Transvestite on the Town

Erica (aka Eric) is one of Nairobi’s very few transvestites, a “trannie”, “a woman born in a man’s body” – and the ultimate party animal. A nocturnal creature, she sleeps during the day and goes out at night. On any week night Erica will be club-hopping around the city, seeing most nights through to daybreak and beyond. She is something of an institution, much celebrated in Nairobi’s night-time scene and warmly greeted by ‘security’ everywhere.

Erica earns a little cash by doing women’s make-up for special events but she is otherwise supported by friends and admirers. Her dad has a little money and some property at the coast. She manages to survive in Nairobi. While we were out together the other night, a guy in a golf shirt and safari boots watched us as we talked. “She is quite beautiful,” he said to me when she left, in acknowledgement, not attraction. I agreed. She does her own make-up with taste and discretion. Her hair is shortish without any extensions, weaves or wigs. She doesn’t wear jewellery at all. Most often she’s out with a sling bag, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Until you see her made-up face, you’re seeing a man despite the slight swing of her hips when she walks. Her look is androgynous, seldom camp, and she rarely wears those long fake lashes with curls extending two inches out.


Under Kenyan law, homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in jail. It’s seldom enforced: Police would have to catch someone en flagrante to prosecute. But the threat is there, so gay status isn’t openly advertised. David Kuria, an openly gay political candidate, was forced to bow out of the senator race for Kiambu country last December due to a lack of funds and threatening SMSes. Despite this, “the narrative of Kenya being a homophobic society is taken out of context,” he told The Guardian. “I was getting invitations by many young families for their children’s birthday parties, or first masses for newly ordained priests in Kiambu. Far too many people would show up even when we only wanted to hold small meetings – that really does not look to me like a homophobic society.”

It may be different within Kenyan families. According to a 2011 survey by Kenya’s human rights commission, 18% of LGBT Kenyans revealed their sexual orientation to their parents. Of those who did, 89% were then disowned. Lindsay, who defines herself as transgender/transsexual, documents life as an LGBT in Kenya on her blog. “In general, if you are discovered to be transgender, the likelihood of you being stigmatised, harassed, discriminated against, beaten up, ridiculed, publicly undressed to see what you have between your legs and, worst of all, corrective raped is high,” she said in an interview with Global Voices.

In a country where an earring is still considered an overt sign of being gay, that Kenya’s new Chief Justice Willy Mutunga wears a sparkling stud is telling. He knows what some Kenyans and his critics think an earring means – and he doesn’t care. He continues to wear it, he says, to connect with his ancestors. Holding her own In the time we’ve spent together over the past four years, I have seen Erica face only two ‘incidents’ and the very occasional snide comment. It’s only when a guy at the next table gets drunk that I have heard strong verbal exchanges. Erica is then likely to shout the guy down with something remarkably accurate: “Does your wife know that you’re really attracted to men?” she might scream, in English or Swahili, so that everyone can hear. Erica hit on me once, a long time ago. “Forget about it sweetie, it’ll never happen,” I told her. And that was that. But when some Nairobi folk see Erica and me together, there are questions. Erica will usually have to explain that there’s nothing between us, there never has been, and we’re just friends. The quizzical looks turn to me then, to confirm, and I usually just shrug. It’s unusual here for a straight guy to have a gay friend, let alone a transgender friend, and I can only act as natural as I feel about it. Those who ask don’t understand it but they can live with it.

Until quite recently Erica hung out in the same spots where Nairobi gangsters and hoodlums do. She was forever being robbed of her phone or having her money ‘picked’, but she’s never been hurt. She is accorded respect simply for being who she is in this harsh city, and she handles herself with aplomb. Her lifestyle is changing slightly. She has found a new hangout spot, not downtown, but in a Nairobi suburb. It’s called The Solar Garden, presumably because it’s a place to go when the sun is out. Last weekend, I was out unusually late and joined Erica there. It’s a converted house, 1960s architecture, big and plain, with a huge slate patio and a wide lawn up front, replete with a large movie screen. A large group gathered at the bar inside while we sat outside. There was a celebrity congregation on the patio, mostly guys in dreadlocks, T-shirts, baseball caps and sneakers, with a Kenyan rap artist at the centre. They were slouching on the balcony railing, taking photographs. After a few hours of socialising, Erica hooked up with a guy. They got affectionate but no one took the slightest notice of their arms around each other.

Impressions of Kigali: this city works

The first and only time I had been in Kigali before was in 2009 and I saw only a little of it. I remember that I was unable to complete my tour of the holocaust memorial for the emotion that overtook me; successive rooms of shelves stacked with hacked and broken skulls, the skulls getting smaller as you progressed through the dark display. My tour didn’t last long and I left there quickly, only to be shown the bridge from which mothers were forced to throw their children into the river far below. The place left an impression on me.

This time it was different…

The last 50 kilometres of Ugandan road, to the border with Rwanda, is hardly a road at all. The potholes are huge and our vehicle jolts and shudders with the unremitting impact of those potholes we fail to avoid. My back starts to hurt and I’m very irritable by time we reach Katuna, a small border town on the verge of Rwanda.

It takes standing in a queue for half an hour to exit Uganda. Then, after a short walk to the Rwandan side, there’s no one at all to delay us. The stamp on my South African passport is simply routine and the customs declaration for our car is handled efficiently. Our journey continues. The machine gun-toting policeman checks our passports, swings the boom and politely ushers us into Rwanda. Immediately we change to drive on the right hand side.

