Ships In High Transit by Binyavanga Wainaina


Does the person define their face, or does one’s face define the person? Matano often wonders why it is that people so often become what their faces promise. Shifty-eyed people will defy Sartre, become subject to a fate designed carelessly. How many billions of sperm inhabit gay bars, and spill on dark streets in Mombasa? How does it happen that the shifty-eyed one finds its way to an egg?

Trust can have wide eyes, deep-set; mistrust is shifty, eyes too close together. Or is it? Among the Swahili on the coast, it is rude to look at someone directly in the eye; one must always be hospitable, hide one’s true feelings for the sake of lubricated relationships and communal harmony. Smarmy, an English person may call this, especially when it is accompanied by the smell of coconut oil and incense.

Armitage Shanks, by the born-with-a-face-personality-theory, is a martyr. Eyes that hold you: sea-green, with mobile flecks that keep your eyes on them whenever he says anything. Spiritual eyes: installed deeper in the sockets than usual, little wings on the edges of the eyelids lift them to humour, and lines of character. He would be a spiritual leader, a man whose peers would come to seek quiet advice from. If he were a Muslim, he would be interrogated at every airport in the West.

What sorts of mechanics define these tiny things that mean so much to us? What is done to the surface of the eye, to make light gleam on it in such a liquid manner? Are there muscles that are shorter than most people’s, attaching the eye to the face, sinking the eyeball deeper into the skull? What child was born, a million years ago, with the eyes of an old and humorous man? What words were whispered around the village? What was it about this child’s wisdom, his power to invoke ancestors, so that women would  throw themselves into his bed as soon as his penis woke up and said Hello to the world?

Ole um-Shambalaa’s face is lean, ascetic, lined, and dark – nearly as dark as Abdullahi’s. His hair is blonde, closely cropped. Ole um-Shambalaa is not supposed to be frivolous.



The van leans forward toward the ramp, as Matano prepares to board the ferry. He looks into the rear-view mirror. The couple he has just picked up at the airport cease their excited gesticulation; their faces freeze for a second, they look at each other, the man’s eyes catch Matano’s. Jean Paul turns away guiltily, and says to his wife/lover/colleague:

“Isn’t this great? What a tub? Wonder when they built it—must be before the war.”

“Is it safe, do you think?”

Matano smiles to himself. He looks out at the ferry, and allows himself to see it through their eyes.

Stomach plummets: fear, thrill. Trippy. So real. Smell of old oil, sweat and spices. So exotic.

Colour: women in their robes, eyes covered, rimmed with Kohl; other women dark and dressed in skirts and blouses looking drab; other women lost in between cultures, a chiffon blouse, and a wraparound sarong with bright yellow, green, and blue designs. Many people are barefoot. An old Arab man, with an emaciated face and a hooked nose, in a white robe, sitting on a platform above, one deformed toenail sweeping up like an Ali Baba shoe. A foot like varnished old wood, full of cracks. He is stripping some stems and chewing the flesh inside. There is a bulge on one cheek, and he spits and spits and spits all the way to the mainland. Brownish spit lands on some rusty metal, pools and trickles, slips off the side onto some rope that lies coiled on the floor.

The tourists’ eyes are transfixed: somewhere between horror and excitement. How real!

Then, Matano observes the same scene through his own eyes.

Abdullahi is chewing miraa again, a son of Old Town society: banished son of one of the coast’s oldest Swahili families, who abandoned the trucking business for the excitement of sex, drugs, and Europop (had a band that did Abba covers in hotels, in Swahili, dressed in kanzus: Waterloo, niliamua kukupenda milele . . . )

Now he is too old to appeal to the German blondes looking for excitement in a hooked nose and cruel, desert eyes. To the Euro-wielding market, there are no savage (yet tender) Arab sheiks in Mills and Boon romance books anymore. Arabs are now gun-toting losers, or compilers of mezze platters, or servers of humus, or soft-palmed mummy’s boys in European private schools. There are no Abba fans under sixty, now that everyone listens to Eminem and Tupak. Now Abdullahi has become a backdrop, hardly visible in the decay and mouldy walls of Old Town, where he has gone back to live.

