When I first became part of the UP Magazine team, Kenya was going through a difficult time (a time that we are still to see the end of, mind you). Rather than diminish after the September 2013 Westgate attacks, insecurity was if anything growing and raising its ugly head in unexpected places around the country. Seeing that my first issue was the Love Issue, I decided that my first editorial should come in the form of a love letter to Nairobi. Over the eight years that I have been coming in and out of this city my emotions towards it have changed pretty significantly. Even today, a year later, I still have mixed feelings about this riot of a metropolis but ultimately I do love it and every time something happens that tests my faith in it, someone comes along and changes that in ways I could never have expected.
Here is what I wrote:
Blood is running through the streets. A low-intensity war is being waged against Kenyans and it is taking a toll on our collective psyche. We continue to live as before, refusing to let terror change our habits, but it’s hard not to dwell on the innocent people who have lost their lives.
Since the first time I came here in 2007, I have come to love this city. When I first started visiting this place, my encounters were racked with suspicion and fear. I had been cautioned against doing so many otherwise ‘normal’ things, that I found it hard to find my ‘feet’. Then one day something clicked. I went to Mathare for the first time in 2010 on an assignment to meet the formidable Spray Uzi graffiti crew. Spray Uzi were in the process of completing a huge mural, which unapologetically depicted an apocalyptic postelection violence tableau.
I realised then, that the city’s creative classes were at the forefront of the fight to keep the city’s edgy nature alive. With people like Spray Uzi and the vibrant entrepreneurial forces driving this town’s modern culture, we had and continue to have a great future ahead.
My love affair with Nairobi began in the slums. In places like Mathare and Kibera, I met inspirational people who strive every day to bring colour and joy to their surroundings. It’s not safe to go out at night in Mathare, danger lurks in the shadows. But the truth is, when the alleys are lit by the floodlights installed overhead, neighbourhoods become alive with music, chatter, and the sound of people living, enjoying, being. When someone from the outside shows a little bit of interest, just a little care, these communities flourish.
My love for Nairobi isn’t only for the slums. For all the insecurity and daily gridlock, Nairobians are an incredibly easy-going, good natured society. The Kenyans I know avoid conflict and seek a peaceful and thriving existence. I’ve never seen an incident of road-rage in Nairobi (and that’s saying something).
After the horrors of Westgate we all came together. #Weareone read the social media feed. The unfortunate events of the last few months have, however, put us on edge and replaced unity with suspicion. We cannot, must not, allow that the actions of a few push us to turn on our brothers and sisters.
We love Nairobi, because despite the potential threats lying in wait around the corner, it is an open and welcoming city. I love Nairobi because the moment you scratch beneath the surface of the traffic, trash and disappointing law-enforcement service, you uncover a dynamic, creative and bustling metropolis. I love Nairobi because of the air you breathe as you walk through the Arboretum on a misty morning and because of the grass you sit on in Karura park on a Sunday picnic. I love Nairobi because of the way the dawn breaks over its skyline as you drive in from Upper Hill. I love Nairobi because of the colour and vitality of its mitumba and vegetable markets.
I love Nairobi because it is an upwardly mobile city. Nairobi holds the promise that wherever you come from, with creativity, hard work, perseverance and vision, it is possible to achieve your dreams. The ongoing importance of this promise is one that needs to be recognised by our leaders: if those who are tasked with keeping us safe, give the impression they are more concerned with their power games and fail to nurture our potential, we will increasingly feel fragmented and inevitably turn on the failed systems intended to support us.
This article first appeared in UP Magazine in June 2014