Every day, scriptures are being written.

Tuesday, April 10.

In the beginning, God created the universe; then He created the moon, the stars and the wild beasts of the forests. On the sixth day, He created the Nigerian and there was peace. But on the seventh day, while God rested, the Nigerian invented noise.

-Peter Enahoro, How To Be A Nigerian

It is with no small measure of courage that I’ve learned to cross Awolowo Road these first few days, that kinetic avenue unfortunately separating me from the promise of delicious chicken and jollof rice at Mr. Bigg’s (“I’m hot…I’m delicious…I’m Mr. Bigg’s”), my early fast-food joint of choice in Lagos. The relentless flow of minibuses and saloon cars and beat-up sedans and muscular SUVs is further complicated by the ubiquitous okadas, the daredevil motorbike taxis which seem to accelerate in direct proportion to the amount of congestion ahead. Traffic surges and surges and continues to surge. “They will stop for you,” says a man, with perhaps exaggerated confidence, as we step into the street together. “But sometimes the road is free, and they speed.” He laughs. “Then you’re on your own.”

Commotion, a noisy, restless clamor, defines the public theater of Lagos life. Things are done in high volumes, demonstrably, with body language not only articulating but amplifying whatever degree of joy or anger, whatever sense of grievance, whatever private sorrows, the speaker is feeling. Example: a middle-aged woman is standing on the side of Awolowo Road. She has a baggy face, fleshy arms, her body is crammed into a blouse and skirt two sizes too small. Untold woes have been inflicted on her feet by a pair of cheap heels. She has the tired look of a career bureaucrat, a processor of forms in du- and triplicate, a lower cog in the machinery of some government bureau. Life was already full of disappointments, daily indignities. Now a minibus has rear-ended her car, shoved it onto the sidewalk. The damage is not cosmetic. Look! She appeals to the crowd, shows us the dents in the side paneling. We are invited to imagine the cost of repairs. Her case is taken up by other passersby. Yes, these taxi drivers are so reckless! In fact, just last week…. The woman is getting worked into a state. She points an accusing finger at the driver. She is lucky it was just her car. It could have been so much worse! Now the driver must defend himself. He is a slender man, prematurely aged, his face like bark on the Tree of Life. There are children at home, and another on the way. No doubt he is calculating the costs of this delay. Already he has lost a dozen fares, it will take half the morning to recoup his losses. And soon the police will arrive, he will have to dash the officer in charge. He throws his hands up, his face is a scowl, a rictus of misery. Woe is the man’s native element; it gives his face a look of martyrdom, it raises him into the higher spheres of suffering. Did none of us see the car that cut him off? The okadas he struggles so hard to avoid? And that woman was driving so slow, the traffic backed up all the way to V.I. He circles her car, tongue clucking, inviting us to see it with fresh eyes. Look at this dent here, and here. The sedan is like an old work boot, it has been thoroughly lived in. Who can say if the damage is new, as she claims? How can anyone but God be our judge?

“Lagos parades her agonies,” wrote the poet Ogaga Ifowodo. The city is an open wound, the days’ dramas are on full display. I stop for a coffee at Jazzhole, already searching for a sanctuary from the morning’s noise and heat. The place feels archival, well-catalogued, as if the records and CDs and books on its shelves are less a matter of commerce than historical preservation. The owner, a handsome, middle-aged man, is behind the counter, flipping through a stack of vinyls that a customer has brought in to sell. His eyes move swiftly over each album cover; when he finds a name of note he removes the album from its jacket, wipes a rag across the surface, tilts it in the light. He has the air of an archivist or academic, the disciple of some obscure musical sect, a man of discriminating tastes. The seller stands there nervously, hands clasped before him, like a supplicant. A high-life record, Decca label, crackles and spins on a turntable. In the back of the shop a young boy of 12 or 13, the owner’s son, swats at the bookshelves with a feather duster. He has a precocious air, something cackling and impish. He is teasing an older girl who sits in the café, reading a magazine. Later in the week I’ll hear a woman, a friend of his mother’s, giving him an inquisition. “Do you know there are 12-year-olds who design websites? You need to train yourself!”

The door opens; a young man enters with his head hung low. The energy in the room has shifted, as if a performance is about to begin. The owner’s wife, hunched over an accounting book and a pile of receipts, suddenly sits up tall. Her face is haughty, imperious, crowned with her life’s successes. “Today you are going to do some serious work, oh,” she says severely. The boy has been rehearsing his lines all morning but is suddenly struck dumb. He is diminishing before our eyes while she only seems to grow, acquiring magnificence. She recites her grievances, his infinite betrayals. The shop opens at nine, but it is already well after ten. It is no time for excuses, for complaints about go-slows over the three mainland bridges. “All I want to hear is, ‘I’m sorry,’” she says. Her presence is suffocating, there is no space for apologies. She is only gathering force. If he takes her for a fool, oh, he’s going to learn his lessons the hard way. Her arm rises and falls, beating the air as if conducting a well-known arrangement. “Look at how you walk on the ground,” she warns him. In the rear her son snickers, doubles over at the waist, burying his face in the feather duster to hide his mirth. Already he is looking forward to a repeat performance later in the week.

