L.O.V.E. The four letters of character development. The four horsemen of the apocalypse.
But how does dating and infatuation change with the times? Is the passion my parents experienced in the 80s, before the advent of DMs and Instagram stories, the same infatuation Gen Z experience? This is an exploration of dating in Kenya through multiple decades of history: the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, 2010s, and this fresh decade of the 2020s. Wouldn’t you want to know how your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, and that Gen Z whose outfit choices you don’t quite understand went on dates?
It’s Either The Mjuaji Or The Village Girl
(Wanjala, Male, 48 Years Old)
The kind of dating that was going on in the early ‘90s is what people these days call chips funga (take-away fries). A not-so serious, sort of short term relationship. We didn’t have phones back then so you had to find her physically, whether it was at the village market or at church. At the time, my mum was still forcing me to go to church and so church was the place to hook these well-behaved girls. Of course, they were never well behaved, the worst pretenders were the girls from church.
If I didn’t like that lot, I’d go to the market center where they had a disco on the last Friday night of the month. The disco was very popular and that was where I met up with the bad girls, the girls from town. In town, they had these swahili style houses that were mud walled and communal but enclosed within a plot, with a central entrance and single rooms. These were the places we went to when you wanted to pick a mjuaji (know-it-all) girl who you’d go with to the disco, because if you brought those village girls to the disco they would simply embarrass you.
Those were really just one night stands because I just wanted to have fun with the girl and hang out with someone who was a mjuaji but we all knew that mjuaji girls were dangerous, they were not the kind of person to get real close to.
The kind of girls who were contenders for serious relationships were the village girls, but they were very boring to be with. If I wanted to talk about music, I’d quickly realize that the kind of music I listened to- they’d never even heard of. I’d like to talk about books but they’ve only read the books that they were taught in school. They were not reading novels as widely as I was doing so naturally the conversation became a very ‘yes or no’ conversation, nothing deeper. They knew nothing about fashion nor art because their mind was confined to the village. Whereas I went to boarding school quite early in life, so I had a broader view of the world compared to this girl who only knew the village.
If I was dating a village girl, we had to devise a clever way to communicate when I’d pass by their compound because their mothers were always very strict. I would pause briefly by the entrance to their compound as if I was scratching my head and when she’d see me, I would give a slight signal indicating that I’m going to the river. She would be standing by her mother but her mother wouldn’t know that we’re communicating. I would leave and then she’d fetch her mtungi as if she’s going to fetch water, but she knows she’s going to meet me down there at the river. We would meet up, talk and plan the next date.
Back then, there weren’t many places you could take a girl on a date, the only thing you could do is go to the market center because remember, this village girl can’t go with me to the Friday night disco. We’d go to a ‘hotel’ which was a fancy way of referring to a tiny shop with a few tables outside, and then we’d order kuku and chapo and soda for about KSh 80. We would eat, drink soda, walk around and then I would walk her back to the village.
Typically, if I were with a mjuaji girl, we’d go to the video parlor in the afternoon to watch X-rated films, and then pass by a changaa den because we were operating on a low budget. We’d drink changaa and then in the evening, we’d go to a field in town in the evening where the Kenya Film Commission van would come around showing these old western movies in an open air cinema. By the time the film ended, the hour of the disco would have arrived and because I knew we were going to the disco, we’d pass by the changaa den so that she would get tipsy because I had just enough money to buy us one beer each in the disco, and as long as we have beers in hand, the bouncers at the disco couldn’t kick us out.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
(Tallulah, Woman, 19)
I had been seeing this guy for most of last year. We were just going on dates and stuff, a few kisses here and there, but nothing serious. Just having fun and enjoying each other’s company. We were also dating other people and we both knew this, I knew he was dating other girls and he knew I was dating other people. However, I’m queer.
I hadn’t told him about this and I don’t know why, because I’m usually quite upfront about my sexuality. But straight men especially tend to sexualize it and make it very weird, so I just left it out and didn’t think it was a problem, because I figured that it’s kind of my business.
