I never quite cracked how to correctly greet someone during my time spent working in Kenya. It seemed there was an unspoken code to the start of any conversation and I never managed to have a single opener any clearer than this:
Me: “Hello, or, should I say, ‘jambo’?!”
Reply: “I’m fine, thank you.”
Me: “Oh, great, er …”
Reply: “You’re welcome.”
Me: “Cool, um …”
Me: “Come again?”
Reply: “Karibu. Welcome.”
Me: “Right, yes, you said that. Actually, I’ve forgotten why I’m here, can we start again …”
Some traditions worked to my advantage of course. My lovely apartment at Eldon Villas was right next door to the lively Brew Bistro, where I often popped in for a Tusker baridi (cold beer). Not having any of children of my own, Mothers’ Day often comes and goes without me noticing, as it did on one particular Sunday that I headed for my usual table at Brew for a little lunch. Nairobi was on high alert in the wake of a number of terrorist attacks and security everywhere was tight. Brew Bistro was no exception.
“Security check Madam, please open your bag. “
“This is a restaurant Madam, I see you are bringing in food items.”
“Well, yes, I’ve just been shopping.”
“I’m sorry Madam, but you won’t be permitted to eat this food on our premises.”
“I understand, but I can’t make any promises. It will be very difficult to resist the raw garlic bulb, uncooked rice and bottle of Thai fish sauce. I’ll do my best though.”
Having promised to behave I was then greeted by an ebullient waiter.
“Happy Mothers’ Day Madam! Do you have a reservation?”
“Ahh, no, but I’ll happily squeeze into whatever small space you may have.”
“Depends on the size of your group Madam.”
“Well, actually it’s just …”
“How many of your children will be joining you to celebrate your special day?”
“I don’t have …”
“And today at Brew Bistro’s we’re offering our traditional free cocktail for every child you have so specially mothered.”
“My five children will be along shortly, I’m happy to start without them, thank you.”
Brew served up delicious international food that was a welcome reminder of home but, anywhere else I found myself, it was local food all the way. Kenyan fare is very bland; think British 1950s flavourless fodder. Edible, but not very exciting.
And then there’s Nigerian cuisine.
Exciting but not, in my opinion, very edible.
I was producing a music series for broadcast on African TV channels around the continent. Each week we would welcome new superstar singers to the studio from different countries. Whenever a Nigerian flew in the catering department would have a melt down as it was widely accepted that they would turn up their noses at the flavourless food on offer.
Without fail the artists thought it hilarious to get me, the ‘mzungu’, to sample their specially-bought in dishes which were highly spiced. I have a penchant for hot Asian curries so was totally taken aback at quite how unpalatable this Nigerian food was. And then I realised it was partly to do with having to nibble on a chicken’s head.
One custom I was very happy to remain unaccustomed to.
Just like their food, the Nigerians were fiery in temperament, unlike the very laid back Kenyans. There’s nothing the Kenyans wouldn’t gather around for in large groups to do not very much at all.
Heading home one evening, my driver pulled over to drop me off. The reason I’m still alive to tell this tale today is because I delayed jumping straight out and instead turned to say my goodbyes to the others in the back of the car.
Seconds later, I opened my door and it was immediately taken completely off by a truck carrying water supplies undertaking us at speed on what constituted the pavement. My leg had been in mid-exit and missed being spliced off by nano-seconds. Before I’d even caught my breath and made sense of what had happened, I looked up to find a group of about 200 people surrounding our car, silently observing. Not offering to help, not saying anything, just watching.
Although not a drop of the truck’s precious water cargo was spilt, I vowed not to give to any more charities promising water aid to Africa. ‘Not if that’s how they’re going to go around driving,’ I told myself.
I was quite impressed with how my Swahili was coming along as I effortlessly spouted my recently-learnt swear words at the crowd, the truck driver, the stray dogs and anyone else just standing around in my line of fire.
I was, in fact, trying to get home for my weekly lesson, so as soon as I could I bailed out and hot footed it back to Eldon Villas where my elderly tutor was waiting for me.
We settled down and were just getting on to the future tense when my mobile rang – it was work.
“Hi! Listen, I’m right in the middle of my Swahili lesson so can’t be long. If you’re ringing to see how I am, don’t worry, I’m absolutely fine.”
“What? Oh, good Debbie, good, I am fine too. Karibu. Chidinma wants to come round to yours to cook, she’s homesick for Nigerian food and you live nearest so we’ll be there in 5.”
The line went dead before I had a chance to react. I had learnt that nothing much in Kenya was guaranteed and decided to ignore the prospect of that week’s famous singer turning up in the middle of my conversation class until I saw it with my own two eyes.
‘So, where were we? Oh yes, I will have, you will have, he / she will have …’
The door bell rang.
I opened it and in marched Chidinma, Chidinma’s brother / manager, Chidinma’s aunt / PA, two members of my own production team and the driver who didn’t want to feel left out.
Before long in my small, open plan apartment, the Chidinma Team were busy in the kitchen, my colleagues were unashamedly taking a look around my living quarters and the driver was sitting rigidly on the sofa.
To put this into context, Chidinma was one of the biggest pop stars in Africa. She had risen to the top having won Tusker Project Fame, a series akin to The X Factor or The Voice.
My tutor and I hadn’t ever got on to the subject of what had brought me to Kenya and what kind of work I was doing there. And it’s for that reason that she sat with her mouth open to her knees, silently watching the spectacle of Africa’s equivalent to Harry Styles or Kelly Clarkson expertly cooking up a goat’s head just feet away, while I recited the days of the week in Swahili.
Africa: don’t expect anything to be guaranteed – apart from the unexpected.