Author: Brian Rath

Born lucky: Tales of a high-class hooker

I met Lynn (not her real name) a few months ago at a club in town, and we’ve been friends since then. We see each other around, mostly by chance, and our friendship has strengthened. Born to a rich family at the coast, Lynn was educated at a private, “international” school in Mombasa and counted more white friends among her classmates than black Kenyan ones – you can tell by the absence of a Kenyan accent.

She’s bright, no doubt about it, and beautiful, with wild two-inch tufts of bleached blond hair, huge doe eyes, caramel skin and strong, bright white teeth. She could probably make a good living in front of the cameras in Cape Town but when she arrived in Nairobi she couldn’t find a job, so she became what she describes as a ‘chick hustler’ instead. She is only 20 years old and quite good at her job.

I sent her a SMS last week saying I wanted to write a piece about her.

Sawa” (Okay), she replied, and we arranged to meet the next day.

“What do you want to write about me?” Lynn asks when we sit down, leaning on the table and squinting at me with mock seriousness.

“A true story,” I reply. She’d heard it before. My SMS had mentioned it.

“Why? There’s nothing exceptional about me.”

“Well, you’re hardly ordinary,” I say.

Lynn shrugs and leans over to rest her arm on my leg, her new white Alcatel smartphone in her hand, batting her eyelids and gazing into my eyes as if she had just found Prince Charming.

“Hold on, I’m going to the bank,” she announces suddenly.

She is slim in a Kate Moss sort of way, skinny legs and all. She’s wearing a tight white sleeveless T-shirt, grey tights, and a pair of flat sandals with beads on the top – the kind you get at the various Maasai markets here. She’s got a small grey sling bag and a long striped scarf wrapped around her neck in five shades of grey. It looks like it’s woven from raw silk.

“The system was down when I got here,” she explains as she gets up. “I just need to draw some cash.”

She leaves me at the table, promising she’ll come back. I know Lynn well enough by now to be sceptical, but I wait anyway. Ten minutes later, she’s back. Heads turn to follow her entrance.

“Escort me downtown,” she immediately commands.

“Okay. Where are we going?” I ask, realising that my story is about to slip away.

“Just downtown! I’ve only got a little money. I can’t afford a taxi so I want to get a matatu (minibus taxi) to The Mayfair. It’ll be good there now.”

We leave immediately and take turns to avoid injury in the 5pm traffic rush. As we find a little solace behind the Jamia mosque, she puts her arm around my shoulder as we walk and takes the hand of my far arm, swinging it in front of us. Childlike. We can’t fail to draw attention; the ever-present parking attendants and the Muslims heading for prayer watch this young Kenyan model walking with this older white guy. But there’s a familiarity between us that prompts smiles, not frowns.

We reach the terminus for matatus going to upmarket Westlands but she doesn’t stop there. We walk past the terminus and on to the real downtown part of Nairobi. We continue up the road and deep into the danger zone that lies beyond River Road. Just at the end, she slips into an alley adjacent to a minuscule shop that stocks groceries and motor vehicle spares. I follow. Through the alley, we enter the courtyard of a typically dilapidated Nairobi tenement block. The two-storey block is a courtyard of chipped blue enamel, grimy wire mesh burglar proofing and fresh washing hanging everywhere on makeshift lines.

Lynn heads straight for the back of the courtyard, to a small window in the far left corner. There’s a woman sitting at the base of the staircase in the opposite corner with a baby on her lap. She calls “Fatma!” and there’s a grunt from the floor above.

While Lynn stands at the window, she is joined by an anxious-looking Sikh youth with a black turban on his head, and a guy wearing uniformly dirt-brown clothes. The three of them wait, mute and agitated.

It takes five minutes before Fatma appears, stumbling down the stairs. She’s a mess, her forehead and hairline wet from sweat and it looks like she just had a shot of heroin. She looks Somali. She unlocks the steel gate next to the window, enters, locks it again, and then appears at the window within seconds. She serves the Sikh youth and then has to count the coins proffered by the dirt-brown-clothed guy before he too is served. Only then does Lynn get the little packet that she came for.

Lynn rushes out across the courtyard, through the alley, out, and down the road. Her stride is hard to keep up with but I manage. As we cross the street to the terminus, Lynn, in her rush, nearly gets hit by a bus and shouts at the driver, “Haraka niaje!?” In Sheng – Nairobi Swahili slang – that’s like, “What’s up with the rush, dude?”

“Fuuuuuck, where’s he gonna go?” Lynn asks in redundant reference to the wedged-in traffic that the bus nearly smashed into.

As we reach the terminus, she quickly finds a matatu and gets in.

