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January 21, 2019

G-Spot: Cafe culture no longer the preserve of whites


The other day as I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline, I came across a post from one of the historical pages I subscribe to, showing a photograph of the New Stanley Thorn Tree Cafe taken in the early 1970s. The old place has not changed much since then, save for the actual acacia, which was replaced in the late 1990s, and the clientele.

Through the 1970s and well into the 1980s, the Thorn Tree and that other famous old Nairobi sidewalk restaurant, the Lord Delamere Terrace at the Norfolk, seemed to be patronised mainly by tourists and expatriates of the Caucasian persuasion. There was nary a black face to be seen, except the wait staff and the odd tour guide.

Many younger Kenyans seemed to find the picture quite unbelievable, especially when it was pointed out that it was post-Independence. When I saw the photograph, the first thing I thought of was how much it resembled parts of Cape Town today. 

In many upmarket street cafes and restaurants of the city, it is still very rare to see black people among the clientele. In fact, I remember thinking on my first visit to the city as a tourist some years ago, that the city did not reflect the black majority in the manner of Johannesburg, a city I was more familiar with, having visited there a few times.

This reminder of how white some parts of Nairobi appeared so long after Independence, helped me see that transformation took its sweet time in certain parts of Kenya, too.

I remember my good friend Nyamwange  asking me if there was still some sort of colour bar in operation on the terrace. Unlike me, he had come to live in the city when he attended the University of Nairobi. During his time, he had walked past many times and had hardly ever seen a black face at one of the tables.

In those years, the early 1990s, the Lord Delamere Terrace had become more mixed, as far as clientele went, but perhaps due to a mixture of cultural and economic reasons, appeared at first glance to be mainly patronised by white people. 

Perhaps to some extent, the same conditions prevail in Cape Town, though many people think it’s just the last vestiges of apartheid and racism. I am confident, nevertheless, that change came to Nairobi and will one day, hopefully soon, overtake Cape Town’s cafe culture.

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