December 26, 2012

The Wonders of Nakumatt (And other observations from Nyali Beach, Mombasa)

Every so often Azanian Sea is pleased to feature travel writing or guest pieces by talented writers from around the blogosphere. This post features reflections from first time traveler to Kenya, Cassandra Harlan. A native Chicagoan from the west side, Cassandra Harlan is a library science student by day and a creative writer by night. She has written several journalism articles for Chi-Town Daily News; interned at Chicago Magazine; and published a short story entitled,  "Noose Nation" in Altar Magazine.  Cassandra loves browsing articles on the web, yelling at political programs during election season, and reading up to five books at once. You can reach Cassandra at

I planned on writing a flowery, beautiful prose about my wonderful time in the Nyali suburb of Mombasa, Kenya. The people are pretty! The landscape is lush!! The beaches are breathtaking!!! Nyali is complex. For each object of pure beauty, grotesqueness lies underneath.

Plants, trees and flowers are everywhere in Nyali. The plants and trees cover every bit of land not occupied by buildings or the roads, and are decorated with bursts of radiant yellows, vibrant reds and
rich purples. The vegetation draws me in, but the wildlife leaves me staring. Vervent monkeys, with their furry grey arms and brown backs, swing from palm groves swaying in the breeze. Yellow and green streaked geekos appear out of nowhere, scurrying across the off white walls. The lone, aloof bee, I spot, the size of a slender pinky finger, keeps its distance. Mosquitoes, stealth and sure, announce
their presence at dusk, leaving red bumps up and down my arms and calves. Flies desire my complete attention, constantly flying in my face, resting on my forehead or occasionally congregating at the top
of my beehive up-do. The richness of the land and its animal inhabitants are intoxicating.

My first day, exploring the area  is my sole priority. Only one problem: Nyali is hot! A thousand suns, burning in bundles of bushels, roasting in the pits of hell,hot. It's so hot that the back of my knees are sweating. It's so hot that my kinky hair has curled, then uncurled, on it's own. The heat consumes me and clouds my judgment. Looking down a path, I guess, aha, this will take me only 5 minutes to travel, 10 at the most. Instead, the sun makes a fool outta me and a stroll down Malindi Road, becomes a half hour mission to stay alive.

The locals are unbelievably friendly, to the point of absurdity. At the Nakumatt Mall, a.k.a. the City Mall, a gentle man, with wire framed glasses and decaying teeth decorated with indiscriminate brown spots, stood in front of me at the checkout counter. His cart overflowed with about 40 bags of milk,  20 cans of vegetables,  10 boxes of assorted sweets and one ham. Inside the mall, the largest elements of modern civilization exists: grocery stores, cafes,  the Apple store. But most importantly, it's a consistent source of air-conditioning. A cool oasis in a pit of fiery heat.

This gentle man offers me his spot in line. With my six boxes of ramen noodles, bag of shortbread cookies and mini Pringles Sour Cream and Onion potato chips, obviously, I am not attending any elaborate feast similar to the one he has planned for the holiday.

I decline and answer, "Go ahead. I'm in no rush." For once in my life, this is true.  No balls of anxiety congregating at the bottom of my throat, no pangs of stress cruising down my back, nor nervous energy
dancing to a Kupuka beat in the depths of my belly.  Instead, I lounge around the backpackers resort,  carefully deciding whether or not it's too hot to take a shower and around mid- day, walk out the door.  My days are misshapen and random. I go where I feel the need to be.

The gentle man continues piling his groceries on the conveyer belt. After five minutes of lifting, piling, lifting, piling, lifting, piling, he approaches the cash register. He pulls out one big chunk of shillings, three groups of bills separated by green rubber bands.  One wad of bills are for groceries. Perhaps the other one is for gas, one to purchase Tuskers for friends tonight. He pauses, deciding which group of shillings were designated groceries.  After the gentle man pays, I place my groceries on the conveyor belt, waiting for it to turn on and move toward the cashier. When it doesn't happen,  the cashier huffs and gets up to collect the food. Immediately, he pelts a Kiswahili phrase in my direction.  My bulbous nose, plumb cheeks and full lips cause people to believe I'm African. If not Kenyan,  maybe from Uganda or Zimbabwe? I respond with clipped textbook, American English, the type that would have made my fourth grade teacher proud. For some reason my Chicago accent by way of the west side, embarrasses me. Already, I've been told my English sounds, "odd", like President Obama

"Smart card. Do you have a smart card with you?" he asks again, this time slowly, in English.


The gentle man in front of me turns around and offers me his. Already, during our ten minute encounter, this man has offered me two things: a place in front of him and the use of his smart or values card, which provides discounts for local shoppers. His kindness stays with me, but
honestly, it shouldn't. His is one of the many gentle spirits I've encountered during my stay. Each day, I am greeted with a chorus of "Jambo!" or "Habari gani?" People pull their pikipiki and baisikeli over on the side of dusty roads to speak with me. The most common questions:  Where are you from? How are you enjoying Kenya?

They do me the favor of kindly looking into my eyes and patiently waiting for my response.

