Category Archives: kenya

It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again.

Friday, October 14.

The rain this week has been endless. Since the clouds blew in Tuesday afternoon, we haven’t seen a scrap of blue above us. The channel is gray and choppy; the fishing boats toss and lurch and knock hulls, their sides christened with the mixed-up philosophies and word associations of life in modern-day Kenya. Uhuru. Respect. Manna. Beyoncé. The fishermen, wispy wraithlike figures wrapped in kikoys long faded by the sun, gather in the restaurant of the Stopover. They sit there at the empty tables, the day’s takings too meager to justify even a single hot mug of chai. Their talk is as relentless as the rain. Inshallah. Inshallah. There is always room for hope. Donkeys plod the long sand track toward Lamu town, their backs loaded with sacks of cement or blocks of coral stone. Children, bare foot, in djellabahs and bui-buis, their voices carrying like birdsong. From my balcony, I have a sultan’s-eye view of everything. The hotel staff bring me breakfast on the terrace: warm chapati, Spanish omelettes, big steins of coconut milk.

The weather’s cast an inauspicious cloud over the week. I’ve arrived to report on the recent kidnappings of foreigners by suspected Somali pirates for a well-known luxury travel magazine. This is a tremendous deal for me, and one that had already heightened my anxiety before the rains blew in. Tuesday night’s storm knocked out the only transformer in Shella; by 7pm, darkness drops on the village like a stone. While this probably hasn’t posed too many problems at the high-rolling Peponi Hotel, where the constant thrum of gas-powered generators is as steady and reliable as the tide, it’s complicated life at the thrifty Stopover. The cost of fuel on the island is high, and management has decided to fire up the generator for just a couple hours a night. Evenings bring an elaborate choreography of plugging and charging, trying to milk whatever feeble power is being pumped into my room before I’m left with nothing but moon- and candle-light to scribble my thoughts by.

It has lent a certain black comedy to the week. You would picture a luxury-travel writer being fed crab claws and caipirinhas and more or less getting fellated by Thai masseuses while he does his reporting; sadly, readers, this is not the case. I’ve been juggling laptop batteries and stocking up on spare SIMs, since a stray breeze will almost certainly knock out at least one of the major phone networks. (Not without good reason are dual-SIM phones pretty much de rigeur in Kenya.) There is the problem, too, that the kidnapping story – now two weeks old – has already been overreported. Local hotel owners, I quickly learn, have felt unfairly treated by the press. Some say they were blatantly misquoted; others that the general media consensus of a “panicky flight” from Lamu was grossly exaggerated. (Later in the week, I’ll pay a visit to the offices of the three airlines which operate flights to the island. Between the three, they report a grand total of two tourists who had come to them in the days after the kidnappings to take the aforementioned panicky flight.) As the area begins to gear up for the high season, there’s a sense among hoteliers and tour operators that the best press for Lamu right now would be no press at all.

Fortunately, my swank media credentials open up some doors, and many of the hotel owners around Shella are eager to at least set the record straight. Lars Korschen, at the Peponi – a de facto base for me, with its abundant outlets and prime Kenyan AA coffee – gestures to the empty dining room where I’ve come to meet him and says, “We’re down to next to nothing at the moment.” Korschen has a windswept, old-mariner’s air about him; you can almost picture his vocal chords just sitting there on the beach, getting bleached by the sun and mottled with salt and sand. He walks me through some of the beefed-up security around the hotel – extra watchmen, armed police at night, floodlights that can light up the beach like the 4th of July at a moment’s notice – and says he’s hopeful that the American and British governments will soon lift their travel advisories. The Kenyan security forces, he says, “were caught a little bit unaware” by the September kidnapping at KSV, but “the security has stepped up dramatically.” The police have announced increased patrols on land and sea of the border region, as well as round-the-clock aerial surveillance of the area and a greater presence on Lamu, Manda, and all area beaches. Plans are in place to create a regional command and control center, to coordinate the efforts of the different security branches. Still, says Korschen, it’s impossible to deny that the threat exists.

“It’s really hard for us to encourage people to come when that kind of thing’s going on,” he says. “I have to start off with saying, ‘I assume you know about the travel advisories, and that you’ve checked your insurance and that you feel okay about coming.’ And I tell them about the increased security, and it’s still beautiful here, and I’m still here, and they’ll probably enjoy themselves tremendously.” He sighs. His face lights up.

“It might not be as good a season as we expected, but we’re going to pull through,” he says.

The mood in Shella seems to swing between steely resolve and forlornness. At any time of day, gathered around the village’s small jetty, a dozen beach boys are limply plying their trade to the two or three tourists who pass by. No one is taking sunset cruises, no one is booking dhow tours of the mangroves or the old Swahili ruins on Manda island. While the kidnappings have hurt the hotel industry, they’ve been far more damaging to local villagers: according to official estimates, nearly 90 percent of income in Lamu is tourism-related. The fishermen braving the rough sea at night, the women squatting behind piles of fresh vegetables in the markets of Lamu town, rely on the hotels and restaurants for most of their business. Walking through Shella one afternoon, I find a man – Ousmane, or Osmond – shucking oysters on the small stoop outside his home. Beside him is a plastic bag full of mollusks. “I can give you a very good price,” he assures me.

The listlessness around Shella is as dampening as the weather. When I ask a group of fishermen about recent events, and the government’s response to the kidnappings, they grumble and shake their heads. “It is too late,” says one man, Mohamed. “The story has already happened.” Another, Hamdi, says that the problem lies with the country’s lax security forces. “Our people, they are cowards,” he says. There is a widely held view among islanders that the police are too lazy and corrupt to protect them. “They want the nice biscuits, the nice meat, good beer,” says Hamdi. He complains that most of the local police and military come from upcountry towns. Few know their way through the mangroves and channels of the archipelago; many don’t even know how to swim. (One beach boy, a wiry rasta with little coils of copper-colored dreads, suggests that the government give him a boat full of beer and marijuana and let him and his friends track down the pirates themselves.) The police have put on a good show of strength, says Hamdi, but who’s to say if a boat-load of attackers couldn’t slip through again? “It’s like having a guard, but he is asleep at your door,” he says.

The week drags on; the reporting is a slog. Government officials and security experts in Nairobi are impossible to reach by phone; when I finally manage to contact a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy, she offers a limp response to my questions about American support for and involvement in Kenya’s anti-piracy efforts. “The United States condemns this act of violence and offer our condolences to the family of the deceased,” she writes. “We call for immediate release of the kidnapped victim.” (In fairness, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting.) On a rainy afternoon, I take a boat across the channel to Manda’s Ras Kitau beach, where the swank, $1,800-a-night Majlis Hotel sits about 50 meters from the house where the Frenchwoman was kidnapped two weeks ago. The Majlis has a sumptuous, Arabian Nights air about it, with its ornate wall carvings and Oriental rugs. But while the Italian owners have defiantly decided to stay open (and have, in fact, praised the Kenyan police, who built a makeshift sentry box a couple hundred yards down the beach), the hotel is practically deserted. With a bulldozer plowing the sand out front, to help construction of a new seawall, the place feels like an excavation site of some ancient desert kingdom.

The Maasai watchman gestures toward the reception area with his knobkerry; a manager comes out to greet me. We’ve hardly gone through the preliminaries when he asks for my card. I’m slightly taken aback: I haven’t had the foresight to print any cards for my Kenya trip, and haven’t yet had one of the fortuitous encounters which, in Ouagadougou earlier this year, had me forking over ten bucks for a hundred business cards from a guy I met on the side of the road. The manager, whose slick-backed hair is, unlike mine, achieved with some deliberate effort, shakes his head and apologizes. “I’m very sorry,” he says, “but I can’t speak to you unless you have a card.” The Majlis’ owners, it seems, have grown as wary as the rest of the area’s hoteliers toward media requests; without some sort of visual proof of my professional affiliations, management has been told to stay mum.

