The young man in West Timor who I have hired to drive me for the day, has asked me to pay the going rate, petrol and $3 for the day. “How often do you drive?” “Two or three times a week,” he says. “Are you married?” “Yes I have a wife and two childrens.” “What else do you do?” I ask. “I have a video game business.” It turns out he has a discarded play station and a monitor and he rents it for 10c per hour to school children. He doesn’t do much business and earns about $1.00 per day from renting the video game he has. It is not enough to live on but he and his family somehow survive, “What do you want to do?” “I am looking for a job” he says, “But there are not jobs.”
I meet a 23 year old young man who has been sponsored by an NGO in Capetown and just finished a small business course. He is showing me around his neighbourhood in the township. He lives in a three room shanty with 6 other family members. His girlfriend lives with her family and has just had his child. He needs to come up with around $1000 as the bride price (dowry ) for her family before they can marry. It used to be cattle but now in the slum, it is dollars. If he can’t raise the money, he can’t marry, if he can’t marry he can’t fulfil any of the responsibilities of fatherhood, including giving his new daughter his name, and presiding over the necessary rituals and initiations. I ask him what he wants to do and he tells me he would like to be School Principle. This is clearly an impossible dream, he has no teaching experience, he has no money to study. I nod. He tells me he has AIDS. I nod
I have just arrived in Nairobi, I feel a sense of home, I have been here 3 or 4 times a year for the last 3 years. Familiar faces at the hotel and they are all so gracious in their remembrance of me.
I arrived tired from Johannesburg, a quick wash and down to a dinner of grilled fish at the hotel restaurant. It cost about $20 which is outrageous, but the options are few for something quick and convenient, Nairobi is not a safe place to eat local in.
I am on my back to the hotel room and I see the back of one of the security man, he is huge and I immediately recognise him, it is Nicky. He is a Masai, almost 2 meters tall and strong as a buffalo. Actually he is one of the strongest men I have ever met. I had polio and compensation for the weakness in my legs has left me with a strong upper body and very strong arms and hands. Mostly if I want to, I can crush a hand in a handshake, but not Nicky, we have had a number of strength contests and it is close , but he always wins.
I ask him how he is, and he beams “I am well Mr Jock” and according to the custom I ask “ and how is your family?” And the smile leaves his face “ They are hungry he says, “there is a drought in the east, they are hungry, my children are hungry.”
I feel like a coffee in my room, but I am standing at the top of the stairs with Nicky and I have nothing to say. I nod. Unlike many of my office bound colleagues in development I have the privilege of working directly with many many poor people in our communities projects. And again I know, I know nothing.
I find there is nothing to say a little too often. A few days ago I was in Capetown. I was with some other development workers and we went to a coffee house. I walked to the counter and without really thinking ,I asked for a long black, and I got a long silence and found myself looking at a very big black man. And I am thinking he probably has different ideas when a white man asks for a long black than I do. I am looking at his staring bloodshot eyes, I am looking at his ox like chest, and on it the name tag “Lovemore”. So what the hell , “Lovemore” I say, “I have changed my mind, how about a flat white?” He is looking at me like this white man is out of his mind. I end up ordering something called an Americano which turns out to be what in Australia we call a long black.
Too often I feel like I have the wrong script and that this must all be a rehearsal, surely if this was the real thing there would be better instructions somewhere.
Nairobi Kenya March 2009