We were in a bar drinking (because what else would we be doing in a bar?). My friend leaned in close to me and said, “You see that chick?” I turned discreetly to look in the direction he was motioning with his chin. There was a lady seated at a table alone, nursing what seemed like two mojitos (happy hour), playing with the straw, twirling it in her drink absentmindedly as she went through her phone. “She’s a hooker,” he said. No way, I told him. “Trust me, she is a hooker.” I stared at her. She looked nothing like a hooker. She looked like any corporate girl having a drink alone after work. She didn’t even have those ridiculous elaborate shoes that hookers wear. “How do you know she’s a hooker?” I asked my friend suspiciously. He said, “I worked in Mombasa with sex workers for three years, I know them. I know this one, we have met before.”
I stared at her again. She had high cheekbones and full lips. Light in complexion. She was pretty in a cliché kind of way. “Go and invite her to join us,” my friend urged me. I said, “You go, you are the one who worked with sex workers for three years, you know how to speak her language.” We stared at her for a bit then I said, “Oh screw it,” and walked over to her. I could smell her even before I got to her table – some fresh, sweet, ocean scent. I introduced myself as Thomas Sankara and then said, “Hey, my shy friend over there has been pestering me to invite you to our table. Are you alone?” She regarded my friend coolly and said, “No, I’m not, meet my invisible friend Alex seated across from me.” I laughed. I picked up her drinks as she gathered her bag and phone and joined us. The first thing she said to me was, “Why are you called Sankara, are you from Burkina Faso?”
I was taken aback. She looked like she was born after 1987, the year Sankara died; how would she even know who that is, let alone which country he was from? Hell, even most people who were born in the ‘70s don’t know Sankara. I said I was from Burkina Faso but my family fled when I was 10, years after Sankara was killed. My friend gave me that incredulous look of, “Are you kidding me?”
Anyway, she said, “You don’t look Kenyan,” and my friend literally rolled his eyes like a diva. Then she turned to him and said, “We have met,” and my friend said, “We have, yes, at the party in Watamu.” She didn’t look embarrassed. I asked her what she did for a living and she said with a grin, “Don’t ask me for a lie.” Then she looked at my pal and said, “I’m in the entertainment business.” I liked her cheek.
Many things surprised me about that evening, the first being that we had a fantastic evening with her. She was bright and engaging. She had one of those raspy voices radio voices that was rich with cigarettes and booze and debauchery. Second, she had a unique mastery of the language and was quite adept with puns. She could talk about anything – in fact I’m certain she knew a little about most things than I did. Plus her eye contact was above par. She said she had a degree in physics and I believed her.
Most importantly she was a lady. She behaved like one and because of that, we treated her like one. She made us laugh and she challenged us. Two hours later, I was striking matches to light her cigarettes and feeling very James Bond-ish. She had that thing about her, that subtle, mysterious thing that makes men bend to her whims. She never forced your hand, but she brought out your chivalry effortlessly and with feminine delicacy.
At some point I confessed to her, “Listen, my name is not Sankara and I’m not Burkinabe, I’m from Nyanza.” She laughed and laughed and stared at me through the haze of her cigarette smoke and said, “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” And my friend said, “Whoa, who said those words?” She waved her cigarette-holding hand dismissively. “I don’t know, he’s probably dead anyway.” We just stared at her with slightly open mouths.
I liked her. I really did. We both did. At some point I stopped seeing her as an – alleged – hooker. I didn’t care what she was anyway. It was a pleasure to have her at our table, with her irrepressible witticism and charm. And it was fruitless and quite useless to see her as anything but a fun girl with a purple purse. I was glad I invited her to our table because she turned our beliefs and stereotypes into ignorance and she embarrassed us. She shamed us because we had boxed her into a stereotype that she refused to fit into. It dawned on us that we needed to grow, because we clearly hadn’t evolved enough.
NB: Today we bury my beloved aunt and mother of my cousins Stacey and Daddy. To them I say, mothers break us but it gets better with time. Take heart. RIP Auntie Rozie.