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I am in the middle of the backseat of a taxi with one camera and a pillow on my lap when I see my first matatu. It’s a fuchsia pink mini-bus and there’s a giant picture of Mariah Carey above the taillights. It’s thumping loud music and there appears to be some kind of strobe light. A man is hanging outside the door—he periodically jumps off the still-moving vehicle, thrusting out a hand to those trying to leap on board, then shoving them safely down the aisle. He thumps the side of the bus and the driver takes off.
In the next seven days, under the gray, muggy skies of a Kenyan winter, we stand in the dust clouds and wait on matatus. Most have a name. We see Fabregas, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Jordin Sparks, Sir Alex, Messi, and Luke’s favorite: WESYDE written in huge letters across the front, AM THE FATHER OF THIS GANGSTA SH** written in huge letters across the back.
Some take on a collage format—pictures of various things slopped haphazardly across the back. We see Jesus alongside 50 cent. Wayne Rooney is inexplicably pasted over an American flag. The matatu emblazoned “Pirates of the Caribbean” has a plastic skull and crossbones attached to the front grill. We stand watching with wonder and appreciation until we see a number 32 or 41 and then we make a run for it.
Once we are tightly packed inside, we pass our fifteen shillings forward and stare out the window as our insides vibrate to sounds of Rihanna. We are being dropped in Mathare Valley, the oldest slum in Africa. It’s similar to Brazil’s favelas and Argentina’s villas but more poor; fewer people are able to jimmy-rig electricity and the only place you can get water is at the top of the slum, at a faucet next to the soccer field. Women line-up in the mud to wash clothes, babies, and fruit, and then they fill jugs to haul down to their homes on the other side of the slum.
We’re coming for the Saturday football. Our friends are George, Tito, Bonfas and Keffa. They grew up here as a pack of tight friends and are now in various stages of making their way out. Ryan’s best friend spent a year here on a Fulbright and when we saw his photograph of Keffa taking a penalty kick, hundreds of people lined up watching, we came to find it.
It’s tournament style—everyone puts in twenty shillings and you play, the winner taking home the loser’s shillings. It’s only about 35 cents a person but it makes it so that you are playing for something instead of nothing. Many of the men make chang’aa, a homemade alcohol brewed in the slum, earning them about six dollars a day—so if they can win the tournament, they’ll stand to make up what they lost by playing instead of brewing.
“Brewing isn’t work you do because you want to,” James, a brewer, says in Sheng as we interview him at the base of the river. We’d thought we’d be able to communicate in Africa, but you learn quickly that English-as-an-official-language doesn’t mean it’s the language people actually speak. Sheng is a mixture of English, Swahili and tribal languages, more than a dozen different tribes living in Mathare. Bonfas translates as he stands with us at the base of the river, our faces warm from the fire-pits heating barrels of alcohol.
“I do it because it’s the only thing I can do to make money for my wife and son.” James is a water-hauler—filling buckets from the faucet at the top of the slum and then hauling them through the narrow garbage-paved alleys back down to the riverbank. He wears Copa replicas, the sides blown out, his feet coming off the soles, the cleats digging into the mud and sewage water as he hikes all day back and forth. “Most people drink a little to get some steam, it’s the only way you can do it,” he says. “But Saturdays is the chance to show people I’m not just another drunkard…I am proud because I can play football.”
The Saturday we are there his team is all brewers—they play hard and well and every game is close. The sideline is full—women with babies propped on hips, kids in a variety of Salvation Army cast-outs, and men in ball caps all stopping to watch. When the brewers score, everyone roars, men and children darting out onto the clay field. James is the one who stands out—his short dreadlocks flying as he races forward.
His sister Vinique plays with another group of guys. She stands with them, her hands in the pockets of her black warm-up jacket, talking with them as though it’s nothing that she’s surrounded by men…though she does admit, “ Sometimes, later on, guys will come up to me while I’m working or just out walking and say, ‘I saw you! You were that girl playing football! Let me shake your hand.’ They want to buy me a soda just because I can play. It’s embarrassing…” When she’s not playing football, she braids hair in her sister’s beauty shop. There are four sisters in their family and when the violence broke out after the elections, they stayed in a displacement camp outside the police station for three weeks. “Too many people knew how many girls were in our family,” she says, playing with her braids.
Kenyans never thought it would happen in their country and Mathare Valley never thought it would happen to their slum—not when members of different tribes have lived next to each other in corrugated-tin homes for the past forty years. But when President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was announced the winner of the election despite strong evidence to suggest that Mr. Odinga, a Luo, should’ve won, riots broke out all over Kenya. Vinique’s Luo neighbors stormed their Kikuyu home and told them they’d betrayed them. This happened in slums across Kenya, neighbors turning on neighbors, dragging members of certain tribes from their houses and clubbing them to death. Riots between Luo gangs and Kikuyu gangs raged in the street and over a hundred homes were burned in Mathare.
But now Kenya is once again calm. In Mathare, Kikuyus and Luos play with and against each other on Austin’s field at the base of the slum, the same field where many of them voted just six months ago, standing with hope in long-lines in the dirt—the election having prompted the largest turn-out in the nation’s history.
The field has its own history—before it was a field, it was a string of tin homes later burned down to the ground in a land dispute. Then it became the dump, people hauling their garbage here from all over the slum. After that, they cleared it into a field. The goal posts kept disappearing—too tempting of building material—until they got permanent goal posts nobody could take. When we ask why it’s called Austin’s Field, George says, “Because he’s always there.”