But before I start to get a big head and think all this love is for me, it isn't. A careful look around, and anyone can see groups of locals, walking gingerly, laughing among themselves and playfully teasing one another. The levity is overwhelming. Hailing from a city where the homicide rate could easily surpass 500 by the end of the year, I have seen in 3 days, what I haven't seen in 31 years.  Black folks enjoying one another without a current of anger threatening to bubble past the surface and destroy those nearby. It is the most beautiful sight I've seen thus far. All Africans are ndugu.

To be certain, it is not all "Hakuna Matata" and "Kumbaya." There is some serious hustling going on. The type of hustling that would make Jay-Z seem like an altar boy.  Most of the grinding I observe occurs on the beach. Everyday, tutus and magari roar down Mwambe Road, pushing the red clay dirt and gray rocks to the side of the road, on it's way to Nyali Beach. The bottoms of various rubber soled
flip-flops create outlines on the sides of the road. With its eggshell colored sand and transparent blue toned water, Nyali Beach is a favorite locale for tourists. Boats, destined for Lamu islands and other exotic locales, rest comfortably against the shoreline. The water is warm and couples are typically spotted walking together, hand in hand, for kilometers, offshore. The locals sit furthest away from the water, pointing out the next new visitor to the beach. They work as a team,  with one to two locals chatting up tourists, leading them down a sandy path toward stands featuring handcrafted jewelry and
camels with their handlers, shouting out "600 shillings a ride!" at each passerby. I declined some of the local offerings, while partaking in others, but the request to consume more continued. Tonny, a local resident from the Village, descended upon me, holding a three ring binder filled with attractions and products. The Wasini Island restaurant and Kiste Dhow Tour catches my eye, but I decide against
it. At 6,400 shillings, my budget won't allow me such an extravagance. But wait, there's more! How about a Henna tattoo? At 700 shillings, surely, I can afford this bit of pampering.

The weight of Nyali's poverty is found, not on the backs of the residents wearing second hand clothing, or laying atop of the dilapidated houses along unpaved, dusty red roads, but illuminated in the presence of armed guards outside of ATM machines or security forces waving metal detectors around the outlines of its guests entering the mall. Latent hostility exists between the haves who won't give and the have nots on the take. Race definitely plays a role, with the locals charging white Westerners, particularly those from Europe, more for the same goods and services they would charge a "sista" like
me. There are three distinct groups in Nyali: Everyday folks trying to survive, the government systems which ignore them, and the private entities exploiting what and who they can for maximum profit. The
beaches, the land, the labor, the culture, all utilized to accommodate the whims and wishes of Westerners on holiday. This air of tension surrounds me, but I do not inhale because for once, my dark skin, thick locs, and African features are highly regarded. I am not the object of derision, but praise.

Still, I yearn for more, a richer, deeper connection beyond the superficial bonds of brotherhood. Any time I raise conversations about the political, racial and social systems at play in Kenya, responses
are vague and another sales pitch for a particular product or service is offered. My illusions of sharing knowledge and stories with my African brethren quickly dissipate. Living here reminds me of Maslow's
hierarchy of needs theory: how basic needs must be met before people are able to seek self-fulfillment and personal growth. I have the privilege of sitting at the beach, pondering the socioeconomics at play in Nyali. My musings will not result in a loss of income, food, clothing or shelter. The Nyali residents I've encountered are not afforded such frivolous luxuries.


Melissa Walker December 26, 2012 at 10:39 AM  

This description is amazing! I feel like for a few minutes I leave my familiar Milwaukee surroundings and descend upon this beautiful corner of the world. From the heat to the hustle, I feel like I can smell, see, and touch these things with you. I do have one question. Do you think being an American makes people apprehensive about sharing their true feelings about what is going on with them? In my own experiences with people outside of the US, they tend to complain way less then Americans do on average. During a conversation one woman laughed and said, "who has time to complain when you and your family are starving."

Dave December 26, 2012 at 12:54 PM  

Great article, Cassandra. I always like hearing about peoples travels to exotic places. My humble bit of advice: If you want to have political conversations with people there, talk with other tourists. When I visited a friend in Frankfurt Germany in 2007, we had political conversations with two other foreigners while at English style pubs. One was from London, the other from Scotland. They were willing to chat (I don't know if it was because of the alcohol)and we did so for several hours. Like you said, the shop keepers will be too busy working to have a conversation.

tourareas December 26, 2012 at 3:01 PM  

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Ginak December 26, 2012 at 10:26 PM  

Hey I found your reflection on expectation differences to be an interesting topic. It seems like our cultural influences greatly impact what we feel is important to focus on.This made me think what if some of the basic needs had been met would political discourse be a topic of interest or do we feel that would be what is focused on because of what we grew up to value.

Anonymous,  December 27, 2012 at 11:52 AM  

Wow, thank you for such a rich account. It really gave me a vivid picture of what you experienced in Kenya.

I particularly liked that you were able to dig beneath the surface of things. A few parts of your post really stood out to me...the fact that it was so hot that the backs of your knees were sweating, and your hair curled and uncurled...the picture of armed guards outside of ATMS and checking people with metal detectors on the way into the mall...and African men and women enjoying one another with no undercurrents of anger.

Well written. Thank you for sharing the experience. I can't wait to hear more

Pat January 1, 2013 at 7:48 PM  

Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing you insights. You made me feel like I was there.

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