Never has Nairobi’s CBD looked so listless on a Friday evening. It is 7.45pm, we’re standing outside Nation Centre on Kimathi Street.
Before Covid-19 came along and robbed the Kenyan capital of its soul, Kimathi Street bristled with life on Friday evenings, the energy of carefree Nairobians eager start the weekend palpable.
On this Friday, July 17, the despondency in the air is pronounced. Kenyans in masks walk briskly towards the various bus stops, determined to beat the 9pm curfew. With the once-loud and lively bars having shut down four months ago, there’s deathly silence on Kimathi Street.
But there are other parts of Nairobi that are not as quiet. In some city estates, bars never shut down and they continue to operate from dusk to dawn in blatant disregard of the law — in the process aiding in the spread of the deadly Covid-19. That is where we are headed.
VIBRANT NIGHT LIFE
We are a crew of six – three from the Daily Nation and three from NTV. We decide to begin our sleuthing in Nairobi West, known for its vibrant night life. ‘West’, as it is commonly known, occupies 1.5 acres, but is said to be home to as many as 30 bars and night clubs.
We leave the city centre at 8pm, an hour to the curfew. There is no traffic jam to talk of, which would have been unheard of pre-Covid-19, and we reach Nairobi West at 8.15pm. This well-lit neighbourhood is a beehive of activity. Vegetable and fruit vendors line the sidewalks selling their wares while other traders walk from stall to stall with flasks of hot tea and coffee.
A preacher in a suit and tie, open Bible in hand, preaches to a group of people milling around a woman selling fried fish. We drive on. Ahead is Nairobi West Mall — don’t be fooled by the grand name though, this ‘mall’ is essentially a container complex that largely houses rows of wine and spirits shops which all seem to be doing brisk business as the 9pm curfew looms.
A reveller drinks beer at Hornbill Club in Umoja 1 in Nairobi on Friday, well past curfew hours. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
People crowd at the various shops anxious to make their purchase. Some walk away, probably towards their homes, with the alcohol of their choice, while others head to one of the many vehicles parked on the kerb spewing loud music from the rolled-down windows. Deadly virus on the loose or not, the party must go on.
At the entrance of the complex is the obligatory jerrycan of water propped on a stool and beside it, liquid soap. No one getting in and out of the complex pays attention to the soap and water.
Inside, opposite three shops selling alcohol, is a sitting space with about four large tables, all crowded with groups of people making merry. At one of the tables we count eight people — five men and three women. The space is packed, and those who did not arrive early enough stand against the walls or sit on the edges of low walls. A young couple, obviously inebriated, hug for several minutes, while next to them, their drunken friends sing happy birthday to one of their friends.
The three shops that are open are doing brisk business, and from the looks of the happy customers, they have enough stock to keep the groups of mostly young people happily drunk. It is 8.38 pm, less than 30 minutes to curfew, but no one shows any signs of leaving.
Two drunk middle-aged men stray to where we’re standing. “Daktari!” exclaims one to the other. The two clasp hands heartily, their mask-less faces close. “I fear doctors, they are the ones with corona…” the man says to no one in particular, laughing loudly at his own joke.
When the handshake ends, ‘Daktari’ unconsciously rubs his nose and declares, “You can’t drink beer and transmit corona, and if you have it, just take lemon and hot water and you’ll be fine…” he declares.
Clients buy alcohol at Norac Wines and Candy Shop in Nairobi West on Friday. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
It is now 8.53 pm, seven minutes to the curfew, but the place is getting noisier by the minute. No one is leaving. By the time we leave at 9.15 pm, the revelers are still merry-making, oblivious of the time, unconcerned that they are blatantly breaking the law.
Our next stop is the populous Umoja Estate, where a number of bars operate day and night in the full glare of the law. We exit Nairobi West and join Lang’ata Road. It is 9.20 pm and the road on both sides is lined with cars and matatus being driven by impatient drivers. We join Lusaka Road, which is also parked with cars. We’re soon on Jogoo Road, notorious for never-ending traffic jams, whatever time of day it is. This day is no different.
The intersection leading to Donholm Estate is a driver’s nightmare — there might as well be no curfew. A man pushing a wheelbarrow full of avocados nonchalantly crosses the road, forcing several cars to screech to a halt.
Pedestrians here are as many as the cars, and no one seems to be in a hurry to go home. We even spot a woman with a child strapped on her back slowly walking by, as well as a man grilling meat and what looks like potatoes, surrounded by a couple of men looking at the meat expectantly.
A client buys alcohol at Corporate Beverages in Nairobi West on Friday. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Shops here are still open, so are M-Pesa outlets and chemists. Our first stop is Hornbill Pub in Umoja 1. The parking lot facing the pub is full of cars, but the bar is closed, dark and devoid of activity.
Or so it seems. We ignore the parking lot and drive on a couple of metres away, parking outside St Luke’s Academy Nairobi Diocese. A police car with two officers on board drives by, but neither of them look our way, even though it is 9.45pm.
