A Horse With No Name

Six thousand screwdrivers

Preceded chronologically by Memories of a zoo

On the way back into town from the zoo I got a call from James. He appeared to be in a rush. “Where are you?”, he asked. “In a cab, on my way back to the hostel”. “Very good. Hey, you want to go see a jazz band tonight at the Radisson Blue?”. “I thought we were supposed to have dinner and hang out with the Belgians?”. “Nah screw those kids, this'll be much better. I’ll leave the weed on their bunk. Did you mention you had a clean pair of trousers with you? “I suppose so, but why? Also they’re green". “Doesn’t matter as long as they’re proper trousers. And I need you to find the fanciest looking shirt in your luggage, and wash your chucks, clean the dirt off. If we’re going to sneak into the Radisson, we need to look spiffy". “I guess I can do that, what time do we go?". “I’ll pick you up at the hostel at seven". I looked at my watch. Four-thirty, plenty of time to get ready.

“Oh and Tim? If you can, find a barber and get your beard trimmed. And pick up two pint-sized bottles of Heineken from the supermarket, as well as a pack of smokes. Doesn’t matter what kind, as long as it’s not a local brand. I’ll explain later. Make sure the bottles are pint sized. Like, really sure. And throw them in the hostel freezer, we need them to be ice cold. I’ll see you at seven!”. I put away my phone and took out my notebook to jot down James’ cryptic instructions. I asked the driver to take me to a supermarket. He looked at me in the rear-view mirror. “What kind of supermarket, sir? The Denisons?”.

Denisons was located next to the football stadium, and I had come by it on my way into town on the first day, stopping to buy some water and snacks. It was a supermarket not unlike the hypermarchés found all over France, the main difference being that there were never fewer than three bouncers outside Denisons, and it maintained a fairly strict entrance policy. If you were white, you’d be allowed to enter no questions asked. If you were black and arriving by fancy car, and wearing your best clothes, you’d probably be fine, too. But if you were black and not obviously well-off, there was no way you’d be allowed in. The store was air-conditioned to near freezing, and featured brands like Nutella, Hot pockets, and Captain Crunch at prices that would be frowned upon even in Dubai. “Yes, the white people store” I replied, causing the driver to grin from ear to ear.

James walked into the hostel lounge shortly after seven, dressed in neat blue jeans and wearing a spotless pink polo shirt. His stubble had disappeared and his hair was combed back, sporting a serious dose of grease. He looked like a skinnier, tanned version of Javier Bardem in Skyfall. I laughed out loud when I saw him, and in return he struck a pose. “Did you get the stuff?” He asked, and I nodded, while gesturing towards the common freezer. “Then let’s go, because we got a poolside table reservation at the Radisson Blue, except they won’t know about it until we sit down. The taxi is waiting”. He stepped into the downstairs dorms and dropped a little envelope on one of the beds occupied by the Belgians. I grabbed the perspiring beers from the freezer and felt for the pack of Marlboro in my pocket.

Evening traffic was terrible, which gave James ample time to instruct the driver and explain the plan to me. We were to be dropped off just past the main entrance, and would then hang back around the smokers area next to the garage. While there we would sip our beers, identical to those sold by the hotel bar, and strike up a conversation with some of the drivers and arriving hotel guests, generously offering them a smoke. Once they finished smoking we would then follow them inside, trying to blend in, hoping that the receptionists wouldn’t ask to see our room key-cards if we strolled in casually enough. From the lobby on it was a straight shot to the pool area where we should be able to secure a table in time before the place got too crowded with hotel guests. It became obvious to me that it wasn’t his first time sneaking into a hotel like this and I chuckled at every thoughtful detail as he unfolded his plan. The band wouldn’t start until around nine o'clock any way, so we had time, but we needed to play it right if we wanted it to work.

Our taxi dropped us off a short distance from the hotel entrance, and we casually made our way to where the drivers were lounging without being noticed by the bouncers at the main entrance. Three of the drivers were playing cards and eagerly accepted our offer of smokes, while two more were detailing an old Jaguar. James admitted to not being a regular, but he looked convincing enough with a cigarette while we both sipped our beer, trying not to empty it too quickly while we made small talk with the gamblers. After about ten minutes we were joined by a fourth driver and the people he just ferried in. A smartly dressed older couple, a lawyer from Kenya and his wife, who had just returned from dinner at one of the restaurants down town. They politely declined our offer of cigarettes, and the man pulled out a heavy pipe and started packing it. They introduced themselves as Terence and Abigail, from Mombasa. He did business in the oil industry, while she managed his schedule and his wardrobe.

The conversation was extremely casual and I was trying not to look in the direction of the hotel entrance too much, smiling and nodding occasionally while we talked restaurants and football. When we finally reached the topic of tonight’s band, Terence perked up. We followed them inside, Abigail greeting one of the bouncers by name. When we found ourselves in front of the elevators she excused herself to get changed, while her husband gestured us along to the garden.

