“If it is true, as Buddhist sages maintain, that materialism coarsens the spirit and that life itself is an illusion, Jo’burg is a fine place to pursue enlightenment. Theft is so common that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Everyone knows someone who was murdered. You either allow the danger to poison your psyche and deaden your soul, or you learn to be brave, and laugh at the prospect of your own annihilation. Foreigners think we’re nuts, coming back to a doomed city on a damned continent, but there’s something you don’t understand: it’s boring where you are.” -Rian Malan, in “From Jo’burg to Jozi: Stories About Africa’s Infamous City”, ed. Heidi Holland and Adam Roberts
Nairobi, like Johannesburg, is a cosmopolitan African city filled with dreamers from all over the continent and endowed with a crime problem that has become larger-than-life in travelers’ circles. Unlike Johannesburg, its location in a country that is surrounded on all sides by serious conflict has lent its crime an international mystique that seems to ride into town on trucks laden with cheap guns from Somalia. I have been to Nairobi twice before. In fact, I seem to return every four years on the nose. Nairobi provided my first glimpse of Africa when I arrived to teach in Western Kenya at the age of 17; exactly four years later, I returned on a grant to research my Harvard thesis on Kenya’s constitutional reform process just in time to witness the bombing of the American embassy.
Somehow it was exactly four years later as I checked into the swank Holiday Inn on Friday night and began to prepare for the Institute for Security Studies workshop on Monday. I would be jointly presenting the results of a survey we had done on attitudes towards firearms and crime in the city. The local media had already been stirred into a frenzy by some of the statistics: 87 percent of Nairobi residents worry about crime on a regular basis, 74 percent think crime has gotten worse, and one in ten people carry some form of weapon. Kenya is a place where I return to find myself both older and younger at the same time.
Four years is long enough to map significant change, and Nairobi is far enough from home to capture the essence of moments in my personal history in self-contained capsules like time bombs. They hit me like a sniper’s bullets around every corner; the street where a friend was robbed while walking next to me in 1994, the matatu (shared taxi) I took to my internship every day in 1998. The girl who had just come of age, the college student, and the 25-year-old coexist in a sort of time warp in this quintessentially Third World city.
The matatus are my favorite part of Nairobi. Unlike taxis in South Africa, which are known for their internecine shooting violence but not for their creative design, urban public transportation in Kenya uses a full range of paint, decals, fake fur, and purple lights. I was thrilled to see that the number 46 lovingly known as “The Death Machine” was still plying the route between Lavington and the city center. Other favorites are:
Hoo-bangin’ The Sacred Cow Terrible Da Boyz Don’ Play 3-in-one Shoe Store Usher Al Sharpton Kansas City Jealousy Doesn’t Pay The Road to Jesus
Nairobi traffic, littered with these hot pink and green ghetto-mobiles, is capable of moving even when it seems impossibly packed into dusty streets with no signals. The most minute spaces are used to their full potential, keeping everyone inching along in a lethargic but still living snake of diesel exhaust and honking horns. This intricate, painstaking rush hour process reflects Kenyan society and politics better than any politician’s strained metaphors about development and democracy. In a country that has been increasingly drained of infrastructure and political freedom, and choked by corruption, its people sustain a kind of life-force energy that one is hard pressed to find even a city as big and powerful as Johannesburg.
Creativity allows life to continue in the face of crippling poverty, 70 percent unemployment, and a largely ignored AIDS problem. When big political spaces have been closed off, it is the tiny gaps undetected by government and police that allow movement to occur. Despite a government so corrupt that all aid money has been suspended for years because of mismanagement, the Road to Jesus and the Death Machine continue to ferry people to where they’re going. In this poor but spiritual place, the Sacred and the Terrible inch along, side by side, trying not to run each other off the road.
After a successful workshop and a series of interviews for an upcoming paper, I went back to visit the International Commission of Jurists where I had been based in ’98. Some of my old friends were still there, and for some reason they didn’t seem surprised to see me. In fact, it turned out they had been saving my mail.