The first time I flew into Bangkok, a friendly Thai passenger gave ma a litany of scenarios and characters in order to avoid getting mugged or conned. I got similar warnings when I walked through Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg. My response was always, “Thanks, but I’’m from Nairobi.
In all my trips in and out of the city, whenever someone asked me where I was from, I never said, “Kenya.” It was always, “Nai.” It sounded cocky, as if to say, “You do not know my kind.” You see, nothing fazes us. Tried and tested. Nairobi does that to you.
In my 10 years as a newspaper columnist focusing on social commentary, I learned that the only way to see Nairobi is through its contrasts. It’s a bit of colonial relic with its historical buildings, the most significant being the Railway Museum, where the story of ‘Nai’ begins. At the same time, it beckons to be one of the continent’s leading, cosmopolitan cities.
In the late 1890’s. it was called Ewaso Nai’beri: a Maasai homeland, known as the place of cool waters. Thanks to English affectations, it was mispronounced, ‘Nairaby’. It became a British railway camp, a rest point as they built the lunitic express – an elaborate attempt to capture a virgin country’s resources.
Today, it is a city that blends all humanity, where its easier to learn Japanese than it is to learn Kimeru or any of the other local languages, for that matter. It could also be seen as a basket case, if you train your eyes on the poverty that defines the majority of it’s citizens. Or you might just mistake it for a Western capital, if your priority is enjoying ice-skating in the tropics.
It’s the city of Barrack Obama’s father, knocking back Johnny Walkers at the swanky United Kenya Club. The same city claimed by President Obama’s lost brother George, who now makes headlines from a hovel in Dandora.
It’s a city of contrasts, like the city that hosts the headquarters of UNEP and UN-habitat offices situated less than 20kms from the largest slum in Africa. But man, you can still get a world-class cappuccino.
I recall when Nairobi was known as the ‘green city in the sun’. Post cards from Nairobi composed the picture of a giraffe in the background of the Kenyatta Conference Centre. Praises sung about the friendly-faced locals added to this beautiful mosaic of an idealized modern African city. The people were very hospitable and the patriotic slogans were ‘Jambo Bwana’, ‘Karibu Kenya’ and ‘Hakuna Matata’. The illusion of this has slowly ground down.
Nairobi became known as Nairobbery. That reality was best captured by pioneer hip-hop band Kalamashaka, in their hit song ‘Tafsiri hii’. The line that became an anthem among the urban youth was, ‘polisi au jambazi’. Cops or robbers? The difference was the same. The common trait among Nairobians was that we had all suffered a break in, a mugging or a carjacking; at least paid a bribe to the police for no crime, or greased a government officials palm before you got a basic service that was free of charge. In those days, every tourist was handed a survival handbook. Every sentence began with the words, Avoid, Don’t or Stay Away.
I got accustomed to power rationing. Dry taps. Clogged traffic. Potholed roads. All of it due to the bizarre political policies that squeezed the life out of my personal progress.
I was here when the war correspondents made it their hub. Somali was burning. South Sudan was in turmoil. Rwanda in the midst of a genocide and the LRA running riot in Uganda. Nairobi was the luxurious haven of peace in a region plagued by conflict – a place to chill out and spend your hardship allowance.
At the turn of the century, at the dawn of a new era, Nairobi was the centre of new optimism. Investors were back by the droves and the economy was growing. It became known as one of the most important business capitals in Africa. For expatriates, it was tropical paradise – a dream posting that would leave any expatriate wife feeling kind of ‘OK’. It felt almost like home, but only that the weather was better.
The middle class was expanding. There was a real estate boom. Then the bubble burst after election mass violence rained havoc on our little parade of prosperity. I watched the same buoyant expatriates moaning about the rising cost of living and the need for a fresh look at their compensation packages.
I reacted differently. I had real scars from the city’s tragedies. I was there during the ’82 attempted coup, the 1998 US embassy bombing and the post election chaos. Each time, the faint-hearted lost hope, but Nairobians brushed themselves up and said, ‘C’est la vie in Nairobee!;
Despite the ups and downs, in and outs (and as prickly as she is), she is still a rose. Nairobi has instilled in me the capacity to survive and reinvent despite anything that life throws at me. I am in many ways an embodiment of a city that prepared me for the worst of everything; yet this city simultaneously taught me that ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’. All we have to do is look behind what we see.
Today, Nairobi is rising again – on another turn upward. I see a burgeoning media industry, a surge of creativity and expression. Yes, we have more bars and restaurants and nightclubs. But that’s not the soul. For me, Nairobi is cool because of its hardships and not in spite of them. This gives us an edge over the rest. We’re tested. We’re tried and we’ve come through.
‘We are from Nairobi.’