Last night I attended the Jamhuri Day party at the Kenyan Embassy in Addis Ababa, an event which is on every diplomat’s and Ethiopian taxi driver’s calendar. There were at least five hundred people who attended and the food and the tusker were in full flow. So much so that I heard myself, as if from afar, roaring all manner of greetings to people that I knew. ‘Welcome to Kenya,’ I would find myself shouting repeatedly to every Ethiopian acquaintance or friend who attended the event. I steered them this way and that, pointed out the banana trees and asked, ‘do you like those Kenyan banana trees? how about this Kenyan building? And Kenyan food, do you like the food? Isn’t the music lovely? Hey how about that ambassador? Coolest diplomat in town right?
It went on this way, fuelled by the generous portions of tusker that I was pouring into myself, and I fear that I was probably the most fearful bore of the party. I was having fun though and I think in some way I was revenging for being made to answer all the foreigner/ferenji questions that come at me on a daily basis. For instance, not a day or two pass without my being asked whether I like injera. Now the answer, and not just for the sake of politeness, is yes. But this question, I think, is really not about injera but about what I, a foreigner, think of this country. There is no option to say no because if there is one thing that some months of being here have taught me is that non-Ethiopians walk on egg-shells around Ethiopian pride. It’s all good though. Pride is good. I guess.
Anyway, back to the party. A young Kenyan who I suspect is a student at the university sauntered up to the bar and stood alongside me. He had short dreadlocks, and had a dark sweater with green, yellow and red stripes worn over a squat, powerful frame. He was very drunk as became apparent when he slurringly and quite belligerently ordered the bartender to pour him a drink. But the bar, he was told, was closed even though the bartender was busy serving me and others – who were all to a man in ties unlike this young revolutionary. He did not take it lying down: ‘Pour me a fucking drink,’ he shouted. The drink, gin, was poured with him insisting that it be filled to the brim. Once it was in his hand, he dashed it to the ground and screamed, screamed is the exact word, ‘to Dedan Kimathi!’
The bartender, a peaceable man till just then shouted back, ‘why you pour drink? Who is this Kimathi?’ Their back and fro, full of outraged explanations by the student and complete confusion on the bartender’s part, entertained me for a full fifteen minutes before we all staggered away to dance to Lingala.
A couple of hours later, this young Dedan Kimathi was spotted fast asleep on embassy grounds. One of the Kenyan diplomats took the opportunity to deliver a lecture on the importance of handling your liquor well – met by slow nods from Kenyans in the circle who were too drunk to do more than mutter guilty agreement. But this group of inebriates came alive in protest when the diplomat made to wake the young man up and kick him out. ‘He is in Kenya,’ ‘how can you kick him out of his own house?’ These and similar remarks came fast and furious so that the diplomat eventually backed down, probably having decided to do the kicking out more discreetly. But the incident seemed to me to speak to a certain, increasing Kenyan ownership of our spaces, and an unwillingness to accept the official point of view. Or am I romanticizing and over-interpreting a small, meaningless incident?