Austin has long, thick dreadlocks he keeps packed beneath a beige knit cap. If you played football in Mathare and are under the age of 25, he’s the one who coached you. He’s the guy who made the field happen and he spends all day there, coaching one team and then the next. He coaches for free—he makes no money on football whatsoever—and he seems to us like the type of guy who should win one of those hero-of-the-universe awards. “I came to Mathare when I lost my family—I had nothing and no where else to go. Coaching was what kept me going.” We watch him coach fourteen-year-old girls—when he calls them together in the center of the field, they hang onto every word he says. Two of them wear the same beige knit cap he does.
On Monday, we decide that if we’re going to see any animals before we leave this continent, Kenya’s the place to do it. We call Ruben, the taxi driver in Mathare who picked us up from the airport, and see if he wants to take us to Nairobi National Park, the only national park in the world that’s inside city limits. You can see giraffes silhouetted with city skyscrapers. On the way out, we pick-up George. He grew up in Mathare and though he’s just moved outside of it, he’s not trying to move past it: he’s working toward a degree in social development and he spends most of his week back in the slums, trying to help kids give Mathare the same fight he did. “People think Mathare is all drunks and drug addicts,” George says. “But that’s not all of us.” If you type in Mathare Valley into google, the first site that comes up describes it as “a place of criminals, drug addicts, the unemployed and prostitutes.” But the people we meet are not criminals or drug addicts—they are guys who survived the slum and are now doing everything they can to make it a better place. As for the football, George plays several times a week. “It’s not easy to quit—the kids, they look up to us. We’re the guys who made it out, so when we come back, they want to see us play.”
Like us, George’s never seen animals outside of the zoo. The six of us cram into Ruben’s car and go. When we pull up, there’s a smattering of people wearing khaki safari clothes and riding in Land Rovers equipped with tour guides. We wave to them from our station wagon. We buy tickets and a map and they send us off, bouncing down the dirt roads… city kids, off to see the lions.
No one mentioned any rules or guidelines, so when we see giraffes not fifteen minutes later, we get out of the car and go schmooze.
Luke and George on the field
Luke and George with the giraffes
Then we are off again, figuring if we can see giraffes within fifteen minutes, what more might be out there? We immediately take a wrong turn and spend two hours driving down a road that isn’t on the map. When we link up with a real road, we intersect a herd of zebras. We head towards Hippos Pond and see a crocodile but no hippos. At Lions Den, we see more zebras but no lions. We do, however, drive by a big, friendly-looking baboon. He is sitting there, with the valley spread out beneath him, and because we can’t find any of the foreboding animals we are looking for, we decide he can be our photo op. He is a good model for the first few minutes, staring straight ahead and giving us a full-face shot. “When he started to move closer, I was thinking, oh yeah, he keeps coming more and more into my frame…this is going to be a great picture,” Luke said. “Until I realized he was coming right at me.”
The baboon picked up pace and darted through all of us, catapulting himself onto the roof of our taxi. We, of course, had left all of our doors open for the impromptu photo shoot. George sprints towards the car and slams one of them shut in an effort to scare him. Instead, the baboon is angered, rearing up on his legs and letting out a roar…we scatter in all directions, waving our hands over our heads and yelling, half joking, half scared. That’s when we notice the sign “Beware of baboons.”
The baboon calmly climbs into the car. He finds my purse in the passenger seat and fingers through it as though he’s handled purses all of his life. When he doesn’t find any food, he climbs into the backseat and gives Rebekah’s purse a go. He finds a piece of cake—the only piece of food we city kids brought for our safari. He unwraps it, eats it, and climbs back into the car for further investigation. He is so human-like, Ruben is afraid he might actually drive off with the car. This taxi is his livelihood—his father sold his store for it. When the baboon finds and eats a discarded banana peel and then waddles slowly back into the great beyond, we laugh with relief and drive off, station wagon still in tact.
Back at Tito’s apartment, we haul buckets of water up eight flights of stairs, use a coffee mug to dump it on our heads, and then climb beneath our mosquito nets into our side-by-side beds. Mosquito nets are a blessing, an incredible blessing, and we know this from our sleepless nights in Egypt, where through a friend of a friend of a friend, we ended up in an abandoned apartment in a hundred degree weather without a fan. So you had to keep your windows open in order not to die, but the mosquitoes eventually had us sleeping in full sweats, hoodies scrunched up around our faces so that only our eyelids were eatable.
Back in Nairobi, we are sound asleep when there is sudden disturbance. The first “Ryan” shout I am able to ignore because I am enjoying a night without mosquitoes biting my face but the second “Ryan” has the distinct tone of alarm, what I’d imagine someone to sound like if waking up to an earthquake.
“The bunk bed is collapsing! The bunk bed is collapsing!” Rebekah screams from her sleep, digging her feet into the mattress of the bed above her, holding Ryan up with her legs.
When Ryan doesn’t respond, she yells it once more, this time less convinced, “The bed is collapsing?”
“Ferg, Ferg, it’s not,” Ryan mumbles with his eyes still closed, even though his mattress is at an angle, like those convertible hospital beds, this one powered by Rebekah. “Down, put me down.”
Frequently bedmates, they accuse each other of various things—Ferg tells Ryan he sleep talks, Ryan tells Ferg she touched his face, we add the alleged fall of the bunk bed to the list and catch a cab to the airport, next stop South Africa.