A Wet Christmas

I was away from Nairobi for almost exactly two months, from August until October. In my absence, the city, or more accurately a few its businesses, took a giant technological leap forward. Free wireless internet “hot zones” are now available at a small number of reasonably convenient bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.

I was at one such location, Gypsy, one weekday afternoon doing routine internet business and pleasure – reading and writing email, holiday shopping, paying credit card bills, making incredibly cheap international telephone calls, and checking the progress of the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky college basketball teams – when my server handed me a handwritten note, folded once down the middle, on the bar’s stationery.

“You on Skype or Yahoo? Wanna chat?”

Gypsy is a very good restaurant and a lively nightspot. It’s located in Westlands, a largely selfcontained exurb of Nairobi favored by a lot of the city’s upper middle class residents. I used to avoid such places, preferring instead the dark hovels I became accustomed to while working in rural Madagascar. Sadly, now that I draw a salary instead of volunteer stipend, I find myself spending more time in nicer establishments at the expense of the grittier places I used to like so much. It’s also true that Nairobi is a much nicer city than Antanarivo – many of the Kenyans with whom I am friends would not be comfortable in the bars I used to visit regularly in Madagascar.

I was more recently at Gypsy late on a Friday night, when the patio is reconfigured as an outdoor danceclub. As is often the case, the clientele was largely from the city’s prosperous Indian community. There were also a surprising number of openly gay young men, a very taboo lifestyle throughout most of Africa. There was exactly one white woman, dancing in her crimson bra, clearly looking to attract as much attention from as many men as possible.

The rest of the patrons that night, and most weekend nights, were there mixing pleasure and business in the lopsided affair that is often the African dating scene. For men, and in particular white men, a danceclub in Africa is frequently a lot like windowshopping. There are always far more available women than there are interested men. The women have to compete and maneuver amongst themselves to win attention. Some are direct, striking a conversation or offering to buy a drink. Others are more demure, making coy and suggestive eye contact from across the room. Some compete directly on the dancfloor, moving ever more sensually and outrageously to impress their judges. The men watch from afar or perhaps dabble with one woman then another. They do not need to compete. In the end, a man simply chooses the woman with whom he intends to spend the rest of the evening. No pronouncement is made, the man simply starts spending more time talking to one woman and less time talking to all the others. The whole scene repeats itself again the next night, often with all of the same characters performing.

To call it prostitution is unfair and inaccurate. Frequently these encounters become longterm affairs. Frequently it is not sex that is being given for money. It is companionship that is offered in exchange for opportunity. The women are not looking to make a quick buck. They are looking to improve their longterm standard of living. The men are not always looking for one night of sex. They are often seeking something much more like a girlfriend.

One afternoon in Tamatave, a tropical beachfront town on the east coast of Madagascar, I was with a friend on the patio of our hotel while we were waiting for our overnight bus to the capital. We were joined by a very young and very attractive woman, the sort that at the time I would have classified as a prostitute. After a short while, she invited us to her home. We went, fearing yet expecting some form of sordid entertainment until our evening departure. Instead, we were relieved and disappointed to find ourselves having lunch with her parents in their modest house made of ravinala wood and palms. The walls were covered with pictures of our new friend, always with the same young white man. A German, she referred to him as “my ex boyfriend.” We realized she was not looking to earn any quick money from either one of us. In a very normal and even traditional way, she was courting us. She wanted a new boyfriend.

That Friday night I was at Gypsy with a Kenyan American who lives in Boston where she works as an auditor for Deloitte. She won the green card lottery seven years ago when her mother entered everyone in the family without telling any of them. A year later, at the age of eighteen, she moved to the United States. Her family is Quaker so it was arranged through church connections that she would live in a Quaker community in Pennsylvania. She lasted a month before she moved, alone, to Boston. Her first roommate there was a Chinese prostitute. Currently she’s living with a young woman from Russia who uses their small apartment to host illegal immigrants. We met quite accidentally one weekday afternoon in Nairobi when I was wandering the streets of the Central Business District looking for somewhere to get a haircut. Her mother owns the first salon that I found.

She told me later that night, after we left the bar, that an older European man had approached her on the dancefloor while I was inside buying our drinks. He said only one line: “Do you want me?” He was essentially making his choice for the evening, but he happened to choose one of the women who was not there auditioning for him.

It was a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon when I received the anonymous invitation to chat, but it was hard to forget the weekend image of Gypsy as a place where men and women meet to bargain for an affair.

On the same piece of paper, I responded curtly and apologetically, “Neither Skype nor Yahoo. Pole.”

I thought that would be the end of it but moments later a different server handed me a new note: “Look up this time. I’m waving.”

She was beautiful. This time I replied, “perhaps we could chat in person instead of by internet? I will join you as soon as I’m finished.”

My admirer, it turned out, was a former Miss Ethiopia. At first I was skeptical. She told me so immediately that it seemed almost like a sales pitch. However, she spoke with familiarity of the various international destinations she visited during her yearlong reign in 2004 – Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Cape Town, and New York. Now she lives in Kenya working for a regional fashion magazine, and she once did some modeling for a magazine that she called “the South Africa version of Cosmopolitan.”

Ethiopians are very aware of the fact that they are a uniquely beautiful people, and they are justifiably proud. They like to say that God, a baker, undercooked the white people, overcooked the black people, but got it just right with the Ethiopians. Despite the high national standards, it was not hard to believe that the woman sitting across from me could be chosen as the prettiest of the pretty. She had soft brown skin, long black hair, and the deep dark eyes that are so common in children but so rare in adults. She was tall and angular, but not bony. Her posture was casual but upright, clearly reflecting her pride and confidence. However, she insisted several times that it takes more than beauty to win a beauty pageant.

We talked a lot about Ethiopia. She knows her home well and she discussed it with enthusiasm. She used Google Earth to show me her family’s house in Addis Ababa, not far from Bole International Airport. “We don’t have a pool,” she said, “but many of our neighbors do.” She also showed me Mekelle, her mother’s hometown in the northern province of Tigray.

She was not immune to the prejudices of her ethnically fractured homeland. The ruling Tigray and Amhara people are “the best most beautiful people in the world.” The majority, but outcast, Oromo are “poor and stupid.” She recommended several books to me, but, she said, “they are only in Amharic.”

We also talked a lot about Christmas. Ethiopia has a long and elaborate Orthodox Christian tradition. It is said that the Ark of the Covenant and its Ten Commandments are, to this day, located in a church in the northern town of Axum. Most of lowland Africa around it was forcefully converted to Islam centuries ago, but Ethiopia remained a fortress Orthodox Christian kingdom in the highlands of the Simien Mountains. Similarly, Ethiopia was never colonized by any European country. The symbolism suggested by its mountainous geography is perhaps appropriate – Ethiopians truly believe they inhabit a higher plain than the rest of Africa.

As an Orthodox Christian country, Ethiopia celebrates Christmas on January 7. Even at nearly 10,000 feet, Addis Ababa is too near the tropical weather of the equator to have a White Christmas. Instead, Miss Ethiopia explained to me, they wish for a Wet Christmas. A few days after our meeting it was December 25. Late that night in Nairobi, it started raining. It didn’t stop, by my count, for fourteen hours. I sent Miss Ethiopia a text message by cell phone: “It was indeed a Wet Christmas.”

I saw her a few nights later, again at Gypsy. She was with another man, a young Indian dressed far better than I ever am. The following day I received a text message from her. It was friendly, even flirtatious. I replied with a tone that I hoped matched hers. Sometime later, she wrote again: “That last message was not meant for you. Sorry.” I suspect that’s the last I hear from Miss Ethiopia.

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