We hardly noticed the boy we came to know as Brian as he hung towards the perimeter of the crowd which gathered to assist with our rucksacks and offer advice that first day. He wore the nondescript uniform of the poorest of the poor: grey shirt, grey trousers, bare head and feet.
Someone offered to arrange an excursion through the Omani ruins outside of town, while someone else tried to tempt us with a visit to the coral reef. Another man stepped forward, inviting us to stay at his hotel, half price out of season: bed, breakfast, flush toilets (which he promised would work), hot showers, a swimming pool, and views of the beach for the price of lunch at McDonald’s back home.
Feeling boxed-in and in danger of being escorted, tourist-like, from one place to the next, we gave our apologies and pushed on down the road, searching out our own accommodation for the night. As the rest of the crowd dispersed, Brian remained. We exchanged smiles as my mother and I continued down the street, past decaying concrete blocks of shops and houses and hotels, huddled beneath the turquoise minarets of the city’s mosques.
Carrying himself in the awkward manner of an adolescent whose body is larger than his self-confidence, Brian stooped six inches above my five-foot frame. His dark, aquiline features and the loose curls of his hair suggested an Arabic trader’s blood mixed into his ancestry. As we looked for a cheap hotel, he introduced himself, giving only his name. To most East Africans, an individual’s tribe conveys a sense of personal identity and it is common for people to tell you the name of their tribe when introducing themselves: “I am Luo,” or Kikuyu, or Mijikenda they say, just as westerners describe themselves as Englishmen, American, or French. But Brian gave us only his name.
Our independent search took us to an African hotel, less than half the cost of a McDonald’s meal. We had to share the stinking squatjohn and cold bucket showers with the resident cockroaches, but mosquito coils came included with the price of the room.
Like the waves which wash its sandy beaches, and the state of its boats, Malindi’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Arab traders began visiting the coast of East Africa in the seventh century and by the time Malindi was founded seven hundred years later, Swahili culture was thriving. By the fifteenth century, Malindi was an important centre of trade, and the city bustled with Arab, Indian, and Chinese merchant sailors. Then, in 1498, Vasco da Gama landed in East Africa, heralding the start of Portuguese domination which was to last for two hundred years. After sacking Mombasa, da Gama was welcomed by the king of Malindi who gained protection and prestige from his association with the new invaders. Within a few years, the Portuguese had conquered all of the main cities along the coast and set about seizing control of trade within the Indian Ocean. For a while, Malindi prospered along with its rulers. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, however, the Portuguese moved their headquarters south to Mombasa, taking with them the foreign trade which had allowed the city to flourish.
In 1652, after the people of Mombasa requested help to free themselves from Portuguese rule, a fleet of Omani ships laid siege to the Portuguese strongholds. Forty years of raids and reprisals ensued, but the Omanis finally succeeded in expelling the unwanted rulers, ending Portugal’s influence in East Africa and securing their own.
The decline of Malindi continued through the middle of the nineteenth century when it was found to be almost completely deserted. But the town’s fortunes were to change again in the following decades as the Omani Sultan, now resident in Zanzibar, resettled Malindi and imported slaves to work on plantations. This new prosperity, though, was to be short-lived. Within a few years, the Europeans were back in what became known as the scramble for Africa. In 1895, Kenya became a British protectorate and by the end of the century the slave trade, which had brought affluence to East Africa, was ended.
Two days after our arrival in Malindi, we gathered up our belongings and moved across the street to a hotel where the red floor polish rubbed off on our bare feet, but the ceiling fan kept the mosquitoes at bay and the cockroaches kept to themselves. For a few shillings more, we had moved from a no-star hotel to one with hot and cold running water, clean linen, our own porcelain squatjohn, and a quiet courtyard where the Asian residents chatted amiably throughout the cool hours of the evening. In Kenya, the gap between abject poverty and simple comfort is a narrow one, but though it was a gap we stepped across in either direction, as the whim took us, it was far too wide for most Kenyans to bridge.
At five o’clock in the morning, the muezzins’ call to prayer sang out from the loud speakers of nearby mosques. One plaintive voice was echoed by another, with a third joining in as the first faded away, encasing my dreams in a chorus of prayer.
Each time we left the hotel, Brian appeared at the gate as though he had been waiting for us, offering to take us to one tourist venue or another, this cafe or that park. Unlike guides with more experience, he never asked for payment for his services and each night when we offered a him a note or a few coins, he expressed muted surprise, accepting the money with solemn dignity.
One evening Brian escorted us to an Italian restaurant next to the sea. It was the one place in town where Europeans eventually took refuge from the African diet of ugali and goat meat stew. Polished waiters in crisp white shirts served lobster and imported wine to underdressed tourists who could never afford such extravagances back home. No ugali, no mbuzi, no chapati: not a single African dish was listed on the menu and the only clues that we were still in Africa were the geckos hanging from the ceiling and scurrying across the walls. As we ate our fill of fresh seafood pizza, and drank to excess cold bottles of Tusker beer, we were unaware that Brian waited patiently outside.
Brian was the first person we met in Kenya who spoke almost no English, and like myself, when faced with Swahili I didn’t understand, he smiled politely and nodded his head a lot. He made up for this with initiative, not just waiting around for work like many of the menfolk. As we sat on the steps of a bank one evening, I thumbed my phrase book to find the questions I needed to ask. He answered in English when he could, searching his memory for words he had once learned in school.
At fourteen, Brian was alone. “Dead,” he answered after a pause to recall the right word when I asked about his family. Ndugu, dada; brother, sister? He shook his head, allowing his vacant eyes to betray his smile. No aunt; no uncle; no cousin; no tribe. He shrugged his shoulders when I asked where he lived, where he slept at night, and pointed behind us to the doorway where we sat, and to another niche across the road. He smiled a smile of resignation and shook his head as if to say that his was the luck of the draw, and he accepted it without question or complaint.
Brian was not the first person to give us a glimpse of poverty in East Africa, nor anywhere the most desperate. We had met others who struggled to feed their children; who begged all day, every day on the streets of Nairobi; whose leprous faces and limbs had been eaten away. But something about Brian touched me then and stays with me still. For a short time, he was our friend and our companion.
On the morning we left Malindi, an old man slept naked on the pavement next to the bank where Brian and I had sat, a thin grey kanga almost covering his frail and ashen body. Brian walked with us to the station, a muddy lot where the buses met, heading north to Garsen and Lamu, west to Nairobi via Garissa, and south to Mombasa and the boarder with Tanzania.
There is a feeling of urgency which hangs over African bus stations as if people are not merely travelling, but taking flight. Stalks of bananas, six feet long, are hoisted onto the roofs of buses already laden with bundles of clothing, carpets, tyres and sheets of corrugated tin. Bus drivers and their touts shout their destinations, adding to the confusion and sense of imminent unrest.
Brian boarded the bus and sat with us as we watched the melee outside. He asked if we would ever come back to Malindi, though he must have known the truth. “My friends,” he said, as he took our hands. “Rafiki,” I repeated.
In Africa, we jumped back and forth across the gap of poverty without fear, knowing we could retreat at will to whatever European restaurant or tourist hotel was at hand. Unlike Brian and most of the people we were to meet, we chose our own circumstances, deciding to be rich or poor for the day as if deciding what T-shirt to wear. We were never forced to be afraid or hungry, or cold at night, but to Brian, the gap which we stepped over with ease was a chasm a mile wide.