The Red Dirt: On the Nature of Nairobi

Posted on June 30, 2011

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For all that I say of this city and this nation that’s somewhat critical (although all criticism born of the will to see the city where it deserves to be), I have to admit I find myself staring slack-jawed at the streets. The city pops—I cannot find a better way to say it. The city is ailing, is bloating and building, is stained with a wash of grey streaks that come from the onslaught of a very vicious nature against the foreign intervention of human structures. The city is in some ways a living ruin or the crumbling of a metropolis moving slowly in the reverse. But the city is, despite it all, very beautiful.

The first thing to strike me about Africa on my first visit back in 2006 was the earth. Red earth, but a tint of red I’d never really seen before. It’s a mythical red, some shade that must have a truly elaborate name—a color to make Crayola blush: in paintings, in photos even, we do an excellent job of capturing the essence of the pigment of earth. But we fail to capture the soul of the soil. And this soil does have a soul.

I recall sitting in a lecture given by the sociologist Bruno Latour a few years ago; he made the claim that even the stones have some amount of agency. But I’m not talking so much about the theoretical agency of the earth. This red loam has a piercing will. The weak-willed soil of my childhood gave way easily—a sickly brown fading into pallid white clay not too far below the earth. A thin substance ready to give way, not asserting itself as much more than the background to the machinations of human development. This earth, though … I find I am having some trouble describing it.

But it is thick, and it bulges out towards you. It creeps consciously into everything, into your skin trying to claim you for itself, slowly denying you the choice as to how and when you will return ash to ash, dust to dust. The shade of red changes from something hearty and deep bronze to something pure and bloody to something inexplicably rich and complex, surging shade to shade perhaps with the time of day, perhaps with the mood of the viewer, or perhaps with the sway of its own emotions. It pulses—even after it has been pulled away from its larger body by a pickaxe intent on carving out a valley for a fiber optic cable, it pulses.

It’s a heart, and it courses under this city and under all of the continent as inexplicably and wonderfully—as terrifyingly muscular and vital, yet as fragile—as my own. It’s a heart.

And from the welling of thick blood rises dense green foliage. By comparison the stringy green needles of the pinewoods I grew up with are balding, anemic things. It’s thick and its dark. Any light shade is nothing but a temptation to the sun, soon swallowed up in the blackness cast by too many leaves and fronds, the choking density of chlorophyll. And it too surges forth like the earth, pulsing and beating its way forwards.

Fences bulge and sway, rust and break before the onslaught of nature. The small roads shrink further inwards under the intimidation of trees stretching fingers out to claim any life in the city for themselves. They stand beside telephone poles, mocking, and they balk at the minor buildings swallowed up by their vastness.

Thinking about it all reminds me of reading Joseph Conrad. The man certainly captured the spirit of the deeps of the continent in Heart of Darkness; there is something fearful here. There’s something fearful for man whenever the best of his wits and brute strength, wherever all that nature could endow him with, cannot avail as an individual against the resilient and suspicious hive mind that springs eternal against him and watches him carefully as he makes his way down a river whose provenance and intelligence he cannot fathom quite so well as he can her bed. There is dread and there is power, but that’s only the sight of the aggressor-cum-victim.

When the sun shines and one cares to watch for it, the hordes of nature cease their march and, pausing for a moment, crackle with the most vibrant colors I have ever seen. Against that steely and stern green and red, marvelously innocent and pure flowers of purple, orange, pink blister up in veins, smolder and shine and defy human hands to make anything so beautiful. Unless you have become calloused to the colors here, I would dare say the only way to keep from wasting away like Narcissus staring into his puddle is to have never really looked at the flowers at all.

And the stones creak. They blacken and stain as rains and veins test their strength. They become so run down that they remind me of the swallowed and half-digested stones from pictures of Angkor Wat or a thousand other ancient ruins. To watch men and women walk nonchalantly from spoiled temple to spoiled temple under the benevolent but wary aegis of the trees of Nairobi is a mystic experience. It’s a trance.

There’s more to be written about the greenery here. Humans, never wishing to be outdone in the department of awful power and ultimate control, have made twisted inroads to tame nature here—and more than tame, to profit by its most beautiful aspects. The attempt is perverse, with the twisted brilliance characteristic of the most truly perverted. And it appeals to the most human, and thus the most natural, bits within us. I suppose there is irony in that. But it’s a topic for another post (hopefully something a little more professional and polished). For now, I thought I ought to just say:

It’s beautiful here. In a dreadful sort of way.

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