Awolowo Road is stifling; it has trapped the sunlight and amplified the midday heat. I stop to buy handkerchiefs from a kiosk, an old, barefoot man sitting on a mat inside, taking money from the outstretched hands reaching out to him. “Give me MTN,” says someone. “Give me Airtel.” Bullied, harrassed, the man sits there unflustered, doling out airtime and change like a cave prophet dispensing koans.

I flag down an okada and ask the driver to take me to Bar Beach. He’s a young man in his early-20s, a hard-contoured youth with a cracked helmet perched atop his head. There’s an extra helmet wedged between the handlebars, but when I gesture to it, he demurs and jerks a thumb for me to get on. “Security is my priority,” he says. Which doesn’t explain why he’s the only one who gets to wear a helmet. We sputter along the road’s shoulder, dodging rocks and potholes and the okadas which scream past, drivers hurling invectives our way. Finally we merge into traffic. The cars are pressed bumper to bumper, angled in such a way that every intersection in Lagos looks like a massive pile-up. Then your head start to ache because car crush dey for your head, Fela Kuti sung in “Go Slow.” Lorry dey for your front, tipper dey for your back, motorcycle dey for your left, taxi-moto dey for your right. Somehow our okada slips between the bumpers, skirts along the sidewalk, briefly zips onto the wrong side of the traffic median. No, Lagos’ motorbike-taxis are not for the faint-hearted. Perpetual motion is the cardinal rule on which the species is dependent. When an okada comes to a stop in front of us, the reason unclear, my driver curses, “Ay, stop contemplating!” We force our way past and reach another logjam: a small, battered sedan is straddling two lanes, occupying the precious inches that allow the okadas to thrive. “What is wrong with this motorist?” says my driver. He inches us forward. “Why are you hindering us from proceeding?” We break free from traffic and are quickly hurtling over Falomo Bridge. On Victoria Island, the road is flanked by high-end hotels and car dealerships. The new Porsche showroom – the company’s second on the continent – gleams like an uncut stone. “There’s a big market here,” a Nigerian businessman told the UK Guardian last week. “For example, I have a Bentley, a Porsche and a Ferrari, so I can easily buy another brand-new one.” Alas, life for the Nigerian super-elite does not come without its woes. “People don’t travel by road anymore, they go by air,” the man told the reporter. “So the Ferrari in the garage hasn’t done 500 miles in three years.”

Bar Beach is a long, unlovely promenade of chop stalls and informal bars shaded by beach umbrellas. Groups of tough, husky women are sitting in the shade, keeping a wary eye on their coolers. At night, the place is a notorious hang-out for prostitutes and area boys, but by day, the beach is uncrowded, serene. At one table is a group of rastas deeply engaged in some rasta discourse; further down the promenade, men in business suits, looking unharried by the heat. Behind them dozens of concrete pylons are piled in the sand, forming an ugly, post-apocalyptic barrier between the chop stalls and the beach. In the distance, across a narrow channel, the first stages of land reclamation are underway to build Eko Atlantic: a futuristic city of office towers, broad boulevards, plazas and marinas that developers say will become the financial epicenter of West Africa by 2020. In this impossible city of sprawling shanty-towns and go-slows, of neighborhoods rising like swamp creatures from the lagoon, Eko island’s bold promise of open spaces and first-world infrastructure defies everything Lagosians have probably come to expect from their city. One of the developers described it to TIME as “the new face of Africa.” Nigeria’s country head for the World Bank likened it to Hong Kong.

At the end of the promenade a group of boys are playing a rag-tag game of football, small chunks of cinderblock used to mark the goalposts. I wonder what role the young and jobless, the shiftless area boys, will play in Africa’s Hong Kong. When they see me approaching they come over to slap my hand and bump my fist: first a couple, then a swarm, grinning, laughing, arguing in pidgin English. After just a few moments, I’m surrounded. It is an uncomfortable position to be in. There is a hostile edge to some of the boys, a meanness that I’ve traveled far too much to ignore. Smiling stupidly, overdoing the goodwill, I slowly extricate myself from their aggressive greetings, imagining how easily things might go bad: their bodies pressing ever closer, a hand reaching into my pocket. Further along the promenade, I can see necks craning in my direction, bystanders alerted to the proximate threat of adolescent mischief. It is comforting to be back in a country where community policing isn’t outsourced to SWAT-style security outfits with 24-hour armed response teams; where it is a matter of people looking out for one another.

Wresting myself away from them, finding a bit of breathing room, I find myself tailed by just a solitary boy on the beach. We stand there looking at the waves, the distant figures of massive cargo ships chugging toward foreign ports. He asks if I want to go for a swim. “If I go for a swim here, I’ll end up in Ghana,” I say. His face twists into a question mark. Further along the beach, a young man laughs. “That’s a good one,” he says. He’s wearing black slacks and a purple button-down shirt and a pair of polished shoes that wouldn’t look out of place on the terrace of the Protea Hotel. I point out that he’s not exactly dressed for a day at the beach, and he smiles. He had a business meeting at twelve, he explains, but he was stuck in a go-slow. By the time he reached the meeting place, the man had already left. He has time to kill: the man – a potential client – is wrapping up another meeting on V.I. They’re going to discuss the design of a website that this young man, a media consultant, would like to build. He extends his hand and introduces himself. His name is Phil. When I tell him I’m a writer his eyes light up. He says he is a poet, too.

