Friday, March 30, 2007


“Come in,” the voice suggested, and the tone was inviting, so I opened the door.

I pushed the door into the room and took a step but the first view halted my progress almost as abruptly as if I had walked into a wall.

A huge black man, naked apart from boxer shorts that looked brilliantly white against his skin, sat hunched over on a wooden chair beside a bed. The double bed was askew in the middle of the room, with only a white sheet tussled in the middle. No head or foot board for this bedroom suite.

“Sparse, plain, but functional,” I thought.

A young girl, too young, but with the caution of experience in her manner, was pulling a sheet around her body as she moved slowly and silently towards the opposite corner of the room, her guarded eyes glued to mine like a wary cat.

“Come in,” the black man beckoned again with an outstretched hand that he moved towards his chest in a welcoming gesture. The hand held a large brown bottle of Tusker beer. The floor was strewn with empty bottles. The room smelled like beer and sex. He was modestly drunk.

“Oh . . ., no, I won’t disturb you,” I replied, and I took a step back through the door. “I’m sorry, wrong room.”
“No, no, please come in, please,” he implored, with an air of melancholy that drew me in.

This was a dangerous setting. I was in a run-down hotel in one of the most violent cities in East Africa. I had not been in the country more than a few hours. Nothing had seemed safe since the moment I'd stepped into the Iqbal, a dilapidated hotel renowned as a cheap haven for travelers. Now I was offered an invitation to enter a room with a man I didn't know, who was drunk and still drinking, twice my size, and almost naked.

I took a step in, glanced behind the door, and then paused to look around the room.

The girl had found a spot in the furthest corner, where she crouched on the floor and struggled to light a cigarette. The lighter would not work and after shaking it a few times she gave up and leaned into the wall. Her hair was long and black, with some tight braids that fell intermittently around her head. Her delicate features and beautiful skin didn’t fit the roughness of the hotel. She did not look older than sixteen and I shuddered with the thought that she was much younger.

My quick survey of the room was reasurring, so I focused a friendly smile on my host. I picked my way between the beer bottles on the floor and offered my hand in a manly greeting.

He didn’t get up but he did extend his right hand. His grip was gentle not firm, and certainly not aggressive, rather like that of a fellow who had relaxed into a state of alcoholic inertia. The prostitute, by comparison, looked very nimble. I kept her in the periphery of my vision.

I counted a half dozen large bottles of beer on the floor and presumed he had drunk the lion’s share. His speech was remarkably precise for the amount of alcohol and for his physical state.

There were beads of sweat on his forehead and several longer drips that streamed from each armpit. His boxers were wet with sweat around the waist band in in the groin. I wondered whether the perspiration was due to the heat or whether he was out of shape. I knew he wasn’t anxious; when I shook his hand, his palm had been bone dry.

“In his early- or mid-thirties,” I thought.

He was a big man, just over six feet, and close to 220 pounds. Likely he had been a muscular young man; his chest and shoulders were broad and looked strong, and although he now sported a paunch, he was not otherwise flabby; his arms and legs had still displayed the muscle memory of former fitness.

He motioned with the Tusker hand for me to sit down. There was no other chair, only the bed, and the floor. I choose the bed, which looked clean enough, and I sat about 5 feet away from him, out of quick reach, and at an angle such that I could still see the girl.

“How did you find this place,” he asked?

His accent suggested a British education, which meant that his parents were wealthy and likely influential. He would have been in his late teens in 1963 when Kenya won independence. Jomo Kenyatta was still alive and I wondered if this man’s family was Kikuyu and therefore of the privileged class that emerged when Kenyatta became the first Prime Minister.

“I read about the hotel in a student travel guide.”

“Remarkable,” he responded! “You found the Iqbal. I come here to get away.”

I presumed he meant away from his wife, and since the hotel catered to the poor travelers of the world, and not to the wealthy or educated Kenyans, this made sense to me, but I could not understand what was remarkable about me finding the place. The hotel was filled with international travelers. Did I appear somehow more like him than the usual hotel patrons? Did he consider himself a traveler like me?

“Why did you knock on my door?”

“I’m looking for some Dutch travelers who have a Land Rover and are going to the Serengeti tomorrow. I want to find out if they have room for two more people.”

Now reminded of my original mission, I stood up to leave. “I should keep looking for them. I was told they had a room on this floor.”

“Please don’t go. Speak to me for awhile. I’m lonely for conversation,” and with this last statement he glanced briefly at the prostitute. His look suggested that she was chosen for skills that did not involve speech.
I sat back down.

“I live in New York with my family. I’m a Kenyan diplomat at the United Nations.”

He paused long enough for me to realize that it was my turn to introduce myself. He had not mentioned his name and his discretion impressed me. He was not drunk enough to compromise his personal identity.

I saw no reason to conceal mine. “I’m Billy Mckenzie. I’m Canadian and live in Toronto. I’m a doctor.”

“I knew it,” he smiled happily. “You’re smart.”

His sunny smile suddenly turned sad as if a curtain had come down on his thoughts. Tears welled up in his eyes.

I grew worried about this abrupt change in emotion.

“Would rage be next,” I wondered? I thought again about leaving, but his next words transfixed me.

“Black people are not as smart as white people.”

“Ouch,” I thought. “Where did that come from?”

“I don’t think my sons are as smart as white boys. They will start school in the fall. I don’t think they’ll do well in an American school.” A tear fell down the left side of his cheek. He moved his left hand up as if to catch the descent of the drop but the beer bottle made this move difficult, so he brought up his right hand and brushed the moisture aside with his fist.

“I don’t believe this,” I interjected, believing that the moment and this horrible racial confession demanded a quick and positive alternative view, a denunciation.

“You’re an intelligent man and your sons will be too.”

He smiled graciously but sadly, as if to thank me for kind words that he did not believe.

“You should look for your ride to the Serengeti,” he replied, and I knew he wanted to spare himself any further embarrassment.

I left quickly. As the door closed, I glanced back to see him tipping the last of the Tusker into his mouth. I heard the bottle fall on the floor as I walked down the hall.

That was 1978, three years before the world discovered HIV. Several years later, I read a report in the New England Journal of Medicine on the high prevalence of AIDS in Nairobi prostitutes. The diplomat is probably dead, likely within a few years of our meeting, and his wife too. The prostitute is surely dead. His melancholic tears were prophetic.

No comments: