By Sunny Bindra
There it is, tucked away in Nairobi's Highridge area: the strangest of shopping malls. Like some bizarre human-sized rabbit warren, full of confusing corners, surprising staircases and odd little businesses in basements, on roofs, in the car park. You almost expect Alice to pop up somewhere in this wonderland - except that Diamond Plaza, or 'DP' as we locals call it, is a purely South Asian phenomenon, and Alice would have to be called Alya, and be wearing a little salwar-kameez.
You can buy madafu in the car park at DP. Or watch others do it while sipping a coffee on a rooftop. You can get a quick haircut as the cars pile in, looking for that elusive parking space. You can buy newspapers from Mumbai, toys from Shanghai, bhindi from Limuru. You can have a prayer said for you by a priest in full regalia in a tiny mandir, no bigger than a closet; or pick a choice cut from a butchery not too far away. You can eat anything: biryani and pau bhaji compete with chow mein and burgers for your culinary attention; but Kenya's own Maru's bhajia and mayai chapatti take pride of place. Or you could just chew a paan all day long with your fellow idlers, watching the girls come and go.
You can come here to buy rakhis for your brother, barfi for your mother, kurtas for your father. You can buy firecrackers for Diwali, semolina for Idd and tinsel for Christmas. You'll get the best mangoes in December and a range of affordable umbrellas in April. You can choose from a full range of the world's tackiest decorative pieces to adorn your living room. Or you could give it all a miss and go somewhere quieter. And cleaner. And more refined. Nothing really happens at DP at ten in the morning: you can park anywhere you like and watch a couple of sweepers make half-hearted attempts to clear away yesterday's debris. At ten o'clock at night, however, you'll circle for ages looking for a parking slot, and may share a table with three other clans. But you can always do that peculiarly Kenyan Asian thing: eat in your car, en famille. Whatever you do decide to eat, you'll have to contend with swarms of waiters, incentivised to the verge of dementia by tiny commissions on every order taken, waving menus in your face until you finally shout out what you want.
Diamond Plaza showcases the best of us: it has within its walls the quintessential business model. Lots and lots of hard-working, determined and shrewd hucksters who set up their stalls in minuscule cubby-holes, work all hours and turn a neat profit by maintaining a tight focus on what their customers actually need, at a great price. This is the most basic arena of free enterprise: it's where the little people set up shop and take their economic future into their own hands. Individuals, families, communities and entire nations have lifted themselves out of poverty in this fashion, throughout history. It is chaotic and frenetic, and it works.
DP also encapsulates the worst of us: it is dirty, disorderly and not a little dangerous. There is grime and litter everywhere, and no one appears to care. Most of those bustling eating houses have kitchens that would fail a health and sanitation test in Hades. The walls and floors are often pock-marked with the hideous remains of someone's paan, ejected casually. You would not want to visit a lavatory in DP.
Naked wires still hang loose from ceilings. Part of the place is always a construction site, with sand and cement piled up right outside shops open for business. What architectural plans are being followed, and what quality of materials is being used, are not questions you should waste any breath asking. You could spend a lifetime looking for a fire exit, and would not want to be around if someone dropped a lighter.
If you're picky about probity and exacting about ethics, you might find it difficult to shop here. Most of the music and videos on sale are clearly bootlegged, and only the KRA knows whether any duties or taxes are being paid here. But for most DP shoppers those are laughably irrelevant issues, nahin? As one Mr Pattni pointed out to a Judge Bosire recently, we can't go around checking whether duty was paid on everything we buy - whether we're procuring billions of shillings of phantom gold or just the latest Bollywood bop track for a most attractive price.
And then there's the people issue. It's an open secret that most of the folk in those shops and eateries are 'rockets' - illegal immigrants from the sub-continent. Rumours about brothels have always abounded, and many a marriage was rocked during DP's early days by husbands marinated in cheap whisky cavorting with dancing girls into the wee hours.
And yet, could it have been any other way? Perhaps we needed all those rockets to fly in and light up the place, giving us a live testament to the chaotic continent our forebears left behind aeons ago. Perhaps we needed a little India within the large Africa that is our home. Everyone is of immigrant stock in Kenya, after all: some wandered in from the Congo forest or down the Nile; others came in dhows under imperial order. Today's pioneers are flying in on coach class on Kenya Airways.
Perhaps these busy little nouveau immigrants are happily doing what we pampered and lazy third- and fourthgeneration descendants can't anymore: they're working hard; they're doing whatever work they have to do in order to get by; they're saving most of what they earn, instead of squandering it on fripperies; and they're providing service with a smile, rather than the studied scowl that most of their hosts have perfected.
Perhaps, when we open a free-for-all marketplace where all needs are met, we should not be too surprised when drunken debauchery is also traded. It only happens because people want it to. That kind of thing can never be blamed on the suppliers alone: the customers, our kith and kin, create the demand. Supply follows. Free enterprise usually turns out to have its godfathers, and DP is no exception.
And yet DP is evolving. Its worst seems to be past, and a brighter future may be shining through. The dancing girls are gone - or at least are out of plain sight. It's cleaner and brighter than it used to be. Many of the music shops are offering 'original' CDs and DVDs - and are finding a customer base that is willing to pay a little more for quality and legality. A one-way traffic system with new exits is easing the perennial traffic jams. Shops are growing, sometimes buying out their neighbours to create more space and a better shopping ambience. There are more black Kenyan faces around - both in the shops and amongst the shoppers.
It could be so much more, our DP. It is already an example of unprompted, unplanned commerce at its best - perfectly in tune with its market without a planner in sight. It is already a showcase for spontaneous enterprise, a place where the goods of the world arrive to be met by willing wallets. It could also be a place where our wafrika and wazungu brethren come to shop and eat with us, and marvel at the composed chaos we wahindi revel in.
If we had more mutual tolerance, more belief in doing things right, and more acceptance of the laws of the land, Diamond Plaza might be a different place. But then it wouldn't really be DP, would it? Most of its supporters love the place to death. Do they see the chaos, the disorder, the squalor? Heck, no. They see range, relevance and refreshing informality. DP is us. You want order, hygiene, careful planning, safety? Go to the Village Market. DP is an eruption, and that's the way we like it. In any case we choose, because it's a market: we vote with our wallets, or we vote with our feet. So far, the wallets have been winning.
Sunny Bindra is a writer and management consultant in Nairobi. He writes a weekly column for the Sunday Nation.