• jambo!


A story excerpted from The Adventure of Food (Travelers Tales)

It was my first trip to Africa and I had stepped into a neighborhood bar in Nairobi, Kenya; the kind of place ordinary guys stop in on their way home from work, or use as a respite from normal cares. You know: an African “Cheers” kind of joint. The place was crowded with regulars so I gingerly shouldered my way to the bar.

“Jambo!” the barman said, giving me the national salutation.

“Jambo back at ya, pal!” I said. “How ’bout a large Tusker beer?”

Tusker beer is a fine lager, and easy to spot among the others by the elephant head motif on the label. As I waited for my beer the guy sitting to my right said, “Jambo!”

“Jambo to you, too,” said I.

“Would you like to buy me a beer?” he asked. I had quickly found this to be a common question in Kenya. No sooner would they jambo me than they’d ask for a drink. Even a woman accosted me so, out on the street in broad daylight. And she wasn’t even pretty! She was an ugly, tobacco-toothed, over-the-hill, bone-in-her-nose National Geographic magazine cover girl in a Western-style dress, the kind that Richard Pryor has been known to call “a floppy-titted zebra bitch.” She cornered me between rush hour traffic and a gaping open manhole. And I don’t think she even stopped to jambo me, she just smiled her tar-and-nicotine smile and asked me to take her out for drinks. Drinks! Plural!

So by the time the guy in the bar asked me for a drink I was practiced in my polite refusal. “Thanks for the offer,” I said, “but I’ll pass this time.” And I turned the other way. In front of me now sat another man.

“Uh…Jambo,” I said.

“Jambo, friend!” he said with a broad smile. “My name is Patrick Chege. Are you from America?

“Yeah, from California. Does it show?”

“It’s easy to tell. You Americans stand at the bar like cowboys.”

At that moment the barman set the Tusker lager in front of me, and Patrick nonchalantly laid down forty Kenyan shillings to cover the cost. He said nothing, just smiled. “Well here’s something new,” I thought. I picked up the one-liter bottle, toasted him and took a long pull. Aarrgghh!

I had forgotten to specify cold Tusker. Kenyans generally drink their beer at room temperature, holding the belief that it’s unhealthy to drink ice-cold drinks. I’m sure it’s something they contracted from their former British rulers who taught them how to make and drink lager-style beer. As we all know, the Brits quaff their suds at room temperature. But a British room normally requires the wearing of woolens and huddling next to a coal fire. Your average Kenyan room sits a few degrees from the equator. And when it’s packed with Kenyan good ol’ boys and the odd American tourist, it can be sweltering. Beer is one of the most important things in daily life to me. It is one of the eternal verities and high virtues of civilization. I know and acknowledge that there are people in the world who use and enjoy it in ways different from mine. But I do not like their ways. I respect them, but I do not like them. It was only by an effort of will that I was able to swallow.

“We make a pretty good beer here in Kenya, don’t you think?”

“Oh yeah. Good.”

Patrick and I talked about our lives for a while, sharing our very different life stories (and the odd drinking story). I told him I was eating and drinking my way through the world and writing a book about it.

“I’m in the food game, to,” he said. “I ship beef cattle to Saudi Arabia. We have very good cattle here.”

So we chatted about the qualities of good beef and where to find the best. And I grimaced as I choked down more of the equatorially warm Tusker Lager. Somewhere in the ebb and flow of our warm and beery chat a jolt of realization struck me. Though I had been in Africa, been in Nairobi, for three or four days, this was my fist awareness of it: Every face I saw was black, except for mine.

Now, I live in Berkeley, California, the epicenter of political correctness (it’s where the term was coined) and racial rhetoric. And only a few minutes’ walk from Oakland, birthplace of the Black Panthers. I can hardly walk out the door of my home without being acutely aware of the “racial heritage” of everyone I see, including myself. Right-wing radio-talk führers and whining minority malcontents make it their mission in life to keep me so informed. And the blondest of blond guilty, white liberal speechifiers and wavers of placards will take pains to remind me that I am “melanin deprived” and that others are not, and if I were to stumble into an “African American” bar in the wrong part of Oakland, well, I would likely stumble very quickly right back out. And as long as I’m telling the truth, any American who found himself the possessor of the only black face in a cowboy or biker bar would feel the same as I would in that bad-ass Oakland bar. For that matter, he might not feel at ease anywhere in North America except at home, behind locked doors, and maybe not even there.

We don’t like to talk about his sort of thing. But there I was, at least three days in Nairobi, at the bottom of the tourist season, seemingly the only pale face in town, and in a bar full of “young black males.” And I had only just now noticed! It had taken at least seventy-two hours to notice that I was the lone European sort of guy in a sea of African sort of guys (and gals…grrrls…women…O.K., Womyn! Don’t hurt me!).

