Kenny’s Island

Late on a Monday night in a basement reggae bar, the lounging crowd is mostly from the same place, their old home in Western Africa. A balding man with deep wrinkles calls the bartender his “young brother” and drinks too many beers at the corner of the bar. He offers his joint to strangers and introduces everyone to the bartender, Kenny, in slurred English.

Kenny was the first black man I met in Prague. He owns the underground bar with cheap, sweet beer and walls covered in graffiti about Jah and Emperor Selassie. Middle-aged and quietly friendly, Kenny spends every night behind the bar, taking drink orders and selling weed. Grungy locals nimbly roll long spliffs and giggling international students shove the sticky clumps into pockets and purses. Kenny smiles and nods as he surveys the room. He has been happy here since he left Nigeria ten years ago.

“But that’s in the past,” Kenny said. “And I don’t talk about that now.”

In the midst of today’s vast refugee crisis, Kenny has a different story. His Africa is not one of war, impoverished villages or oppressive regimes that people give their lives to escape. Poverty and poor water access are problems in some parts of Nigeria, but Kenny had nothing to run from. The home he left in Lagos, a bustling port city with one of the strongest economies on the continent, was filled with fond memories. He doesn’t break his rule against dwelling on the past, but the warmth and vibrancy of Nigerian culture is alive in his bar and his new life in Prague.

Although he still visits Nigeria often, even just last month to see his family, Prague is Kenny’s home. He is proudly optimistic about the ex-Communist city that many find beautiful but bitter. To him, the atmosphere is friendly and tolerant. Kenny’s bar attracts tourists and foreign students, but it also welcomes adopted locals from the Nigerian immigrant community. Racism can be painfully common for Kenny and his African friends, but they focus on the positives of their city, hopeful that progress will come.

“There are people from all over the globe in Prague,” said Kenny. “Eventually they’ll come around.”

In between shaking hands and pouring pints of Staropramen, Kenny tells me the best parts about being Nigerian.  A thick silver chain thumps against his athletic chest as he laughs about the country’s eccentric film industry. Adored throughout Africa, Nollywood produces even more feature films per year than Hollywood and is famous for its low-budget productions with hilariously original story lines. “Beyonce versus Rihanna” is one of Kenny’s favorites, and he tells me to watch it on YouTube. Then we talked about literature, and Kenny swelled with pride for Chinua Achebe while yelling about his work over a DMX song.

“He’s a great writer, the greatest writer in all of Africa,” Kenny said with a wide smile. “He has a way of telling people’s stories, and telling the truth.”

These are the pieces of Nigeria that Kenny wants people to know. He often plays Nigerian and other African music in between reggae remixes to get drinkers and smokers onto the dancefloor. He’s convinced that the best parties in the world happen at Nigerian weddings, where everyone is welcome and lucky guests can collect fistfuls of the money showered on brides, wives and dancers. Friday and Saturday nights in Prague aren’t quite the same, but Kenny also knows how to throw a good party, complete with dance hall music and colorful lights strung on the walls. Sometimes his Nigerian friends take over the dance floor, he confessed. But anyone was welcome to come try and keep up with them. The best way Kenny knows how to bring his openness and acceptance to Prague is with good music.

“Bring all of your friends,” he told me. “Tell everyone they can come anytime. We can all dance together.”

Photo by Carmen J. Russo

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