Brady Hammes, Jun 09, 2008
The road from Nairobi passes through a tiny town caked in dirt and full of people. Up ahead, past this town, are
fewer people and more animals, exotic animals, the kind you might see on cable television or in travel magazines.
They’re everywhere: running, jumping, swimming, fucking. But here, in the town on the way to the fucking animals,
there are only people.* * *
I wonder if the people here are amused at the way we speed through their town. I wonder if they have trouble
understanding why we would travel over half the world to look at animals. Of course they realize their animals,
the exotic ones, don’t live where we come from, but still.
But still, I think, there are many animals, bears for example, that don’t live in this town, yet these people
have no interest in travelling to where they live. They have no interest in bears. These people can think of one
thousand things they would rather have than a trip to look at bears. In fact, they’ve written them down. They’ve
made a list.
1. More Doctors
2. Water for Drinking
3. Better Schools
4. A Movie Theater?
And so on.
This town with the poor schools and bad water and few doctors is called Narok, and it’s where our jeep ran out of
Sitting next to us is an older couple from Arkansas whose names we can’t remember. The woman wears a floppy
white hat and talks excitedly about the birds of East Africa. The man wears a straw golf hat and rubs sweat from
his forehead. The rest of us wait silently, scrolling through pictures on our digital cameras or flipping through
guidebooks, trying to determine our location on this enormous continent.* * *
“What’s the deal?” the man from Arkansas asks.
“We’re out of gas,” I say.
“I know that. Can we get more?”
“Well, this is a fine place to run outta gas. There’s nothing here.”
“There’s a bar,” I say, motioning to a tiny concrete structure with a tin roof.
“Don’t look like much of a bar.”
“I bet they have beer.”
“Doubt it’s cold.”
The man is right in saying that the bar doesn’t look like much of a bar, because it isn’t much of a bar. And he’s
also right in assuming that the beer won’t be cold, because it is not. And while it doesn’t have cold beer, what
this bar does have is a small wooden table, five chairs, and three drunken teenagers rolling around on the dirt
floor, clutching their stomachs in agony. We know this because Derek and I went to explore the bar while our
driver went searching for gas. Derek is my new husband, and we are here in Africa on our honeymoon, and we are in
“What’s wrong with them?” I ask the bartender.* * *
“They’re drunk,” he says.
“They look sick.”
“They’re sick because they’re drunk.”
Derek walks over to one of the boys, kneels, moves to touch him, then stops. “Are you okay?” he asks.
The boy moans and grabs at the dirt floor with his hands.
“He doesn’t look good,” Derek says to the bartender.
“He looks like he needs help,” I add.
“These boys will be fine,” the bartender says. “These boys are learning their lessons.”
“What did they drink?” I ask.
“Bad drink. Not for kids.”
The bartender explains that Chang’a is an illegal brew made from cactus, battery alkaline and methanol. It causes
blindness, sometimes death, and, in the case of these boys, the most damning and hateful stomachaches imaginable.
“Like swords through the stomach,” he says. “That is Chang’a.”
“Will they be okay?” I ask.
The bartender walks to one of the boys rolling in the dirt. He stands over him. “The white woman wants to know if
you will be okay?” he asks.
The boy says something in Swahili, something that sounds hateful, something I might say if I were rolling in
dirt, in rural Africa, with swords through my stomach.
“He says he’s sorry he ever drank Chang’a.”
“Is there anything we can do?” I ask.
“No,” the bartender says.
“May we have two Tuskers?” Derek asks.
The bartender pulls two bottles from the shelf and hands them to us. They are warm like the dirt outside. We sit
at the small wooden table and drink, trying in vain not to stare at the boys.
“This is making me uncomfortable,” Derek says.
“What do you want to do?”
“Would it be rude to just take our beers and leave?”
“So we should stay?”
“It’s piss warm.”
“Why don’t you offer to buy him a refrigerator? Then next time they’ll be nice and cold.”
“Don’t be a smartass.”
“Don’t be a whiner.”
“I’m not whining. I’m just saying the old man was right. The beer isn’t cold.”
I look to the drunken teens. They now lean against the wall, their heads in their knees. “It could be worse,” I
say, looking at the boys. “You could be them.”
“I was them. When I was their age.”
“You never drank Chang’a.”
“I drank moonshine.”
“Not the same.”
“The pain is.”
“Not even close.”
“Like you’d know.”
I take a drink of beer and smile at one of the boys. He smiles back, trying to conceal his pain. I look over and
catch Derek surreptitiously pouring his beer out under the table. “What are you doing?” I say.
“I can’t drink this.”
“Don’t just pour it out.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know, but don’t just pour it out.”
“Then you drink it.”
He slides the beer across the table and I drink, hoping to prove a point which I’ve yet to formulate. Derek raps
his knuckles on the wooden table, as I down the warm beer. One of the boys stands and walks to us. He starts to
say something when another boy vomits. The bartender kicks the dirt floor, curses. The old man from Arkansas
enters, says it’s time to leave. I take the empty bottles to the bar and thank the bartender. I smile at the boys
as we leave, but they don’t smile back. They don’t care about us in the least and this warms my heart.
Outside, the sun is punishing and the wind kicks dirt in our eyes. Our group waits for us in the jeep. Perhaps
they’ve been waiting for a while, I think. Maybe they’ve grown irritable from the heat and the dust and the
absolute poverty, and now they secretly hate us. I decide I’m just being paranoid. Our group seems like a
reasonable one. Derek says they remind him of us.
“How was it?” the old man asks.
“You were right,” I say. “The beer was warm.”
“What’s wrong with those kids?”
“Then why are they at a bar?”
“I don’t know.”
We climb back in the jeep, and our driver turns to us. “Everyone ready?” he asks. We nod and the jeep pulls away.
As we leave town, I turn to snap a picture and notice one of the boys—the one who began to speak—running after
us. He’s holding something and yelling at us. I grab Derek by the shoulder. “Look,” I say. “He’s trying to tell
us something. I think we forgot something.”
“The boy from the bar,” I say, pointing at the kid. “You don’t see him? He’s got his arm up. Waving. Over there.”
“I don’t think that’s the same kid.”
“Yes! It is the same kid. I know it’s the same kid.”
“That beer made you crazy.”
“No! I think we forgot something, Derek. Tell him to go back.”
“Come on,” he says.
“No!” I yell, louder this time. “Make him turn around!”
“Alexis,” he says with finality. “You’re being ridiculous. We’re not going back.”
Brady Hammes lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a film/video editor.