Suddenly the road is impeccable, although it is still being cut out of the Virunga mountainside. It is wide, newly surfaced, perfectly cambered, and winds easily down into the nation’s capital, Kigali.

Two hours later, in Kigali, I am first struck by the fact that the city is spotless and inhabited only by well-dressed people going about their business. Shoppers are carrying big brown paper packets and I am told that no plastic packets are allowed. It’s midday and there’s no sign of a traffic jam anywhere. The dual-lane bypass sweeps through the city, out and on.

Unlike Kampala, where simply everywhere is a trading zone, Kigali is highly ordered, zoning regulations clearly in force. There’s no one selling cooked chicken pieces on dusty sidewalks. In fact, there are no dusty sidewalks; on the sides there’s paving, and at the centre of the dual carriageways are well trimmed lawns and palm trees.

While Kampala might have the highest per capita number of motorbike taxis in Africa, Kigali must come a close second. But again, Kigali is different. Whereas riding a motorbike taxi (‘boda-boda’) in the vehicular mayhem of Kampala poses threats to life and limb (especially without a helmet), Kigali riders are sedate, controlled, everyone wearing protective headgear, colour-coded according to the mobile service provider that sponsored it; green for MTN and blue for Tigo.

Both Kampala and Kigali are cities built on hills and both cities are widely spread out. Large sections of Kigali’s hilly suburban areas are beautiful, the older parts very reminiscent of the older parts of suburban Cape Town; narrow, meandering roads wind around the hills and you even find the occasional cobbled street.

During my week-long stay, the Rwandans I meet speak their own language (Kinyarwanda) and although almost everyone is fluent in French, the language is seldom used despite the fact that the locals I meet have names like Jean-Baptiste, Philippe and Patrice among them.

Kinyarwanda sounds a bit like a Bantu language mixed with Russian. It is not an easy language at all, but that the colloquial version is infused with variations on many Swahili words makes it a little easier for me to understand. Some of it I get, at least. And many Rwandans are fluent in Swahili too.

“English is problem,” I am repeatedly told.

On Saturday night I am taken out to see the Kigali night-life. It is sedate by comparison to Nairobi and Kampala too. People are well dressed and well behaved and I hear smatterings of French being spoken around me. People drink cognac and expensive whiskies more than beer. Around midnight the place starts to empty and by 1am we are heading home.

Patrice, my host, is a connoisseur of fine spirit liquors and we stop at Kigali’s only 24-hour liquor store. Instead of the cheap liquor one might expect to find in a store that services the needs of the all-night drinker, this one stocks mainly Hennessy, Johnny Walker Black Label, Chivas Regal and Jack Daniels.

“This place will finish me,” Patrice says as he hands over more than $100 for a bottle of Johnny Walker.

That there is a lot of money in Kigali is obvious from this store alone.

My visit coincides with Rwanda marking 20 years since the genocide that happened in the country.

‘Kwibuka’ is to remember. Remember, Unite, Renew. The Rwandese are not about to forget what happened in 1994. Everywhere around Kigali are large corporate banners with the logo and in the week that I’m there, spending time among Rwandans, I don’t hear the words ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ even once. The genocide is remembered but is obviously not up for discussion any longer.

I fly from Kigali International Airport on a RwandAir flight direct to Nairobi. My departure is handled efficiently and we take off only a few minutes late because passengers connecting from Burundi arrive late. The flight takes just over an hour as the pilot makes up for lost time. We land exactly at the expected time of arrival.

Things change immediately. At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport it takes nearly an hour to clear Immigration and get my luggage. Nairobi’s perfunctory traffic jam starts at the airport parking area where the pay station has no change. The boom rises as we are told to proceed to the next pay station, outside the parking area. Here the ticketing machine is not working and we have to wait for a half hour for the jam to build enough for a supervisor to let us all go, scot-free.

I am left with the impression that Africa can indeed work as the west might expect. From what I saw, Kigali has achieved it. For now, we’ll leave the contentious subject of there being a dictatorship in Rwanda, even if somewhat benevolent. We’ll leave the subject of restrictions on mobility imposed on the local population. We’ll leave the fact that you can’t ride a bicycle into the city, or be void of shoes when you walk there. And, we’ll leave the contention that Paul Kagame is “eating” as much as any other despot in Africa. So too will we leave the contention that Kigali is packed with Kagame’s spies, tracking down any likely suspect.

Africa can work, even if its operation is conditional and enforced.

Kenya's Self' Styled Prophet, Dr. David Owuor

His website’s name is Repent and Prepare the Way; his radio station is called Jesus is Lord Radio. He claims humanity is on the brink of the apocalypse and must be ready for the second coming of Jesus. He also claims to have the gift of prophesy and healing, and draws thousands to his “Revivals” and “Crusades” at the three main centres of Christianity in Kenya: Kisumu, at Lake Victoria; Nakuru, in the great Rift Valley, and the capital Nairobi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) and Raila Odinga (C), attend a prayer meeting on February 24 2013 led by David Owuor (R). (Pic: AFP)

His name is Dr David Owuor but he’s also called “The Luo Prophet”  by some (he’s from the Luo tribe in Kenya), the “Man of God” and “Prophet of Jehovah” by his followers, and a sham by others. Like many other celebrity pastors, he has flamboyant style – he  rides in a Benz and wears long-tailed white suits. Owuor is overtly critical of the Church, orthodox or otherwise, for its corruption and money-making concerns. In turn, religious leaders have raised questions about his “activities”, called for him to be investigated and dubbed him the “prophet of doom”.

