Comedy critic Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity is based. It helps impoverished, sidelined people to start up their own small businesses.
She is usually based in Nairobi but, last Saturday, she went to Mombassa.
Below is a highly cut-down version of her diary, which she posts in full on Mama Biashara’s Facebook page.
SATURDAY 12th MARCH
We go off to the end of Mombasa where Bamburi Cement lives. It is SO quiet compared to Nairobi. Almost no traffic, no hooting and screaming. And no plague of police looking for bribes. In a little slum area north of the factory area, Vicky (of Vicky’s Cleaners fame) is waiting. We have a training session to do.
Since we first funded her, Vicky has had successes all over Kenya and into Tanzania. In keeping with what I have decided to call the Mama Biashara Model because it sounds important, Vicky has – with Mombasa now as her base – started working with older commercial sex workers (women she describes beautifully as “they have … a history”), male commercial sex workers and ex-crims who cannot ever get proper work because to be employed as anything you need a ‘certificate of good behaviour’ which you cannot get if you have been to prison.
She trains them (she is a phenomenal trainer) in all manner of skills and gives them the work when she gets new contracts (which she does all the time). Some have had enough work from Vicky alone to set themselves up in businesses. This trip, we are meeting a half dozen or so groups who have plans but need a bit of Mama Biashara luuuurve (and money, obviously).
At night, I have the most extraordinary dreams. Wonderful dreams, unlike any I can remember. They are full of people I know from all over my life and we are all in a show. I am, as well as that, invited to join Fascinating Aida and we spend a while practicing harmonies. I am so happy.
Normally all my dreams revolve around me being forced onstage (no, really) to fill in in a play – quite often Shakespeare – where I have not been to rehearsals and have only had a cursory glance at the script and no one will let me look at it again even though I know that, if I can just get the first line, the rest will come. But I have to go onstage and I can ruin everything for everyone. They are scary and stressful and guilt-ridden and horrible.
This dream was joyful. I was, again, asked to fill in in the play. But this time I was playing a corpse and so I could do nothing wrong. People would pick me up when I had to be moved and everything would just happen round about me. There was the small matter of a killer on the loose but he was caught before I went onstage.
I have realised that Mombasa for humans is like water for sharks: you have to keep moving or you die. Movement creates a small breeze (or large breeze if you are bobbling along in a tuktuk.
We get a matatu from town to the ferry over to the south side. Doris has rather given me the impression that The Ferry is an impressive trip, fraught with peril. Turns out it is a voyage of some four minutes. On weekdays, about 3,000 people cram on but today we are few. Yes there has been a capsizing. Once. But the thing seems to be managed with a quite un-Kenyan efficiency.
We go down to the public part of Diani Beach. Like Pirates Bay (where we were yesterday), there are hawkers and renters of rubber rings. But this is much posher. There are some (but surprisingly few) white people here. Mainly large older men with slim young local girls. And the price of the jelly coconuts has suddenly doubled.
We are having no luck getting together our recycling training group and we still do not know if we will be allowed into the village where widows are sent to be used as sex toys for rich Swahili men, so we make out way back to the ferry, stopping for phone charging and food at a place where the owner makes an immediate play for Doris. Having said which, “You are well filled-out” is not necessarily a universally acceptable chat-up line.
We go back out to Bamburi and find Vicky with the last of the funding groups – six women who want to make viazi karai (a Swahili delicacy) and a group of twenty young guys who want to rent out beach kit at Pirates Beach. The guys are a mix of ex rent boys and ex cons – not as iffy as it sounds. Loads of people get swept up – almost literally – in the frequent ‘street clean up’ campaigns put together by City Councils. Homeless, beggars, thieves and the rest all get collected and dumped in prison where they more or less disappear).
These guys want to get up and out and their progress at the beach will be monitored by police and City Council. They just need the capital to get started. As we talk, I realise that there is, even amongst serious hardmen like this. a real taboo about revealing that some of the guys are gay. It is extraordinary to see their spokesman almost blush to say the word.
Doris takes me to Old Mombasa Town. We dive off into the warren of streets that is the old town: a little like Marrakesh and a little like Venice. This place is home to a myriad street snacks, all delicious. We find a hole in the wall where an old beardy bloke is drinking what is definitely coffee. We ask if we can come in. We can. We drink superb coffee. We watch the Old Town world go by. It is a very other world. Doris observes that the place smells like an Indian Paan House.
“It is,” nods beardy man.
“I love paan,” I pipe up – having chewed it in London after meals as a fennel-heavy breath freshener.
“These ones are very good,” offers beardy man.
It doesn’t taste like the London paan. It tastes like chewing incense. I swallow the juice. Then suddenly I feel slightly numb.
I spit it out into a napkin. The ‘buzz’ intensifies and it feels like the top of my head has come off. I find I can neither speak properly nor do anything much. Like move. Which is unfortunate as what I know without shadow of a doubt is that I am about to vomit.
Doris says that what happens is I turn purple.
I can see my arms and they have certainly changed colour. And purple is not far off it. Luckily I have been sitting right at the door – watching the world go by – and so, powerless to do anything else, I vomit. My puke almost hits the middle of the road. I try to say sorry but my mouth won’t work. The old men in the shop are very helpful.
“Water,” they say, “and milk. Gargle and spit.”
I cannot even hold a mug of water. Doris holds it and I drink. And puke again. The owner of the shop (no, it transpires, beardy welcoming man was not the owner, merely a regular and he has now left) has come back and is creating hell that the old lady would have let me try the chewwie stuff.
Doris explains that I wanted to try it. She herself was about to try it. I am still retching into the bucket but try to back her up. Doris helpfully takes a photo. Now all the people in the shop are helping. Buckets of water swirl away the puke from the front of the shop. A tuktuk is summoned. I cannot stand to get into it for another five minutes. By then I can mumble apologies to all and clamber into the seat. We get back to the hotel where I explode in the other direction.
I have more wonderful dreams and yet again sleep like a baby. I am insistent that we return to the Paan Shop with gifts for the old lady and her husband as an apology for yesterday.
The training group for recycling is still nowhere to be found and it transpires that the widows’ village is out of bounds as it is under lockdown (along with the rest of the area) as a couple of people have been stabbed on the beach and the murderers have not been found.