Abdullahi sends a projectile of brown spit out into the sea, and laughs.

Matano shakes his head, laughing to himself.

Poor Abdullahi. Ethnic hip-hop rules the beaches: black abdominal muscles and anger. The darkest boys work the beaches, in three European languages, flaunting thick, charcoal coloured lips, cheekbones that stand like a mountain denuded of all except peaks, dreadlocks and gleaming, sweaty muscles.

Abdullahi makes a living on the ferry, selling grass and khat, chewing the whole day, till his eyes look watery. These days he isn’t fussy about how he disposes of his saliva. They used to hunt white women together. Once in awhile, Abdullahi comes to Matano with some wild idea—first it was the porn video plan, then the credit card scam, always something proposed by his new Nigerian friends.

Abdullahi forgot the cardinal rule: this is a game, for money, not to seek an edge. Never let the edge control you. The players from the other team may be frivolous; they may be able to afford to leave the anchor of Earth, to explore places where parachutes are needed. This is why they are in Mombasa. The Nigerians would discard him as soon as he became useless, like everybody else.

Matano once got a thrill out of helping Abdullahi, giving him money, directing some Scandinavian women to him, the occasional man. Being Giriama, Matano resents the Swahili, especially those from families like Abdullahi’s, who held vast lands on the mainland, and treated Giriama squatters like slaves. But Abdullahi was a victim of his own cultural success. How are you able to pole-vault your way to the top of the global village if you come from 3,000 years of Muslim refinement? You are held prisoner by your own historical success, by the weight of nostalgia, by the very National Monumenting of Old Town, freezing the narrow streets and turning a once evolving place into a pedestal upon which the past rests.

Matano, the young boy in a mission school, from a Giriama squatter family has not got this sort of baggage (the our-civilization-has-better-buildings, more-conquests-than-yours baggage). Every way directs him upwards.


Matano hates the ferry. As a child, on his way to school, sitting on his father’s bike, he would get a thrill whenever they climbed aboard. These days, he hates it: hates the deference people show him, their eyes veiling, showing him nothing. They know he carries walking, breathing dollars in the back seat. Once, a schoolboy, barefoot like he used to be, sat on one of the railings the whole way and stared at him—stared at him without blinking. He could taste the kid’s hunger for what he was. Sometimes he sees shame in people eyes, people carrying cardboard briefcases and shiny nylon suits, shoes worn to nothing. They look at him and look away; he makes their attempt to look modern humiliating.

Then there is the accent business. Speaking with the white people with so many people watching, he always feels self-conscious about the way he adjusts his syllables, whistles words through his nose, and speaks in steady, modulated stills. He knows that, though their faces are uncertain here, on this floating thing carrying people to work for people who despise them, he will be the source of mirth back in the narrow, muddy streets of the suburbs, where his people live. They will whistle his fake mzungu accent through their noses, and laugh.

In a town like Mombasa, his tour-guide uniform is power. He has two options to deal with people. One: to imagine this gap does not exist, and be embarrassed by the affection people will return. Behind his back they will say: such a nice man, so generous, so good. It shames him, to meet wide smiles on the ferry every day, to receive a sort of worship for simply being himself. The other way is to stone-face. Away from his home and his neighbours, to reveal nothing: to greet with absence, to assist impersonally, to remain aloof. This is what is expected. This is what he does most of the time, in public places, where everybody has to translate themselves to an agenda that is set far away, with rules that favour the fluent.

Of course, he can be different at home, in Bamburi Village, where people find themselves again, after a day working for some Kikuyu tycoon or Gujarati businessman or Swahili gem dealer or German dhow operator. Here, people shed uncertainty like a skin; his cynicism causes mirth. He is awkward and clumsy in his ways; his fluency falters. His peers, uneducated and poor, are cannier than him in ways that matter more here: drumming, finding the best palm-wine at any time of night, sourcing the freshest fish, playing bao, or draughts with bottle-tops, or simply filling the voided nights with talk, following the sound of drums when the Imam is asleep and paying homage to ancestors that refuse to disappear after a thousand years of Muslim influence.

What talk!

