You know your neighbors have totally lost the plot when they come up to your doorstep, a little bit frazzled and somewhat breathless to;
a) Complain that the neighbors dog barks too loud, and they have called the police to complain and they hope you heard the barking and were as irritated as they are, so that when the police come, there’s a whole bunch of complainers.
b) Ask for five euros, promise to repay it then promptly vanish to another location for six months.
c) Ask for aluminum foil because they are in the middle of baking and forgot to purchase some.
d) Ask whether you spotted someone tampering with their car from your window, like you are supposedly some part time watchie.
e) Ask to use your phone to make an urgent call.
They have totally lost the plot because these are neighbors who barely mutter their hellos when you meet them in the elevator, or in the corridors, or when they are checking their mailbox. We’ve never been inside each others house to sip coffee over sliced cake and stories. We don’t have play dates for our kids (for those who have kids) and though they pretty much go to the same school, when there’s an emergency, the police or ambulance usually get to your door faster than the neighbors who will be clueless and never know what transpired anyway. There are no picket fences to separate, the houses and apartments stand open making it possible to walk anywhere, but doors are flung shut, each minding their own business until they make it my own, by asking for something.
I reckon it seems pretty easy for them to be comfortable enough to make these requests in times of need, perhaps because of my demographic. They probably feel bolder coming and going as they please, and figure out that I won’t stop them or find it unusual. But I do, and the loneliness is real.
So when I landed in Nairobi a couple of months ago, the loneliness slunk away. The city in the sun welcomed me; with open arms, with smiles, hugs and a warmth that made up for the chilly swirls of the July weather. My neighbors in Nairobi were a stark contrast to my neighbors in the Netherlands, falling all over themselves inviting me for beverages and food. I consumed my body weight in literally everything and was wading through some kind of raw new culture shock.
This was my third visit in ages, and it seemed Kenya’s capital had completely re-invented herself.
My first visit was in January 2010; a not so pleasant period considering my brother had passed in a tragic road accident after a Christmas office party. I tore myself away to come home for his burial. I was already reeling around in shock and experiencing altitude sickness when I landed, and the heat and smells had me throwing up anything I consumed. I made it for the up-country trip to our village home and returned to the Netherlands after just one week.
My second visit, a year later was with my daughter who held just a travel document from the City Hall. The Kenyan embassy alerted me that I would have a problem getting into the country, as I hadn’t applied for the authorization to do so and they couldn’t do anything at that point as it was a lengthy process. When I arrived, I was asked to go into a different office and refused entry into my own country. My child was labeled ‘illegal.’ I spoke kindly to the officers, in the tone I am accustomed to when at difficult border posts. They softened, asking me to wait for the wakubwa (bosses) to rrive and make a decision. My four-year old at the time, oblivious of the complexities of customs, immigration and legal terms such as persona non grata; leapt around children who had just landed, making friends and playing around for four hours. At 7 am, the bosses arrived and I was granted authorization into the country, with a 30-day stamp on my passport to say my child was allowed into the country for that period of time.
This past summer, everything was different. She had her dutch passport, and I held my Kenyan one. The immigration officer waved her through as I prepared to pay for a visa for her entry. It seemed by virtue of my Kenyan citizenship and changes in our constitution, she was considered Kenyan.
My Nairobi was vastly different this time from what I remembered. For starters, the city swallowed me in traffic that snarled and ground worse than that of Bangkok. It would seem the tag phrase for Nairobi was ‘bigger is better.’ I was surely hob knob-ing bumper to bumper style in traffic, with quasi-billionaires who could afford those diamond studded weekends at Kempinski on Valentine’s Day. Huge billboards loomed over us, with messages that could not be ignored. Big cars…Prado, Land cruisers, Range Rovers filled parking lots and the roads. I observed a good part of the populace jay walking and jay running.
My Nairobi was incredibly busy, the capital literally bursting at its seams, some parts of the city with seamlessly smooth roads while other parts were rough shod with pavements that are potholed. The city in the sun may have seemed highly disorganized in my eyes; but the spirit of entrepreneurship was alive and well; anyone with anything to sell, sold it, people were no longer limiting themselves to shops or stalls, there are those who peddled anything anywhere, where they stood, ran or sat.
Eateries abound. I found Galitos chicken spicy so finger-licking good, then there was Pizza Inn, serving good portions of cheesy doughy fresh pizza. The Ethiopian dishes place at Nakumatt Ngong Road, quickly became a favorite because of their humongous injera and fresh fruit juices. So far, I’ve only sampled the nyama choma at Kenyatta market, chewy but tasty. I’ve scratched the surface but if you like eating, Nairobi has everything suited to one’s palate and pocket.
I also noticed to my chagrin, that no matter how intently I spoke Kiswahili, it didn’t take a minute for vendors to know I didn’t live there. Their responses were so comical in the way they were identical; there would be a pause as they took me in from head to toe as if trying to establish which planet I had arrived from, then prices would be hiked…ridiculously, to the amusement of my relatives who insisted they should tag along next time I went out shopping.
Among the women here there seemed to be an unspoken dress code: black and grey suits in plenty; elaborate hairdos, nicely heeled sandals, manicures and pedicures. I noted the overwhelming pressure to look well clad, well fed and well oiled. Impressions are a big thing in Nairobi, fueling and creating careers for some of the blue: read socialites.
Alot of constructions were taking place. Those who have spent time outside the country bemoan the lack of town planning, they observe the absence of an old town as many major cities around the world seem to have. Sure, there are old buildings still standing from colonial times, but these relics are few and far in between.
Despite the crowds, the confusion, the amount of time spent in traffic getting from point A to point B, this Nairobi which seems so different from the Nairobi I grew up in, I call home. I know for a fact, when I move to Nairobi, my office will have to be right next to my workplace…just to avoid the maddening traffic.
Have you recently been to Nairobi? What are your thoughts on Kenya’s capital?