Videos of him on YouTube include prophesies, made at distant locations about distant locations. He’s been hosted in Venezuela, South Korea, Oslo and Paris, among other places. In July 2009 he reportedly had a vision at OR Tambo International Airport of the Pale Horse coming to earth, thus breaking the Fourth Seal of the Apocalypse.

A year and a half later, on February 8 2011, as Egyptian demonstrators were crossing the bridge to Tahrir Square, something strange seemed to appear in the news footage of the day – a phantom horse.  Owuor saw it and hailed it as his prophecy fulfilled.

His other self-proclaimed successes include summoning rain on June 5 2005 in front of a stadium crowd (video here) and predicting, back in 2004, the full scale and extent of Kenya’s post-election violence that occurred three years later.

While I am not a practising Christian myself, I am wont to believe that prophesies can come true, that miracles do indeed happen. So I thought it might be interesting to interview the man and see what he had to say about prophesy, healing and celebrity.

I tried to reach him on the numbers listed on his website and filled out a few ‘contact us’ forms, but received no reply. I dialled a  number that a well-connected friend got for me. My calls were cut. Eventually I managed to get a separate email address for the ‘Repentance Office’ and sent my request there again.

The next day, I received this reply:
Blessings Brian,
The Man Of GOD The Mighty Prophet Of JEHOVAH has just returned from THE ITALY NATIONAL CONFERENCE, and HE has ACCEPTED to set time for your interview. However, please get in touch with the ARCHBISHOP Dr. PAUL ONJORO who schedules THE MAN OF GOD’S MEETINGS, that a date my be localized for you. This is very important because THE MAN OF GOD will soon go into a seclusion of prayers and Total Dry Fast for the upcoming HEALING SERVICE and as the guests pastors from abroad begin to arrive, HE will be really tied up timewise.
Pastor Muthoni
Repentance Office

Sent from my iPhone

I replied immediately via email, asking for the Archbishop’s contact details. No response. My repeated SMSs to the number I had already went unanswered. I gave up.

A few days later,  I received a call saying that I could indeed interview The Prophet in a few hours, just before he left Nairobi for his Nakuru ‘miracle healing crusade’ held on 9 – 12 August. As I got ready to meet him, I received a text message cancelling our appointment.

I ended up watching most of the first day of Owuor’s event on television. I saw people claiming to have been healed of various diseases, including HIV. A ‘medical expert’ was on hand to testify to the HIV cures. He was holding what I assume were medical records so it’s not clear whether these miracles happened at Nakuru or before. Another man claimed to be healed of his blindness. He reported seeing “a blue sky with bits of white” for the first time. A woman in a new and impeccable suit had already removed her tatty back harness by time she got onto the stage. She jumped and down in joy, saying that previously she couldn’t even sit. She sat now, beaming. There were others who gave testimony too during that first day and each of them were rewarded with a bottle of Fanta, handed out by The Prophet himself.

The three-day event made the headlines not only for this, but because two people died while waiting to be healed. Whatever the case, about this incident and other things, it’s clear that the good doctor and his people don’t want to answer any questions.

Witchcraft in Kenya

When I first arrived in Nairobi, I saw the signs but didn’t know what they meant. Once I started understanding Swahili, I learned that the profusion of ads, nailed to fences, stuck on poles and printed on A3 paper, were for mgangas (witchdoctors) offering assistance mainly in matters of business, money, love and infertility. In just about every suburb of Nairobi, you’ll find at least one ad, hand-painted, on a little plate, nailed high up on a pole. For an average of around 6000 shillings (R600) you can get to see one of these mgangas but it is advisable to avoid those who advertise on paper. They are reputed to be con artists.

There’s a distinct undertow of witchcraft to the interpretation of many unusual events in Kenya.Even Christians, confronted by some unexplained phenomenon, might exclaim “juju!” (black magic) in the middle of the conversation, and usually everyone will agree.

There are two main ‘currents’ of witchcraft practised in the country. The first, often termed kamuti (kah-moo-teh), is attributed to the Kamba people. It is Bantu witchcraft, similar to that known in South Africa and involves the use of charms, ‘muti’ and spells to achieve the client’s ends. This type of witchcraft is heavily traded in Kitui and Tala, both not far from Nairobi.

The second stream of witchcraft derives from the Mohammedan influences in East Africa – from the Arabs who landed here centuries ago – and involves the deployment of ‘genies’ (as in Aladdin) to achieve one’s ends. It is grounded in texts from the Qur’an and here, you ‘rent’ the services of a genie to fulfil your wishes for you. You can even buy a genie to work for you permanently and exclusively if you have a few hundred thousand shillings at hand. This type of witchcraft is heavily traded in Mombasa, at the coast, and is reportedly common among the Swahili people. It’s even more strongly associated with Zanzibar, and Dar es Salaam on the Tanzanian coast.

Recently, a friend of mine was involved in a minibus accident. She was the only one without a scratch. The makanga (conductor) with a bleeding face wanted know where she got her juju from because he needed some.

Another friend’s sister was victim of a grenade attack at a church in Mombasa. Shattered glass went everywhere but she, standing at the window, was not injured. She said that people were muttering things about the protection afforded by genies. Interestingly, she was at church but had recently converted to Islam, not that anyone knew. Not anyone visible, anyway.

