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The true story of a man who took on the system

 

By Billy Kahora

 

"Mombasa is like a disco. If you can pay, you are in," says Peter Kariuki, David Munyakei’s best friend in the coastal city.

Early one morning in December 1993, 6.45, the day’s first Nairobi to Mombasa Coast Bus, white with green and yellow stripes, chugged into the Mwembe Tayari bus station.

 

The bus was running late, and the town was already awake, the morning bustle in full swing. Shouts of “Kumanina!” filtered through the bus windows from the crowded station.

 

Vendors were selling kaimatis, kashatas, kahawa tungu and coloured water in small sachets. Many passengers now opened their windows, which had remained shut for most of the journey to keep out the cold inland breezes around Mtito Andei and beyond.

 

But opening the windows did not help; the air was already muggy even at that hour. The effect was sauna-like and the passengers sweated freely. Having left Nairobi at 10 p.m the previous night, they began to feel the pressures of the capital city dissipate.

 

Cramps uncramped, uncertainty dissolved as the mixed board of old hands and newcomers to this ancient Port wearily stepped out, blinking in the sun’s glare.

 

      

David Munyakei (Courtesy: Madkenyanwoman)

 

 

For those not new to Mombasa the heat was a renewal. For the uninitiated, there was a strange sensation – it seemed that their sense of smell had suddenly disappeared. The humidity blocked the nostrils and sinuses and all senses became one in the warm embrace of the heavy air.

 

As the passengers disembarked, the turnboy laughed, ‘Hii ndio Mombasa. Karibu!’ Saying this as he removed his shirt to expose a bony chest.
‘Kumanina zenu,’ he shouted to no one in particular.


One of the travellers off the Coast Bus was a light-skinned young man of 25 - we’ll call him David for now, just as he was to tell all those he would meet during what became his Mombasa years.

 

Call me David. Actually he was more than light-skinned, he was of mixed race - in the casually derogatory Nairobi term, a Point Five or Pointy. In Nairobi, he was always visible, a curiosity; here, in the racial melting pot of Mombasa, his light skin immediately blended in.

 

When David stepped down from the bus onto the soil of Mombasa, he was making a step of faith. He was new to Mombasa and more than most, he must have felt relief at placing his feet on firm ground. He was running away from many things, not least the law, or some perversion of it, for, in the 1990s in Kenya, the law was the president and his cronies.

 

Anybody observing David then would have noted that he was dressed in too many layers of clothes. In hot and humid Mombasa, his overdressed state practically shouted that he wasn’t a native, in spite of his skin colour, which marked him as an Arab or a Mswahili or any of the light-skinned peoples that pepper the Kenyan coast.

 

Later, when he began to take on coastal ways, people would take him for an Mbarawa - a coastal community of Somali origin. But unlike any Coast native’s, David’s skin would soon break out into bright red splotches in the Mombasa sun.


Mombasa in early 1994 was in many ways a great place for a young man trying to make a fresh start. President Moi and the ruling party Kanu had been re-elected two years ago and there was a renewed sense of confidence in the rampant corruption going on everywhere in the country.

 

Like Nairobi, Mombasa was flush with cash from the recent elections - there were deals to be made everywhere. Moi’s ‘informal economy’, the mainstay of most ‘unemployed’ Kenyans, meant there was much more cash being exchanged in backstreet alleys and in between containers at the Port than in Mombasa’s formal economy.

 

Los Colmillos en Mombasa. 2004

The street of Mombasa

 

Unlike Nairobi, Mombasa was pleasing to a young man’s eye. It was relatively easy to survive, and for someone with David’s light skin acceptance was immediate. In Nairobi people, mistook him for a mzungu and thought him ripe for a con.


David wore both a jacket and a light sweater and carried a light bag, which contained one solitary pair of trousers and four shirts. It was not that he had left Nairobi in a hurry, having spent almost a year since the misfortunes that had finally caused his flight had befallen him. The light bag was a sign of hard times.

 

By the time he got to Mombasa, he was almost destitute. And the reason he had fled Nairobi was inside his sweater: a package of official bank documents that he kept touching as if to make sure they were still there. In his walk, as he made his way out of the bus station, there was the furtiveness of the fugitive- a hangover from Nairobi.

 

David would eventually convince himself that he had nothing to fear in this place, especially with his light skin – the reason that his friends had recommended he flee to Mombasa.

 

Now he headed towards the Standard Newspapers office on Nkrumah Road, which is on the way to Fort Jesus, next to the ABN Amro Bank.
In his pocket there was a crumpled piece of paper with a name and a phone number, given to him by a friend – a certain Waweru of Standard Newspapers Nairobi.

 

The name on the piece of paper was Mrs Hatim, the advertising manager at Standard Newspapers Mombasa.

 

She was expecting David.


When David was ushered into her office, Mrs Hatim did not ask him too many questions, even though she had learnt that David had worked for Central Bank and had been sacked.

 

He was looking to make a new start. Told to report for work the next day, he left thinking ‘sasa nikusurvive’ – a Nairobi thought if ever there was one, foreign to the laidback culture of Mombasa.

 

The sales representative job, whose grand-sounding official title was ‘advertising executive’ did not come with a salary. The title had been introduced to differentiate it from the newspaper distribution agents, who were called sales representatives.

 

David would earn a commission on what he sold. To be successful in sales, one needs contacts and a penchant for networking. Difficult even in Nairobi, sales can be a nightmare in smaller towns, and this makes the young salesman in a place like Mombasa prey to temptation.

 

For a young man who knew absolutely no one in Mombasa the new job was a test of what David was made of. He would earn 10 per cent of the value of the advertising space he sold.

 

Billy Kahora is a Kenyan journalist and and an assistant editor at Kwani - a literary magazine. He won the 2001 South African short story competition with his story Bookfan. He holds all copyright to this piece.

 

With thanks to Wambui Mwangi at the University of Toronto, Canada

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

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