A Note About a City
You ask how I am and how Nairobi is. As if to inquire what it is doing at any given moment. Or perhaps what its dreams and aspirations are; the books it is reading, who its friends are now, and most importantly who is sleeping in its bed.
That last one I can answer with some degree of sincerity. She is lovers to many. Too many sometimes in fact, that they erupt in streets demanding their share of her overflowing abundance. Then there are the others, content to be one of her bedfellows although not the only one.
But in all seriousness, what can I tell you about Nairobi that you do not already know? Do I tell you about how the City unfurls itself onto my lap every time my feet cross the threshold of the many doors I call home? How eager it is to always show itself off? Never shy, never timid. Unlike those children who find ways to hide behind the flowing dresses and thick thighs of their parents. It is not like those North American cities either, so concerned with propriety that they forget to live.
Nairobi lives its truth on the outside, always there. Waiting to be consumed.
If you sit by her window, like I did just now, and watch the City go by, I should warn you that you may feel disheartened. There are many things to cause you to pause in a city diffused with dreams seeking the matrimonial bliss of consummation. But isn’t that every Big City’s ultimate failure? That beyond the glitz and the glamor there is grit and clamor? Nairobi is no exception. A City with Lagos aspirations, Jo’burg's mobility, and New York City’s juxtapositions; Nairobi is equally fair and unfair.
I can assure you it is not that she means to cause the sewer to overflow in some areas while paving others in luscious green sidewalks. Rather, Nairobi is trying. Doing her best as they say. Particularly given the circumstances. Resources are scarce, stomachs are fat and there pockets that grow thin from wear and have to be lined.
Progress is costly my friend.
Besides, sometimes it is impossible to hear the voices East of Moi Avenue—though plenty they are. Moi Avenue being the demarcated line we have agreed upon as the divide between the respectable half of Nairobi and the boisterous chaos that lays beyond. Moi Avenue, if you do not know, is named after our second President, whom we affectionately called Baba Moi. Although I think he had insisted on the nickname. But those are the things we do not speak of.
If you return to that window, you can bear witness to the sheer ingenuity and entrepreneurship of many of the City’s inhabitants. They are fast moving, strong, weary, old and young. United by the quickness of their math and their perilous determinations to make the sale. They are hands and roadside tables filled with fruits, vegetables, eggs, samosas, steering wheel covers, peanuts, potted plants, newspapers, bottled water, sugarcane, sunglasses, car chargers, lollipops, car fresheners. Whatever your needs, they have them met.
Your eyes may widen in disbelief as the man selling hazard signs steps in the breath between two colorful matatus —fighting for the right for his business to exist besides theirs. Don’t fret. He will emerge unscathed on the other side of them, securing a lane for himself as he makes a quick sale.
What else can I tell you about Nairobi? Maybe that she constantly aims to discompose you? Placing mangled limbs against sparkling white heels as you cross Kaunda Street in the CBD so that you are forced to contemplate whether the man holding the blue plastic cup trembling with shillings will ever see a place as important as the heeled woman rushing by is headed to. As you near the Kenya Power & Lighting building, Nairobi continues her game of dualities over the City’s lunch break. In front of the office workers lazing in the sun, she sets street preachers next to flyers that offer a more ‘traditional’ medical solution to all of life's problems, namely:
Protection over house, body or land
Work, seniority, marriage or love
Infertility, beauty and catching thieves
Meanwhile the preacher pleads for your salvation.
By early dusk, you will catch lovers on a bench staring out into their bliss. And as night falls at the intersection of Kimathi Street & Mama Ngina, where the giant LCD screens remind you of the worst of Times Square, you will find the Times Square tourists are replaced by street boys who gather nightly to openly sniff plastic bottles laden with glue. The glue that abates their hunger and keeps them seeking their fortunes.
As midnight strikes on the city clocks, in between the pulsating lights of Nairobi’s night shift of revelers, you will catch the women the City also forgets to hide. The ones who grace its suburban streets and sometimes mistake your headlights for more than just passing by.
As I said, Nairobi is city that lives out in the open.
She has been called ‘The City in the Sun’ and nicknamed Nairoberry after her most infamous inhabitants. Lately, in global circles, they have started to call her the Silicon Savannah. Easy to see why as you watch brazen adults toy with electronic phones on abundant streets and your ears fill with the names of a new creative class paving their own paths to commercial success. Nairobi, ultimately, is desires, heat and dust rising. She is bodies moving and sound swaying. It is the giddy crescendo of lights, dare, and bravado. It is many things but not everything.
As you can see, it is impossible for me to answer how 'Nairobi is,' when I can barely grasp the city myself. Which is perhaps why, it is best to come see her for yourself.
Your friend in truth and love,
Feature photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.