Monday, January 30, 2012

Back in Nairobi


It’s nice to be back in Nairobi, especially after a two-day journey from Washington, D.C. that involved a 13 hour layover at Heathrow—possibly my least favourite place in the world.  I understand that D.C.’s weather was unseasonably balmy, but after being spoiled by California’s own mild winter, it was objectionably gloomy, making the sunshine and greenery of Nairobi all the more welcoming.

As were the staff at the YMCA.  The rates have gone up (perhaps to purchase the nice, new chairs that adorn the terrace), but the cashier, several of the refectory staff, and a couple of the housekeeping staff greeted me with “Nice-to-have-you-back”s, asked how long I would be staying, and whether I was working at the archives again.  At least two of them remarked that I appeared to have been eating well, indicating that my sedentary lifestyle is having the logical effects. 

To pass the time on Sunday before heading to the National Archives Monday morning, I took a stroll up the road towards the Arboretum.  This area is one of the more beautiful in Nairobi, as the pleasant grounds of the University give way to even more luxuriant suburbs.  Pedestrians catch glimpses of bucolic opulence behind stone walls topped with razor-wire.  Spectacularly-green, tree-dotted hillsides sweep down to lush forests through which Kirichwa Dogo River runs (I can’t tell if its cloudy colouration bespeaks any sulphuric activity, or simply the generous quantities of you-don’t-want-to-know-what that goes into it). 

As the road wound uphill I could feel the effects of Nairobi’s altitude, to which it always takes me a day or two to accustom myself.  It is hard to reconcile the terracotta roofs, the brick piles and smart maisonettes, the sheer otherworldly beauty of the homes that wealthy Kenyans have made for themselves up on the hillside, with the bustle of town.  The contrast is even greater with the urban squalor that lies just a few short miles away in Kibera and other shanty-towns where Kenya’s failure to embrace any significant redistributionist policies has shovelled the poor and dissolute of the capital. 

After switching rooms at the YMCA (I’d been put in an overly-large double room my first night), I headed downtown for a bite to eat.  The city centre always feels underpopulated on Sundays (not, you understand, an unpleasant sensation), but I was quickly spotted by one of the local scam artists.  I recognised the guy from a previous trip (he’d accosted me twice...once as a medical student running a charity and once as a Somali immigrant—not quite as bad as the guy who tried to convince me three times in the space of a month that his mother had died the previous day, necessitating a rather lavish-sounding bus fare).  Too jet-lagged to wave him away, I heard him out.  After the usual pleasantries and the obligatory praise of Obama once he learned that I was from the U.S., he went with the Somali refugee-turned biology teacher route.  It’s a sad measure of expectations of Americans that he found it necessary to proclaim himself a Somali Christian and begin badmouthing Muslims and declaring them all terrorists.  Needless to say, no money changed hands, although I think I heard him condemn me to hell if I heard his mutterings correctly as he stalked away. 

Having spent my Sunday lazing about town, it was back to work at the archives on Monday.  There too I saw the same old faces: the stern archivist who exudes a sense of serenity and calm as he renewed my permit, and the redoubtable Richard Ambani, patron saint of researchers, who swept in just after nine, be-suited and pausing to shake every staff-member and researcher’s hand before taking up position at the end of the reading room.  His hair looked a bit whiter, but the spring in his step and his ramrod bearing hadn’t changed. 

Pleasantries over, it was down to work, starting with KW 1/8: Game Department Headquarters/Staff General Correspondence, 1968-1972.  And so on...

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