Nairobi Teen's Elite Dreams

Peter Nyamora speaks mainly English, writes reggae, and aspires to go to college in the United States

SIX feet tall and 17, Peter Nyamora lets himself in the back door of his family's four-bedroom, Western-suburban style home, and heads straight for the TV. He flips on a program of driving disco music and dancing, then sits down at the dining-room table to fix toast and jam. This is Kenya?

Yes, for a small but sometimes influential segment of society. Peter's father, Pius, for example, is owner and editor in chief of Society magazine, a monthly whose stories on human rights sometimes test the patience of Kenya's authoritarian government.

Peter, who has just graduated from secondary school, spends much of his time these days helping his father with the magazine. Though he usually goes to bed early, by preference, he nevertheless stayed up all night recently to help with the editing as the publication deadline approached.

He's also formed a band, Ruff Wurk, and writes music for it which he hopes will one day make Michael Jackson quake.

While many Kenyans struggle to find a job, get enough food, and pay school fees, Peter is - at least for now - sheltered from such concerns, in the way many Western teenagers are sheltered.

``I'm one person who doesn't like to worry about anything,'' says Peter. ``In fact, nothing bothers me. I just think of going out, think of my friends, think of my girlfriends'' - he has three - ``think of parties.'

The bubble could burst, if family income takes a nose dive, or hard-nosed music studios turn down his dream of making a record. Yet a weekend at the Nyamora family confirms Peter's carefree attitude. It also provides glimpses into the making of a young man who is not only very self-confident, but fun to be with, caring about others, and quite serious about some things.

The visit also reveals an amazing closeness between parents and children, and between Peter and his 14-year-old sister, Margaret. There is an openness and camaraderie among the four of them - surrounded and punctuated by laughter.

It's 7 p.m.: A choreography of family cooperation is underway. His father, who sometimes cooks, is laying a fire in the fireplace. Peter's mother, Loyce, who works at a bank, is preparing a fish dinner (it's Friday, and the family is Roman Catholic). Peter, who also cooks occasionally, and Margaret are setting the table. Later, Peter and his father wash the dishes.

Fathers who cook and clean up are not typical in Kenya. And though both parents work, they are careful to spend time with their children. ``You have to sit up and talk to each other for the short time we are together,'' says Mrs. Nyamora. ``Weekends we tend to stay together.'' Neither parent consumes alcohol.

Peter's awareness of these parental responsibilities shows in his explanation of why he doesn't plan to get married until he's 35.

``I know when I get married, I'll have to stay at home a lot. Maybe I can't see any other girls. I'll have to stay at home, help out.'

Now Peter comes into the kitchen. He's been studying American college catalogs this afternoon and is eager to talk about them with his mother.

``I want to go to New Jersey,'' he says, lending a hand with the dinner preparations.

``Colorado would be best,'' his mother replies, with a laugh. They have friends in Colorado.

``You want me to go to those farming places?'

``Why not?'

``Seriously, mother, I want to go to the East. There's action there.'

``What kind of action?'' she says, and laughs again.

What he really wants is a good music school that will accept a determined Kenyan student with a secondary interest in engineering, but who earned a C average - considered not too bad with Kenya's strict grading system. Even with his parents' help, however, paying college bills will not be easy. But college - here or abroad - is the next logical step for Peter, the family agrees.

Mr. Nyamora acknowledges that his son is in a cultural and economic minority in Kenya.

``I think he's in a small, elite group,'' he says. ``We brought these children up in the Western style. They've been brought up in fairly high-class schools.'' And with Peter's mother and father being from different tribes, the parents speak English, making it the only language the children know well.

Peter's isolation from some of the harsher realities of Kenya show in his description of the poor (``happier than the rich''). And at a time when many Kenyans can seldom afford meat, Peter says: ``I hate a meal without meat.''

Yet Peter is not completely isolated. ``My son is aware of what is going on,'' says Mr. Nyamora. ``He edits. He's known the time when police have come to question us in the office on what we've written. He's quite brave. He takes it actually as fun, because he knows, or rather he believes, we are operating within the constitution, that is, the freedom of the press.'

And some of his reggae rap music shows an emerging social consciousness.

``Reggae is nothing if you don't have a message,'' says Peter, sitting on his bed - the walls of his room decorated with music stars, including Michael Jackson's sister, Janet.

One of the songs Peter wrote for his band called for Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa. Now he's updated the lyrics to call for democratic reforms in that country. Human rights is a theme in his music. But one song simply urges kids to stay in school.

And, he says, ``Most of our songs are about love.'' One of them, about a girl he liked but who didn't like him, begins: ``Even if I make you laugh; even if I make you smile, girl, baby, I'm just your friend.''

His mother says that Peter ``likes to be a leader.'' And he is the leader of the band.

``We sing whatever Peter writes, because he's the main life,'' says Bobby, a band member. ``If he writes reggae, we'll sing reggae. If he writes pop, we'll sing pop.''

It's Saturday morning. Bobby and two other friends have stopped by the Nyamora house to discuss the business of the day: Bobby's birthday party that evening, followed by dancing till dawn at a Nairobi disco.

Bobby likes being in the band: ``I enjoy being famous,'' he says.

Famous? Maybe in the small world of school performances, and where it counts most - among their friends. It's a long way to the big time from their band rehearsals on borrowed instruments in a church basement.

But with typical African optimism, and the dream of a teenager, Peter hopes to make it big in music - and not just in Kenya.

``I know there's no money you can make out of music in Kenya. So most likely, I want to go to the United States and sing there. Some music of ours is better than the American,'' he says. Our raps are just as good, if not better than the ones in America. ``What makes Michael Jackson different from people in Africa?''

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