“We’ll talk some other time,” she says through the window. I shrug and leave, understanding the occasional urgency of someone with a heroin habit.

Twenty minutes later, I get a text message from Lynn.

“Relief! And it’s looking very promising here. A table of 12 white guys at the pool gawking at me each time I walk past. Lol. But I only want one. Wish me luck.”

I SMS back to wish her luck.

After another ten minutes, she replies: “How can I be here and we not allowed to approach men. Unless he comes for you or you are sitting next to him. That’s when you can talk to him but not by getting up and walking to him. Imagine! If it was allowed I’d be a very rich woman tonight!”

It’s obvious that management at The Mayfair has laid down the rules about the behaviour required of ‘Nairobi girls’ when male guests are at the pool area.

At midnight, while writing this, I send her a text message.

“You were lucky tonight?”

Minutes later:

“I got this shit idiot who just wanted to pay me $20. I directed him to K-street. I literally showed him on Google Maps.”

K-street, or Koinange Street, is notorious for Nairobi street hookers.

“Fucking cheap ass is staying in a 300 fucking dollar room!” the message continues.

At 1am, this story nearly done, I send an SMS back:

“Lynn, you’re simply the best! Get lucky!”

But the message isn’t delivered until this morning, after I wake. At 8.25am I get a simple reply, an appropriate conclusion to the tale:

“I was born lucky. I got a guy for $100! ;-)”.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly.

Blessed with the running gene

They call them the sub-seventies: those few people on earth that can run a half marathon (21 kms) in less than 70 minutes. Japhet Kiplagat is a sub-seventy and a friend of mine.

His last half-marathon time on the international circuit was 62 minutes 11 seconds, his personal best, and it took him to the winner’s podium in last year’s Spark Marathon in the Netherlands.

In the recent Nairobi Marathon, Japhet took eleventh place, running among some of the best in the world. In the 1500m trials for the London Olympics, Japhet came fourth, but failed to achieve a qualifying time. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’m a marathon runner!”

Japhet is 29 years old, so the time to make his name on the international scene is running out. He laments the fact that Kenya’s government supports only the very best and he knows he could be among them if he didn’t have to hustle a living every day from friends and willing supporters. It detracts from his ability to take running as a serious career.

Japhet lives in a modest house, on a very modest budget, at the top of the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi. Here, the altitude ensures that the air is thin and lungs have to strain beyond what they would at sea level in London, Boston and New York marathons. Japhet is among the “elites” for the Vancouver Marathon in May 2013 and has set his sights on gold. To achieve it, he aims to become a sub-sixty.

Japhet doing what he does best: running.
Japhet’s rigorous training schedule begins at 6am every morning. (Brian Rath)

Japhet’s next-door neighbour is a marathon runner and so is Maureen, who lives in the house behind his. Maureen is running in Paris in the spring. Their training regimen has them up at 6am and back in the house by 8am, following a rigorous schedule of stretching, running, stretching and running. If they can make the time, they do it again in the evening.

They are all from Kenya’s Kalenjin community, reputed to have the ‘running gene’ that is shared by the best of Kenya’s long distance runners. The Kalenjin are notable for their very dark complexions, slim build and long limbs. Japhet is 6 feet 2 inches tall and his legs seem to make up two-thirds of his body, ending in an ever-present pair of Nike trainers.

Ngong is their training ground, but ‘home’ to Japhet is a small village at the top of Morop Hill, one of the highest points at the edge of the Rift Valley. I was invited to join Japhet and a few of his friends for Christmas. On our way up to the heights, Japhet excused himself from our entourage at Nakuru, still in the southern part of the great Rift. Japhet stayed overnight in Nakuru while we soldiered on up the heights.

He had arranged an appointment with Curtis Pittman, an American marathon trainer who has been funded to train Kenyan runners. They met, and Japhet came beaming up the hills for Christmas, bearing news that Curtis agreed to take him on for 2013.

That Japhet is aiming for greatness is obvious, and, despite the distance, there’s a very good chance he’ll get there. Running is Japhet’s life, and Japhet can run.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly.

Impressions of Tanzania: A nation united

I recently needed a refresh of my Kenyan visa with a trip out of the country. I didn’t have money to fly but could afford a road trip somewhere. And I like road trips. So I bussed from Nairobi to Mombasa, then Mombasa to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From Dar es Salaam, I caught another bus all the way across the north of the country to Arusha. And then I went back to Nairobi.

I did the entire fleeting trip in a record 36 hours, over a weekend, at minimal cost. I saw the entirety of northern Tanzania, ate at many roadside diners, and gauged something about the nature of the people. I even got a new Kenyan visa thrown into the bargain as well.


