by a fast food chain. Anyway, the email got worse –
I am so disappointed that I don’t think I will return to the branch unless I receive a gesture of goodwill, or money off future orders. This is not the high standard of customer service I expect –
Awful, I know. Clearly, I wasn’t too busy and could somehow find time to type a pointless email to KFC. You’ll be relieved to know that I didn’t send the email.
Day 1, Mombasa, January 2010.
The flight to Mombasa was uncomfortable at best and my average sized legs were still too long for the space between seats. The hot air stank of weak coffee, processed meat heated in tiny airplane microwaves and the over flow of toilets. Every bump in turbulence unsettled the tanks deep in the planes bowels – disturbing smells and sending them up to the passengers.
“Not long to go,” I kept telling myself.
As the plane touched down in Mombasa the bright East African sun cut through the cabin. Stepping out onto the steps to place my feet on African tarmac – the heat wrapped itself around my face like a hot towel. Suffocating. No tall buildings here even the terminal building is just a shack. The security is minimal and hardly any passport control.
“The flight was nine hours! Nine hours and I’m sure the tail fin was held on with electrical tape,” I can barely hear her over the crackling phone line. I am relieved there is only an hour’s difference between Leeds and Mombasa – however the communication may be a problem. I have the feeling the thirty second call has probably cost me an arm and a leg.
“Calm down. You’re there now enjoy your holiday and relax,” she says.
“I just wish I was there too,”
“I wish you could have come,” I say. “This place is boring as shit already. No Wi-Fi.”
My first thoughts are for a Starbucks, and I’d even settle for a Café Nero I’m that desperate for a good coffee. But this is Kenya and I’m I have seen Kenyan coffee by Nescafe on all the supermarket shelves. Plus, I’m sure Kenco is Kenyan.
“Welcome to Mombasa,” says a large Kenyan official.
Making my way out of the tiny airport which is no bigger than an East London bus stop. I’m greeted by a chicken, a goat and several taxi drivers. I wonder what I am doing here.
“Mzungu! Mzungu! Come. Taxi,” I hear a man shout in broken English. “Nice cap. One thousand shillings and cap. I take you Mombasa shops,” the driver says.
I scramble about for a printed email which outlines the location of my hotel.
“Shanzu. I need to go to Shanzu,” I tell the driver.
The heat is boiling the rubber on the soles of my shoes. The black plastic straps of the rucksack burning through to my torso. The taxi driver beckons me to a tuk-tuk; a three-wheeled vehicle. One front seat with handle bars and two seats in the back. Each of these vehicles is brightly coloured to appeal to all tourists. This one has American rapper; 50 Cent emblazoned on the side.
I climb inside and place the bag down. The taxi driver starts up the two-stroke engine and glances back in the rear-view mirror.
The landscape is vast, sand and sun but no water in sight. Humid and hot. Flared shirts and shorts are the fashion. I didn’t factor in what might be needed as soon as I stepped off the plane. This isn’t Paris, New York or Manchester. The hotel isn’t five minutes away and the choice of hooded top and jeans was not a sensible choice. The fabrics stick to the skin and hydration is becoming an issue. Locals shout as we pass, “Mzungu!”
“What are they shouting?” I ask,
“They are shouting ‘white person’, we call you Mzungu. It is not bad.”
The driver asks, “You like diamonds?”
“What do you mean?”
The driver turns to me taking his eyes off the road. “You have a diamond on your neck. You like diamonds? I can show you diamonds. How much you want to buy for?”
I reach to touch the diamond tattoo on my neck.
“Oh no. It’s just a tattoo. I don’t want diamonds. I’m too poor,” I laugh nervously.
The driver turns back to the road and lights a cigarette, not speaking another word the whole journey.
All I can think is about how I want a long bath and a boxset to watch in an air-conditioned room with a cold beer.
Day 6, Shanzu, January 2010
They take your word here – there is no getting out of a deal with a verbal contract. If you promise to return tomorrow and buy a cup of tea – then you had better return and buy two cups. The young man who works on the grounds of the hotel has offered to show me his father’s shop. Philip spots me across the dusty road and shouts,
“Commissioner Steve! Prime Minister Steve!” I am face to face with Philip ‘The Christian’ – as he likes to be known. Today he has his brother with him and they are full of questions about London. They still don’t understand I live three hundred and fifty miles from London. I should know better than to think they judge any distance with difficulty – they would walk hours from their coastal villages through safari to the Tanzanian border for school supplies. I am ushered into the father’s shop. Which is just a small hut covered in vine leaves and surrounded by sandbags. The cardboard door closes behind me – but there is no need to feel trapped.
“Just like Woolworths,” The father says.
I have no idea how he knows about Woolworths and I feel it would be wrong to mention their decline back home. I smile and look to the ceiling which is covered in a large fishing net. It feels like at any minute the net will drop and I will be caught and displayed as an object for sale. My imagination running away with me – I know that isn’t the case.
There is no such thing as browsing in the shop – you will leave with several useless items which no doubt I wills struggle to get back to the UK. I may have only been here a short while but I have already learned that you never walk out of the shop without an item. Philip, with a huge smile on his face ushers me around the ten-foot squared shop and insists I touch all the items for sale. The first thing he thrusts into my hand is 13inch Masai warrior club, carved from wood – I have no idea which kind. It weighs the same as a cricket bat and is quarter the size. The ended is bulbous with a sharp spike in the middle. It resembles a large stick with a breast on the end. Philip smiles at me – showing all his teeth.
“Tit stick!” he smiles, raising his hands to his chest as if to grab imaginary breasts.
Taking the stick from my hand he shows me how he would hit someone in the head with it. His brother is the willing victim in this example. My empty hand is not empty for long as a large meat cleaver with homemade rope handle is placed in it.
