Perhaps it was the semi-festive Christmas season, or the hours of aimless, homeless wandering, but Nairobi seemed more depressing than usual. A tough milestone to hit, but that place is always breaking boundaries. My taxi driver was a guy around my age who, after asking what I did, asked if I worked with models too. "No, sadly, I only work with sweaty rastas, but uh, if you know some models…" Nothing of the sort. The kid dreamed of modeling himself and was trying to break into the business. For the rest of the trip we listened to R&B jams as he gazed vainly into the rearview mirror, momentarily endangering both our lives to attack stray zits with both hands in the Nairobi traffic .
Nairobi is built of highly specialized neighborhoods and estates bound together by a hopelessly snarled maze of traffic circles. We arrived in Upper Hill, an exclusive office and NGO district, where John works and would be working for most of my stay in town. I dropped my bag off in his car and he dropped me off at an exclusive carwash/bar (car washing isn’t mechanized so it takes a long time, and drinking and driving isn’t strictly enforced, so the combo makes sense). I sat at the outdoor bar and spent the next few hours drinking beer and reading Nelson Algren, one of my new favorites. For several hours I was out of Kenya and back in Chicago, albeit a gloriously seedy mid-40s version. Only when I looked up was I reminded that I was sitting under a palm tree surrounded by Kenya’s business elite, and that the sweet smell on the breeze was fried goat and smog.
Surrounded by business elite and goat I would remain for most of my stay in Nairobi. John picked me up after his international accounting firm finally released him, and we headed to another heavily vegetated and fenced-in suburb for birthday drinks with his colleagues. The income disparity and generally hungry, hardass nature of Nairobi make it a city of fences, higher and more electrified directly in proportion to your wealth.
Besuited, bespoke and cologned, shaved chubby and Blackberried, John’s friends looked like some of my own in New York. The drinks were double priced, the parking lot double fenced, fire in the firepit and ‘80s classics on the radio, the conversation genial and firmly within the bounds of work and potential work, kids and potential kids, parties political and otherwise. I yawned inwardly the way I’ve done so many times with my permanently employed buddies at functions like this worldwide.
But unlike New York, where yuppie-dom is an old tradition, where everything from the body language to the cufflinks is passed on from the ancestors, this kind of hangout is relatively new in Nairobi. John and his generation are among the first to come from the farms to the city in order to wear suits between highrise and bar and bar and home en masse. So while most of the conversation centered around work and mobile phones the way it does everywhere, it would occasionally stray into tribal differences, or killing animals, or going home early for the holidays to help on the farm. They were fascinating interjections, flowing seamlessly in and out of conversations about international travel and phone apps, and they highlighted the massive difference between the lives of the educated and employed of this generation and the lives of their parents back home on the farm (also educated and employed, but from a different time).
Over the next couple nights I came to really enjoy hearing and being a part of these conversations. An older manager talked about his two young kids growing up in front of the computer, and I imagined what it will be like for John and his colleagues to raise one of the first generations of spoiled city kids in Nairobi. My dad pointed out that we have the same sort of movement in the US, but it usually occurs over two generations (the businessman reminiscing about summers on the farm with grandpa) and rarely is it this pronounced (from outdoor pit latrines to hot water, 90 hour work weeks and high speed internet over the course of 4 or 5 years).
During the day, while John worked, I wandered. Nairobi is not built for this kind of activity (or most activities). Sprawling and snarled, it’s hard to get around. I spent much time in the center of town, sitting on benches, eating potentially hazardous foods, and watching the sight of thousands of people and their belongings herded in and out of public transport in frenzied and aggressive human waves for several hours from a balcony.
I spent Christmas Eve day in a rich shopping mall on the edge of town. I was there buying a new phone after being deftly pickpocketed at a horrifically crowded club the night before. I noticed and made extended eye contact with the suspected thief, but he was 6’5” and about 2.5x my body mass, so I figured I’d eat the $15 bucks and get a new phone rather than starting a deathmatch with the dude from the Green Mile in that alcohol-soaked and slightly hostile environment.
The mall was a world unto itself. So many white people running around it looked like Iowa, and the prices reminded me of New York. I read Nelson and felt strange. I felt trapped in Nairobi, and over the past few days of wandering aimlessly, I kept feeling a sense of hostility and resentment directed at the white man, a feeling you rarely get in Kisumu.
I can understand it. There are a lot of white folk here, and they’re either gawking tourists or rude, rich and entitled businessmen and NGO magnates with their haughty scared wives and little brats and African “assistants” following with shopping carts at supermarkets selling goods at a literal 500% markup directly next door to the markets average people shop at. Living and working with seemingly no regard for money in a poor society where people are counting shillings.
It’s particularly bad in Nairobi, where the street vendors sell dozens of “get rich” books and radio and music are all about making money and the strive for swagger and wealth. Shit, even I feel jealous here when I see these guys in Benzes, knowing they spend 1000 shilling notes the way I spend 100 and the way the average Kenyan citizen spends 10. Even I’m offended and ashamed when I see greasy fat old guys flashing desperate ugly smiles backed by dollars at potential concubines at select, excessively expensive clubs playing house music no Kenyan could dance to but which suits perfectly the jerky, self-conscious head bobbing of our rhythmless people.
Phone stolen, standing in a corner holding my friend’s beer while he looked for John in the packed club, people dancing and me heavy with beer and lethargy, a prostitute making unending eye contact, turning from flirtatious to accusatory to outright disdainful as I fail to match her stare, breaking contact but always coming back, unable to fully look away, I thought to myself and felt deeply for the first time since coming here, “What the hell am I doing? What business do I have standing in this corner with my loose pockets and prying eyes?”
It was a passing feeling, and one sparked strictly by the charged atmosphere of Nairobi. It’s a strange and amazing city for an outsider. My mind always moves too fast here. But it’s no place to pretend you can fit in, and certainly a dangerous place to fuck around and try.