Dawas and Dropshots - My Squash Life in Nairobi
By Will Gertler
I grew up in a squash-obsessed family. A high school tennis “star” turned college American hardball player, my dad introduced the sport to all of us. My mom dabbled at times, my brothers made it their obsessions, and – you guessed it – I took a liking to the sport as well. I’ve held a racquet since about as long as I can recall - one of my earliest memories involves me, a Black Knight TC, a formerly white living room wall turned freckled, and a very angry mother.
Towards the end of high school and into college, squash sadly took a backseat to academics and other extracurriculars. I never abandoned it, however, and would continue to play whenever I got the chance. When I decided to work in Nairobi’s booming tech scene the August after graduating from college, I was set on making squash a bigger part of my life again. As I would later find out, I couldn’t have chosen a better place to pick the racquet back up.
Kenya is an incredible country: 41 African tribes, a large number of Indians who originally came over to build the railroads and a significant population of British colonial decedents all call the East African nation their home. That’s a mosaic of 43+ different languages, traditions, and values attempting to coexist within a country that’s just over 50 years old. A country, mind you, whose borders were randomly drawn by a bunch of greedy white colonists who decided in the late 1800’s to make Africa their own. On occasion, the diversity of the nation has led to chaos. The rest of the time, however, it has led to tolerance, diversity, freedom, and hospitality. Squash in Kenya felt the exact same way.
A former British colony, country club culture is alive and well in Nairobi. Rugby is the big sport there, but squash has a presence as well. Being the 7th nation in the world to build a court, Kenya traces its squash lineage all the way back to 1912. And while the sport might have been bigger once upon a time, Kenya is still saturated with charming old-school facilities and plenty of great players.
My squash life in Nairobi was pretty simple. On Sundays and Tuesdays, I’d often play with the “Wazee” (Swahili for old boys) at the Impala Club. Behind a heavily guarded security gate and bullet proof glass, I’d pay the cashier 200 shillings (equivalent to $2 USD) to play for as long as I’d want on any of the club’s 5 courts. The matches would go long into the night, we’d shower up after, and I was usually expected to stay for tea (not coffee – that’s mostly for export) or Dawa. (Dawa, Swahili for medicine and made from ginger, lemon, and honey, was the ultimate sports recovery drink.) On Thursday mornings before work, I’d play with a couple of expats at Parklands, an expensive sports club located in Nairobi’s predominantly Indian neighborhood. We had to be members to play on any day other than Wednesday, but the guards would never ask questions… and if we paid the caretakers a couple dollars via Mpesa (mobile money app used by nearly everyone in the country), we’d usually be given the green light. Lastly, on Thursday, we’d go to the Nairobi Club. A posh country club with a colonial aura, we’d have to walk across the entire Cricket pitch to reach the beautiful, old-fashioned four-court squash complex. I’d pay the equivalent of 99 cents for unlimited squash (people would literally stay until 3 in the morning), full security, waiters and waitresses, and an entire supper buffet of sausages, fried tilapia, roasted potatoes, and tea. People would travel on many weekends for tournaments or we’d occasionally be notified of impromptu round robins on random nights through our nationwide Kenyan squash WhatsApp group.
Squash in Kenya was special for several reasons. First off was the “mix-in” culture. Exclusive country clubs would open their doors once a week to let all non-members have a common venue to play hours of friendly matches and King of the Court. Attendance was always high, however I’m pretty sure there was no way those organizations ever made any profit doing what they were doing. I genuinely think it was done out of good faith to enhance unity and accessibility for an expensive sport in a deeply unequal country.
Second was the passion. For many people, buying a squash racquet was a major investment that required months of saving up. People rarely threw away a broken racquet. Instead, they wrapped masking tape around the broken part of the head and continued to play until they simply couldn’t. The Kenya Squash Racquets Association was plagued with a corruption scandal while I lived there, but so many passionate members took the matter into their own hands and resolved the problem with great effectiveness and democratic civility. At some clubs, the floors would have holes in them that you’d have to avoid when retrieving a ball from the front of the court. Heavy rains would cause flooding and ruined walls. Members would come together to clean up the damage. Nothing got in the way of squash.
Lastly, and most importantly, were the players. Kenyans remain the most hospitable group of people I’ve ever met. I never once felt like an outsider. I was immediately added to all the WhatsApp groups. My racquet was broken at the beginning and I had to borrow one for months every time I played. We would play for hours, have an amazing time, and then share a meal or tea at the end of each session (if I didn’t have to rush… a big no-no in a culture where “pole pole” - Swahili for “Relax and take it slowly” - is of the utmost importance). I would be introduced to my squash friends’ families and be given open invites to visit their ancestral villages. To me, the squash community became my close-knit group of friends. Good people who loved people who loved the game.