Concorde or my first two hours clubbing in Addis Ababa

And so now it can be said: mmk has visited the famous Concorde in Addis Ababa. And what little shreds of innocence that were still (reluctantly) hanging off me have now been stripped and buried for all eternity. Oh yes, to this son of the soil, innocence is a past state of being. Where to begin?

In the past two weeks, a number of taxi drivers have been recommending that I should visit the Concorde Hotel on account of it being lots of fun and very popular with foreigners. But since realizing that taxi drivers in Addis are made precisely from the same clay as those in Nairobi, namely that they are out to fleece anyone with the sucker look one wears in a new town, I was not willing to take them up on the offer. Besides, I have been trying to sustain a no-alcohol pledge; and thought it best to stay away since I do not associate nightclubs with sodas.

On the night in question, this past Friday to be exact, I went to have dinner at a workmate’s home. In the course of conversation, it turned out that the Concorde was just a short walking distance away. We decided to check it out and my curiosity only grew when he assured that I would see, ‘things you have never seen before bwana aiii!’

Once at Concorde and having paid the 20 birr cover charge, it took less than three minutes to realize that its popularity has nothing to do with its music or cocktails: it’s the sex for sale that draws the crowd. We were in Addis Ababa’s version of Nairobi’s Florida nightclubs.

There was an Ethiopian band playing to a crowd whose mood is best summed up as ‘hurry up and stop all that singing and dancing, we are here for other things.’ After an hour of excruciatingly unenthusiastic performances, the club music kicked in spurred on by an MC who bounced around the small space rapping along with whatever hip-hop was in any particular song. The DJ (and please oh lord I beg for leave to issue a critique that I hope does not extend throughout the city) seemed trapped in an American mid-western, early 1990s music hell. I suppose there must be a fundamental existential crisis DJs suffer when they have to play for western tourists or expats and local prostitutes. Imagine the dilemma as they build their play list for the night: do I play hip hop for the 18 year old girl who will cajole the John to buy drinks and stay longer or to her 60-year old John from a small town in Missouri? Add to that the insistent little voice in the DJs head that insists he is an artist and should be above all other concerns.

His attempt to unify the disparate audience at Concorde meant that a jazzy song was succeeded by rap, then by Lingala and then that national anthem of American middle-age angst: ’18 till I die, 18 till I die…yeah!’

One wall of Concorde is mirrored. For the two hours I was there, several women stood in front of the mirror dancing with their own images. They were so absorbed, so taken with the obvious beauty in front of them; it must also have been a good vantage point from which to get a view of who was checking them out most ardently. The weird thing is I found myself concentrating more on the image in the mirror than on the woman standing in front of it. It was as if by looking so intently at her image, she drew me to her image and away from herself. But then since the image was also looking at her… Let us turn to our Lacan here because there is clearly a need for some further confusion. I have not read Lacan but do know at least that he wrote on the mirror stage. Imagine again this young, tightly trousered, nubile woman dancing in front of the Concorde mirror. When she was younger and had done the same thing, Lacan would have said that she was involved in the initial and necessary act of self manufacturing – by identifying the self according to the Other. And if indeed I do understand any part of other arguments he made, then perhaps the woman in the mirror was not actually her at all, but a stranger, an Other. This of course must be quite close to the truth of selling sex for money. It requires, I would suppose, a distancing, an ability to say that this is me and that woman over there in the bed under the heaving weight is some other person. A tough person who does what she has to do.

(Please do not ask that it make sense because nothing Lacan says makes sense to me. Actually nothing anyone says that involves the words self, other or identity make any sense to me anymore. I have been far too corrupted by an Anglo-Saxon veneration of words for authority’s sake. If you want to get into this a bit more, I suggest you go to Wikipedia – not that it helped me in the least)

In Greek mythology, Medusa whose gaze turned people to stone was herself turned to stone when Perseus the hero held up a mirror to her. Snow White’s Wicked Queen needed the reassurance of a magic mirror to know that she was the fairest woman in all the land. And my favorite: Harry Potter in one of the books glances into a magic mirror that reflects his deepest desire. Destruction, revelation and yearning. Surely the women in Concorde could in some way relate to the three mirrors. Or perhaps this riff of the subject is just my way of dealing with the fact that I am once again procrastinating from my long suffering thesis.