It is not long since the election violence here in Kenya – many people were killed and the footage I have seen shows many people being chased with weapons like this one. I look down at the dried red, roped handle and notice the red doesn’t look like paint. I look up at Philip with what I assume he sees as a disgusted face – I offer the knife back to him. His smile fades and his eyes open wide.
Day 10, Mombasa, January 2010
My third visit in ten days to Mombasa for supplies. The route has become easier with the help of local knowledge and the use of Philip and his motorbike. The scrambler off-road bike he has makes the journey a lot quicker than in the tuk-tuk. I am left to my own devices again whilst Philip visits his friends in the city. They sit on walls and smoke while ogling girls. I make my way into a café where I ask for a coffee and chunk of Ugali to eat. The café owner an old man in his seventies – is in an apron and asks me to take a seat. He spends the next hour with me at my table, talking about England – where he has family there, and the future for Kenya. He keeps refilling my cup as soon as the bottom appears through the liquid. The coffee is good. He explains how he is forced to hand over protection money to local gangsters and how his business has suffered through the lack of tourists because of the election violence.
“When the British were here we had more. We felt part of something bigger. Now we are forgotten,” says the old man.
There is sadness in his voice as he explains that there is nowhere for the kids to go. That drugs are a problem here and he often see them pickpocket not only tourists but also locals. “Glue,” he says. “They sniff glue and their eyes are red like the devil.”
He tells me his name is Jomo. I tell him my name is Stevie. We shake hands and he asks that I come and say goodbye before I fly back to England in four days. I agree.
Mombasa is a bustling city with main roads that wouldn’t look out of place in any UK city. The pollution is an issue when you are here, but the locals have more pressing things to get on with. I walk down a small alley way and inhale a stench. There is no immediate source of the smell but it gets stronger the further I make my way down the alley. The smell of remnants from a fire fill the air. Burning rubber, urine and faeces, rotten food and animal flesh. There is a man on top of a pile of rubbish – the smell is coming from the mountain in the middle of the alley. I approach slowly but the man in the pile shouts, “No! Go!”
I stand and take a second to look. I reach for my camera. I manage to take a photo before the man swings around and jumps out of the mound. He races towards me,
“Mzungu, go! Now,” he shouts at me.
“Sorry,” I say. I begin to walk away.
“Go away Englishman,” He ushers me away. I begin to walk away.
My final stop is back to the meeting point by the petrol station where I will wait for Philip to pick me up so we can head back to Shanzu. I make my way across the street where I feel a hand on my shoulder – I turn to see three young men each of them no older than twenty-three years old.
“You got some nice things, American,” they say.
“I’m not American, I’m from London,” I reply. It’s at this point I hope whatever special relationship Britain has with Kenya may help me.
“You are a long way from home. You want some tea, Englishman?”
“No, I’m fine thanks. I’m just waiting for my friend,” I tell them.
One of them begins to tug at my backpack – pulling it from my shoulders. Another man starts emptying my pockets,
“Give us money Mzungu or we cut your hands,” one of them says.
As they almost free the backpack from my shoulders I am pulled away from the group by an elderly man. He shouts at the younger men in Swahili and pushes one of them away.
“Englishman,” one of the men calls and makes a slit throat motion as he walks away.
I am ushered through a restaurant where I am told I can wait for my friend. I am taken to the roof and given a Coca Cola. The man who helped me introduces himself as Elim. I thank him and take some time out on the roof overlooking the main street. I watch for Philip on his motorbike.
Day 13, Shanzu, January 2010
The conversation I had with Jomo is still fresh on my mind as my two week stay comes to an end. I fly home tomorrow and I can’t help but think about how he and many others remember British rule here. For all the progress and great things that have happened since Kenya’s independence – they feel forgotten. Jomo and others I have met seem sad at the plight of the younger generation, and my run in with many of them seems to be a standard approach here to tourists. While Jomo and Elim enjoy the tourism as it brings in money – there are many others who seem to just want to steal it while creating a bad name for the independent Kenya. The election violence hasn’t helped either.
I make my way to the main corner in the village to buy tea when I see two small children across the path. They look lost and lonely. A young boy in a red shirt approaches me as another is standing by a broken gate. The young boy in the red shirt comes over and reaches out to touch my hand. Holding my hand, I look at his eyes and see they are bloodshot red. He stares at me for what feels like a lifetime but in fact was just a few seconds,
“Hello. What’s your name?” I ask. No reply from the child as he looks up at me. He holds out his other hand gesturing for some money – a gesture I had seen hundreds of times every day while I have been here. I look over at the young girl stood by the broken gate – she is holding a small plastic bottle. She holds it to her nose and inhales. The young boy lets go of my hand and runs back across the road. He stops, turns and looks back at me. At that moment, I decide to cancel my flight the next day.
Day 14, Mombasa, January 2010
I returned to the café in Mombasa courtesy of Philip and his motorbike. I pay a visit to Jomo. I enter the small café and the windchime on the door grabs Jomo’s attention as he pokes his head from the back of the café.
“You came to say goodbye. Let me get you some coffee,”
He shows me to a table and takes my bag to keep it safe behind the counter. Jomo comes over and wishes me a safe journey and how he wants me to come back and see him one day.
“I’m not going, I’m staying longer,” I tell him.
His eyes widen and he grabs me by the shoulders kissing the top of my head.
“You’re staying. I’m so happy. You are a Kenyan now,”
“I want to stay and help, Jomo, I don’t want to go home yet,” I tell him.
Day 15, Shanzu, January 2010
I am introduced to Aliziz who invites me to Shanzu Orphans Home. The next two weeks is spent helping the children of the village to read and write.
You know what, I don’t miss Starbucks anymore.