After three years working as a waitress, Kelly Wanjohi believes she has seen it all. From clients who refuse to pay their bills, to those who seduce waitresses, to those whose female companions attack waitresses. But one incident stands out in her mind.
“I still remember that night very well,” says the affable mother of two.
“I was waiting tables at this bar where I was working. I was prepared for the usual stuff… serving drinks, directing patrons to the sinks to throw up, picking the bills and wiping beer spills. I had learnt to block out the booming music so that I could hear the patrons and take their orders.
“Sometime between 11pm and midnight, after this client had taken drinks worth Sh7,000 and was hopelessly drunk, he refused to pay for them. When I insisted that he settle — the money was more than my salary at the time — he slapped me!”
Having seen other hostesses get harassed and left to pay bills left behind by patrons who refused to pay, she didn’t take the matter lightly. She asked him again to pay but all she got for her effort was another slap.
Now incensed, she decided to respond in kind and slapped him back, a nice hard one across the face.
“The man stood up, picked up a beer bottle from the table and hit it lightly against the wall. Then, armed with the remaining piece with a jagged edge, he stabbed me on the left part of my chest, near my breast,” she recalls, calmly sipping her drink during the interview.
The bar’s security intervened, threw the man out and saved her from further assault. They then took her to hospital, where she had to pay for the the treatment from her pocket for the next couple of weeks. Eventually, she was well again and ready to resume duty.
Incidentally, the man visited her in hospital and refunded her the money she had spent on her treatment. He apologised for his actions, but she still reported the case to the police. However, they did nothing about it.
Kelly, who now works at a bar in Zimmerman, says that incident remains her worst experience as a waitress. But she has had other problems with patrons.
For instance, some men walk into a bar, order drinks and as the alcohol takes effect, they begin harassing her. Some try to seduce her, others want to buy her a drink, many more want to pay her for sexual services, and there are even those who want her by force.
This last group has no qualms about touching her breasts, patting her buttocks or even putting an arm around her waist. If she resists or rebuffs their advances, some insult her and treat her with contempt.
In such cases, she, like most waitresses, usually just walks away. But therein lies a risk: if she walks away and the patron leaves the club without paying for their drinks, the lost money is deducted from her salary.
“I have paid bills for men who got aggressive about five times. It is nothing new. The managers tell us that we are the ones who provoke patrons. Hakuna mtu wa kuripotia (there’s no one to report to). I don’t want a man to hit me because of money, but then again if the night’s collection does not add up, I might lose my job. So what do you do? You pay,” says Kelly, 26.
Waitresses and hostesses endure many tribulations at the hands of clients, who turn on them and violate their rights, as Peninah Wanjiku Mwangi, the director of Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP) will tell you, given her long experience in the bar business.
Peninah, whose parents owned a bar where she worked for some time when she was younger, has witnessed first-hand the humiliation that some waitresses receive at the hands of male patrons.
As the director of BHESP, she deals with complaints from hostesses and waitresses from all over the country.
“These women experience a lot of problems. They get insulted and beaten, and they lose money when clients refuse to pay. The sad part is that our society is such that when waitresses complain, the public is indifferent. Some people even believe that waitresses deserve what they get, or that they bring the assaults upon themselves.”
One of the activities she oversees is the creation of HIV/Aids awareness and promotion of safe sex among waitresses, hostesses and commercial sex workers.
She acknowledges that it is not an easy fight, especially since many of the women are often exposed to violent men. Given the choice between a man who has bought them three beers and become violent in his demand for sex and standing their ground, the waitresses often give in.
“They give in, not because they want to, but because they have to. And in most cases, those men will want to have their way without using protection,” Peninah explains.
She summarises their predicament aptly: “Those women are constantly making choices between impossibilities.”
At the moment, BHESP has more than 45 harassment cases in court. The worst case Peninah has handled was that of the Thika serial killer in 2010, whose targets were bar hostesses and prostitutes.