Populated with characters that defy time, Portuguese sailors and randy German women and witches resident in black cats, and penises that are able to tap tap a clitoris to frenzy, and a padlocked Mombasa City Council telephone tweaked to call Germany, and tell your SugarOhHoneyHoneyMamma; oh baby, I come from the totem of the Nine Villages. Warriors (growl) no women can resist us, how can I leave you baby, so weak and frail and pale you are, my muscles will crush you, my cock will tear you open, we cannot be together, you cannot handle me in bed (sorrowfully), I am a savage who understands only blood and strength, will you save me with your tenderness? Send me money to keep my totem alive, if my totem dies, my sexpower dies, baby, did you send the invitation letter to immigrations, I am hard baby, so hard I will dance and dance all night, and fuck the air until I come in the ground and make my ancestors strong. My magic is real, baby. Have you heard about the Tingisha dance, baby, taught by my grandmother, it teaches my hips to grind around and around to please you? Will you manage me? A whole night, baby? I worry you may be sore.

You must be entertained.

Material is mined from everywhere, to entertain millions of residents in whitewashed houses and coconut-thatch roofs, who will sit under coconut trees, under baobab trees, under Coca-Cola umbrellas in corrugated iron bars. Every crusted sperm is gathered into this narrative by chambermaids, every betrayed promise, every rude madam whose husband is screwing prostitutes at Mamba Village, every leather breast, curing on the beach, every sexcapade of every dark village boy who spends his day fuck-seeking, and holding his breath to keep away the smell of suntan lotion and sunscreen and roll-on deodorant and stale flesh stuck for twelve months of the year in some air-conditioned industrial plant.


The village is twelve huts. From the top of the murram road, where the Bamburi Cement Factory is situated, there is a different territory: the future. Beyond the cement factory, an enormous constructed ecology, Haller Park, incredible to all, but not yet larger than the sum of its parts—it still needs a team of experts to tweak its rhythms. There are also enormous ice-cream-cake hotels, crammed rooms in hundreds of five shilling video halls, showing ONE MAN, ONE MAN, who can demolish an entire thatched village in NAM, with a mastery over machinery full of clips and attachments and ammo and abdominals. Even the movements are mastered and brought home, the military fatigue muscle tops bought in second-hand markets, the bandana, the macho strut, the lean back, missile launcher carved from wood, lean back and spray; the sound of the gun spitting out of your mouth.

“Mi ni Rambo, bwana.”

“Eddy Maafi.”

Video parlours rule. With Chinese subtitles.

The couple at the back of the van are still talking. He is lean and wiry and tanned and blonde and has a sort of intense, compassionate Swedish face, a Nordic Nature lover. He has the upright American accent continental Europeans like to adopt. He is wearing glasses. She is definitely an American and looks like she presents something on TV, something hard-hitting, like 60 Minutes. She has a face so crisp it seems to have been cut and planed and sanded by a carpenter, and her hair is glossy and short and black. She is also wearing glasses. They are the producers of some American TV program.

“The place is a bit cheesy, but the food’s great, and anyway we’ll be roughing it in Somalia for a while. Jan said he hasn’t found anywhere with running water yet. We mustn’t forget to buy booze—Mogadishu is dry, apparently.”

“Shit. How many bottles can we take in?”

“Oh, no restrictions—there’s no customs and they never bother foreigners.”

“Do you think we’ll get to meet Shanks? He sounded great on the phone . . . ”

“He’ll come across great on camera. He does actually look Maasai, you know, lean and intense sort of . . . ”

“The red shawl won’t work though. It’s too strong for white skin.”

“It’s amazing, isn’t it, how real he is? I could tell, over the telephone, he has heart . . . ”

“Do you think he’s a fraud?”

“A sexy fraud if he is one. He hangs out with Peter Beard at his ranch in Nairobi. I saw it in Vogue. He drinks with Kapuscinsky.”

There was a brief and reverential silence as they digested this miracle.

“Should we call him Shanks, or Um-Shambalaa?”

They both giggle.

