My eyelids slowly peeled apart and my cheek came unstuck from the pillow. I looked at the ceiling and thought I was home. In fact, I was just back on John’s couch in Nairobi, sweating profusely, and in considerable physical and spiritual pain. I pieced together the roughly 24 hours since I last updated you. For at least 7 of those hours, well into the morning, I was dancing with the fine people of Westlands, Nairobi’s party district. At the time, I recall trying to channel mid-period Sly Stone with my dancing, but in retrospect I think I was closer to Marky Mark with the entire Funky Bunch thrown in. I still believe my new move, the “Crippled Zebra”, was a success.
But much happened before I so ignobly sunk to “white guy bobbing his head vigorously” status. The day progressed at reckless speeds. Too much went on for a play by play, but I’ll give you the highlights.
Traffic. We left Nairobi city center and went to John’s old apartment on the edge of town to pick through the remains of his hasty move. At some point, not too far from downtown, Nairobi snaps. Suddenly, instead of masses darting across highways, trying to sell you shit and driving toward you at high speeds, you’re surrounded by green and large skies, corn plots and women carrying loads along dirt paths. The change is stunning. I marveled at humans v. nature like a halfass Wordsworth as John struggled through traffic and told me more about his recent mugging experience, including his impressions of the hour he spent locked in a car trunk with his taxi driver.
The highlight of the day was a trip to John’s ancestral home, where his mother and grandparents live. Many young Nairobiites seem to consider their place in town a “house,” a place to live and work, while their home is the village where the family is and the ancestors lived. We headed home.
Home was a farm outside Limuru, a small but hectic market town about an hour northwest of Nairobi. It’s tea country here, hilly and high altitude, and the town was built on top of itself across several hills. We climbed steep dirt paths with stalls and small shops selling meat, beer, haircuts, and plastic goods from China. In a small valley was the market proper, where old mamas sold produce at stalls made of wood poles and tarp covers and little kids and cats ran around chewing on things. Unlike Nairobi, where crackers abound, my skin was a novel sight for some. A guy came up waving his fist and speaking Sheng (the slang mix of Swahili and tribal languages that originated in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum). I intuited, somehow correctly, that he wanted a fist bump. Turns out the word for “fist bump” in Sheng sounds a lot like “Goethe--” one more word for my random-ass bag of Swahili and Luo vocab. At a grocery store, where it felt like dozens of people packed each aisle, the kid bagging the groceries carefully wrapped my two bottles of Coke individually in newspaper.
John sped up a winding incline toward home, and 15 minutes later we were at the gate. I sat on a wooden bench with John’s mother and grandma, overlooking the farm, while John medicated an unruly cow. Grandma didn’t speak English but communicated surprisingly well through smiles, and I spoke with John’s mom at length about Kisumu, the weather in Chicago, John McCain, hurricanes, and the headscarf law in Iran. Massive clouds had built up during the day, but the sun was bursting through, and at that altitude, the brilliant rays looked like they had physical mass. I was happy sitting on that bench, looking over the small farm, the tall trees, the dogs moving about, the wind and sun, speaking quietly to John’s ma. We had tea with fresh milk from the cow John was fighting.
Several incongruous scenes. First John’s Peugeot planted in the middle of the idyllic rural yard, playing reggaeton on the radio. Second, John himself, the sophisticated metropolitan multi-national accountant I know, struggling with a cow and picking peaches on a farm. Finally, me. A strange scene considering about 48 hours before I was sitting in Chicago traffic.
We got in the car with John’s mom to take a bag of cabbages to her sister in a neighboring village. John drove the poor Peugeot like it was a rally car over dirt roads that felt like one continuous pothole. Half an hour later we were in another small town, this one even more remote. Little kids followed the car and pointed and people looked up from their work.
His aunt invited us into her beautiful home on another small farm plot. A girl was cooking over a fire outside, and a large tree with purple flowers and weaver-bird nests hung over the doorway. We had more tea with fresh milk. Inside, two little kids, John’s cousins, looked at me curiously for about 8 seconds before returning to the TV, where they were watching “Survivor” in English, slightly dampening my rural idylls.
It was starting to get dark, and we had a long way back to Nairobi. We drove John’s mom back to her plot, went inside and said goodbye to grams. I was invited back to the farm for Christmas, where John promises a goat will be slaughtered. I’m pumped.
We sped back to town, trying to beat both the sun and whatever hooligans might be about. I tried to stay awake but considering it was my first day in Kenya I was having troubles. The radio played Chumbawumba and Death Cab for Cutie as the Peugeot fought it out for the inside lane on Nairobi’s never ending traffic circles.
In about two hours, after a stop at home to pick up John’s younger brother, James, and sweaters for the coming cold (it gets down to about 60 in the evenings here), we were sitting outside at a restaurant, listening to East African classics at impossibly high volumes, drinking beer and eating the delicious comfort food Nyoma Choma with Ugali--grilled goat ribs and cooked ground maize flour.
James, John’s 20 year old brother, just got his diploma for finishing his first two years at Nairobi University. A smart and sociable young guy, he’d been out celebrating until morning the night before, but was down to celebrate again. After food he asked us to stop by Tom Mboya Road to “pick up some of my friends.”
And then...the couch, with only hazy memories of loaded cars, packed clubs, smoking bans flouted, Kenyan girls headbanging to Nirvana, and the miserable "crippled zebra."
It’s Sunday in Nairobi, and music comes up from the street. I go out to the balcony of John’s new place to clear my head. Beyond the wall encircling his apartment complex, over a grassy mound, I see for the first time a sea of rusted tin. It stretches out in the smoggy haze and sun. I realize they’re tin rooftops, covering matching tin shacks, pressed impossibly close. The music is coming from there, and smoke from cooking fires. It takes a moment to understand. I’m looking at a slum several miles deep, and a couple hundred feet away. It can only be one place.
“John, is that Kibera?”
"I didn’t know it was so close…”