I’m often drawn to those curious souls whose faces are turned outward, like ports of call, ready for all comers and adventures. Phil and I achieve a swift kinship, as if we’d arrived at Bar Beach at this pre-arranged time to pick up the thread of a conversation we started months ago. Walking back and forth along the length of beach, the sand sifting into our shoes, we discuss the prospects for writers in Nigeria – a country with a rich literary tradition that is nonetheless beset by all the woes of the developing world. Phil, a youthful thirty-something, fears that the literary space for his generation is diminishing. He’s helping to organize a monthly poetry reading at a bar in Maryland, on the mainland. In recent months they’ve attracted young poets from across the country. It seems, in its own way, like an act of defiance, of self-assertion, in a city that the poet Odia Ofeimun said “undresses in cheap perfume, demanding to be loved in a slush of coins, dross and paper money.” Among this city’s high priests of commerce, its flyover crooks and conmen, its bank barons and telecom tycoons and street hustlers and strivers, a young poet must roam the earth like a medieval flagellant, one of Onookome Okome’s “miserables of hopeless sighs.” Phil, raised a Christian, turned away from his parents’ faith and was reborn a humanist, dazzled by the possibilities of a single day in a single human life. “I believe every day,” he says, “scriptures are being written.”

Lagos, its rough-and-tumble gospel, the driftwood slums, the millionaires clubs and billionaires clubs, the concrete brutalism of a ‘70s oil boom that gave rise to much of its derelict sprawl. “If Lagos were a person,” writes Noo Saro-Wiwa in Looking for Transwonderland, “she would wear a Gucci jacket and a cheap hair weave, with a mobile phone in one hand, a second set in her back pocket, and the mother of all scowls on her face.” An ugly beauty, or a beautiful grotesque. I wonder if I was predestined to be drawn to Lagos, if my longing to embrace this African megalopolis is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“You’re going to like this town,” a friend says to me that night, over drinks at Bogobiri.

“I like it already,” I say.

“You’ll like it more.”

The house band is playing high-life tunes; the lead singer, a middle-aged man in a denim shirt and a Yankees cap, has a lustrous face, like polished brass. Empty beer bottles litter the tables. It is early, the night barely starting. Assembled around our table are participants in an upcoming conference on intellectual property law, an attempt to bring coherence and structure to the chaotic Nigerian film industry. Among them is Chief Tony Okoroji, a local legend whose pioneering efforts to enforce copyright laws in the music industry have revolutionized the business. Hardly anyone can pass our table without paying Chief Tony his due reverence. The band, too, stops midway through the set to show its respect.

“We’d like to dedicate this one to the Imo State man in the house,” says the singer, spreading his palms out wide.

The drummer beats his snare; the guitarist plucks a few chords. Chief Tony tips back in his seat, his face lit with reverie: he is a boy again in the village of his youth. Eyes half-closed, sweat shining on his cheeks, he begins to mouth the words, then joins in at the chorus. Others take up the song with him. Their voices swell, carrying the band to the finish. As our applause peters out, Chief Tony rises, approaches the singer, and lays a thick wad of notes on the bill of his baseball cap. The singer brings his hands together. We whistle, show our appreciation. Another round of drinks appears on our table. Kunle Afolayan, Nigeria’s hottest filmmaker, arrives for a drink. So does Makin Soyinka, son of the Nobel Laureate. The night is deepening, the possibilities are endless. Joburg, my return ticket in five weeks’ time, seems a long way off.

Carried away by the festive spirit, I announce to the table my intention to see more of the country: to travel to the Delta, perhaps to the north, by bus. There is incredulous laughter, a shaking of heads. Kidnapping seems less a threat than an inevitability. I laugh, playing along. Wouldn’t it make for a great story, I ask.

“We’ll write the story,” says a friend, a lawyer, “after we raise the funds for you.”

A river does not travel a new path for nothing.

Monday, April 9.

Somewhere high over the Gulf of Guinea, the sound of laughter and cutlery from first class.

Just a meager blue curtain separates us, though I feel worlds removed from whatever bacchanal is unfolding on the other side. My stomach is grumbling. Earlier, not long after our Arik Air flight had cleared South African territorial skies and banged a right over Windhoek, I’d passed on the watery scrambled eggs being circulated by the cheerless flight crew. Breakfast at OR Tambo’s News Café sat heavy in my stomach. Now, three hours later, Lagos still a good way off, the steward having handed out hermetically sealed slices of chocolate cake with a sour face and a shrug, the cheerful ruckus in first class – the promise of hot meals and French bubbly – sounds like the Garden of Earthly Delights. I am sure I’m overreacting. As we boarded I noticed just three passengers on the other side of the curtain, an attractive middle-aged woman and her two daughters. I wondered if they were some minor figures in the plutocratic drama of Nigerian life: the family of some plump minister with a second-rate portfolio, perhaps, fresh off a South African shopping spree fueled by ill-gotten petrol dollars. The mother looked handsomely harried, carrying her duty-free bags. Her daughters stood stiffly beside her in their school uniforms, blue blazers buttoned over their unformed breasts, staring wide-eyed at the economy-class pleebs sitting three across in the cheap seats.

