You are a man. You wake up early every morning to make an honest living because you want to make something for yourself. It doesn’t earn you as much as you’d want it to but it pays the rent and takes care of the bills and affords you decent lower-middle-class luxuries such as middle-shelf nectar-like blended whiskey, bathroom selfies and overpriced food and drinks in upmarket establishments from time to time, which gives you the confidence to be on Instagram.
Occasionally, when you are dead broke, you wish you could make a dishonest living. Dishonest living has better returns than the straight and narrow alleys you walk. Maybe you can become a broker for organ harvesters, open a church with ‘Miracle’ in its name, get into politics, or become a lounge lizard. But you are scared shitless of police cells and ruining your mother’s reputation. So you’ll go on waking every morning, labouring all day and hoping street gangs and City-County Kanjo don’t stab you in the stomach or ass. Because your medical insurance will probably run out before those wounds heal.
You live in an estate that doesn’t fall within our classification of slums but which is surrounded by churches with loudspeakers intentionally installed to disturb your peace when you are nursing a hangover from a memorable Saturday night and you have to jump over puddles of mud when it rains. Your neighbourhood is synonymous with nightclubs packed with women, many of whom have a reputation for spiking revellers’ drinks and emptying their pockets or accompanying them home, giving N’golo Kante level of performance in the sack and emptying their houses when they are resting their tired bones. Your neighbourhood is a battleground for churches and nightclubs. Some could say you are knocking on the doors of the Kenyan middle-middle-class.
You live on your own but you have a girlfriend. She comes over sometimes and spends days and nights at your place. How long she spends at your cave depends on her schedule, what her friends are saying about spending consecutive nights at a boyfriend’s place, and whether you can maintain good behaviour for as long as she had planned to stay over. This means turning down ‘alcohol alerts’ from your friends when she’s around or tagging her along to your nightly exploits and praying that the women you have been flirting with at the club don’t show up. Or, that no one texts referring to you as “babe” or “sweetie” or with any other scandalous reference when she has your phone ‘seeing pictures in the gallery.’ One misdemeanour and you have mutiny in your house.
She has a key to your apartment. Which she liberally uses to let herself in without giving you notice that she’s coming over. Not that you have anything to hide but you hate surprises, and that includes surprise visits. Sometimes you come back from work and find her cooking or watching TV. You ask why she didn’t give you a heads up that she was coming over and she asks if you have a side chic that you are hiding. You let her have her way because you can’t win everything in life. Some things come with the territory. She changed your curtains and hand towels too and has been nagging you to change your seats. She doesn’t like their colour.
She gave you the spare key to her apartment too. You don’t use it to let yourself in. You never use. In any case, you give her at least a one-day notice of your intention to pass by her neighbourhood and then give her a minute-by-minute account of your 30-minute matatus ride there. You still hate surprises.
She always cooks when you visit her and cooks occasionally when she’s at your place. Most of the time, when she’s at your place, you cook. You ask what she wants to eat and you cook it. When she craves foods you can’t cook, you order a takeout. You are as comfortable as any couple who have dated for a long time are. She tells you stuff and you listen, you tell her stuff and she debates. Happy relationship.
You like chapo. Heck, you are a man so you must like chapo! It is somewhere in the constitution. Your chapati supply comes from the kibanda because you lack any skills in the fine art of kneading wheat flour into a saucer of deliciousness. But from what you gather from your “What are you doing?” phone calls with the missus, she knows how to make fine chapatis. She’s never made you chapatis though. You have never asked her to. You think it’s too early in the relationship to unleash the beast in you that eats four chapatis in a sitting.
Your relationship grows. You introduce her to some members of your family. She returns the favour. You are now in a serious relationship. You take good care of her like a man who is serious about a woman would. You think it’s time to make the big move. So the following month, when you are doing your shopping, you throw in two packets of 2kg wheat flour in the basket. You are still a regular at the kibanda as you wait for the right time. The moment has to be perfect.
