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Authors: Brendan Clerkin

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BOOK: No Hurry in Africa
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Maybe not, though, at 5am after a night out with the Rastas!

That morning was to be Kimanze’s first ever sight of the sea in the full splendour of daylight. To relieve our headaches, the three of us had opted for a wash and a swim in the Indian Ocean, in a beautiful bay fringed by coconut trees. If ever I witnessed a person being in awe of anything, it was Kimanze at the waters’ edge. For ages, he simply stood there in silence, staring out to sea. I could only try to imagine what was going through the head of that Akamba lad from the arid lands of the Kenyan interior.

It is one of my quirks when travelling that I have to go for a swim in any lake, river, or sea. The Indian Ocean was a new one on the list for me. I floated lazily on my back, rising and dipping in tandem with the warm gentle waves, thoroughly enjoying myself. The Indian Ocean felt almost unnaturally hot there. I could see the attraction for the European tourists. Gangs of local children happily floating around me were using empty plastic water bottles to keep themselves afloat.

I went to look at a few elephant carvings being sold, laid out on the sand, further down the beach, possible souvenirs to take back to Nancy, Sr. MM, and a few others in Kitui. By coincidence, the woodcarver was a young Akamba man from Kitui, and there was a lady with him selling rope. Akamba actually means ‘rope’ in Swahili, from the days when the Akamba traded rope at the coast, and the Arabs would ask for ‘the rope people.’ It is still a common sight to see women in Kitui stripping sisal plants in the hedges and plaiting them into ropes.

Suddenly, the respectable looking proprietor grasped my head and whispered urgently in my ear:

‘Would you like the services of my sister?’

‘No thanks, I’m alright at the moment, the carvings will do fine.’

‘Are you sure, she really beautiful!’

He grinned, whistled, and made a perfect sign with his finger and thumb.

‘She promise you good time, and good price.’

This sort of thing happened to me a few times in really unlikely places as I was minding my own business. It was always ‘my sister, she is for sale,’ followed by a wide-eyed look of genuine surprise that I was not interested.

The touts, known as ‘beach boys,’ can be a real pest on some of Mombasa’s beaches. So can the stunningly beautiful ‘Mombasa girls.’ It is not uncommon to see an old white man—or woman—hand in hand with a twenty-something African. It is rather disconcerting, but some might say it is a win-win situation; the African gets an up-market lifestyle, at least temporarily, and the
mzungu
gets … company. I could see the temptation. These women are charming, beguiling, arousing, and can be bought with a beer.

You do not have to be rich to be propositioned. The night of Leo’s birthday was typical. While we were chatting with the Rastas and Kimanze at a bar, two young ladies came up, sat down beside us uninvited, and began caressing and fondling both Leo and me. There was some suggestion of ‘marriage.’ The Rastas were laughing at our attempts to repel them, and puzzled as to why we were not responding in kind. If we had succumbed to temptation, the Mombasa girls would most likely have departed with our wallets, and probably have left us with AIDS in exchange.

During the birthday weekend, there was a revealing and probably typical incident that reflected badly on the Europeans. A scruffy Italian in his thirties, whom Leo knew from his time in Mombasa, arrived for the birthday celebrations. A striking Kenyan woman accompanied him. During the evening, a roaring row started between them.

‘You give me my money, you think you have your way with me,’ she said. ‘You won’t get away from me, I want my money, you pay me now, you pay me my 10,000 shillings, give to me now.’

Kimanze leaned over and quietly asked, ‘Is she a prostitute?’

‘Think so.’

The couple left together, but the Italian rejoined us a while later.

‘There are two things I hate paying for.’ he proclaimed. ‘One is water, and the other is women. I’m only paying for one of those today.’

‘Is that carry-on not a bit dangerous?’ Leo warned him, ‘you might contract something nasty.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he assured us, ‘I took precautions.’

‘Well, at least that’s something,’ Leo sighed.

‘I took precautions alright—I didn’t leave her my name and number!’

Mombasa was the first place in Africa in which I received marriage proposals. (I would later receive more serious ones from women in Kitui.) The ‘Mombasa girls’ would have married me straight away if I had answered yes. They mistakenly assumed I was loaded, like the rich tourists.

