Sitting at the bar in the club called ‘Vodka Martini’ in downtown Kakamega the Manchester United/Arsenal game is three quarters done. The bar is packed beyond capacity, with people finding any surface they can to sit on, whether it is a plastic milk carton or simply resting against the pillar, all will do. Some people came here for the game and the game alone, watching one of the many flat screens with a look of concentration that is usually reserved for only the most serious of occasions. Other people simply use this as a source of occasion, as background noise to their business hangin with friends. The room is filled with the endless chatter of the arm-chair commentators. I can’t believe that Ramsey missed that shot either, but I can only dream of expressing my anger with such extroverted energy as the people around me.
It must be true that football is one of the few universals in the world, and as such I feel that I possess a huge handicap. I have only just realized that the team I thought I was supporting is actually the one in the red jersey, meaning that I should have been cheering when they scored that goal if my professed love for Man U is to check out. However, it is redundant, as I’m here only to take part in the social synergy of it all, to soak in this electric atmosphere. During moments like this I feel like and ant looking into the fishbowl, wondering what it is like to be on the inside.
And the night begins. The music picks up as they turn on the ceiling light embellishments, highlighting the ornate inward island of crown molding. The bar’s name can be seen on the lone pillar in the middle of the room, now lit up by a circumventing string of lights. The fluorescent black lights on either side of the pillar have caused the colors on the people’s clothes to jump out and glow in the dimness of this early evening atmosphere. The sun is starting to go down, the whole bar is becoming smoky and dim, and the people are starting to flow in. The DJ has been playing an endless playlist of 90s dance hall style music, relentlessly pumping the sound out through the many double-speaker cabinets that adorn the room. This is Kenya, it’s Saturday night and the people are living large.
I can honestly say that I have never been to a bar like what I have found to be here in Kenya. As soon as you walk in you are taken in by everyone around you and feel this overriding urge to move around. As I see it, one of the biggest differences between bars here and back home is that back home people go to sit with their friends and create almost an island onto themselves, laughing and drinking together. While that is also the case at Vodka Martini, there is a lot more of a communal feel here. People don’t stay within their group of friends, but rather move around, talk to anyone else around them. Best of all, people here simply just dance when they feel like it.
There is a classic Dane Cook joke that goes something like “The difference between men and women is that you will NEVER hear a man say to his friends “Listen guys, I say forget women tonight. I just want to dance!”” However, the exception can be found here, as both men and women have no reservations and just start movin when they feel like it, either dancing with the stranger beside them, their friends or even just by themselves.
The three of us, meaning my teacher friends Otanga and Shimba and myself, are sitting at the bar watching the apparently endless football matches that are still playing on the flat screen above the bar. Unfortunately, Shimba is damn quiet tonight and isn’t really saying a word, but I suspect he is just drunk off of his Shmirnov Ice and is just laying back. Otanga, while not drunk (yet), is an unbelievably die-hard football fan and is completely captivated by the match that is being shown. So here I am, sitting at the bar, with nothing to do but gaze out over the scene.
And what a scene it is. The DJ has really stepped it up and is not mixing some classic dance hall beats with some western classics and is getting a huge reaction from the crowd. More and more people have succumbed to the beat and are dancing where they stand, some not even on the dance floor but rather just at their seat. More and more people are streaming in and the energy is becoming infectious. There is a steady flow of drinks all around and people are becoming louder, happier, laughing from deep within their belly. Life is good at this moment and everyone is loving it.
Poor Otanga. I had bought a round of drinks for the three of us, but it would seem that neither of them was fit to tackle another bottle. Shimba, with a look of determination, is valiantly sipping his ice, but poor Otanga seems to be having the hardest time. I can tell that he wants to finish this bottle to show his appreciation for my purchase, but I have a good feeling that this is the last thing he would want right now. As we sit there talking, joking, looking around, I can see that there is a look of saturation moving across his face and his face seems to flinch each time the glass touches his lips. He has reached his tipping point and might potentially sink if I don’t do something. I ask him if he’ll do me a favor and let me have some of his beer, as “I don’t feel like buying a whole new one.” With his eyes widening in delight, he tells me to help myself to what he’s got, even to finish it if I would like to. Relieved to be free after I finish the drink, we decide to head on out.
On the way home Otanga tells me that he wants to quickly show me a few other places that are on the way, just so that I can see them. We walk some distance in the dark, unlit Kakamegan streets, until we arrive at a brightly lit building called ‘Westlife’. I can already hear that this is the live music scene. There is a guitarist tuning up as we arrive, the band on stage appearing to be just starting their next set. This place is basically just a big, giant room with a sizable dance floor slightly lower in the ground. There are tons of tables, tons of people, tons of bottles around, and people are having a good time in here.
Then the music starts. It is here that I might be at a loss of words to describe exactly what Kenyan music and dancing is like. The music reminds me of the bands I saw in Mexico; A lone guitarist plays a continuously melodic background rhythm as the drums and bass maintain a relentless driving beat. At the front of the group you see three male singers, almost always singing in unison in these long-stretching rants that I cannot understand. The music is so very happy, with a kind of reggeton beat pushing through each song. And then there is the Kenyan dancing. The only way to describe it is to say that it is youthful happiness and bounciness being expressed through physical movement. It is a lot of upper arm movement, often held out at ones side or in front, as if you are holding onto the handlebars of a motorcycle, and you simply just move around in a pseudo-hopping style. Anyways, after a half an hour at this place in the middle of the dance floor I know that I need to come back another day.
The next place we stop at is a small bar/club similar to that of Vodka Martini, called Ripples. This one is up on the second floor of a building and breaks off into two parts, both having the same atmosphere, with lots of people sitting, talking, dancing, drinking, laughing, living. We don’t stay long and move on out.
Finally, at 1:30am we all accept that we’re wiped, especially in light of us all getting up at 6am the pervious day, and start our walk home. I tell ya, there is potential to get into a lot of glorious trouble in this town.