From the Bantu-Kamba kind of witchcraft there’s a tale so oft-repeated it has reached the level of urban legend. It’s the story of an unfaithful wife and her temporary lover who become “stuck” after having sex, like what happens to dogs. Of course, medical science refutes the possibility of this occurring among humans. But it happens – a YouTube video says so.

The clip shows a rather large woman and a rather small guy lying on top of her, unable to do anything to release himself. The woman is covering her face from the peering crowd, and the guy looks terrified. They are eventually released from each other when the husband comes into the room and does something to free them. One can’t see what he does in the video but the stories I have heard mention the uncapping of a Bic-type pen or the flicking of a Bic-type lighter.

Stories of “Nairobi girls” using this kind of witchcraft to secure a man is also legend. This kamuti involves the insertion of herbs or crystals into the vagina to keep the man abnormally attracted and emotionally ‘stuck’. The man will also be unable to gain an erection with any other woman. These kinds of stories are discussed very matter-of-factly in Nairobi. It is known to be a part of the girls’ personal arsenal, and is reputed to be a common practice. Despite its widespread acceptance in Kenyan culture, witchcraft obviously has it detractors too. There have been horrific incidents of ‘witch’ lynchings – in 2009, five elderly men and women were burned alive by villagers in western Kenya who accused them of bewitching a young boy.  Last year, The Star newspaper reported that elders in the coastal Kilifi Country were fleeing their homes out of fear of being killed for practising witchcraft.  
    Speaking to other Kenyans, mainly from the coast, I have heard stories of genies and what they can get up to if their master is properly paid and clearly instructed on the client’s wishes. I met a guy called Gilbert who told me he was forced to have sex in his car with a work colleague who had a crush on him. His brand new car refused to start and wouldn’t move when he tried to push it. Once he had done the deed with her, it started on the first turn.
During the mayhem that followed Kenya’s disputed election results in 2007, shops were looted and burned. A Mombasa youth grabbed a TV from a shop and escaped with it on his head. When he got home, he was unable to get the TV off his head. He only managed to remove it when he went back to the shop to return it. The clip isn’t on YouTube but millions of Kenyans saw it on national TV.Skeptics will be wont to dismiss these juju stories as just that: stories. But before you do, let me add my own experience for light reflection: A few years ago, when I was researching witchcraft for a book I was writing, I was referred to an mganga based in Mombasa. He agreed to be interviewed on condition I undertook ‘rehma’ (spiritual cleansing) with him. I couldn’t resist.
  I met the mganga at the Nyali bridge, just outside Mombasa. He looked very ordinary, wearing a plain shirt, khaki pants and flip-flops. He took me to a small, corrugated shack in the village of Bamburi. A fire was lit, molasses tobacco smouldered near it and incense was stuck in a banana to attract the genies. Evidently, genies like sweet things.
The ritual involved handfuls of rice sprinkled over me amid chants of a Muslim prayer. A goat was forced to inhale my recollection of negative experiences over a small fire and I was washed down by a live and wetted chicken. Salve (mafuta) was spread on my breastbone and applied to my palate and I left with little packets of sticks and ointment that I was to apply every morning to ward off evil. It took about 20 minutes in all, and I paid the mganga 8 000 shillings (R800) for the privilege.    I didn’t feel any different afterwards, but the guy that had introduced me to the daktari (doctor) warned me that rehma would make me become “a magnet for women”. I laughed at the time and didn’t think any more of it.I don’t consider myself to have any special appeal to women but let’s just say that for the few weeks after my rehma, I had a torrid time of it all.

The Baragoi Massacre

On Sunday 11 November 2012, forty-two Kenyan police officers, including 12 members of the Samburu tribes’ “home guard”, were gunned down and killed by Turkana cattle rustlers –morans (warriors)- in Suguta Valley, situated in the Baragoi District of Samburu County.

The police contingent, numbering more than 100, was attempting to recover some 450 heads of cattle that had been stolen by the warriors 10 days prior. They were lured into a valley and died in a hail of automatic rifle fire from the ridge above.

One of the injured commented: “They were not so many, but the way they had organised themselves was like they had received information earlier. Most of my colleagues, including our commanders were shot. Some of them survived”. After the massacre, the Turkana morans recovered the dead policemen’s automatic arms, including “the big ones”.

Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere had the sense to admit that it was a strategic fail on the part of the police. “There was an ambush and even the best trained and armed officers anywhere in the world would find it difficult”. Among the Turkana, only four were injured but they went “in the bush to avoid arrest”.

It was described as the biggest ‘massacre’ in Kenya’s post-independence history.

John Munyes, a Turkana MP, denied it was a massacre. He gave the Turkana side of the story: they perceived the intrusion of the police as an act of aggression. And felt compelled to protect their women and children. It was simple self-defence in their opinion. Turkana leaders were later taken to court over their stance but it was later accepted and their cases were dropped. It’s a different world here.

In this part of Kenya, the pastoral lifestyle, in very arid regions, leads to constant conflict over grazing land. Hustling bits of cool moist grass is the way of life for herders on the Baragoi plain and elsewhere. It has been for centuries. But the way of life among morans is different. For centuries, their talk has turned to thievery. Cattle rustling is what morans often do; it’s one way that the tribe survives.

With this kind of age-old tradition, it’s likely that nothing will change anytime soon. These are people who have lived the same way for many centuries and for whom the regular laws of Kenya often don’t apply. They are wont to say they’re “going to Kenya” when they leave their tribal land.