They must be tired of trying to shepherd Kenyans determined to break the law. We alight and walk to the pub. Apart from the cars parked outside, the place looks deserted. As we get closer, we catch muted music coming from behind the firmly closed doors of the pub. As we approach, a tall muscled man wearing a short-sleeved flowered shirt steps forward and stops us in our tracks. He gestures towards a hands-free water station where, to turn on the tap, you use your foot to pump the water.
After we wash our hands, he takes our body temperature using a thermometer gun. Satisfied, he directs us to a side door, which turns out to be the entrance to the bar’s kitchen.
It is a narrow hot space, and on the fireplace are several battered sufurias, all with meat in various stages of cooking.
After taking a few steps, we crouch into a chest-length opening which leads into the bar.
We’re immediately hit by a wave of body heat. The spacious darkly-lit space is packed to the brim. There are no seats in sight, and I and my NTV colleague, Seth Olale, are forced to squeeze ourselves onto a seat occupied by a group of three women, two laughing raucously as their friend twerks in the face of a man that tries hard to ignore her. No one is wearing a mask, not even the waiting staff.
A drunk patron pulls one of the waitresses close to him and engages her in drunk talk that lasts a couple of minutes, his face inches away from hers. She obliges. If there ever was a perfect recipe for the coronavirus, this is it. The bar is divided into four spaces, at least from what we can see. Our side hosts the bar counter area and lounge — here alone, we count 32 people. The lone window on this side is blacked out by what looks like a dark brown piece of cloth.
Across is another seating space, and beyond that, near the washrooms, is another sitting area, though this one is not as packed as the first two. Next to the doorway that leads to the kitchen is a flight of stairs that leads to an upper deck.
People are in various stages of inebriation and are having the time of their lives. A couple seated at the counter begins to feel each other up and exchange a sloppy kiss, inviting unflinching stares from those around them.
The entrance to Hornbill Club in Umoja 1 in Nairobi on July 19, 2020. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Unlike Nairobi West, majority of the patrons here are middle-aged. It is now 10.45pm and the bar shows no signs of closing, neither do the patrons show signs of leaving. In fact, once in a while, groups of people walk in, ready to begin their weekend. It is obvious that the night has just begun for the law-breaking Kenyans in this bar.
At 11.50pm, we leave Hornbill Pub and head to Buru Buru Estate to see what it holds.
The roads are largely clear, but every minute or so, a car or a boda boda zooms by, and we spot one or two brave souls on foot. We get to Buru Buru at 12.01am. The estate is deathly quiet, and even the pubs we had been assured would be open are tightly shut with no whiff of activity to talk of, no car parked outside. Apart from the odd watchman here and there, this law-abiding estate is fast asleep.
We decide to head back to the CBD and drive around Westlands, which is home to quite a number of pubs, many upmarket. We pass quite a number of lorries inching along laboriously, thanks to whatever it is they are transporting at this time of night.
The Bus Station area on Haile Selassie Avenue is a ghost stretch apart from a lone man pushing a handcart across the road. We join Uhuru Highway, which is as smooth as silk, and in no time, we arrive in Westlands. It is 12.40am.
We drive around, but there is no soul or car in sight. This once vibrant night spot is a graveyard. Not even one bar is open, and apart from the watchmen who guard over deserted buildings, this part of town is firmly deserted.
Two days ago, Kenya recorded the highest number of Covid-19 infections, a whopping 688 new infections since the first case was reported in March. It was on the same day that veteran actor, Charles Bukeko, popularly known as Papa Shirandula, died of Covid-19.
On the same day that we were patrolling Nairobi estates, Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja was arrested after was caught drinking after curfew hours at Ladies Lounge in Kilimani. The senator, ironically the Chairperson of the ad hoc committee on Covid-19, was at the club with at least 10 people, and was arrested shortly after 1am. Last month, Utawala MCA Patrick Karani was among 27 revelers that were arrested while partying during curfew hours. The MCA was in the company of 16 other people. Obviously, even leaders who should lead the way by obeying the same rules they set have no intention of obeying them, themselves.
Briefing the press in Embu, Health Cabinet Secretary, Mutahi Kagwe singled out bars that continue to operate in total disregard of the law.
“You are not supposed to open a bar, bars are not open,” he said, pointing out that while it was not the mandate of the Ministry of Health to enforce the law, the bars that will be caught operating would have their licenses revoked. He also pointed a finger at the Kenyans that aid these establishments in breaking the law, “It is a personal responsibility to enter that drinking den,” he said.
His statement brings to the fore the reckless behaviour of Kenyans who continue to behave as if Kenya and the rest of the world is not in the midst of a health crisis that has so far killed thousands of people. The only way to fight this virus, says the WHO and other global health agencies, is through behaviour change, which includes wearing a mask and avoiding crowded places.
It is therefore baffling that sane adult men and women, no doubt educated and with children that depend on them waiting for them at home, would place themselves in the very situation that would expose themselves and others to virus. It is behaviour that says it is time for introspection as a country.