So I was on a date with this other girl who I thought was so cool, and we were having such a romantic fairytale date. Then I saw the guy who I’d been kind of dating. He saw us and I think he thought we were just friends, so he came towards us. He saw that we were holding hands and being flirty with each other, so I think he got the message and went back to where he was sitting.
For the next 20-30 minutes, this guy was staring me down. It was stressful and it made me panic, so I told my date that I needed to go to the bathroom to freshen up. I went to this guy’s table and he was very upset with me but I was like “Why? I thought we agreed we were dating other people?”
and he’s like, “But you’re with a girl!”
And I said, “Okay, but what’s the issue?”
And he’s like, “You didn’t tell me you were not straight? Why wouldn’t you tell me?”
To which I replied, “That’s pretty much my business.”
And he’s like, “But don’t I deserve to know that?”
And I told him, “You don’t deserve to know anything like that about me.”
Mind you, he was still on a date with another girl, all while being this visibly upset with me in front of her. I was so embarrassed. And then my date comes looking for me because this guy has been telling me off for like 20 minutes. She comes to find me being berated by this man and she starts defending me, “Who are you? Why are you talking to my date?”
He starts telling her everything and she just looks at me and says, “I cannot deal with this,” and leaves. I was so angry at this guy and I haven’t talked to him since. I tried to reach out to the girl but she said she didn’t want to be involved in such a drama and mess. I am still dating multiple people, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be but I still enjoy it.
Once Upon A Simpler Time…
(Daudi, Male, 52)
Dating in the ‘80s and ‘90s was, I should say, nice. Commitment was key, especially because communication was limited. A typical date was set a week or two before, since only a few families had landlines. Since cash was limited for teenagers, I would take the phone number of the nearest pay phone and tell my girlfriend that I would call at 7.00 p.m. so she should be at the pay phone at 7.00 p.m.
I would call at the said time and set a meeting point in town. The common meeting point was at the General Post Office (GPO) on a Saturday evening at 5.30 p.m., where we’d meet and take a walk to “shaukatalis” or Wimpy, which were the main fish/chicken and chips or burger joints, awaited for the evening movie at Lotus or Kenya Cinema, which were the popular movie cinema halls. New movies used to hit the cinema screens after every two weeks, so dates were mostly after a two week cycle.
After the movies, it was time to hit the disco to dance the night away. Popular discos were Toyz, Tiffany’s and Cavern Disco, after which partying we had to wait for public means to take us back home. At that time, it was Kenya Bus Services, which only started plowing the routes at 5.00 a.m.
No Love Like A Java Love
(Gregory, Male, 33)
Around that time, Sauti Sol had dropped ‘Lazizi’. I say ‘around that time’ because honestly time moved slower back then. Nowadays, when someone drops a song, it has a shelf life of a couple of months. A year tops if they’re lucky. That Sauti Sol song was in people’s psyche for a while, and the main line from Lazizi was a big deal.
‘Nikupeleke Java, tunywe kahawa…’
Java was a big deal back then, too. The only time I’d go to Java was if I was being treated by my sisters, who were older than me and working. They’d tell me, “It’s your birthday? Come I take you Java”. It was that spot. Nowadays guys just walk into Java for like two samosas as they pass time and whatever. It isn’t as hip as it used to be. Back then, if you went to Java, you wanted to sit by the window so that people passing on the street would see you. I remember walking past Java and looking through the window, and seeing guys sitting there and thinking, “Man, those guys have their lives together! They can afford going there?”
In 2011, I had started seeing this girl and I knew from the minute we met that I just wanted to go all out for this person (read take her to Java, definitely!). She was beautiful. She was kind. She was smart. She was funny. She was everything I’d ever wanted. At the time, I was doing a research gig where we were being paid weekly, so I remember planning for a certain week’s salary and going like, “I’m gonna give this girl a call and the first thing I’m gonna ask her is, ‘do you wanna go out? I want to take you to Java.’”