It’s a dispiriting setback to the day; outside, on the beachfront, another indignity: I’d told my boat captain to come back for me in half an hour, imagining for myself a very busy and journalistic afternoon. Five minutes after he’d dropped me off, he’s nowhere to be seen. The rain has intensified. My shirt is stuck to my chest; my notebook feels like a bunch of wet leaves. A long history of professional disappointments is gathering in my mind like the storm clouds above. Suddenly, a man materializes from behind an acacia tree, like a djinn in some Arabian myth. He stands there beside me and stares wordlessly at the channel. We watch the distant figure of some boat – most probably mine – ferrying some tourists to Lamu town. Pleasantries are exchanged. The man has a dark, pitted face, patches of gray stubble on his chin; his eyes seem to have been dredged up from the murky depths of some untold sorrows. For a second, I wonder if this is the same Osmond, or Ousmane, who I’d met shucking oysters a few days ago. As it turns out, it’s his older brother; he’d come to Manda for the day to do some work. When I ask him what sort of work, he just looks at me. After some minutes we see a white boat puttering across the channel. The captain gives a cheery wave, as if it’s a fine day indeed to be standing on the beach. By the time I get back to the Stopover, I’m soaked through to the bone.

With the week dragging on, it feels like I’ve hardly made any progress on my story. Frustrated, feeling both physically and spiritually sopping wet, I take a boat to Lamu town one morning to get some comments from local officials. The rain is coming down in sheets, wind-blown, practically horizontal; the crude gutters that run through the town are brimming with gray rain water and unspeakable things. I track down the District Commissioner and the area’s tourism chief, filling my notebook with government-cleared assurances and platitudes. Waiting for Chief Jamal Fankupi, the principal chief of the entire coast region, the mud caked to my ankles, my shirt musty and fungal, I begin to wonder whether I should’ve made the trip at all.

It is a long wait. The principal chief is behind a closed door, entertaining the beseechers and supplicants. News clippings taped to the doorway sing his praises. “Kenya’s sole principal chief key in Faza,” reads one headline. A boy with a skull cap fusses with a beaded bracelet, the name “Abdul” worked into the design. Sitting on the bench beside me, a man in a kikoy takes a call; his ring tone chimes “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Sandals scuff the floor, beat-up fishermen’s feet, women in bejeweled slippers with henna tattoos up to their ankles. The roof is a tin awning held up by rough wooden crossbeams; weather stains distress the walls, the thin layers of Crown paint no match for the tropical climate. We sit and wait. Overhead a tangle of wires and cords spills from an electrical box, as if a very large and complicated bird’s nest has been yanked apart by a strong hand. The sound of sandals clopping heavily up the concrete stairs. A boy in bluejeans, an umbrella tucked beneath his arm, carries a bucket of hard-boiled eggs, chopped tomatoes and onions. For ten cents he will crack and peel the shell; you sprinkle the piri-piri yourself.

The door opens, and the askari raises his eyebrows toward me. Chief Jamal is ready to see me. The paramount chief sits behind his desk – a tall tower of a man, seven feet plus – his face handsome, dignified, unabashedly skeptical. He has no idea who I am. I introduce myself and describe my assignment on the island, expressing my gratitude that he’s decided to receive me on such short notice. Chief Jamal Fankupi is perhaps the most powerful man in Lamu – the only paramount chief in Kenya, a man who presides over the full length of the coastal region, from the Somali border to Tanzania. Even before we’ve gotten past the preliminaries a man barges in, bent at the waist, making small supplicatory gestures. He has come a long way, he says, to greet the chief. Chief Jamal receives and dismisses him with a single nod, then inclines his head toward me.

I put a few questions to him about the kidnappings, and the government’s response to them. The voice that comes from his mouth is deep and methodical. He describes the increased security measures that have been put in place in Lamu, the commitment of government officials, the hosannahs of the locals who are, he assures me, completely satisfied with the efforts of their elected leaders. “They have seen it for themselves, what the government is doing,” he says. It is like speaking to a press release. We dance around thusly for a few minutes, me making little inscrutable journalistic scrawls in my notebook, the paramount chief making a tent out of his long, slender fingers, as if imploring me to get to the point. Finally, I ask him whether he’s concerned about reports pointing toward local involvement in the kidnappings. Is anything being done, I ask, to root out local sympathizers of Al Shabaab? The paramount chief gives me a look. “Since the investigation is still being carried on, we cannot tell that without the finish of the investigation,” he tells me. He rests his big hands on the desk: they look like they could crush walnuts, or reporters. Gathering my things, I ask if he thinks the island is safe.

“It cannot happen again,” he says. “It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again. And I repeat that. And it will never happen again.”

I stand and extend my hand across the desk.

Inshallah,” I say.

We pray anyway.

Monday, October 10.

It takes an hour for us to negotiate the cross-town traffic to Jomo Kenyatta International. Other commuters – determined to thwart the rush-hour congestion – take to bicycles or, in even more cases, their own two feet. An incredible amount of Nairobians are walking: swinging briefcases, carrying infants, holding Bibles or schoolbooks, negotiating their way across rock-strewn fields and weed-filled lots. There are no sidewalks, no rules of the road. Pedestrians crowd the ragged medians, where the occasional matatu careens and sends everyone scattering with a burst of nervous laughter.

I am already dressed for the coast, but it’s a cold, wet morning. At the domestic departures terminal, it’s just we foreigners parading around in shorts and t-shirts and beach-ready flip-flops. The Kenyans are bundled under heavy sweaters and rain coats, huddled together like refugees. Lamu can’t get here soon enough. I’m planning to spend 10 days on the island – time enough, I hope, to file a story on the recent abductions for Conde Nast Traveler, gorge on seafood and fresh fruit shakes, and even out my ridiculous tan. Memories of Lamu from my last visit, more than four years ago: the old men in kikoys reclined on stone barazas, their thin ribs showing; the sounds of sandals scuffing the pavement; the almond slits of a veiled woman’s eyes in a doorway; dhows gliding across the channel, their sails like fins. Travel clichés, of the “magic” and “spell” variety, muddle my thoughts. I am thinking of coral walls and frangipani trees and donkey shit. Short cups of sweet, spiced coffee. The early morning call to prayer.

We’re just a few minutes behind schedule leaving Nairobi, and a few minutes more as we descend into Malindi. The coast has been getting hit by heavy rains all week, and there’s an inauspicious cast to the sky as we wait in the terminal for refueling. A light rain is falling. The sky is like pewter. The passengers are all looking hopefully at one another. Boarding again, settling into our seats and in-flight reading material, we are buoyed by the miraculous thought that the skies, at least, will be clear over Lamu. The pilot steers a course over the ocean. Little scrims of white seafoam, fishing boats leaving trails in their wake. The plane disappears into a bank of clouds; we lose sight of the sea below. After some nervous, bumpy minutes, the pilot’s voice comes over the PA system: the visibility is too poor; there’s no way to land. He’s turning the plane around and taking us back to Malindi.

Groans from around the cabin. The pretty stewardess beside me sighs: her long day has just gotten longer. She had gotten up at 4am and arrived at Kenyatta International for fly540’s 6:30 flight to Mombasa. She has already logged more than a thousand air-miles today.

Half an hour later we touch down on the ragged Malindi airstrip. A few men in bright vests steer us toward the low concrete terminal, a cheerless room where passengers wait for onward transit. Small groups of British and Italian tourists give us weary smiles. Travel banalities are exchanged. The day, I can tell, will soon be sliding toward something farcical. A man, some lower cog in the fly540 corporate machinery, makes some ambiguous promises that the situation will be resolved as soon as possible, that fly540 would never even dream of leaving its valued guests with anything but the fondest and most cherished memories of our time together, etc. He’s sort of backpedaling toward his office, like a cartoon villain. The Nairobi-bound tourists offer some hopeful words before stepping bravely onto the tarmac, their faces lit with there-but-for-the-grace-of-God relief. The propellers whir, the engines roar, and off they go into the gray expanses. We settle into our seats, watching a low-rent Nollywood flick on the wall-mounted TV. A woman with tired eyes slumps over a glass display case full of Pringles, cashew nuts, and an impressive range of chocolate bars. We make resigned little faces at one another.

