A rich relative invited us to have tea at his club, the club to which he belongs. Three askari stand at the entrance to the club: one writes down license plates for all cars that enter, another ensures that those entering have membership stickers on their cars, and yet another lifts and lowers the barrier that grants access. Despite the uniforms and the vigilance, these askari are not security. Their job is to keep out those who do not belong, those most like them.
Their more important job is to welcome–sometimes with a half-salute—those who have paid to be members. Those who are able to proudly invite non-members to “the club.”
The short, tree-lined driveway leads to a parking area with the requisite wooden signs: Reserved for Chairman. Reserved for Club Secretary. Reserved for Club Treasurer. Reserved for Chairlady. Many people aspire to park at these reserved spots, especially those for the Chairs. Once you have occupied a Chair, your name goes onto one of the long wooden plaques at the entrance of the club that lists past Chairs. In some clubs, the names used to be metal plaques screwed into the wood, a list of metal names—something shiny, something that tarnishes. At some point, those metal plaques were replaced by bronze paint: screwed-on names versus painted-on names might tell another history of Kenya, of those who screw the nation and those who paint themselves onto it.
History lives and moves on those lists of names, some inscribed on metal, some painted on. The first names are mostly European, mostly English, though a few South African names appear. Here and there a stray German peeps through. Following that mostly unbroken list of names is a list of Asian names, not as sequential, broken up by more European names. And then, finally, a list of Black names, broken up by Asian and European names. It is a story of segregation and desegregation, a story of shifts in power and influence. A story of shifting numbers of members.
It is not a story of decolonization. And definitely not a story of anticolonialism. The club remains colonial in its look and rules, in its staffing and its hierarchies, but, most of all, in its menu and furniture.
Among African countries colonized by the British, Kenya had the bad luck to attract the ne’er-do-well sons of the nobility and the most tendentious of the middle class. Colonial-era clubs were constructed to cater to these two sensibilities. The colonial-era club was supposed to replicate the private gentlemen’s clubs in England, where the wealthy and privileged nurse their gout. Only, something failed in translation. In Kenya, the clubs are eerily dark, full of shadows where secret lovers hide from their spouses and partners, exchanging hot glances over their dry, flavorless food.
Colonial-era clubs retain an allegiance to colonial-era menus. On Sundays, you might encounter roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, accompanied by an array of puddings lifted from the bowels of British cooking before it learned about flavor and texture. And while contemporary menus might feature ugali and githeri, pizza and hamburgers, they retain their allegiance to an ideal of bland, flavorless food. The problem is the collision between bland English cooking and bland Kenyan cooking, generating food that can be salvaged by neither salt nor prayer. One eats because one is a member and one praises the food because not doing so would expose that very expensive memberships—in the many hundred thousands at the lower end and in the millions at the other end—do not come with very good food.
Perhaps the food is besides the point. Members feast on each others’ auras, on their shared proximity to wealth and power, on the power they exert over wait staff who are beckoned with a flick of the wrist, a snapping of the fingers, a patronizing glance. Members feast on their ability to invite non-members and treat them to bland food, all while extolling the food. We who are provided with free meals eat in silence and nod when required.
And we squirm.
Not only are the clubs badly lit, the furniture is a travesty.
The cushions are cheap. Uncomfortable. You shift around trying to find a comfortable position and then give up. They do not provide enough padding for the solid wood chairs, chairs that announce they support people with consequence. The cheap, thin cushions announce that people with consequence carry their own well-padded buttocks, and do not need the padding of well-made cushions. Fat wallets bulge from the back pockets of well-padded buttocks, providing the additional cushioning required to sit in these chairs without squirming. Those of us who do not belong squirm in the chairs, lacking the padding provided by wealth, no matter how well-padded our buttocks. Exclusivity, we learn, is sitting on hard chairs with inadequate cushions.
Long-standing members address each other by a cascade of English first names: John, Jack, Simon, Susan, Grace, Florence, Rose. These are official names, said loudly, pronounced with a certain relish, as though contemporary members are inhabited by the ghosts of those who once walked through these segregated spaces.
It might be the ghosts of those now-dead segregationists who blow on the food as it leaves the kitchens, making sure it arrives slightly warm, instead of hot. Difficult to eat. But those of us invited here are supposed to eat and be grateful.
It is considered a privilege to be invited to these clubs by members. As I ate my pizza—bland, undercooked, lukewarm—and, later, forced my way through a very badly prepared masala tea, I wished my body elsewhere, somewhere less haunted, less oppressive, less tormented by inadequate cushions and terrible lighting.