Anyway, to get back to the scene, the twenty or ladies on the floor were swaying patiently to the music. They were not actually dancing as much as showing off their wares, waiting for the prod in the back, the one that says ‘can I dance with you or buy you a drink?’

In the dim light, their eyes shifted slowly from one male face to the other. They peeled away my pretension that I was just a local accompanying some ferenjis (foreigners) out on the town. The table between me and the dance floor had white expatriates seated around it. They were behaving as if they were on dates with women whose body language to everyone except their ‘date’ reflected an utter boredom relieved only by practiced touches filled with a detached erotic promise.

At an adjoining table was a smooth looking dude in all-black clothing and exuding manicured airs. The women kept walking up to him and drifting away minutes later. He coolly appraised each as if he knew their secret which in his mind must have amounted to ‘I know what you want and it is me you want’. I suspect that he actually felt that beneath all the solicitations was a genuine desire for him since he was clearly irresistible. There are Johns whose visits to prostitutes are only made bearable by maintaining the conceit that love can flourish somewhere within the money-for-sex transaction. I found myself disliking every man in the room except for the waiters and the grossly fat, exhausted looking bouncer.

As we sat there, with me trying to hold onto my non-drinking pledge, I noticed a woman looking at me more intently than any of the others. Her eyes were filled with come hither and so I tried filling mine with ‘I am scared of you and have a wife and am considering becoming a monk.’ But her eyes ignored such pleas and insisted, ‘you know why you are here, why else would you be here if not because of me?’ By the time I came back to the table from a toilet break, her eyes had stopped talking and her mouth had taken over.

‘You want to dance?’ she asked loudly to be heard above whatever song the bastard of a DJ was playing.
‘Um, no thanks, I don’t like this song.’ I answered.
‘You want to buy me a drink?’
‘Um, not today, I am just about to leave.’
‘But I love you.’

My colleague interjected then with loud and, to my ears, very welcome laughter. ‘These ladies,’ he said into my ear, ‘they know only three words: drink, love and condom.’

Such was the adventure at the Concorde where you are promised to fly very high or very low or whatever kind of flying provided you are ready to pay the fares.


Addis Ababa Bombings

If you have ever wanted to know what you think of terrorism, try and be in a city that has just had bombs go off in a public place. This is what happened in Addis Ababa (where I am staying for now) on Friday when at least six explosions went off and killed three Ethiopians while wounding a score.

This is the third city I have been in (the others being New York and London) where civilians have been targeted by groups pursuing some kind of political agenda. I cannot stand it. It is fashionable to point to the political oppression or marginalization endured by certain groups and to conclude as understandable or even supportable those among them who choose in turn to terrorize other civilians. But being in a targeted city, not knowing whether the minibus you are riding in will explode or whether the car parked outside the cafe in which you are having coffee has a bomb in it is unbearable. I guess that is the whole point of the exercise, to make the state appear to have no control or for the state itself to wield such violence to justify its authoritarian controls. Either way, if you are a civilian it just means that you are a sitting dark, waiting for men in the shadows to make of your body and life what they will. It sounds such a discordant note to the control I have come to consider I have over my life – that there is someone somewhere who wants to make a point to someone else through my bloody remains. I think that the people in this city are very hardy. Perhaps they are made so by their history which is bloody and peopled with leaders who considered their lives expendable.

