Early this week, I got out of self-imposed exile to venture deep into the city. By city, I don’t mean the boroughs where I grew up and learnt to play, or the fringe neighbourhoods in rural enclaves that now form the Nairobi Metropolitan area. I mean, going deep into the heart of the city, just to see how Governor Sakaja is running the show.
I was particularly buoyed by Sakaja’s edict turning city pavements into an open-air market every nightfall. Setting off from near the edge of City Hall as dusk approached, I fell in step with Nairobians making their way home.
It is enervating to be absorbed in the spectre of Nairobians on the move: the anxious stares from folks in elongated queues, waiting for a matatu; the leisurely walks from young men who think the world is at their feet. My short trek on the breezy Mama Ngina Street ended abruptly at the Moi-Avenue intersection, where an overflow of pedestrians and vehicles collided.
I paused to regain my breath and to instinctively, for someone who grew up in the city, reconfirm that the wallet was still there, as well as the phone.
Even this manoeuvre had to be deftly delivered so as not to draw attention to where those items were kept. Creamy Inn still stands, as it did many years ago, as throngs of folks, young and old, mingled to secure a vital seat to watch the city walk by.
I was weighed down by the memories of the 1990s when venturing there was such a treat, but my buddy urged me on. After bumping into quite a few pedestrians, I was about to conclude that I had forgotten how to walk in crowded streets. Since I returned to village life, all am likely to encounter are livestock and stray dogs, not humans who want to exchange hugs without your consent.
Then came the recognition: There was simply no space left for pedestrians, as all pavements are paved with wares! Outside the National Archives, a singer did his thing in such a melodious voice I wanted to pause for a moment and enjoy.
His stage was a rough surface garlanded by the blinding mulika mwizi towering above the Tom Mboya monument, just metres away from the spot where Kenya’s pioneering trade unionist was gunned down in July 1969. The irony of the bright lights burning down on this icon, dimmed so young, at only 39.
The singer wasn’t the only artist delivering a performance. A bespectacled young woman in black pants and blue top received a tight embrace from a skinny young man. She shut her eyes. They stayed locked.
Outside the Ambassaduer Hotel, where populist politician J.M. Kariuki was last seen alive, before his March 1975 murder, stood a man with a mobile jiko airing his contraption to deliver his next round of roast cobs of maize. An elderly woman peeled peas out of pods; another scratched her yams to reveal their bare skin.
These acts of tenderness were delivered in a din of suffocating blasting sounds, suffusion of fumes and plumes of smog and smoke and the weight of farm produce sidled with shiny shoes and bras and baby socks, second-hand books and what have you, the streets heaving under the weight.
And right here, on our streets, lies the symbol of the city’s past and present struggles: Does the future of our city lie in harkening to our peasant roots, or responding to the allure of cheap Chinese imports that pollute our environment, rather than hiding our nakedness?
One might say Nairobi bears all hallmarks of failed urbanisation. Yet the city’s capacity for renewal and improvisation is remarkable. For the act of ridding its nocturnal mess and readying itself for the next day, all bright and beautiful every morning, is nothing short of a miracle.