The AmeriKenyan: Straddling Two Worlds in Nairobi
| My foster daughter Beautiful from the slum of Kawangware.
In a smoky cow-dung hut in the savannah, I massage a Maasai woman’s abdomen to help her pass her afterbirth. In a multimillion-dollar home in Nairobi, I smoke shisha with a presidential hopeful.
I give foot rubs to withered women dying of AIDS in their tiny slum shacks, the neighbors’ crackly radios resonating through the tin walls. Then I put on my suit and deliver sales pitches to the business elite who run Nairobi.
In Kenya, this is the tightrope I walk: on one side the desperate millions of poor, on the other the growing middle and upper class. Being witness to the whole range of Kenyan experience is one of the aspects I love most about my life here. It’s also the aspect that challenges me most. My experience of Kenya is a study in contrasts, rich and poor, black and white, western world and developing nation, united by my admittedly naïve but certainly impassioned belief that we really can help each other create a better world.
When I arrived in 2008, I hated the noisy buses trailing clouds of black smoke behind them as they swerved down narrow streets. I hated the smell of roasting goat from nyama choma shacks, outside which other goats cooperatively fattened themselves on garbage. I hated the way I was stared at, singled out, targeted: mzungu, mzungu, people said, which technically means foreigner, English-speaker, but really just means white.
I was a divorcee-in-process, devastated by the end of my marriage, excited by the unexpected opportunity to leave western life behind and experience a brief volunteering stint in Africa. Days after my arrival, an American of Kenyan descent was elected “President of the World,” and instead of mzungu I was suddenly called “Obama! Obama!” wherever I went, his acceptance speech blaring on repeat from radios propped in storefronts, my neighbors wearing T-shirts emblazoned “AmeriKenyan.” Looking past the buses and goats, I discovered a country jubilant, full of hope, and thoroughly welcoming of a 30-something American who had always dreamed of living in Africa.
Slowly I cracked open a space in my heart for Kenya—for the teenage girls who crept forward shyly to touch my hair, for the AIDS women I volunteered with who treated me like family, for the strangers who went out of their way to teach me Kenyan ways. For the possibility of a life bigger than any I had previously experienced.
During my first months here, I traveled every weekend I could. I hiked the rainforest in Kakamega, red-tail monkeys leaping and hooting in the branches over my head. I splashed in the green silky water of the Indian Ocean, taking care to avoid stepping on spiky sea urchins. I struck out for Mt. Kenya only to turn back within sight of its snow-capped peaks because the roads were impassable in the seasonal rains. And I returned again and again to the grassy plains of the Masai Mara, where a morning’s exploration could feature graceful impalas fleeing a leopard in a squeaking herd, gangly juvenile male giraffes head-butting each other, and massive black-eared lions strolling within feet of my vehicle, disdaining me too much to acknowledge my presence with a glance. Only a 5-hour drive or 45-minute flight from Nairobi, the Mara utterly deserves its reputation as the eighth natural wonder of the world. For a while I worked at a safari camp just outside the Ololooloo gate, spearheading an HIV awareness program in the local Maasai community. During the peak months the camp swelled with international visitors hoping to witness the drama of the annual migration, when a million and a half wildebeest and other herbivores trek into the park and brave the jaws of crocodiles to cross the river. Sitting outside my tent high on the escarpment overlooking the vast expanse of the Mara, admiring the wildlife-plain speckled for which the area, meaning “black spots,” is named, I marveled that I was paid to live in the place where tens of thousands of tourists travel annually—and which the bulk of Kenyans themselves have never seen. Clouds glowed golden above the distant lavender hills, tiny elephants and zebras grazed across the landscape below, cowbells tinkled on the near slopes at a Maasai herder passed with his cattle, and I understood on another level what makes this country extraordinary and how fortunate I am to be here.
At the same time as I was falling in love with Kenya, I witnessed the decline of national euphoria as months passed and the realization set in that the President of the World wasn’t going to grant every Kenyan a green card to the U.S., or stop the war in Iraq and give all that money to Kenya instead, or any of the other ecstatic ideas bandied about in the days following the famous AmeriKenyan’s political triumph. No one has held it against me that my country’s new president failed to bestow the Midas touch on his father’s homeland. But no one calls “Obama!” anymore, either, when they pass me on the street.
After 8 months in Kenya, I got my first-ever tattoo, featuring a mama elephant with her baby hanging onto her tail, wrapping around my ankle—a design I’d wanted for years but could never find till I took the photo myself on safari. By then I had landed a job with a prestigious company in Nairobi, and a businesswoman friend looked at my new tattoo askance: “you don’t mind wearing trousers to work for the rest of your life?” I replied, “I’m never going to work anywhere that expects to dictate the appearance of my body.” Not that the professional life here is any less professional—it’s not; Nairobi is a boomtown, East Africa’s most progressive business community and a leader in Africa along with Jo’burg, Cairo, and Lagos—but the westerners who come to Africa for kicks aren’t expected to be the toe-the-line types. The fact is, I score points for having a beautiful Kenyan elephant parading around my ankle.
“Olyphant!” exclaim the slum children in wonder. It is a guarantee, whenever I stop walking, that I will shortly feel the tickle of fingertips on my leg as a few bold ones creep near to determine whether that blue picture is actually part of that white skin.
“Nice elephant,” remark CEOs as I flip open my materials on their board room tables. “Did you get that here?”
Wear trousers to work for the rest of my life? I don’t think so. Not in Nairobi, shaded with leafy jacaranda trees that drip lavender blossoms on the pavement from August to November, a modern metropolis that has far outgrown its infrastructure, its crowded streets periodically clogged further when the police bring traffic to a halt so President Kibaki’s motorcade can convey him to the State House. The city features 20-odd-story skyscrapers, thousands of taxis, and a memorial to the American Embassy destroyed by Bin Laden in 1998 on a corner colloquially known as “Bomb Blast”; there are coffee shops, movie theaters, and casinos, not to mention crooked taxi drivers who wait outside those casinos to shuttle unsuspecting fares to police check points where the authorities gaily confiscate their loot. Not called “Nairobbery” for nothing, the city is nonetheless vibrant, friendly, and largely safe as long as you don’t do anything idiotic like put your wallet in your back pocket, walk alone in the middle of the night, or, say, wave around your casino winnings.
But just outside the tidy environs of every high-end locale waits the rest of Nairobi, the countless poor hoping to corral a bit of the excess slipping effortlessly from well-to-do wallets. Exit the mall at night and filthy street children hook their fingers into yours: “please sister please I am hungry God bless you,” they murmur in a monotone, and I hate myself for occasionally explaining to them why I’m not giving them anything—“I know you wouldn’t get to keep any of it”—and sometimes offer them whatever snacks I have instead, insisting, “unakula,” “you eat it,” despite knowing whichever adult is pimping them out will likely get most of it. There is never an end to the need here. But living up-close-and-personal with it compels me to respond more attentively: as if I owe it to these people, whose country has been so good to me, to do my tiny part to share the goodness around.
So the tightrope walk goes. Living the expat life: easy. Banana Republic, cappuccinos, and Skype, what’s not to love? Living the EveryKenyan life: challenging. My volunteer work in the slums still leaves me wide-eyed, when I see a dead thief sprawled in the street where the police shot him the night before, or visit a friend in the hospital who was attacked by thugs armed with pangas (machetes), or stand on the riverbank overlooking a changa’a brewery, sewage-runoff river water being used to cool the oil drums where the illegal liquor is spiked with formaldehyde to make it ferment faster. Sometimes I let my job shelter me, riding in taxis with tinted windows, emailing colleagues on my BlackBerry, pretending the poverty does not exist. Then I catch myself, and I hop another terrifying 10-cent ride on a matatu, squeezing myself in the stuffy, rattling minibuses where I yell to be heard over Jay-Z as the conductor hangs out the door hollering for potential passengers and the driver veers across lanes and onto sidewalks. It is a relief, at times, to sip a glass of wine on the patio of an upscale restaurant and talk about the weather, but if I had wanted that life, I could have stayed in the U.S. In a way, I live here for this, for the street boys laughing dully with bottles of glue held to one nostril, for the guards dangling assault rifles negligently from one thumb, for the sting of tear gas lingering in the air after riot police disperse street hawkers. Every day, Kenya fascinates me, challenging me to step outside my comfort zones, to expand my perspective. Even when I miss my family, and some guy on the matatu tried to pick my pocket, and the power is out again—there is a lot to say for a life that challenges you.
“How do you find our country?” Kenyans often ask me. “I love it,” I tell them, and they want to know why—but I do not know how to describe the traveler’s passion for new cultures, how to catalog the thrill of a wider horizon. I love Kenya because women wrap themselves in brightly-colored khangas and carry their burdens on their heads, straight and strong. Because the buses are so crowded, and you never know when there might be chickens or a sheep stowed under your seat. Because people are quick to share. Because they are friendly and welcoming. Because I am not always quick to share, and I am not always friendly and welcoming, and Kenyans accept me anyway. I love this country because the savannah stretches in endless green swathes of scrubby grassland, and birds flash brilliant turquoise beneath lavender wings when they fly, and it is not unusual for a chubby zebra to clomp across the road ahead of me. Because it’s different, and it has given me space to become different, too. Because my whole life I always said, “I’m going to live in Africa someday,” and one day I stopped saying it and I did it, and it is one of the things I am most proud of.
How do I find this country? I find it magical in spite of its flaws. Here, as I walk through a ragged village in the dusty plains, a little girl runs to me, pink-beaded braids flying, leaping into my arms—the daughter of one of the AIDS women with whom I volunteer, a shy child whose welcome brings tears to my eyes. Another day a mama selling vegetables in the market, speaking no English, points earnestly at my pocket, alerting me that I have money sticking out. There is no reason for her to care if the mzungu perusing her tomatoes gets robbed, but she tells me anyway, because Kenyans take care of each other that way.
And every so often a taxi driver or a man selling phone credit, upon learning I am American, still smiles: “Obama.” Because even without special favors, Kenyans will always love their AmeriKenyan son. Just like they love me.
Some days, I do not want to worry about the state of the developing world. Others, the privilege of being here leaves me near tears. When afternoon sunlight filters through the acacia trees, when the Swahili chatter on the street around me resolves itself into recognizable phrases, when I leave a meeting with a signed deal in my briefcase and step out into the bustle of a downtown Nairobi day—these are moments when I marvel at my life. To those Kenyans among whom I work, my privilege rests in my western background, my professional opportunities, my autonomy. To me, it rests in all those things, yes, but even more in this: that I have become AmeriKenyan.
For More Information
The internet is widely available in Nairobi—with purchase of a local SIM card (less than one U.S. dollar) you can access it on your phone, and cyber cafés are plentiful. For people moving to or visiting Nairobi, classifieds, events and other info can be accessed at Kenya Buzz. Once you are here, there are message boards at the primary expat shopping centers (Village Market, Westgate, Yaya, and Junction) that list rentals, jobs, vehicles for sale, hired help, and everything else you need.
Nairobi is the East/Central Africa headquarters for scores of international business and NGOs, most notably the United Nations. Job placements are widely available but are often highly competitive. For United Nations postings, check for UN job vacancies in Nairobi.
Nearly every Western commodity is available in Kenya, at least to a point—you won’t find high-quality toiletries, for instance, but you will find an adequate range of basics. Mosquito nets are cheap here, as are malarial prophylactics, but the risk of malaria in Nairobi is extremely low—you really only need anti-malarials if you are going to the coast or western Kenya. For up-to-date info on disease risk and prevention while staying in Kenya, visit the WHO site for Africa.
Kenyan cuisine is plain, but worth sampling; Nairobi features lots of casual eateries serving local favorites like kidney beans, spinach’s cousin sukuma wiki, and ugali (cooked maize meal), all of which are perfectly appropriate to eat with the fingers. Once you have sampled the local favorites, treat yourself to the wide range of high-end dining, featuring virtually all cuisines, from Japanese sushi to Korean barbecue and a plethora of fine Italian dining. Restaurants can be researched and reservations can be made at Eatout: Kenya.
If you will be spending a little while in Kenya, the two must-see places are the Masai Mara Game Reserve and the coast. Prices to the Mara vary greatly depending on where you’re staying and the time of year (high season is July through September), ranging from budget to luxury (one good camp offering both is at Mara West Camp). Similarly, the coast offers many options. The best beachside budget lodging is at Diani Beachalets, where the friendly Jo is always glad to help at www.dianibeachalets.com.
For a comfy stay in Nairobi, the
Wildebeest is a lovely guesthouse 15 minutes from downtown
offering camping, shared rooms, and private rooms, breakfast