As I was being stunned by this revelation Patrick said, “You know, my younger brother is in your country.”


“In Texas. He studies there at the university. There are many Kenyans there. Oh yes. They all like to go to Texas, where the cowboys are.”

“I guess cowboys are popular everywhere,” I said, in something of a daze.

“Yes. But he says the Kenyans encounter a lot of racialism there.”

“Uh…” Had warm Tusker lager destroyed my cowboy poker face? Was Patrick now reading my thoughts?

“Do you think there’s a lot of racialism in Texas?” he asked.

Racialism. Damned British tutelage. Always got to stick in an extra syllable. “Well,” I said tentatively, “I suppose it might depend on the region. I hope the cowboys aren’t giving him too much trouble.”

“Oh, it’s not the cowboys. The cowboys are first-class fellows.”

“Then it’s the KKK?”

“The what?”

“Never mind.”

“Actually, it’s the black Americans that cause him the most trouble.”


The world was suddenly upside down. Here was I, perfectly at ease as the only white among a multitude of blacks; and there was Patrick’s brother in Texas (in Texas, damn it!) getting grief from the “black Americans.” (His words, not mine. I never heard an African-African say “African- American.”) I took a slug of Tusker beer. Jesus, it’s awful where it’s warm! And I was beginning to wonder if it were a ticket through the looking glass.

“Um, I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, Patrick.”

“My brother writes to me that the black Americans discriminate against him because he is African.”

Now this was just too much. And warm beer, too! I felt sure that if I took one more swallow of the hot suds it would cast loose all my moorings. Fortunately, Patrick called to the barman, “Jambo! Two more Tusker beers.”

“Make mine cold!” I shouted with an urgency that Patrick noticed.

“Oh yes,” he said, “My brother reminds me that the Americans insist on cold beer.”

He laughed as he threw down some more notes, tipping the barman 10 percent. The two Tuskers appeared before us, and I could see from the beaded condensation on mine that it was as cold as a witch’s tit, and as soon as I nursed on it all would be right with the world. I took a long pull and let the coldly warming liquid foam down my throat in an icy, reassuring froth. My balance restored, I said, “So, Patrick, would you kindly explain your last remark?”

“Well, my brother enjoys the company of the cowboys. They take him riding and teach him many things. This is good because he will come home to be in the cattle business like me.”

“Uh huh.” And another fortifying gulp of the cold one.

“But the black Americans shun him and the other Kenyans because they are ashamed of their African roots.”

“No. No way. I see black Americans all the time wearing African medallions, and African clothes, and taking African names. And, and, oh, all kinds of stuff.”

“Yes, yes. These things are all well and good but when they meet an African they have another opinion.”

“I don’t get it.” We each took a long bracing swig, the warm and the cold.

“When they meet an African they meet a Third World person. They meet someone from a country that has 50 percent literacy, 30 percent malnutrition and, I hate to say it but, a government that cannot or will not govern. A poor country that’s going to stay poor a long time. They are ashamed to be associated with such a country. And I cannot entirely blame them. But when they meet a Kenyan or other African they make sure to tell them that they are Americans. And they make the Africans feel badly about it. Of course I’m not saying that all of the black Americans are this way. Maybe only a few. But enough to make the Africans feel badly, and to write some sadness into their letters home.”

This gave me pause. And I recalled a brief item I saw in that morning’s newspaper about a group of African-Americans in The Carnivore, a popular Nairobi restaurant. They felt they weren’t being waited on quickly enough, so one of them stoop up and proudly shouted, “We’re Americans!” According to the report, they got quicker service.

“You know, Patrick, I finished reading a book recently. It’s called Schindler’s List.”

“Oh yes. I saw the movie.”

“Isn’t it curious how some of the Jews helped the Nazis to pursue other Jews, because they were different kinds of Jews? Isn’t that crazy?”

“Yes, of course. But then, I think we are a crazy species.”

WE took a thoughtful sip of the warm and the cold, rolling it over our tongues, enjoying it each in his own way, and lost for a moment in our private thoughts.

“Do you have racialism where you live, in California?”


How could I tell him the truth without a social science treatise? How could I explain the racial balkanization of my home state without making it sound like race warfare? How could I tell him that the short walk to Oakland was a problematic, possibly dangerous affair, but the worst of the long walk to Africa was the occasional warm beer? Could I explain the oppressive idea of political correctness without sounding
like a neo-Nazi, conservative, sexist, racist, homophobic, patriarchist, straight white male oppressor of women and people of color and the gay-lesbian-bisexual- multicultural alliance?

“Not officially,” I said. “We have laws against it.”

“Do the police enforce the laws?”

“Do the police enforce the laws here?”

Patrick laughed and said, “I’ll ask you no more, my friend. Jambo! Barman! Two more Tuskers. And make them both cold. I’ll try it your way this time.”