Class Consciousness: Some Comments on Nairobi

Posted on June 6, 2011

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Before I talk a little bit about the city, one note:

I’ve finally figured out what the soap here smells like—Fruit Loops.

The office of the education NGO I’ve been working with is on a relatively safe and developed road of two-story buildings, separated by large yards. Small offices in buildings clearly designed as middle class homes open out onto balconies from which one can hear the sounds of old women two houses down making lunch, gossiping about the day. The road is probably more typical of Nairobi than the city’s Google Images results would have you think—while the core of the city boasts some nice skyscrapers and wide, paved avenues, the name of the game for the bulk of the city is urban sprawl. Miles of it, millions of people of it, just ballooning out over the past few decades, bashing disastrously into unyielding foliage and always stumbling through a haze of this incessant red earth.

Last night I was the last one out of the office. I performed the complex safety ritual I’d been taught a few days before: lock all electronics in safe boxes, close and lock all windows, shut all blinds, reset alarm system, set the two locks on the large wooden door, close the mental grating in front of the main door, walk down two flights of stairs in the pitch blackness, and close and lock the main door of the complex behind me. Then I got into my taxi and we drove towards the two gates that separate the complex of apartments and office buildings from the main road.

If it sounds like a lot of security, let me explain the logic and ubiquity of it all. Nairobi is a city that’s grown too quickly for its own good—it’s blossomed into one of Africa’s largest cities despite its humble origins as a pit stop on the Kampala-Mombasa rail line in the last years of the nineteenth century. And the bulk of the bulging, often grotesque sprawl has been village folk—displaced farmers and those seeking a utopian life in the city of wonder. Yes, that is the story of the growth of almost any city, but it’s happened so rapidly and so recently in Nairobi. Some men and women here still look around with a tinge of migrant confusion in their eyes, years after settling into their urban homes. And just as their comprehension and myth of the city has not grown as quickly as the city itself, so has the capacity of the government and the economy failed to match the wicked expansion of the city.

Nairobi is home to some of the greatest wealth in East Africa, and some of the greatest slums. Kibera, a particularly nasty slum not too far from the national park, is actually the poster child for the mega-slum (if you saw The Constant Gardener, the scenes of crushing poverty were filmed in Kibera). Granted, the infrastructure of the city is catching up as its growth cools. But still. Some things I have been told by locals:

“All homeless people in Nairobi are con men.”

“Do not go into crowded places. Ever.”

“You cannot even trust the business owners. If anyone refuses to take anything except for cash for large items, be suspicious. That is not all that is fishy. We develop a radar for this. There are many, many crooks in this city.”

So most buildings that are more than lean-tos made of corrugated sheet metal—most buildings have walls. Barbed wire abounds, as do some very Teutonic spikes (one wonders if the gates of Nairobi might not be the resting place of the helms of nineteenth century German soldiers). And most building complexes worth their salt have a guard standing duty twenty-four/seven.

As my taxi approached the gate leading to Lenana Road, I caught out of the corner of my eye the figure of the guard on duty. His gaunt face’s jagged edges blended into the mashed and sharp creases of his trash-bag-cum-rain-poncho with a surreal grace, the poncho itself folding back imperceptibly into the blackness of night cut through here and there by that impossible flora that dominates this landscape—a cubist’s waking wet dream. Beside him stood a rickety scrap-wood shack, his security booth, a cramped little hell that would make an old-western outhouse look like a modern marvel of space and comfort.

A quick story: a rather dishonorably discharged friend of mine once told me about his time guarding nuclear silos for the U.S. military in North Dakota. In a mad mix of boredom, disgust, and discontent, he vacated his bowels over the door of the silo. This is much in the same vein as friends of mine who have from time to time, spirited to action by the same emotions, spit in your McDonald’s burger or done unspeakable things to your clam chowder at the Olive Garden. (Think about it. There you do. Yeah, that’s right, that actually happened.)

In a taxi earlier today, my co-worker and I prattled on for some time about higher education and funding and the resources at our disposal. We gave little thought to the driver in the front seat. But now I think about him. And I think about this nation, so wholly dependent on tourism that many lower-class Kenyans have regular contact with the most conspicuous and khakied manifestations of Western wealth. The security of this city, both in terms of the manning of its myriad walls and the functioning of its streets and services, depends for the most part on those living in the parts of the city least beloved by those who intend to speak for this urban mass.

Ignoring that reality, on both of our parts, seems to be necessary to the functioning of a city. Everywhere, but especially so and especially apparent in Nairobi. If we were all to become aware of ourselves, of our place in this city, and our place relative to each other, our conversations would grow unbearably awkward and hushed. A cosmic irony would set in and slowly crush the use of all the walls around us.

I wonder what that guard does all night. And I wonder what he thinks when he sees a mazunga drive through the gates he must pull open in the dead of night, carried forth in a taxi towards a comfortable night behind a locked gate and a locked door in a hostel. It’s not a particularly mind-shattering thought, but in such a caricature of outpaced urbanization as Nairobi, it’s hard not to think these unbearably guilty thoughts.

Yet there’s a beauty in this city. The unruly foliage is blooming, deep red, violet, pink flowers preening to prove that they have more beauty than anything man can place in their ever-creeping path. That the flowers will overrun the gates is unquestionable. I just can’t help but wonder if the rebellious bowels of the guards are helping the flora to spread just so.

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