The stewardess brought them drinks. They sipped from tumblers of apple juice, or possibly champagne. The little brats.

Hungry, dehydrated, having passed a long, sleepless night consumed by pre-trip jitters, I nod in and out of consciousness, too tired to let my fears get the best of me. Fifty-four minutes from now we’ll be touching down in Lagos, and whatever uncertainty I have about this trip – my first journey into Africa’s most populous and tumultuous nerve center – will dissolve with the first onslaught of sticky-fingered customs officials and tropical heat. I have no idea what to expect once we hit the tarmac. Words of warning, I’ve decided, are best left unheeded. “Only a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence will pick Nigeria for a holiday,” wrote Chinua Achebe. “It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest, and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth!”

I had left one of the pleasant places, my little bourgeois redoubt in Rosebank, the jacaranda-lined street and the windows that flooded the living room with sunlight. Joburg had grown comfortable, like a favorite pair of jeans. I felt my life there taking root, growing, flowering, stripped of whatever ambivalence I’d felt toward the city in the past. The place felt like home. My attachments to the city were deepening; place-names acquired mythic significance, as if sung in Homeric odes. Kitchener’s. Sophiatown. Melville. Yeoville. For the first time in years, my friendships weren’t the transitory bonds of the perpetual traveler; they had strengthened, acquired histories, secret meanings. New faces arrived like portents which I tried to decipher. My last week in Joburg – the start of my 35th year – was like a celebration, a coronation. I had channeled the spirit of Baudelaire: “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it.” Less on virtue than wine and song. We had our feast days. Easter weekend was spent knee-deep in lamb roasts and Cape wines. But the nights were growing longer, the first bite of winter was in the air. Change was on the way. Coming home from a friend’s braai one night, my taxi driver bemoaned the perils of fatherhood, of age, the way the lessons of his childhood in KwaZulu-Natal had been abandoned. Teenagers today would smoke cigarettes in front of their teachers and talk back to their elders. The moral ground had shifted. Change had crept up on him like a thief in the night. “I think this world is going to end,” he said, with a heavy sigh.

“How many times is a man reborn in one life?” asks Azaro’s father in The Famished Road. I’ve given myself a crash course in Nigerian literature these past few weeks, turning the final pages of Ben Okri’s novel in the minutes before our descent into Murtala Mohammed International. Set in the early years of independence, it tells the story of the spirit-boy Azaro and his family through the lens of the turbulent politics of the time. The shifting fortunes of Azaro’s family, the daily struggles of his long-suffering mother and the constant, tragicomic quest of his father for rebirth, give the book its emotional backbone. It is not hard to see why Okri would show such a passionate desire for reinvention. The book was written in the early-‘90s, before the terrible violence of the Abacha regime, but on the heels of more than two decades of military dictatorships and coups. The optimism of the independence era in Nigeria died a swift, brutal death – buried, perhaps, in the killing fields of Biafra. If you were looking for a parable of squandered hope in post-colonial Africa, you would have to look no farther than the kleptocracy that has taken what Achebe called “a nation favored by Providence” and emptied its riches into foreign bank accounts. The prophetic passages toward The Famished Road’s conclusion are told with the grim assurance of hindsight. “Suffering is coming. There will be wars and famine. Terrible things will happen. New diseases, hunger, the rich eating up the earth, people poisoning the sky and the waters, people going mad in the name of history, the clouds will breathe fire, the spirit of things will dry up, laughter will become strange.” The novel groans with the weight of the family’s suffering, yet it sings with hope, too. “A river does not travel a new path for nothing,” says Azaro’s father. This road, these journeys, must mean something.

Coming through a bank of clouds I see the coastline beneath us, then a broad belt of tropical greenery, little homesteads stitched together by dirt roads. I had expected Lagos to be a full frontal assault, a slap in the face, but it appears slowly: a few clusters of zinc-roofed shanties, then a few more, and then, as if some organism had divided and sub-divided, had infinitely replicated itself like the cancerous cells of some tropical disease, the city is there, flat, endless, a sprawl of densely packed houses and rusted rooftops, like playing cards haphazardly tossed to the ground. I remember my arrival in Joburg two years ago, the electric sprawl of the city by night, but this feels like something else entirely. Joburg’s tidy suburbs looked as neatly parceled as a carton of eggs; Lagos, Africa’s maximum city, looks like a human omelet.

