Nairobi’s growing up.

Tuesday, September 27.

It’s like being born again, shot into the daylight.

Chadrak has my bag over his shoulder, hauling it across the parking lot. The light is white, flat, it rinses everything of color. I shield my eyes with the palm of my hand. “That is the sun of Kenya,” says Chadrak, laughing. I suppose it is. The flight from Johannesburg has brought us a few thousand miles closer to the equator; the sun just sits there in the sky, fat and belligerent, looking to do you harm. Already I am sweating profusely. The pilot had announced our ground temperature as a not unreasonable 23 degrees – somewhere in the low-70s, for the Celsius-challenged – but this sun is oppressive. Has life in Joburg’s temperate latitudes made me so unfit already? Chadrak, pitched into a state of mild hysterics, clucks his tongue with sympathy. How many white men has he seen before, squinting, bitching about the heat?

Just a few minutes before our plane had taxied across the tarmac. We were all business and bustle disembarking, setting off for our safaris and conferences and closed-door meetings with low-ranking parliamentarians and foreign delegations of Bretton Woods eggheads. Kenya, Kenya, my first African love, under my feet once again. It has been more than two years since my last visit – four since my first – and my stomach tightened on my way through the arrivals hall. Low-ceilinged corridors, flanked by pictures of romping antelopes and grinning Maasai and hot-air balloons casting oblong shadows over the savannah. Déjà vu: I’d seen these same pics four years ago. Customs was a room of low-pile carpeting, lights of flickering fluorescence; we waited behind a ragged strip of yellow tape. Two German tourists, a middle-aged couple in crisp khakis, bantered with the immigration official. They had tripods strapped to their backpacks, zippers firmly secured with Swiss Army combination locks. A woman, pleasantly smiling, beckoned me forward, processed me quickly: I smiled for the camera, allowed each finger to be biometrically scanned. Crowds of taxi drivers and tour guides waited outside, holding up signs with magic-markered names. The walls were garishly plastered with signs for forex bureaus and dubious Travel Information Centres whose information was of a decidedly commercial bent. Men leaning forward, hoping to make significant eye contact. Then there was Chadrak, smiling, extending a hand, pitching my backpack over his shoulder and making his way toward the parking lot.

I have spent the past few days in a state of high agitation, burning off the nervous energy on shopping sprees that were both shameless and -ful in their scope and duration. Much has changed in the years since my first visit, perhaps nothing more so than my desire to look crisp and fresh from the moment my feet touch the tarmac. I have done away with the old convertible pants, the thick-soled Gore-Tex boots, the hiking gear in high-tech breathable fabrics. No, this time around, I would not walk the streets of Nairobi looking like a safari guide. There would be dinners in Karen, drinks in Westlands, all manner of attractive preening persons around whom I would like to attractively preen. I’ve packed seven pairs of footwear for my five-week trip. I’m nervous about the fit of certain shirts and convinced that I look fat in these jeans. Yes, my fears have certainly changed since my first visit to Nairobi. I am less concerned with getting robbed than getting laid.

Leaving the airport, traffic slowing, lazy-eyed policemen stopping, peering inside, waving us through. Cumulus clouds drifting like dirigibles. Tons of open spaces. I had almost forgotten, after the manicured neatness of South Africa, just how raw these Kenyan landscapes are. Goats are chewing on the dry medians. Bird nests in the acacias. The brown unloveliness around the airport gives way to the gray unloveliness of industrial parks. Men in dress slacks walk with slow purposelessness along the road’s shoulder. There is not a sidewalk in sight. A hotel like a factory from Dickens’ London, called Nice & Lovely, looking neither. Work crews laying tarmac. A new overpass spanning the airport road, hung with signage for the China Road & Bridge Corporation. Cars and matatus pinballing from side to side, lifting clouds of dust. A driver grins, raising his thumb, as if to assure me that everything will be okay.