When they met Matano at the airport, they said they were thinking about doing a film here, although wildlife wasn’t their thing. They say they like Human Interest Stories—but this is all sooo gorgeous. So empowering. We must meet Um-Shambalaa, isn’t he positively Shamanic?

There is something about them that Matano dislikes. A closed-in completeness he has noticed in many liberals. So sure they are right, they have the moral force. So ignorant of their power, how their angst-ridden treatments and exposes are always such clear pictures of the badness of other men. Bold, ugly colours on their silent white background. Neutral. They never see this, that they have turned themselves into the World’s ceteris paribus, the invisible objectivity.

He puts on a tape. Tina Turner: Burn, baby burn . . .

“Looking for something real,” they keep saying.

Twenty years he has been in this job, ever since he took it on as a young philosophy graduate, dreaming of earning enough to do a Masters and teach somewhere where people fly on the wings of ideas. But it proved impossible: he was seduced by the tips, by the endless ways that dollars found their way into his pockets, and out again.

He has seen them all. He has driven Feminist Female Genital Mutilation crusaders, cow-eyed Nature freaks, Cutting Edge Correspondents, Root-Seeking African Americans, Peace Corps workers, and hordes of NGO-folk: foreigners who speak African languages, and wear hemp or khaki. Dadaab chic.

Not one of them has ever been able to see him for what is presented before them. He is, to them, a symbol of something. One or two have even made it to his house, and eaten everything before them politely—then turned and started to probe: so is this a cultural thing or what? What do you think about Democracy? And Homosexual rights? And Equal Rights?

Trying to Understand Your Culture, as if your culture is a thing hidden beneath your skin, and what you are, what you present, is not authentic. Often he has felt such a force from them to separate and break him apart—to move away the ordinary things that make him human—and then they zero in on the exotic, the things that make him separate from them. Then they are free to like him: he is no longer a threat. They can say, “Oh I envy you having such a strong culture,” or, “We in the West, we aren’t grounded like you, such good energy.  This is so real.”


Prescott sits with Jean Paul at the Pool Bar next to the beach, watching the sunset, having a drink and waiting for Shanks.

There is no barrier from here to India. There are scores of short, muscular boys silhouetted against the dusk, covered in and surrounded by curios, doing headstands and high jumps and high-fives and gathering together every few minutes to confer. Sometimes they look at Prescott; one winks, another bounces his eyebrows up and down. Then she is relieved as they spot a tourist, gather up their wares, and go to harass someone else. There is music playing at the bar: some sort of World Music for Europop fans. “Jambo, jambo bwana, habari gani, mzuri sana . . . ”

From a well-known guidebook: “The Kenyan’s smile is the friendliest in the world. He will tell you Jambo, and serve you dawa cocktails.”

The beach boys cannot come to the hotel, but Prescott has been told that they will be all over her in six international languages if she crosses the line of the coconut trees.

One of the boys walks towards her, managing to bounce off the balls of his feet with every stride, even in the sand. He has a brief chat with the security guard and walks up to their table. She looks at his lean face, eyes like a startled giraffe, with thick stiff strands of eyelash.


“Jambo. I’m afraid I’m not buying anything today. No money.”

Jean Paul is shut away, among characters that talk like blackened fish, and look like bayous, and make love like jambalaya. Somebody with a banjo is searching for the lost gris gris bag.

Beach Boy frowns, and slaps at his chest, puffed up. “Us, you know, BEACH BUOYS, it is only money! We want to sell you Bootiful Hand-U-craft of the Finest T-u-raditional Africa. Eh! A man like me, how it feels to run and chase white mzungu every day: buy this, buy this? I dig to get cool job, any cool job: garden, office, or bouncer in Mamba Village Disco, even Navy Offisaa. I have diploma, Marine Engineering, but Kenya? Ai! So now t’fuzz, the pow-lice, they chase homebwuoys. And the hotel, they chase homebwuoys. But this beach—this is our hood. Dig? So you want special elephant-hair bracelet? Is Phat! Very Phat!”

He isn’t smiling. He is looking out to sea, tapping his foot on the ground like a glass vase of testosterone, just waiting to be shattered. In Philadelphia, she would have been terrified of him. She would walk past, her tongue cotton wool, a non-racial smile tearing her reluctant face open.