It was so smooth, telling someone you’re taking them to Java. I don’t know what the equivalent is now. These days, we don’t have restaurants like that. We either have budget, mid-tier, or fancy. Java was like a fancy mid-tier restaurant and the reason Sauti Sol sang, “nikupeleke Java tunywe kahawa…” was because they were kind of struggling artists at the time, and buying someone coffee at Java was it. However, I didn’t just buy this girl coffee, I bought her a meal because I had saved. I watched her eat while I just drank coffee.
The Aux Cord As A Love Language
(Karanja, Male, 26)
Getting outside of your comfort zone is not a thing you do once but so many times the hinges no longer creak. On a bright Saturday afternoon, standing in front of me in a queue, was a girl that made me burst those doors wide open. Immediately enthralled with each other, we set a lunch date for the coming day. Outfit and playlist in check, I drove to her house the next day nervous but excited. Driving to the location she complimented my music taste (not knowing I had spent the entire night stalking her Apple music). Her personality and laughter matched the bright Sunday weather we were experiencing. Over a seafood platter and drinks stronger than necessary, we exchanged stories of love lost to the rhythm of love found. Heading home, she commanded the aux cord and played music that sounded like she had used my technique too. The perfect start to a relationship that would blossom into something special.
(Virgil, Male, 69)
In those days, going for a movie date with a girl was a very special occasion. Pam was one of my sister’s many friends. She must have shown some interest in me, because one Sunday morning after the church service, my sister dragged her along to where I was chatting with some friends, pulled me aside and made some hasty introduction, before retreating to rejoin her other friends, leaving Pam behind. She had a cinnamon complexion and neat afro. I was impressed by her simple white sun dress patterned with pinkish and purplish hibiscus flowers. At first, I was somewhat tongue-tied, but I quickly gathered courage and started making small talk – where did she live; where did she go to school; did she like that particular school? And – my favorite pastime – did she like reading? I was quietly disappointed to learn she didn’t really love reading but preferred movies!
“Movies? I also love movies.” I quickly ventured. “You know Jaws is right now showing at the Kenya Cinema. Have you watched it?” She shook her head but said nothing! At that time, her giggling friends had started beckoning her to rejoin them and I realized I had to act fast, otherwise I’d end up dateless.
“What are you doing on Wednesday?” I paused to gauge her reaction. She seemed uncertain, so I quickly went for the kill: “We could catch that movie together if you are free?” She gave me a shy nod and we agreed that my sister would be the go-between.
On Tuesday, my sister informed me that Pam wanted me to call her since they had a phone at home and her parents were away at work. That presented an immediate problem for me since the phone at home was padlocked and could only receive calls, not make outgoing ones. It therefore meant I had to trek to the Post Office armed with adequate loose change and prepare to queue outside one of the red phone booths for my turn to make a call.
Fortunately, I found one with a shorter queue and was able to make the call, amidst the blaring horns from the busy traffic, and confirm the arrangements. We agreed to meet at the Fontanella Restaurant before strolling to the movie theater a short distance along Nkrumah Road.
Come Wednesday, I took the afternoon off and by 1 p.m.. My attire of blue denim and the trendy Arrow shirt to match were neatly arranged in the bed, and on second thought, I also got a denim jacket. Though it was pretty warm outside, the jacket added some panache, especially when casually flung across the right shoulder as one struts along the streets. I had also managed to negotiate and get my mum to allow me the use of our white Peugeot 504, with the promise that I’d fuel it – a promise I never kept!
Come 2 p.m., I got dressed and having generously sprayed myself with musky Brut cologne, I picked the car keys and drove up Chambilo Road, down to the city center and parked the car just outside the restaurant. The Fontanella was a circular garden bar with an open sky enclosed within an office building with two entrances- one facing Nyerere Avenue and the other Kilindini Road.
