This is not Nairobi: Snapshots of Berlin

Memories hang loosely in my mind. I let them slip like loose change into some back pocket somewhere. There’s more freedom than despair in that.

A man sits across from me on the U-bahn. He has dark skin. I can tell this from the corner of my eye but what is it to me? I’ve seen so many black faces already. But wait, what is that? Is he wearing a Kenya Rugby 7s shirt? I pretend to adjust my glasses and chance a quick glance. Alas! He is not but he is, black. A man from my home. That communal home. The type of handsome face I know without really knowing.

We ignore each other. Best not try and get into an awkward conversation. I return to my book, he continues to look above my head and slowly around him. Two women walk in. They are chatting in a rhythmic speech pattern I idly follow. Then, a man’s voice, soft and hesitant, asks: “Are you French?” I raise my chin slightly but he is addressing the lady beside me. Excitement lines all three voices. A flurry of French steadily flies between them but stops short when they ask if he is from Paris. He replies that no, he’s from Congo.

And just like that, we are kinsmen again.

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The sitar sounds like a sweet bird, a fluid dance. The hang, a curious hollow thing, an upturned crucible that imitates the pitter-patter of rain, speaking in many tones and tongues. I’m sitting cross-legged on a soft carpet in a small circular dome. Around me lovers fall into loose embraces, fingers interlinked.
Candles burn low and incense faintly dusts the air.

Beer bottle meets my friend’s lips. In the semi-darkness I imagine a small tidal wave of froth and malt crushing against the sides of the glass bottle. Moonlight streams into the dome through a hole in the ceiling. Dead centre, thin rods run across the gap and two wind chimes and a gong hang above the mass below.

The hang plays alone before an ethereal voice swims out of a metal box to meet it. A flute joins in and the instruments start to speak to each other. The voice drops out and the flute follows the hang’s lead, leaping and floating around it; soft and large, darting forward and sometimes lingering behind.

Now the harmonica comes in. Echoing itself, it falls as slates of sound around the hang’s muted thunder and cuts the air in amazing ways.

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Flashing lights and the familiar sound of sirens. Danger. Run! Yet long glasses of beer continue to touch the lips of the park visitors here. Music and merriment uninterrupted, heads thrown back, jokes thrown to the dark skies. The police leap from their white trucks and chase down the drug dealers. Just the drug dealers, those young, usually black men eager to get merchandise off their hands for a little bread to line their pockets.

The operation is tense but it might as well have been unfolding a continent away despite the fact that there is nothing but sand and grass between us. I’m transfixed. Hold my breath when more trucks drive past. Unless the drinkers’ eyes stray away from bottle or friend, the blue and white lights bouncing up and down the hillside are invisible. Until then, nothing is happening. Life is still good.

I later learn that police are nice enough to set free people caught buying weed if they only have small amounts of the stimulant on them.

A female friend has no qualms about cycling through the same park late at night because it is safer with the drug dealers around. “They can’t attack me because I could be a customer.” Rape cases have gone down since the local government put up lights and the drug dealers filled the park.

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This could easily be the bar set from Beasts of the Southern Wilds. Gnarly white twigs, plastic flowers, feathers, dream catchers, liquor bottles and a shiny disco ball are spread across the low roof of an empty dance floor.

But cross the floor, go around the abandoned bar, duck under the heavy black curtain and the rollicking sounds of a live jazz band will greet you. The tickling, thumping and blasting of guitar, trumpet, drums, bass and saxophone tease out a fast melody from another time.

A buck-toothed rat sits paws up on the wall, blank eyes facing the stage. The dimly-lit room is buzzing with conversation and funky music. We are several feet underground. Silver-coated ventilation pipes criss-cross the ceiling with the flexibility of bendy straws.

The crowd is noisy and largely Caucasian. The assortment of bulbs, candles and chandeliers reflect off their pink palettes, light runs itself translucently through hair and shirts. A constellation of tiny blue lights loop themselves around the room.

The tempo has risen even higher and two pairs of feet chase after it. It is a man in full birthday swing. They are 1920s with their moves in the 2014 reality of a narrow pathway. Using a marvellous movement of rubber-soled feet, they lay claim to a small domain in front of the second bar.

I watch as the man leads the girl into a sharp turn. Her hem whips itself into semi-circles and plants hurried kisses on her upper thighs. But then the tempo dips, catches the blues. The feet descend back from the heavens and find loud applause from my little corner.

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There’s a wild-eyed man outside my window. Copious consumption of Nollywood has me place his utterances and cadence at once. His spiky dreadlocks are black and brown. They quiver in time to the man’s angry gestures. A plump Caucasian woman stands next to him. Her ginger hair pools around her shoulders and the blue stripes in the middle of her dress ran further ahead than the rest.

She is not the focus of his rage, he is, the clean-shaven, younger-looking man whose back is to me. His hands are held aloft, right foot primed for escape. He is terrified. He should be. Rastaman just loudly accused him of fathering the unborn baby beneath the woman’s blue stripes. The blows begin to descend and the camera pans. The bus I’m seated in has smoothly pulled away. Not a titter, not a sound, not a head craning back.

This is not Nairobi.

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