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Alone in Nairobi
By Ben Thomas Posted in Culture, Travel on January 27, 2016 0 Comments
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Night can make you feel like a stranger, even when you’re home

Last night, when the power had been out for twelve hours and the sun finally set and left me in the dark, and someone knocked on my door to hand me candles, and I lit the candles and sat on the bed and listened to the shouting outside — that was when I realized how alone I was.

You don’t feel too alone when you walk through the ghetto in the late afternoon heat, and all the locals look up to stare at you because you’re white and probably have money. You don’t feel it when you make a wrong turn from the ghetto into a slum, and Kikuyu and Luo tribesman shout “Hey Mister John! Hey, whiteboy!” and tug at your sleeves when you keep walking, because you have to keep walking like you know where you’re going, or they’ll know you’re lost and afraid and then you’ll really be in trouble. Even then you’ll feel like you know what you’re doing, because you’ve made wrong turns into slums in Los Angeles and Istanbul and Tbilisi and other places, and wrong turns into slums work pretty much the same everywhere: look straight ahead, ignore the shouts, find a main street, find your hotel.

Then you get back to your hotel and the power is still off, and your computer is dead, and you’ve got two Skype interviews scheduled for two half-finished magazine stories due in the morning, which you’ve been putting off all day in hope the power will come back on; but now the sun is going down, leaving you with candles and cold leftovers and a book of short stories you’re glad you brought, and nowhere but here that’s safe to go. And that’s when you start to feel alone.

Not even Kenyans want to walk the streets after dark. Nairobi is like one of those vampire movies where everyone scrambles inside at sundown and locks big metal gates behind them. Late in the afternoon everyone’s rushing home from their stores and offices, pushing on the sidewalks and the big buses and the little vans called matatus, everything a riot of dust and smoke and shouting and leaping onto the curb as a huge bus screeches around the corner, airbrushed with Lil Wayne and blasting a trap beat, and the driver leans out the window and laughs at you, not mockingly but with good humor, because he almost ran you over but hey, what can you do?

Everyone’s indoors a few hours later. They’ve locked their big metal gates and the private guards at the doors have taken up their old Soviet machine guns, and not even the police are out on the street.

It’s not hard to imagine what happens on a Nairobi night. Even during the day, in the shopping district known simply as Town, young kids sprawl on the curb sleeping off last night’s high. A taxi driver has told you never to give money to these beggar children, because it mostly goes to drugs.

“They’re begging for drug money for their parents?” you ask.

“For themselves,” the driver says. “A lot of them never met their parents.”

You don’t see much of this during the day, though, when everyone walks around in slacks and button-downs, sober and serious. You wonder whether these same people re-emerge at night, alternate selves let wild in the dark, or if the daylight people have given up those hours, by unspoken consent, to the people who have no place in their society. God’s first act in His new universe was to divide the day from the night, and you wonder if this is also the first act of a new government.

There are people living in Nairobi who remember when this was a British colony, and their grandparents could remember when this was the Wild East — land of millions of Kikuyu and Luyha and Luo and the 40 other tribes who still live here now; who speak their own tongues alongside Swahili and English.

Even today it feels like an oil boom town — a few plush hotels where the speculators live; the shopfronts where they rush out to buy tea and biscuits and steak before it gets dark; the bars where they sip cocktails and miss the old country. You can see them in the lobbies and around the offices, in tailored suits and alligator boots, always on the phone trying to push the big deal through.

You can see the others, too — the tan men with five-day beards and brimmed hats and bones around their necks, whose eyes have tracked every kind of prey through every kind of country. You can stand at the saloon and sip cheap whiskey and eye them all, and they’ll throw you a glance and no more because they’ve sized you up for exactly what you are. You came here to be more than that; to be like them; and they see through you and see that, and once they’ve glanced at you they look away.

None of those things will be enough to make you feel like an alien here. The first time you visited Florence, you gushed to your friends back home that everywhere were statues of the writers and artists you loved — Dante and Michelangelo and all the rest. You’ll have a similar feeling here, dodging buses with airbrushed portraits of Jay-Z and Lil Jon, walking past copyright-infringing advertisements with photos of Nas and Ludacris.

It’ll remind you how back in L.A., you used to go walking in Compton and Watts at night — in the big, well-lit public areas; not the dangerous streets because you didn’t know where those were — because you were picking up small whiffs of realness, and you wanted more, and now here in Nairobi you’ve landed right in the guts of it.

Long before any of us left for Europe and got lighter skin, we climbed down from the trees for the first time and planted our thumbed feet on this savanna; this one right here, where the giraffes and elephants still walk. One day you’ll drive out to that savanna with a local friend of yours, and stare at the grass and the scattered trees for a long time, and think about how this is where we’re all from. This is it. There is no place realer. Nothing realer than this to claim.

Although now you’re here, at night with the power out, sitting in the dark by candlelight, hearing the shouts outside as you try to make out the letters on the page, wondering if this can really be the place you’re from, or if those hard-eyed men in the bars and the slums were right after all.

Then you’ll remember that being human is this, too — crouching by flickering fire under shadows on the wall, telling stories where you’re bigger than you feel.

That’s what we do when we feel alone.

Maybe this is where it all started, right here, on nights just like this one.


The next night, after you’ve spent the day typing stories at the end of a long extension cord at a chewed-up desk on a balcony overlooking the slums; after you’ve rushed to the nearest cafe that has wi-fi so you can file your stories just ahead of deadline; after you’ve walked up the block for groceries and seen an unconscious woman lying in the street while a man screams at her and people stand in a circle staring — after all that, when you’re hunched over your keyboard in your candlelit room, trying to tap out one more paragraph on Nairobi before your laptop’s battery dies again, the hotel manager will knock on your door, and apologize for all the power outages, and move you to a room with electricity where you can plug in your laptop and keep writing.

“You’re a man who works a lot,” the manager will say.

And he’ll be right, though he won’t know why.

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