We quickly made our way to the pool area, and looking around, it became obvious that despite our best efforts we were still somewhat underdressed, but thankfully nobody seemed to care. Several ladies in cocktail dresses and full make-up were seated at the bar, while two stagehands were busy setting up instruments and speakers at the far end of the pool. Some of the tables between us and the stage were already occupied, while most others featured little reserved cards with what I assumed were room numbers on them. We found an empty table off to the side and sat down, with Terence immediately whipping out his phone to make a call with a rather solemn look on his face. A waiter served four gorgeous looking cocktails at the table next to us, and I shook my half-empty bottle of Heineken at James, whispering: “We’ve got this long to figure out a way to order drinks without mentioning a room number”. After a short but stern conversation Terence put away his phone and his face immediately lit up. "I'm sorry about that boys. One of my contacts did not show up for lunch today so I had to inform his boss that unless he calls me tomorrow, his deal might be off". He gestured for a waiter. "Monsieur Njenga, welcome! What can I get you tonight?", the waiter said cheerfully, pronouncing it Néjenga. I shot a glance at James, who was smiling calmly at the man. One of the stage hands was doing soundchecks while the other one wiped his face with a handkerchief. The evening heat was stifling, even for me just sitting still in trousers sweat was running down my back in a steady trickle. "A Martini, please. And something for my friends here?". Both men looked at us inquisitively. "I'll have a Caipirinha" James said with leisurely confidence. "And I'll have another one of these", I said as casual as possible while shaking my beer bottle. The waiter left, as more guests started to pour in. "I understand you're not staying here at the Radisson?" said Terence. James laughed, and explained how we ended up here. "We just really wanted to see the band, and something like this has worked out before, in other places". The old Kenyan smiled. "I appreciate that sort of initiative".

He talked about his youth on Zanzibar, and how he and his friends used to go swimming every day after school. "The Stone Town harbour was just a tiny fishing port back then, and sea turtles were more numerous than gulls. Now tourism and industry have ruined everything. I've lived in Mombasa since I left university but we still go back to the island to visit family". When I explained that I was planning to visit Zanzibar a few months later he beamed with pride. "Did you know Freddie Mercury was born two streets away from me? He was a few years older than me though, and I never knew him. He didn't become famous until I started at Mombasa University. When you get the chance you should go there as well. The old fortresses along the coast are beautiful, and the spice markets are world-famous". Abigail returned just as we were about to order another round. We toasted gingerly as the band took the stage. I wasn't a particular jazz fan, but in the dreamy, boiling atmosphere of the hotel garden the smooth piano and saxophone sounds were mesmerizing.

Abigail entertained us with stories and queried us about our lives every time the band took a break. She appreciated the fact that we were tourists and merely "travelling around the trees" as she called it, expressing disgust at the idea of foreigners coming here with all sorts of other intentions, telling Africans how to run their countries. Her father once owned a bicycle factory in Nairobi. He had started in the 1950s as a tinkerer, building frames and wheels from scrap metal. "At some point a foreign delegation came by the factory. Mind you, this was the 1970's. AIDS did not exist yet. Our economy was doing pretty well back then, but there was still a lot of manual labour involved in everything. So the delegation wanted to help us automate things and improve manufacturing. They visited many factories around Nairobi, and made promises that they would hold a donation drive for tools. Some months later, a truck came by the bicycle factory. It was the last factory in line to be visited because bicycles were considered unimportant, and as a result all the good stuff had already been taken. They dumped everything that remained in a corner of the factory yard. It took the workers all afternoon to sort and count the enormous pile. There were more than six thousand pieces, most of them screwdrivers. Some were useful, others were given away to the neighbours, but most of it just sat there, rusting away. When my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary the next year, the factory workers gifted them a giant metal bird made entirely out of screwdrivers, decorated with glass marbles and lights". Terence smiled. "We still have it, in our garage".

We were on our fifth round of drinks, and all had switched to cocktails. Abigail sipped from a straw dipped in what looked like blue shaving foam. She paused for a moment. "I've seen so many white people come and go. So many dollars, so many goods. So many doctors, and soldiers. It never ends. We will never learn to do it by ourselves if there is always someone looking over our shoulder". I looked at James, who was enjoying the music, seemingly unaffected by the sudden change of tone. "The only way this ever ends, is when you people leave. When the UN sends a message to all African governments: January 1st of next year, we are all gone. Nobody can enter or leave the continent. There will be a wall around Africa for a hundred years. That's how long you have to sort everything out for yourselves". Terence had ceased puffing on his pipe and looked at her. She continued. "There will be a lot of bloodshed, a lot of death at the start. But a hundred years afterwards, Africa will be better off than it will ever be in the current system". She spit out the last word in disgust.

I sipped my beer. The band played "Take 5".