The Kenya Promise.



“You buy spice?” an Indian merchant asked me in his dingy Mombasa shop, the kind of place that sold all sorts of useless souvenirs to tourists seeking a faux piece of Africa, something to show folks back home, boasting about where they went and what an adventure it was. “You were in Kenya?” their friends would gasp. “So dangerous there!”
But Kenya wasn’t dangerous if you walked fast and had no valuables on you, if you didn’t photograph Muslims, if you looked busy and far too important for the mundane pettiness of pickpocketing and ubiquitous beggars. You stayed indoors at night, and you certainly didn’t coax or patronize the “beach boys,” young fit black men who in daylight prowled the beaches in front of the resorts, seeking plucky Germans or Italians to beg from or to sell things to, or for keen white women—no matter how old or how fat—for whom sex with an African man might be something to also boast of.
“I don’t need any spices,” I told the Indian.
“Wood mask?”
“Nope.”
“Maasai necklace?”
“Sorry.”
“But you have money!” he cried. “Euros!”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you are German.”
“American,” I corrected him. “Besides, what’s the difference? You must have plenty of money. Look at all these things you have in your shop.”
“No customer,” he said. “You first customer today.”
“But I’m not buying anything from you.”
He sighed and retreated to a chair in a corner of his store, which stunk of mold. I was more interested in the shop next door, which sold Tusker, Kenya’s famous beer that, brewed with adjuncts like corn starch and sugar, wasn’t very good. I bought a case anyway and took it to my hotel, where I found Troy and his Mombasan surfer friend George drinking alone at the downstairs bar.
“There he is!” George said. “We’ve just ordered you a Tusker. Looks like you brought your own.”
“They’re warm.”
George was a school teacher, half Kenyan and half Omani. He was in his late 30s, short and thin, a dusky mix of Arab, African, and English, with green eyes and a long, gaunt face, his beaky nose supporting a pair of dirty eyeglasses. His black hair was wavy and medium-length, wiry gray hairs poking out.
“You look Indian,” I said.
“Really?” he said. “Yes, I like Indians. We call them hindis. They own many businesses here.”
“So, Omani and Kenyan—are you a Muslim?”
“Me? Ha! I’ve been drinking vodka-Cokes since eight!”
It was noon. I’d arrived at seven-thirty. Troy had deplaned from Zanzibar at ten. George was boozing because the wind was up and the tides were wrong, and for much of the previous night he had been in a long, costly telephone argument with his hippie English girlfriend vacationing up in Lamu, Kenya’s north coast haven for freewheelers and aficionados of beaches and old Muslim culture, its women draped in blowsy colored fabrics, its men in the obligatory white robes and skullcaps.
“During the 1970s, Lamu picked up a reputation as the Kathmandu of Africa,” said my Lonely Planet guidebook, “a place of fantasy and other-worldliness, plucked straight from the pages of the Arabian Nights.” The book went on to detail Lamu’s tranquil beaches and that “for traditional surfing, there are real breakers at the mouth of the channel, although this is also the realm of some substantial sharks.”
Kenya, it seemed, had never been short on sharks. Before I left Nairobi, people said that if I surfed Kenya I would likely be bitten by one, especially if I went to Lamu. I considered visiting that ancient town for its historical allure, but due to money and time constraints, I declined. Apparently Mombasa’s waters held the world record for number of shark attacks (18) on humans in one year.
“When did those happen?” I asked George.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I would think it would matter for you, being a surfer here.”
“This place is shit, mind you,” he said. “So is Lamu. So is Malindi. It is all shit. There might be some good waves along the coast that’s inaccessible, like between Lamu and Somalia, or between Malindi and Lamu, but that’s it.”
“Troy told me it gets good here,” I said.
“Ah, forget it.”
I mentioned that I had studied numerous charts of the Kenya coast. “Have you noticed all of those curvy coral reef passes in the Lamu Archipelago? You can’t tell me there isn’t anywhere up in there that doesn’t get swell and doesn’t wrap around and blow offshore with the surf-season trades.”
“Boat trip, mate,” Troy said, biting on an ice cube. “That’s the only way. Reckon it’d be windy as fuck.”
“Those reefs look a lot more promising than what you have in Mombasa,” I said to George.
“Mate, Mombasa is not a surf town,” he said. “Malindi sucks, too. This isn’t a surfing country. Look at this wind! Come here for a suntan or safari—that’s it. I’m only here because my kids are. When they’re old enough for university, I’m moving to Durban.”
Apparently Kenya’s surf was rideable for only a few months per year. East Africa typically shied from the crosshairs of a solid groundswell, jinxed by a long continental shelf and a shadowed bight, the majority of swells headed for the opposite direction, toward Indonesia. Madagascar blocked many swells, and the prevailing wind was stiffly onshore. Lack of roads made much of the coast unreachable, and the accessible parts were usually either too polluted, too windy, too sharky, or had no good reefs. Various rivermouths offered quality sandbars on occasion, but sea snakes and saltwater crocodiles were real threats. If you wanted to drive from Lamu to Malindi, you would risk your life, and the coastal road north from Mombasa was so bad that Troy and George were reluctant to leave.
“Road is just terrible now,” an elderly Kenyan told me at the bar. “Used to be quite good, but now I won’t take my car on it. Better to hire a matatu—local bus—but those are dangerous.”
“Why’s that?”
“Crashes all the time, passengers dead, bandits, thieves, flat tires, breakdowns. Where you going?”
“North, I suppose. Malindi.”
“Just hire a taxi.”
“Don’t waste your money,” Troy said.
We walked outside and slouched around a cracked blue plastic table. George rolled a joint, which he and Troy smoked. My box of Tusker was opened, and soon I had finished three big bottles, making my head spin in the tropical midday heat. From the bar Troy continued ordering of double-vodka tonics; George stuck to vodka-Cokes.
“It’s good to experience the world,” George smirked at me, raising his glass, “under the influence.”
Troy finished the joint, snuffing it in the table’s ashtray. “Why don’t we head up and do some fucking sandboarding on the dunes up north? Or kitesurfing?”
I said, “I thought you guys didn’t want to drive anywhere.”
“You’re absolutely fucking right,” George said, rolling another joint.
Troy looked around. “I knew a guy who once sat drinking at the bar of this hotel for 72 hours straight,” he said. “It was quite impressive.”
I scooted my plastic chair back, stood, and said, “I’m out of here.”
“Where the fuck are you going?” Troy asked.
“Look, there’s swell. I saw it from the plane. Didn’t you see it when you flew in?”
“I couldn’t see out the window. It’s windy, mate—just hang here and get pissed.”
“For 72 hours?”
“You won’t find a wave today,” George said.
“Maybe up north will have something.”
“How will you get there?”
“I’m calling a matatu. Anyway, you guys will be asleep in an hour.”
“Oh no no no,” Troy scoffed. “Obviously you haven’t met a true Kenyan. If we’re here when you get back, you’re in for a fucking big night out, eh.”
I did not see them again.