Now, she wants to pinch his cheeks and watch him squirm as his friends look on.

“I want a necklace, a Maasai necklace. Can you get me one?”

He looks at her with seamless cool, and raises one eyebrow, then frowns. “Tsk tsk,” he seems to say, “that is a hard one.” The silence lasts a while, then he looks at her and says, “For you, Mama, because you so bootiful. I will try.” And he bounces back to his mates, one arm swinging with rhythm around his back like a rap artist walking to his Jeep.

She laughs.

Jean Paul says, “God, look at that sunset . . . ”

Prescott says, “It’s never as good as the postcards, is it? Fuck, poets have a lot to account for. They’ve killed the idea of sunsets, made meadows boring, and completely exterminated starry nights. Sometimes I think they’re just as bad as Polluting Industrial Conglomerates Run by Men.”

Jean Paul smiles patiently and looks across at her, compassion in his eyes. She wants to slap him. Brynt hasn’t phoned. Though she isn’t taking his calls, it’s important that he calls, so she can get the satisfaction of not taking his calls.

Shanks appears from the glass doors on the other side of the pool. He has tucked his red Maasai cloth into his shorts; his torso is bare, and his arms are draped over an ivory walking-stick that lies on the back of his neck. His silhouette is framed by the last vague rays of the sun, the postcard silhouette of the Maasai man who the Discovery Channel will introduce, deep voiced, as “an ancient noble, thriving in a vast, wild universe, the color of shadow.”

He squats on his haunches next to them, and glides his eyes around them both. Smiles.


Prescott smiles vaguely. Jean Paul has cracked already: his mouth is wide open.

“You have eaten?”

They nod.

“Come . . . ”

They follow him. His walk is not graceful, like Prescott expected. Rather, it is springy: he bounces to one side on one leg, then does the same on the other. It is a distantly familiar movement, again something from Discovery. Some walk some ethnic peoples do somewhere in the world, and they are noble.

They leave the residents’ area of the hotel, and cross through a gate; before them, sitting under a huge baobab tree, is a huge whitewashed mud-and-wattle hut, with a beach-facing patio constructed of rugged acacia branches, stained-pine colored. There is an enormous apple-green couch shaped like a toilet, with large sewn lettering that reads “Armitage Shanks.”

Shanks points to it. “My great-grandfather had a great sense of humor. He furnished his drawing rooms with seats that looked like toilets.”

They sit on the cushions on the floor. Shanks crosses his legs as he stands, and lowers himself straight down into a cross-legged sitting position.

A very tall man walks out of the hut, carrying a tray. He is introduced as Ole Lenana. It is Otieno.

“My circumcision brother.”

Shanks and Ole Lenana chat away in a strange language. Ole Lenana joins them, unplugs the beaded tobacco pouch hanging from his neck, and starts to roll a cigarette.

“Did you know . . . ” His voice startles them, suddenly the voice of Shanks, not um-Shambalaa. “In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before commercial fertiliser was invented, manure was transported by ship, dry bundles of manure. Once at sea, it started to get heavy, started to ferment, and methane would build up below deck. Any spark could blow up a ship—many ships were lost that way. Eventually, people began stamping the bundles ‘Ships in High Transit’ so the sailors would know to treat the cargo with respect. This is where the term ‘shit’ comes from. Ships in High Transit. Many of those around these days . . . ”

Prescott is wondering whether this is how the Shanks family sanitises their history. Fecal anecdotes that have acquired the dignity of a bygone age, presented in a dry, ironical tone.

“The Maasai build their houses out of shit. This is a house built from the shit of cattle, mixed with dung and wattle, and whitewashed with lime. You know, forget the bullshit in the brochure. That was for Vogue. I can see you two are not from the fluff press. I don’t really believe this Maa-saaia mythology stuff because it makes no sense to me. I make myself believe it because I need to. Maybe, being a Shanks, it is the shit that attracted me. Maybe it was to do something that would give me a name and a life different from something branded in toilets around the world. Maybe I was tired of being a name that flushes itself clean with money every new generation. Maybe I like the idea of having the power to save an entire nation. Or maybe it was just for the money. All I can tell you is that I want to help save these people, that these heirlooms you will see tomorrow are the most exquisite creations I have ever seen. The world must see them.”

Prescott says, “But don’t you think there’s something wrong with that? Isn’t it like taking ownership of something that isn’t ours?”

She is thinking, “Houses of bullshit, my God . . . ”

Shanks says, “I earned my membership, like any Maa. They trust me. I am one of them.” He was Um-Shambalaa again, and stood and he and Ole Lenana gripped forehands and looked deep into each other’s eyes, and Ole Lenana fell to his knees, and muttered something guttural, emotional, and grateful.

The cigarette is being passed around: Jean Paul, Prescott, um-Shmabalaa. Dope. She looks up, startled by a shadow. It is the tour guide, Matano, his torso bare, muscles gleaming. He is drinking beer.

“The sisters are here to sing.”

They walk in, women shrouded in red cloaks, singing. Voices, mined from a gurgly place deep down in the throat, oddly like percussion instruments. This is a society that lives laterally, Prescott thinks, not seeking to climb up octaves, find a crescendo, no peaks and troughs: ecstacy sought from repetition, as the music grabs hold of all atmosphere, the women begin to bleat, doing a jump every few moments, a jump that thumps a beat to the music, and lifts their piles of necklaces up and down. Up and down. Ole um-Shambalaa stands up, Ole Lenana joins him. They head out to the garden, and start to jump with every bleat. Prescott has an image in her mind of the stomach as a musical instrument, bagpipes squeezed to produce the most visceral sounds the body can. She finds herself jerking her neck forward and backward, to the beat. The tide must have risen, for the waves seem to be crashing on the beach with more fervor than she can remember. Damn him, damn Brynt. She will not cry.

The women have gathered around Jean Paul’s cushion. There is an expression of mild panic on his face, which he can’t shut out. They grab his arms, stand him up. He starts to jog himself up and down, a tight smile on his face, his eyes wild, looking for a way to bolt.

None of the women singing know a word of what they are singing. Not three hours ago, they were chattering away in Kiswahili, while cooking supper. After dark, they don beads and kangas and practice in the servant’s courtyard, heaving and gurgling and making all kinds of pretend Maa sounds. This is why the hotel allows them to stay in the quarters with their husbands.

Matano is watching Prescott. She is just about to allow herself to be reckless. He slowly makes his way towards her, stands behind her chair, allowing his presence to occupy her space.

At the airport he caught her standing alone, looking bewildered about this new place. Those eyes, her skin so white, made him shiver. He has in his mind the constant idea that white women are naked, people with skin peeled like baby rabbits, squirming with pain and pleasure in the heat. It is always profoundly disturbing to him that they are rarely like this in reality, so forward and insistent, interrupting his seduction with demands. THERE! THERE! Grabbing his face, holding on to it, making his tongue work until they are satisfied. Many of them have no faith in his abilities, feel they need to manage all his activities.

Was it Anais Nin who wrote the erotic story of a wild, giant beast of a man, an artist, and a brash and demanding woman came on to him, and he rejected her, and she chased and chased him, learning to be demure. One day, long after she had submitted and become who he wanted, he jumped on her and they molested the bed for the whole night.

Jean Paul has succumbed. It started with the women laughing at him, as they watched his body awkwardly trying to find a way into the rhythm. He burst out laughing at himself, and his movements became immediately more frenzied. Now he howls, and jerks faster, a string puppet out of control.

An hour later, Prescott sits with Matano at the edge of the camp. Ole um-Shambalaa is sitting cross-legged in the garden, absolutely still. Matano wraps his hand around her waist, and is singing a Maasai song in her ear, ever so softly. Behind him, the women’s self-help group are still singing. Their eyes have become glazed: they look like they could go on forever.

She can’t seem to stop shaking. It must be the dope. And the music.

She jerks out of his embrace and says, “I’m sorry, I’m just wiped out. I’ve got to go and lie down.”

He shrugs and turns her to him and smiles, looking at her, looking at her. Then his large hand reaches and pushes her hair behind her ear, his wrist leaving a smear of sweat on her cheek. She is singed by it, and immediately afraid.

