How does a young man get ahead in Kenya? It is now four years since the wazungu colonials turned the country over to its inhabitants. (However, Kenya is still full of wazungu.) There are ten and a half million of Kenyans and Moses Ndungu feels that he is competing with half of them to get ahead. Moses is twenty-five, working in a clerk’s job that promises no future, a job he secured through a Kikuyu relative to whom he now feels himself in bondage.
Unfortunately, he failed to finish secondary school. Not his fault. But because Moses went walking with girl classmates, teachers suspected that he was seducing these girls, an activity they regarded as exclusively their preserve. Moses was sent down. He now lives in a room with three other young men, government workers like himself, paying more rent than he can afford. He and his roommates often question each other as to how one goes about getting rich.
“Who is rich in this country?” ask his roommates.
So study the wazungu: how they dress, how they speak, how they walk, how they get money. Such study makes no sense to Moses. But he has no better idea.
So he asks himself: Where do I study them? Not at the fancy Muthaiga Club, the best social gathering place in the country. It’s a place he could never succeed in entering. Not in the best tourist hotels: the Norfolk, the Inter-Continental, the Hilton. Perhaps at the New Stanley. He and his roommates have treated themselves to cups of coffee at the Thorn Tree outside the New Stanley. There they studied wazungu at the tables beside them, watched them enter and leave the hotel lobby. They have also made inspections at the sidewalk café outside the Norfolk.
But they learn little. The study is expensive; it eats up their wages: ten shillingi for a coffee. The exchange rate now is seven shillings to a dollar. Furthermore, they embarrass their brother African employees at these hotels. These brothers keep pushing them to leave. When they ask these brothers, “What is the wazungu secret, they are told, “Money. Have money. Get money.”
One day one of these employees mentions, “Some wazungu go to church. Maybe you should study them there.”
So Moses and his roommates begin to attend church services. But in the mainline denominations – the Church of England, the Presbyterian, the Catholic – the clergy and many of the congregants are Africans. The African clergy are on guard against young men more interested in mammon than spirituality. They run them off.
Eventually Moses’ roommates lose interest in chasing the secrets of wazungu wealth. There is more pleasure – and more success – in chasing girls.
But Moses persists. He studies the churches established along Kirk Road and discovers one that he and his friends have overlooked: Christ’s Church. There are two services each week: one on Sunday mornings and a second one late on Wednesday afternoons. The edifice is small, set on a rise back of the parking lot. Making a surveillance of this church, Moses notices that the congregation is comprised almost entirely of wazungu, many of whom appear to be in Nairobi as tourists. If tourists were not rich, they would not be in Nairobi.
One weekday afternoon Moses strikes up an acquaintance with the brother Kikuyu who acts as caretaker of the church, living on the property. “Who are these people who go to this church?” Moses asks.
“Mostly wazungu,” the caretaker tells him. “Some have been here since the days of Happy Valley. Others are tourists. The Christ’s Church people are very rich.”
This interests Moses. “What do they believe?” he asks.
“In the first chapter of Genesis, not the second. That God created us all and loves us all. They believe in the power of prayer.”
“Can Africans attend this church?” Moses asks.
“Do you attend it?”
The caretaker laughs. “Do I want to keep my job? And my living quarters?” He adds, “They are generous people.”
“Would they let me attend their services?” Moses asks.
“That would let them eat joy. They want to reach more Africans.”
So in order to continue his studies of wazungu Moses Ndungu begins to attend Christ’s Church. The members welcome him to their services, take an interest in him, and treat him (as they see it) as an equal.
As part of their fellowship they teach him how to pray. He feigns interest in this training because it facilitates his study of wazungu. He realizes that he has never really known what prayer is or how to go about praying. The Christ’s Church people encourage him to keep at it, not to pray for things like money, a car or a better job, but to know God better and to grow in grace.
Moses learns quickly, but, except when in church, he does not actually practice prayer. Even so, association with the wazungu leads him to dress better, to speak English more comprehensibly, and to carry himself with greater self-confidence. The wazungu members at Christ’s Church are happy to regard this as proof that “God works in mysterious ways.”