With heavily armed morans, an encroaching force needs to know what it’s doing if it wants to get back what the warriors have taken such trouble to steal! In this case, the police were simply outwitted and outmanoeuvred. Maybe they’d have done better staying out of it all.  

I personally see no problem with the way of life, only with the choice of weaponry. The knives are still there but the spears and arrows are long gone, replaced by automatic weapons. In fact, the effect of this firepower in some pastoral communities has been such that few men are left. It’s the women who have become herders and they too have turned to the AK for their protection. 

The issue never once came up in news reports nor TV discussions about the massacre, but the important one for me is how the communities got so armed in the first place? Border security is a matter for the armed forces of Kenya, not for Kenya’s communities to enforce. For the rest, these are not war zones. These are Kenyans fighting Kenyans.

If only to protect the communities involved, disarmament  across the entire north and northeast of Kenya should be looked at. It is probably the most important way of reducing the much-hyped problem of ‘insecurity’ in Kenya. The devastation that comes with the AK47 is so much more than what the long range spears can do, or the damage from arrows off a bow. And the police should just stay out and get to controlling the borders of this country.     

Open Letter to Uhuru Kenyatta

(Written on the 11th, the day before his inauguration on 12 March 2013)

Dear Mr. President,

As an outsider, but a keen observer of your politics, I congratulate you on your win. I believe that you, along with the Hon. William Ruto, do indeed have what it takes to lead Kenya into much more prosperous and productive times. You are both young and educated, smart and articulate. You represent a new generation of Kenyan leadership.

That said, there are a few issue I would like to raise with you.

That you and William Ruto are facing charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is simply unfortunate. I don’t believe the charges are justified given that you were both lieutenants in a war commanded by generals. It was only international diplomacy, ‘protocol’ if you like, and undue influence in the halls of Kenyan justice, that kept the generals off the list of those who have gone to The Hague. Let the generals face the court too. And, when the time comes, if the ICC can’t take the generals to jail, they certainly can’t take you two, the lieutenants. So I wouldn’t worry too much.

And by way of an aside, I hope it was a lesson to Kenyans that the unfettered quest for power on the part of their political elite can easily make for civil war. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It mustn’t happen again. So, I’d implore you to leave your recently ‘reformed judiciary’ to do its work without fear, and unfettered by political influence. And if it so happens that the courts rule against you, Mr. President, as is likely to happen at some point, you’ll need to accept that and not go sneaking around so you can get your way.  

And while we’re talking of generals and lieutenants, courts and power, that you haven’t yet decried the actions of the outlawed Mungiki ‘sect’ worries me a bit. The recent threat made on the life of Chief Justice Willy Mutunga was particularly scary and showed, again, the extent to which Mungiki acts behind the scenes in promoting Kikuyu interests. In this case, it was your interests, particularly, that they served. It really doesn’t look good. And neither does what Bensouda calls “tireless attempts at contacting witnesses”.

Mungiki is perceived as a private Kikuyu army and you really need to distance yourself from this renegade gang of extortionists and thugs. You need to act firmly and decisively against them even if they are a Kikuyu ‘institution’ in Kenya. Again, let the justice system do its work.

Mr. President, this brings me to the point of your society being a deeply polarised one. There’s a split down the middle and it’s not about the diversity of Kenya and its 42 tribes or even about the Kikuyu people competing for power with the Luo. It’s really about the Kikuyu people versus the rest.
In the run-up to 4-3-13, I consistently heard “it’s 41 against 1”. Your victory has been universally seen in the country as a victory for the Kikuyu people but not a promising prospect for the people of Kenya as a whole. You can change this perception by your actions alone.

That the Kenyatta family has massive tracts of land in the country is universally known in Kenya. Much of this land was supposedly acquired by your dad, via means that would be termed ‘unconstitutional’ today. Given this, I’d suggest you submit the family’s acquisition of land (and, obviously, that of others too) to scrutiny by a credible land commission. This, so that adequate land restitution can be effected. But, even though the land might not really belong to your family, people say that you could never submit to a land commission. This, because a Kikuyu will never relinquish wealth. Is this true?

Of course, the few hundred thousand people who lost their land in the 2007/2008 post election violence –the so-called Internally Displaced People (IDP’s)- need to get land to live as well. It’s been over five years now and it’s time the IDP’s got somewhere to stay that isn’t a plastic tent.Few will argue with me when I say that these ‘historical injustices’ on the ‘land issue’ have to be addressed before your society can move on. It’s probably the biggest issue here in Kenya.

And, yes, offer your opposite number, Raila Odinga, a meaningful place in government; an ‘olive branch’, as it were. If you do, I personally think he should graciously decline because he’s too old. His voice is faltering and he’s been looking very tired for a while. Perhaps it’s time for him and all of his generation to retire from Kenyan politics.

Whatever his failings, the young Mike ‘Sonko’ is an inspiration to Kenya’s youth, jaunty hat, studs in his ears, and all. I live close to where he started and have seen some of what he’s done to help the people of his prior constituency. Let there be more like him, Senators and Governors, and less of the old guard that has only taken Kenya to ruin.   

And on the issue of Kenya’s ‘internal security’, I would be careful about acting too harshly against the Mombasa Republican Council and making them the primary target in the quest. Muslim culture and Christianity have co-existed peacefully in Kenya for a long time. In fact, I think that Kenya has been a wonderful example of religious tolerance so far. Don’t spoil that now and start a religious war in Kenya. There have been enough grenades thrown in churches and public places already. Instead, bring the MRC into the mainstream political arena. The Muslims at the coast also have some legitimate gripes, and they need to be heard without going to the lengths of seeking radical partition.