Terrorism’s great evil is in considering a stranger’s life expendable in a cause that is at most indirectly connected to that person. Whether you are bombing a ‘target’ from thousands of feet in the air knowing that you will kill a stranger or swinging a machete at them or blowing yourself up with him, the evil is in not knowing what you have brought to an end. What gross ego to consider that single life with its incalculable threads of obligation and love and hope to be irrelevant to the ideas and feelings swimming around inside you. This is why I dislike ideologues nowadays. At the logical extreme of their words lies death for strangers and privilege for themselves. I particularly dislike the ones who would mouth ideologies, especially radical ones, without having the good grace to accept that the road to their utopia is littered with broken bodies. Better those grim types who know exactly what they are willing to do to realize their plans rather than the soft self indulgence that would celebrate death at a distance while holding onto moral uprightness. I feel for those three people and their families and can only guess at the rage and despair that their deaths have caused. All for some arsehole to feel bigger and better.

Land, the eternal Gikuyu conversation

I am in Nairobi for a few days from London and just came from a ride to Athi River with my mother who is purchasing some land there. We were accompanied by my uncle, the cliche family rogue, who knows every single trick Nairobi has to part you from your money by means fair or foul. For the hour it took to drive there through heavy traffic and a seriously torn up road, we had the same conversation that we have shared since I can remember: land or to be more specific, how to acquire it and make a profit off it.

Plots were pointed out and owners identified. We had debates on the depth of the water table, the route a new trunk road will take vis-a-vis said plots of land and the provision of electricity. Prices were bandied about and expected returns in the coming years. Both my uncle and mother seem to possess a vast catalogue of information on land and its price. So there were comments like, ‘just behind those shops, an acre used to cost 10,000 shillings in 1983-85 and you can’t get one now for less than a quarter million.’ Followed by exclamations of surprise and frustration at not having spotted such obvious opportunities and pledges to never again allow such profits to slip through the fingers.

The particular land that we were driving out to contemplate is close to Daystar University. I stood admiring its look, the view and suchlike, while my uncle kept muttering that it was fat. Fat, as he explained, refers to land fertility and also suggests potential financial gains from owning it.

We had bypassed many students walking the muddy road to the Mombasa-Nairobi highway and I offered one a ride into town. As is usual when I meet a university student, I wanted to know what she was studying, quality of lectures etc. But my mother and uncle had a quite different take on what to talk about with a stranger. They asked pointed questions about student accommodation, entertainment, health provision and others in a similar vein. By the time we got back into the city, it had become clear that building self-contained hostel space, a pharmacy, a pool hall and a restaurant catering to students were promising business opportunities. The price of her accommodation was revealed in addition to her transport and entertainment costs. After we dropped her off, all mention of the beauty of the views had been replaced by strategies to ‘do some business’ on the land.

In London or New York or wherever else I have lived, I never had these types of conversations with anyone. I am sure that the British can probably relate in regard to home ownership but it struck me that this conversation was different. Perhaps I am being ignorant but I think that it was a typical Gikuyu form of dialogue. Property and its acquisition form the common ground, the public space even. And to own it is a sign of some kind of virtue. How else to explain how few conversations I have overheard since I was a child that were not anchored by some form of financial consideration.

Imagine how many millions of similar conversations are held every year and the enormous ambitions they give rise to. Gikuyu land hunger has acquired sinister overtones in different parts of the country. The image of voracious locusts springs to mind when I recall some complaints I have heard. Yet it strikes me, that kikuyus – whether wa-sapere or not – have this search at the heart of the way they regard the good life. Only property owners get a certain respect that a majority crave. The method of acquisition is less important, in fact it might be completely irrelevant since there is a sentiment I believe of the world being a tough competitive place in which victories are counted one property at a time. Imagine how many millions of similar conversations are held every year and the enormous ambitions they give rise to. Gikuyu land hunger has acquired sinister overtones in different parts of the country. The image of voracious locusts springs to mind when I recall some complaints I have heard. Yet it strikes me, that Gikuyus – whether wa-sapere or not – have this search at the heart of what they regard as the good life. Only property owners get a certain respect. The method of acquisition is less important, in fact it might be completely irrelevant since there is a sentiment I believe of the world being a tough competitive place in which victories are counted one property at a time.

