Nairobi can be a slippery city. A year ago I went back after spending half a decade in Canada, I was tired of being away from home. It was difficult to adapt after being away for so long. I found myself living at the edge of Kibera, known to be one of the biggest slums in the world, in a cheap hostel called Beverly Hills, where college students and the newly employed life. That first night there was a flood, and I woke up to see my shoes floating in three inches of water.
I slipped and slid and fell in love with this city. Kibera is all motion- streams of people finding original ways to survive and thrive. There are no fixed or rooted institutions only illegal buildings and entities around which people organize. The organization of Kibera is hidden in the unhindered to-ing and fro-ing of people feeling their way through the day, women cooking buns, dogs aimlessly chasing cats, chickens running out of tin shacks, the youth walking to nowhere, oblivious of the heavy burden of life weighing hard on their shoulders.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $12
It was at Beverly Hills that I met Kim (short for Kimani), who reintroduced me to Nairobi. We would walk together down Kenyatta Avenue, the street that leads from Nairobi the city to the undocumented sprawl of the evolving African town of Kibera: people and their small, illegal constructions fronting opaque skyscrapers; secondhand-clothes shacks and rickety vegetable stands; wooden cabinets behind whispered price-setting overwatch repairs that take place in Swahili, the language of the city; shoe shiners and repairers soliciting work by keeping eyes on the feet of passersby. These people tell tall political tales that later turn out to be true.
In order to negotiate our complex lives, Nairobi people have learned to have dual personalities. We move from one language to another, from one identity to another, navigating different worlds, some of which never meet.
Kim would go to work in the morning for a tour company, where he spoke good private-school English. In the evening we would cross to Kenyatta market in Kibera to drink and talk. We would speak in English from the current political scene to the hits on the local music charts or the job situation in Nairobi.
We would speak in Swahili about life in general and about the little things that made up our day. We sort a kind of brotherhood from our conversations in Swahili- speaking always in a mock-ironic tone, laughing a lot, being generous about each other’s opinions, offering each other drinks and favors in ways we could not in English.
We hide whole lives in the gaps between these forked tongues. This is how people in Nairobi manage to hide and escape the harsh realities of life. Poverty and Aids.
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