Vignette: Encounter in Kenya

I once met a young man named Joseph Oyule on a trip to Mombasa, Kenya. We exchanged addresses and kept in touch for a while. Now, five years later, as I lay on the bed in a villa at the Kingfisher resort in Malindi, 75 miles (120 kilometers) up the coast from Mombasa, Mirja runs in and exclaims: "Guess who's here! Joseph Oyule!" 

He just shows up. Takes a two hour bus from Mombasa and a taxi, and here he sits. He’s young, smaller than I remembered, almost timid in his yellow polyester shirt with a too big collar, slacks and big battered wing tips. Joseph, Mirja and I sit and make halting small talk, alone in the still heat at the Kingfisher bar.

Two European female acquaintances are due for lunch, and I can see this particular fivesome isn't made in heaven, so I decide to take Joseph to a beach hangout called the Driftwood, for lunch. We hop a taxi.

Joseph has never been to Malindi before, and it’s bigger than he thought it would be. I’ve never been to Malindi before either, having just arrived after giving the French language a good butchering for several days in Madagascar. The Driftwood is a clubby, worn, European ex-pat colonial remnant. But so far, it’s the only place in town I know.

In the middle of town the taxi circumnavigates an immense, impromptu pineapple market. Thousands upon thousands of pineapples that weren’t here yesterday. There are mountains of pineapples piled right up on the nasty rubbish-strewn ground.

Around the pile, the Driftwood is perched at the back of the beach, and I have to buy Joseph and me a couple of daily memberships at the door – a five dollar cover charge. We sit outside under an awning and raise a few Italian and German eyebrows – the white stranger and the only non-white non-servant in the joint.

The tide is way out. Sand stretches a long, long way toward the horizon. Tourists pick among the shells, and boys set upon them to offer bad marijuana and who knows what else.

Joseph is 21. He becomes a little less shy as time goes on. I mean, after all, we haven’t spoken for five years, since the day we met and spoke for a total of perhaps ten minutes. He just came on spec, because I wrote him a few months ago that we’d be here.

His story's not too happy. He left school because his dad wanted to keep his three brothers and one sister, all younger, in school and couldn't afford all the fees. So Joseph dropped out and has held odd jobs like collecting paper and boxes from the U.S. military – in Mombasa for their Somalia operation – and running it into Nairobi for recycling.

One time he got a big U.S. flag that way. It was in a box the Marines threw out. Now it hangs in his room.

He lives with his family – four siblings, his father and one of his father's two wives. The other wife, his mother, lives in Kisumu, up near Uganda. His father Francis ("He is very old now. In his fifties.") is retired from a factory in Mombasa.

Joseph wanted to join the army but he explains, sort of, some vague problem with his school transcripts. He has a girlfriend he wants to marry when she finishes school in Voi, but he's afraid of her parents, who are very strict Christians. When he calls her he says he's just a "friend from school."

He grows more intense and leans forward as he quizzes me about what he’s really interested in – a bigger view, the world beyond Kenya. Including, in large part, how the United States works. He has astounding questions: What really is a bi-cameral legislature? How do jurisdictions overlap? What are the responsibilities of a mayor versus a governor? If all these bodies are making laws, which one takes precedence?

Joseph’s elbows are on the table. He rubs his chin with the back of his hand, and sips Coca-Cola.

What about the problem of Mexican immigration? He asks, he says, because they've got their own illegal immigration problem here in Kenya with Somalis.

And then, "When Israel shuts off the Gaza strip, what does it really mean?"

And, "How does security work with Arabs and Israelis living among each other in the West Bank?"

We do a survey of east Africa: First, Yoweri Museveni, then and today the strongman head of Uganda. Joseph talks about Museveni’s involvement in arming Rwanda with guns from the likes of Gaddafi’s Libya. But then, he wonders what poor Uganda has to offer Libya for its guns?

He wonders who arms the SPLF in Southern Sudan. (This was well before South Sudan’s independence.) Nobody in the world (except aid organizations) claims to be the SPLF's ally, yet they have shoulder-fired rockets.

Joseph's answer: Probably Musevini.

On to Sierra Leone, Liberia, a quick survey of the permanent mess in west Africa. Joseph notes that 150 years ago Europe was riven more with internecine conflict than it is now, and so he hopes Africa will grow out of this period of turbulence too.

We dawdle before ordering and we dawdle afterward. He matches me Coke for Coke with my White Cap Kenya beers and has fish and chips with my sandwiches and we share raw vegetables and cheese dip.

Now, the tide is long back in. The lunch crowd has come and gone. Fat pink Europeans roll around on their deck chairs by the pool and little Joseph, nearly shaved head and acne-marred complexion, and I, have run out of things to say. I get us a cab to the Mombasa bus. 


Contrary to the skeptics back at the resort, he never asked for anything – except that we come and visit his family in Mombasa. 

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