The Octopus Club

What follows is the first chapter in my new book, “FIND YOURSELF HERE.

You can’t get much further from a sleepy little beach town on the Gulf Coast of Florida than a remote village in the Western part of an East African country. But I found my way there, courtesy of the U.S. Peace Corps. Kenyans pronounced it Peace Corpse, which was a pretty good description of how I felt about teaching English at Munzatsi Secondary School in the hilly village of Maragoli.

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Once known as the most densely populated place on the planet, Maragoli families had multiplied exponentially while subdividing their farmland proportionally. By 1986, there were more people than plots. The Maragolis were running out of space, food and time.

Enter Bercaw. At 21 years of age I knew nothing about the world, yet I was off to save it. Forget about your farms! English literature is the best! Let the white American woman show you the way!

But once established in my concrete hut — smoking loose tobacco wrapped in a tampon paper, alone with my thoughts and the sounds of rats scurrying around on my thatched roof — I wondered long and hard if  “development” was code for “imperialism.”

During three months of volunteer training, I’d enthusiastically read the great works of Kenyan authors (translated into English) who argued for African literature to be written in African languages. Yet here I was, in all my white vainglory, teaching the tongue of the Colonialists.

I morphed into equal parts Colonel Kurtz and Charles Marlow. Damn me! Save me! I spent the better part of a year on the equator in a self-serving existential crisis. Woes me! But in my final days near the shores of Lake Victoria, it was Kenya that came to the rescue.

About 20 kilometers from Maragoli, in the city of Kisumu, I frequented the Octopus Club on Saturday nights. My friend Pamela joined me as the the only white girls in a Kenyan crowd of hundreds. The only other North Americans and Europeans in these parts were serious aid workers and soul savers. They didn’t rely on the Octopus Club for cheap beer and a dance floor, like I did. This place was my oxygen tank. I could breathe here – away from long-suffering Maragoli and my ineffectual teaching.

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The Octopus Club was big, albeit basic. The “toilets” in the restroom were holes in the cement floor. In fact, there was nothing to sit on anywhere. No chairs in the dance hall. No air-conditioning or refrigeration. The only beverage served was big bottles of warm Tusker Beer.

But the sound system was good, and the speakers were loud. The DJ played the same kind of music  blared from matatus – those garishly painted local buses slathered with weird graffiti-esque and oft-misspelled sayings like “No Harry in Africa.” Matatus came in all shapes and sizes. They don’t operate on any schedule or timetable. Nor do the have any set stops. A hawker hangs off the back door, hollering for passengers to join the crammed bench seats for a cheap ride somewhere. “Hapa!” he screams, which means here.

The matatu I routinely rode from Maragoli to Kisumu fit about 12 people but carried at least a dozen more. Our hawker’s right leg had elephantiasis, and was three or four times the size of his left. I often found myself sitting within inches of his gargantuan limb, which jutted out from the colorful kitenge fabric wrapped around his waist. I studied it closely, wondering what treatment would help, or if I could deflate it somehow. But the hawker never seemed to mind the leg’s added weight and girth. It didn’t slow him, or the matatu, down. He gyrated comfortably to the eardrum-crushing-level Swahili music that was as tinny and vibrant as the vehicle itself.

The same sounds pulsated inside the Octopus. There was no hope of carrying a conversation, so we constantly danced – in lines for a beer or the bathroom. You didn’t need a partner because the whole club was your date and your dance floor.

On the night in question, the DJ ceased his mix long enough to announce that a dance contest was forthcoming. Participants needed to give their name and music request to the bartender. The winner would get a lifetime pass the club; the four runners up would get a yearlong membership.

I signed up with Pamela’s encouragement. My dance moves were hyper, wild and a bit risqué, inspired by the Solid Gold dancers I’d seen on television in the early ‘80s. Instead of matatu music, I chose Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” surprisingly on the list of options.

Twenty of us would vie for bragging rights as well as those passes. The cost of admission to the Octopus was a handful of shillings, less than 25 cents in American currency. A hefty price in this part of the world – where people were lucky to earn a few dollars per week. I earned $100 a month as a volunteer, all of which I was saving to explore East Africa.

I saw the lifetime membership as a badge of honor. A trophy for finding myself here, and rising to the challenge.

A competitor by nature, I’d attended the University of South Florida on a swimming scholarship and our team took the top spot in the NCAA Division II National Championships in 1985. I had been one of the top three sprinters in the division. Swimming was more important to me in college than learning. And winning was more important than anything. After graduation, my identity dried up along with my career. Going to Africa had been a way to reestablish myself. As what, I didn’t know.

Competition at the Octopus Club was fierce.  And even though I was a regular, I was still an outsider. In this case, and in this place, my race –and even my loose tribal affiliation – was a liability. Kenya only had 25 years of post-colonial freedom under its belt. White would always be the color of oppression. To complicate matters, I lived with the Luhya people of Maragoli and points North and East of Kisumu. The Luo people were the dominate in this area, and historically at odds with the Luhya. You could say that I stood out like a sore thumb if that appendage had the worst case of elephantiasis ever.

Contestants were invited, one by one, to the stage. The crowd was feisty, and vocal. They went nuts for a very slender fellow with moves like the Jackson Five rolled into one singular sensation. A voluptuous woman with untamed, undulating hips and big bouncing breasts put him to shame. People, including Pamela and me, chanted her name, “Abuya! Abuya! Abuya!” when she was done. Compared to Abuya, I was a poor excuse for a woman – scrawny and flat chested with a punk vibe instead of groovy moves.

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“I have to withdraw!” I screamed in Pamela’s ear. “I can’t compete with this!”

“Come on!” she yelled back. “You’ll never get to do this again!”

The DJ called my name, “Nan-cee Bird-cow.”

Making my way on stage, I got a few cheers and a handful of whistles. But when Prince started strumming through the speakers, the room went quiet and I started dancing. More like bouncing. I jumped and hopped around in a frantic sort of rhythm, swinging my long dirty-blonde hair like a flame. I did some twirls and attempted some mid-air splits. I forgot all about the contest and myself. I was inside Prince’s guitar. Totally tuned out of the crowd, which was going insane to the “Let’s Get Crazy” song and my utterly mad interpretation of it.  They hooted and hollered when I was done as if I were a rock star. People high-fived and hugged me as I made my way back to Pamela.

“Jesus, you might have just won this thing,” she said, handing me a fresh Tusker. “What go into you?”

I drank the whole beer in one gulp. Sweat pouring down my face, and body, and arms and legs. The back of my T-shirt was drenched; my skirt looking more like a mop. People continued to high-five me while the contest raged on. The bartender gave me a free Tusker.

Shortly after midnight, the music stopped and the winners were announced. The DJ being the lone voter, gauging his decision on crowd response and personal preference.

“In fifth place,” he said through the sound system, “is Abuya!” We screamed in support as she took the stage.

He announced the fourth place winner, who stood to the left of Abuya. Both holding blank pieces of paper meant to represent the annual Club membership soon to be theirs.

“In third place,” he boomed. “Nan-cee!”

I ran to the front, and hopped on the stage. Abuya embraced me, and the crowed cheered. I stared out, across the Octopus Club, at the sea of Kenyans who – for this evening – opened up a space for me in their real lives despite the fact that I was opposite in every way, shape or form.

“You should have won,” Pamela said when I got back to her spot.

“I did,” I said, and we laughed like hyenas before heading to a local hostel for the night.

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