Not so long the opportunity presents itself and you ask her the big question: “Can you make chapo for dinner today?” She looks at you bewildered, as if you have confessed you have three children with three different women, and exclaims, “Ati!” in a manner that makes you doubt what you said. So you meekly repeat, “Unaeza pika chapo leo?” to which she more calmly replies, “Nope. You have not married me.”
You are left wondering where marriage comes in your craving for chapos. It’s not like you asked her to wash your boxers or bathe you like good girlfriends who want to be flown to exotic holiday destinations do. It’s cooking, which she’s been doing anyway. You feel slighted but you take it to the chin like a man you are. And she’s right, you have not married her.
If you are like my friend, you go to the butchery, order 1kg of nyama choma, and bring it home for the both of you. Then you hire a mama chapo after she’s left. And you hope that when she returns, there will still be some of the 20 chapos left in the refrigerator and you won’t tell her who cooked them. The desirable result of that is that she will ask you when you next want to eat chapatis.
If you are a strong independent male who can take care of himself (and full of wisdom) like myself, you learn how to cook chapos. Which is exactly what I have been doing in the last one week after my friend met resistance in his desire to have home-cooked chapati. That my boy was now eating frozen chapati and hoping he doesn’t have to summon Mama Chapo to testify that he doesn’t have a side chic who can prepare ISO-certified chapatis, along with the fact that the vibandas in my neighbourhood are running extortionist schemes in the name of hospitality businesses was the motivation I needed to start taking better care of myself. All the places around here sell 6cm-diameter chapatis at 20 bob and they are as thick as a single-ply tissue paper. The only exception is one old man who opens from 4.30 p.m. So I can’t eat chapatis for lunch unless I want to be conned. I don’t want to be conned. So I either have late lunch or early supper.
A lady friend sent me cooking instructions on Sunday and I spun my first chapati on Monday. It’s quite simple. There are no occupational hazards like there are in, say, frying fish except that of losing your fingerprints on the pan. So I don’t get why women who can cook chapati feel so hot; they always find excuses as if they have told you to send them your CV. “I’m not in the mood for cooking chapati today,” or “Come on 23rd, that’s the only day I can see a pan.” The worst are those who use your love for chapo to blackmail you into committing to them. “Why would I cook for you chapati and I’m not your girlfriend?” Woman, you have risked stewing your face in boiling cooking oil preparing fries that I didn’t ask for!
The first attempt came out fine. Three almost round bad boys that were as thick as I like my chapos to be, save for the small detail that they were too salty I woke up five times in the night to drink water to save my kidneys from imminent damage. The second batch was almost perfect although they still could have been used as a weapon in a Jackie Chan movie.
On Thursday, when I was in Mombasa CBD running errands, I decided to visit one of the most popular street food vendors along Mikindani Street (off Nkurumah Road) for benchmarking. There are four similar businesses along that street but she’s remained the Safaricom of that street although she seems to be abusing that dominance because you have to wait for over 30 minutes to have your chapos ready. She offers other foods but people primarily go there for the chapatis and she seems unable to manage the chapo supply chain effectively. Nonetheless, people still wait for half an hour instead of going to her competitors with instant service.
That day the wait was longer than usual because two customers ahead of me had ordered a combined total of 15 takeaway chapatis between themselves. And I was seventh on the queue. We must have waited for over 45 minutes because the lady who was fifth in line order viazi karai which she wolfed down then licked her hands dry and left in a huff. After watching that lady clean her hands with her tongue, I am no longer shaking hands with women; we are either hugging or clapping our hands as a form of greeting like Roho Maler Church adherents.
Just when my two saucers of deliciousness had been placed on the pan, three plain-clothed Mombasa County askaris arrived. No one made a dash for it because you cannot wait for an hour for chapati and leave it behind. I stayed put too but only because I hadn’t run in three months and it wasn’t a risk worth taking. They called the lady who handles the finances (and presumably the head of operations aside) for a chat. She must have refused to part with a bribe because they called for the vehicle which arrived in less in a minute. Like the driver was parked by the corner waiting for the outcome of the negotiations.
