letters from nairobi

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.


Stranger in a Strange Land
February 28, 2012, 13:19
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I wholeheartedly believe that every person should travel alone at least once. Not just solo in transit – although navigating foreign bus terminals and customs forms present their own set of challenges – but to a destination where there is nobody waiting to pick you up, where nobody anticipates (or cares about) your arrival, or whether you have a place to stay or food to eat. Where you are, essentially and necessarily, on your own.

Experiences like this show us who we really are, illuminating all our strengths and weaknesses in stark detail.

On Sunday morning, I flew north to Samburu on a tiny, ten-seat airplane that mimicked the rhythm of a mutatu, stopping four times along the way to pick up and discharge passengers, in order to reach the village of Umoja (the setting for an article I am writing). Attempting to make plans in advance was useless, since the only person I was able to contact in the village spoke almost no English. My only choice was to get there and figure out what to do next.

When I climbed out of the tiny airplane, there was no one to meet me. No one who knew – or cared – that I had arrived. And that was the beginning of the adventure.

Over the next 24 hours – which spanned an eternity – I encountered a series of challenges, the boundaries and contours of which were fluid and ever-changing. Every attempt I made to plan even the simplest things – what to eat for dinner, for example, or how to find a taxi – stretched and twisted and bent in shape as a series of complications arose.

There was no choice but to surrender, be patient, and take deep breaths.

Meeting the women of Umoja – the subject of the forthcoming article – was an incredible experience in and of itself. It was the purpose of the trip. But what surprised me were all of the other moments that I will remember: getting into a shouting match with a park ranger with bloodshot eyes, who told me I was the rudest person he had ever met (“And I’ve worked here since 1973!”) because I refused to pay the $70 park entrance fee where the plane landed; bouncing and rattling through the semi-arid park – a climate I had never seen before, filled with fiery brush and craggy, twisting branches scalded by the hot sun; drinking beer at sunset in the village, watching a shepherd guide his herd of plodding cattle across a river where children bathed and somersaulted into the cool waters; riding on the back of a motorbike in the darkness under a sky filled with stars; being the only mzungu at a Kenyan bar, talking to professors and park rangers and mothers about life in Africa and beyond; sleeping in a wasp-filled hut and using a restroom that consisted of a hole in the ground where cockroaches skittered along the walls; waking up to the sounds of crocodiles splashing in the nearby river; birdsong and music.

But I’m not intending to romanticize the experience. For every moment of excitement, of starry night skies and golden sunsets, there were three moments of stress and worry. I was appalled at the prices I was being charged for every tiny thing and spent a good deal of time fighting against the incessant fees. I bankrupted my checking account in no time. My translator and guide, who promised me a ride back to the air strip in the morning, got drunk and passed out, leaving me to ride around on the back of a motorbike through the nearby town, frantically trying to find transportation before my flight – the only one that day – departed. My every need – food, sleep, transportation, translation – was subordinate to the whims of others, which is a particularly frustrating form of powerlessness. In the end, if one of a million things went wrong – I got injured, or the mutatu taking me to the air strip broke down and I missed my flight, or I was bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion in the brush, or I was detained by a police officer for not having the “right paperwork” – in the end, it was only me who would be truly affected, who would have to face the consequences. It’s a position both liberating and terrifying.

Merely navigating the logistics of the situation, let alone accomplishing the work I needed for the article, was a trying experience. But when I boarded the tiny plane back to Nairobi, hair filled with dust and arms streaked with dirt, and leaned back in the beige leather seat, I let out a breath I had been holding since dawn the previous day.

Everyone should have one day like that. It makes coming home feel like a triumph.

How Africa Tweets
February 2, 2012, 11:42
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It’s not often that something I work on in conjunction with my day job overlaps with what I blog about here — I don’t believe my supervisor would be particularly interested in reading about Pot Pie Eve or my obsession with black beans, to name a few examples.

But, in this case, a piece I wrote for the blog I edit happens to bridge the chasm, so I am including it here (worlds collide!):

“How Africa Tweets”: a Continental Study

A few months ago, I moved to Nairobi, Kenya. Relocating to East Africa has been a fascinating experience, to say the least. As an editor with a background in journalism, who works in the tech industry, I’ve been struck by how Kenyans interact with and consume media, and how their relationship with the industry differs from that of their American counterparts.

And I’m not the only one who’s intrigued.

For the first time, a single company launched an initiative to comprehensively map the use of Twitter throughout the entire African continent. The international consulting company Portland, in conjunction with a platform called Tweetminster, analyzed more than 11.5 million geo-located Tweets that originated throughout Africa during a three-month period in 2011.

