The people of Rongai need their diversions. The monotony of the fields, the doldrums of village life every so often require some recreational respite. And that is just what Rongai Park Casino has to offer.
A squalor building in the heart of Rongai center, the casino is where a man can come to play card games and win a couple extra shillings after work or in between shifts. Here, he can socialize with friends, chewing the fat on a still Tuesday morning or cheering in drunken revelry on a Friday afternoon--although drinking itself is not permitted in the casino, only in the saloon next door.
But he, and only "he," can do any of this as a painted sign on the back wall warns, "STRICTLY: NO WOMEN AND UNDER 18."
The patrons, on average 20 per day, do not seem to be too far above that age limit. The proprietor, a young man who only identified himself as "K," said the vast majority of his
clientele were between 18 and 35 years old. "K" is a colloquial reference to the playing card commonly called the "king."
Many of them work at manual jobs like laborers and boda boda drivers but view card games as a way to supplement their incomes.
At the mention of jobs, one lanky man named Joseph Thangwa, his face shadowed by a green-and-black baseball cap, said, "Yeah, they work--work for us."
Mr. Thangwa, like many young men in Kenya, refers to himself as a hustler, a young man who ekes out a living by any means necessary. "K" reports that the majority of his clients are hustlers.
"This guy! This guy is very dangerous!" was the reply from Samuel Kanau, a barber and regular. "He will read your mind, and then he'll finish you--take all your money!" That money can reach a fair amount. Many men reported making, or "earning," 500 sh or more in a day of games.
It varies by game, of course, they explained. Some, like Kengai or "Scum" and "President" as it is known in the West, require a larger buy-in fee but offer a bigger payout. Others, like Kata, have smaller buy-ins but play more rounds. In Kata, players call a card--four, jack, ace, etc.--and whosever appears first wins the round. Given the game's speed, it is easier
to rake in a large pot quickly.
All require what the locals call kismat--luck.
"You can be sharp or smart, but it always depends on if you have kismat," said James Mwangi, a boda boda driver, as he shuffled a deck.
Kismat is not the only ingredient at the casino: Kenya has strict laws about where casinos can be built, so "K" had to obtain a permit before he could even open his doors. Now, he enforces a long list of rules to keep the place open. Painted along the back wall next to a portrait of President Mwai Kibaki, the rules include no fighting, weapons, or insults, no drugs or alcohol, no grabbing the money and running, and "respect the man in charge."
Respecting "K" seems to be a given. Nobody complains about the fee of 10 sh he collects from each game or argues with any of his regulations.
Perhaps that is because they understand intimately how the place works. Almost all regulars, they know how much he pays in rent each month--1500 sh--and how much time he spends in this slovenly place.
What they do not know, however, is how much he earns from all their play. "K" is not too keen on revealing it either.
A man with little to say, when asked, he said, "It's my secret."
"Yes," replied Mr. Kanau, "and our money!"