The plane touches down, bumps over the tarmac. None of the applause or prayers of thanksgiving I’d heard on arriving in Accra last year. We get up, bundle our things together, hustle out the door. The heat is thick, murky, something you must wade through. Murtala Mohammed International has a drab, bureaucratic air, like the headquarters of the Nigerian revenue authority, some place where government functionaries sit lifelessly counting the hours toward whatever meager pensions await them. The ducts are exposed and the halls are lit by a terrible fluorescence that periodically flickers and dims: Nigeria, Africa’s leading oil producer, can barely pay its own electricity bills. Descending the stairs to immigration, two escalators suddenly thrum to life. At the bottom, the doors are locked; we wait for a man in khaki and epaulets, braids dangling from his shoulders, to arrive with the key. A South African friend once told the story of a terrible crush as dozens of passengers, laden with their much-loved bags of duty-free goods, arrived to the same locked doors, their bodies pressed together as the merciless escalators continued to deposit people behind them. Arik Air flight W3104 from Johannesburg is more fortunate; the doors swing open; we surge forward. As soon as the last of us has arrived the escalators come to a standstill, the airport authorities having no doubt learned to cut corners wherever they can.

Life in South Africa has perhaps infected me in some small ways, poisoned my bloodstream with its fears and paranoias. (Just a few days ago, a man had told me about a colleague who “always traveled to Nigeria with a bodyguard.”) I have been bracing myself for months for just this moment, the expected inquisition at customs, the fearful specter of men in military uniforms and dark sunglasses wanting to ask me a few questions in windowless rooms. I had expected, too, not to make it out of the airport in one piece without paying the required dash. Instead, though, I am subjected to the usual African tedium: the long, snaking queue of sighing passengers; the whites fanning themselves with their passports; the immigration officials interrupting their duties to bicker and flirt with their male and female colleagues, respectively; the authoritatively dressed men with permanent frowns, standing around, doing nothing. No less than three separate officials are required to process my passport – a useful job-creation strategy, if ever I saw one. And yet still, a certain kind of entropy reigns. Two officials are sitting side by side, sharing the same desk. By the time I’ve handed my passport to the first, rejoined a separate queue, and returned to collect it, the second man has a puzzled look on his face. “Who took your passport?” he asks. I point to the man whose elbow is practically touching his. “He did.” Somehow, between the six inches separating them, my passport has vanished. A gruff woman in a khaki uniform arrives, then a regal man in a loose, colorful agbada. They confer. My passport resurfaces. A middle-aged man in uniform supervises with a scowl. “You have to organize yourself,” he says severely to the colleague who lost my passport, shaking his head.

My passport reclaimed, my luggage collected, my crisp American dollars changed into musty naira notes, my Nigerian SIM card registered by a surly youth who barked “Not now” when I interrupted his meal of chicken and foufou (only to add, perhaps ironically, “Come join me”), and my ride having come to retrieve me from the shade outside the arrivals hall, I am at last barreling into the heart of Lagos. Rob, an American entertainment lawyer who I’d met through a mutual friend, and who offered to share his pricey ride from the airport, takes out his Lumix before we’ve even turned onto the airport road. It’s his first visit to Lagos in nearly three years; already he is in the city’s thrall. The city goes and goes: gray apartment blocks hung with laundry; unfinished business centers flanked by rickety scaffolding; squalid shanties pressed wall to wall, their rusted zinc rooftops weighed down by stones. Harried pedestrians dart across the road, dodging the swift okadas and yellow minibus-taxis that barrel perilously from lane to lane, jockeying for some imagined advantage. It is impossible to know how many cars crowd the roads of this city of 10 or 12 or 15 million souls, but Lagos was designed for massive traffic flows: flyovers, six- and eight-lane highways, a vast web of tarmac stitching together a city carved by canals and lagoons. That those roads are still insufficient for the city’s needs is beside the point for me: today the roads are mercifully free of traffic, the city catching its breath for a public holiday on the day after Easter. No doubt there will be plenty of time later to acquaint myself with this city’s notorious “go-slows.”

It takes almost half an hour to reach Ikoyi, an upmarket suburb – once an island itself – that was connected by landfill to the rest of Lagos Island some years ago. Turning off Awolowo Road, the main commercial artery, we are quickly pitched onto a bumpy dirt road. Large homes are set back from the leafy streets, the road shaded by palms and strangler figs, various species of tropical foliage for which I’ll never know the names. Power lines, dozens of sagging cables, are hung above the road like a drooping musical score. As in much of urban Africa, the walls double as classified ads. Be a driver in 10 days. Scaffold 4 hire. The mechanic is here. Varying services offered in black paint alongside a certain entrepreneur’s mobile phone number. (Elsewhere, warnings against the notorious conmen who sell fully lived-in homes to unsuspecting consumers: Cavet emptor – Property not for sale.) When we arrive at the African Artists Foundation, a non-profit arts collective where I’ll be spending these next few weeks, the place is plunged in darkness. “I want to on the gen,” says Amos, the young watchman, his voice rising and falling with a pidgin lilt as he scampers off to the generator. In the distance I hear it coughing and sputtering to life; the lights come on; the place is like a wonderland. Paintings and photographs hang from the walls; the shelves are adorned with tribal masks, sculptures, carvings, pottery. It is like being offered a bed in the Uffizi.