I quickly selected a secluded place that had a good view of the two entrances. On one side of the enclosure, there was a curio shop that had some poorly dressed tourists streaming in and out. The main attraction was a wooden-mesh wire cage that contained a pair of Tanzanian lovebirds. These resplendent in their emerald body and orange-yellow breast feathers, with neatly curved red beaks, were quite a spectacle. Their endless kissing antics were a welcome source of distraction for the patrons.
It wasn’t long before she walked in, wearing a pair of jeans and a plain white blouse, looking neat and trim. But she was not alone. She was accompanied by another young woman. I was immediately flooded with a feeling of disappointment, which was quickly washed away by the broad smile she gave me as she approached where I sat.
“Hi! Please meet my cousin Anita.”
I was glad I had carried extra cash, otherwise Anita would really have messed up my budget.
We quickly made our orders of two glasses of passion juice for Pam and Anita and a coke for me. We then strolled out to where I had parked the car, Pam swiftly taking possession of the front passenger seat. Since there was still time before the movie, I took them for a drive past the Likoni Ferry and down the picturesque Mama Ngina Drive, with its booming sound of breaking waves and the provocative scent of the ocean.
We then drove past the leafy State House and the Provincial Headquarters, to the big roundabout fringed with some of the major banks in Mombasa; then down towards the Town Centre, before parking outside the Palm Tree Hotel that was located almost opposite the theater. There wasn’t much traffic in those days – no matatus , tuk-tuks or boda bodas – so crossing roads was not a life-threatening experience. But I still insisted on holding her hand and assisting her across the road. That provoked a chorus of giggles from the two girls.
Maybe I was winning?
The front of the theater was pasted with large glossy posters of past and upcoming movies. An assorted crowd of people hang around buying some refreshments and others
whiling away, speculating on the movie, before making their way to the entrance.
“Mi niliona hii cinema jana! Nakwambia huyu jamaa sijui aitwaje vile, anajua ku-ekt (act) kweli!”
“Jana sikutosheka” he continued “Leo nimekuja kuiona tena!” He then looked around and continued: “Lakini kama umekosa tikti ntafute. Walahi usikose hi sinema muurwaa.”
We made our way to the booth and asked for the prestigious and less crowded balcony seats for three. That cost me a cool KSh 15. I asked Pam and Anita if they cared for any refreshments but they shook their heads. Pam said they will have something during the interval. We headed to the entrance hall that had posters of famous movie stars like Sophia Loren, Yul Brynner, Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Taylor smiling down at us. We were met by an usher who took our tickets, opened the heavy draperies and, using a torch, led us up a number of flights and across a few stretched legs to our seats. Pam sat strategically between Anita and I, and I quietly heaved a sigh of relief that contrary to my fears, she was not going to be used as the buffer zone.
We engaged in small talk when suddenly the light went out, the curtains opened and the large screen, showing a faded flapping flag, blared the Kenyan National Anthem. We, in our brief patriotic moment, all stood and patiently waited for the anthem to end and the action to begin.
Unfortunately, during those days, the feast started with some faded black and white news of the world. This was followed by the numerous “coming soon” and “next attraction”, including some Asian movies. Well, before long, the welcome sign of “INTERMISSION” flashed across the screen as the curtain slowly closed.
We patiently made our way to the refreshment stalls that were filled with the popping sounds and the mouth-watering smell of popcorn and butter. Pam ordered two popcorn bags, khaki ones, since the fancy ones had not come into fashion yet, and two bottles of Fanta. I opted for my favorite Coca-Cola, with nothing else. This was deliberate, so that I could at least have my right hand free for those tentative innocent touches on Pam’s arm, and if no resistance was encountered, across her shoulders with a little pull toward my own waiting shoulders. Unfortunately, once the movie started, our enjoyment was shattered by a know-it-all who was seated some seats behind us. Apparently, he had already seen the movie and was loudly narrating the next action sequence!