The road to Dar es Salaam runs past a distant Indian Ocean with crowds of coconut palms on the shoreline. Ragtag kids are just chilling out near the road, or playing ball in the yard of a village, surrounded by banana palms. Mothers are hanging up their washing, dads perhaps meeting with friends in the shade outside. A few small grocery shops and makuti (palm frond) bars punctuate the smooth journey on good roads.

Arriving in Dar es Salaam in the late afternoon, and having already been on the road for the entire day, I quickly enlisted a guy to help me find a local place to stay. In what was probably a half hour of walking Dar, we decided on a hotel overlooking a small sandy village that seemed undisturbed, living at the edge of the city.

I walked around a bit as dusk fell. It was obviously safe in the village as well as in the small part of the city at its fringe. No one even looked at me except to greet. I bought some dates at a fruit market, drank soda at a sidewalk cafe and ate an early dinner as dark descended.

I had pilau rice and masala fish at a family restaurant run from the covered veranda of their flat-roofed family home, where I drank bottled water in the absence of any beer on the menu. It made sense to be sitting outside in the humid night.

Through the evening, all around me, people sat outside, under cover from the drizzle, on benches, chatting in the damp darkness. Others passed, seeming always on some mission or other: men in Muslim headgear, women in multicoloured, patterned veils. There was constant activity as people crossed in angular paths, avoiding errant boda-bodas (motorbike taxis) on the road.

Urban East African Islam, peaceful and serene.

I slept early and checked out early to catch a bus direct to Arusha. A well-powered luxury bus took twenty of us the huge distance to Arusha, travelling comfortably quickly on the broad clean tarmac.

On the way, the vegetation changed to African savannah. Thorn trees and a carpet of green grass in the rain. Copses of hills with a backdrop of distant mountains. A few zebras and giraffes on the plain aside Maasai herders and morans (warriors) loping in the bush. And Maasai-style conservation all the way: thousands of newly planted trees.

The bus arrived in Arusha in the dark, and in the rain. I was expecting cash in the morning, to get me out the country and through the border so the boda-boda guy dropped me at a three-star place in the centre of town where, unusually, I was able to negotiate to stay the night and only pay in the morning.

By 10am, the cash I’d been promised from Kenya hadn’t arrived, so with not much else to do but wait, I wandered around Arusha a bit. And the experience of Arusha in the rain was enchanting.

One street down from the hotel, an informal market of banged-together split-pole stalls and homespun wooden trailers ran all day. The sellers, some of them older mamas, but some of them mothers with young kids, sat sheltered in the constant drizzle, busying themselves amidst spirited chatting and vigorous laughter. They were trading fruit and vegetables between themselves more than with anyone else, eating avocados and pineapples in the rain.

Everyone was in wonderment that I spoke some Swahili and most engaged me in brief conversation, usually asking where I was from.

Mimi ni Muafrika kutoka kusini,” (I’m an African from the south) I’d say, and they would usually laugh with a nod when I assented to the recurrent question of “Mandela?”.

They giggled at my Nairobi Swahili, a language that contrasts with the soft, lyrical style of theirs. But I was at least able to converse with them a bit in the notable absence of English. We were all at ease.

I was greeted warmly, sometimes quizzically, when asking for directions to the bank ATMs, and then to the only money transfer place still open. Both times I asked, the guys walked with me to the place, just so that we could chat.

The entire experience of Tanzania was without incident and salama sana (very peaceful). I saw no one begging and no one asked me for a thing. Only a Maasai mama selling jewellery at the Namanga border post wouldn’t let me go.

There’s a lot going on in Tanzania that’s promising and the country is recovering from its socialist slump. The roads are good and Dar es Salaam is obviously growing rapidly. Arusha is also the permanent headquarters of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.

There were no images of African disease and famine to take home, and despite the simplicity of many Tanzanians’ lives, the people I spoke to were happy. And even if Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa (African socialism) wasn’t the greatest economic success, that he produced a tribeless society is remarkable. Tanzanians no longer learn a mother-tongue language first. Swahili is their common language, giving them a singular identity. And what I experienced during this visit – and the two before it – was a joyous people, a people at peace with themselves. It’s not like that in Kenya at all.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly.

Making ends meet in Umoja

Salma is tired of running her mitumba (pre-owned) clothing stall in Umoja, Nairobi. She says business isn’t what it used to be and she spends too much time chasing the credit deals she has with her regular clients. They love the clothes, she says, but they never want to pay.

And when it rains, she has to go to the clients, through the endless traffic jam, rather than wait for them because they are reluctant to venture into the mud and sludge of the rickety market where her jua kali (informal) stall stands. And it’s been raining a lot again.

