my love letter to nairobi

Dear Nairobi,

It’s been 545 days since I was last on your rust-colored soil. It feels weird to write this even – to solidify that time and distance in words. The other day, I stumbled upon a photo of the Shell gas station in front of the Sarit Centre and was stunned at how quickly I both recognized the location and was suddenly transported to that space, with cars and motorbikes (boda bodas) whizzing by, the distinct scent of dust suspended in the air, and a familiar dancehall beat coming from someone’s cell phone nearby.

I can sense the excitement of walking up to The Alchemist Bar, a favorite locale for food, drinks, music, and (for those of you who know me, this will be obvious) the Nairobi Flea Market. I can hear the clack of sandals against cold tile floors, the large birds that caw overhead, the soft crunch of gravel under tires in the driveway. I can feel the glaring heat of the sun on my scalp midday, giving way to cool night air and swarms of mosquitos descending while I’d fiddle with the keys for my front door. As the sun sinks down behind a horizon of trees, there’s a steady calm in you – footsteps petering out as everyone reaches home, pots of water gently boiling for dinner, the neighbor practicing piano a few floors down. You’re unlike large American cities in the most subtle way; you don’t quite sleep, but you slow down.

I’m acutely aware of how these things might be different now, post-COVID; how life didn’t just change outside my own window but outside the windows of people all across the world. And yet, in my memory, you remain untarnished, perfectly full of life and art and lush greenery.

The first time I visited you, I was 22 and wide-eyed. I didn’t know what to expect and my American education had painted a loosely incorrect picture of places other than North America and Europe. I remember being taken aback by the traffic cameras that flash on the streets when my taxi driver wound through the roundabouts to exit the airport – perhaps because it was nighttime when my flight landed and I was operating in a state of jet lag. And then, the following morning, I remember being surprised at the familiarity of chain restaurants, high-rise buildings, and advertisements dotting my commute to the office.

Less than a year later, I was on my third trip to see you and it was a solo venture. I like to think of this time as my “high school circa 2009” – social media existed but wasn’t the center of life and I still had to call someone to get a ride. The pre-Uber days. I had a handful of drivers on speed-dial and spent as much time as I could out with colleagues or adventuring on my own. I also didn’t have data on my international phone plan, so I had to rely heavily on Wifi and my Huawei pre-paid line. Alright, I’m getting carried away. The point is that I had to navigate your daily life without the luxuries that exist now and I am so incredibly grateful for that. I developed friendships with the drivers and a better understanding of time relativity. I memorized maps and paid attention to where I was going (partly survival instincts, I was a single woman traveling alone, after all) and eventually pieced together the puzzle that is you – enough to give precise directions without the help of Google. I made friends and friends-of-friends that slowly widened my circle. I learned about all the newest restaurants, bars, and hangouts, met other makers and brands that I’d return to time and time again, and let myself fall into the rhythm of your daily life.

Before long, I was teaching my colleagues the ins and outs when they traveled with me to visit you, finding the latest hotspot, the newest store, the best food. I think about you as a place where I grew up. From a timid post-graduate entering the workforce to a confident professional learning how to lead.

Now, after 10 trips, some spanning more than a month, you feel like a second home. And so, it feels incredibly weird to have not seen you in over a year.

I miss your morning air, dewy yet crisp, the sound of a mosque’s call to prayer in the distance. I miss the smell of lunch from the kitchen at RefuSHE and getting excited about ugali (a thick cornmeal porridge) day. I miss stopping mid-walk to look at a plant or tree that I’ve never seen before. I miss your Africa Yoga Project studio, with its creaky floors and kind instructors – the feeling of peace in this quiet space tucked at the top of a building downtown. I miss ordering Indian food and knowing that it will be amazing, sitting in your incense-laden garden at Habesha while soaking up Ethiopian food with fluffy injeera, and biting into a freshly-fried cardamom mandazi. I miss your Wilson airport, which made me feel like I was stepping back in time, and taking tiny safari planes that rattle like a rollercoaster. I even miss your bumper-to-bumper traffic; the ambiguity of being in close proximity to so many people, our lives all converging that that one moment like the teacup ride at Disney World when one saucer reaches for another. And little things like my favorite spot at the Java House in Jomo Kenyatta Airport, where I’d go for my ritual of fries and a chocolate milkshake before the long flight home from you. Most of all, I miss your people, who welcomed me despite my blatant American-ness and taught me, among many other things, enough Kiswahili to piece together conversations in the office. I miss the long dinners, the hugs, the dancing, and the fact that you make me the sort of person who cares more about the present than the future.

Nairobi, I miss your brazen beauty and I hope that, when this all clears up, I will find myself returning to you, returning to these rituals and spaces and moments that have brought me so much joy over the past five years.

Sending my love, always.

xo,
Em

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