Just as we approached the bus depot to return to Kitui, Leo pointed approvingly to the road,

‘This is the very first pedestrian crossing I have seen in Kenya,’ he announced.

Such orderliness appealed to the Teutonic half of his personality. Assuming he had the right of way, he stepped out and was almost killed by a bus. A policeman who had witnessed the incident came over.

‘They will only stop at zebra crossings if they see zebras crossing!’ he joked.

Very droll, I thought to myself. If Leo and I were Akamba, we would have blamed it all on a curse having been placed upon him, instead of pure carelessness on his part. Luckily, he was more ‘shook’ than physically injured.

A few days after we had returned to Kitui on the overnight bus, we were rather astounded when Kimanze’s best friend, Mwangangi, quite casually informed us that he had married his neighbour at the weekend while we were away. Mwangangi, a twenty-two year old mechanic at Nyumbani, was abnormally laid-back, even for an Akamba, and looked rather like a black version of Inspector Clouseau. He told Kimanze and me—and everyone else at Nyumbani—about his marriage only a couple of days after the event, which was the norm apparently. He was present for work on Monday morning as usual, not an iota of difference to his routine did it seem to make. We had not even known he was seeing his wife beforehand, or was even interested in her at all.

An Akamba marriage becomes official when the father of the bride drives home the cattle that constitute the bride price. The minimum Akamba bride price involves giving the parents of the bride a goat, honey, sugar, and flour. Everything above that is negotiable. An educated girl may, for example, fetch a bride price of a concrete water tank. An Akamba bride price, I was told, can be as much as twenty-eight cattle, forty-five goats and twelve types of homemade alcohol. A working daughter, after all, is a valuable asset and the bride price is a kind of compensation for the family’s loss. Inevitably, marriage often has more to do with economics than with romance. I used to think I could have bought myself a wife or three with the bride price I would be able to pay out there.

Often in Akambaland, if the rains fail, money earmarked in families for school fees has to go on food. If a choice needs to be made between which children can stay in school, it will always be in favour of the son, and the daughter must drop out. Once the daughter leaves in these circumstances, she is pushed into marriage so that the parents can obtain a bride price for her. She often has no choice in her husband, who may be years older than her.

‘Bush weddings’ among teenagers are common, where they elope together, but rarely live happily ever after. The husband usually runs away again after a couple of years of marriage. Nearly everyone in Akambaland is married by twenty years of age. If an Akamba man is not married by then, there is something wrong either up above or down below.

Speaking of sex! On one occasion, Nzoki asked me,

‘What time is it, Brendan?’

‘Half six,’ I answered.

She stared at me for a moment, ‘Did you just say it’s time to “have sex”?’

I was eighteen years old before I realised I had an accent. When I went to college in Dublin, nobody seemed to understand a word I spoke in my dulcet Donegal brogue. And yet, for some odd reason, non-native English speakers around the world seem to grasp my meaning better than native English speakers. In Kenya, most people who had any English could understand the rhythms and idioms of east Donegal.

Many Kenyans can speak four or five languages or even more—the two tribal languages of their parents, the language of the neighbouring tribe, as well as Swahili and English. Swahili is used as a common language between the tribes in East Africa, with English used as a
lingua franca
among the more educated people, especially in Nairobi. Many Kenyans I met, who had only attended primary school, could speak several languages. Multi-lingualism is a fact of life for them. They would put in the shade those of us who struggle to learn a second language.

However, in the remote area where I was living, a lot of people spoke only the Akamba tribal language (called Kikamba), with perhaps a few words and phrases in Swahili. The Akamba have a bit of a hang-up about speaking Swahili, going back to the days when the coastal Swahili people traded the Akamba as slaves to the Arabs. A minority of rural Kenyans can speak limited English, but hardly anyone living in the area around Nyumbani had mastered the language of the old colonial power. Most of the people with whom I became friendly were the ones able to converse in English, like Nancy, Nzoki, Kimanze, and Mwangangi among others.

Swahili is an easier language to speak than Kikamba, partly because of the range of learning materials in it. As it is understood throughout East Africa, I devoted myself to learning Swahili instead of the Akamba tribal language. As languages go, Swahili is fairly easy to learn, and I picked up quite a bit early on. Sometimes, others would tell me Kikamba or Kikuyu tribal words, and then they would laugh when I garbled three languages in one sentence by accident. The problem was that it somehow all turned into ‘African’ in my head.

