On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the third of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 22 December / Kenya
The airplane taxis into the airport from Johannesburg. I find the nearest cash machine, line my wallet with the local dough and slip into the Nairobi night. The cab driver is chatty as we drive towards the city, it is his last day of work before the Christmas holidays. He intends to park his car outside his house, get to the coast, and lie on a beach for five days. We arrive at the accommodation for the duration of my stay, the Kenyan Comfort Hotel on Mundi Mbingu Street. The staff who are sleepy at this late hour of night, perk up at a new arrival. The computers are down so the receptionist checks me in on faith alone, says she has upgraded me to a double bed, but should a woman stay the night, I am to pay an extra $20 dollars. I'm too tired to question why, so I sign, climb to room 305, unfurl the mosquito net, crawl into its belly and sleep.
What I know of Kenya is limited to its language, its mispronunciation by Britons of a certain era (Keeeenya) and a faux romanticism about its capital Nairobi. In the morning, I shower, go down for breakfast and discover that though English is the lingua franca and everyone speaks it with reasonable command, most people think in Kiswahili, so gossip in Kiswahili, so in barber shops, most of the conversation will be in Kiswahili. I do not speak a work of Kiswahili. The bright morning dims a little at the prospect, but I go out to meet it and complete the task for the first day: find barber shops and get a local SIM card. I turn right out of the hotel and following a market worker's advice, walk down to the Gilfillan building, up the first flight of stairs and into two barber shops right beside each other, bursting with customers. The first on the right is a relaxed affair, pinkish walls, the barbers are in casual clothes and are sat at a sofa close to the doors, confidently asking male pedestrians regardless of hair length, to come in for a hair cut. The second on the left is a visually superior setting. All the workers are in navy and white uniforms. The walls are lined with mirrors, they see to both women and men’s hair and every corner of the shop is taken with a chair, a customer and someone tending. I ask to speak with the manager and the older gentleman/receptionist with rust coloured teeth, points me to a younger man working hard on his client’s head. I explain, or rather try to explain my project but I get the sense that because I am not wearing a suit and that I am not there to spend money, I am of little importance to him. I tell him I will return the following day and leave.
Back at the hotel, I spend almost two hours speaking with friend and fellow writer Jessica Horn via text message. She links me with the few friends she has in Nairobi who, after I explain, are excited by the project. The one person I know is a Michael Onsando who I'd planned to meet that evening. Mike calls to say he is downstairs and because we have a good friend in common and because he is a writer, there is a shorthandedness to how quickly we speak and for the first time, I'm relaxed and confident I will get what I need from this city. Mike takes me to his parents’ house for dinner. His parents are welcoming and charming in that old-African-hospitality kind of way and I greet them the way my parents taught me to, on my knees. Mike's father asks me to sit immediately and his mother visibly blushes. I explain about the project and where I'd just come from. Mike's father talks a little Kenyan history, how it was considered a potential site for the jewish homeland - that is to say when it was under British rule, it was optioned as a location for Israel. After dinner we go to Michael's barber's, a shack of a shop he'd been visiting since he was a boy. It is small, serves only two customers at a time and is utterly aesthetically perfect. I take pictures as Mark, Michael's brother who I asked to come along and get a hair cut, sits for the barber to begin. The conversation is about rugby vs football & basketball, Kenya's television/digital migration, an attempted mugging, and township tours for tourists in South Africa. Michael is going away with his family for Christmas, as I board the taxi back to my hotel, I thank him for his time, wishing him the season's best.
It is the 24th of December and the city is rapidly loosing its population. As it is with main cities during holidays, numbers diminish as folks leave for their family homes or ancestral villages. Nairobi is no different. I return to Gilfillan where in the pre-Christmas bustle, everything is being talked about. I can tell from facial expressions and vocal tones that what I want for my play is within reach, close, but for I don't speak Swahili, so far away. I go to the other shop where the brash manager asks the rust-toothed receptionist to deal with me. His name is Daniel. He works as an actor, sometimes as a writer. When I explain the project he says "ah, you are looking for things like that scene in Coming to America, when Eddie is in a barber shop" and I have to restrain myself from hugging him. He suggests other barber shops where English is spoken and should that fail, I should return on the 27th and he will tell me stories from his shop. Later that night, Aleya who worked for Storymoja, Kenya's literary Hay Festival puts me in touch with Ian, a friend of her's, who directs me to a barber shop where indeed, English is partially spoken and the conversation there are about business. Swiftly, it moves to the dwindling influence of the west over African economies, laws for same-sex and inter-racial adoption and what effects financial/gender equality might have on Kenyan households and families. The gentleman and I talk long after I stop recording and I get the sense that there is a loneliness in his life, one he cannot express or divulge to the wife and daughter he “must return to” he says as we shake hands and part ways.
