A creative nonfiction.
You received their call roughly 18 hours earlier in which a man you’ll later come to know as Clifton begged you to hop into the nearest tuktuk and rush over to Mombasa. You told him you didn’t know what a tuktuk was, and he advised you to use anything with wheels. He didn’t care whether you travelled in a supermarket trolley or a train; just haul your ass to Moi Avenue in Mombasa by 8am the following morning.
And so it’s 8am and you find yourself at Mariakani. The salty smell of Mombasa whiffs past your nose and bundled with it comes a flood of memories from the past two times you’ve been at the coast. The first time was two years ago when you came to visit your estranged dad who stays at Bamburi. He had taken you to Pirates’ Beach and Mamba Village. The later is renowned worldwide for the scientific study of crocodile sexuality. You promised yourself you’ll be back shortly for an opportunity to meet your hero, Jack Sparrow, at Pirates’ Beach and also to learn more about the sexuality of crocodiles at Mamba village.
Indeed, a year later, you were back again. This time round, it was to attend the funeral of a classmate’s dad in Kilifi. You loved how locals get drunk and urinate on stray dogs at funerals in this part of Kenya, but more so you fell in love with the vast green land and warmth of the region. “When I grow up I want to settle in Mavueni,” you had promised yourself. You were lucky to meet your dad for a few hours, but the following day you had to cut the trip short and rush back to school to take Eng. Waire’s CAT. The days when you were a student!
You were a bit disappointed that you didn’t get time to learn more about crocodile sexuality and chance an encounter with Jack Sparrow, so you promised yourself you’ll be back again.
Today is your visit to Mombasa. Your dad said he couldn’t accommodate you on short notice and so Clifton booked you a room at a hotel in Nyali. You secretly hope it is like one of those Dubai hotel rooms that you spy on socialites’ Instagram snaps. Throughout the journey you’ve been in constant communication with a mellifluously voiced girl whom Truecaller has identified as Marge, and she’s promised to take care of your every need once you set foot in Mombasa. Every need? Now that gets exciting. You smile to yourself as you recall how you’ve got some needs that really need to be taken care of.
You call Marge and she tells you that the workshop has been put off till noon, so she’s currently taking a nap. You could also use a long nap yourself, seeing that the overnight journey left you more tired than a Kenyan socialite in a Dubai hotel room. But first, you need to find somewhere to brush your teeth and take a bath.
Marge asks if you know your way around Mombasa and whether you can get yourself to the French Cultural Centre by noon. “I’ll be okay, I know this town like the back of my girl, err, hand.” Liar! Liar! Pants on fire! And that’s how you start rehearsing for the next season of Lost.
You pull out the torchlight that also functions as your phone and open Google Maps. Then you key in directions to the French Cultural Centre but the app instead redirects you to Alliance Francais. Some years back, you had spent an entire afternoon with a recorder practising how to pronounce ‘Alliance Francais’ so you could impress Prudentia. She later dumped you for being too nice.
Google Maps proves to be as useful as a dried up pen. You stare at the directions but you just can’t seem to wrap your head around them. It reminds you of those steam engine diagrams that Eng. Waire drew on the CAT paper and expected you decipher. The days when you were a student! You say screw Google Maps, and wish to throw your phone into the Indian Ocean more than anything.
As you weave in and out of alleys trying to discern which one of the shanties might be Alliance Francais, you come across a dingy building with a man preparing what must be authentic coastal cuisine in front of it. You wouldn’t step inside that cave even if they held a gun on your head. But then your stomach, heavy with hunger, rumbles out so loudly that everyone within a ten-metre radius stops and stares at you. The chef outside the cave-hotel hears the rumble too. “Karibu breakfast,” he says, revealing a set of teeth as brown as the mandazis he’s selling.
Trying hard not to appear disrespectful, and also eager to placate the tapeworms that live rent-free in your tummy, you step inside the cave-hotel and ask for breakfast. “Utakula nini?” the chef asks.
“How much is breakfast?” You enquire. You can’t order directly because you don’t really know the names of any of those coastal doohickeys in the display cupboard.
“Yategemea. Kunayo ya hamsini, mia, mia mbili… Chaguo lako…”
“Niletee ya hamsini,” you order the cheapest. Not because you’re cash-strapped, but because you want the least amount of food so you can get out of this scary cave as soon as possible.
