Tag Archives: Kenya

The Other Nairobi

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Nairobi is really two completely different cities. Maybe more.

I can’t remember when it all started to become normal. I look back to when I first arrived and wonder what made me accept it all, like some sort of freakish gospel I couldn’t argue with. Now I’m not even fazed anymore when I think of it. Sometimes when my heart feels cold, I remember those first few weeks when things made sense, when things were, for lack of a better term, black and white.

From our first few days in the country as bright-eyed and bushy tailed interns almost a year ago, we were chauffeured around town in cars and vans, doors tightly locked, touring development projects in slums and rural areas across Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya’s two largest cities. They’d paraded us from compound to courtyard in an effort show us the country’s underbelly, the one that usually got lost between grilled crocodile and the sight of your first zebra.

We’d been given the usual low-down about driving in the slums. Lock you door. Keep your windows rolled up. And most importantly, don’t wear anything valuable.

We got out of the car and I stepped onto a tarmac of unpaved soil and trampled streams of garbage, baking in the stench of cloistered humidity. I had seen nothing but Nairobi’s downtown and ritzy expatriate suburbs until that moment. I thought I must have fallen asleep in the car. This couldn’t be the same city. No, we had gone far beyond, to somewhere else. But the skyline wouldn’t lie to me no matter how I pleaded. Nairobi’s other face was staring back at me, and it wanted change. My pockets were empty.

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Kibera is arguably the largest urban slum in Africa, and one of the largest in the world. Anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million residents live here, depending who you ask and for what reason. Informal houses are made of scrap metal, mud and generally whatever people can find. From the centre, it stretches out in every direction almost as far as the eye can see. There are allegedly over 2000 NGOs and community organizations working out of Kibera.

There exists two completely different social spheres in Nairobi, and though I think they’re aware of one another, they never seem to interact outside of a few select service industries. The city’s looming financial district, complete with skyscrapers and everything else you’d expect from an emerging economic hub, sits just a few kilometres from slums where hundreds of thousands live huddled together in homes made of mud, scrap wood and aluminum siding. Residents of extensive, unmappable slum networks like Mathare or Kibera work for the rich as maids, cooks, guards, bus drivers and any other occupation you can think of without having to think of unless you really want to. Ghosts, they pass unnoticed by most, even long after they’re no longer there.

Navigating the slums is an exercise in patience and acceptance, fighting the urge to forgo all sense and reason for forcibly ingrained sycophantic sensibility. You feel sick at times, but manners prevent you from expressing it. You want to turn out your pockets, but you don’t want to be an asshole. You want to say hello, but you also want desperately to be ignored. But you never can, not here.

Westerners are taught to cry and woo over scenes like these, because sadness demonstrates empathy, the ability to interact in broader sense of humanity. As kids, we’re told by our mothers to finish our meals because “there are starving children in Africa,” a sentiment that is never far removed in these circumstances, despite its ridiculous and infinitely condescending nature. Sadness and pity show you’re relating with the locals, and letting the world know you understand your immense privileges and the genetic lottery you’ve won. But if tears could magically pump into the nearby wells or water pumps, the taps would still spray salty and altogether useless bile out into the rivers of waste and feces that flow through these communities, snaking their way between homes and gaggles of playing children.

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Kiambiu, another of Nairobi’s infinite slum networks, houses roughly 50,000 residents. Rivers of garbage and feces flow through the community down into the mighty Nairobi River. The water is so polluted, it cannot be drank, though many residents do so anyway. Photo originally published in Vocativ, February 2014.

In some places, pity runs the game. There’s a huge industry surrounding social tourism, where people pay good money for guided afternoon tours through slums. Dealers in the trade parade it as a more realistic alternative to going on safari, but I can’t entirely see the difference. Visitors point their lenses at unsuspecting, unwilling animals, drooling and dreaming about what caption they’ll stick under it to garner more buzz from friends back home. It’s Discovery Channel dribble and more like a competition to see who can fit the most flies in a grayscale close-up of a dirty child’s bemused face. Now the world can see just how worldly you are.

The slums are complex communities that exist because there is nowhere else for people to go. Neighbors know each other’s names and look out for one another; mothers let their children play idly in the alleys, comfortable in the knowledge that if they get lost, someone will take them home. People support each other’s businesses and buy local food. Decency is maintained through public shaming, religion and gossip. No one owns their home or the land it sits on and they can be forcibly removed without a moment’s notice. They exist in the spaces between everyday life.

These slums are more than a big amalgamation of informal housing, they represent a massive group of forgotten people whose lives are so often lost to the pages of humanitarian health reports and guilt-inducing NGO public relations material. It’s easy to consciously ignore their humanity and think of them as a single insignificant number in a great statistic aimed at getting donors to shell out pocket lint. If African children could claim royalties on Facebook photos, then we’d be working with a realistic solution to end poverty across the continent.

I had a house woman named Rose who cleaned our apartment, did our laundry and cooked our meals every day. I saw her every morning when I left the complex and every night when I came home. Yet, I knew virtually nothing about Rose save for the fact that she lived in the nearby slum and every day arrived with her hair tied in bright cloth. She’d wave goodbye and leave every night after cooking dinner. I’d been there so long it seemed awkward to try and feign conversation. We were estranged work colleagues. Long after I’d moved out of the apartment, I met her again at a political rally. We hugged and exchanged smiles in broken English. She asked me to take a photo of her and she looked proud to be skipping work to support a politician from her tribe. I snapped the shot and as she disappeared into the crowd, I wondered for the first time I’d ever see Rose again.