Memory is a peculiar thing. It’s been two years since I last drove along this airport road, but a mental map is imprinted on my gray matter. New buildings jar some stray neuron, look out of place. Ole Sereni, a new upmarket hotel. The Sameer Business Park, offering a few million square feet of prime office rental space. I tell Chadrak how much the city has changed, and he laughs. “Nairobi’s growing up,” he says. Business complexes and shopping centers. Vision Plaza. Plaza 2000. Mirage Plaza. Super Bargains (Kenya) Ltd. (“Live Life King Size”). On my first visit four years ago, I was no doubt struck – as most first-time visitors are – by the roughness of the roads, by the blind beggars at traffic lights, by the dark sullen faces crowded into the backs of matatus which clunked and groaned with their doors rattling. Now all I can see is this city’s wealth, the spectacular growth, the rapid development. My nerves are on high alert, my skin tingling. Even stuck in traffic, it feels like we’re racing forward at improbable speeds.

Chadrak steers us clear of the city center, negotiating the back roads. Upper Hill, Kilimani – the names are coming back to me. Through the tree cover I can see the office buildings downtown – the blue-glass windows of some bank tower, the thrusting phallus of the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre. A caller on a talk-radio show is complaining. “These wives are stupid,” he says. Newspaper sellers on the side of the road. Men with dozens of belts draped around their necks, holding up shoes, as if in offering to some pagan god. The leanness of these times, the crumbling of the Kenyan shilling – it has dropped more than 20 percent against the dollar in the past month. “Here in Nairobi, life is hard now,” says Chadrak. I try to suppress my glee at all this favorable forex news. In my last weeks in Joburg, the rand took a similar plunge. I had returned from Ghana with the rand at 6.8 to the dollar; just two weeks ago, it had sunk to 8.4. This set off a frenzy of currency Schadenfreude on my Facebook feed, hailing the fall of the mighty rand, no doubt irritating the hell out of my South African friends. Here in Kenya, the shilling’s tailspin has alarmed the local punditocracy, with embassy staffers and other foreign-currency earners the only ones likely to cash in on the increasingly favorable exchange rate. For expats, life in Nairobi has gotten dramatically cheaper. This taxi ride costs less than it did two years ago.

We turn onto Waiyaki Way, its Guernican chaos. Buses spewing smoke like locomotives, lorries moving with the slow, steady grace of ancient caravans. Another new overpass has been built across the road. “Vision 2030 Flagship Project,” reads a sign. “Upgrading of the Nairobi-Thika Road into a Superhighway to Enhance Connectivity.” On Waiyaki Way, no enhancements necessary: we’re connected bumper to bumper. All this construction, it is hoped, will improve congestion around the city, but the traffic now is appalling. Was it this bad when I visited two years ago? Here it is hard for my memory to serve me well; on past visits, I spent most of my time hunkered down at hostels in leafy suburbs on the other side of town. I had rarely tried to get across the city on a weekday afternoon. I am seeing a new side of Nairobi already.

Finally, we break free of the congestion. The road bends, we pass apartment blocks with pastoral names, laborers in blue overalls squatting on the roadside, eating roasted corn on the cob. The unmistakable, acrid smell of burning trash: scraps of food, vegetable rot, plastic bags. Soon we’re honking the horn at the gate of a leafy compound of stylish apartment blocks – the home of a friend who’s offered me a place to crash these next two weeks. She’s out for the day; she welcomes me into her house with a brisk note and urges me to make myself at home. I drop my things in the guest room and unfurl on the bed, stretching my plane- and cab-cramped limbs. Birds chatter in the trees outside my window. Nairobi – less big and bad than it had once seemed – stands before me like an open door.