On my way out I bump into a young artist, Uche, who rents a room in the back of the foundation. We had met by email a week ago, when he asked me to bring some art supplies from Joburg that were impossible to find in Lagos. He looks over my purchases with a meticulous eye, appraising, then approving. Despite my fears of a colossal fuck-up over the hot-pressed paper and compressed charcoal sticks, I managed to get it right. It is late in the day as we walk along Raymond Njoku Street, the afternoon heat diminishing but potent, the tropical humidity plastering my shirt to my chest. If anything will defeat my sense of purpose in the weeks ahead, it is the suffocating heat of West African climes. Along the road the neighborhood is stirring from its afternoon torpor, men greeting each other with forceful hugs and declamations, women watching with approving smiles as a young child totters to its feet and staggers like a drunk into the road. It is a scene like dawn, like life’s beginnings. For all the chaos and congestion of Lagos, the constant thrum of generators, the Morse code tapping of car horns signaling to each other across multiple lanes of traffic, life in the city’s margins feels relaxed, almost indulgent. A woman is stacking pots and turning the coals on a fire, preparing her chop stall for the night. An old man cocks his head and tunes his radio. Teenage boys sit in a circle in the shade, hunched over a checkerboard. I could be on a quiet street in Bulawayo, in Blantyre, in Jinja, in Nakuru. Lagos, I suspect, is full of paradoxes and contradictions, a world unto itself. Generators rumble all along the road. The power supply is so erratic that homeowners are forced to fend for themselves. “Each house is like a small city,” says Uche.

We arrive at Bogobiri, a boutique hotel and gallery that, as I’ll soon learn, is the de facto hub for much of Lagos’ vibrant arts community. The furniture is hand-carved. A flat-screen TV on the wall is playing CNN International. The waiter hands us thick, bound menus, everything priced in four figures. Art in Lagos must pay awfully well. We order a round of beers and talk about life in Africa’s hyper-city. Uche moved here from Abuja just seven months ago, drawn to this Nigerian El Dorado like so many of his countrymen. Lagos is a measuring stick, a melting pot, a city steeped in Yoruba tradition and culture that nevertheless gathers the thousands of newcomers who arrive each day into its rough embrace. In a fractured country described as “a mere geographical expression” by Chief Obafemi Awolowo more than 60 years ago, this is no small thing. Success here is measured less by tribal ties than by hustle and perseverance. Though the pace is too hectic for Uche, who comes from a small town in the east, it’s the only place for a young artist to find success in this country. Already he has had some gallery shows. He is tough, hopeful, determined.

“If you come to Lagos and you are strong, you can make it out,” he says.

Welcome home.

Wednesday, November 9.

[N.B. – In the usual messy spirit of this blog, I’m fast-forwarding a few weeks, as I still try to cope with the terrible backlog of things I’d like to write about Kenya. Below are some thoughts since arriving in Rwanda this week. In the days and weeks ahead, I’ll continue to fill in the blanks from Kenya in my typical, shitty, roughshod way. Thanks for bearing with me.]

You know you are back before you’ve even hit the tarmac, because the hills outside the window are green and seem to go on forever. You remember the phrase you heard before, how they called this place “God’s country.” Kenya is far behind you now; if you flew over the endless tree-freckled plains of the Maasai Mara, or the great silver saucepan of Lake Victoria, you can hardly remember. The world beneath you is lush, abundant, and you’re flying close enough now to make out the tiny figures of motorbikes and bicycles moving over dirt roads, the flash of sunlight on tin roofs. Banana plants, palm trees, the little hilltop shambas of manioc and taro and maize. The green quiltwork of a land cultivated to within an inch of its life. The pilot announces your first descent, into Bujumbura: the flight is a puddle-jumper, passengers hop on and off along the route from Nairobi to Buja to Kigali and then back to Nairobi, like a matatu. Lake Tanganyika, fingers of land jutting into it, the mountains of eastern Congo like a man who took his last tired steps and slumped onto his side. On the tarmac you pick up a WiFi signal. The second “u” in Bujumbura hangs crookedly from the terminal. There is a door for departures and a door for arrivals and a door into the salon d’honneur, for VIPs. A dapper man sits beside you, he has an Afro and a pair of flared plaid pants, a spiritual descendant of Fela Kuti, some Highlife legend. His accent is posh, he is visiting from Oxford. Family? Friends? The rural health clinic he founded? He doesn’t say. You try to place this man in your mental geography of the region. Perhaps his parents fled the ethnic pogroms of the ‘60s. Or were killed: he was raised an orphan in the UK. Some sympathetic, church-going retirees took him in, gave him the best of everything. He’s come back to discover his roots, to find some lost sibling, long thought dead. Or is visiting the parents who are, in fact, still alive. They had fled to Kigali, to Zaire. His father had worked in the Belgian consulate. His father was a prince. You cannot imagine this black man with a BBC accent being a casual tourist. To Burundi, of all places. This little forgotten country in the troubled heart of a troubled region. Last year the opposition parties boycotted the presidential elections; Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the last of the rebel groups, just went and disappeared. Rumors that he is hiding out in the dense, lawless forests of eastern Congo, that the FLN is regrouping, planning to reignite the civil war that destroyed this country. A few weeks ago there was a massacre in a border town, more than 30 people shot dead by soldiers in Congolese army uniforms. A witness said they were given instructions, “Make sure there’s no survivors.” To leave not a trace, no eyes to bear witness and record and remember. Memory in these parts is a dangerous thing.