“Msijali! Huyo papa hatampata. Huyu jenyewe anajua kuhepa kweli!”
“Sasa unamuona yule mama anayeogelea pale kando na mtoto wake? Yule hana bahati! Papa atamuwahi lakini katoto katabebwa na mawimbi kapone.”
“Shut up!” someone shouted from the other end of the balcony.
That started an endless exchange with others joining in to gang up against the irritant.
“Shut up ni nini?” “Kwenda huko we ***ga nini?”
We waited for the management to intervene and sort out the problem, but I guess this was a normal occurrence since no one came to our assistance. Well, that gave me the rare opportunity to pull Pam closer to me and shield her against the unsavoury barbs being carelessly hurled around. To distract her further, I whispered some calming words into her ears, while at the same time gently trying to extract from her our next date, to make up for that day’s mess. Before she could answer, mayhem broke loose up above.
Apparently, one of the patrons had gotten so fed up with the unwelcome running commentary and had stealthily moved up to where the talking head was seated and punched him in his mouthy face. The fracas prompted management to act, with a few ushers rushing to separate the two.
I quickly marshalled Pam and Anita out of the theater and into the car. Since we still had some time (it was hardly four-thirty in the evening), I suggested we pop into the Casbar and resume our rudely interrupted refreshments, and also enjoy a little entertainment. Casbar was located on Salim Road not far from the theater. We could actually have walked there but that would have robbed me the chance of sitting next to Pam, holding her left hand, while using my right hand to drive with wild and showy abandon.
The Casbar was a popular joint in town. There was an inner seating area with dimmed lights, an airy spacious balcony that was ideal for those who couldn’t persevere Mombasa’s heat. At the entrance, we were welcomed by a whiff of smoke, stale beer, and a combination of sweat, as well as cheap and exotic scents from some young revellers who were dancing to the latest soukous tunes. I was quietly thrilled to see my favorite sitting position – facing the road and the Akamba carvings stalls – unoccupied! It was a perfect spot since it sat two on one side and one on the other.
Immediately we were seated, my favorite waiter, Ahmed, dressed in his usual off-white “Hakuna Matata” T-shirt rushed over and vigorously shook my hand while inquiring “Mbona umepotea hivi boss? Leo umemwacha wapi yule rafiki yako kichaa Mwashighadi?”
We made small talk before turning to the girls and asking them what they wished to take. They both opted for passion juice and a plate of chips and sausages.
“Kuku ya leo vipi?” I asked Ahmed.
“Ya leo utabloo Mzee!” he responded enthusiastically.
“Huja na ile achari yake speshali, si unaijua ile? Hawa akina dada wataipenda kweli!”
I ordered a plate of chips, half a chicken and a cold Pilsner for myself. Not much conversation took place as we were constantly interrupted by friends coming over saying hello to me and surreptitiously eyeing the girls, especially Anita. The moment was saved when my best friend Mwashighadi walked in, gave me a huge hug and upon being introduced, bowed chivalrously as he kissed the girls’ hands. He quickly ordered a Tusker Lager for himself, then whispered to me “Naona wako ni Pam, wacha nipambane na Anita.”
After the girls had finished their drinks, I suggested that they have a glass of BabyCham each before dropping them home. They readily agreed. They became more open and chatty after a few BabyChams. I could see Anita was really getting charmed by my friend. The evening progressed well, with a bit of dancing, where I got to know Pam better. We agreed to meet that Saturday at Mama Ngina Drive for our next date. I also promised to introduce her to the joys of reading.
By 6 p.m., it was time to leave. I paid my total bill of KSh. 320. The girls bid goodbye to Mwashighadi and I dropped them home at Tudor 4. After being rewarded with a peck on the cheek, I drove back to the Casbar and rejoined my friend for the rest of the evening.
It was the beginning of something beautiful.