Magazine article The Spectator

Table Talk

Magazine article The Spectator

Table Talk

Article excerpt

Seven hours between flights at Nairobi airport and nowhere to smoke. So I bought a ten-dollar transit visa, left the airport precincts and headed for the nearest bar. It was called The Pub. The whiteshirted, bow-tied waiters saw me coming and greeted me with a chuckle, as if they were thinking, 'Here comes another nicotine addict on his ten-dollar transit visa.'

I hadn't been settled at my outside table for more than a minute with a Tusker and a fag when a brisk, unshaven man asked if he could share it. He was on a three-hour stopover between Kinshasa and Dubai (final destination Pakistan). He'd smoked four cigarettes already, he said: two in the transit-lounge toilets immediately after disembarking the plane, and two on the short walk to The Pub. He'd lived in Kinshasa for 16 years. He was a groceries wholesaler.

One day I hope to go and live in Kinshasa.

How was Kinshasa nowadays? Was it safe for foreigners? I said.

'Is safe. You can move around. Make business. Everything. Is full of foreigners making business: Americans, Lebanese, Chinese.

So many Chinese. They have agreement with the government and don't need visa.'

He rolled his eyes in humorous resignation at the ubiquity and increasing political influence of the Chinese in Africa. 'The local people are afraid of them. They think they are wizards. When two Chinese people argue together, the local people think they are fighting with their souls.'

He was doing good business, he said. War?

What war? Kinshasa is booming. When you say you are trading in Kinshasa, people no longer laugh at you. They nod their heads.

He is even expanding his wholesale business over the border into Angola. 'Very proud people, the Angolans. They have nothing, yet they are so proud. What they are proud about, we don't know.'

He lit another cigarette. Then he showed me his cigarette packet, inviting me to admire it. It was indeed the last word in cigarette-packet design. American, he said, admiringly. Suddenly struck by an inspiration, he riffled in his wallet and triumphantly produced a very old ten-pound note, which he presented to me. He'd been keeping it for years, he said. I spread it out on the table. Her Majesty the Queen looked young and very beautiful.

He looked at his watch and stood up to catch his onward flight. …

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