Moses notices the American tourist enter the service the moment she sets foot inside the church. She is five minutes late; the service has begun. She is not a big woman, but she makes a big impression – at least on Moses. That is because she exudes inherited wealth. Moses’s studies of wazungu have reached a stage where he can tell the upper class from the middle class (both classes send tourists to Kenya). He can also distinguish the nouveau riche, the arrivistes, from the quietly rich, and the quietly rich from those who have inherited wealth.
This woman is a widow named Florence Gottrox. She is the granddaughter of one of the real estate developers who made Los Angeles a city before people thought of them as realtors or of what they did as development. She has known all kinds of people and traveled throughout the world, but never before to Africa. She is eager to make the acquaintance of Africans.
After the service she greets members of the congregation, reaching out particularly to the Africans. She invites several of them to join her for the famous Sunday curry lunch at the Norfolk Hotel. Moses is one of these. They answer the questions of Ms G, as she prefers to be called, about their lives, their families, their living conditions.
In his studies of wazungu Moses has learned to speak up, to take advantage of wazungu interest in people like him. As a result, Ms G invites Moses to have tea with her the next day at the Inter-Continental. If Ms G wants to know more about Africans like Moses, so he wishes to learn more about wazungu like her.
Tea with Ms Gottrox represents the acme of his wazungu studies. So hoping that his boss will not miss him, he leaves work early, returns to his lodgings to change into his church clothes, and arrives at the luxury hotel to have tea with Ms G.
Moses has never before had this kind of tea: with cloth napkins and cakes and cucumber sandwiches cut into shapes. The tea tastes very bland to Moses, very white man, in comparison to the chai he frequently drinks. He watches his new friend carefully, following her lead, using only one lump of sugar (he prefers four) and a good deal of milk, taking only one sandwich and one slice of cake. Ms G offers more, but Moses restrains himself because he sees that his hostess takes no more than one each. Ms G watches him. They both understand that Moses is taking his clues from her. And so she is careful to lead him in ways that he can easily follow.
“I so want to know about Africa,” Ms G says. “Tell me all about you: where you were born, who your parents are, have you always lived in Nairobi, where you went to school, your job.”
Moses laughs embarrassedly because it is such a big assignment. But he starts off, telling Ms G a story that is largely true, but not entirely so. He does not cry poor for, after all, she is treating him (as she sees it) as an equal. But he does explain that finding proper employment is very difficult in Kenya for a young man. Most jobs are in the government and to secure one a young man must have a friend. He explains that he has secured his office job because a distant Kikuyu relative was able to help him.
“Must it always be that way?” Ms G asks.
“It seems so. I wish it weren’t.”
“What if you had more schooling?”
“I wanted to go to university,” Moses explains, “but the male teachers forced me out of secondary school because they saw that girls in the school were attracted to me.”
Ms G looks puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“The teachers wanted the girls for themselves. So when girls liked me, the teachers pushed me out.”
Ms G pours more tea and milk for both of them, considering this problem. “What if you got training overseas?” she asks.
“But how could I qualify for that? I haven’t even finished secondary school.”
“But you are bright, mature. You carry yourself well.”
Moses does not know what to say and says nothing.
“Have you traveled?” Ms G sees the confusion on his face. “Would you like to travel?”
“Of course,” says Moses, wondering what she can offer him.
Ms G surprises him by saying that she has rented a car to drive around Kenya. Would he like to act as her driver? Does he drive? Yes. She has reservations at hotels and lodges and could make reservations for him. They will be gone a week. It’s Monday now. She’s leaving Wednesday and expects to spend the first night at Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo Park.
Moses can hardly contain his enthusiasm. Grins stretch across his face.
“Let me arrange a leave of absence at my work,” he says.
She gives him a phone number. He agrees to call her.
At the office where Moses works clerks do not customarily ask for leaves of absence. In making the request, Moses embellishes the trip, describing his employer as an American government official who has made a special request for him as a driver. Yes, it is unusual that he should know Mr. Gottrox – he would suffer derision if he revealed his employer as a woman – but they met at church and have already developed a keen friendship.
His boss is clearly skeptical. But at last he relents. “If I find out that you are not really making this trip,” he warns, “you will lose your job.” Then he adds, “Bring me an ashtray from every hotel you stop in.” Moses agrees and secures his leave of absence.
As he prepares for the trip all Moses can think about is this: “This mzungu woman has money, many shillingi.” How can he get hold of that money? Should he kill her? Kidnap her? Offer to make love to her – she must certainly wonder about African love – and hope his performance will open her purse? Should he steal her money and leave her stranded as dinner for lions in the middle of nowhere?