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A young man holds a photo of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga. His followers are generally from his Luo tribe, the second largest in Kenya and fierce rivals to the current politically dominant Kikuyu tribe. At a political demonstration known as the Saba-Saba Rally, thousands gathered in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to show their almost religious devotion to the politician and his party. Over 15,000 police and riot squad soldiers were deployed to keep the rally in line, should it break out into a riot. Only a few tear gas canisters were fired, making it a general success.

Nairobi’s two social spheres are so wildly different, it’s hard to fully comprehend how they have coexisted for this long without a total collapse. The rich business elite and political classes feed off the poor in a manner best described by an activist friend of mine named Boniface Mwangi as vultures – countercultural graffiti murals around the city sport the popular motif. The poor in turn are convinced of the inevitability of their status, or, of the far scarier notion that the ruling classes truly have their best interests in mind. People throw their support blindly behind politicians who share their tribal ethnicity, rather than represent their beliefs. They follow their every infallible word and support their decisions blindly; tribalism slowly destroys the fabric of Kenyan society to a such a degree that it has caused mass violence time and time again, most notably the post-election violence of 2007-2008 that left over 1500 dead and thousands more internally displaced. The scars of that time are still visible across the country, and the wounds are still open for all to see. They may never close.

I can see the people mix on the streets but the lines between them could not be more obvious. Sometimes I feel as though a sickness hangs over the city like invisible smog, suffocating those too poor to reach higher ground. They sit asphyxiating in neighborhoods overflowing with poison as the rich, lounging fat in bulging designer suits, cling flutes of cheap champagne in their towers made of glass, watching the wide world wither and die beneath them. “Don’t worry,” they’d assure themselves under the low tones of fixed gas masks, “we can always make more poor.”

Back in that first slum visit almost a year ago, we got back in the car; the driver immediately locked the door behind us as groups of schoolchildren and mothers crowded the vehicle, hands outstretched.

“So how did you like the other Nairobi?” he asked me. I never answered him.

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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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Clearly Off in Another Fine Mess

Mess1I love writing in transit.

There’s something strangely comforting about hovering in a giant metal tube 35,000 feet in the air, sipping single-serving bottles of cheap Merlot and wondering when the polite, heavy-set woman from Mozambique next to me is going to realize she’s been drooling on my shoulder since we left Addis Ababa.

And so here I am again, penning from planes and picking through piles of tattered in-flight magazines and dry peanuts, halfway to Nairobi and starting to wrap my head around the full extent of I’m about to get myself into.

People keep asking me in very serious, grown-up tones, if “I know what I’m doing” or if “I’m ready” and I constantly lie and say that I do, and I am. The honest truth is that I don’t think I’ve ever really been ready for anything in my entire life and I’ve definitely never known exactly what I’m doing, other than the fact that I’m doing it. That’s usually always been enough.

There’s a weird kind of personal confidence that can really only be gained through a certain sense of reckless self-abandon, a kind of head-first dive into fuck-it-all and general oblivion. No nets, no wires, no pads, no scores, just balls.

Maybe that’s also half the fun of writing in transit, the knowledge that each time I put down my pen and close my eyes I’m a few inches farther from where I came from and a few closer to wherever I’m going. Moving at inhuman high speeds through thin air also reveals the inherent lust for danger and adventure I think is hiding under the surface of most people’s comfortable smiles and generally repressed in favor of white picket-fenced dreams and early retirement plans. A plane skids off the runway in San Francisco. A commuter ferry sinks off the coast of Zanzibar. A train derails in Spain. A bus topples over in Italy. An old man dies alone in bed somewhere. And all the while here I am, sitting miles above it all, watching the wide world riot, pen in hand, trying to come to terms with life, the universe, everything, and my place in all of it.

I love how the world keeps finding new ways to surprise me. Every day I learn something new and I’m reminded about how painfully ignorant I am about everything around me. There’s so much I want to do, so much I need to learn and every night I can’t help but be reminded about the world around me as it swirls and turns so remarkably out of my control. All I can do I hope that the things I do somehow ripple and radiate in a positive direction, even if I never fully understand the great scope of what it all means.

Am I really creating a tangible change? Who the fuck knows. Least of all, me.

What I do know is that what I’m doing is at least a semi-altruistic alternative to sitting behind a computer screen in Canada sharing horrifying, self-gratifying, guilt-ridden links to browser views of a world that’s more nasty and brutish than I want to believe it really is.

I’m too young to embrace a fully naïve view of the world in which I can change everything around me, but I’m also not old enough to fully forego and fuck the world quite yet. Despite all the senseless and savage disparity I see around me, I don’t think I’m done being an optimist. A time may come where I hit that point, and I expect it somewhere close around the bend, but not yet. Maybe no one’s offered me the right price yet.

The woman next to me is still snoring as we hit a small fit of turbulence. She barely budges. On my lap is an old blue paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that’s seen better days. I’ve had it on permanent loan from an old friend for years. “Read it when you need it,” she told me, “you’ll know when.” I close my eyes and I’m splitting a pint of whiskey with Sal Paradise, talking about the great journey of life and the open, endlessly inviting and enveloping road that seems to effortlessly intertwine itself into every part human experience for those bold enough to notice it. He disapproves of my means of travel but seems to be okay with it; it’s a long way to Africa and just a tad too far to hitchhike. Bodies in motion and nothing but cool, calming comfort and lukewarm uncertainty.

I hear a crunch and my eyes snap open as a small packet of cutesy, airplane-shaped crackers lands on the tray in front of me. We’re miles from Nairobi and out the window I can see the sun rising over the Sahara in the distance.

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