I have drafted three versions of this blog post and most of them were trying to put into words the moments of loneliness that can come from this type of travel. In my usual blog posting style I am sharing the feelings that I think many others feel and am trying to not only present the rosy picture we are used to seeing on social media.
I at first felt like I was at sleep away camp when I arrived. I ended up staying in a different place than I did last time which was unexpected and threw me for a loop. I am someone who makes plans and expect things to go according to them so this was good practice for me in how to adapt. The first few nights I huddled under my mosquito net, like I huddled in my bunk bed with a flashlight, reading and willing anxiety away. Like at sleep away camp I don’t have a way to message people or look at the internet from my room (the wifi doesn’t reach that far) so I am trying to remember the ways to soothe myself. I have a memory of being twelve years old at camp reading A Year in Provence (a book I think I have wrote about before on this blog, but what I think is strange choice for a twelve-year old) and currently I am reading another book about French food called Lunch in Paris. During both experiences, I read between silent small tears and felt a vulnerability and loneliness in a dark room. I am coining a new phrase of the “night time scaries” because, no matter what, things always feel better in the morning, but it is hard to remember that as you try to force yourself into sleep.
But then, just like they did at sleep away camp, things changed as I began to connect with people and feel more at home in Nairobi. My mom, who had dealt with my initial loneliness with patience and kindness, when she got a happier email said, “That’s my Phoebe bouncing back in the best way.”
I use the five Swahili words I know with such pride and ask anyone who is willing to teach me a few more. I was surprised how many people I met last trip who felt like friends who I met up with this time. I was able to break through people’s appearance of looking so comfortable and at home here and find a little more about their vulnerabilities (one of my favorite activities which has led people, mostly men, to stay, “Stop Oprah-ing me,” due to my insistent questioning). The isolation I feel because I can’t just walk out my door to go anywhere, and instead have to call a driver, is something people who are settled here feel as well.
One of my great joys these past few days has been being able to talk like someone who lives here. I know the restaurants people are talking about and can chime in with my own opinions. I return to the same cafes I went to before and the wifi password is already saved on my computer. I am learning that despite the awful Westgate mall attack I can’t be afraid of malls here (because I would never be able to go anywhere as everything is in a mall) and I try to relax as I browse through stores running errands and wasting time before interviews. I will probably never learn the geography of the city (which applies to my experience in most cities I am in), but I have at least heard of the neighborhoods people referred to. With my recent research bringing me into some poorer areas of Nairobi (more on that in another post) I went to neighborhoods some locals never even heard of.
I have also talked with friends about the tough parts of Nairobi. As fancy as the coffee shops, work out options (barre, spinning, and even crossfit), and nail salons can make it seem, there is still a bit of a rough side to the city. There is crime and corruption and it affects people’s lives here. People band together to help when friends or family are affected by these problems and I guess the best anyone can do is prepare for the risk. As I read more and more about the Kenyan elections in August I feel worried for my sometimes home. I don’t want this place I am bonding with to have violence in its communities.
Another great pleasure and learning experience has been getting to spend a lot of time with Africans from across East Africa. I spend most days with my research assistant who is from one of the slums here. He is very smart and he has one of those inspirational stories you read about. He is one of nine children and he was given the opportunity (by foreign donors he met by coincidence) to complete high school and then go to college. He then told me how he fell in love with education (something I can clearly relate to) and got his masters and will be starting a PhD program in September. I asked him whether he thought Nairobi was diverse or whether ex-pats only hung out with each other in specific “ex-pat places.” He said he thought Nairobi was quite diverse and ex-pats fit into the city well. I feel like on the days doing research with him I am experiencing a bit more of the Kenyan version of Nairobi. He took me to a “real” Kenyan restaurant that was huge and packed with people socializing. I had no idea people ate Kenyan foods with their hands, but he made sure to ask our waiter for a fork and knife for me (I thought I would make too much of a mess and end up with food all over my clothes). He got a whole fish and rolled up pieces of ugali (almost impossible to explain but it is like corn meal or polenta) to dip in the coconut sauce with the fish. He ordered more ugali and told me that since ugali is food for the hungry there is some custom that as a tribute to that restaurants don’t charge for the second order. I got some sort of chicken stew that was good, but I couldn’t quite cut it with the fork and knife and mostly ate the chapatti.
Last night at a get together at a friend’s house I was the only person who had no African heritage. I love listening to discussions about how different family relations are in their cultures as they kindly laugh at my responses as “so American.” I get to learn about different how people practice different religions from Orthodox Christian to Islam and while their rituals are unique, it doesn’t sound all that different from friends in the U.S. who give up things on lent or fast on Yom Kippur. I appreciate their openness in discussing it with me and allowing me to learn and watch. It could be easy to be in Nairobi and never hang out with people from here (since there is such a huge ex-pat community) and I fell in that trap the first time I was here four years ago. I am so grateful to have been adopted into a different scene here, even with all my silly American comments.
It was hard to come back so quickly to Nairobi since I just left, but when I got here I realized my interactions with the city felt different. In some ways I don’t have that sense of wonder as much, which makes me a little sad, but in other ways I am starting to feel a deeper connection here. I am no longer just a one-time visitor, but I am building connections here, to places, to people, to a culture, to a language. While Nairobi won’t ever be home, I think it is now becoming one of the many cities I add to my collection of “my places” – flaws and all.