He likes Ms G very much; she has been generous to him. But this kind of opportunity presents itself only once in a lifetime. Moses goes to Nairobi Park, sits in the twilight and tries to develop a plan. He considers each possibility carefully. Killing her is too risky; he would certainly be caught by police, badly beaten and hanged. Kidnapping her would require accomplices and he does not want to share her or her money with anyone. How about merely stealing from her? But he has heard that tourists use travelers checks and something relatively new called credit cards. He would not know how to negotiate either of those. If he tried he would be caught, beaten and imprisoned. As for offering himself as a lover, her age would not be a problem. But he would be embarrassed to offer himself. More accomplished men have undoubtedly already put themselves at her disposal.
Perhaps most importantly Moses realizes that the generosity Ms G has already shown him may only be the start. Why hurt the goose that lays the golden egg?
They take the trip together. They spend the first two nights at Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo Park. When he’s alone, Moses filches two ashtrays from that hotel. The third and fourth nights they stay at the Nyali Beach Hotel in Mombasa; Moses takes one ashtray from the hotel and another from a fine restaurant they patronize for dinner. The fifth and sixth nights are in Malindi with a side trip to the nearby Gede Ruins (ashtrays from the hotel and from a restaurant). The seventh day Ms G surrenders the car and they fly back to Nairobi. Improbable as it seems, by this time they have become good friends.
As they have coffee after their last dinner together, Ms G says, “I hate to think of you going back to that office job with no prospects for advancement ahead of you.”
Moses nods that returning to real life will not be easy.
Ms G says, “I have an idea. Let me buy you an American education.” Moses cannot quite believe that he has heard these words. Did she actually say them? Or did he only dream that she did? But she goes on, “Then you can return here and write your own ticket.”
Moses does not know what to say. So he says nothing,
Ms G explains her plan. She serves as a trustee for a small, but very good liberal arts college in the American Midwest. The college is eager to broaden its student body, mainly for the benefit of the American students. Ms G feels certain that she could arrange for Moses to take what the college calls an “enrichment year.” If he finds he enjoys it, perhaps he can take the full four-year course. “It’s an extraordinary offer,” Ms G assures him, “but I do not pretend that it would be easy. You would be in a strange place among people very different from you. And it might take you a while to catch up with your course work. But think it over. I’ll be in and out of Nairobi for another week. We can arrange everything before I leave.”
Moses does not have to tell Ms G that he is stunned because astonishment is written all over his face. Moses is not effusive in his thanks and Ms G understands why this is. Chiefs and Big Men (and in her case Big Women) are seen as providing opportunities as part of who they are. To thank them is to question their ability to offer such gifts. When he leaves her, Moses takes Ms G’s right hand in both of his and presses it to his heart. He promises to think about her offer.
The next morning when he returns to work, he gives his boss seven ashtrays. The boss puts them around his office as if he had stopped at these hotels. Moses informs him that Mr G has made him another offer – to send him to college in America – something he is now considering. The boss is so impressed that he asks to meet Mr G; perhaps he also can take a ride on this train. Moses agrees to set up a meeting, but never does.
Actually Moses does not know how to think about Ms G’s plan. The offer of travel to America and a year of study there is almost beyond his ability to comprehend it. Why wouldn’t he grab it? When he returns after a year – or maybe if he took the whole course maybe after five – he will be a new man: an educated person, one who has traveled the world, one who knows how to speak English, one whose wisdom will routinely be sought. Probably good jobs will come seeking him. And yet living overseas that year might be very hard. He will have no friends and everyone knows that blacks are often badly treated in America.
Hoping for worthwhile advice, he consults some of his fellow churchgoers at Christ’s Church. Everyone congratulates him on winning this opportunity. However, a number of the wazungu must have the arrangement explained to them several times before they can believe it truly has been offered.
“You’re sure you understood her correctly, Moses?” they ask.
“A year? A full year?”
“All at her expense? Travel, lodging, tuition?”
“Ndio. That’s what she said.”
“Well, you better not think twice about this, my boy. You better grab it!”
