letters from nairobi

Eyes Wide Open
March 26, 2012, 16:33
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One of the most incredible opportunities that living in Nairobi affords is the ability to traverse worlds in a matter of minutes. On Saturday, I experienced the jarring juxtaposition of moving too quickly between the planets, and was left dizzy and breathless.

I spent most of the afternoon in a ramshackle meeting hall in Kibera, the second-largest slum in Africa (after Cape Town’s Khayelitsha), attending an “independently organized” TEDx event that is the focus of an article I am writing. I had been repeatedly warned to be hyper vigilant during my visit, each admonition accompanied by a frightening horror story of spontaneous fires, machete-wielding robbers, and other dangers borne of poverty and overcrowding. I was nervous, but determined, to visit the notorious slum and see the reality of the situation for myself.

I was prepared to be eyed with suspicion. I was prepared to be asked for money, to have my purse stolen, to be singled out for my skin color and followed.

What I wasn’t prepared for was to fall in love with Kibera.

I have been to several slums in the past, and am not one to romanticize the hardships that poverty forces upon individuals. There is nothing beautiful or romantic about struggling to survive, lacking clean drinking water and affordable medicines, or having to choose between feeding your child or yourself, ignored by the institutions of governance and forgotten by society.

In many ways, Kibera resembled the typical slums I had seen before – craggy streets strewn with festering garbage, barefoot children with watery eyes and runny noses sitting in dirt yards, everywhere the odor of burning trash and gasoline.

But yet – there was something different here; something I hadn’t ever seen before. A certain light in the eyes of the boys who ran alongside the motorbikes, waving. A tint to the painted stalls that lined the twisting streets, ingeniously capitalizing on everything the residents desired (“mobile phone charging and ear piercing!” “butchery and hotel!” “pub and laundry!”). A kindness that was surprising, emanating from a place rumored to be heartless and infested with cruelty.

When the meeting concluded, and I got into the taxi to go back to the city center, I found that we were blocked by another car whose driver had disappeared into the winding labyrinth of streets. We waited for several minutes, but when it was clear that the car was temporarily abandoned, a group of middle-aged men materialized out of nowhere. They murmured to one another in Swahili for a few moments, and then, in one fluid movement, bent down and lifted the car off of the ground. Moving together with the impossible grace and strength of an insect, they pivoted the abandoned car and placed it back on the ground, out of our path. Stunned at the gesture, I called out the window, waving frantically as we drove away: “Thank you! Thank you so much! Asante sana!” The men smiled and were gone as the sun began to set, lighting the corrugated steel roofs aflame in the dusk.

As if that wasn’t enough adventure for one day, I had to rush back to my apartment, brush the dust out of my hair, throw on black-tie attire and heels, and scramble out the door to attend the annual Kenya Irish Society’s St. Patrick’s Day Ball with N. and several dozen of his colleagues.

The event was a lot of fun, filled with interesting conversation, good food, an authentic Irish band featuring a talented fiddler with a penchant for American bluegrass music, and copious amounts of Jameson whisky. We danced late into the night, leaving only when the ballroom began to empty itself of guests and we remembered to look at our watches.

The evening was great, but I couldn’t help but think about what a strange day it had been. Just several hours before, I had been speaking to a young mother as she wrestled with a squirming toddler who, as it turned out, needed to urinate – without missing a beat in conversation, she yanked down her daughter’s pants in the middle of the crowded dirt road and held her hand as she relieved herself. No one blinked an eye – after all, where else would she go? And now, here I was, surrounded by the elite high society of Kenya who were sipping white wine out of glasses held by hands with pink fingernails and glittering jewels. I found myself calculating how many Kibera tomatoes one could buy with the price of a single entrance ticket – 1,650 – and was struck momentarily by the incongruity of it all.

Dizzy and breathless. And with eyes wide open.


Hot Dogs
March 20, 2012, 16:11
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I am planning to learn a bit of Swahili to supplement my extensive five-word vocabulary (hello, goodbye, thank you, white person, cold beer). In preparation, I have been trying to learn one new word or phrase per day, thanks to the help and infinite patience of the Kenyans who live and work in and around my neighborhood.

Today’s lesson was more mystifying than illuminating.

The apartment complex guard I am friendly with, Harrison — who has saved me from feral dogs and equally feral men on more than one occasion — taught me the phrase for “It’s hot outside,” or, literally translated, “The sun is hot”: Jua ni kali.

Jua = sun; kali = hot.

As I was walking my dog around the block and muttering this phrase repeatedly in order to remember it — yes, that’s me, the white woman with the giant dog talking to herself — I passed by a sign I see often, nailed to a gate:

The sign, I had been told, means “beware of the dog.” It’s used to designate residences where security companies employ hired guard dogs — usually German Shepherds or Rottweilers that are dropped off each evening and picked up each morning in a barking caravan. But I never took the time to translate the phrase literally.

Mbwa = dog; kali = hot.

Hot dog?

In Swahili,


Or, to put it another way:

Mbwa kali!

…I’m basically fluent.

Pizza Night
March 19, 2012, 10:40
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Homemade pizza night! Or: I love making dough.

My vegetarian love fest — garlic, onion, red pepper, mushrooms, mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil FROM MY GARDEN.

N’s carnivorous extravaganza — pineapple, shrimp, mozzarella, and bacon.

We ate on an improvised table on the balcony. Franklin hovered expectantly.

