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Inventing Nairobi
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Inventing Nairobi

By Binyavanga Wainaina
Photographs by David Alan Harvey

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In Nairobi, where the police are the enemy, there are people who take charge in incendiary situations. Mash was masterful. He speaks Kikuyu very well, and he used it now. We, the Kikuyu, place great stock in people who are able to "speak well"—those who can command attention, even change behavior, through the power of their rhetoric.

As the women were about to turn over the thief to some men who had gathered around, Mash addressed the women with a Kikuyu proverb about men not knowing how to deal with difficult situations: "Maitu, tha cia arûme itirî iria." Which means, "Men cannot stop the crying of a baby by suckling it."

The women laughed.

In half an hour they were pacified, confident the case would be dealt with by the government-appointed chief of the area, and that what had been stolen would be returned. The women then started to banter with Mash, flirting with him. They gave him a free raincoat.

At dusk Mash and I walked lighter. There is something magical about the moment when the light softens and the city stops glaring and people are removed from themselves by this hour of transition: Vendors packing away their mobile shops; children cut loose from school, shrieking on their way home; workers on their black Chinese-made bicycles, ringing bells, hurling warnings and threats; people everywhere streaming through alleyways and around familiar obstacles.

On lower Moi Avenue matatu minibuses gather, bound for Buru Buru, one of Nairobi's largest and best known housing projects. The matatus are frenetic, horns chirping loudly like warring tropical birds, yellow lights blinking on their domed foreheads, neon-painted teeth snarling around their snouts, bright-eye headlights gleaming in the dark. Matatus flash urgency, hoot urgency, battling each other to snag passengers in a hurry to go home. But this urgency is fake: The matatus will always wait until they're full, then overfull, moving off only when bodies are hanging outside doors, toes barely in the vehicle. "Songasonga mathe, songasonga—Move mama, move."

The newest matatus have plasma screens to show hip-hop videos. Always quick to find new ways to make money, matatus have managed to embody a look and sound and feel that is particular to Nairobi. Matatu culture has transported new words all over the city and made Sheng trendy. Sheng is a fast-growing creole language based on Kiswahili, with some English words and other words from the many tribes living here. Much of Kenyan rap, which now dominates the airwaves, is in Sheng.

At the bottom of Moi Avenue Mash and I reached Nairobi's railway station. There would be no city here if the railway had not been built at the close of the 19th century. A decade earlier, Kimnyole, the orkoiyot (spiritual leader) of the Nandi nation, warned of the arrival of a white tribe with an iron snake that would change everything. The center of power shifted from the village to this strange concrete thing called Nairobi. But Nairobi offers no time-tested, trustworthy way of living. Kitu-Sewer, a poet and rapper, captures our dilemma, singing: "Umekwama na mimi ndani ya hizi mashahiri—You and I are trapped inside our traditional poems."

This is the tension that best defines Nairobi: to try (and often fail) to live within the world-views of our traditional nations; to try (and often fail) to be seamless, Western-educated people; to try (and often fail) to be Kenyans—still a new and bewildering idea.

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