Dignity on a Kenyan beach

Every morning in Mombasa I walked down Bamburi Beach to see what Joseph and Ken had made that day. They were always there on the same patch of sand in front of a beautiful, whitewashed, empty hacienda, and by the time I arrived the animal was always already done.

On the first day it was a sperm whale, two metres long and half a metre high, smooth-backed, eye-rolling and ferocious. On the second day it was a zebra with a fine mane and a pattern of stripes they had made with darker sand a kid had fetched in cut-off plastic Coke bottles from the village. On the third day it was a male lion with its eyes closed and its head resting on its paws with an air of infinite weariness.

Joseph and Ken had biceps that bulged like tennis balls. Their torsos were lean as wood and they pulled themselves around with their arms, their legs trailing like seaweed. Their skin was very black and the white powder of the sand made a fine, beautiful dusting like flour.

They told me the hacienda once belonged to Jomo Kenyatta. He spent his summers there and wrote books and walked out each morning to swim in the sea. Each morning Ken and Joseph made their animal directly in the path he would have walked. He was the father of their freedom, and to be in his footpath made them proud. They said his house stood empty now because the spirit of a great man lives on and shouldn’t be disturbed. Only the third generation of his children would be able to live there.

On the fourth day they made a crocodile with sharp ridges and armour and snaggled teeth. There was someone sitting with them, a young man with glasses who they called Professor. He was very earnest. I asked him what he did and he said ‘property management.’ Later Ken told me he was one of the caretakers for Kenyatta’s house.

Small boys climbed palm trees and brought us down coconuts and we sat in the shade and sipped the warm milk and looked out at the bright blue sea and the tankers on it like hazy islands. Professor had many opinions. We spoke about how fat foreigners were, especially the English women who came to Mombasa to the big hotels to have week-long flings with the beach boys and souvenir vendors.

‘There is a line,’ said Professor thoughtfully, ‘after which the individual becomes less human and more beastly.’

We spoke about the ethics of charity, and I know Professor was opposed to it, because I made a note of it, but I wish I’d written down exactly what he said.

For some reason we spoke about gold mines and techniques of ore extraction. They expected a degree of expertise from me because I am South African, but when Ken asked if there were toilets inside the mines or if the miners had to go all the way back up each time, I had to confess that I didn’t know. I asked Professor if he had been to university, and he said he had taught himself with books.

His father used to work on the ships but for 15 years he had been unemployed. He had a brother who took tourists in a dugout canoe to spot dolphins, and another brother who sold grilled fish to tourists looking to escape the expensive hotel lunches not included in their package tours. Professor was pleased to have a job that didn’t involve tourists.

Each day I gave Joseph and Ken some shillings in appreciation of their work, and they accepted them without changing expression. Ken nodded and Joseph looked out at the sea. They accepted the money the way a worker receives his payment for a job done.

It has been some years now, and I don’t imagine I will go back to Mombasa, but often I think about Joseph, Ken and Professor and wonder how they are. More than anything, I wish I could sit in the heavy white-hot Kenyan heat in the shade of a palm tree and drink warm milk from a coconut and talk with them again and hear that it all turned out okay.

Getaway, 16 January 2015