Monday, March 28, 2011

The two faces of Nairobi

Last week, I spent a couple of days visiting friends in Nairobi. For most expatriates living in East Africa, Nairobi is the ultimate destination when it comes to shopping, eating sushi, sitting in trendy cafes, or watching a movie. It’s also a great base for glamorous week-ends to the Rift Valley or the Swahili coast. For the less lucky, including myself, Nairobi is synonymous of Jomo Kenyatta, a poor fellow I don’t even know yet have come to hate because of the airport that bears his name. The number of times I have paced that doughnut of an airport and sighed while looking at Gin bottles or miniature stone hippos, would justify a blog that would be boring in equal measure. And if you’re sad enough to venture outside the airport, you’ll end up stuck in unbelievable traffic as you try to reach the nearest Nakumatt in a desperate attempt to stock up on cheese and crackers.

All this almost changed last week. My friends have settled in a nice, leafy part of town and after the usual adjustment period, they are genuinely loving it. Climate is great, there are good schools for their kids, there’s a wide range of interesting people to meet and life is simply nicer here than where they’ve come from. I spent most of the week-end sitting in cafes, marvelling at fresh bread and faster internet connection. I was struck by the efficiency of Kenyan businesses and I dreamt of what Burundi could one day become, with the right amount of investment and a change of attitudes.

One very sad episode brought me back to reality. I was told of a European family who were working for a Christian mission just outside Nairobi. One night, somebody broke into their compound probably with the intention of robbing them. They shot the man and left him for dead, after raping his wife in front of their young children. Extreme violence so profoundly shocking, suffering beyond words. I cannot begin to imagine what life will be like for this family from this day on, how their faith will be affected.

This is the other face of Nairobi, a place of inequality where crime is rampant. A golden prison where people live in compounds with double-gated security and very few walk on the street alone. For all the development and technological advances, there is a high price to pay for living there. Too high when paid by those having chosen a simpler lifestyle devoted to serving people. Peace be with them.

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