I have developed, if nothing else, a sharply honed sense of irony when it comes to the black humor of African transport. Should the rain continue to break against us and we get stranded in Malindi for the night, then flying from Nairobi to Lamu will have actually taken longer than my original, boot-straps, roughshod plan to travel by rail to Mombasa and bus to Lamu. The swiftness and efficacy of First World travel, despite my best intentions, simply refuses to apply itself to my life. There is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned in all of this. But I refuse to get suckered into cosmic generalities. Eventually, the clouds will clear.

And so we brace ourselves for the afternoon, fortified with the aforementioned Pringles and cashews and impressively ranged chocolate bars, fiddling with our iPods. The sky is still gray, tumbling with clouds. Weariness, after a long night, begins to set in. The peace doesn’t last long. A young German girl has apparently decided not to stand for these indignities foisted upon us by Mother Nature. She takes on a grim, battle-ready expression, as if about to storm the Bastille, and knocks on the manager’s door. Unpleasant words are exchanged. Legal threats are brandished. Certain things are deemed “unacceptable” (a sure sign that this young Teuton has never traveled in the southern hemisphere, where all manner of discomfiting things prove to be entirely acceptable). Before long she is making demands, as if negotiating a hostage crisis: bottled water for all of the passengers; transport to a local restaurant where “fresh vegetables” are served (ibid.). The fly540 staff, beleaguered enough already, working whatever back channels to figure out how this increasingly aggrieved crowd of high-income tourists can get to where they’re going, exchange wry expressions and concede. Water is passed out with great fanfare, like the loaves and fish of Christian myth. The blonde is assuaged.

It is an article of faith of mine that certain people are just genetically and temperamentally predisposed to northern latitudes. They are an affront, I think, to the way things are done in the southern hemisphere. I am wishing malarial bug bites and severe stomach ailments on this grim alpha blonde, who, I should point out, has the hard body and steely demeanor of a distance runner. At some point, a certain travel writer may or may not have publicly aired a desire to see her “go the fuck back where she came from.” A wary calm settles over the terminal. A school group circles our plane on the tarmac, a field trip, I learn, for a geography class at a local high school. Their uniforms are the deep blue of the sky before dawn. The rain has stopped. Slowly, patches of blue start to reveal themselves behind the cloud cover.

After a four-hour delay we’re again boarding the plane, and for the second time today we’re in the air over Malindi, a green belt of palms and bush thrust against the hard gray of the sea. Flying in and out of clouds, we can see the small distant figures of fishing boats below, a tanker ship moving glacially toward foreign ports. It is a short flight, and though the sky is still gray over Lamu, the weather has improved. We trace a gentle arc over the islands below us, patches of bush and sand dunes, the eight-mile stretch of Shella beach, which seems to go on forever. The plane banks for the approach to the Manda airstrip, bringing us low over the mangroves. A single, brave dhow glides across the water. Across Manda channel, the lights of Lamu town have begun to glow.

Four years ago, I made this trip the hard way. It was a long, bumpy bus ride up the coast from Malindi; wary of the bandits who prowl the lawless lands of the northeast, the Kenyan army provided an armed guard to escort us. (I remember him dozing happily with his assault rifle tucked between his knees.) The bus was packed, sweaty, riotous: heavy-set women in colorful headscarves and kangas, loud taarab music crackling over the speakers. We arrived at a dusty jetty; an old ferry taxied us to the mainland. The buildings of Lamu town, white-washed, styled after the houses of the coast’s Arab forebearers, slowly came into view, like a broadening grin.

It is hard to make out the buildings now, at twilight, standing at the prow of the motorboat that carries me across the channel. A light rain pelts my face and dimples the water. My hair and arms are slick. Behind us the knotted mangroves of Manda recede. I try to make out familiar landmarks along the Lamu waterfront: Lamu Palace Hotel, Casuarina – the backpackers where I spent a memorable month – the turrets of the old fort. The skyline is a jumble of palm trees and thatched makuti roofs. Two police boats bob conspicuously offshore.

When we arrive in Shella, the small village at the island’s eastern tip, the full staff of the Stopover Guest House seems to be on-hand to welcome me. This is more than just Swahili hospitality: on this night, as on most of the ones preceding it in recent weeks, I am the only guest. The recent kidnappings of foreigners – first, near the remote island of Kiwayu in early September; then, just across the channel on Manda last weekend – have rocked the local tourism industry. While business in Lamu is typically slow in October – a lull between the high seasons of the European summer and the Christmas holidays – even that modest trickle has now dried up. The groundfloor restaurant of the Stopover is empty; the only noise in the hotel is the sound of our bare, wet feet kissing the stone stairs as Patrick, a hotel employee, leads me to my room. It is beautifully furnished with two Lamu-style, four-poster beds and a Swahili day bed and washed stone walls. Leading me back downstairs, Patrick reminds me to lock the door on my way out. “Because of the security situation,” he says. “But also we have too many donkeys here.”

The moon is in its last quarter; the beach is dimly lit, so that I can just barely pick out a path around the donkey shit. In the distance the soft cocoon light of the Peponi Hotel beckons. This is Shella’s famous watering hole, the place where bohemian expats kick back their bare feet and share island gossip. Tonight, I am not disappointed. There is a convivial buzz on the terrace, the musical clinking of glasses and laughter ringing like coins. As I get closer, though, the sounds resolve into anxious voices. A group of locals are discussing the security situation, and the repercussions it will have on island life. The accents are a mix of American and British and upper-crust Kenyan, the intrigues like something out of a John Le Carré novel. The government’s response to the kidnappings gets dragged through the mud: clearly the navy was no match for the Somali pirates who made off with the Frenchwoman last week. “You need equipment, and you need skill,” a man complains. “They don’t have equipment, and they don’t have the skill.” (Fuzz Dyer, co-owner of the luxurious Manda Bay beach resort, blasted the government’s bungled rescue effort. Dyer had spent the day flying his private plane over the kidnappers, coordinating with the Kenyan navy. “We had a visual on the lady from 6:45am until half past six at night. We had the whole day to get her back,” he told the Financial Times. “We could have brought in a private force and collected her. It’s almost like they didn’t want to get her back.”) Security is being beefed up around the island: by the government, by hotel owners. But the locals are afraid that they might go too far, that Lamu might turn into some fortified compound of navy patrols and soldiers guarding the beach. “It would be the death of the tourism industry, to have armed guards everywhere,” says an older woman. Ultimately, everyone seems to agree, the only way to safeguard Lamu is to cut off the problem at its root. “You need to stop them out there, not here,” says an American woman. But how to tame the lawlessness of Somalia? How to recover the peacefulness that reigned here just a few weeks ago?

On the way back to the Stopover, I stop to chat with the staff at the restaurant of the Bahari Hotel. Already they’re stacking the chairs on the table: there has been no business tonight, as on recent nights, and the manager is sending the waiters home.

“Normally these tables are full,” he says, shaking his head.

“We pray anyway.”

You Dream, We Fulfill.

Saturday, October 1.

Three weeks ago, a speedboat full of Somali gunmen cruised into the narrow channel separating Kiwayu island from Kenya’s northern coast and landed on the beachfront of the $1,300-a-night Kiwayu Safari Village resort. The attackers burst into the bungalow of the resort’s only guests – a middle-aged couple from the UK – killing the husband and making off to Somalia with his wife before Kenyan security forces could respond. The attacks seemed to catch everybody off-guard, despite the fact that Somali pirates have been operating in East African waters for years, targeting large merchant ships whose crews would typically fetch ransom pay-offs worth millions of dollars. The resort, too, had had a troubled history: according to recently published news accounts, armed robbers – presumably from Somalia – had targeted KSV before.