It is the 27th and my social network has widened to include the vibrant, chatty and infectious Njoki who works at a respected arts centre called The Nest. Not only does Njoki invite me for Christmas dinner with her parents, but she comes over to the hotel to help translate some parts of recorded conversations from Kiswahili to English. As we climb the stairs, the friendly receptionist reiterates the rule, that Njoki must not go up to my room without the $20 fee and the reason settles into place. At night, the streets of Nairobi are lined with prostitutes - at traffic lights, junctions, the mouths of alleys, etc. Rather than banning the practice on their premises, the hoteliers makes a little on the side by charging extra should their customers wish to indulge themselves. Njoki laughs at my naivety as we type up the conversations. Two friends of her's arrive in a beautiful black people-carrier (Njoki had told them about the project) and the plan is to visit their barbers. As we drive through the city, they comment on how unusual it is to go at this speed at this time of day, for Nairobi is overpopulated, congested and thick with traffic every other time of year. We go to the Unga House shopping centre in Westlands and in the barber shop there, the talk is of Kenyan infidelity, sexual repression in Saudi Arabia and incredibly enough, what vegetable is best suited to a woman's... needs.
The 28th is my final day and Njoki pulls out the Ace in the deck of dazzling cards I believe her friends to be. His name is Brian and ten minutes after we meet he had me convinced that "morals is the new cool" — we need to bring them back in the stories we tell if we are to save our societies and ourselves — he says of the media's sensationalist tragedy stories that "we began to focus on people who have problems and forgot that everyone has problems" suggesting this is why we can step over the every day hungry and downtrodden on our streets, but willingly give to huge disaster-relief efforts. Brian takes me to visit Calif, his hood in Nairobi. We take the public mode of transport called Matatus (taxis in JoBurg) - a rudimentary bus system. Brian breaks it down thus: 'Tatu' is short for 'Mapeni Matatu' which means '30 cents' which was the original flat rate price to use one. As we drive, there's evidence that Obama's influence is alive in Kenya. We pass shops called 'Obama's corner' and 'Yes We Can Limited'. I tell Brian about a trend in Zimbabwe of odd-sounding names, and he says the same exists in Kenya, he has met people named 'Eminent Person', 'TearGas' and 'Coalition Talks'. The barber shop is small, seats four clients at a time and each one is occupied when we arrive. Brian introduces me to the staff who ask questions about the project and the talk is a dream-find of conversations, one of those roving funny and at times alarming ones. Topics range from Nigerian and Kenyan witchcraft, to love potions and urban legends, to adequate punishment for rapists, to men having sex with hens, to 'acceptable' bestiality, cross-border travel, and the strength of the Kenyan shilling weighed against the Ugandan shilling. When Brian's cut is done, we leave the little bustling shop and Brian speaks excitedly of his ongoing projects. He writes 'Classmates', one of the biggest and most successful comedy series on Kenyan television, currently in its 9th series. Brian talks of a pilot he had just made about Matatus, how years before, there used to be a culture of showmanship built into their usage, they'd have neon-lights and 42inch t.v. screens mounted on the sides, some with laser-lights and hydraulics. He says folks would spend nights riding around town in them for entertainment - forget about bars and clubs, these were venues themselves - but the new government outlawed the practice. He speaks nostalgically of those days, says Nairobi seemed like a different city and his show is to celebrate those times.
We go to a local fast food joint where Brian introduces me to four close friends, all working in the television and film industries. We discuss 'authenticity' regarding African stories. Bruce is adamant that there is no such thing, there are just stories. I argue that some stories are culturally specific, therefore, if the culture does not exist in Africa, the story cannot be African, thus, the opposite must be true; there must be stories that are specific to Africa, therefore 'African stories'. Brian asks for examples, I suggest global warming in the Inuit community; those who live in Igloos. If a story is about melting Igloos, it could never be an African story, it would be alien to this continent. Brian disagrees, explaining there are some Kenyans who live in mud huts. Because of global warming and increased rainfall, their huts are 'melting', turning to liquid, so such a story could play to Inuit audiences: there are stories and regardless of how specific, they can be adapted and made universal. Later on, I recount a crude joke I'd adapted to suit Kenyan audiences to make Brian laugh. Usually it features an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, but I replaced them with three of the 42 Kenyan tribes. They are discussing making love to their wives. The Luo man says when he finishes making love, so satisfied is she, she levitates two feet off the bed. The Luyah man says that's nothing. When he finishes, he gives his wife a deep tissue massage and she floats ten feet off the bed. The Kamba man dismisses both of them, says when he finishes, he wipes his manhood on the curtain and his wife hits the roof! The joke worked in this context, somewhat proving Brian's point: contexts can be adapted: there are just stories and how we respond (or don't) respond to them is a measure of our life experience and knowledge of the global human experience.
I am to meet Aleya and her friend Njeri for my last night in the country, to eat at a Koroga, an Indian outdoor restaurant where you are provided raw ingredients and you cook your own meal. Before the taxi arrives, I stare out at the sun kissing the Kenyan horizon and make a list of things I have learned:
1) Kenya was a potential site for Israel. 2) There's a place called Soweto in Kenya. 3) Of the 42 tribes, Luo men are the flashiest. 4) Assumptions are made of men who travel alone. 5) Kenyan mosquitos are as relaxed as Kenyans. 6) Kenya's class system is very similar to Britain's. 7) Israel built parts of the Eastlands region of Nairobi. 8) The soil from the region was shipped to Israel. 9) Israel, it follows then, is built on Kenyan soil. 10) History is truly, effing incredible.
Next stop, Kampala, Uganda.