Surviving Nairobi After Dark

By John Vogel

It was getting late, and I was running out of German phrases. 

People had just begun packing into the bar, but for a roadside ad hoc dive, that wasn’t very difficult. After all, it was a Saturday night in Nairobi. The beverage list included loose bottles of Guinness, Tusker and a shack-made liquor that was served out of a gas can and, to the untrained drinker, smelled and looked like gasoline. 

My attempts to woo the German aid worker sitting across from me were proving to be insufficient. With 4 years of high school German under my belt, I assumed my vocabulary was good enough to impress any Frau east of the Mississippi. But after a few hours, her eyes let me know she was not impressed, but happy I kept the tab running. Those same eyes—among other features—distracted me from checking my watch, which I now noticed read 10:30 pm. 

In any bar in America, the party is just getting started after 10pm. In Nairobi though, it’s a well-known fact that mzungus caught out after dark are prime targets for all sorts of calamity. Hang around long enough and you hear stories of kidnappings, muggings, assault, and straight up disappearances. I had to catch a bus to take me the hour-and-a-half back home and the buses stopped running at 10 pm. 

The Frau realized I had places to be, and thanked me for the drinks, making it clear that our night would end there. 

The Junction was crowded with people drinking, smoking and having an overall good time. Tire fires were the only source of light and managed to cover up the smell of cheap cigarettes and warm beer. Not a single bus was running up or down the main thoroughfare, nothing to flag down, nothing to stick a thumb at to bum a ride. 

Time for plan B.

In my right boot was 10,000 Kenyan shillings (about $100 USD) and was stored next to a boot knife. Now, 1000 shillings can work you out of some jams. Whether it be police hassling you for made-up infractions, or convincing the guide to get you a little closer to the elephants in the tree line, 1000 shillings can get it done. However, the 10,000 bob I had on me could change the trajectory of any issue. It pays to be prepared.

Wandering through the sea of burning rubber and people, I finally happened upon the unmistakable sound of 150cc Japanese-made motorbikes revving in the night. A group of piki-piki drivers had ended their day the way they started the last one—drinking heavily. The pikis usually closed up shop at sundown, pooling their wages to buy a gas can of stump whiskey and drinking until it was time to start the next day. 

Walking up to the group, they turned, all shocked that a white guy was cruising this late at night. In likely-butchered Swahili, I stated my destination and asked for a price:  “Nitaenda Ruai, pesa n’gapi?”

Each member of the gang formed shit-eating grins big enough to see through the dense smoke. Knowing they hit the jackpot, I waded through a series of offers but looked to the most sober-looking of the bunch who pitched a price of 1800 plus a refill of his hooch. 

Sold. 

He downed his drink, we jumped on his bike and rode off into the night. He assured me he was good to drive, as he was Barack Obama’s step-brother, a common expression amongst drivers in Kenya. 

We flew down the abandoned highway, putting off enough alcohol vapors that we could be easily tracked if we went missing. Though clearly intoxicated, it only seemed to help increase his maneuverability as we shot down the dark roads. 

The tiny bike managed to make the 90 minute drive in less than 60. 

We arrived at the compound at midnight, clearly the only creatures stirring. I paid him with a handsome tip knowing he saved my ass from uncertainty. He waved and rode into the darkness.

I walked to the gate, relieved to be home only to realize…

I forgot my house keys. 




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