A couple of days ago, I was able to experience in one evening, the disparity of people’s lives. I was able to mingle with the upper middle class on the one hand and interact with the destitute within the space of two hours. It has had me thinking for the last two days how abstractly we view other people’s lives and how different the experiences are.
The first part of the evening, I picked up this beautiful lady and we headed off to listen to Imani Woomera, a poetry and spoken word diva in Nairobi where she was set to enthrall our lives with erotica. Saxo, the upmarket jazz bar where she was due to perform is tastefully furnished in various shades of red and the walls are lined with interesting black-and-white, well mounted photographs – in some cases of jazz personalities.
The crowd was a largely corporate crown and I noticed a few members of the Corp. Diplomatique and some clearly well-to-do corporate types who had paid a cool five hundred shillings for the two hour event. A number of middleaged (well, in their forties) women sat in the table next to hours and whiled the performance away chatting about their house, pools, car and kids among other hoity-toity subjects. At one point, my date got quite irritated and asked them to tone it down, a matter that they quickly ignored.
It was interesting to note how often, the ladies pulled out their expensive phones from their designer hand bags (almost always pulling out their car keys first) and after a few seconds placed them back. Or the way all their fingers were laden with gold rings, wrists with gold watch and bracelets and necks with gold necklaces… it was especially entertaining to see them pretend to enjoy Imani’s rendition of “exclusive” by politely clapping and nodding approvingly to each other how much they enjoyed the art involved. Most interesting was perhaps the announcement of one that she makes a point of going to jazz bars just like these in the cities that she travels to, whenever she does.
It was entertaining to watch to young twenty-somethings make their way to Imani during one of her breaks to gush at how wonderful she was and to exclaim how “I had no idea!” while dramatically holding their chests and looking sufficiently enthralled.
After the evening was over and I had delivered my fair dreadlocked maiden to her residence I decided that I was decidedly peckish and that I would go down to ambassador area on my way home to find something to peck at. I ended up at a restaurant next to Munyiri’s (every real Nairobian, I understand, is well acquainted with this establishment, where they would stop after a long night of vigorous dancing at the Carnivore). The interesting thing is that that one block where the Ambassador Hotel is on Moi Avenue never sleeps. The three maize roasters were doing a roaring business – well blazing at least.
A number of girls and women of varied ages stood around provocatively in jeans and fancily designed skirts chatting away and trying not to be obviously marketing their particular brand of customer service. A drunkard staggered a few steps away from the upstairs bar that he had popped out of, bumped onto the wall and a few people and eventually fell onto a little puddle by the wall and – I guess – decided to rest there for a while he gathered the strength needed to get to a matatu and home (well, he was asleep by the time I was leaving there).
The restaurant I walked into was not busy and the waiters stood around by the counter and had an easy banter, A few tables were occupied – all by one person each – by people who seemed lost in their thoughts and in the business of shoving food down their throats. A woman seated at a table in the centre of the shabby-ish restaurant particularly caught my interest.
She was maybe in her thirties, and neatly dressed though she was a little shabby. She was sharing her dinner of rice, stew and cabbage with a baby, who I guessed was about 6 months old. She was dressed in a jeans skirt and black shoes. Her toes had peeling black nail polish and her hair was long-ish but in its most natural of states, combed into a pony and tied with rubber band. Her baby had a brown sweater on and a green and white shawl with matching socks and mittens.
Her eyes were far away as she chewed her food (when she wasn’t spooning some of the dish to the child or herself). She simply seemed to be. I couldn’t help what her life was like. What I found most striking is the fact that she had no bags, which are generally common with women with babies (containing nappies and things) – not even a hand bag.
What was her life like?
Next to the window sat a man, seemingly in his sixties. He was dressed in a thoroughly faded and threadbare grey suit and shoes that while intact, had seen many better days. His hair clearly had not been combed for a while and his beard was scruffy. He sat ramrod straight in his seat with a folk and knife and expertly ate his chapatti and stew dish quietly and with seeming aristocratic (it’s the only word I can find to describe it) dignity.
Presently, my take-away meal was handed to me and I walked out thoughtfully. At the entrance I was stopped by this man in his thirties, who was dressed in faded jeans, reeked of alcohol and sweat and whose bloodshot eyes peered at me through wire rimmed glasses.
“Excuse me,” he said to me with a conspiratorial smile, “have you a light?”
He was dangling a cigarette in his hand close to his mouth as if in readiness for my production of the required match. I was struck by that lucid and very clear diction but most of all, in his way of framing his words. The average Nairobian who speaks passable English would say, “do you have a light?” if at all they used the word light.
I apologetically said that I don’t smoke.
He said, “Good man. I’d suggest you don’t start. I’m averse to the habit, but one must while the night away, mustn’t one?” His English was so refreshingly good and lucid and old fashioned that I would have stood there for the rest of the night chatting with him. Then he floored me: “to each his own, devil and angel, alike.”
He abrubtly turned away and moved to the nearby maize roaster and after exchanging a couple of lewd jokes in fluent Gikuyu, bent over the stove, lit his cigarette and weaved away.
I had not even had time to answer him.
In the car, as I drove away, I answered him absently, “yes, one must.”
I read that quote in a classic many years ago and it was one of those phrases that seems to stick with you as you grow and when he said it, that exact way, I have been unable to stop thinking of him. What is his story?
To each his own, devil and angel, alike.