Lastly, and most importantly, while I don’t think that it’s essential that you prosecute the ‘big fish’ of ‘grand corruption’ in the past, you do need to make drastic changes to the culture of thievery and impunity that has so depressed your people. Again, let the justice system work freely, and unfettered by political influence. And reform your police force quickly. Equip it with vehicles, and a little petrol, at least.

That’s all I wanted to say, really. Thank you Mr. President. I wish you a term in which Kenya shall flourish. It’s within your power to make this happen. And Kenya is primed for it ...

May God bless Kenya.

Faithfully yours,

Brian Rath

ps please get a typist who doesn’t make multi-billion Shilling errors.

Eating Local in Nairobi

          Eating ‘local’ in Nairobi is a great experience for the more adventurous traveller. Or the very poor one. There's some good food on offer at every level. And I have eaten at every level of 'local' in Nairobi.
       If you have some money available and you enjoy meat - including goat and crocodile - catch a cab to the Carnivore, gorge yourself on their dinner and then party there afterwards. It's a legendary Nairobi thing to do.
      Of course, you can always go for pasta at Trattoria or a burger at Steers if you really have to. And then, of course, the kitchen at the Serena is always excellent. But prices are high by greater Nairobi standards. Sure, I liked Trattoria and it was a favourite of mine when I was sonko(a boss) and doing well in Nairobi.  Later, I only got to drink cappuccino there as a special treat!
      And, as a businessman, I did get to eat at the Serena a few times with the East African Association. This, also when I was sonko. The rest of the time, my varying fortunes took me to some great, less costly places.
      Probably the best 'bistro' type meal is at the Art Cafe at Westgate. Most dishes are excellent and the pastry chef is brilliant. Service is slow but a pleasure when you just want to hang out. It's worth the money.
     There are a number of places in Nairobi that serve very substantial portions of food at very good prices. The kitchens are clean and you won’t suffer any effects from eating at them. They will offer you a better experience than the restaurant at the hotel.


Somali and Ethiopian food is usually spicier than food from other of Kenya's border countries. Middle Eastern and Arabic influences are strongly in evidence.
     Get onto Kenyatta Avenue, heading downtown. As you get to the Stanley Hotel, on the corner of Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street, look left (with the Stanley on your right). You will see a few turrets of the rather beautiful Jamia Mosque, behind the imposing façade of the Macmillan Library facing you. To the right, behind the mosque, you'll find the Al Yusra restaurant, a Somali establishment that serves a wide variety of Somali dishes. If you don't find it, you can always ask one of the Somalis hanging out at the mosque.
     Habesha is Ethiopian. The town branch of Habesha is very close to the Uhuru Highway but doesn’t suffer from noise or exhaust pollution. It serves the 'national food' of Ethiopia, which can only mean one thing: injera.
     Injera is a traditional Ethiopian staple made from fermented sorghum and is served with small portions of Ethiopian specialities. It costs around Ksh800 for a plate that will usually feed two people well. Enjoy eating with your hands.
     There is another Habesha on Argwings Khodek Road (near Yaya Centre) if you have time to relax after eating. It's a cool place to have a few drinks after a meal. But Ul Yusra is special because it is so authentically Somali. Even if you can't drink there.


Swahili food comprised some of the best dishes I ate in Nairobi and, of course, Mombasa. Eating at “Coast Dishes”, located at 'Coast Bus', is a treat and a rare Nairobi experience. Alternatively “Malindi Dishes” is better, I think. But Erica disagrees.
      Both Coast and Malindi Dishes are as 'local' as can be – Swahili - but give one access to the 'real' Nairobi like few other places do.
     Both restaurants are strictly halal and serve Swahili dishes, mild yellow curries and tikka dishes. Food is served from clean kitchens. Plates piled high with pilau or pishori1 rice pass. They are topped with pieces of chicken or beef or goat or even vegan fare. The prices are very reasonable by Nairobi standards.
      To get there: If you are coming down Accra Road you will find Coast Dishes at the junction of River Road. Malindi Dishes is to your right, at the top of the first road on your right! Just ask. 
      I actually prefer Malindi Dishes for a few reasons: it is usually a little less cramped than Coast Dishes, there is music and there is a makeshift mosque out back. Malindi dishes also has a more decorative and pleasant eating environment. And the chapattis are flowing from the pan at the door.
       Around lunchtime, expect to share your table with people from anywhere. Choose from the menu or the buffet spread.
      Before eating you are brought a plastic basin over which you will wash as a waiter pours water steadily over your hands. Taarab music2 or perhaps more fundamentally Muslim sounds may be heard gently through the sound system. The place is full of Muslims in traditional dress and ordinary street wear. And at 1pm, many of them will rise from their tables to join the throng of worshippers for prayers.
      But, aside from Muslims, you will also find Christians and other members of Kenya’s populace in hungry attendance, all wanting a full meal for half the price of what they’re used to paying uptown. And the food is good.


