I Was Promised Sun and Civil War

Nairobi Skyline

Nairobi is cold.

I mean, not unreasonably cold, but not exactly what I expected. I come from a land of ice and snow where -30 C temperatures are commonplace and the outdoors can kill you if you’re not careful. But since Nairobi sits comfortably in the mountains at about 1795 metres above sea level, it’s cool enough to merit a hoodie on nice nights and rains casually on an almost daily basis.

As a kid, I always floated between classroom daydreams of Africa as this wild, untamed land of leopards and lions frolicking on endless planes of dusty Savannah while somewhere in the background Simba watched Moufasa fall and be trampled by thousands of wildebeests – wilder beasts, I called them. I still do in my head every now and again for old time’s sake.

But seeing Nairobi, a hustling, bustling, multicultural African economic metropolis, I feel like I was fed shit in the dark for far longer than I care to admit. My ignorance was comforting, and much easier than actually putting effort into finding out about a place beyond what I was told by sanctimonious, self-righteous midnight World Vision ads and pay-to-play volontourist vouchers stapled to university summer employment billboards. Those poor, poor Africans, we must save them! Shed a tear and share this link if you agree! Kumbayah Africa.

People’s perceptions of this whole place are so ingrained it’s almost a fight to try and tell them anything different when I send news back home. Anything that doesn’t have to do with elephants or bare-chested National Geographic Maasai tribeswomen seems lost on people I generally regard as intelligent citizens of the information age.

“Wait, you have internet there?!?”

Kimathi

Hanged hero of the Mau Mau Rebellion Dedan Kimathi stands guard atop a street that bears his namesake

“Have you met someone with a click in their name yet?”

“How’s the jungle man? Lol bro, TIA right?”

The jungle. I’m not arguing that Nairobi isn’t wild, but it’s a different kind of wilderness made of concrete and crumbling infrastructure, the kind you find in a massive urban city anywhere in the world. Vulture businessmen in 3-piece suits push pasts herds of fanny-packing tourists on street corners, weaving aimlessly through honking horns and gridlocked afternoon traffic. Homeless youth scavenge around for a piece of what the larger animals leave behind in pocket change and bits of food, hands outstretched and eyes desperately scanning for inescapable initial contact.

Nairobi was founded in 1899 on the belief that if you’re going to oppress the shit out of people, you might as well impress them first by forcing them to build a really long railroad to transport goods you’re stealing. And if you’re missing labour? Just import some Indians from another one of your colonies across the pond to lend a friendly hand. They should get along fine with the local population, and why wouldn’t they? All for the good of the Empire.

What was originally supposed to be a stopover town to get goods from Mombasa to Kampala boomed into a major cultural and economic centre that would eventually become Kenya’s capital once it achieved independence in 1963 following Britain’s generally overlooked but unbelievably violent crackdown on the Mau Mau Rebellion a few years earlier. Ever since, Nairobi’s been a hotbed for foreign investment and tourism, not to mention United Nations and international development work.

Everywhere I go I see people preying and praying, scavenging and scattering, swearing, swerving and all around a different world from what The Lion King and Blood Diamond assured me all of Africa was like. If it’s any kind of jungle at all, it’s an urban jungle, teeming with faceless lost souls working their asses off trying to make enough money to feed and clothe their kids, dreaming about what they’ll do with their lottery winnings.

I interviewed a man in Rwanda last year, a prominent member of the Tutsi diaspora, who had worked for years as a correspondent for European media out of the Great Lakes region of Africa (yes, they have great lakes too, but they’re not as great if you ask me.) I was impressed; he had lived my dream and lived to tell the tale. He had brought the stories of Africa to the world in a way I could only view as heroic and noble, though I hadn’t read a word of his writing. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I asked him how it was; I wanted all of the gory glory details. Without even blinking he told me, “it was shit.” He broke my heart.

He told me that in all the years he worked, he couldn’t sell a positive story about Africa to the West, “all they wanted was death and famine and disease.” The more flies you could fit onto a close-up black and white shot of an African child’s face, the better. “I didn’t last long. I couldn’t do it,” he said, “but others did, because there was money in it.” Showing people what they wanted to see rather than what they needed to, framing stories though a lens that gratified and legitimized years of savage colonialism and paternalistic political repression under the guise of missionary salvation.

