Nairobi to Begin

Nairobi gave me a light case of First Destination Syndrome. Thrilled to be back in Africa, but thrown off by the chorus of “Don’t walk around, don’t take photos, it’s not safe, haven’t you heard of Nairobbery?” It was the familiar traveler’s task of distinguishing well-meant paranoia from genuine danger, balancing the local’s (perhaps excessive) concern for the visitor with the fact that you as the visitor know nearly nothing.

But I didn’t fly halfway around the world to sit in a hotel room. So I walked around and took photos. Two of them, to be precise. Both times I took my camera out, passerby stopped to advise against it. It wasn’t hard to see triggers for caution. Plenty of young street boys in ill-fitting clothes, eyes yellowed by disease, sometimes begging, sometimes lying insensate in the street, most often already working their hustles at an age when my greatest concern had been my chores, for which I received an allowance these boys could only dream of. TV talking heads tell us to fear the young male, but these were just boys, just younger brothers.

And the older guy with an alcohol aura who limped alongside me for a while to talk about his pediatric work at the local university. I felt no danger from him, only curiosity for his life and compassion for the sadness in his eyes. As I declined to sign his petition I marveled that he was the only one I met in two days of walking downtown Nairobi. To me it seemed like a remarkably peaceful and safe city.

Much more representative was the calm man who shared his table with me for lunch the first day, nodding his kufi as he responded to my “Salaam alaikum.” We spoke little as I ate my dish chosen at random from the menu, but by the time we went our separate ways I felt I’d just eaten with a friend.

The next day’s lunchtablemate was more gregarious. Angela removed her head scarf when she sat with me and smiled radiant laughter when I apologized for assuming she was Muslim and greeting her in Arabic. “No, I am a Christian, albeit one who hasn’t been to church this month. But it’s understandable that my scarf would be taken for hijab.” I looked around in the room of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and undeclared persuasions, and saw not a single bean of tension.

She’d been well on her way to a degree at Cambridge when she came home to Nairobi to care for her ailing mother. Now she was working at this restaurant, easily snagging passerby like me with her warm smile and unobtrusive greetings, but was unsure when or if she’d be able to go back and finish. She told me a little about her experience in England before reluctantly confessing that she only had half an hour for lunch and needed to eat, not talk, but I should tell her a story from my travels. I couldn’t think of anything so enjoyed another quiet meal with another instant friend.

The kindness of the people of Nairobi made it a good visit, but after a couple days I just wasn’t sure what to do with myself. A day trip solved my Sunday, then I caught the morning train to Mombasa. Now that was a sexy mystery of a name! Alluringly exotic with a wafting hint of “Did I hear violent news from there sometime in the past?” How would Mombasa be?