letters from nairobi

Eyes Wide Open
March 26, 2012, 16:33
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

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.


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[…] piece on TEDx I wrote — which references my visit to Kibera — appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post, on page four of the Business section (/front […]

Pingback by TEDx Conferences Explore Big Ideas « letters from nairobi

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