Sunday 20 June 2010

Gems in the dust - Nairobi

Nairobi. A city that fascinates, repels, inspires, frustrates and amazes me. Ten months stuttering the answer to “Where do you live?” Pause. “Nairobi”. The predictable reply. “Oh Nairobbery?”

Then a paradoxical response, tinged with annoyance because I feel defensive towards my adopted city and also, dare I say it, a trace of smugness that I survive, perhaps thrive, in this alien environment.

I’m still unsure how I landed here, why I am here and for what purpose. The superficial rationale is easy – I came for a job. The deeper, personal and spiritual purpose continues to elude me.

Red dust. Tracts of incandescent green. Tattered buildings. Mega-brands. Safaricom. Zain. Malls. Traffic. Noise. Previously unheard expressions and words. Fear. Loneliness. Excitement. Echoes of past stories and histories. Election violence. Hijackings. Vestiges of colonialism. Tribalism. Familiarity of language but not of culture, vestiges of my own culture morphed into something totally different, now almost unrecognizable.

How does a white girl from North London makes sense of it all? What do I write about my impressions without sounding impossibly naïve, stupid, judgmental? Despite having lived in 5 cities in four different countries before landing here, this has without doubt, been the most challenging and strange so far.

My bewilderment is evident at all levels. The first time I was asked if someone should “flash” me, I stayed mute. Of course, in the UK, flashing has other connotations. Here it’s a missed call on a mobile phone to exchange numbers; an evolving hybrid English-Swahili slang to match the mobile age.

Nairobi is a deeply religious city. Christian radio bounces through the airwaves, shop assistants tell me I will be judged by the Lord if my cheque bounces despite my reassurances that there is money in the account. Thousands of people attend Church services on a Sunday and prostrate and pray to a higher power on the top of Nairobi’s principal sports stadium. At the same time, within this population, there is a sexual predatory openness, promiscuity, a familiarity that I find daunting, reckless, and raw. “You’re very defensive” I have been told when out dancing. “My friend likes you. You’re beautiful. Have a drink. Loosen up. Join us…” hissed in sour alcohol breath as I squirm, twist, and edge away from unwanted advances. Nairobi is uninhibited, expressive, reckless and to an outsider, strangely contradictory.

For those lucky few on an upward financial and social curve, I acknowledge and understand the obsessions with cable TV, big houses and fast cars. These outward shows of money are to be seen, treasured and respected. This may be a developing country but for those that have made it, there is no pleasure in understatement. Be bold, be flashy, express your success and be glad you’re not one of the millions still in the gutter.

Yet every day, I glance out of my car window and see old hunched women carrying bundles of illegally gathered firewood, backs bowed in two, often shoeless. I drive past mansions and see Masai warriors and herds of cows walking along the road in searing red cloth. I blink. Still there. My car attracts scores of badly dressed ragged children and the blind line the streets rattling cups. I open my window. Stupid girl. Watch for your bag, your phone. Close the door.

I see the same sweet 13 year old boy in tattered grey shorts and blue jersey selling ground nuts in translucent paper for ten shillings every day. Sometimes, usually, I give him money and through my car window we strike up a relationship borne of habit. The other day he grinned broadly, "Madam, madam...I have my grades - I had exams." He proceeded to go into a long explanation of which I understood nothing, except he had come 5th out of 32 students.

I was inexplicably proud of him - a poor tall boy in shorts selling nuts until 9 or 10 at night in the dark in a main road, managing to succeed. That's courage. I buy beaded bracelets I neither need nor want because someone needs to buy food that day. I become friends with the old man selling handmade bamboo elephants by the side of the road. The cars continue to honk and scream at me. This is Nairobi.

I can’t walk around at night. I feel trapped. Claustrophic. It’s an irony as the city is lush, green, and abundant but hides menace. I miss concrete pavements, streets, cinemas, boutiques, windy city pathways. Sometimes I even long to board a metro train to be able to speed somewhere, to dash off underground deep into a city and then emerge somewhere new. I am a prisoner to my car.

This brings me to driving. Chaos. No rules. Would closing one’s eyes and stepping on the accelerator be any more dangerous? Will someone explain to me why Kenyans are slow at nearly everything except on the roads? Banks, coffees, shops, talking, cleaning and cooking -nothing is rushed. Driving, however, is akin to being strapped inside a cross between a fairground ride and a missile. It is also, I’ve learnt, a battle of the wills here and a new found trust in a higher protective power.
I came here somewhat on an impulse. I feel denuded, stupid, unschooled in African history, politics, and the names of the different tribes, the nuances of race, religion and class. I picked up the basics enough to nod in the right places and reply in a half -way intelligent conversation - but probe too far and I hesitate. I feel cut off from this society and simultaneously, cut off from my own. I am living in a no-man’s land, not quite part of either and fumbling through this one.
Nairobi. Sometimes leaving the airport you see the lean tall giraffe necks silhouetted against the polluted grey city skyline grazing in the National Park. This city is bizarre, unpredictable, raw, earthy, and often cruel.

The hustle and bustle of parts of the city centre has a whiff of Dickensian London. A bygone era of squalor, dirt, trade hustle and bustle, the reek of food and chaos of an overcrowded urban centre. Disease, poverty, crowds of people eeking a living, the streets a second home to the traders, marketers and hustlers seeking their coin.
Do I like it here? Am I at home? In all honesty, my feelings reflect the city. I love it and hate it. I feel both richer and poorer for being here. I feel at home and alienated.

I feel moments of powerful energy and creativity and simultaneously, ambivalence. Amongst it all I cannot escape a feeling of being watched, of lurking danger and the daily torment of the poor. At times this city whiffs of fast deals, big money and luxury. There is an undercurrent. It may not be spoken of in everyday conversation, but this city has seen extreme violence, bloodshed and retribution as communities rip each other apart. That doesn’t just go away. It simmers, rises and subsides, contaminating the way people react, observe and judge each other.

I can’t pin Nairobi down; I can’t make sense of it nor quite work out where I fit within it. Perhaps that is its secret, to keep people guessing and wondering, what now, what next?

It may be a case of observing and waiting in the wings to see where and how I can play a role. Or perhaps it is a stepping stone which will only make sense sometime in the future.

Nairobi is of course, an easy African city to live in for many reasons. I can buy vegetarian sausages; I can go to the cinema, get my hair done and pick up a sushi take-away. It attracts brilliant eclectic people and adventurers, it nurses entrepreneurialism. All of this, I appreciate.

Yet, it is a city that will continue to shock, surprise and knock you down when you’re least expecting it. After a pause and reflection, it then usually has the grace to gently pick you up to face another day.

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