Leaving Binyavanga to Go Eat Fried Shrimp in Lamu


Leaving Binyavanga to Go Eat Fried Shrimp in Lamu

In 2006, just after that year’s Kwani? LitFest had ended in Nairobi, Binyavanga Wainaina and the Kwani? crew, who were my publishers at the time, flew us to the ancient and exotic Lamu town at the Coast on a budget Fly540 flight. The trip was supposed to be some kind of extension of the Kwani? literary festival, where panelists from Kenya and elsewhere who had given their time to speak literary-shop in Nairobi were now being given a small treat. 

It was Christmas eve, and the idea was to spend Christmas and open the new year at the Coast. It was my first time in Lamu, and Kwani? had  booked us into top floor Swahili apartments where you could step out on the rooftop on a muggy night to catch the breeze wafting over the makuti rooftops as you waited for a jinnee to pop out of the ocean to grant you your three wishes. 

The late Binyavanga, our benevolent host and literary impresario, was staying at the more high-end seafront Petley’s Inn, where we had espied him lounging on a chaise after an afternoon swim at the hotel’s swimming pool, dressed in a flowing white kanzu and smoking a cigarette like an errant Arab.

We had gone there after freshening up to link up with the rest of the group, among them Summer Literary Seminars’ Mikhail Iossel, who were staying at Petley’s. We spent an hour at the Petley’s bar lounging on the cushioned Swahili seats drinking chilled Tuskers as we chatted with the mixed crowd, but we soon got bored of pretending to be visiting wazungu who had jetted in from Marseille or Gothenburg or wherever, and decided that it was more fun to explore the village instead.

I was longing to taste mnazi, the traditional palm wine favoured by the Miji Kenda people of the East African coast. It was a while since I last tasted it in the days when I was still living in Mombasa before I moved to Nairobi. And, besides, we hadn’t flown all this way to drink chilled Tuskers from a hotel verandah with uniformed waiters hovering over us. We had left enough of that in Nairobi.

From the small crowd of writers and literary-types present, we selected ourselves by the eyes without talking, and one by one we slinked off and assembled in the hotel lobby downstairs. “Where are you guys headed?” asked the scriptwriter and film-maker Simiyu Barasa, curiosity in his eyes. The adventurous can always sniff each other out.

“Ah, we are headed for a walk down by the seafront,” Potash Matathia, a scriptwriter who was then working for Kwani? told him. We had sent someone to fetch the guy who we had been told would be our local guide. He had told us that the food and drinks were way cheaper in the village than what we were paying at the seafront wazungu hotels, and we were eager to go explore.

And so we set off down the quayside, dodging sway-backed donkeys laden with sand and construction blocks that they were ferrying from the docked dhows, and which we knew had right of way on the island. Past Mkunguni Square and the quay gave way to a long stretch of beach that curved round the bend, with dhows with brightly coloured murals painted on their unfurled sails riding the lapping waves out to sea.

Round the bend and we were on an isolated section of the beach, and Simiyu, being the country bugger that he was, decided that a holiday at the coast could not be complete without taking a dip in the salt water of the sea. And so he kicked off his sandals, peeled off his t-shirt and shorts and raced towards the gently-lapping sea. We followed suit.

Papa huyo hapo yuaja!” teased the guys watching us from the gently sailing dhows, and who were native to the island, laughing.

And they were right to laugh too, because we were swimming like a bunch of idiots, with our hands planted in the gray sand, our heels treading water, afraid to venture out into the deep sea.

After our amateur swim we dressed and walked on up the beach towards the end of the beach where the cottages of the wealthy were tucked into the palm trees, with boats painted a brilliant white sailing on anchor in the private wharf.

A guy with red-rimmed eyes and whose thin arms extended like sticks out of his rolled shirt sleeves approached us. “Je, mwataka unga?” he asked with a suggestive smile, patting his trouser pocket. We shook our heads. We had not come here to shoot drugs. He suggested something else but we walked on down the flotsam-strewn beach. We could see the thatched white-walled houses of Shela island where the super rich of Hollywood came to holiday in secret in the distance.

Since we were looking for mnazi, our guide led off into the palms. We followed a winding track that led up an incline, zig-zagging through giant sand dunes. At the edge of the incline, those of us who were not used to the outside were panting. Looming on a hill ahead of us was a giant steel pillar atop which a radar-dish swept the sky slowly in an arc. 

It unnerved us slightly to know that we were under military surveillance as we trekked through the palm and cashew trees towards the thatched village that we could see up ahead. Our guide told us that if you scaled that hill you would have left Kenya and gone into Somalia territory. Well, we said to ourselves, let’s see what mnazi tastes like on the border.

The mnazi joint was as bush as they come. There were a few low stools in front of the one-room makuti-thatched hut that the woman offered us, but we declined. We opted to sit in the soft sand the way the locals we found there were seated, and she promptly passed us a bottle of the milky wine and tiny cups to drink from called mbokos that had a wooden straw in them.

As our host poured libation for the elders and then poured us each a drink, a cool breeze rustled the palm fronds from the direction of the sea and stirred the hairs on our naked legs. It felt heavenly. We had finally arrived in Lamu.

The mnazi seller was frying something in a sooty pan on a woodfire. We were told they were prawns, sold for a ridiculously small amount of money. Being the adventurous Nairobians that we were, we promptly ordered all of them and ate them with relish, seated in our comfortable bucket seats in the sand. They were delicious, eaten straight out of the sea.

When we eventually got back to the apartment after dancing to some mugithi at the Police Canteen enroute, I found Billy Kahora, who was in the room next to mine, frowning at the screen of his laptop. Billy was looking thoroughly bored. “Where have you guys been all this while?” he asked. I offered him a wolfish grin.

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