We lift off again, adieu, adieu, Burundi, à la prochaine fois, dear heart. It takes 30 minutes to pass through the looking glass, to cross the imaginary line that divides two countries which share so much and so little. Dysfunctional Burundi, slouching toward another war, its great open-hearted people held hostage by kleptomaniacs and thugs; and now Rwanda, the West’s darling, the land of a thousand hills and a million miracles, of 8% annual growth, a marvel in boardrooms, on spreadsheets, a land that when I close my eyes to picture it resembles a clenched fist. The sky is blue, dazzling, as we coast onto the runway: the very heavens seem to be smiling on Kigali. A battalion of blue-capped peacekeepers, South African flags stitched to their fatigues, is waiting in single file on the tarmac. They’re holding flipcams and pointing cameras at us, maybe getting some cheap, prosaic thrill out of the simple fact of our existence, their senses scrubbed dull by long, hard months in the Congo. A Europair plane is waiting for them. Their very souls seem rumpled, worn. Off they go, homeward bound, back to Johannesburg and Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth, to the families who have sung Sunday hymns for them, to mothers who have bent on creaking knees, Lord Jesus, please, bring that one back in one piece. A man beside me, his suit double-breasted, his face double-chinned, carries a leather bag with a nametag that reads, Hon. J.B. Dauda, Foreign Minister, Sierra Leone. Another, fedora’d, speaking elegant French into his cellphone, holds a garment bag that says Francesco Armmani. Inside, the terminal has hardly changed. The immigration official is lean and frank and cheerless. The woman at the forex bureau is reading the Bible. A Rwandair billboard on the street outside says, Ikeze Iwacu: Welcome Home.

I am told that I once spent nearly six months living in Kigali, though this seems hard to believe. From June-December 2009, I rented a room in a beautiful house in Remera, a three-bedroom with a small garden and a lovely hillside location that faced the morning sun. The house had high ceilings and the common rooms were flooded with sunlight; of the grainy memories I have of that time, what I remember best is writing at the dining room with my morning coffee, the garden full of birdsong, the cries of children floating up from the valley. The mornings were tranquil, but it was a busy house: turnaround in Kigali is especially high, and every few months, there seemed to be a new face smiling at me in the kitchen as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. We’ve mostly stayed in touch: Lydia, an American, her laugh like automatic gunfire, now mulling a move to South Africa; Kari, who returned to the great wild wilderness of Alberta (me, qua New Yorker, imagining all of Canada between Toronto and Vancouver as great and wild); Francesca, who had come to Kigali with her boyfriend, whose compass poles never quite aligned with African life, now back in Italy, safely on the other side of the Mediterranean. I remember the musical sound of her voice as she and Pietro chattered over coffee in the evening, rehashing the day’s highs and lows. For a long while it was a strong conviction of mine that every house should come with its own pair of Italians.

Fond memories, but perhaps I’m mentally varnishing that period of my life, giving it an unnatural shine. In many ways, those were low months for me: I was broke, anxious, my career was going nowhere. Just a couple of months ago in Cape Town, visiting an old Kigali friend, I was reminded just how unhappy, how unsure of my footing, I was. (This was long before Harper’s and Conde Nast Traveler, before The New York Times.) It is hard to remember now how the days and weeks passed, the mileage I accrued on the backs of motos whisking me from Remera to Kimihurura to UTC. Little writing survives from that time; no doubt my Gmail archive is crowded with the futile pitches I sent to countless editors, emails that were sent and resent and always unreturned. Struggling to recreate those months, I’ve consulted a certain Delphic document, known only as “spent.doc,” in which I’ve been filing my daily expenses for the past three years. But here my cryptic notes leave few crumbs; whole days are recorded as little more than moto, moto, coffee, moto, beer, beer, moto. Perhaps this is revealing in its own way. But what fears, what abiding passions guided me through those months, grasping toward some distant fulfillment, have been buried by the steady passage of time.