Kenya has a plain eating tradition that is only spiced up by Hindu or Swahili culinary influences. The rest is pretty plain. But there are a few really tasty dishes.
      Starting ‘uptown’ once again, one can eat at BJ’s Kitchen that is located near View Park Towers and the Alliance Francais off Loita Street. The restaurant serves traditional Kenyan food and more regular dishes like hamburgers and steak. Their tilapia is quite good and also the kienyeji, ndengu and chapatti.
       Heading downtown, on Kenyatta Avenue, Simmers is on your right, after the big blue I&M building on your left. Simmers does an excellent 'local' lunch. You will pay a little more to eat at Simmers than you might at strictly ‘downtown’ restaurants but it is probably worth it. They have a wide range of Kenyan dishes and accompaniments on offer during lunchtime and most are very good.
       Now you have to head a little more downtown to experience real Kenyan food.
The Highland Restaurant on ‘African Corner’ - where you get matatus to Westlands at most times of night and day - is a firm favourite of Nairobians. To get there, ask directions to the Nairobi Fire Station, stay on the opposite side of the road and heading out of town you will see Highland (in green) as you get to the corner. Between you and the restaurant you will also see a small but very busy matatu ‘stage’ in the little side street. Be careful that you don’t get run over by one of them when you cross the road to reach Highland. Also, don’t ask any of the matatu touts where the Highland is, because they will just try rushing you to “Westlands”.
       Highland serves all the dishes listed below, mostly at very reasonable prices. It can, however, can get uncomfortably full in the evenings as Nairobians meet, and wait for Nairobi’s interminable traffic jam to ease. In the evening, ask for any of the dishes I describe later. They are all quite good. Portions are substantial.
        If you are partial to something akin to an ‘English breakfast’, Highland serves a fairly close facsimile. However, you are not likely to find such a breakfast at many other local restaurants in town. Bacon is costly in Nairobi and not something that Nairobians ordinarily eat. The mandazi at Highland are cooked on-premises and are often still warm till around 10am. Mandazi na chai is worth having as a mid-morning snack at 45 bob.
       If the Highland is full, you might want to try the Roast House. This place is across Tom Mboya Street (the road that the Fire Station is on), across the traffic roundabout where all the matatus are, and over the road (passing the beginning of River Road on your right). Look for the Roast House sign, located quite high up on the opposite building. Be warned that the matatus on the traffic roundabout often park extremely close to each other and it can be like mastering a maze to the other side. But, never mind, you’ll survive it.
       Roast House was a favourite of mine for breakfast and in the mornings. They have a chef in the midst of the patrons who cooks eggs, omelettes and the like in situ. If you choose, you can stand there and have your egg dish cooked exactly as you like it! This is often necessary in Nairobi. Eggs are not a big thing.
       The local fare – for lunch and dinner - at Roast House is also quite good and priced similarly to Highland.  But the special feature of Roast House (actually the butcher next door) is the samoosas that appear on a choma stand outside from about 2pm. The samoosas are very fresh every day, and you are unlikely to suffer Nairobi stomach from eating them. They are not spicy but can help yourself to the kachumbari that is available, for free, in a stainless steel container on the table. The kachumbari is hot and one of the best I ever tasted in Nairobi. You are just welcome to help yourself to it and can even sit at the little table while you eat a samoosa. Street eating, Nairobi style!
       It is interesting that you seldom see Nairobians eating on the street at all and even when eating a samoosa will be inclined to hold it with a serviette ('tissue') and almost shyly peck at it on the sidewalk.
       The Kipepeo (Butterfly) Hotel on River Road serves a great Swahili chai tea and not a bad English breakfast by Nairobi standards for around Ksh400.


Nairobians perhaps eat more kuku na 'chipo' (chicken and chips) than anything else during lunch hours and on any given day you will find the multitude of chicken places on Moi Avenue filled beyond capacity. Because there is a high turnover of chickens, the birds are always fresh. But you may find that the chicken lacks much flavour. It might have something to do with what and how they are fed. I don’t know, but the chicken is healthy enough even if a little oily from being deep fried after roasting. I never suffered any stomach problems from Nairobi take-away chicken.
       There is a ‘chain’ of chicken outlets that is particularly good and renowned for their chips (or chipo as they are called in Sheng). These places have a blue sign outside advertising Fish and Chips but I have never seen a single fish at any of the branches. They go by the name of ‘Sonford’ on Moi Avenue, ‘Altona’ opposite the Hilton, or 'Nevada' on Tom Mboya. For kuku, chipo and a soda you will generally pay around Ksh200.  Sit with the Kenyans and rip a chicken to shreds.
       After Sonford, my favourite chicken outlet was the Red Robin, also on Moi Avenue but opposite the park, heading towards the verdant side of town (you’ll notice the difference between one side and the other immediately). Find Sonford, behind Nation Media House. Red Robin is on the same side as Sonford, but a little way out.
       There's another Red Robin towards the area called Bus Station but you're not likely to go that end of town. Don't get confused. Dot and I each erupted in our own particular way, thinking each was at the other branch.

       “I'm outside! Where are you?” she screamed.
       “I'm outside! Where are you?” I screamed louder.

We repeated this three times and needless to say, we didn't go home together that night.
       She's conning me I thought. She's probably with another guy.
       The particular delight of both branches of Red Robin is the really good chilli sauce they offer with their chicken. The sauce is kept in a little bucket next to the chicken counter and you are welcome to help yourself. The idea is to pour the chilli sauce over your chicken and then wrap the chicken up in the plastic sheet it is served on. Shake the chicken around a bit inside and then go eat at one of the counters. Somehow, the chilli gets quickly infused into the chicken and it is really delicious. Most chilli sauce in Nairobi is highly synthetic but not so at Red Robin where, I would venture, it's made by a Swahili.