And the room is indeed scary. On the roof, cobwebs have teamed up with soot to form intimidating threads that create the spookiest ceiling ever. Believe it or not, there is a toilet seat just below the table! It just lies there on the earthen floor, lonely and unconnected with any plumbing whatsoever. It looks a seat the builders rejected and threw away, only for the owner of the hotel to decide he could make good use for it as a food bowl for his cat.
You’ve heard stories of Mombasa cats before; how they are incarnates of jinis and how they sneak around tormenting people. Then you see an obese ebony cat staring at you menacingly from under the table. The cat is so ugly it could cause a new-born to jump out of its cradle and start running! Strangely, the feline somehow resembles Prudentia, the girl who dumped you for being too nice. Has she come to haunt you?
Breakfast is served. An ensemble of those ugly-looking doohickeys alongside a cup of brown dirty looking liquid that somehow reminds you of Satan’s urine. Yea, you actually know how Satan’s urine looks like, for you have been to hell and back.
You take a sip of the strange liquid with as much consternation as a girl whose boyfriend has just forced her to swallow. Then you take a bite at a something that looks like a potato, and immediately your taste-buds demand an apology. This tastes like something they only serve in Mombasa and the fifth and sixth chambers of hell. You want to spit it out, but the chef is staring at you with a broad smile thinking you’re immensely enjoying the coastal cuisine. So you force yourself to swallow while mumbling a little prayer. Even the faithless need a ritual when their alimentary canals are under siege.
Seeing you swallow, the chef gets really impressed. You can tell this by the way he’s now grinning from ear to ear like a Chesire cat, exposing his splendid brown teeth once more. Is he usually this happy, or does he have a strange fetish for watching people swallow?
As though to reward your efforts, he brings you another plate of some weirder looking doohickeys. Accompanying them is another brown liquid you’ll come to know as ukwaju. Today’s breakfast has sprung from Satan’s own cookbook; you know this for sure because you’ve actually been to hell and back.
With more trepidation, you decide to have a bite of these new grotesque doohickeys. After all you only die once, right? After one bite however, you realise you might as well have discovered the Holy Grail. The doohickeys, glazed with ukwaju, taste so good that you can hear your taste buds dancing lipala in celebration. How can stuff that looks like shit taste so good? You ask yourself. But then you think of your ex Prudentia, and the answer becomes apparent. She surely looked like shit but tasted like honey.
After finishing the sweet-tasting stuff and licking your hands clean (there’s no water in Mombasa), you pour Satan’s urine and the horrible-tasting stuff inside the toilet bowl below the table while the chef is busy with a customer. The cat, Prudentia’s incarnate, thanks you just before she jumps inside the bowl. Then as you hand a 50 bob note to the chef, he flashes you his dental contours and craters once again and you conclude that he is higher than the times tower. You’ve heard stories of how Mombasa residents love doing drugs.
Outside, you swallow your pride and ask a cobbler where Alliance Francais is. He stares at you as though you’ve just grown genitals on your forehead, and immediately you realise your mistake. You repeat your query and instead of pronouncing Alliance Francais the way Prudentia preferred it, you say it slowly and enunciate it as A-la-yans-Fra-n-kais. He still doesn’t know whatever you’re talking you’re talking about.
You go round and round in circles, always finding yourself at the giant elephant tusks. Then you swallow your pride once more and ask a pulchritudinous girl if she knows where A-la-yans-Fra-n-kais is located. She thinks you’re hitting on her, so she tells you to dive into the nearest pool.
And then you go round and round in circles again, always finding yourself at the giant elephant tusks. You whip out your torchlight and try Google Maps once more, but this time round it gives you a message, “Sorry, service not available in your country.”
“Kwani where I’m I now? Pluto?” you wonder.
It is at this point that you give up all hope and approach some weird-looking three-legged automobiles parked outside a building near the giant elephant tusks. You will also come to learn that these battered contraptions are the tuktuks that Clifton was referring to. “How much will you charge to A-la-yans-Fra-n-kais?” You ask one of the drivers.
“Yes, that one,” you reply.
“It’s the building right behind you!” He exclaims, with a tone that makes you think he’s just accomplished something extra-ordinary like splitting an atom.
You turn round and there in the hallway is a huge logo that screams Alliance Francais. You have never felt this foolish in your life. You pull out your flashlight once more and call Marge. “I’ve got some needs that need taking care of,” you say.
It’s going to be an interesting week in Mombasa.