The first thing most people think when they hear ‘Kenya’ is the classic brilliant sunsets silhouetted by the figures of colorful Maasai warriors and elephants on a savannah. And of course, loud, ‘African-sounding’ drums. There are always drums.
I’ve never seen an elephant. And of course I can’t run particularly fast, not since I was 12 years old and had less to carry across a finish line. My Kenya is contained within the pulsing, vibrant metropolis that is Nairobi. In My Nairobi, you can find anything (from pirated DVDs being sold in broad daylight to tycoons walking among the ‘common folk’), go anywhere and be absolutely anyone. The sunsets I see are marred by the buildings across the skyline. In other words, none.
I was born in Nairobi (which, as if it didn’t sound cool enough, means place of cool waters in Maasai), but spent my formative years in Ethiopia. My family moved there when I was five years old. I went to international schools, dabbled in learning Amharic (which really is as difficult as it looks) and lived a somewhat charmed, sheltered life. By the time I came back to Nairobi, I had apparently lost everything that my fellow Kenyan would use to identify me as a countryman.
This irritated me immensely. I felt like people had no right to classify my identity for me, regardless of where I grew up or how I spoke. How did citizenship become a test? Was I supposed to get a grade or a trophy to put on my un-Kenyan mantelpiece? My logic was that one is not Kenyan because of a checklist they fulfill. One is Kenyan because…one is Kenyan. It is not a course. You do not have to try to be Kenyan, or speak the language. There is nothing you can do to be more Kenyan like eat more ugali (our staple food) or learn how to play a nyatiti (a traditional instrument). Being born here should have been validation enough, if validation is what was required. Identification with the culture, with the people, with our struggle, should have been enough.
The culture shock was incredible. Not because it was new and unusual, but because it was unabashedly abrasive, the rude guest you never want to have at a party who, to add insult to injury, is a plus one. I did not get over it until four years later, in the thick of boarding school (Kenya High). Sometimes I would wake up crying because I just did not understand what I was doing here, and how I was supposed to be doing it. Even more so was the confusion of experiencing culture shock in my home country. The concept in itself was baffling, to say in the least. But finally, I learnt what my city was trying to teach.
Painfully, gradually, fortunately, I grew into myself. I grew into the weird and wonderful twists of my city, like screaming matatus and confusing lingos that expect you to understand; roadside hawkers and the teargas that inevitably followed; the nights to be outside and the streets to avoid to maintain a supposedly sterling reputation. I became what I perceive as a beautiful amalgam of the two completely different worlds I had lived in. I learnt how to balance my two sides – which were just the same person expressed in different ways. I began to be comfortable in my own skin; which really, had not changed. I am proof of the fact that what does not kill you makes you stronger – and funnier. The adversity rubs against you, and what you think is tearing you down is actually the sand crafting the pearl in the oyster. Nairobi was my cruel initiation into life, the quintessential harsh professor who gives you hell because he knows what you are capable of, but you think he hates you the whole time. Yet, after the fact…it didn’t feel so bad.
My Nairobi is an extension of myself. A confusing mass of beauty and evil; the exact representation of a human soul, my soul. It captures your heart while robbing you blind, then apologizes with a smirk. It accepts you, and breaks you. Always understanding, but mocking, and amusedly sarcastic. A thick and potent mix of mystery and seduction, an ever-changing and ever-present, alluring charm. My Nairobi is…me.