Things are completely different to what you were accustomed to. The air smells different too. When it rains, you miss that earthy smell in the air. It seems like forever since you last smelled it. This is something you never paid much attention to. And you dread to forget that smell. The streets are lonely. There are people yes, but everyone seems too absorbed in their own thoughts. You can’t tell really if people are too slow or too fast. But somehow there is that liveliness that’s missing. That liveliness that ascertains you of home.
One of the little things you like to do is watching people and trying to vaguely interpret their subconscious facial expressions or movements . Not that it will help you, but at least it distracts you from your trillion thoughts.
You miss the unruly kind of life. The life you took for granted. The life where talking to a stranger in a public vehicle isn’t strange. Where a conductor shamelessly taps your shoulder and casually instructs you (often than not without even a word, because you should know the drill) to tap the one sitting in front of you for bus fare and you eagerly wait for it and then turn to the conductor and hand it over to them, the last transaction will be you handing strangers pocket change. You’ll drop off at your destination to realize the conductor you “worked for” didn’t actually give you back your change. You’ll be angry at that moment and cuss, but there is really nothing you can do.
It must sound absurd to miss the commotion that is a big city full of vendors holding products to your face, products they convince you that you need. It is okay to miss the street food that isn’t too hard to find. The half split little smokies, sausages and boiled eggs filled with tomato salad and chili. The sugarcane dealers with tough strong discolored looking hands chopping the cane like pros. The peanuts hawkers moving fast from car to car on traffic trying to make a sale. All these innovative humans trying to make a living are nowhere to be seen here. But they make so a lot of difference.
You reminisce on the days your dad used to wake you and your siblings up by 6AM, because apparently people who want to be something in life wake up early. Your father made you believe that no one should sleep until 7AM. They got to wake up early to catch the fattest worm. But on the real, there could literally be nothing to do, but you still have to wake up and search for something to do. Searching, means intention. Wake up, make the bed and tell stories but don’t sleep in.
You also miss the endless story telling during lunch, but mostly dinner, where all of you are sitting around a bonfire waiting for either food or chai. Chai that the younger ones are banned from taking, otherwise they will mess the bed at night. Such trivial things make you smile now. The teary laughter that engulfs your household is the one that probably got you through the thick as a family. That is probably the one that makes one of you sigh, damn we are not rich, we don’t have it all, but we have this bond, this happiness. And you wish life won’t be complicated, that it will be like this forever.
Snap back to reality, and it’s just amazing how you have experienced living in two big cities that are culturally and socially very different from each other. In one, the buildings are tall, enormous, breathtaking, worth a whole 5 minutes stare but that’s it. Staring at a building and taking in the architecture. But there is no one to watch. You remember in the beginning, in all your naivety, you thought all these buildings were offices. They had to be. It was all calm. No noise. And it took you a while to take in that in these magnificent buildings, there are apartments. And that actual people live in there.
Yes, there are no clothes hanging on the balconies to dry. There are no people standing on opposite balconies discussing the weather. There is no loud music for the neighbors to sing along to while washing their clothes. Because here technology is thriving, people do laundry. Washing machines do all the work. Even the lower middle class who don’t own or have no space for a washing machine will do their laundry in a laundry salon.
God forbid there is too much noise in your apartment, the police will just show up on your door and tell you your neighbor called them. They will warn you that if they have to come again then you’d have to pay a fine. You’d wonder if there was no actual crime happening for them to go solve than just come to tell you to reduce your volume. When they leave you’d be left wondering which neighbor in your 5 storey building called the police. You don’t know your neighbors. It isn’t a big deal to know your neighbors. You occasionally pass each other on the staircase but you can’t tell if you are neighbors. The longest conversation you’ve had was Hi and Hello. You can’t be stuck in the lift together and start discussing say the ungoverned president, how white the snow is or how cold the cold is. You will rarely find friendly and welcoming neighbors. You can try to be that, but I guess people feel more safe within their walls, or maybe there isn’t much in common to talk about.
There is close to no tolerance for spontaneity. You plan almost everything. You plan beer dates, game nights, house parties, demonstrations brunch etc. Also you will have to make appointments for almost everything. You can never just show up for breakfast at someones place. It is uncouth. This you find incredible because there is that annoying neighbor back at home who just shows up at your house whenever they want to, and magically enough mostly during meals and you don’t know how to put them off.
While nothing is wrong with planning, we can’t deny that spontaneous is mostly fun.
Life in Nairobi is fast. Everyone and everything is always on the move even if they are literally going nowhere. You’ll hold your bag very close to you, alert not to be robbed because you expect anything. And just when you thought you were armored enough to take anything, something happens to you or to someone you know and then you know that you really don’t know. You will be very keen not to be conned, but one way or another you will still be conned. Is this the consciousness that makes all the difference? Is it it that makes life feel more alive. You wonder.
You will refuse to board a certain vehicle or buy from a street vendor and they will insult you. A street kid will hug your knees tight if you opt passing them without dropping a coin on their hand and the guilt will have you drop any coin on their hand to avoid a scene. A street teenager will threaten to smear you with feces if you don’t hand them something useful to them. Pastors and preachers will rightfully preach in your boarded public vehicle and eventually collect offertory. You will spend 3 hrs in traffic jam sandwiched between a million and one different scents of sweat and deadly breath.
You will board a “nganya” only for the driver to turn the speakers to full blast without your permission and you’ll just have to take a Panadol to alleviate your throbbing headache. You will meet strangers who are so kind you are surprised and make friends in them. A stranger will show you an act of kindness and you’ll live to tell that story. Most of these must sound despicable, but imagine no. There is good and bad everywhere. If you look closely even while going through an impossible situation there is one tiny small thing to smile and be grateful about.
In the midst of all these you keep learning and relearning. You keep growing and being wiser. You love your home because it is home. And there is life at home. There is warmth within that what keeps you going back. You love watching people washing clothes and “beating” stories. You love how your kiosk vendor uniformly and artistically cuts your collard greens as compared to hopping from supermarket to supermarket hoping to find a similar vegetable to what you actually want. You love the real juicy fruits you easily get anywhere as compared to settling for a tiny ugly avocado that is unimaginably expensive. You find refuge in the infectious unstoppable laughter you share with your family and friends as compared to the Hi and Hello you often say. In these little things that seem so trivial you find the meaning of life.
Not everything is black and white as we would want it to be sometimes. And not to say you can’t move from your homeland and create a whole different home for you. There are many who have moved away from their childhood homes, left loved ones and they managed to detach themselves from that. They say, home is where the heart is. So home can also be where you want home to be. And home can be in more than only one place. So at this very moment, I miss my home in Kenya. My heart is there too. I miss that earthy smell when it rains. I miss the hullabaloo of Kenyans tired of the presidency and making noise about it. And I’m almost sure I will still shake my head in disappointment come the next election.