Glory, Glory, Alleluia

Mombasa’s steaming main drag is almost certain to leave you two pawns short of a chess set

We have hired a car from a firm called Glory. White, boxy, Japanese and short on brakes it is completely without suspension and is fitted with a fuel-gauge stuck just below the three quarter-mark even when the tank is as dry as our ultimate destination in the Nyiri Desert, a hundred and fifty kilometres west.

But first we have to negotiate Mombasa.

Dodging potholes which would swallow a much larger vehicle and weaving northwards towards Kenya’s second city, the sweet smell of spicy samoosas and hand-made crispy cassava chips floats on the heavy air, mingling with the whiff of car fumes and the occasional mild waft of excrement.

The sultry Swahili Coast sports a first world veneer with a culture-blending third world buzz. The Call to Prayer from the Mosque-tops overwhelms the chanting of an angelic throng of chorister children in gleaming-white dust-defying frilly frocks, as we lurch past the domed Anglican Cathedral and the power steering gives out. Above the choir, a banner of welcome to a visiting swami swings from the towering streetlights.

Everywhere is traffic; the ubiquitous, three-wheeled, three-seater tuk-tuks snake agilely in and out of the matatu minibus taxis, the bicycles and even the occasional camel, all vying for space with the endemic shiny black Mercedes of the political glitterati, mounted with booming loudspeakers and sporting electoral posters adorned with the beaming faces of would-be Presidents, Governors and Members of Parliament.

Stalls line pavements and street-corners, here graced with heaps of R30 designer shirts – Lacoste, Polo, even Michael Schumacher – and there with crudely welded pots, pans and skottels. We buy liberally into the shirt collections but resist the cookware and the frequently-touted pirate movies and CDs.

“Hey Rafiki!” calls a voice. “My friend! Do you want a safari?” We don’t. We want a curry and we find one at a coffee shop in the old town. “Hey Rafiki!”. Another voice, outside the restaurant window. “You want a smoke? What you want? I find it for you.”

With all the gravitas we can muster, we tell him truthfully that we are actually looking for a small foldaway chess set to take camping. He slinks off to find one, returning, moments later, with a selection of giant un-packable marble boards with lion-kings, giraffe-queens and every pawn a Thompson’s gazelle. Another colourful set depicts the tribes of Kenya: Maasai monarchs in unlikely marriages with Kikuyu consorts.

A third cheaper but more conventional wooden one has two pawns missing. Our tout tries to palm us off with mismatching gazelle but we resist. He will find the pawns, he says. And off he goes.

We return later to fine one pawn recovered – pawn again, you might say – but the other still Missing in Action. We turn down the set but when we eventually buy a Made-in-China one at an expensive toy shop we find that also to be two pawns short. Always check, mate!

On checking the car again, the road tax has expired. I have had enough traffic for one day so, leaving my companion at the pawn shop, I call a tuk-tuk.

“Take me Glory!” I shout to the bearded driver then, suddenly aware that he might take this as an invitation either to rob me blind or roger me senseless, I promptly add the words “Car Hire!”

He does just that. As I climb out he demands “Fifty bob”. I give him twenty. We may all be merely pawns in the game but the Road to Glory is only a couple of minutes long at the most. Just head for the tusks on Moi Avenue, Mombasa.