Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 4 – racist dance troupes

They are Kenya's answer to the Black and White Minstrel Show, an act so incredibly racist that white people probably should take offense. But they are also very, very funny.

I'm talking about certain dancers who dress up as old colonials. They wear khaki safari shorts, shirts and hats. White socks sprout out from tackety boots and climb up to knobbly knees. Huge fake bellies swell their shirts to the verge of button-popping. Their faces are painted with big white beards. Their dance is all slapstick: they blow whistles, twirl canes, fall over, kick each other in the ass, stamp around with a bandy-legged gait.

The first time I saw the act was in Visa Place, as we were waiting for the incredibly vulgar guitarist Mike Rua to come on and play what was essentially the same song for the rest of the evening (nothing wrong with that, of course – Galaxie 500 made a career out of playing one song in 30 different ways). We were the only white folks in the packed, sweaty bar, which stank of the grilled chicken, goat and beer just consumed.

When the dancers started their routine, people went crazy: pissing themselves laughing, slapping their thighs, the whole bit. It was highly entertaining, but I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had we been in Western Europe and the dancers had been white men blacked-up and dressed in the Western idea of traditional African garb. They would have been booed off the stage. In Visa Place, people just kept glancing at us and laughing even more. Such behaviour is so un-PC in the UK that in a recent theatrical production about Al Jolson's life, they did not show him blacked-up to avoid causing offence.

That's one of the funny things about Kenya. It is perfectly acceptable to work on a whole set of assumptions about all white people – essentially, to be racist.

I've had many conversations with Kenyans, during which I told them some things about my own culture that were surprising to them. In the interests of promoting cultural understanding, I'd like to clear up a few myths:

1. There are poor white people and white criminals, although we have essentially moved all of them to one city, Glasgow, where hopefully they will fall on each other like the rabid dogs they are and perish (although we tried this a long time ago, and the end result was Australia).

2. We can dance. Shuffling from side-to-side, out of time to the music, arms flopping around: this counts as dancing, doesn't it?

3. White people can actually wash a dish, pick up their dirty clothes, carry a shopping bag - although admittedly you don't see much evidence of that in Nairobi.

4. Not every white person is a complete mug who will gaily splash money around. Some of us are Scottish.

5. Yes, we do have enormous penises (this may be a rumour I am trying to spread myself).

I could go on. And I usually do. But on this occasion I won't. So there.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 3 – nobody understands me

On the face of it, being completely incomprehensible to the people of the country you live in is a bad thing. But it can also be useful, and fun.

If I want to be understood, I can easily speak slowly and clearly. But if I revert to my normal speed and pronunciation, which is understandable only to anyone who lives within a 40-mile radius of Glasgow, I can say whatever I like. This is handy if you are having a frustrating encounter. You can call the person you are talking to all the names under the sun, while smiling sweetly, and they are none the wiser.

Kenyan guards in particular have a habit of nodding their heads and responding “yah” to anything I say.

When I roll up to a gate, I often shake the guard's hand, smile and say: “I'm going to see x and y to steal everything from their apartment. Is that ok?”

Or: “I'm planning on beating everyone in the compound to death, and then burning down the apartment block. Are you fine with that?”

The guards invariably nod and wave me in.

Part of the reason for this is that security guards, upon seeing a white face, will let you into virtually any compound in town. This seems to stem from an assumption that white people won't steal anything.


I am from Glasgow. Everywhere else in the world, they assume I will steal everything.

I honestly believe a gang of white criminals could clean up in Nairobi before anybody actually realised that wazungu were blagging things. You could drive up to an ATM with a JCB and dig it out of the wall, make up some bullshit story about taking it for repairs, and then drive off unmolested. When the witnesses said the gang was white, the cops would shake their heads in disbelief and assume it was the Mungiki in disguise. Even when white folk are caught killing people, like a certain landed gent descended from British aristocracy was (twice), they get off with it.

Okay, I am now very off topic. But that's okay. Just imagine I've said all the above in a Glaswegian accent, and you can hear whatever you want to hear anyway.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 2 - the slow-motion run

You're driving (again), weaving through traffic, looking for a gap to squeeze through to undertake the doddery old mhindi guy clutching the wheel of a shit-brown, black-fume-belching Peugeot 306. At last a space opens up and you accelerate toward it as fast as possible, since you've been holding your breath for the last two minutes and are about to pass out.

Then you notice a pedestrian sauntering across, checking his mobile phone or just staring into space. You honk your horn, and he sees you. But instead of hurrying to avoid being splattered all over your bonnet, he launches into the slow-motion run.

There are two versions of the run: in the first, the pedestrian lifts his knees high into the air like a footballer warming up and simultaneously throws his fists up toward the sky, giving you an intense look that says: “See, I'm moving fast.” The second, and rarer, version of the run is even more bizarre: the pedestrian leans forward, holds arms and legs rigidly straight, and scissors both sets of limbs, like a vaudeville performer exiting stage left.

To the uninitiated, it is unclear what is happening. Is he doing a dance? Having a fit? Being attacked by wasps? Ah, no. He's running. Very. Very. Slowly.

Both versions of the run are slower than the stroll, so you slam on your brakes and screech to a halt. Unfazed by the fact he nearly did a somersault over your bumper and ended up with his face embedded in your windshield, the pedestrian continues his slow-motion run to the pavement/gutter/dirt verge.

There, he accelerates to walking pace.

I think this is why there are no successful Kenyan sprinters. The fastest time clocked for the 100 metres would be 5 minutes 33 seconds.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 1 – Everyone is a traffic cop

You are stuck at a junction in Nairobi – an all too-common occurrence in a city where everybody drives as though they have metal spikes bristling from their wheel rims and a turbo-boost button hidden under the dashboard.

Maybe it has been raining, and a matatu (commuter minibus) that tried to undertake on the muddy verge has overturned and is blocking half the road. Perhaps there has been a prang and the car owners are leaning on their bonnets, patiently waiting for the police to arrive. More likely, eight drivers have simultaneously decided they have right of way and are now snuggled up tightly in the middle of the junction, all staring at each other.

There isn't a cop in sight, you have a meeting in 15 minutes and you're wondering if it would be quicker to abandon your car and walk to your destination, all the while cursing the city.

Then, out of nowhere, a citizen traffic cop appears. The self-appointed traffic director beckons and waves, prods and slaps at bonnets, brandishes a newspaper, has a screaming match with a driver, stops to pick his or her nose (unless that too is a signal). Slowly, the traffic begins to move, and you are free. At least until the next junction.

Behind you, the traffic cop blends back into the crowd, seeking no reward. Nobody really knows who this person is: a matatu tout, a security guard, a garage attendant, a cleaner, a teacher. But it is irrelevant.

All that matters is that they are out there. And they are ready.