*  *  *  *

She can’t sleep. Her heart is thudding in her chest and when she lies on her back, an enormous weight seems to force her down, pushing her into her bed, and she has to struggle to breathe. It must be the dope. She stands. It is quiet outside; they’ve all gone to sleep. She stumbles out of the tent, her legs numb, stinging like pins and needles. The feeling spreads over her body and she goes to the bathroom and looks at her face in the mirror. It looks the same, a bit wild, but not much different. She sees the Maasai necklace hanging out of her toilet bag and takes it and puts it around her neck. She looks in the mirror: on her it looks tacky. The strong colors suck up her face.

There is a message from Brynt on her cellphone. “Did you find Shanks? Call me.”

What reigns you back in, she wonders, what makes you want to be what you were again? After this mindbending magic, how can Chicago compete with this primal music, with bodies rubbing themselves against thick moist air?

Maybe truth is always a consensus. Maybe it doesn’t matter what kind of proof backs up your submission; maybe your submission has no power without being subscribed to by a critical mass of people? What is the truth here?

Back home: there is fear so far inside fear you don’t feel it. Mortgages, a lifeline that cannot escape upward mobility: you have to be sealed shut from those who live laterally to thrive. If you cannot maintain openess to this, you can always control it. Packaging. Sell it, as a pill, a television program, a nightclub, a bonding retreat, a book, jambalaya prose. Control it. Make the magic real. Allow it only to occupy a certain time. This is the human way—the rest is animal. But tonight, it will be real, it is real, Brynt is a faraway myth. It will be different in the morning. But now, she heads back to um-Shambalaa’s.

*  *  *  *

Matano finds himself thinking about Abdullahi’s proposal. A week ago, Abdullahi took him to meet the Nigerians, who intimidated him, strutting like nothing could govern them, buy them. Noticing his scepticism about the deal, one of them laughed at him.

“You Kenyans! You let these Oyibos fock you around, man. Eh! Can’t you see your advantage, man? You know them, they know shit about you. So here you are, still a boy, still running around running a business for a white guy. So stoopid! I saw him in the inflight magazine when I was coming from Lagos with new stock. Ha! Um-Shambalaa!”

The group of Nigerians broke into the Kool and the Gang song on cue: “Let’s go dancing. Um-Shambalaa, disco dancing . . . ”

“So do you dance for um-Shambalaa? For dollars? We’re offering you real money, man. Four hours, you let our guy in, and you have enough money to fuck off and buy a whole disco, where you can dance for German women the whole night, brother.”

Matano wonders for a moment why this deal is worth so much, then remembers the numbers. The thousands who gather under baobabs to listen to stories of the strange hotel tribes. The closed loop system the Nigerians have devised to reduce piracy. All the videos are released to the Video parlors on the same day. At the same time. FM stations who have taken to advertising in the videos. Politicians who pay to feature in the urinal breaks. NGO’s who pay to send Wear Condom messages between sex scenes.

Matano looks at the group on the grass now. Jean-Paul is slow dancing with (Ole Lenana) Otieno, who will argue in one of the afternoon sessions in the courtyard that the best way to get his revenge is to fuck them.

“There is nothing more satisfying than making a white man your pussy!”

The rest will laugh and call him “Shoga.”

They will all make sure Fatima does not hear them speak. They value their lives. Kamande will look back nervously to see that she is otherwise engaged.

For what, Matano thinks: fifty dollars? Maybe a watch? Why should Jean Paul give a shit how he is judged in the laugh sessions under baobab trees? Who, in his circle of peers, in his magic-made-real characters, will care?

He calls Abdullahi, and says, “Send them in, bro. Bring in the guy, the back door is open.”

He sees Prescott walking towards him. He will perform on the sofa of um-Shambalaa’s house. The drinks are laid out, the dope. Servants wander in and out and are soon invisible in the revelry.

