Whenever I come back to Nairobi, I treat my first few days the way you might treat a physical, making sure that all the parts are in working order. I catch up with old friends, revisit past haunts, see that the con men are still plying their raggedy trade along Kenyatta Avenue.
I’ve been returning to the Kenyan capital every year or two since the summer of 2007, when it was the first stop on a continent I’ve called home ever since. Each trip feels a bit like bumping into an old flame on the street: We stand there at arm’s length, check out the smart new outfit, ignore the crow’s feet, size each other up. And if one of us decides to risk the words “You’ve changed,” the other has to decide whether it was meant as a compliment.
Earlier this year I was back in Nairobi. It was a great time to visit: the days warm and dry, the nights cool enough that you needed a sweater. My first day, I stopped for lunch at a busy little cafe called Christie’s and ordered a plate of beef curry and pilau rice. It was a dish that took me back to the months I spent traveling on the Kenyan coast nearly seven years ago: the tropical torpor, the smell of sweat and overripe fruits, the colorful patterns exploding from the kangas cinched around the women’s hips.
I remembered arriving in Mombasa on the overnight train from Nairobi. It was my second week in Africa. I had 52 cents in my bank account — a long-overdue check had gotten lost in the mail — and so for a few days I slouched around the city, hot and penniless, waiting for my check to clear. It was Ramadan; daytime highs were in the 90s; the whole city was fasting, sweating, sluggishly trying to get through the day. In the evening women set up tables outside the mosques, selling samosas and chapati and tamarind juice that the men would wolf down as soon as the sun—
Gunshots. I snapped back to Nairobi, the present. Everyone in Christie’s dropped to the floor. From my stomach I could see people running past the restaurant, a great panicky mass in double-breasted blazers and soccer jerseys and practical pantsuits fleeing down Moi Avenue. The shots sounded close, maybe just a hundred feet away. A couple of waiters tried to barricade the door. Then another one — fearless or foolhardy — ran outside to bring down the gates. People were shouting, scrambling, praying. Memories of the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall were just a few months old. Lying on the ground, I started imagining how things might pan out — grim, nightmare stuff, the sort of thing that’d end up on the front pages of the papers back home with headlines in 72-point type.
And then it was over. A long, weighty silence reigned. Slowly, the cooks came out of the kitchen in their grease-stained whites; the waiters stood at the door, laughing nervous laughs. All along Moi Avenue people were poking their heads out of windows like a game of Whac-A-Mole, pointing their cellphones at an alleyway where a crowd had already gathered at the scene. (Later we’d learn it was a shootout between cops and a gang of bank robbers; two bandits and a bystander were killed.) A waiter came over to me, grinning, shaking his head, and we clapped each other’s shoulders with brotherly bonhomie, like we’d just finished storming the beaches of Normandy.
“People were fearing much,” he said. “But it was just gunshot.”
Just gunshot! I laughed. You spent a few minutes hugging the cafe floor, dusted yourself off, polished off the pilau and then thanked God it was just gunshot. There wasn’t a more Nairobi way to put it. But something about the wary calm in the restaurant afterward unsettled me. Just a few months before, I — no doubt like the rest of the customers — had watched footage of the terrorist attack in the Westgate mall; lying on our stomachs, we all must have been replaying the same images in our heads. When I went outside to survey the avenue, people seemed to be moving cautiously, uncertainly, as if they weren’t quite sure that the city was exactly what it seemed.
Nairobi and I had some catching up to do.
“Before Westgate, this place was so packed you couldn’t move,” a friend told me one Thursday night.
We were at Havana, an upscale bar popular with Nairobi’s expat crowd, squeezing past a few sidewalk tables of wan Westerners looking for action that had so far failed to turn up. Up and down the strip of the well-heeled Westlands neighborhood that’s dubbed the “Electric Mile,” business at all the bars looked sluggish. Was it possible that all these months later, fears of another Westgate were taking a toll on a famously resilient — and hard-partying — city?
Since coming back to Nairobi for the first time since the terrorist attacks, I was more conscious of security than ever before. Drivers had to pop their trunks for inspection outside the entrances to all the upmarket hotels. Bags were searched and bodies were frisked at the shopping centers. Boarding a bus to one of the city’s Somali neighborhoods — reputed to be strongholds of the al-Shabab terrorist group — I was scanned by a listless guard with a security wand. Outside the bar that night, where glue-sniffing street kids were probably a more immediate concern, I couldn’t help looking at all those streetside tables and feeling exposed.
