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.
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.
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.
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.