And here is Kigali now, the hills knuckling under a cloudless sky, the airport road smooth as a pool table. The median is planted with palm trees, a long, leafy colonnade, as neatly manicured as Versailles. (Later in the week, briskly crossing one such median at night, I’ll be tsk-tsk’d by a Rwandan woman: walking on the grass, she says, is against the law.) The city has been growing, new construction projects flank the road, the rickety wooden scaffolding, the blue reflective windows much-loved in this part of the world. Sun Rise House, Agaseke House. The distant skyline of the city center, the swooping necks of construction cranes, new office buildings which could’ve been transplanted from Dubai. The phallic thrust of City Tower. “You can see it is changing,” my taxi driver says, chuckling, no doubt attuned to the Western platitudes we whites always utter upon setting foot in this, the great “African success story.” (Remembering here the memorable story about President Kagame, after a speech to a crowded auditorium in Boston, snapping at the young man who had praised him for the safety and cleanliness of Kigali. “What did you expect?” said Kagame. “That we are dirty and live like savages?”) Passing through Remera, Chez Lando, the Ndoli’s supermarket I trudged up the hill towards, shopping bag clinking with empty beer bottles. And then clinking again as I walked down the hill, the bottles now full.

There seems to be more traffic now in the city center, though perhaps it’s just my imagination: Rwanda, more than any country I know, breeds a certain kind of indoctrination. You believe in this country’s rapid growth and development partly because you see it, partly because you’ve been reading about the “Rwandan renaissance” for years. Past the Union Trade Centre another skyscraper nears completion. Then a corridor of bank towers, acres of blue glass, and a new city hall, still under construction, which looks roughly the size of the U.S. Capitol. In the afternoon, after I’ve checked into my hotel, after I’ve griped about the shitty value-for-money that, more than anything else, tells me I’m back in Rwanda, I have a coffee at the Serena Hotel. A peacebuilding symposium is in town, a UN-backed summit in which conference delegates look for ways to import the Rwandan-miracle model into their own shattered post-conflict countries. (Thus the morning’s tarmac’s Honorable Foreign Minister from Sierra Leone.) In the lobby, I manage to get my hands on a slick piece of propaganda for conference attendees, touting the 17th anniversary of Rwanda’s “liberation.” Glossy pictorials, fawning column inches. And then the obligatory tribute to the country’s Vision 2020, a computer-generated image of a futuristic downtown that looks less like Kigali than Kuala Lumpur. An American woman in a pantsuit, heels clicking briskly across the lobby, is calling out, “Ambassador! Ambassador!” Pragmatic faces at every table, a sense of handshake agreements, details to be ironed out, bold new partnerships being forged.

Above the reception desk, that familiar glower. His Excellency. The honorable and venerable P.K. I can think of no other country which has been so totally and swiftly forged in the smithy of one man’s will. You can imagine him sitting at his executive desk beneath a picture of himself; his face is hard, frank, practical. Consultants, advisors, multi-national supplicants come and go, bent at the waist, obsequious, bearing contracts and promises and opium visions, like Coleridge’s Kublai Khan. I’m reminded of stories I heard about apartheid South Africa, an isolated nation whose people were nevertheless eager to adopt any new technology, tinker with it, try it on for size. Yearning to be a part of the wider world. And so it is in Kigali, where a sign outside the Kenya Airways office in town touts the latest fares to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Dubai. Bureaucracies have been trimmed and streamlined. Starting a business in Rwanda is roughly as expensive and time-consuming as ordering a cup of coffee. (An informative exercise is to compare that same process in other countries, such as, say, Nigeria.) A friend, a health care worker, tells me how a study had been brought to the Health Ministry’s attention last year, showing the causal relationship between bare feet and certain species of worms. Within days, the government had passed legislation requiring all Rwandans to wear shoes; it was around this time that I, much mystified, noticed the proliferation of cheap, plastic, primary-colored sandals around the countryside. “If we do a study, and we can prove something works, the government will pass legislation next week,” my friend says to me.

We are eating pizza and drinking magnums of Rwandan beer at Sol e Luna. My old house is just down the hill, a five-minute walk. The lights on the hillside are winking; somewhere far below us, we can hear children’s laughter, a stray dog howling at a near-full moon. The night air is bracing, and I feel a brief, sharp pang for the tidy little autocracy I once called home. How lovely and simple life can be here, for those gifted and blessed enough to have forex in their bank account. Around us the tables are full of white diners (another, less flattering, reminder of South Africa creeps into my mind). I wonder, often, about this Rwandan renaissance. The country’s leaders are certainly speeding ahead; often, though, you get the sense that Rwandans themselves are struggling to keep up. I recount at the dinner table a conversation I’d had earlier in the day, with a journalist friend and a young businesswoman from Kenya. She was looking to start an IT firm in Kigali, but had found the country still lagging far behind its glossy reputation. It was easy to start a business here, but there was still a terrific shortage in qualified manpower. In all likelihood she’d have to bring skilled workers from Nairobi, then hire and train a Rwandan manager who could help bridge the language and culture gaps. The much-lauded ICT infrastructure was still primitive; even the power supply was terribly unreliable.

Almost on cue, the hill across the valley goes dark. “Like a Christmas tree,” my friend says. We sit there staring out at the darkness; closer to us the houses glow like pearls of light, cars curve along bends in a road lit like a seam of gold. For a few moments I remember the frustrations of living in Kigali, the cursed Remera house where the power was spotty, where we would often go days without water. But the reverie doesn’t last; the lights are back on almost as soon as they’d vanished. The city is back in business.

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.