The vehicle had two uniformed Kanjos and a Maasai hawker in the back. The driver had male company in the front. They released the Maasai while the lady was still negotiating with the man who was in charge of that operation. At this point, I was already resigned to not comparing my cooking to that of the best in the business and I was making my way to leave. Then I decided to take a video of the incident. I had just shot about a minute of the video when the plain-clothed Kanjos saw me and came for my phone. This is the only phone I have ever pre-ordered and there was no way I was going to give it to them. Especially after I overheard the lady complain to one of the Kanjos that they stole her phone during a similar raid last week.
I got bundled into the back of the vehicle, my charges being “Unachukua video ndio uharibie gavana jina social media.” I didn’t resist because I read that Nairobi City County askaris broke Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s arm for allegedly resisting arrest. The lady joined me in the back together with the two uniformed askaris and we sped off to Makadara Grounds, where three other vendors were picked up and we left. One of the women made a call to someone who made a call that secured her release 200 metres from Makadara. The wheels of corruption move quite fast.
The rest of us poor people were taken to the County Court. I was ordered out first because wewe ndio unajifanya media hapa na kupiga picha. Luckily, this was one of the few days I had dressed like a proper adult and carried my BAKE (Bloggers Association of Kenya) membership card and national ID card. I got into the room where I was supposed to be booked for my alleged offences and they changed to “interrupting a security operation and insulting the officers.” All this time I was smiling because I was thinking how my chapo benchmarking trip escalated to being an enemy of Governor Joho and interrupting a county government security operation.
I produced my BAKE card and the guy who is supposed to book me tells the askari to take it to a Caro, who I figure should be the prosecutor, or the in-charge of security operations, or hopefully, a sensible person.
A minute later I’m called to Caro’s office which is adjacent to the court chambers. She’s wearing a red blouse and a weave that doesn’t suit her face but she looks lovely nonetheless. I offer my hand, she declines with a smile that I find unsettling. Like she can prefer trumped up charges against me. I don’t wait to be offered a seat. She asks to see the video I had shot and I oblige. Midway into the video, someone calls her and she leaves me with the askari who accused me of intending to tarnish the Governor’s name. I ask him when I said all those things he says I said. He doesn’t reply to my question but tells me that I should have introduced myself. A few moments later the Askari is also called and a uniformed one comes to stand by the door to make sure I don’t pinch anything from Caro’s desk.
Caro comes back, the askari follows shortly after. I’m told to delete the story and to liaise with the county’s information department if I need to capture any more operations. Their tone is now friendlier. They tell me that a lot of people say bad things about them and that’s why they have to be careful. That’s it; no charges. I am free to leave.
I walked back to town, ran my errands, and then returned for my chapati because reggae is strong. The lady had been released without any charges. She didn’t give a bribe this time. She told me the askaris visit her business every day. In fact, they had been there that morning but they ran after a heads up from a tuk-tuk driver. Today she was released because she has been picked up so many times that one of the senior female officers at the cells told the askaris to let her go. You know you are battle-hardened if you get released for getting arrested too many times.
What I found funny about the whole experience is why county officers doing their job would have issues being caught on camera. Chances are they were not doing their job. They were simply extorting traders under the pretext of getting rid of hawkers because the other food vendor, a few metres from where we were picked up, continued with her operations unperturbed. She had probably given Caesar their cut in the morning. And every trader who got picked up by the Kanjos was dropped back to their businesses. So it is the county government askaris who are ruining Joho’s reputation. Hell, some county government employees were waiting for chapo madondo, too.
While there are legitimate public health, aesthetic, and revenue collection reasons to deal with unlicensed food vendors and hawkers in Mombasa, picking them up every day to demand bribes then returning them to their businesses so they make more money for you tomorrow is not the way to resolve the issue. If anything, Mombasa could be among the best cities for street food but not if the county government isn’t keen on providing a framework for licensed street food vendors. The Mombasa County government would then get legitimate revenue streams. But what do I know?