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Authors: Mukoma Wa Ngugi

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Nairobi Heat

BOOK: Nairobi Heat
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Nairobi Heat
© 2010 Mukoma Wa Ngugi

First Melville House printing: August 2011

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

eISBN: 978-1-61219-007-5


To Meja Mwangi and David Mailu for blurring the margins



Without much discussion and constant critique a novel such as this would be all the poorer. So, thanks to Kristin Waller, Keenan Schofield, Megan Frantz and my wife Maureen Burke for their candid, useful and some might say merciless responses. Also thanks to Sophie Hoult at David Godwin Associates and Penguin South Africa for investing time, energy and resources in the project. And, finally, thanks to James Woodhouse for making the editing process not only painless but more importantly creative.


A beautiful young blonde was dead, and the suspect, my suspect, was an African male. I was travelling to Africa in search of his past. What I found there would either condemn or save him. As you can imagine my business was urgent.

How many times had I thought of Africa? Not many, I’m afraid. Yes, I knew of Africa. After all it was the land of my ancestors; a place I vaguely longed for without really wanting to belong to it. I might as well say it here: coming from the US there was a part of me that had come to believe it was a land of wars, hunger, disease and dirt even as my black skin pulled me towards it. So how many times had I thought of Africa? Not many, not in a real way.

The funny thing though was now that I was actually in a plane on my way to Africa I found myself surrounded by whiteness – the passengers, the crew and the pilots. It was early May, and I gathered from the conversations around me that my fellow passengers were business people, tourists and hunters from Texas. The usual, I supposed.

I looked outside, watching the full moon hover in the sky
beyond the tip of the aeroplane wing, childishly imagining it to be catching a free ride. We travelled for a while like that, the moon surfing on the wing, until the pilot warned us, in that proper British accent that we have come to associate with efficiency, to prepare for landing.

The moon leapt back into the sky as we pierced the clouds and below I saw what looked like an island of lights engulfed by perfect darkness. Then we landed and everyone clapped. I was tired and a little tipsy from the complimentary Budweisers the crew had offered me, and so it was that, a little bit drunk, I took my first steps in Africa.

At customs I flashed my passport and my badge. The clerk didn’t even give my gun permit a second look, just shook his head and said, ‘You Americans, you really love your guns, eh?’ as he waved me through.

I didn’t have any luggage other than what I had carried off the plane and so soon enough I found myself outside the airport in what felt like a market – a wall of people shouting and heckling, selling newspapers, phone cards, even boiled eggs. Blackness suddenly surrounded me, and coming from plane full of whites I felt relief and panic at the same time – it was as if I was in camouflage, but it was very poor camouflage because at six foot three and two hundred and twenty pounds I towered over everybody. People here were short and spare, and I felt full of useless excess – as if I had extra body parts. But it wasn’t the people that stopped me in my tracks, it was the heat. The heat made New Orleans on a hot summer day feel like spring. Humid, thick and salty to taste, that was
Nairobi heat.

A taxi driver dressed in dirty white slacks made a grab at my hand luggage.
‘Mzungu, mzungu
, good rate for tourist,’ he yelled, but I held on to my case.

I didn’t know much Kiswahili but I knew from the guide book I had started reading on the plane that he was calling me a white man. It was a strange irony that I, an African American, a black American, was being called a white man in Africa, but I didn’t make much of it, I just laughed and gently pushed him away. I should have told him I wasn’t here to see lions and giraffes, I concluded as I waded through the crowd warding off all sorts of attempts to get me into this or that cab until I heard a deep voice calling me: ‘Ishmael!’

Turning to find the voice I came face to face with one of the blackest men I had ever seen. I mean, I’m black but this brother was so black he looked blue. Standing around six foot, he was, like everyone else, on the spare side, but unlike everyone else he was, despite the heat, dressed smartly in a heavy brown leather jacket, black corduroys and tough looking leather safari boots.

‘Ishmael, I presume,’ my Kenyan counterpart from the Criminal Investigation Department said, bowing slightly before breaking into laughter. ‘Stanley to Livingstone … The explorers … They say they discovered us, you know.’

‘Yes,’ I said, beginning to see the humour – one black American and one African playing explorer.

‘My name is David, David Odhiambo,’ he continued, reaching out to shake my hand. ‘My friends and enemies call me O.’

As I shook O’s hand I realised that I could not sense
him. Usually people trigger something in me – some sort of emotion: fear, attraction, warmth – but not O. He was just vaguely familiar. In fact, the only thing my senses did tell me was that underneath what was unmistakably Brut cologne there was a sharp undercurrent of marijuana, which explained his red eyes.

‘Come, let’s get out of this madness … Are you parked?’ he asked as he reached for my rucksack.

I looked at him, puzzled.

He opened up his jacket to reveal one of those old .45s – something made long before either of us had been born.

‘If you mean packing, then yes, I am,’ I said, pulling my jacket open slightly so that he could see my Glock 17 – light, easy to use but deadly nonetheless.

‘Good, otherwise I would have had to find you one of these bad babies,’ he said and laughed again. I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to sound American or not.

‘Is there some place around here that we can go for a beer and talk?’ I asked.

‘Now you’re talking my language, I know just the place for you,’ O said as we made our way out to the parking lot and got into a beaten-up Land Rover.

We drove for a while without talking. I was tired and excited at the same time, but out of the million little curiosities that clouded my mind I could think of nothing to ask, so I listened to O as he hummed a Kenny Rogers song – ‘The Gambler’ – which he interrupted every now and then with curses as we dipped in and out of the potholes that littered the road.

Soon up ahead I could see the city. ‘Nairobi?’ I asked, just to make conversation.

‘Nairobbery,’ O answered with a laugh. ‘That is what we call it … but no worries, as long as we are in this,’ he patted the dashboard, ‘criminals will know not to mess with us.’

For a while I could still see the large island of city lights in front of me. Then, suddenly, O veered off the main road and onto a dirt track and the city disappeared from view. We travelled on, headlights tunnelling through the darkness, the beams glancing off long dry grass, short thicket bushes and wild sisal plants. We drove past a pineapple plantation and then turned into a short, dirty street that ran between two rows of poorly built wooden houses. Finally, just past a shaky wooden billboard with the words
You are now leaving Pineapple town
splashed across it we almost ran into a dilapidated bar that proclaimed itself to be
The Hilton Hotel

‘Tomorrow, I will take you to the real Hilton,’ O said as we climbed out of the Land Rover and made our way towards the wooden structure, ‘but here you get a taste of the real Africa.’

Inside, the bar was lit by kerosene lamps that gave it a smell that was a cross between gasoline and burning cloth. In the dull light they provided I could see that the walls were covered with fading magazine posters for all sorts of things – Marlboro, Camel Lights, Exxon, McDonald’s. The lamps also illuminated the patrons, and I quickly realised that The Hilton was full of the living dead – some men passed out on the counter, others so drunk that they were muttering to themselves without making a sound.

O and I found a table that didn’t have a drunk on it,
and the bartender – a young woman dressed in a rainbow-coloured wrap – came to take our order.

‘Are you hungry?’ O asked.

I nodded and watched as O ordered some beer and two kilos of roast meat. There are two things that Kenyan men treasure beyond life itself, I was to learn: their Tusker beer and roast meat,
nyama choma
. Tusker
moto –
hot Tusker – and
nyama choma
is the fastest way to get information, say thank you, make and close a deal, express friendship or make peace.

BOOK: Nairobi Heat
3.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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