This City

It is easy for your mind to get lost in thought when you stare at crowds as they walk by. I’ve learned to let my eyes focus on one person in the moment they are there before me, my eyes following them till they are out of sight. The trick is to never crane or turn your neck when they pass because too much time spent looking at one person would lead to missing another one altogether. 

Staring at random people walking by in the CBD is one of my favorite past times. Usually I’ll do it perched up on a stool at the balcony of one of many hotels sprouting within the city,  or sit idly in a matatu that’s going nowhere. It’s compartmentalizing. What I do when I want to think of other things other than the things I’m supposed to be thinking about. 

They say death is an equalizer of persons but I truly believe so is walking on the streets of Nairobi CBD. Sure it’s easy to stratify the walking individuals into various social classes based on how they walk, what they are wearing and how they talk. 

There is a way middle and upper class people’s skin looks plump, delicate and well hydrated. The soles of their sneakers are clean, like they haven’t even been walking and their belts and shoes match. They say “OMG!” and avoid potholes and puddles of water as well as people that look strange. Strange here is loosely defined as anyone who doesn’t look like they are dressed better than they are. They try to dress down when coming to “Tao” but the whiffs of their perfume, manicured nails and well coordinated outfits give them away, not to mention the baseball caps to conceal $500 wigs. They fail miserably at looking poor and kawaida. The only thing that is poor, is their Swahili which sits at the city clock bowl in hand begging for someone, anyone, to put it out of its misery.

Then there is the other crowd. Extreme end of the divide. The guy with his cart, his “mkoko” that comes to town everyday to provide personalized uhaul services. He hasn’t had a bath in several days. He’s cheerful. Says hello to every lady that walks by. Whistles and offers to help them carry their swaying hips. His peers call him Kamaa and they spend their days waiting to see where the next 100 will come from. They bet on matches they will never get a chance to watch because perhaps today is the day their 20 bob miraculously becomes “punch” and they can paint the town grey binging on 10 bob liquor. Kamaa and his friends dream of the day they will save enough to buy their own Mkokos. You see, these ones are rented. They get them from Big Jim, the chubby guy at Marikiti who is wealthy enough to have several. They pay him 50 – 80 per day to have the mkoko, depending on the size. Every day that goes without work, the debt to Big Jim increases and everyone knows not to owe Big Jim money. Kamaa wants to own his own Mkoko so that he can save the 50bob he gives to Big Jim everyday and buy a Boda. Bodas have money. “Aki ningekua na boda, ningekua poa sana, mbele sana, hata mathe hawezi teseka tena” “If only I had a boda,” he says, “I would be so set, my mom would never struggle!”. I can barely hear him amidst the noise from the crazy Matatus speeding down Tom Mboya and the muffling of his voice by the handful of miraa he is chewing as he speaks. His friends agree, having a boda would set them for life.

My attention is grabbed by two women walking side by side at the same pace. For a moment I thought they were together, only to realize they were not. One is carrying a baby on her back, she has ebony skin, milk white eyes with big pupils and curly brownish hair. The baby is suckling her finger and staring at everything in bewilderment, but also seemingly unfazed by the chaos. Her mom seems tired. Her shoes are dusty and muddy, an indicator of long hours of travel across two or more regions. In one hand she has some jackets, I am guessing hers and the baby’s, as well as her handbag, clenched tightly under her left armpit. In her right hand she is carrying a large backpack. The zip looks worn out and the adjusting straps hang dangerously close to her feet. I worry for a second that she might trip on them but that thought soon passes as she is out of frame.

The other woman beside her could be in her mid forties, although she appears older. She is short, maybe about 5ft 5 and she is plump. Plump is only used here to be politically correct and non-offensive to my readers, but I have to say, I was taken aback by her size, perhaps the right term is intimidated. When I saw her, my first thought was, “Man, a slap from her could render one permanently deaf in both ears!”. This is not what was fascinating about her though. What most impressed me is that she had a military straight back and on her head was balancing a rectangular travel bag with enough clothing for perhaps 2 adults for a full month stay in the village. It was a big bag. Despite her heavy steps, this bag stayed put on her head like she wasn’t even moving. It was like an obedient dog that had been told to sit. It wasn’t budging at all. One hand was free, I guess keeping it ready to slap anyone in her path, but the other hand was carrying a live chicken with white feathers. I craned my neck for this one and followed her till she was out of sight. I am afraid of Chicken. I cannot touch or go near live chicken (or other farm animals). Now, as if Nairobi isn’t dangerous enough, someone brought a live chicken into this mix too? That was definitely my cue to leave.

The thing is, everyone walking in this city is equalized by the inconvenience of poor infrastructure, the insecurity from poor governance and the traffic from poor city planning. Everyone suffers the pollution from poor sanitation and the pinch of the ever rising cost of living. We are equal, because no matter where we come from we are all getting screwed left, right and center. It is easy to be blinded by the ignorance from your own level of privilege and forget that big or small we all bear the brunt of the same ill-willed leadership we elected. It is easy to be cavalier about the power you have to create hell on earth with a single vote, to casually destroy dreams and create a bigger gap between the Kamaa’s and Karen’s. It is easy to think this doesn’t affect me, when you shop at Carrefour and not Marikiti. It is easy to fail to take responsibility for your actions and continue being part of the problem. Take a moment and think about every voting decision you have made in your adult life and ask yourself, “What the hell did I do?” Then purpose to do better, for yourself, for Kamaa, for the Mother and the Baby and the Chicken handler. This city, whether you are rich or poor is ours, and it’s our job to fix it. This city, this city is ours.