This was a new feeling for me. Despite a crime-ridden reputation that had long earned it the nickname “Nairobbery,” Nairobi hadn’t made me feel so vulnerable in years. Expat life there unfolds in bucolic suburbs whose names, like Hurlingham and Lavington, recall minor characters in a Jane Austen novel. To be a mzungu — a foreigner — in Nairobi is to exist in a parallel world of garden parties and donor-speak and barely masked irony about the preposterousness of it all. The Westgate attack, of course, struck at the heart of all that — at the very symbol of Western commerce and consumption that marked life for both expats and upwardly mobile Kenyans alike. But life in Nairobi’s higher tax brackets can feel like a dreamy fugue state: a riddle wrapped in an enigma underwritten by some white guys processing grant applications in Europe.
Case in point: On a starry Wednesday night, I took the long drive out to Spring Valley, a forested suburb on the city’s outskirts, for the premiere party of “The Samaritans,” an “Office”-style satire about the aid industry. The parking lot was full of SUVs branded with an alphabet soup of aid-group acronyms. The crowd was smartly dressed, the collective net worth of their stylish eyeglasses about equal to the GDP of Eritrea.
Director Salim Keshavjee dryly pointed out that the first two episodes had been produced with NGO funds before introducing “The Samaritans” as “a TV show about an aid group that does nothing.” Knowing laughter rippled across the lawn; it was a very Nairobi sort of moment. I was reminded of a conversation I’d had the week before with a South American aid worker, who’d told me, with a mirthful twinkle in his eye, “The plan was to do Somalia for two years and get the whole war-zone check on my résumé, but then they attacked us in Mogadishu and . . . .” My lunch-hour drama on Moi Avenue felt drab by comparison.
You can argue with the donor- industrial complex on all sorts of ethical and ideological grounds; on a more practical level, it makes Nairobi a pricey place to live. During my visit, the Economist Intelligence Unit dubbed Nairobi the most expensive city on the continent, an East African boomtown flush with the spirit of the wild Wild West. From the rooftop bar of the swanky Best Western one afternoon, a friend traced her finger across a skyline that had grown increasingly jumbled with luxury apartment towers and building cranes. Who was paying for it all? I asked. She ticked off the likely culprits: foreign-aid workers with bloated salaries; drug barons grown rich from the flourishing heroin trade; fat-cat Somalis looking to launder multimillion-dollar ransoms paid to pirates; corrupt ministers embezzling government funds to buy apartments for their well-kept mistresses.
How much of it was true? Did it even matter? Kenyans, wrote the satirist Wahome Mutahi in “How to Be a Kenyan,” “take rumors to be truer than the truth.”
Nairobi has a hustler’s spirit; its gospel is self-enrichment. Street hawkers and bookshops push titles like “How to Earn Money in the Next 24 Hours,” “Think Like a Leader,” “What Rich People Know & Desperately Want to Keep Secret” and “The Very, Very Rich.” At a cafe one morning, a smartly dressed man at the next table was studying Anthony Robbins’s “Awaken the Giant Within” with Talmudic rigor. A few minutes later, he was replaced by a group of men having an intense discussion about the Congolese mineral trade — “self-help,” perhaps meaning helping oneself to that country’s riches. The creative flair Nairobians show for their rackets can have a dark comic bent: I once saw an old Brit tumble from a curb, gashing his chin on the pavement; within seconds a man emerged from the crowd of concerned onlookers, offering to sell the gent a bandage.
Leaving the flowery suburbs of the middle classes for the crucible of downtown Nairobi is like crossing a DMZ into some war-torn neighbor. Chaos reigns. Walking down River Road, I dodged hawkers selling shoes balanced on their heads and belts they coiled around their necks like snake-charmers. The men were all angles and contours, hard faces, bladelike bodies. It was like trying to pass through a thresher.