I visited the resort in 2007, and it was remarkable in that understated way of East Africa’s best beach resorts. More remarkable was the fact that its location – on a narrow isthmus that gave it not one but two iconic no-need-to-Photoshop-this-puppy’s-photograph’s-cerulean-skies-and-seas tropical beachfronts – was just a few clicks south of the Somali border. With the benefit of hindsight, one could wonder how such a brazen attack hadn’t happened before. And if there was any consolation for worried hotel owners and tour operators in Lamu, it’s that Kiwayu Safari Village was in fact closer to Somalia than to Lamu itself.

Saturday morning, though, a second kidnapping in the archipelago turned the story into an escalating crisis. A Frenchwoman was snatched from her seafront home on Manda island, this time just a short boat ride across from Lamu’s Shella village – the exclusive ex-pat enclave where Princess Caroline of Monaco, among other glitterati, keeps a home. Hotel guests and villagers reportedly heard gunshots during the late-night attack; according to local news accounts, the woman – who was confined to a wheelchair – was dragged out onto the beach and unceremoniously flung into a boat that sped off as Kenyan security forces scrambled to give chase. The police were quicker to respond to this second attack, though word is that they were forced to borrow the boat of a local hotel owner because their own had an empty gas tank. They pursued the attackers throughout the day, exchanging gunshots as the kidnappers raced toward Somali waters. But the response fell short: despite the high-speed chase and aerial surveillance by a local pilot, the attackers vanished into the heavy forests around Ras Komboni in southern Somalia.

By late morning, news reports of the abduction seem to be playing on the radios of every taxi driver and barber in downtown Nairobi. Outside the Terminal Hotel, where I’ve come to meet a writer-friend who’s visiting from the States, the sidewalk philosophers are weighing in on the morning’s events. “Those things are spoiling our business,” says a taxi driver, leaning against his car with a rumpled copy of the day’s Standard. Mutters of agreement from other drivers, a shoe shiner, a fat man performing some ambiguous watchdog function outside the Terminal’s threshold. My writer’s pulse has been operating at a sickeningly high level since I heard the news this morning: somewhere in all this grim piratic news is, I suspect, a scoop that a certain travel writer should be able to cash in on. The congregation outside the Terminal moves on to meatier subjects: they parse the day’s headlines like some street-corner equivalent of Meet the Press. The current ICC hearings at the Hague are discussed and dissected, viewed with the sort of well-honed skepticism of a public who have come to expect so little of the men working the levers of power. Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta – believed to be one of the principal architects behind the post-election violence in 2008 – has been on the witness stand all week, and his performance is critiqued as if this were an Oscar jury debating best supporting roles. Kenyatta – cool and defiant throughout the week – has won no small measure of support in Nairobi. Pop-art graffiti, spray-painted silhouettes and slogans, is overtaking public spaces. Uhuru Pamoja. Uhuru Strong. Uhuru Hero. A voluble man is declaiming loudly in Kiswahili. “He says they don’t have any evidence and those ones are coming back,” explains a man beside me. “He doesn’t know what he is saying.” Another man, leaning forward as a rag does expert things to his loafers, wags a finger at the crowd. The ICC circus, he says, isn’t the usual political theater. “This is a starting,” he insists.

The volume grows, the debate degenerates. It’s broken up, as is so often the case in Kenya, with peals of laughter. Before we can take up the next topic my friend Frank has come down the stairs, smiling, hand extended for a big warm shake. It’s the first time we’re meeting face to face, after a few months of emails and the fortuitous timing of us both being in Nairobi this month. He’s arrived to spend a few weeks reporting around East Africa, and our talk, as is so often the case in our racket, is of the shop variety. Notes on magazines and editors are swapped; pay rates compared; contacts promised. There is something heartening in all this professional banter, as if I’m being reunited with the lost kin of some dwindling tribe. It is an article of faith among travel writers, I think, that few are the tears which are shed on our behalf. It’s nice to bitch without fear of being judged. Me and Frank knock back cold Tuskers at a pub overlooking Accra Road. A drunk man lurches up to us, asking over and over if we need a driver to show us the countryside.

The color and tumult of Nairobi street life. The sky is like a circus tent. Along River Road, along Lenata, the terrific crush of bodies, the white matatus lined up like a mouthful of rotten teeth. Receive more money when your loved one pays low fees. Hand-painted signs promising Instant Cash, Safaricom imploring us to Top Up Here (“Bamba Hapa!”). Guys in beat-up tennis shoes loitering outside Jack’s Communications & General Merchants, outside Vineyard Butchery (“Delicious food joint”) and Travellers Café (“Step in for delicious food”). Frank cleaves the crowds like the prow of a ship. A glamorous African woman on a billboard, her head tipped back, with the words Burudika na Coke written beside her long neck. Dream Hotel. Destiny Hotel. Texas Bar & Restaurant. Relax Pub & Restaurant (“Deep down refreshment”). Bright print dresses hanging from the balcony of New Blessed Fashions (“John: 14:14”), overlapping like the scales of an exotic fish. Sunlight paints the storefronts. Men in blue overalls are sorting through electrical supplies: piles of extension cords, 40W bulbs, outlet adapters, sockets. Ubiquitous signs offering mobile phone repairs. Coach buses idling, loading, their roofs like bazaars, women with dark sunken faces in states of long-suffering repose. Young men calling out destinations like carnival barkers. Kampala Coach. Crownline. Modern Coast. Spider. Sleep-deprived drivers willing to transport you to East Africa’s far-flung cities at budget prices. The swift promise of Dolphin Express. The aspirational Dreamline (“You Dream, We Fulfill”).

Frank, too, an old Africa hand, seems at home amid all this clamor. He taught English in northern Tanzania more than a decade ago; the last time he was in Nairobi, it was during the bad ol’ days of President Moi. He remembers eating dinner with his wife at Trattoria downtown; they were wolfing down their pomodoros and carbonaras at half-past five, eager to get back to the hotel before dark. Whenever I bump into travelers who remember Nairobi from the dark days of the ‘90s – when the nickname “Nairobbery” actually seemed fitting – they find it hard to reconcile their memories with the city they see today. So much of the seediness is gone, the sinister alleys, the twilight blanket that seemed to muffle city life. With afternoon fading to dusk, the downtown streets now are filled with weekend crowds. Soon the day-time tipplers watching English Premier League games on barroom TVs will give way to Saturday-night party-goers: guys with shoes shined to a military sheen, girls in spaghetti-string tops and hair that looks less styled than constructed. Taking a taxi back to Westlands, the head- and taillights along Waiyaki Way are like rivers of light. The city pulses in my temples, in my throat. I’ve been working my cell phone all afternoon, making plans for tonight. The radio is advertising a concert at the Carnivore – Shaggy, the American rapper Eve, some local acts. Duncan, my driver, tells me about a show a friend had once seen. A Jamaican reggae star was onstage, working up the crowd. Some of the women began to lose their composure. “The lady removed her underwear and threw it at the stage,” says Duncan, “and others followed the suit.” He says it with more than a hint of disapproval – not for married, church-going Duncan such carnal scenes. He has a studied, detached, almost anthropological interest in these things. “Rich people, they do every kind of nonsense,” he observes. Aware that such nonsense might not be altogether unappealing for certain foreigners, though, he offers to take me to Carnivore later in the night. “You will get the fun there,” he assures me. But I’ve already made my plans, I tell him. I will have to save the ladies’ undergarments for next time.