My Best Friend’s Wedding

I just got back to London from Washington DC where my close friend was getting married this past weekend. Now this is a friend I have had since boarding school in Nairobi; we went to the States for university at about the same time; and roomed together in Brooklyn for some years. BK or Fort Green to be exact was one party after the other, ‘shots all around’ being one of our more frequent utterances and of course where there is alcohol and testosterone, seeking the company of women was par of the course. Because of so many years spent as close friends we had developed our own private language. One of its more important concepts that we repeated like a mantra was ‘standards and rules’. These were applied to women. We carefully calibrated our individual preferences, analysed them over many beers and over time codified our romantic desires and how to go about satisfying them.

It was quite juvenile really but I think very serious for all the jokes we made about it. Sometimes I think it was an attempt to create some kind of order in the chaos of being single in New York City. We formed a little community with its ethics and battlegrounds even if they were only located in lounges and the succession of parties we frequented. Our enemy, I think, was loneliness. The feeling of not being wanted in a city built on the principle of aspiration and the conceit that only those who are weak or unworthy do not realise their every dream. New York has a way of inflating or redirecting your desires. For example, you may have thought that you wanted to date a funny and down to earth person when you got off the bus from some small town or country. A few months later, you would be telling your friends that you wanted to only date funny and down to earth supermodels willing to share you with their supermodel friends.

The city makes you believe that your most fevered imaginings are just a Thursday night away, just a matter of being at the right place at the right time. That place of course being yet another darkened lounge playing the same relentlessly funky jams and filled with people who manage to simultaneously seem completely unique and uniform. Fun is what it was. So much fun that I had it coming out of my ears so that it stopped being fun – like being made to laugh continuously without being able to stop or tickled for hours on end. Our standards and rules created ever finer distinctions. Before I got to New York, I had not fully appreciated the Eddie Murphy character in Boomerang who rejects a woman because her feet have cones. With the benefit of hindsight and at a distance, I now realise that I was actually having an almost sexual relationship with the city itself. I desired it as it was reflected in all the people I used to spend time with. Proof came when I left the city for London with my mobile phone holding hundreds of numbers. A few weeks after settling in London, I scrolled through these numbers and could not recognise two-thirds of them and had no desire to speak to more than a handful. Yet these other strangers were people I had spent many hours with, shared all manner of experiences, slept with some and argued with others. But it was really never about them as much as it was about being in love with the city that forced them into the same lounge I was in or even into my bed. The city demanded fidelity and very rarely gave anything that did not sharpen your appetite for its other (waiting) charms.

When my friend and his girlfriend decided to get married, it was an act of rebellion. It could only have succeeded once they removed themselves from their relationship with New York, which they did since they now live in Washington DC. He threw off ‘standards and rules’ which allowed him I think to see that these never had the ability to help him find his bride who is so much more than what he had thought he wanted when we were in Fort Green. His asking me to be best man forced me to turn away from the language that we had honed for so long since it could scarcely help digest the course he had chosen for himself. And what has been so great about it in the last year is realising progressively that our friendship which most people who know us would think is entirely based on partying was filled with all this other good stuff which had been getting built parallel to our life of tequila shots and thong analysis.

The wedding had about 80 people and was very simple. I got to be MC and so spent most of the day stressed that I was going to drop a clanger and be forever damned. I did drop several but I think only a few people noticed them. The more I think of it and our previous friendship as single men in NYC – since we are now in a different place – the thing that makes me happiest for him is that he has looked within himself for what he wants and not allowed external standards and rules to make the decision for him. I suspect something special happened to me this past Saturday as well but time will tell, for now though I know it was one of the happier days of my life.