Letter from Nairobi
At the foot of the small dusty hill between Naivasha Road and Gitanga Road, I watched an elderly woman knit. Needles clicked and fingers coaxed yarn through loops to feed a bright woollen square. She was a bit of an oddity on this grubby portal between worlds. A far-too-contained samosa seller on a hectic slip road linking two prominent streets. The thin white ropes of her earphones leaped out of her long braids, dipped under the emerging scarf to plug into a phone on her lap.
I liked that she seemed oblivious of the bustle around her. Making the best of her day as she sold her wares. Perhaps the scarf was her own, for a loved one or for sale. Nonetheless, she passed the time peacefully yet fruitfully. Later on Twitter, I learned about a dark link between generational trauma and such knitted and crocheted pursuits by women in colonial Kenya.
Artist, writer and photographer Awour Onyango wrote of how British colonialists set up camps to teach Kenyan women ‘how to be ladies’. They taught them about 4 o’clock tea, embroidery and basket-making to turn them into useful, docile servants for the settlers’ wives. When the women proved able to be both homemakers and fighters, the training sites turned into torture camps of unspeakable evil. ‘Which is how having those doilies and cosies and 4 o’clock tea became an instinct for survival’. – @SojournerMagere (Awour Onyango).
Such colonial imprints remain on the bodies and lands of this nation. For centuries, we’ve bartered and traded, feared and fought, studied and killed, hoodwinked and collaborated with foreigners for better for worse to give rise to the present nation-state.
In all this, the parts of the city that I’ve come to love feature marginally in representations of Kenyan-ness. Not quite Brand Kenya. If it isn’t teeming with wildlife, weighed down by poverty, tech savvy or decidedly rural, is it even Kenyan?
Yet a wonderful peri-urban existence filled with contradictions, joys and frustrations exists. This, too, is ours.
Witness, then, the fluid march of a walking nation. Overlapping matatus that hardly linger, seeking elsewhere. Twenty-bob mangoes resplendent in red and orange skins on the back of a handcart. Wheelbarrows lined with brown cardboard paper and housing stacks of plums in plastic containers. A sackcloth in a corner with a surprising handful of peaches. Weather-beaten carpets and rugs seeking hagglers. Clothes on hangers or blown-up mannequins, folded over hawkers’ arms or lain like matchsticks on makeshift tables. Dangling phone chargers, fake extension cables and hot water plugs.
Mandazis are dipped into searing oil, chapatis rolled flat then lightly toasted on a pan over a charcoal stove. Roadside delights wrapped in torn kraft paper that go down well with milky tea and whose aroma will fill your bag all day. Roasted maize and grilled tripe by night. Hardboiled eggs and smokies in glass and metal display cases with steaming chimneys.
Small piles of burning rubbish, earth packed with shredded plastic bags, stray goats and open sewer drains. Padlocks cleaned with a flywhisk, tins of charcoal at 50 bob and tiled floors in wooden shacks. Pillow cases sold down the road from a carwash that’s opposite a cyber café where you can print, type or scan documents and get a KRA pin.
A man stares at a field of secondhand shoes. He watches as another tries on a pair.
It was the scrap metal dealer who first caught my eye. She was banging on her corrugated roof with a long stick trying to pry some item loose. Where I usually employed that Nairobi way of walking (eyes trained forward but also darting about to ensure safety), I found myself slowing down and looking.
There was a stripped-down car door close to where the woman held the stick aloft. What little I could see of the shop revealed more spare parts, discarded bicycle tires, plastic jugs and other odds and ends.
From then on, I started paying closer attention and my eyes were richly rewarded. I counted just over 300 vendors, both large and small, on my 15-minute walk up or down the hill. Interestingly, the commodities on sale varied greatly; one cellotape seller, one weighing scale operator and one holistic medicine tent blaring the same tired tape trying to entice customers inside.
Replications and overlaps are to be expected in the transport, general store and food and beverages areas, but everyone had somewhat of a fighting chance. The prices were low and foot traffic aplenty. The permanent stalls used bright colours and large signage to compensate for being in the back row. Some small-scale traders would disappear every so often, like the secondhand shoe seller at the petrol station. But, by and large, the displays rarely changed.
Rumbling engines, honking, the whine of metal cutters, snatches of music and conversation soon became my soundtrack. Each time I passed outside the KBS depot, I hoped to catch a glimpse of its sturdy old buses parked like an elephant’s graveyard.
The ground beneath our feet changed with the weather. One day it was dusty, the next, sludgy mud everywhere. But the people and cars never changed; slow and winded, fast and furious, they climbed and descended the hill cheek by jowl. The struggling millennial one-upping the Mercedes Benz driver in a traffic gridlock. The boda boda rider besting them all.
Perhaps that’s why I love this stretch of road so much. This is Nairobi. Indeed, man must live. And here, there’s a chance for answered prayers. Be it for a 50-bob meal or 100-bob shoes; the 5:00PM rush to the M-PESA trader or the vegetable seller. There’s something here I want to claim as mine and that claims me, too, without fuss: access, easeful code switching, community.
Ben, the protagonist in Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road, described it best: ‘Here at last are people. People he understands, people who are people, human beings. Struggling, working, drinking, eating, hunger-ing, living men’.
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