But I think that’s symptomatic of the way most people view the world in general. We don’t like being disagreed with, especially not by experts or the internet. And why would we? If a website tells you something you don’t agree with, click again and try to stumble on something a little more in line with the way you see things. People make up their minds first then look for information to back it up, rather than the other way around. We get caught up in this revolving door of cognitive dissonance where everyone is running around blind with their fingers in their ears, yelling that they want to be heard but making the mistake of believing that their right to an opinion means their ignorance is worth just as much as someone else’s knowledge.

It’s cold in Nairobi because it’s winter here and even Kenyans are subject to the ebbs and flows of the seasons. The longer I’m here the more I’m learning that everything I was taught about Africa and the world around me is not absolute truth, but rather a hard-wired perspective that without context is absolutely meaningless. We’re taught to see things the way we want to rather than the way they are, to reinforce what we know is true instead of wondering what truth is to begin with. I’m realizing that for everything I think I know, there are millions of things I don’t and an infinite amount left to be discovered that all stand in stark contrast to one another. No truths, no great fallacies, but a wider world still of wonder and amazement shrouded in mystery and the throwaways of everyday life.

And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Independance

Nyayo Monument in Uhuru Park to commemorate former president Moi

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6 thoughts on “I Was Promised Sun and Civil War

  1. msmarguerite says:

    Reblogged this on Ruby Pratka – Year of No Fear and commented:
    Another revealing, insightful post from my friend from undergrad, David, who is currently on internship in Kenya. Required reading for the aspiring Africa correspondents who read me.

  2. nashdown says:

    Due, you gotta read The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley, who was a Reuters journo based in Nairobi for a long time. Here’s his description of Nairobi:

    “At the end of the nineteenth century the British constructed a railway from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria. The project acquired the name the Lunatic Express, being hugely expensive and built for no ultimate reason other than for the vague objective of securing the headwaters of the Nile. The most challenging section of this incredible feat of engineering was to cross the Great Rift Valley. On the last staging post before the precipitous Rift escarpment, the British ordered their workforce of Indian coolies and soldiers to pitch their lines of white tents in neat rows on the black cotton soil. Here the flat plains, which teemed with wildlife, suddenly rose up like a wave to break over the Rift near the Ngongs, a ripple of volcanic hills that looked like a giant fist. The staging post quickly became Nairobi, named for Ngare Nairobi, or the Cold River, which snaked across the plains. Having built a railway, the British had to justify its cost. The bureaucrats arrived in Nairobi. A stone magistrate’s court was constructed and the trading houses and banks that followed went up along muddy streets wide enough to allow a wagon and eight span of oxen to turn a full circle. The Africans were ordered to pay poll taxes to the bureaucrats. To do this, the Africans came to work and live in shanties. The white settlers arrived to establish plantations and ranches so that the railway would have something to transport. And so the foundations of modern Kenya were laid, created by white men, then worshipped by the mission-raised blacks after they took power following their independence.

  3. Nidhi says:

    Hi David,

    Hope you are well. I enjoy reading your blog which provides a fresh perspective on run of the mill concepts.

    I am currently working in Kenya and among other things, run a twitter page for a think tank. I really like the skyline picture of Nairobi you have taken. Would you mind if I used it as our twitter cover photo for my organisation, giving you full credit by adding your name on the picture? I have been trying to capture the Nairobi skyline for a while now but haven’t managed. Would be very grateful if you agree! Thank you.

    • dmeffe says:

      Hi Nidhi

      Thank you for the lovely comment – I’m really glad you enjoy my writing.

      You’re more than welcome to use the photo, and I thank you very much for taking the time to ask. As long as you credit me, I’m more than happy to let you use the picture. Could you send me a link to your Twitter feed once it’s up?

  4. Portia says:

    Thank you for every other great post. The place else may just
    anyone get that type of info in such an ideal
    way of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I’m at the look for
    such info.

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