By twilight the terrace at Artcaffé is packed. It is a Westlands scene: tables of attractive young Indians, dolled-up Kenyan girls, pot-bellied Arabs, older white men with the ruddy faces and alpha-male demeanor of foreign correspondents. I had made plans in the afternoon to have drinks with Mercy, a local TV editor I’d met on my last visit to Nairobi in 2009, and she is already there when I arrive, a short, pretty, smiling girl in an orange dress clinging to a body whose curves I am being forced, after more than two years, to reappraise. We had met at a house party not far from where we’re now sitting, at the home of a BBC correspondent whose friends were a mix of Kenyan media personalities and foreign journalists. It was a side of Nairobi I’d never seen before, holed up at my backpackers across town watching pirated DVDs. That night, for the first time during two years of sporadic visits to Kenya, I could see myself calling Nairobi home. The party was long, and after we’d polished off the wine and hard liquor, we hit the popular strip of bars and nightclubs that’s Westlands’ equivalent of Mardi Gras. It was a beautiful, messy night, the dance floors crowded, the streets full of drunken revelers who preferred to drink six-packs and listen to music from the sidewalk than to pay the clubs’ cover charges. Toward the end of the night I was standing with Mercy on the balcony of one nightclub, watching the street traffic, our arms touching. I don’t remember what we talked about. We haven’t spoken in the two years since.

We’ve just ordered drinks at Artcaffé when her friend Lizzie arrives. They begin to gossip, speaking the universal feminine tongue of single urban girls in their 20s. Dates are dissected, prospects parsed. They hold their smartphones aloft like cocktails. It is not hard to attune yourself to the discontent of single girls in Nairobi. The city’s thriving talk radio scene is full of call-in shows where luckless women air their man problems. Women’s magazines, as with their Western equivalents, offer sex tips and relationship platitudes from women who are themselves, in all likelihood, single. Confusion seems to reign. A feature in the Daily Nation’s Saturday Magazine, trying to negotiate a new and unfamiliar landscape of sexual mores, observed that “the debate on chivalry, or the lack thereof, has turned into another battle of the sexes.” The underlying causes of all this sexual tumult, the seismic shifts in Kenyan society that have seen the rise of the modern, independent career woman in just the past one or two generations, are themselves worthy of a good book. Mercy and Lizzie, both single, sigh and sip their drinks. “There just aren’t any men in Nairobi,” says Mercy. Lizzie sits there, glumly nodding her head. Either the men are players, or they’re hitched and looking for something on the side. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that she and her friends are up to date on the relationship literature of the day, not a single one has found a good man. Most of her friends, Mercy says, prefer to date foreigners (presupposing a number of things about white guys which, as someone familiar with the species, I might not entirely agree with). Saturday nights are like trench warfare. The bar is a battlefield. I can picture these two attractive girls, standing in front of the mirror with their lipstick and eyeliner, armoring themselves like medieval knights.

Late in the night we arrive at New Florida, a seedy nightclub whose reputation for prostitutional bawdiness and low-rent hedonism is like a cross between Studio 54 and Caligula. The familiar lilt of some Jamaican roots reggae staple pulls us up the stairs; when we reach the club, sure enough, the girls inside all seem to be on the clock. Their heels are tall, their skirts are short, their breasts are like eager toddlers, desperately in search of your attention, admiration and approval. They circle the single guys like sharks to buckets of chum. The men are not unwitting participants in this sport and, it is safe to say, not here on first dates. A few incongruous couples take slow turns on the dance floor: septuagenarians shaking their surgically repaired hips off-beat, rubbing their ruined genitalia against girls who belong on magazine covers. Mercy, unperturbed, possibly blind, pays these tawdry scenes no mind (and, in fact, somehow manages to miss the fact that a Chinese guy in an expensive suit is literally balling a girl against one of the speakers). She has only brought me here for the Show – the weekly performances by like Cirque du Soleil cast-offs which, as we squeeze into a booth, are about to begin. A man sitting across from us is sandwiched between two girls whose combined ages are just a fraction of his own. You can only hope that the banquettes get a good scrubbing with a quality disinfectant at the end of each night. Needless to say that it doesn’t take much for the Show to draw our undivided attention.

It’s a marvelous spectacle, the air thick with manufactured smoke, the strobe lights strobing, the male dancers coming out and doing kicks and flips and grinning the high-wattage, shit-eating grins of professional figure skaters. It is like black Ice Capades, without the ice. A couple in poofy circus pants and Arabian Nights-style tops run through some fruity modern-dance motions, to scattered applause. Another troupe, from the Comoros islands, do some impossible things with their hips. The beats are wild, relentless – you half-wonder if the strobes haven’t sent a bunch of epileptic drummers into a fit. For the finale, three pairs of male-female dancers perform some increasingly X-rated routines, some of which include audience participation from the over-zealous and under-cliented prostitutes in the crowd. One woman does an impressive little acrobatic leap and wraps her legs around the neck of a muscular young man, who either pantomimes or performs actual cunnilingus on her. Genuine shows of appreciation from the audience. For one night, and in one corner of Nairobi, at least, the battle of the sexes seems to have reached a happy stalemate.

There’s no rules here.

Friday, September 30.

The mornings start slow, the overcast AM skies like a blanket for me to curl up under. I’ve worn a groove into the snooze button on my alarm; something about my life seems so marginal, inconsequential. Lazy mornings spent over a Nescafe; my ambiguous quests downtown, searching for something elusive, unnamable. You see me standing on corners, motionless, watching with rapid eye movements like some predatory lizard in the American southwest. Absorbing with the peculiar osmosis I’ve developed through the years: my skin is like a sieve. And then, later, hunched over my laptop, a crimp in my neck, lavish outpourings of words for which I’ll earn not a single cent. It doesn’t take much prompting for me to wonder about my place in the world, these hours of self-immolation for a blog read by roughly .000001% of the planet’s population. I’m blowing off deadlines I blew off last week, and the week before. The decimal in my bank account has moved to a place I swore, not long ago, it’d never move to again.

These stresses, these vague longings, seem to be stitched into the fabric of this city for me. Every time I come back to Nairobi my life feels unfinished; the scaffolding still shows. Four years ago I pitched up at Papa Ken’s place, the dawn still a good way off, the birds testing the early-morning pulse of their throats. I sat in the yard with a mug of instant coffee, zipped into my fleece, watching the sky slowly brighten behind a curtain of clouds. Raindrops clung to the branches; the ground was covered in pine needles. Already I could hear the sounds of the city waking, the domestic clatter of pots and pans in distant kitchens, the first of so many African mornings in my life.

Four years later, so much of the early wonder is lost; my African childhood has entered its adolescence. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Coming back to Nairobi, my life here has deepened, my friendships have grown old, accumulated miles. Life has a depth; before, it was only surface, texture.

And so here is Khaleed – Khaleed of the impossible journey to Maralal, Khaleed of the novelty t-shirt I’d given him four years ago, to which he still alludes with great mirth and feeling – here’s Khaleed grinning, strutting, handsome and impossibly cocky, reaching out to actually pinch the cheek of a girl smiling his way. He steers us down Tom Mboya, the matatus packed end to end like the cars of a freight train. Like human cattle we’re herded in, pushed together, wedged into the seats with our knees pressed close to our chins. Khaleed, some four inches taller than me, does a few dexterous things with his feet to clear some leg room. A rusty screw keeps jabbing me in the knee. High-decibel, low-frequency hip-hop thrums; the seats vibrate. You can practically levitate from the sound. We clear the traffic of Tom Maboya, pitch over curbs and potholes, then get flung onto some broad, unpaved thoroughfare whose vehicles’ angles of trajectory cover every last degree of the circle’s 360. Which is to say cars and matatus and buses are all pointed at each other, drivers laying on the horns, something panicky and apocalyptic about the whole thing, like an invasion flick in those minutes between the first contact with a hostile alien species and the inevitable immolation of 98 percent of the world’s population. “There’s no rules here,” says Khaleed, laughing approvingly. The conductor leans way out the door, notes folded crisply and wedged between his knuckles, whistling high-pitched whistles to passersby. Someone gets grabbed and quickly bundled onto our still-moving vehicle, like an abduction. People are standing in the narrow aisle, inching around for space. “These ones like money too much,” says Khaleed, pointing his chin at the conductor. More and more passengers are getting packed in. A man on a bicycle is improbably weaving through the traffic, his face frozen with this maniacal, self-destructive grin. A shell-shocked student of the Glory Driving School sits with his hands at ten and two.

