If nothing else, Nairobi’s quickly shown my flair for stasis. I’ve slouched into a days-long stupor of typing away on my laptop, occasionally broken by bootleg DVDs (The Constant Gardener, Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland – sticking to a certain sinister theme of Africa run amok) and mutton curries at Annie Oakley’s. Sitting at the end of the dirt road outside my hostel, Oakley’s is a busy hang-out for local pool sharks and prostitutes – girls in mesh shirts and animal-print tunics and enough PVC to outfit a plumbing supply. On the big-screen TV I watch cricket and Formula One, having been introduced to the two by Neil, my English friend, while a few sweet, friendly whores smile and wipe the lipstick from their teeth. Then it’s back to the hostel with its fire-pit and boozed-up owner, who makes awkward, swaying passes at young backpackers while the hostel staff top off his glass with whiskey.
When I head downtown – a 20-minute walk that, after these sedentary days, is an eternity – the city feels like a strange apparition. Barefoot men in the grass of Uhuru Park, clouds reflected in glass skyscrapers, a whirling commotion of buses and beat-up taxis and the city’s ubiquitous matatus. On Tom Mboya Street, in the dim late-day light, they move in a slow, steady flow down the avenue. Most of Kenya’s matatus are meek, meager: a white Nissan minivan with a thin yellow racing stripe, the route number taped to the window. But here in the capital, the best of them are rolling nightclubs – powerful beasts with thrumming engines and rumbling sound systems that rattle with bass. These are twice the size of your average minivan: muscular machines that seat upwards of thirty, precariously crammed into the back. They’re painted purple or gold or midnight black, and on their sides are plastered logos and decals that, you suspect, carry with them the weight of a continent’s longings: DREAMZ and NYMPHO, HUSTLER and HUSTLIN’ and HU$$TLIN’, PIMP and PIMPIN’. One stridently declares that CRUNK AIN’T DEAD, and it’s impossible not to hear a hopeful note sounding in your breast. No, crunk ain’t dead; if anything, it’s only taking a breather.
Once they’re on the road, the matatus are constant motion. They slow to a crawl as we get on and off, the driver’s heavy foot leaning on the pedal. I’ve seen women hopelessly flailing as one pulls away from the curb, and old men defying age and gravity as they make desperate lunges for the door. We wedge into the seats and try to buckle our rusty seatbelts and hope for the best. The turnboy busies himself around the back. His is a job of fast hands and remarkable peril. He collects fares and dishes out change, one eye on the bills tightly tucked between his fingers, one on the road outside. When we reach someone’s stop he’ll thump on the roof, or rap a coin against the window. Sometimes there’s an obvious landmark – a gas station, a fire house – sometimes his eye fastens on some inscrutable clue, and a husky, middle-aged woman will descend onto the road’s rocky shoulder, tugging on a few toddlers’ arms and disappearing into a field or a row of bushes. Then the turnboy bangs on the side and heaves himself inside. Often we’ve already pulled into traffic, and he’ll get a good running start, his legs swinging wildly over the tarmac.
While matatus are busily criss-crossing the country’s perilous roads, shuttling passengers between cities and, too often, meeting some calamitous end in a late-night pile-up, there’s something about the flair, the creative energy, that’s pure Nairobi. The city is a constant hustle, a daily bazaar of high hopes and low expectations, and the thrifty enterprise of the matatu racket seems to suit it just fine. I’m sitting in the backseat, the engine thrumming beneath me, as we wait to leave for Naivasha. Men circle outside, rapping on the windows. They carry boxes full of peanuts and chewing gum and fruit-flavored lollipops and orange Fanta; they’re selling cheap wallets, plastic wristwatches, calico scarves. Some have cowboy hats and baseball caps stacked high atop their heads, or dozens of belts slung over their shoulders. One man brandishes an accessory kit for an electric shaver: brushes and trimmers and oddly shaped plug-ins. I shake my head and he pulls out a plastic calculator; when I refuse again, he offers an AM/FM radio.
Then the matatu groans and surges forward. We stop: the back tires are stuck in a rut. A few guys start pushing from the rear. Everyone’s shouting and straining with effort. Someone rushes up, hoping to sell one last pack of peanuts, sticking his head through the window. Finally there’s a cheer as we pull forward. Minutes later we stop for gas. More men selling chocolate bars, digestive biscuits, lozenges. Money is changing hands. How does a man, a country, survive on the strength of such small-scale economics? Women in bright floral prints roast corn on the side of the road, fanning the flames with pieces of cardboard. They charge Ksh10 for a cob – about 16 American cents – keeping an eye on the blackened kernels while a few kids horse around in the grass, and the day’s profits – a handful of change – get tucked away in the deep, dark folds beneath their dresses.
We’ve hardly left Nairobi when the rains come: broad curtains of water, prodigious tropical torrents. In just a few weeks I’ve seen how quickly the clouds can open in this country – opening and closing just as suddenly, as if someone were fiddling with a faucet. Streams of filthy run-off are surging by the side of the road. Women in loose, flowery dresses wait under awnings, the rain pounding the metal sheets above them. When we reach Naivasha the sky is still low and gray and threatening. We’ve managed to speed through the storm on the outskirts of town, but it catches up just as I’m scrambling from the matatu, my backpack wet and heavy and slung over my shoulder as I duck under the trees for cover.