Tamiza Shaniaza has been a waitress for the past five years. She is currently works in a bar in Baba Dogo estate. In the five years that she has worked in bars, she has had all sorts of experiences.
Clients have accused her of stealing their property, such as handbags or cell phones, or that she has given them less change than she should. Some have bought her drinks, only to disappear from the club, leaving her to foot their bills. She has even had run-ins with patrons’ girlfriends.
“The women can be terrible,” she says. “They despise us, call us names and are always ready to start a cat fight if they think their men are looking at you with interest.”
Kelly agrees, saying that some of her bad nights were attributable to women who had accompanied men.
“If they heard their man complimenting you, they’d fly into a rage. They’d break glasses, beer bottles and call you a prostitute,” she says, adding that the war of words would soon degenerate into a physical attack.
So why does she sit and drink with patrons when she is at work? Doesn’t it give them ideas?
PATRONS BUY MORE BEER
Tamiza says that some bar owners and managers expect waitresses to do that because, when she is with them, they buy more drinks. If you refuse, such managers even threaten to sack you, she explains. The mother of three says that while waiting tables pays all her bills, it is fraught with ills.
For Anne Wanjiku, a waitress at a bar in Kasarani, the most surprising thing is the effect alcohol has on people. She says people appear reasonable when they walk into pubs, but the more they drink, the worse their behaviour gets.
“Reasonable people do very odd things when they are drunk,” she says. However, she adds that she has also dealt with some good clients, who treated her with respect and tipped her generously.
Are things any different for their male colleagues?
John Imbenzi, a waiter at Kenya Comfort Hotel in Nairobi, says serving men is much easier compared with serving women.
“Men are easy to work with, and they pay without a fuss. But dealing with women, especially if they are three or more, is a challenge.”
He says women are often undecided when placing orders, apparently forgetting that the waiters and waitresses have other clients to serve.
“If you walk away to serve other people, they’ll raise a storm. When with their spouses, they don’t trust the waitresses so they prefer waiters,” he adds.
Willy Mutahi who works at Simmers in the city centre, also find women who accompany their men to the bar the most difficult clients to deal with.
“When a woman comes with her husband or boyfriend, more often than not, she will kick up a fuss if she sees the waiter talking to him frequently. She will start by complaining and eventually confront the waiter ostensibly to find out what deals he has with her man,” he says.
“To such women, if you, the waiter, show any familiarity with her man, she automatically assumes that the two of you are normally up to some mischief when she is not around … like hooking him up with women or something like that,” he says.
Mutahi adds that such women will harass their man out of the place or throw tantrums throughout their stay.
Mutahi has served women on several occasions and says they come with different intentions.
“Some of them are good. They respect our work. They drink, have fun and leave,” he says of the young, affluent types who come in twos or threes and buy drinks to while away the evening.
“But there are others who, after you’ve served them, will give you their number or insist on taking yours. If they get your number, they call you the next day, telling you to go to their house or to some hotel in town, or just for lunch,” he says, adding that such women try to seduce them with their money.
For Martin Karanja of Kengeles Bar and Restaurant, the biggest challenge comes in the form of men who walk into a bar as a group and drink together. Such groups, he says, are unmanageable and rowdy once they have gone past their fourth beer.
“If you don’t bill them as they order, chances are that they’ll refuse to pay,” he says from experience.
“Pombe sio maji (alcohol is not water)…. You drink it, it changes you,” he says. “That is why we have to update them on their bills and get a clarification as to whether one person will pay for the whole group, or whether each person will settle his own bills.”
But like his colleagues, he has had his share of run-ins with patrons, some of who look like decent trustworthy people but end up doing unexpected things, like walking out under the pretext of making a phone call and disappearing.
Then there are those who test his patience when they throw tantrums because they have not been served as promptly as they would want.
And like their female colleagues, waiters have to endure insults. They, too, are sometimes left to foot bills for clients who vanish, and some have had to defend themselves from aggressive customers.
Waiting tables is certainly not a job for the fainthearted especially in a business where the patron is king or queen.