But I’ve always been drawn to the rawness of downtown Nairobi compared with the stiff-lipped suburbs, where life is hidden behind walls of bougainvillea. On the crowded sidewalks, cobblers repair shoes and fastidious men wearing jeweler’s loupes tinker with broken wristwatches. Hair salons throng with the gossip of women laboring over complicated coiffures. Kenyan life, in all its complexity and richness, is lived in a labyrinth of cellphone shops and fast-food joints, of Baptist churches and technical colleges hidden on the upper levels of weather-stained office towers. Hustlers and con men crowd the sidewalks; every dream, it seems, can be had for the right price. “You can get a degree here in two hours,” a man said to me, lauding the skills of the local counterfeiters. “A degree and Ph.D. — any university in the world!”
Fake degrees, knockoff handbags, pirated DVDs: Nothing in Nairobi is entirely what it seems. Even language in the city bends and turns, refuses to come at you straight. Conversations between educated Kenyans move fluidly between English and Swahili, the country’s two official languages. Mother tongues, like Kikuyu or Luo, form a communal bridge between members of the same ethnicity. And sheng, the Nairobi street slang that employs a hip-hop pastiche of puns and appropriations borrowed from Swahili and English, is the lingua franca of the city’s youth.
Trying to navigate the Babel-tongued city has always been the surest sign of my unbelonging. Often, I felt like one of those shabby, broken men you saw down on River Road; language was the ill-fitting overcoat I struggled to inhabit. One afternoon I saw a piece of graffiti written in bubble letters on the back of a seat in a matatu minibus: “Mimi si kama wewe.” I asked the kid next to me to translate, and he said: “‘I am not like you.’”
Waiting for a friend one afternoon outside the memorial commemorating the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy, I noticed a few posters for an upcoming poetry reading. A young woman in a skirt-suit was talking into her cellphone. “Niko bombblast,” she said. I’m at bombblast. It was a very Nairobi turn of phrase. With time since the bombing — the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history, claiming more than 200 lives — the word had entered the Kenyan lexicon, and now “bombblast” was a site for poetry readings and lunchtime rendezvous, its meaning transformed in the 16 years since that deadly morning. Did it matter, with my broken Swahili and pidgin sheng, that I could meet Nairobi only halfway? In the seven years since my first visit, hadn’t I been transformed, too?
In Christie’s, on the afternoon I was on my stomach, listening to the gunshots outside, I felt a panicky detachment from my sense of self — an awareness that the charmed passage through life I took for granted was more precarious than I wanted to admit. And I realized, too, how senseless and indiscriminate my end could be. It was a nearly Zenlike spiritual moment for a white guy in Africa, a rare feeling of anonymity in a place where I was used to sticking out. “You do not wish for a darker tone,” wrote the Kenyan poet Phyllis Muthoni in “Otherness,” “only that your paleness be unremarkable and your eloquence find local expression.”
Leaving the restaurant afterward, I was swallowed up by the crowd that had converged on the scene of the crime. Up ahead you could see the bodies; people were shaking their heads. And I could only feel grateful for what I had at that moment: a small, unremarkable place in the sun.
“I’m going to miss Nairobi,” I told a friend on my last weekend in town.
She laughed and said, “It doesn’t know you exist.”
Vourlias is writing a travel memoir about Nigeria.
More from Travel:
Multiple airlines offer one-stop flights from Washington Dulles to Nairobi.
Mokhtar Dadah Street
Cheap, basic and friendly, with a convenient and secure downtown location. An old favorite for budget travelers. Rooms from $30.
Woodvale Grove, Westlands
A slick, sexy 2010 addition to the hotel scene, with luxurious rooms, a full-service spa and a rooftop bar that’s one of the city’s hottest draws. Rooms from $140.
40 Piedmont Plaza, 671 Ngong Rd.
Craft beers and bulging burgers bring out a smartly dressed crowd at this ever-packed restaurant and lounge. Dinner for two about $70.
Seven Seafood and Grill
Waiyaki Way, Westlands
Sumptuous seafood served up by celebrity chef Kiran Jethwa, who hosts his own reality TV show. Dinner for two about $90.
Ngong Road, Karen
A spirited fusion of European, Thai and African flavors, with a sun-filled garden and artsy decor. Dinner for two about $80.
No-frills Kenyan staples including beef stew, chicken curry, fried liver and pilau rice, served up greasy-spoon style. Meals for less than $5.
4 Jabavu Maisonettes
Multidisciplinary art space where the adventurous and avant-garde come together for a range of exhibitions and performances.
3 Monrovia St.
The German cultural center hosts regular readings, exhibitions and film screenings.