Moments in Mombasa
March 13, 2012, 15:08
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At low tide, the Indian Ocean recedes from the shore, shyly revealing a moonscape of gentle hills and valleys. Under the full moon, holding tattered sandals in my fingers, I step cautiously through the salty puddles, peering around in vain for sea urchins hiding among the craggy undulations of sea and sand. The water is bathtub-warm on my feet, darkened by strands of black seaweed that wrap around my ankles in a whisper. In front of me, N. is silhouetted against the midnight sky, standing on the edge where the waters become silent and deep, beckoning me over. Behind me, the tinny rhythms of salsa music float over the warm sea as sunburned tourists dance under flashing lights. I stop walking, caught halfway between shore and horizon, and begin dancing alone in the moonlight. The air is kiwi-sweet; the water velvet-soft. A moment in Mombasa.


Mama Ngina is crowded. The backdrop of the promenade is teal sea, massive cargo ships sailing towards India, circling crows. The foreground is a horizontal line of vendors, repeated endlessly in a cartoon-strip sequence: pyramid of coconuts, sizzling oil drums, plastic popsicle carts, mountains of cassava. Rinse and repeat. The sea breeze climbs through holes in the coral cliffs and wraps itself around the branches of towering baobab trees that provide a place for rest without shelter. The sun, impossibly bright, scalds the air and sends children scurrying towards the sea, ripping off clothing and leaping off of cliffs into shark-infested waters. It is hot, it is shining and burning and melting in the steam of cassava frying in golden oils. A moment in Mombasa.


Walk away from the sea, up the serpentine street that leads to the Old City, and don’t look back. Feel time slow, stop, and reverse as the sounds of modernity, of belching car engines and beeping cell phones and bleating benga music, fade away, silenced by imposing ancient walls. The air feels different here; the sun and shadows move outside of time, painting ornate balconies and cracked plaster stoops like watercolor. A group of women, clad head-to-toe in the flowing black robes of the niqab, round the corner, speaking in low tones and gliding like swans through the twisting city streets. The only skin they reveal is the outline of dark eyes with long lashes and painted toes. Underneath the sheath of fabric, you know they are wrapped in rainbows and jewels – but this is not for you to see. They disappear behind you and are swallowed by the Cheshire cat of the labyrinth city that still echoes with the memories of slave auctions and bejeweled sultans. Somewhere, distantly, a bell tolls. A moment in Mombasa.

Photos From Mombasa
March 13, 2012, 14:01
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Over the weekend, I met N. in Mombasa. It was an amazing (birthday!) weekend trip. A few of the highlights:

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The Nairobi Calzone
March 8, 2012, 12:02
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One of my fondest memories of my time living in Nicaragua as a Corps Volunteer for La Familia Padre Fabretto is being gathered around a rickety wooden table with a group of friends, up to my elbows in flour, laughing, learning how to make calzones from scratch.

The Cusmapa Calzones (named after the mountain village where we created the meal) were an extravagant treat, a welcome escape from the daily offerings of beans, rice, tortillas, and the occasional avocado. One of my fellow volunteers knew the tricky practice of baking bread, and this, combined with the sought-after indulgences of a variety of vegetables and cheeses, allowed us to deviate from the monotony of gallo pinto and maduros for one glorious dinner.

(Okay, so we had to make a few substitutions. The cliffs of Cusmapa are quite far from the rolling hills of Tuscany, both literally and figuratively, so we used cuajada instead of mozzarella. Potato pohtato. Potato patata.)

I was thinking about how much I enjoyed the Cusmapa Calzone evenings and decided to try and recreate the dish. Living in Nairobi, I have much greater access to a variety of goods, both local and imported, so it was less of a matter of tracking down the right ingredients than attempting to make dough without any guidance. I invited my friend Jenny over to act as a guinea pig in this endeavor, giving her the caveat that I would be more than happy to order pizza, should this experiment fail miserably. She naively agreed.

I took a taxi to the nearby supermarket and bought all the required ingredients to make the dough and the filling. Check. The first obstacle arose when I realized I had neglected to buy measuring spoons – I never use them when cooking, and forgot that they are seemingly crucial when baking. Despite the collective outcry of the Internet to my Google searches of “bake without measuring spoons” and “estimate teaspoon” (sample response: “You need to buy measuring spoons!”), I forged ahead and eyeballed the ingredients.

I made the dough, let it rise, and divided it into four pieces. Then I made the cheese filling – substituting cottage cheese for ricotta, because I think the consistency is better – and veggies (garlic, onion, red and green pepper, mushrooms, marinara, and herbs) while Jenny worked on her laptop in the living room. It was all very “Leave It to Beaver” with me in my frilly apron, listening to Joni Mitchell.

Everything looked good until I attempted to roll out the dough into circular pieces. I don’t know what the trick is, but these lumpy, torn pieces were a far cry from the beautiful, round Cusmapa creations. There’s no way around it: these crusts were ugly.

I filled the misshapen dough with the filling, topped it with grated mozzarella cheese, brushed the top with egg, and baked it. In the high altitude of Nairobi, everything takes longer to cook than the recipe indicates, so it took closer to 45 minutes – as opposed to 20 – for the calzones to bake.

But then – voila! Dinner was ready.

The final product was tasty, if a little misshapen. I thought I prepared too much filling, but as it turned out, I think the ratio of dough to filling was a little heavy on the dough-side.

All in all, I would count the experiment as an 85% success. If I attempt to make calzones again, I would probably invest in some measuring spoons, just to be on the safe side, make more filling (or less dough), and work on the fugly factor of the crust.

But for a first solo attempt, far from the mountains of Nicaragua, I’d say the result wasn’t too shabby.

Behold, the Nairobi Calzone:

March 6, 2012, 16:26
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A man in the foyer is whittling down individual wooden tiles that were damaged by a flooding pipe with a machete.

Our housekeeper is drinking tea on the balcony while the laundry dries in the machine.

The landlord is in the basement of the building, turning pipes off and on that spurt brown water into the sinks.

My dog is sitting on the ground beneath my desk, fastidiously licking my ankle.

Just another typical Tuesday adventure when working from home.

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