After a month or two, I was conversing in simple functional situations entirely through Swahili. Often, when conversing with Kenyans, if my Swahili or theirs was not up to it, there would be someone else on hand who could translate between English and the tribal languages, or between English and Swahili. Sometimes though, I simply had to shrug my shoulders in bewilderment. At other times, the lines would be crossed quite literally. I recall an occasion when I was using an old ‘wind-up’ telephone. The operator kept me talking for ten minutes enquiring about my life history and, by the time I got through, the line was hopelessly crossed, making communication impossible in any language.

Time and technology move on, and mobile phones began to appear in the hands of Kenyans after I arrived. Nobody ever had any phone-credit in them, so they ‘flashed’ whomever they wanted to ring. When I first heard the term, I pictured a woman standing on a hill, lifting up her skirt and catching the eye of the friend she wanted to contact. In fact, ‘flashing’ means they wait until your phone beeps and then hang up—time after time, incessantly and rather pointlessly. Even without the aid of any phone-credit, though, every tiny bit of gossip races up and down and back again among the Akamba faster than a Nairobi taxi crashing a red light. They love to gossip; it is part of their amiable nature.

In Akambaland, I had discovered probably the only race of people outside Donegal and Derry who say ‘yes’ for ‘hello.’ It made me feel at home! They also said ‘good morning’ at any time of day at all—even as I was retiring to bed for the night. There were other examples of linguistic confusion. They would say strange things like ‘I am coming’ as they walked away from me, and used peculiar and perplexing English phrases such as ‘I met you absent’—which means that you were not there when he or she called, and ‘I walked the wrong number tomorrow.’ Your guess is as good as mine as to the meaning of that one.

An Akamba wrote a letter to the
Daily Nation
newspaper (Kenya’s
Irish Independent)
in October complaining that it was a conspiracy against their tribe that the English alphabet has a letter ‘h’ when the Akamba are incapable of pronouncing it correctly. Insecurity with the ‘h’ sound means they often say ‘he’ for ‘she,’ and ‘she’ for ‘he.’ Like the Japanese, they pronounce ‘r’ as ‘l’ and’ l’ as ‘r’; also ‘f’ as ‘p’ and ‘p’ as ‘f.’ Because of this, I once heard Sr. MM’s school caretaker shout to the students, ‘No taking flutes at the liver.’ After a moment of wondering what on earth he was on about, I deduced he must have been referring to ‘fruits at the river.’

Whenever I met a Kenyan for the first time, the conversation typically went as it did with Mwangangi’s portly uncle in The Paradise Hotel (that well-known misnomer!) in Kwa Vonza.

‘Where are you from?’ he inquired.

‘Ireland.’

‘Oh, what part of the U.S. is that?’

‘The Europe part,’ I informed him.

‘Oh, you’re beside Australia then!’

‘Yes, of course I am.’

How long would it take me to explain that ‘Whiteland’ is not all the one big place? I just said ‘England’ from then on; at least they had heard of that, to which a cousin of Mwangangi’s responded on the same occasion,

‘So you are the same country as Canada’

These are the same people who speak, perhaps, four languages. Their geographical knowledge usually falls far short of their linguistic ability.

Keeping in contact with home was also difficult. It was an arduous four-hour cycle under the punishing sun to a landline phone. There was no coverage for my mobile around Nyumbani and no way to re-charge the phone because there was no electricity. Using the internet normally involved going to Nairobi for the weekend, and that was at least three or four good hours away in a vehicle. Getting to Nairobi normally started by jumping on the back (or hanging off the end) of an open-topped lorry, bouncing and swaying over the rutted dirt tracks for mile after juddering mile. There might be as many as forty Akamba packed onto the lorry. I found it thrilling. The alternative could involve sitting with the dangerously stacked luggage on the roof rack of an overflowing, speeding clapped-out bus.

However, despite all the difficulties of transportation and communications, there were occasionally pleasant surprises. One evening in Nyumbani, as the orange sun descended over the scorched red Kitui desert, I managed to pick up Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh on the BBC World Service radio, commentating on Tyrone winning the All-Ireland. Despite the static, I was able to follow the action. Croke Park seemed very far away though.

BOOK: No Hurry in Africa
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