It is likely to be a busy stay. I’ve timed my visit to coincide with the Kenya International Film Festival, which kicks off in late-October; until then, I’ll be filing dispatches on Kenya’s film and TV industries for Variety, and hoping to cash in on the odd travel story once I’ve managed to tear myself from Nairobi’s clutches. My return flight is booked for November 1, but already that seems unlikely: friends in Kigali and Bujumbura are just a short flight away, and I’d undoubtedly prolong my stay at the first sniff of interest in one of the proposals currently shuttling between editorial departments of magazines in New York. I might be homeless, again, until the middle of November. By then summer in Joburg will be in full swing. And then the holidays, just around the corner.

The excitement, the nervous energy of the past few days, has finally caught up with me. Hunger and an urgent need for caffeination are the only things that compel me to leave the house. The afternoon has turned mild, and the neighborhood is lovely in the late-day light – the red blossoms of flame trees, the jacarandas. I walk back to Waiyaki and, feeling tired and indecisive, continue walking: away from the congested skyline of town, looking for the first welcoming restaurant I might find. Early traffic, drivers looking to beat the worst of the rush-hour crowds. Crosswalks sit there like animal skins in the living room, strictly ornamental. There is not a working traffic light in sight. Heavy-set men cross the road with the quick-footed grace of certain fat people. Women with babies on their backs, barefoot boys in shirts the size of ponchos. I reach the Mall, a small shopping plaza, and settle into a so-called cappuccino with a copy of the Daily Nation. The paper is filled with news of the passing of Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s green crusader and Nobel Peace prize winner. Condolences pour in from around the world: Nelson Mandela, President Obama, Kofi Annan. “She was a true African heroine,” wrote the office of Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu. The country has declared a two-day period of mourning. Maathai alone has managed to push the ICC hearings at the Hague from the front page.

The last embers of daylight. Commuters jostling on the sidewalk, packing into matatus, horns calling back and forth as drivers engage in some abstract conversation between their vehicles. An unending stream of cars and matatus and buses flowing up and down the avenue. I am tempted, almost compelled to step into this swiftly moving stream and get carried away. Already, though, I can feel my energy dwindling. I want to buy some groceries and make it home before I stumble blindly into oncoming traffic. Across the road is an Uchumi – the sort of Kansas City Royals of the Kenyan supermarket scene. Sadly, there is no Nakumatt in sight; I will have to make do.

The aisles are crowded with shoppers stocking up before the commute home. Tired mothers filling their baskets with cooking oil and bags of rice. Solitary men, security guards, laborers, clutching loaves of brown bread, single cartons of milk. People look washed-out, stricken under the pale fluorescence. Here, among the Uchumi’s thrifty brands, I should be able to clean up: this week the Kenyan shilling has hit a historic low, at 102 to the dollar. Only I miscalculated before leaving the house; still adjusting to the new currency, I only brought a 1,000-shilling note with me. After the cappuccino, I just have a few hundred bob to spare.

I resort to backpacker mode, that feral state I know so well from past travels. Six sachets of Nescafe, a loaf of brown bread, a small jar of Nuteez brand peanut butter. Not without a certain grim irony do I realize that, four years and more than a few literary laurels later, I’m almost exactly back where I started when I first came to Africa: counting my last few shillings on an Uchumi check-out line. “Two thousand is not a lot of money these days,” the man ahead of me complains to the cashier. Neither is the rumpled 500-shilling note I present to her, like a badge of all my past failures. She hands me a shopping bag with my sad haul inside. I had expected to return to Nairobi a conquering hero. Instead I carry my groceries outside like wounded soldiers, into the pitch and tumult of rush hour, looking for the cheapest way home.


3 responses to “Nairobi’s growing up.

  1. I got back from Kenya and Tanzania just over a week ago and I LOVE reading this, so much, so very much. Thank you.

  2. Barbara Soloski Albin

    But look at all you have seen and would have missed.

  3. I’m ready to return to Kenya tomorrow and get away from this freak snowstorm that blasted Pennsylvania a few days ago, tearing down hundreds of leaf-laden branches and whole trees and taking out all the power grid which will be out for at least a week!. Give me blooming flame trees and jararandas!!

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