Moses has occasion to consult the Kikuyu caretaker about this opportunity and so learns what the wazungu are saying about it among themselves. “Our Moses? She must be crazy!” they say. “Moses can’t handle college work?” “’A fool and her money are soon parted.’” Even so, everyone encourages him to accept the offer.
When he sees Ms G again, Moses tells her that the church members are skeptical of the offer. “What business is it of theirs?” she asks. She takes a piece of hotel stationery and lists upon it what she has offered. She is returning to America the next day and will immediately contact the college to arrange the program. Moses writes down particulars about himself – address, age, date and place of birth – and gives them to his benefactor so that she can make the necessary arrangements. Moses drives her to the airport the next day, waves goodbye as she disappears through the flight gate, and wonders if he will ever hear from her again.
At the end of two weeks he receives a letter from her, confirming his place at the college and suggesting travel dates. More importantly, Ms G’s has included a personal check for $5,000. It will cover his buying a fuller wardrobe, purchasing a round-trip airline ticket, and paying the first installment of his college tuition.
Now Moses must decide if this is what he truly wants to do. His friends urge him to take advantage of the offer, to go to America, get a smattering of education, find a rich American girl – white or black or Asian, it doesn’t matter – marry her, settle in California, and never return to Kenya. Church members agree that he must go to America, work hard (though the year may not be an easy one), and return to help make Kenya a better place.
Moses’s Kikuyu buddies cannot believe his good luck and urge him to take full advantage of it. However, other African advisors counsel caution. “Why do you want to go there?” they ask. “You will have no friends. Since you never were a student, you won’t be able to handle the work. You’ll fall farther and farther behind. Once it becomes clear that you are failing, this mzungu woman will desert you. It will be the worst year of your life.”
Moses eventually decides that he lacks the courage required to accept the opportunity. He fears being friendless. He cowers at the prospect of being ridiculed, of being called a monkey, of having his English usage mocked. He does not relish the prospect of spending a winter in snow, drizzle, ice storms. He cannot believe that he would return from America with an enhanced reputation; a pretense of successful travel and education would require constant deception. Should he allow dreams of success to plunge him into the jaws of failure?
For weeks he can admit his decision to no one. He cashes Ms Gottrox’s check and opens a bank account with 35,000 shillings. The amount is so huge that he tells no one that he controls so many shillingi. He buys new clothes, telling friends he is taking them to America.
Finally he realizes that he must tell Ms G of his decision. He makes several attempts to craft just the right letter. Finally he makes a difficult confession: he lacks the courage needed to conquer America. He hopes Ms G will understand. He says again how much he values their friendship and her generosity toward him.
He sends the letter without ever mentioning the money.
The money! What about the money?
When the Christ’s Church wazungu realize that he is not, after all, going to America, there is much whispering about the money. Well-intentioned pillars of the church take him aside; they instruct him to return the money. “You must do this for your own self-respect,” they tell him. If the money is not returned, what will Ms Gottrox think of him? Of Africa? And of Christ’s Church?
The matter becomes so contentious that Moses stops attending church. His studies of wazungu have shown him that the wazungu in Christ’s Church worship money and have very fixed ideas about how it is to be spent. This is not the African way. Chiefs and Big Men (as well as women who are Big Men) do not expect their gifts to be returned. Ms Gottrox is no fool. She knows that in writing Moses a check she is giving him that money. Moses knows her better than the Christ’s Church wazungu. After all, didn’t they travel together? He is certain that Ms G would be offended if he returned her gift. It would be a personal insult.
Satisfied with this decision, Moses begins to use the money. When he was poor, a young woman, very fetching, insultingly spurned his proposal of marriage. But when he renews his suit, showing her father that he has 35,000 shillingi in an account in Barclays Bank, the girl cannot wait to become his bride. Moses surrenders Shs 5,000 to the girl’s father as bridewealth and they marry.
The new wife and her father want to keep drinking at this fountain. The father suggests that Moses go into the taxicab business. They examine a number of used cars and pick three in the best repair. They paint them orange and fire engine red and erect signs above the windshields proclaiming “Moses Cabs – Never an accident – God rides with us.” The cabs make money from the first day. Instead of facing failure in America, Moses becomes an entrepreneur in Kenya.
After a year his wife presents him a son.
Moses has photos taken of himself and his family beside the three cabs. He sends a photo to Ms G, to thank her for all she has done to give him a start in life.
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