On a Cessna from Nairobi to Lamu
It’s funny- when I’m in Nairobi, it becomes very easy to forget what a beautiful and lush country Kenya can be. It has everything: deserts, mountains, valleys, rain forests, rivers, lakes, beaches, oceans
A few years ago people used to not even know what to make of me. I got “Chinese!” and kung fu sounds thrown at me on the streets, but I also had “Japanese? Korean?” shouted.
Now there are so many Chinese people here that I’m rarely ever mistaken for another ethnicity. China is being pulled into the folds of Nairobi, with Chinese restaurants and grocery stores popping up all over the place. And now, financial services…
Prime Bank now offers Chinese Yuan accounts.
How things change…
Back in 2009 when I lived in Kibera, I used to walk around and spend time at the Maasai Mbili studio where Solo7 worked. Then, he was known mostly only around Kibera for the graffiti he painted there. Now he has a whole billboard up on Valley Road, which I see on my commute home.
Capri, Italy. October 2012.
When I’m on a matatu at just the right time in the morning, I get to spot the morning paper delivery.
Newspapers are so prominent that you see them everywhere. A lesson I learned recently with a team I was managing is that e-mailing digital information is not enough; no one will look at it or remember it. Newspapers and hard copies are the preferred medium here. You develop a relationship with your newspaper man. You say hello to him in the morning. You know where to expect him during the course of your morning commute.
You see this relationship in startling action on matatus. It’s almost like watching a shooting star- if you are at the right place at the right time, you will see it, and it is kind of amazing.
Every newspaper man has his designated route, a place where he stands in the morning for commuters to pick up their newspapers. Despite the fact he is standing in the middle of the road with cars zipping by, he recognizes all the matatus, especially the ones he has relationships with.
Matatus will drive past with the driver’s window down and, sometimes without even a word, the newspaper man will simply chuck the newspaper through the window while the vehicle is moving full speed ahead. I once saw one hit the driver’s head, but for the most part the aim is pretty impeccable.
I also love what follows. The newspaper gets passed around as inquisitive passengers follow up on the news for the day. Nairobians love to consume information and are some of the most up to date people I’ve ever met.
For all the complaints people have about matatus, I am continually fascinated by the way in which they are places of expression (pre-2009 especially, when they were covered in art) and information consumption. The sites of chaos are where the most interesting things happen.
I do believe that the day you don’t see anyone fishing off the Galata Bridge will also be the day pigs fly.
“You’re Americans,” he continues, his voice deep with Chinese authority. “You’re not used to seeing tragedies. You pity us, yes, because you can later go home to a comfortable life and forget what you’ve seen. For us, this type of disaster is commonplace. We have so many people. This is our life, always a crowded bus, everyone trying to squeeze in for himself, no air to breathe, no room left for pity.
- The Hundred Secret Senses, Amy Tan
I just read this the other day and it really resonated with me. Sometimes I think I’m more American in this way, yet sometimes I think I’m more Kenyan/Chinese. The other day a yoga teacher I practice with occasionally died in a car accident, and it made me think about how many people I’ve seen killed or people I know of who have been killed since I’ve been here. Whether it’s my colleagues’ friends or my own acquaintances… somehow it just becomes “normal”.
Sometimes I feel like devastation is a bit of a luxury. Because if you actually live in it all the time, you simply cannot keep it up emotionally. I was devastated the first time I discovered a rape. I was devastated the first time I saw someone killed by a car. I was definitely devastated when D. was raped and murdered. But now, when I see someone lying on the side of the road in Mathare, I just move away before an angry crowd gathers. I feel almost numb to it, because the alternative of letting it wreck me emotionally simply isn’t a real possibility anymore.
Nairobi astounds me sometimes. Where else can I move from getting tear gassed to long conversations in noisy school staff rooms to thoughtful dinners over delicious Japanese food? My love-hate relationship with Nairobi is volatile and ever-changing, but that’s what also allows for the versatility and amazement I encounter in my life.