The cafe where I ate my most remarkable Kenyan meal cannot be found in any guidebook or on any tourist itinerary. If I had ever set foot in the Third World before or if Id known another soul in Africa to advise me, I probably wouldnt have gotten within miles of the place. But then I would have missed an experience of a lifetime.
I hadnt even expected to stay overnight in Nairobi. But after being bumped off a flight out of London and missing my only-twice-a-week connection to Madagascar, I found myself alone in a strange and daunting city for four days, with no friends and the limited options afforded by my limited funds. I couldnt afford anything like the Hilton, so the taxi driver took me to a "secure" hotel near River Road that was one-tenth the price. Later, I learned that, according to a popular "survivors guide" to Nairobi, I ran a 100 percent chance of being mugged if I wandered out at night in that neighborhood. Guess I was lucky.
Determined not to cower in my room for four days, I walked out to see the city. As I was apparently the only white person staying on the "wrong side" of Mboya Street, I immediately attracted every hustler within blocks, trying to sell me everything from watches to safaris. One hustler named George was particularly charming and kept walking with me after most others had abandoned me as a poor prospect. Eventually, I admitted to myself that I really wouldnt learn anything about this weird place without a guide. George offered to get me a guide and a car and driver for a day trip to the Rift Valley, the coffee and tea plantations, and anything else Id like to see. Soup to nuts for $100. It took most of my financial cushion, but I agreed.
Fifteen minutes later George drove up in a dilapidated Peugeot. He introduced the driver, Bosko, whose pointed, bony frame was lost in a shiny blue suit and who spoke very little English. The guide Ben, with shaven head, sharp eyes, and a ready guffaw of a laugh, was fluent and charming.
With stops to fuel the car and change money on the black market, we bounced out of town, dodging homicidal matatu minibuses and seemingly suicidal pedestrians. We spent hours gazing down from the Rift escarpment, walking through the magically scented tea plantations, driving slowly along the rough roads, talking with villagers, and repeatedly being held up by police demanding that we pay them a cash "road tax" before allowing us to pass. It was well into the afternoon before I realized we hadnt stopped for lunch.
"You want traditional food for lunch?" Ben asked. Sure. "You know nyama choma?" The guidebook described it as barbequed goat meat and as close as anything comes to claiming the title "national dish of Kenya." Lets go for it, I said. Ben says Bosko will find the very best in Kiamaiko. I had no idea where Kiamaiko was, but off we went.
The road became rougher. The houses became shacks, and the shacks became hovels. I found it difficult to believe that people could live like this. The only images I could compare it to from my experience were those of Rwandan refugee camps. But people seemed to be happily going about their business as if this was the way of the world. As indeed it was for them.
We turned the car off the dirt road and into a sea of devastation. I wouldnt have believed one could drive into such a place, but people and goats and chickens parted before us and we inched forward past stalls and the milling hawkers selling drinks, vegetables, used clothes, anything.
I just stared and tried to take it all in. This was Kiamaiko, a slum of mammoth proportions just outside Nairobi proper. Nobody knows how many people live there, though estimates run past a million. There is no running water, there are no amenities. The only notice the government takes of Kiamaiko is to periodically bring in bulldozers and level it all. Then, within days, the shacks are rebuilt and life goes on as if nothing had happened. Ben explained this to me as we lurched along and the ruts threatened to tear the wheels off the car.
The smells were, well, rich. And when the car had taken the tenth weird turn and then lurched to a stop in a puddle, I knew Id never find my way out alone. Bosko got out and I asked, in as calm a voice as I could manage, if this was where we were eating lunch. Ben said no. Bosko was going home to get something first. Home. HE lived here. Boy, am I glad I kept my American mouth shut.
A little while later and another few turns and puddles, we were in an area with nothing but vast herds of goats and meat hanging from the rafters of shacks. We stopped just this side of a gaggle of goats and Ben announced that we had arrived. This was where we would find nyama choma.