Now, there is a Luo restaurant on Sheik Karume Road whose name I can’t remember. Heading down Accra Road and coming to River Road, take a right. Sheik Karume Road is on your right. Go up, and somewhere on your left, perhaps halfway up, is a restaurant with stairs leading up. It's the only restaurant on the left side, so you shouldn't have too much trouble finding it. The place serves really good tilapia, spinach and ugali for around Ksh180 and it's a treat!


At night, there are usually numerous choma stands to be found around town and feel free to eat any of the snacks from these. Note, however, that Kenyan beef is often quite tough, from the long distances the Maasai herders take them to find grazing. But if you are resident in an apartment and choose to cook, the meat found at the supermarkets, while expensive, is probably more what you are used to in terms of tenderness and texture.
       Often it’s fine to eat kebabs and sausages from the choma stands but I cannot vouch for the quality of meat in the samoosas, other than at Roast House. I once ate a samoosa from a sidewalk choma stand and suffered so much I could not leave the house for two days! The samoosas at clubs might all be in the same order, so be careful.
       They are not always easy to find, but during the day and early evening you will often find ‘trailers’ downtown that carry fresh whole fruits that will be cut up, almost to order, for you to enjoy a fruit salad on the sidewalk. On Duruma Road (one street below River Road) there is usually a trailer or two round lunchtime and they sell fresh cut fruit salad for around Ksh60, served in a clean plastic bowl with spoon. Just walk a bit on Duruma Road between 12pm and 1pm and you will usually find one. 
      Finally, if you are spending a late night at Madhouse, you can enjoy an ‘omelette’ Nairobi style and tea or coffee on the sidewalk for 60 bob. Ask for dhania (coriander leaves) to go with your omelet and pili-pili if they have it. When they cook the omelette with bread together, or pamoja, it is particularly good. Their tea is better than their coffee. 
This reminds me: if you like to eat fried eggs in the morning, they will be available at diners and restaurants, but you will have to specify how you want them cooked. Most often you will get a rough omelette or an egg that looks like it was boiled before it was fried. And the colour of the yolk is often not much different from the white; to do with the what they're fed, evidently. Ova probably don't thrive on left-over maize meal.
But Kenya is not big on fried eggs. It's often best just to ask for the egg to be cooked pamoja (together) with mandazi. This way of cooking eggs is usually understood and is essentially French toast, Kenya style. You can say,

Pika mayai na mandazi pamoja”.


Glossary of Kenyan Foods and Dishes

I suppose it would be customary to give the English term first, followed by the Swahili but because some of the dishes and side orders need just a little explanation, I have given the Swahili terms first. I suppose, if you are looking at a menu, in most instances you will get an English version anyway, but if you are ordering from more ‘local’ restaurant, the dish will probably appear in vernacular only.

Main dishes

Githeri Main dish made with beans and maize (corn)
Maharagwe Main dish made from beans
Matoke Main dish made from stewed green bananas and potato
Ndengu Main dish made from green lentils
Pilau Main dish of pilau rice usually mixed with a small portion of meat

Snacks and accompaniments

Chapatti Indian fried flat ‘bread’
Mshikaki A kebab
Samoosa Indian meat-filled pastry snack
Smokie Brand name for small smoked sausages, often sold on the street


Mchele Plain rice
Pilau Dish made from pishori rice
Pishori Basmati rice

Cooking styles

Choma Flame grilled
Fry Used instead of the term ‘fried’
Boil Used instead of the term ‘boiled’

Meats & fish

Kuku Chicken
Ngombe Beef
Matumbo Stomach (entrails) of a cow
Mbuzi Goat

Tilapia Fresh water fish from Lake Victoria
Perch Fresh water fish from Lake Victoria
Red snapper Salt water fish from Mombasa

Side Orders

Kienyeji Side order made from mashed peas and corn
Sukuma Leaf of a wild plant, chopped and served like spinach
Ugali Maize meal (the staple that accompanies most meals in Africa)
Mboga (vegetable) Usually refers to cabbage, sukuma or spinach
Pili-pili Chilli peppers
Mchuzi/soupo Sauce
Kachumbari Finely chopped tomato and onion, sometimes with chilli

Beverages & Basics

Chai Tea
Kahawa Coffee
Maji Water
Maziwa Milk
Sukari Sugar
Chumvi Salt
Masala Indian spices (in Tea or with chips)


Kitunguu Onion
Nyanya Tomato
Kiazi/Waluu Potato
Mchicha Spinach

At Breakfast

Mayai Egg
Mkate Bread (sometimes also called 'toast')
Mandazi Fried bread snack eaten at breakfast or as a snack
Mahamri A Swahili mandazi (usually slightly spicy)
Uji Thin porridge made from sorghum, served with lemon juice

Crockery & cutlery

Kikombe Cup
Kioo Glass
Kisu Knife
Uma Fork
Sahani Plate
Kisahani Saucer
Sufuria Saucepan

Jiko Usually refers to coal- or wood-burning stove
Meko Usually refers to a gas stove

Comments, Compliments & Commands

Ni tamu Is ‘sweet’/tasty
Ni tosha Is sufficient
Nime shiba I am satisfied / have had enough

Patie … Give me … (Considered impolite in Mombasa)
Leta3 Bring …

Pika Cook
Tupike We cook
Kula Eat
Chakula Food


1. Basmati.
2. The music of ‘Coast’.
3. Tafadhali means ‘please’ but is seldom used, perhaps because it has three syllables! In Nairobi it’s usually used in the sense of “PuhLeeeeze, I ask you!”