The traffic begins to thin, grows coherent. Now we are just a single lane of busted Third-World vehicles, crawling along, surrounded by the tumult and bedlam of Nairobi’s rougher precincts. The Fast Moving Shop – Dealers in Buying and Selling Things. Blue Hut Club. Light rain is falling. A woman boards, holding a plastic bag over her head. Whispering Café. Wooden dukas, mottled and stripped, endlessly painted and repainted. Something familiar about the road we’re driving down – I remember it from my last visit to Faiz’s place in Eastleigh, two years ago. “You have such a good memory,” says Khaleed. “You’re eating a lot of watermelons, huh?” We turn down a narrow, rocky road, bicycles and schoolchildren scattering from our path. More dukas, selling fruits and airtime, plastic sandals, bars of chalky soap. A man sits on a bench, working at a pair of shoes with what looks like an icepick. Chicken coops. The matatu wobbles from side to side. Khaleed points to the passenger sitting in the front seat. “When you sit in the front you pay less money, because you help the driver in holding the side mirror,” he says. I cannot tell if this is a joke. We reach our stage; the matatu empties. Side-stepping puddles, more dukas, tin shacks, a woman roasting corn over a charcoal grill. We buy two cobs, squeeze a lime over them, dip them in red pepper. “Cheers,” Khaleed says, knocking our cobs together.

The streets of Pangani are lined with boxy concrete apartment blocks, children in school uniforms spilling from all the doorways. Suddenly, in front of one building, a familiar face: it is Khaleed’s older brother, Jaffar, tall and wiry with little bristles of moustache scratching at his upper lip. He gives me a warm embrace: it’s been three years since we last met, in Maralal. He’s newly arrived in Nairobi, staying with his brothers, looking for work. He takes me by the wrist and guides me up the stairs, women in headscarves smiling, watching from the doorways. When we reach Faiz’s door Khaleed parts a curtain. “Guess who I found?” he says. Faiz comes out to greet me, smiling, arms out wide, hugging me close to his chest. He has filled out, an extra couple of inches of padding around the midsection, and much ribbing commences at how good married life has been to him. It’s hardly been six months since his wedding day, yet he looks healthy, vigorous, competently aged: a budding paterfamilias. Aisha, his wife, a pretty, short, demure young woman, comes out of the kitchen, extending a hand. She is from the coast; her skin is pale, her eyes big and luminous. Behind her comes her mother – a taller, older version of the same – in town from Mombasa for the week. One whiff of the smells coming out of the kitchen is enough to explain Faiz’s extra pounds: the culinary reputation of the coast, with its Arab and Indian inflections, its exotic spices, is legendary. Holding Aisha’s hand, giving Faiz a big pat on the stomach, I comment on how well he’s chosen his bride. Aisha laughs big and brightly, hides her smile with her hand. “Karibu, karibu,” she says, welcoming me into her home. Faiz leads me into the living room with his arm around my shoulder.

The place still looks unfinished, just-moved-into. The living room is furnished with two sofas and an armchair and abundant throw pillows. There’s a wall-sized entertainment console with a Samsung flat-screen TV and DVD player. A small picture of Mecca engraved with Arabic script adorns one wall. The place is a big step up from the last apartment Faiz shared with Khaleed, in Eastleigh. (Ahmed, the youngest of the brothers, has since moved down from Maralal to take his place.) We arrange ourselves on the furniture and the floor, laughing, joking, catching up on two years’ worth of gossip. Every few minutes there is a knock at the door, and some new well-wisher – a distant cousin, a friend from Maralal – arrives to join the rapidly growing party. The smells from the kitchen are growing richer, more complex. Faces, both familiar and un-, poke into the doorway. I ask Faiz why I still haven’t seen pictures of his wedding (only Khaleed, a rising media star and world-class pussy hound, is an avid Facebook user). Quickly he jumps to his feet and pops in a DVD, the screen going blue before the climactic chase scene of some low-rent action flick that’d been playing in the background while we talked.

Music, strains of taarab, bright graphics with Faiz and Aisha’s names written in ornate script. Images of the happy couple appear, merging and spinning and melting away with the ostentatious visual effects so beloved by East African wedding-video producers. The photo montages give way to a scene from Mombasa on the eve of the wedding day; the female relations – magnificently dressed, hair piously covered, their hands and arms mapped with intricate henna designs – are arranged in a semi-circle outdoors, singing, banging out rhythms on cow horns in the tradition of their coastal tribe. It is the married women who perform; their single sisters and daughters sit on the ground, singing along, pulling at the loose ends of their headscarves. Faiz says he spent that day quietly, with his brothers and close friends, counting the hours of his waning bachelorhood.

The video cuts to the inside of the hall where the reception is being held. The sexes are kept separate: here it is just the men, a hundred at least, sitting barefoot and cross-legged on the floor, laughing, scooping up handfuls of biryani which the cameraman had shown just moments before being stirred in vats roughly the size of Oldsmobiles. Faiz, the nervous bridegroom, sits resplendent at the front of the hall, wearing the dress of the Omani Arabs from which East Africa’s Swahili people are descended: a brocaded vest and turban, loose-fitting pants, a decorative sword sheathed in front of him. “I look like the king of Morocco,” he says. (Khaleed, less magnanimously: “He looks like Al Shabaab.”) More panning shots as waiters circle the room with large serving trays, close-ups of Faiz solemnly conferring with the imam, the father of the bride stroking his fat, well-fed tummy.

Almost on cue, Aisha’s bare feet come padding into the living room. A plastic sheet is laid across the carpet, and we sit down to a great communal tray of pilau with mutton and roast potatoes, bowls of piri piri sauce and spicy kachumbari. Fresh mango juice is poured. It’s as if Aisha has brought the life of the coast with her. We ball the pilau and mutton with our fingers, stuff it into our maws. Already I’ve made a mess. Faiz asks if I’d like to use a spoon, but he knows, from past meals, that I prefer to downplay my white ineptitude: I’ll do my best. The action onscreen has moved to the women’s reception. Puffy, sweating faces are arranged in long rows; a few ceiling fans whir, but I’ve felt the terrible heat and humidity of the coast: I know these fans are mostly ornamental. At the front of the hall, two dozen women dance in a circle, round and round in a sort of Swahili conga line, lifting their henna’d hands to the sky. Well-wishers rush forward, pinning money to the mother of the bride’s dress. Khaleed begins to assess the girls in the crowd. The video is paused, rewound, played in slow motion. Certain blurs are studied and debated. It is clear this is not the first time the boys have used Faiz’s wedding video as a kind of dating website. “We have all their numbers,” says a cousin, asking if any of the girls have piqued my interest. “We can call straight away.”

The meal is cleared, and we recline in a post-prandial stupor, staring at the ceiling, scratching our bellies. Faiz turns off the wedding video and puts on a VCD of music videos: reggae from Kingston, hip-hop from Brooklyn, genge from the slums of Nairobi. We bob our heads slowly, sleepily, conversation drifting in and out of the music. We are far past the point in our friendship where things need to be said. Before long the doorbell rings: a young guy in a puffy jacket and cocked Yankees cap arrives, carrying a plastic bag. He pulls out two plastic-wrapped bricks and tosses them across the room. He is the guys’ miraa dealer, delivering the equivalent of two dime bags to the party for 1,000 shillings a pop. Jaffar, a particular aficionado, begins picking at the stems, parceling them out into smaller serving-sizes. I reminisce with the others about a night out in Maralal, Jaffar at the Nest, a local nightclub, working his jaws like a hungry goat while the miraa worked its narcotic properties on him. I pantomime the movement of his jaws, the bug-eyed look he got when he suddenly popped up and stormed the dancefloor like a Borana cattle-raider. Everyone laughs. The boys begin to rib him. Soon the talk turns serious. Jaffar has just arrived from Maralal two weeks ago, but he’s distressed, he hasn’t been able to find work. He is ready to pack up and go home. The boys’ mother – working back-channels through the other brothers – is trying to dissuade him. There are no jobs in Maralal, no eligible young women for him to marry. If he returns, he’ll spend his time sitting around with his friends, chewing miraa, dreaming of nothing. At least here in Nairobi, he has a chance to find a job, a wife. I can picture the boys’ mother – stout, kindly, fiercely protective of her children – sitting in her kitchen and literally wringing her hands. Jaffar sits there stoically, tying the miraa stems in tight bundles, saying nothing. His jaw is going through complex motions. Eventually everyone lays off him. I can tell they’ve had this talk many times before.