Salma’s clothes come from the huge bales offloaded at Mombasa, dispatched by Oxfam and similar charities around the world. The bales are transported from Mombasa and emptied by the mamas at the Kikomba market, near town, where Salma is a regular.

At Kikomba, most of the clothes are sold for a hundred shillings (R10) or slightly more. But then there are the numbers that the mamas know will sell at five times the 1 000 shillings that Salma’s willing to pay. These are mostly from design-house job lots. Burberry, Guess and Next are common, and lots of Italian names she doesn’t even know. Among the shoes, she sometimes finds Prada. In Nairobi, Salma is one of few sources for prêt-à-porter clothes from Paris! Her clients know it. And her clients will pay. In time.

In the afternoons, Salma usually leaves her stall in the care of three unemployed youngsters whom she pays 100 bob each (R10) for the shift. They tolerate the afternoon teens who come to the stall, try everything on, but never buy a thing.

But Salma will be back in Umoja in time to meet her regular clients as they come past in the evening. She knows her clients well, and knows who to call when she’s found what. And she’s usually right. But once she’s agreed on a bargain price with a client, she’ll often be told, “Sina pesa saa hii!” (I don’t have money now!). And this usually happens after Salma has packed the garment. So she gets tied into another credit deal that runs for a month at least. Salma says that business isn’t what it used to be.

Maisha ni ngumu!” (Life is hard!) she exclaims. “I work for my small money.”

Salma at her stall in Umoja. (Brian Rath)
Clothes for sale at an informal market in Nairobi. (Flickr/computerwhiz417)

Her stall opens at 7am. It stays open till 7pm. After packing up and paying the guy to take her stock to the store, she’ll go shopping for fresh vegetables and groceries, and get home by 8pm. She’ll cook and eat, and by 9.30pm will have fallen asleep in front of the TV. She’ll maybe wake around 2am and drag herself off to bed. And she’ll be up before 5am again.

She says she can’t carry on doing this for little return. Business is not what it used to be.

Ultimately, Salma wants to settle near the sea and she wants to learn to swim. She loves the beach and she swears she would quickly lose the extra 10kg just because of the ‘coasto’ lifestyle.

She’s Muslim, so she’s salama (at peace) among the Swahilis at the coast and she’s thought of opening a mitumba stall in Mombasa, where there are few stalls. But her ideal business would be to sell African print-couture in the upmarket coastal town of Malindi. If she could get enough money for Malindi, she would concentrate on her own designs.

She knows she could do well because every time she gets the cash to buy fabrics, and the time to guide the sewing fundi in making up the dresses, she sells them within a day, before her bigger clients have even seen them. She could make her eclectic African necklaces in Malindi too, but she just doesn’t have the time in Nairobi.

Salma has a sister living in the States, another in South Africa, and both are doing well. But her dad is old and he wants her nearby, so Salma is struggling in Kenya. Still, she enjoys her life. When the clients have paid, usually in the first week of the new month, she goes out to have fun with her late-twenties and 30-something friends. They’re a mixed bunch, Muslims and Christians alike, a few with kids but most not. One or two of them are married. They usually go clubbing and might dance to house or R&B at some place in the hip suburb of Westlands. Salma prefers drinking spirits to beer –  Napoleon brandy and Sprite.

Even if Salma drinks and doesn’t ever wear the austere black abaya (popularly, the ‘bui bui’) or veil when out, she’s an otherwise devoted Muslim: She’s up every morning before five in her ‘bui-bui’ and a thick red scarf that she wraps around her head in the style of a Tuareg nomad. She puts her red Maasai blanket on the floor as her prayer mat and she reads passages from Qur’an for an hour, daily before daybreak.

Salma tells me that during the holy month of Ramadan, she was at the head-grinding blender from 4am so she could make her fresh vegetable ‘smoothie’ and eat a chapatti before the sun was out. She cooks many dishes but admits that she lacks the patience to make good chapattis. And she laughs a bit when relating how the noise of the blender drove her neighbours nuts before sunrise. It was only the Somali sisters in the flat upstairs who understood.

On the advent of Eid ul Adha in October last year, she cooked the customary pilau rice and goat meat as a special treat for a few invited friends. It was an honour to be invited but I could see she had battled to provide. With no alcohol present, she bought Coke and Sprite, warm, from the shop across the dusty road. But afterwards, tired and stressed, she admitted that “a Guinness would be great”.

Salma is tired of running her mitumba stall in Umoja, just outside Nairobi.  “It’s time to leave this place,” she says. Business is not what it used to be.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly.