letters from nairobi

I’ve Moved!
March 18, 2014, 15:24
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Over the past few days, I’ve received a few dozen new followers on this blog. (Hello!) Just wanted to reiterate that I will no longer be updating this blog as I no longer live in Nairobi. If you want to keep up with my new posts about life in Vietnam, please follow me at Sketches of Hanoi.





New Blog
March 13, 2014, 19:09
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Hello –

As many of you know, I left Kenya at the end of January and moved to Vietnam. (For those of you who started following this blog after my post on the Westgate tragedy was featured by WordPress as an Editor’s Pick: Hi! Thanks for following! And just FYI, my leaving Kenya didn’t have anything to do with Westgate; my husband was relocated for work.)

If you would like to continue following my latest trials and tribulations as an American expat living in Vietnam, check out Sketches of Hanoi. And please feel free to leave comments or other feedback on the posts; I love reading them.



Waiting to Exhale
September 23, 2013, 17:48
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Six months ago, Kenya was prepared for violence.

All across the country, from the savannas of the Rift Valley to the sea-drenched sands of the coast, people were bracing themselves for the possibility of bloodshed following a tense and highly disputed presidential election. Four and a half years earlier, post-election violence left more than a thousand corpses in its wake and hundreds of thousands of families homeless, many of whom still reside in ‘temporary’ resettlement tents that dot the countryside.

In the days leading up to the election, cupboards were stocked, barrels of drinking water tucked away, and emergency supplies inventoried. Countless foreigners and expatriates fled to neighboring countries as a cautionary measure at the same time that international journalists and election observers flooded in. There was a palpable collective inhale of breath as votes were counted, re-counted, and re-counted again. For days, the capital city came to a standstill. The only movement was the sun’s slow arc across the sky and the rustling of acacia leaves in the trees.

And then, slowly, the country exhaled.

The election results were challenged, but instead of machetes and torches, the weapons of protest this time around were courtrooms and ballot boxes. One candidate was chosen. Foreign journalists intent on capturing a political frenzy departed, trying not to be disappointed at the unified, peaceful proceedings. Expats trickled back in. The threat, it seemed, was past.

And now, as I write this just half a year later, Westgate mall is under siege. In the distance, black smoke billows up into the late-afternoon sky, staining the clouds. Inside the mall, approximately a dozen assailants hold sway over an unknown number of hostages who have been trapped for three days as Kenyan military forces battle for control of the area. Reports are vague and contradictory. What we do know is that the death toll is currently 67 and will most likely rise as bodies are recovered. Hundreds have been injured. And the Somali Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack.

As an expat living in Nairobi, I often feel like I inhabit a liminal state – I live here, but not permanently; I empathize with Kenyans, but I am not Kenyan; I love this country, but it isn’t home. And the expat community in Nairobi is in many ways its own, insular little universe; we overlap in strange and comforting ways. But there remains a gentle, subtle buffer between expats and native Kenyans, a cushion that I am always aware of and aim to treat with respect and deference: this is your country; it is not mine.

The siege on Westgate has shifted my perspective, widening the lens. The victims in the attack aren’t strange actors, trapped in some impossibly far away country, tangled in a complex web of politics and violence. They are innocent, ordinary people – mothers and daughters, housewives and poets and bankers and waiters. One of the victims is a regular at the yoga studio I frequent; another is a childhood friend of my best friend here. One of my friends decided at the last minute not to make the turn into the parking lot and make lunch for her kids at home instead; another was trapped for several hours as gunshots echoed through the building. There is no difference between any of us – it could have easily been me at the mall that day. Perhaps it almost was.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, as details emerge and the events of the attack are analyzed, I can only hope that the country remains as united as it has been in the last six months and doesn’t resort to retributive violence against the already marginalized Somali community. Kenyans rose above the expectations that plagued them once when conflict seemed imminent, and I am certain that this too can be overcome.

Now it’s just a matter of time; of waiting to exhale.

March 9, 2013, 19:48
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Every day, when I take my dog for a short walk outside of my apartment complex, I stop by the front gates and talk with Boaz, the resident askari (security guard). We chat about the weather, upcoming holidays, happenings around the neighborhood – the usual topics that comprise small talk. But this past week, as the country ground to a halt while ballots were counted, mis-counted, re-counted, and re-counted again, there was only one subject of discussion, here and everywhere: the election.

Boaz, like most non-Kikuyu or Kalenjin Kenyans, supported current prime minister and leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, Raila Odinga, in his bid for the presidency. In the weeks leading up to Monday’s election, I would walk by the askari post where Boaz would be sitting, listening to the radio in the sunshine. He would point to the prime minister’s tinny voice issuing from the radio’s speakers, promising campaign reforms in English and Swahili, and tell me, grinning, “Listen – this is our next president!”

“Our country is ready for change,” he would say. And the conviction in his voice was unshakeable.

On Sunday evening, I wished him luck in the voting process the following day. On Monday, as I walked through the gate in the morning sun, he proudly displayed his pinkie finger, the fingernail stained by the dark ink used to signify an individual who has cast a ballot. He had awoken hours before dawn to wait in endless voting queues, along with hundreds of thousands of Kenyans across the country. On Monday, his grin was wider than usual, his eyes bright with hope.

On Tuesday, our conversation was brief: “So, now they’re counting?” “Yes, so we just wait.” On Wednesday morning, following a breakdown in the electronic tallying system which caused all ballot counting to stop and begin again from the very beginning, a hint of fatigue colored Boaz’s voice: “Still counting,” he told me, adding, “I have heard rumors of fraud in Central Province. People getting two, three ballots each. But as long as the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] addresses these issues, I believe people will remain calm.”

“Kenyatta [Odinga’s rival and presidential frontrunner] is ahead in votes. But that will change,” he said confidently. “If you look at a map of Kenya, it’s red just in the middle” – red signifying supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta’s party, The National Alliance (TNA) – “and orange everywhere else! The north, the coast – all over!”

“So we are just waiting for the votes to be tallied.”

On Thursday, as the number of counted ballots rose and Kenyatta’s lead over Odinga widened, I stopped by the front gate as usual to discuss the latest developments.

Holding the metal door open with one hand, his pinkie fingernail still stained with ink, Boaz shook his head and looked grim. “I have nothing to say today,” he said, and gave a half-hearted, bitter laugh.

Friday morning marked the first of several missed deadlines when the IEBC claimed it would be ready to release final results to the public. People’s impatience with the bungled process, overshadowed by a growing fear that each passing day heightened tensions and the possibility of violence, was stretched thin.

There was no smile in Boaz’s voice, no sparkle in his eye.

“Kenyatta has stolen the election from us,” he said matter-of-factly. In his voice, anger mixed with sadness, colored by a sense of resignation; of inevitability. And for the first time since the political contest began, I didn’t know what to say to him.

Another day came and went without a final verdict. But finally, six days after Kenyans turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard under the new democratic constitution, six days after the people maintained peace despite rallying cries of hate speech and incitements to violence – and to the disappointment of foreign journalists who flooded the country, eager to snap photographs of burning buildings and machete-wielding slum-dwellers – the votes were tallied, and a president was declared.

Uhuru Kenyatta won the election with 6,173,433 votes, or 50.03% of total votes cast.

The margin of victory was so slim – just over 4,000 votes of the 12.3 million cast – that Odinga has pledged to contest the results in court. As television screens across the country broadcast images of red-shirted Kenyatta supporters dancing in the streets, waving flags and cheering, I walked down to the front gate.

Was the election really over? Or is this just the beginning of the next phase – of judicial appeals, protests, and defiance?

As the late afternoon sun streamed through the leaves of acacia trees, I walked up to Boaz. “I’m sorry,” I said. There wasn’t anything else to say.

He smiled, sadness touching the corners of his mouth. Sadness, but something else – acceptance? Exhaustion? Relief?

“Now is not the time to look to the past,” he said simply. “Now, all we can do is look ahead, to the future.” And the radio blared on.

On the Election
February 28, 2013, 11:32
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In Nairobi, four days before the election, the tension is palpable.

The city is blanketed with scrawled graffiti and an endless repetition of low-budget political posters, one stiffly posed smiling man indistinguishable from the next. On street corners and in parking lots, trailer trucks wallpapered with campaign stickers blast deafening music to rally supporters. (The purpose of these so-called rallies remains unclear, as most of the gathered crowd can be seen sitting on the ground, eating ugali and drinking soda, and looking utterly bored.) In shop windows, typed notices inform customers of upcoming closures “due to elections” – some, hopeful, announce closures of only one day to coincide with the official holiday, but many others, less optimistic, announce closures of a week or more.

In coffee shops and mutatus, grocery store queues and board rooms, there is only one topic of conversation – and one question being asked: will there be violence? Or, more pointedly, how bad will it be this time? On this topic, opinions vary widely – no one wants a repetition of the 2007-2008 disaster, when close to a thousand people were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the country plunged into social and economic chaos that continues to reverberate today. But whether or not enough time has passed, and enough change has occurred, to ensure that this election remains peaceful is a contentious debate.

“We Kenyans have learned from our mistakes. What happened last time will not happen again,” my taxi driver assures me. But what about the reports of machetes being bought in droves from supermarkets? A pause. “Better to be prepared this time. Just in case,” he says.

Despite the mounting hysteria, evinced mostly by foreigners, aid workers, and ex-pats who are fleeing the country in advance of the election and following melodramatic “emergency preparedness” decrees (“prepare a ‘go bag’ with emergency supplies including dental records, power of attorney, moist towelettes, and a signaling whistle”) the majority of Kenyans seem cautious but hopeful that this will be a relatively peaceful election.

The world is watching, this time around. But whether or not that will be enough to stop history from repeating itself remains to be seen.

Maasai Village
February 18, 2013, 16:29
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We leave camp in late afternoon, stepping on the lengthening shadows of acacia trees and smearing the sandy footprints of impalas beneath our boots. The air is filled with birdsong, the chirps and trills of families beckoning each other home before nightfall, to safe, warm nests. On a grassy hill nearby, a gazelle raises its slender neck and watches us warily; as our footsteps fade into the distance, he senses that potential danger has passed and gracefully lowers his head, midnight eyes disappearing into the tall grass.

As we walk east, toward the village, the rhythmic clang of cowbells crescendos and carries across the savannah on a breeze. Nestled in these hills are hundreds (thousands?) of herds of cattle, goats, and sheep, all plodding home as dusk darkens the clouds. Beside each herd, a Maasai shepherd, swathed in fiery red cloth and clasping a whip of twine, guides the pack back to the village they left at sunrise. Tonight, the animals will sleep soundly, safely guarded from intrepid leopards and lions by a towering fortress of tall branches – a circle within a circle. When the stars fade into clouds tomorrow morning, they will leave home once again.

This is the refrain of life here in the Maasai Mara, day after day. The verses of weather and season may vary, but the melody remains constant.

We reach the village as twilight darkens the horizon. Following a meandering herd of goats through a gap in the perimeter of the enclosure, we duck beneath spiky branches and stand, watching, as a dozen boys push their way through the protesting herd towards us. Barefoot and wide-eyed, they rush up near us and then abruptly stop a few feet away, suddenly shy. When a young boy spots his father in the crowd, coming home from another long day away, his eyes light up and he runs forward to greet him, breaking the spell. One by one, the boys come up to us and offer their shorn heads for us to touch – a traditional way of greeting one’s elders. We lay our palms on their scalps for a moment. It’s a solemn, ancient ritual that lives outside of time. And it feels like a blessing – for us.

One of the Maasai men – a father of four with one more on the way, his wife’s belly swollen with expectation – invites us into his home. Standing in the doorway, a young, half-naked boy of about four or five inexplicably bursts into tears. He is afraid of wazungu – white people – the father explains to us, laughing. I don’t blame the boy – how strange we must look, with our pale skin and sunburnt shoulders, holding little black boxes to our faces that flash blinding light, pointing and murmuring in foreign tongues. I smile at him but he runs off to bury his tear-stained cheeks in the safety of his mother’s skirt, which envelops him like a quilt.

At the invitation, we follow the man into his home. From the outside, the structure is squat and square, a six-foot-tall box of cracked, muddy dung walls topped with a flat roof of grass. We duck through the low doorway and enter darkness. Stooping, clumsy, blind, we are overgrown weeds in a silent riverbed, obstructing the natural flow of water. We make our way to the main area of the home, the heart of a hearth where a fire burns day and night, and sit around the flames on warm planks of wood. Within the confines of the low walls, it is impossibly hot, impossibly dark. Beads of sweat glisten orange reddish in the sudden night as they slide down our cheeks. The father tells us how his wife gave birth here, where we are sitting, one night while hyenas howled to the moon, and how she will soon bring another child into the world in this place where light and rain can’t touch.

When we leave the village, awkwardly thanking the man and his family in the words of the Maasai, the sky is streaked the color of fading embers. A chill has come into the air, and the goats have begun huddling together in clusters. Only the children watch us depart – the men and women of the village have returned to their homes, ready to eat and sleep and awake early tomorrow morning.

The melody ends, pauses, and begins once again, carried through the wind on the wings of birds.







Bread, Birds, and Brunch
May 22, 2012, 11:17
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Hey! Hi! Hey there! Remember me?

Contrary to appearances, I haven’t disappeared into the Kenyan wilderness, eking out a prehistoric hunter-gatherer existence in the savannahs of Tsavo with only my wits and the friendship of sympathetic caribou to guide me. If only.

Nope, I’ve been here, in Nairobi, rapidly aging in what seems to be a twisted version of progeria – six months ago, when I arrived in Kenya, I was full of vim and vigor, ready for adventure. Safaris! Tiny airplanes! Road trips! Baby elephants! And now?

I spend an inordinate amount of time baking bread, hanging out with birds, and amusing myself by conjugating nonsensical sentences in Swahili.

Sad, isn’t it.

To be honest, it’s a shift I remember from when I moved to Nicaragua, and I assume it’s inevitable that novelty becomes routine after a certain point. This isn’t to say that my life in Nairobi consists solely of geriatric pursuits – I am planning a white water rafting trip for this weekend as we speak – but that things have settled down a bit. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Every weekday, I wake up to morning sunshine, take my dog for a walk, and brew a French press of Kenyan coffee. I spend most of the day out on the balcony, working, while dozens of rainbow-colored, chirping birds flit around, munching on sunflower seeds and building nests. In the afternoons, I practice Swahili, walk my dog before the clouds darken, and read or watch a rented HBO series as the sun begins to set. I cook dinner while listening to music and drinking wine, and after N. comes home from work, relax and watch a movie with a curled up, snoring dog and the sound of thunderstorms. On weekends, I cook elaborate meals with friends, take afternoon naps, and water the garden. On Sunday nights, N. and I make pizza from scratch and drink overpriced red wine.

It’s not always an adventure, but it works. And living here is, finally, beginning to feel like home.

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