The family’s fortunes, rising and falling, divvied up between a daughter and five sons, have a sort of epic quality. I can imagine such a story being written in 19th-century London or St. Petersburg. Faiz tells me he’s thinking of reviving his political career here in Nairobi. When we’d met on the truck to Maralal all those years before, he’d been planning to run for local council. (The other passengers called him “councilor,” though it was an election he eventually lost.) Now he wants to do something for the marginalized communities of Eastleigh: the countless Somalis, the Samburu, the Swahili tribes from the coast. There is a year until the next election, but it’s impossible for him to say what his chances are. “If I lose in Eastleigh, I have to go to Libya,” he says, laughing.

The rain has finally stopped; the street outside has turned to mud, puddles like crater lakes. Wet newspapers, ears of corn, empty milk cartons. Faiz has called a friend, a taxi driver, to take me home. The brothers pile into the car with me: despite the traffic, they will drive all the way and then back to Pangani, refusing my attempts to pay even a single shilling. We join the slow procession into town, the thrum of matatus, the chorus of horns. Fried chicken joints on every corner, men grilling meat in the open air. A Babel of radio voices – DJs, rappers, guests on call-in shows – stretch a cocoon of sound over the city. Nairobi, Friday night. By the time we’ve reached downtown my pulse has quickened: surely there’s time for a drink at Simmer’s, at Club Soundz? Not for the first time do I remember the Lonely Planet’s warnings about downtown Nairobi which I’d memorized so many years ago, how “the whole city center takes on a deserted and slightly sinister air.” Guidebook writers still seem to be living in the Moi era, the rampant violence and criminality of a different chapter in this city’s book. Kenyatta Avenue is packed: guys in crisp shirts and pressed slacks, girls wobbling on impossibly tall heels. Neon from the SunRise Casino. Taillights refracting through the streaky windshield. Wipers going at half-tilt, the city lights like halos and shooting stars.

This is heaven.

Thursday, September 29.

Feeling energized today, the sky the blue of children’s picture-book drawings, I am on my way into town. The roads are crowded, the matatus doing their best to turn two-lane streets into four-lane highways. SUVs with red diplomatic plates move as solemnly as a state funeral. There are nurseries along the roadside, green leafy things tended by women with broad hips, great earthenware pots baked by the sun. Men in overalls scramble down to the river, carrying up jugs of water for their thirsty varied specimens of African flora. For a moment, the city seems so lush, pastoral. “Nairobi is beautiful,” a woman on the street tells me. “Everything you need is here. This is heaven.” Ads on lampposts for baby-sitters, doctors of a dubious medical bent with offers to cure marriage troubles, impotence, problems paying rent.

And so I get into the back of a matatu, remembering the claustrophobic heat of those shambling vehicles, the sharp oniony smell of body odor, the stiffness of the cushions, the jagged bits of metal, the engine heating up under your feet. I imagine the experience is not unlike that of a cut of beef falling into a bubbling pot of stew. No, you do not kick back in a matatu, flip through a copy of Town & Country, think idle thoughts. You are aware of every cramping muscle, every skin sensation, the hot bodies of your neighbors. (A billboard for a luxury housing complex, Five Star Meadows, lords over the avenue, promising “suburban comfort with urban proximity.”) The driver does maniacal things with the steering wheel, negotiates our passage by jumping onto a curb. Bodies flying, scrambling. Someone behind me answers his phone and proceeds to converse at high volumes. We are driving somehow perpendicular to a car in the next lane. Faith, the invocation of higher powers, is a given here. Little murmurs of gratitude tumble from our lips once we’ve arrived in town and are deposited into the bedlam of Tom Mboya Avenue.

Mboya, the trade unionist, a close friend of Kwame Nkrumah’s and a fervent believer in the Ghanaian’s pan-Africanist ideology, might have looked approvingly on the democratic tumult of the avenue now bearing his name. The young and old and poor and profligate all share the sidewalk, some moving with a distinctly Nairobi bustle, others shuffling about, soaking up the sun, idly flipping through piles of pirated DVDs. If Kenya has become a middle-income country of middle-class aspirations, then here you will find the shoppers and strivers who keep the economy thrumming. Stacks of blue jeans, knock-offs of popular American brands stitched in garment factories in Thailand and Bangladesh. Self-help books with titles like The Art of Public Speaking and How the Rich Think. A dizzying range of footwear. Bulletin boards plastered over with advertisements for obscure technical colleges offering IT training. Beauty schools. Help wanted and proffered. Glass display cases, enough to fill the Smithsonian, with the latest range of Nokia and Samsung and Blackberry phones. (A rumpled man in a worn overcoat, mistaking my ambiguous journalistic interest for intent to buy, quickly shanghais me on the sidewalk with a gorgeous iPhone which pretty much still bears the fingerprints of the guy from whose pocket it was undoubtedly picked.) Block after block of shopping arcades hung with mannequin torsos, the bright jerseys of English soccer teams, guys offering phone repairs. The quality is poor, the prices low. Money is constantly changing hands.

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since I last walked Tom Mboya, stocking up on full seasons of Lost and 24, watching the carnival-colored matatus – aglow with neon track lighting – thundering to hip-hop beats down the avenue. Two years, true, is not a long time in the span of a life, or a city. Perhaps the same grease-spattered chefs are working the deep fryers at Christie’s Café (“For that delicious taste”) and Kenchic Inn (“We are ‘kuku’ about chicken!”) and Big Chicken Inn (“Tasty chicken ‘n’ fries!”) and Chicken Spot (“Delicious”). Certainly the traffic looks unchanged as I cross onto Moi Avenue, the muscular thrum of the City Shuttles and Double M Expresses, the medicinal blue of the KBS buses, the ubiquitous green and yellow Citi Hoppas. (Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, on trial at the Hague, took umbrage with a certain prosecutor’s descriptions of the Citi Hoppa buses he allegedly organized to shuttle rabble-rousing youths to post-election flash points in the Rift Valley. “I wouldn’t describe City Hopper buses as ‘shiny and new,’” Kenyatta solemnly said on the witness stand.)

And the streetscape, too, has an old familiarity. Behind me is the Hilton, with its two fluted towers, and across the congestion of Moi Avenue the neo-classical façade of the Kenya National Archives. To its right is the weather-stained hulk of the Ambassadeur hotel, no doubt even unfit for low-rent diplomatic delegations from like N’Djamena and Banjul. After the Ambassadeur the Eureka Highrise Hotel, and across from them the Kencom building, buses idling along its curb. Further down Moi ‘60s- and ‘70s-era office buildings in various gray-scales. Exhaust hanging over the avenue like a raincloud. A woman clopping by in a thick orthopedic shoe. A man in a sweater-vest is preaches to a decidedly disinterested lunch-time crowd, slapping his Bible and gesticulating like a madman, which in fact he might very well be.

Outside Kencom is a small pavilion, a Condolence Tent for the Late Prof. Wangari Maathai, beside which Kenyans of all stripes are lined up to sign their names and scribble two square inches’ worth of condolences in the ledgers. A dozen saplings sit on the sidewalk in dirt-filled plastic bags, a tribute to the late environmentalist. Maathai, so widely celebrated abroad, had a more checkered history in her homeland. She was beaten and jailed for her opposition to former president Daniel arap Moi, dragged through the mud over her messy divorce, criticized when she decided to reject the mantle of global green crusader in favor of a more humble – and, perhaps, difficult – place in local politics. Yet many credit her stand against Moi and his ruling-party cronies in the late-‘80s as the first salvo which emboldened civil society to finally, a decade later, topple the old tyrant. The contrast between her selfless struggle and the disreputable actions of Kenya’s ruling kleptocrats today couldn’t be more stark. “Prof. Maathai was a woman way ahead of her times,” eulogized one long-time friend in the Daily Nation. “We have yet to catch up with her.”