How Africa Tweets” presents facts both intuitive and remarkable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the study found that the African country with the greatest volume of Tweets is also its richest, South Africa. Trailing South Africa, with half the number of Tweets, is Kenya; following behind are Egypt, Nigeria, and Morocco.

Also predictable is the statistic of who is Tweeting: 60% of Africa’s most active Tweeters are aged 20-29, a number that reflects general trends in social media consumption.

What struck me about the study’s findings, which is also a phenomenon I have witnessed firsthand, is the high percentage of individuals who rely on Twitter for news. Press freedom on the continent is, for the most part, highly restricted. With 68% of poll respondents using the social media site to keep abreast of current events – and, interestingly, 22% relying on it to find employment opportunities – I wonder how much of an effect this circumventing of traditional news sources will have on individuals and, by extension, political developments throughout the continent.

In Kenya, at least, young people are being urged to join in the social media revolution that has swept through the north and toppled dictators and overthrown governments. But are the government and state-controlled media prepared to embrace the shift?

As Beatrice Karanja, head of Portland Nairobi, said, “with Twitter, you no longer need to own a newspaper or radio station to have your views heard. And for Africa – as for the rest of the world – that can only be good.”


ICC Verdict
January 23, 2012, 14:45
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To follow up on my last post:

The ICC has come to a decision on the fate of the “Ocampo Six.”

The charges against Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, Francis Muthaura, and Joshua Arap Sang have been confirmed. Charges against Hussein Ali and Henry Kosgey have been dropped.

Ethnically speaking, this means that the court is holding responsible two Kikuyus (Kenyatta and Muthaura) and two Kalenjins (Ruto and Sang).

Politically speaking, it means that both potential presidential candidates — Kenyatta and Ruto — will be tried.

The consequences of this decision remain to be seen. Right now, both the Daily Nation and ICC websites have crashed.

An Impromptu Christmas Safari
December 27, 2011, 13:08
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Celebrating Christmas in Kenya has been an interesting experience, to say the least.

N. and I celebrated Christmas Eve in a manner more fitting of my (non-Christian) family than his: watching “The Sopranos” and ordering Italian food. No twinkling lights or carols, but enjoyable nonetheless.

On Christmas Day, we attended a party at a friend’s house, contributing a total of 9kg of potato dishes between the two of us – 6kg of leftovers are currently stored in the fridge, wrapped in aluminum foil, which I am optimistically attributing to the abundant spread of food that was provided, rather than a testament to the quality of my mashed potatoes. Right?

The gathering was fun and the food outstanding, but there is something that felt not quite right about drinking mulled wine outside in sandals, listening to “Jingle Bell Rock” while batting away mosquitos in the hot sun.

“Dashing through the snow?” Not in Nairobi.

Yesterday, which was a national holiday for Boxing Day (which, I discovered via Wikipedia, marks “a day when wealthy people in the United Kingdom would give a box containing a gift to their servants,”) N. and I decided to take a day trip and drove out to Lake Naivasha, which is located about 85km northwest from the city.

The drive along the Rift Valley and into the town of Naivasha was stunning. On either side of the road leading to the lake, massive, pale green tents house hundreds of thousands of flowers – the area is epicenter of Kenya’s $360 million flower industry, and its products are flown to Dubai, Holland, and London daily. It’s strange to think that in a hotel lobby somewhere in England, the fresh flowers sitting in vases were grown here, plucked, and flown over the ocean before the petals wilted.

But I digress. The trip to Naivasha was amazing not just only because the countryside is so beautiful – or because I successfully navigated us there without the aid of maps or road signs – but because of the wild animals that surround the lake, roaming across the roads and disappearing into high grasses. It is clear that the humans are the visitors here, tolerated but peripheral.

On the road leading to the wildlife reserve, we saw a group of monkeys with inquisitive eyes and graceful feet; a family of warthogs snorting in the dirt; and herds of slender, delicate gazelles whose ears would twist and bend, following the movement of the air around them:

We drove to Crater Lake Game Sanctuary on the far side of the lake, and for a mere $10, were admitted to the reserve, where we were free to drive around at whim. Seeing the wild zebras and giraffes so close was an indescribable experience – I found myself wide-eyed, exclaiming with childlike awe: “Look at how TALL that giraffe is! Ooo, wow, watch how FAST the caribou are! Look at them jump! Look! Look!”

The animals were unperturbed by the noise of the car engine, and would occasionally stop grazing to peer at us, vaguely interested, the way we would watch scenery speeding by the windows of a train. Then they would lower their necks once again and sniff the sun-bleached grass, and we drove on.

On the way out of the sanctuary, we passed by an area of the lake where flamingos gather.

Then the rain began splattering the windshield, and we drove back to Nairobi as the sun set, planning our next trip to Naivasha – one of the best Christmas gifts imaginable.

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