It rained again this evening. There was just enough time to bring in the clothes that were out hanging on the clothesline before the sky opened up. The rain is never half-hearted here, I’m assuming it never is during the rainy season. The sky darkens and swells for quite a while before a confident and consistent downpour creates a roar on the tin roof that shelters the outdoor kitchen. The power goes in and out as the evening rolls into night and the downpour continues; the constant flutter of insect wings against the walls and windows echoes alongside the clicks that accompany the flickering lights.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the couch with my feet up on the coffee table listening to the rain pound the houses and the red earth that has already stained my socks and the insides of my shoes. The patio outside the glass doors in front of me lights up with every strike of lightening, intermittently revealing the lonely and dripping wooden skeletons of the patio furniture. The random spurts of electricity aren’t enough to sustain sorting through work emails, so I write while my good friend Kohli makes dinner with a headlamp and “the XX” blasts on the bluetooth speaker. We’ve been here with his father since last weekend; Kohli arrived on Friday and I, the day after. Kohli’s sister and mother are arriving tonight and we’re waiting for his father to come back from collecting them at the airport.
It’s been a quiet first week in Kenya; we’re in a suburb just north of Nairobi called Kimabu. I’ve experienced most of Nairobi from the backseat of Kohli’s father’s car. My own father’s observation about Nairobi as he remembers it from the 80’s is that it seemed to be a city held together by barbed wire. Apparently not much has changed besides the addition of the miles of electrical wire that now accompany the barbed wire on top of every wall and barrier.
The roads here are horrendous. Besides the initial tension of being in a country that drives on the left side of the road, it’s also taken some time to get used to the fact that every road marker, when there is one, is a suggestion. “Do Not Enter” signs denoting a one-way downtown street are ignored. There’s apparently only one working traffic signal in all of Nairobi and drivers only heed its instructions if there’s a traffic cop standing directly under the stoplight forcing people to comply. There are no defined lanes, not that it would matter. Drivers pass each other (or entire blocks of traffic) by steering into the right lane and into oncoming traffic, only swerving back into their own lane when they’re a few inches away from a head-on collision. The pollution from the cars and minibuses makes the inside of my nose turn black. I asked a friend if there was any emissions testing for vehicles, and Kohli laughed and said they probably only check to make sure the brakes work. The potholes are horrendous. Low and wide speed bumps are scattered all over the roads, unmarked by signs or paint. Because of this, driving around Nairobi and the surrounding area is a constant dance of slamming on the brakes at the last minute, bracing against something to prevent your head hitting the roof of the car, and listening to the high-pitched scrape as the underside of the car drags over the speed bump. And it’s universally understood that if you ever get stopped or flagged down by a cop, you're going to pay a bribe.
|A man selling puppies running alongside our car|
When Kohli and I get restless from too much time at the house, his dad drops us off at various malls while he runs errands. We thought this was odd until we learned that everyone does everything at malls: grocery shopping, business meetings, having dinner with friends, and seeing movies. Which is what made the attack at Westgate Mall almost two years ago seem so real to everyone. I’m amazed at how little is still known about the events that unfolded. I’ve heard from people that the hostages were tortured, and I’ve heard from others that Kenyan police got everyone out the first day and then spent then next three days looting every store that contained cash or jewelry. We’ve driven past Westgate Mall a few times. As I crane my neck, secretly searching for bullet holes, Kohli’s father reminds us that fear can’t keep you from living. Attacks can be at any place, at any time, at any crowded mall, and if you’re caught in one, so be it. It must a humbling reality to live with, much closer and more oppressive than any type of fear of I’ve faced living in the U.S., that you could lose your life to an attack or your cash to a bribe at any moment. President Obama is visiting in July (we visited the hotel he’ll be staying at; it’s beautiful!) and as protocol dictates, the U.S. will take all the guns away from the Kenyan military because anyone can be bribed for the right price.
More than anything, I miss being invisible. I love getting to talk to most everyone I pass, especially the young kids in their school uniforms who stare wide-eyed, wait for me to say “Jambo!” and then run, giggling and screaming, their rainboots walloping the dirt road as their brightly colored backpacks bounce away. Kenyans are extremely friendly, and as Kohli pointed out, are incapable of insincere smiling. They all want to exchange numbers and want to know what I’m doing here. But when I just want to walk and listen to a sermon or a podcast, my conversation gets shorter and more impatient as people flag me down to test the feeble limits of my Swahili.
Kohli and I ventured into Kiambu Town a few days ago by matatu, their minibus public transportation that’s less 15-passenger van and more “15 dilapidated seats in a rusted metal box on wheels” (locals jokingly refer to them as “death machines”. Expect the driver to hit the gas before your foot leaves the pavement as you’re entering and don’t carry anything that makes you a target for theft). We sauntered through a market, along rows and rows of crammed vendors sitting on the ground selling everything from beans to church dresses. As we got deeper into the maze, more and more people started noticing me. “Mzungu!” (White skin!) they cried. “Buy my beans!” “Hey, jeans!” (mentioning my clothing). I could see a wave of recognition on people’s faces spread from people I had passed spread to those I hadn’t yet reached as they all turned their heads toward the growing jeering and cat calls. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I felt really uncomfortable. I’ve never wanted to hide from my skin before, my skin that now felt paper white again the dirt and the low booths and everyone else’s dark black skin. I just wanted to watch and to be invisible and to wander, but I couldn’t escape.
I know I’m very privileged to be a white American. I have a passport that’s pretty widely accepted around the world and my native language happens to be global, making travel relatively easy and accessible. I trust and feel protected by American police officers and I don’t worry about walking around the places I need to go to at night. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to take this trip, and maybe the reason I started in the country where my skin contrasts so sharply with that of the locals. Too many of us don’t know what it’s like to be in the minority, especially a minority that is separate from our beliefs, our clothes, our nationality, and our sexual orientation. It’s the most basic building block of our person: our genetics. How much melanoma our bodies produce. There’s absolutely no way to hide or change it.
For now, my challenge for myself is to return every smile with a sincere one of my own as I learn to accept that eyes will follow me everywhere I go and watch every move I make. That I’ll have an audience every time I lift my teacup to my lips, as Kohli and I laugh and pretend not to notice the halted conversations and the drivers that slow down to get a better look. No, it’s not comfortable, but I wasn’t planning on this being a comfortable trip. I've actually felt the most comfortable at a bar at 1 am full of expats dancing to a terrible DJ mix while drinking watery local beer. I had fun, but I wasn't challenged and my boundaries weren't pushed.
When I ask people that have been here what they remember most about Kenya, some mention of the rain, or the smell before it rains, or the sunrise after it rains usually makes its way into their responses. After being here for just over a week, I wonder what I’ll remember about this place after a month passes, or a year, or ten years. Maybe the way the house maid quizzes me on Swahili words, or the way tea is made with so much milk, or the flash of white teeth as big smiles spread across dark faces. I’m caught between trying to analyze every observation about my surroundings and trying to just live and experience everything at a slower pace than someone that just landed here for the first time last weekend.
I can’t control what I’ll end up remembering so many years down the road, so for now I’ll just sit and study the rain.