I am thinking these solemn death-thoughts, brooding under a rapidly graying sky, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s an improbable coincidence: my friend Khaleed Abdulaziz, tall and grinning, having picked me out on a crowded sidewalk in a city of three million plus. It takes a second for me to compose a thought, and then we both laugh at the remarkable smallness of Nairobi. (Later, having dinner with Liz and her friends at an Ethiopian restaurant in Lavington, we’re joined by an old friend I’d met nearly two years ago in Burundi.) Our greetings are long, warm, full of complicated handshakes and shoulder-clapping. “Long time,” he says. “Long time,” I say. It’s been a very long time.

Khaleed is on his way to the Railways bus rank; he’s heading to Adam’s Arcade to meet with the producers of a popular TV show, Churchill Live, on which he has a recurring stand-up role. Though we’ve been in touch on and off for the past two years, this is the first I’ve heard of his new gig. It sounds like the perfect fit. Four years ago, I’d met Khaleed and his older brother, Faiz, on my way to Maralal, in Samburu country, for the annual camel derby. It was a terrible journey: rain had washed out the roads north of Nyahururu; the only vehicles heading to Maralal were lorries transporting supplies to the frontier towns of the north: Maralal, South Horr, Baragoi, Loyangalani. Crowding into the back of a truck, paying extortionate prices, we were pitched around at every bump and ditch, cases of Kenya Special Brandy toppling on all sides. Then we hit a long stretch of road that had turned to mud; two, three dozen lorries were lined up end to end. Some had been stuck there for days. Darkness began to fall. Two hundred meters from where we were stuck, armed bandits robbed a matatu, then vanished into the bush. This was hardly a month after I’d arrived in Kenya; it was my first great African journey, and I was scared shitless. Khaleed’s good humor, Faiz’s unswerving calm, were what steadied me for that 15-hour journey. In Maralal, they introduced me to their family; we exchanged gifts. Faiz gave me an old ceremonial gourd, used by the Turkana tribesmen of his father. I left Khaleed with a novelty t-shirt: it said “My First Ride” over the picture of a tricycle. Four years and a half-dozen meetings later, it’s one of the first things he recalls for me as I walk with him along Moi Avenue.

The news from his family is good; the Abdulaziz clan, it seems, is ascendant. Four of the five brothers have reunited in Nairobi; Faiz, the second-born, has married, as has their only sister. Khaleed, too, has seen his fortunes improve since landing his TV gig. He’s become one of the show’s best-known comics; girls on the street stop us, giggle, pay me exactly no mind. A Nairobi radio station has named Khaleed one of the country’s top ten comics. When he was younger, growing up in Maralal, Khaleed and his brother Ahmed performed comic sketches for high-school friends. Their skits were famous; they had a small crew called the “Green Mattress Boys,” so named because of their sexual exploits in grassy fields. This is one of the many inside jokes which constitute a good 60 percent of our conversations. Do not ask me about Supamambo. Do not ask about mikono juu.

We make plans to meet on Friday, to see the new apartment Faiz has moved into with his wife, Aisha. I watch Khaleed walking slowly across the avenue, the jeans low on his slender hips, a slight roll to his shoulders. If you had spotted him on some Nairobi street, lost in the crowds of unemployed youths with the same low jeans and the same shoulder-roll, would you imagine him one of the country’s top ten comics? Would you imagine such things as Supamambo, Maralal, the Green Mattress Boys?

The day feels impossibly light now, my first stroke of great fortune in a country that, oddly, after all these years, still feels like my true African home. Walking back toward Kencom, a few cold drops of rain falling, I stop in front of an ad display by a group called Powerpoint Media. (“….trying to do business without Advertisementis like winking to a girl in the dark…nobody knows but you!”) A small crowd of job-seekers is gathered, jotting down numbers, scouring the postings. A Denish-Kenyan Linked Company is Seeking to Employ. Over 500 jobs available at Diamite international. WONDREFULL OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!! Emanex Computer College. German Institute of Professional Studies. Over 100 posts available at Diamite international. Cotech Training Centre (“For best computer packages”). Sponsorship!! Immortal Tattoos Kenya (“Tattoos at your own convenience”). Glory Celebration Centre. Believe it or not H.I.V is curable now. Potion 21 (“Liquid from heaven”). Get Immortalized, Get Inked. HIV AIDS CURE. Sales Executives Needed. Designers’ Showcase. NOT A LIE. Abou Kante, Master of the Secret Knowledge. Faith Opticians. Leading Locks Limited (“Beauty + Security = Timeless Love!!!”). H.I.V victims have been corned, misused and cheated, that is no more. Call Dr. Clement. NOT A JOKE. Are you tired of being tired of not reaching your goals???

Jacaranda blossoms litter the pavement.

Crossing toward Kenyatta Avenue now, the last daylight trying to break through the clouds, the temperature about 10 Celsius degrees below what it was when I left the house, a short man comes bustling up beside me. As a white man, you get used to all manner of importuning on the streets of Nairobi. But no, this man is harmless, he just has a safari to sell. He hands me his card: John Mbithi, Tour Consultant. Bencia Africa Adventure & Safaris. His brown slacks, about four sizes too big, are heavily cuffed; he wears a brown droopy fleece which sags down to his thighs. I introduce myself. “Like in the movies, there is that Christopher,” he says. Sure enough, I suppose. John’s got a big brown crooked tooth on which I unfairly, though perhaps not unreasonably, fixate. He is cheerful, persistent if not persuasive. Having shot him down on the safari front, I have narrowed his options. There will be no trips to the Maasai Mara, none to Amboseli or Nakuru. He recites his litany of low-rent Nairobi tourist options – the Giraffe Centre, the Bomas of Kenya – the way I suspect certain Catholics recite the rosary. “Pole sana,” I say. John shakes his head and brightens: he is still pleased to meet me. “When you see me, you just greet me,” he says, hopping off the curb, dodging a bus, and quick-footing it across Kenyatta Avenue.

The daylight dwindling, the air cooler, the city’s foot soldiers off on their evening commutes. Sitting on a park bench, I feel something wet in my hair: a bird in one of the trees above has offered its own version of “Karibu Kenya!” Njiwa akimnyea mtu kichwani, mtu huyo atapata bahati njema, goes an old Swahili proverb. In Kenya, too, animal turds are a harbinger of good things to come. I take this as a happy portent. Fortune is both smiling and shitting on me.

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.

As seen in National Geographic Traveler!

Courtesy of Charles Robertson.

For my readers in the States, the May/June edition of National Geographic Traveler features a story by yours truly, “Kenya Passage,” which I encourage you to pick up at your neighborhood newsstand. Here’s a teaser:

The councillor hops down from the truck, scrambles through the mud, and stands there with his hands on his hips. His collar is turned up; he shakes his head and puffs into his fists and gives me a sour look. Night has begun to fall, and all the grunts and chirps and lusty calls of twilight in the African bush surround us. A few of the Samburu men unsheathe their machetes and start hacking at the brush, tossing branches and leaves under the truck’s wheels. Somewhere a child wails—a high, keen cry as urgent as the faces squinting into the dusk’s half-light.

This part of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley is dangerous country, a place haunted by lions and elephants and testy Pokot cattle raiders. Even these brave morans —Samburu warriors—get prickly at nightfall. The driver guns the engine, and the wheels whirl and spit mud, but after rocking to the side and surging briefly from the rut, the truck sinks back in. The councillor turns and stares off to the horizon; the men begin to argue. We’re stuck 40 miles from the middle of nowhere, the light has vanished below the hills, and no one has even noticed the guys with the guns.

Feeling teased? To read the rest of “Kenya Passage,” click here.