Week of horrors

This was a week full of challenges. Woke up on Monday in a normal fashion, crushing depression keeping me from leaving the house on time, which was as normally uncomfortable as it is every Monday. Horrible, but I’m used to it at this point. I spent all of the previous Sunday alone in the house. Did not even unlock the door. Whenever I spend long periods alone, I get extremely depressed and unable to function properly. This was only the beginning, however.

Asthma attack on Wednesday. I had been feeling it coming for a couple of weeks, then it hit hard on Wednesday morning. It isn’t the coughing fits that one commonly associates with asthma, but a simple lack of oxygen. It’s like being made to be 90 years old overnight. Thursday went to work in a delirium.Aside from the greater issues of hating my current job, it is difficult to concentrate when you can’t breathe.I never knew that asthma symptoms varied that widely until it happened to me.

Thursday night a friend told me that an ethnomusicologist who had done his field work here in Kenya on nyatiti was coming into town and they were going to meet that night. I was quite excited about it. His dissertation is perhaps the only available academic resource on the instrument and was looking forward to talking to him. Kinda felt like shit most of the end of the day (outside of the asthma) but decided to ignore it. Things were fine for a while, then I started feeling nauseous, left, vomited in the parking lot, struggled to get a taxi, made it home, then vomited all night and into the next day. You can keep vomiting until nothing but bile comes out, as if one’s body is trying to purge itself of itself.

My life is incredibly awful most of the time, really, it’s never been worse. No money, no career, nowhere to go but down and the recurrent health problems make it worse. Most days, death seems preferable but one is obligated to live for the sake of others (or at least so they don’t have to pay for shipping bodies overseas), even when one has had enough. I never thought life could ever be this bad. Oh well.

Life may be a pit of misery and failure and this blog is unbelievable depressing and bleak (and I apologize for that to anyone who might be so gracious as to suffer through this horrible blog), but sometimes things get interesting*

Started feeling better later and decided that staying in the house was a bad idea. I made it to my Friday nyatiti lesson, started feeling much better so I offered Nyagweno a ride home to his hood. Figured I could meet the ethnomusicologist at his gig in Kariobangi South, near Kariobangi North, where Nyagweno lives. Kariobangi is rough, but Nyagweno lives in perhaps the roughest section of it, Korogocho, a mixed Kikuyu/Somali/Luo slum section. I never feel unsafe in Kibera, but Korogocho is a completely different world. As we are approaching his house, we get stuck because two giant buses are trying to pass one another around a tight corner in typical stupid bus fashion. I’m texting trying to tell someone where the gig is and roll my window up halfway in case someone tries to steal my phone.

Suddenly, I hear an thud and my phone has disappeared. I look back and see an 11 year old kid running away. Somehow he had gotten his hand in the window opening and grabbed it out of my hand within about a half a second. I move to try and chase him but think better of it. The kid has probably got a gun. The phone was terrible anyway. Nyagweno is shocked and extremely apologetic. I think nothing of it but he feels really bad. Nyagweno is a really good guy. I drop him off. He clearly isn’t happy.

I immediately drive back to Thika road and pull into the first mall I see. There’s a Samsung store there. I lay down 20K and have a new phone and a SIM replacement within minutes. Some things work in Kenya. I then start driving out to get to the gig. Construction on Outer Ring Rd has made the place a complete mess. You are forced to drive in the mud to get where you want to go, guessing the whole way because there are no signs telling you where to go. Chinese construction companies aren’t like Japanese ones, who come up with plans to divert existing traffic during construction.

I bottom out several times, nearly get stuck under an illegal road under an overpass, get lost in Kariobangi South which I find to be as sketchy as Kariobangi North and eventually make is to somewhere in the vicinity of this nameless club I’m supposed to go to. I pull up somewhere and start making some calls. People are looking. I’m thinking to myself that I’m going to get carjacked down here, then remember that my car is a piece of shit. No one wants that thing. Cops pull me over regularly because its so shitty.

A Luo guy sheepishly comes walking up to me. Some Maasai guy jumps in between and starts loudly saying “Mzungu.” Thanks dude. Announce to the whole neighborhood that I’m here. People are now really looking as if to say “what the fuck are YOU doing HERE?” The Luo guy passes between us, I’m thinking that he’s going to ask for money (not to be tribalist, but Luos generally aren’t candidates to be violent muggers), but he says “Peter?” and holds his hand out “Karibu sana!” He’s come to take me to the club.

After the nightmare of getting there, the club is nothing but welcoming. People come up to shake my hand and smile and they give me the best seat in the house. Even the band announces that I’m there and everyone claps while the music plays. It’s pretty touching. It took a total of four hours to get out there, but this was worth it. Kenya has ways of making life miserable and then turning it around inexplicably.

The ethnomusicologist guy finally shows up and we hang out with all of these old benga players who keep taking turns up on the stage. Eventually, they call Ian up to the stage (he plays benga) and they keep calling me up to play. At first, I refuse (because I don’t know how to play benga) but watch the guitar player for a while, kind of figure it out and motion to him that I want to play. He happily passes me his guitar and I give it a go. I’m struggling with it so the singer keeps singing the guitar lines in my ear and I’m trying to fake it. Everyone in the place is taking pictures and video of the two white dudes playing benga music. Pretty rare to benga music at all, let alone two mzungu playing it. I’m thinking to myself that Luos really know how to do it up right. There’s a lot wrong with Western, but when it comes time to party with guests, the Luos are among the best in Kenya.

I play for a while, then pass the guitar on to someone else start feeling horrible again and decide it’s time to go home. Of course, they make me sit down for a little while longer and eat some chicken with them but eventually, I decided that I simply have to leave for my health. I say my goodbyes and start driving….. where I’m not sure. The main road is closed. I could go back the way I came that that presents risks, so I just start driving in the direction that seems right…. and get lost in some post apocalyptic urban hell hole. Every road is a dead end. There wrecked car husks everywhere, packs of dogs, burning trash heaps. If there’s anywhere I’m going to get carjacked, it’s here. Google maps doesn’t work here. I see an Indian looking guard, though he doesn’t speak English, ghettos are weird like that, there’s always the mixed individual who stands out like a sore thumb, but is completely one of the locals. Probably some tragic back story there but this isn’t the time. I’m trying to get directions out of him and he just keeps pointing the general direction. No help.

I drive a bit past more car husks, dogs and trash, even what looks like a body but might be a drunk guy, then try again. There’s a lady wandering under a light. She could be prostitute but she is dressed like a regular young mama. She looks like she’s been inhaling paint thinner. Probably a prostitute. I figure she won’t mug me or is at least so fucked up that she can’t.

“Habari yako? Nimepotea sana.”
“Poooole. Unaende wapi?”

Pretty normal convo so far. Despite operating while impaired on paint thinner or methanol, she gives me fairly decent directions out of the area or at least to a place that Google Maps seems to know about. Two hours later, I’m home and feeling even worse.


About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine
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