Morning is another part of the lottery. The sun will rise. Somebody will receive a call, Chicago will roar back into her life, down a telephone line. She will wash Matano’s smell off her, sit on the toilet and cry, still stuck to chasing the spewing electric cable. Jean Paul will see a pile of tacky plasic beads on the floor, red-hair dye on his pillow, will smell stale nakedness on his sheets. That Lenana is no other reality in the morning. He wants money, is listening to Kiss FM, has splashed himself with Jean Paul’s cologne, before examining the shadow of his penis with some satisfaction. He must spend the next few weeks practicing his German. He will be on German TV soon, if all goes according to plan. Jean Paul is itching for him to leave, for the chambermaid to come in and clean last night away. He will sit on the beach and escape to the Bayous. Tonight, he will only see um-Shamabalaa’s reality through a camera, for their program “A World of Cultures.”

Fatima and her troop of women share the spoils in the morning. Ole um-Shambalaa paid them an extra bonus, just to make sure there was no mischief. Fatima cannot stand um-Shambalaa, and is not afraid to hide it: he cannot do without her. She is the most plausible gurgler and Kamande, is the best chef this side of the Island, and because he has the same name as Blixen’s badly spelled “Kamanti,” is worth more in drinks-before-dinner anecdotes. Fatima managed to get thirty dollars from Jean Paul, by threatening to take his shirt off while they danced last night. About three dollars of this money will be offically declared to husbands; the rest will go to their communal slush fund. Things will appear in the household, conveniences explained away. School fees are mysteriously paid.

“Ai! Don’t you remember? It was a gift from mama so-and-so, after I helped her cooking when her relatives went away.”

The nest egg is growing. Every three months, each gets a lump sum. Khadija is planning to leave her husband soon. She works as a chambermaid, and will return, after the morning shift, with a collection of forensic stories: red hair-dye on a pillow, how Otieno smells just like Jean Paul’s bathroom, and Matano, when will he leave those white women alone? It is definitely time they found him a wife . . .

Abdullahi is thirsty. The ferry smells of old oil. Last night, after the operation in um-Shambalaa’s house, he took an old lover to bed and performed like never before, surrounded by Abba, incense, and cocaine. Today, he will buy himself a car.

The practiced will thrive in the morning: both made their transitions before dawn. Matano left um-Shambalaa’s room, after carefully pulling strands of her hair from his short dreadlocks. He made his way back to the courtyard, lay out on his kikoi watching dawn and counting the stars, the way he used to with his mother as she cooked in another courtyard, not five miles away. He reads Dambudzo.

Ole um-Shambalaa is in his small plane. He woke up at four in the morning. He sat on the art-deco Shanks toilet and expelled. Sunrise will find him in Laikipia, talking to the elders, tracking an elephant, chatting to the young morans, learning new tricks. He will visit his factory, explain to the greediest of the elders how they can benefit from it, dish out wads of cash, enough to buy a goat or two. He will call his new enterprise a Conservancy. The Maa Conservancy. He will return at dusk, when his color is hidden by shadow, ready to play for Prescott’s cameras. Tonight, he will show them the heirlooms.

Abdullahi brings Matano the tape and his cut in the afternoon. Two hundred thousand shillings. Not enough to buy the disco, but just fine thank you. They sit in the TV room of the hotel, with some of the staff, and laugh and laugh and laugh at the lateral gurgles and drunken sex talk. For the next few months, this will be the main feature in every video hall at the coast. Sold to them, one time, and in a closed loop to limit piracy (as if anybody would risk pirating the Nigerians), for 500 shillings per tape. Ten bob entry, sex, imitation Maasai women, and “Um-Shambalaa, let’s go dancing.”

Fock the copyright, we’re Nigerian.

Someone is shouting loudly in the lobby, drunk. The first marines are checking in: ship landed today, exercises for Iraq. Matano smiles to himself, and catches Abdullahi’s eyes. Which one of them will call the Nigerians?

“Hey Bud, did you see them honkin’ hooters hanging at the pool-bar?”

“I wanna beach-view room, you stoopid fuck. Fucking Third World country. Fucking Ay-rabs everywhere.”



Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan author and Journalist. He is the author of How to Write About Africa and One Day I Will Write About This Place.


Author Photo credit: Basso Cannarsa—LUZ/Redux

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