About 11 years ago, I left Mombasa for a new city that I had only read about in the news.
I was joining the University of Nairobi as a Fresher.
Nairobi — at least to us Mombasa people — was famous for crime. Robbers and thieves. I had heard countless stories of how people had been pickpocketed, robbed at gunpoint or their houses were broken into.
Not the best PR for a capital city.
Yes, there was crime in Mombasa but it seemed it was grander and worse in Nairobi, the place of cool waters, about 500kms away.
You can therefore imagine the anxiety on October 10, 2009, when my mother, aunt and I alighted from the Mash bus that brought us from Mombasa in River Road, suitcases in tow, to find accommodation in the buzzing Sunday chaos of Nairobi.
Unlike most of my friends, we did not have any relatives in Nairobi to host us.
We got a room at a hotel room opposite the National Archives. The moment we checked in, we kept all our luggage away from the door lest thieves broke in. We put a chair on the door to make sure it was closed securely, showered in extremely hot water from the overhead shower and got to bed with our purses strapped on our bodies. If thieves broke into the room, they would have to carry us with them.
But that is not the story of Nairobi that I want to tell you today.
The story I want to tell you is how I experienced Nairobi through the lens of a curious Mombasa girl. A girl, now young woman, who had never seen that many people walking down River Road at such speeds. I was almost certain they were either running away from something or were rushing towards something.
To date, I have never understood the haste everyone seems to be in here.
I have also never understood, why matatus and buses in Nairobi had numbers. 4W to Wanyee. 24 to Karen. 108 to Kikuyu. 29/30 to Mathare. In Mombasa, you were either going to Likoni or to Docks, as they say, stage ni kila mahali.
No numbers, nothing.
I can’t count the number of times I boarded wrong matatus and went to different directions but I was too scared — of being robbed — to ask for the right route. My four years at the University, helped me to find my bearing to most Nairobi locations especially how to get to Kibera for Toi market and Muthurwa for Gikomba market.
But that didn’t save me from going to the wrong places all the time. Either because I didn’t read the number correctly, stood at the wrong stage or I did not understand the sheng used.
And that brings me to Sheng. A language that seems to morph each day that I listen to GhettoRadio (my favourite radio station!)
No sooner had I picked one Sheng word, had another new one replaced it.
Ngovo, Finje, Kinde…I could never keep up with the vocabulary that seemed to exists, either to be read backwards or from the middle to know what’s going on. Now you can imagine my great disadvantage when my flowery Coastal Kiswahili was found out, as I was bargaining for shoes in the Ngara night market.
“Hii ni pesa nga?” I would ask.
It was how the hawkers looked at me and their bewildered look told me, we were not communicating.
I would quickly switch to English but it was almost always, too little to late. The shoe would no longer be soo mbili (Sh200) but would instead be punch, that is, Sh500 bob.
So on top of learning by heart, matatu route numbers, I also had to pick up Sheng words that were on most occasions a mix of my coastal intonation, Sheng wording and a touch of English.
Yes, it was terrible.
But if I was to survive in Nairobi (I had plans to stay on for work) I had to be strategic: To speak Sheng.
But my Swa-Sheng was not the most shocking thing people heard when I spoke. And it was not that I had just finished my undergraduate studies, was yet to graduate but was already an upcoming print journalist at one Kenya’s largest media house, the Nation Media Group. How comes I did not tarmac for a job? Who did I know in Nairobi to get a job so fast?
No, it was not that.
What got people’s eyes wide with shock — now that I think about it — was more of fear for me. They could not understand how and why I lived in Mathare and then later in Gachie (not in that order, I also stayed in Ngumba). For my non-Nairobian people, these two places were (still are a bit) known for insecurity. And not insecurity in small caps. INSECURITY in capital letters and underlined in red.
Mathare was (it still) is home of slums and thugs and drugs and name it. But, unlike Nairobians, I didn’t know this in time because a week to my final paper, I found a spacious one-bedroom on the second floor of a youth centre. The perfect place for all my earthly possessions from my one-bed sized hostel room.
I was beginning work as a journalist at Nation on Monday. I moved out of the hostel on Friday, May 24, 2013.
Were there slums around? Yes.
Was it insecure?
Of course, I heard gunshots and people running in the middle of the night, but I had complete trust in our watchman, Jackson, a Maasai from Tanzania and the big shiny padlock that I bought from Nakumatt.
Well, in late January of 2015, neither Jackson nor my padlock would prevent thugs from breaking into my house during the day. They made way with my home theatre, ate some of my food in the fridge, stole some of my coins collection (Coins I collected from trips overseas) and had packed my TV and gas cylinder ready to steal them out but were intercepted by Jacqui, my neighbour and then colleague.
Fortunately, when all this was happening, I was on a work trip — continents away — in Indonesia. I moved out the same weekend I returned.
Then there was Gachie. The home of Matheri, Wanugu and the Mungiki, as I was told. I was told stories about the dusty Slaughter Road and depending on who you asked, it was the path that mutilated bodies were found or it was an actual abattoir. I am not sure what is what.
But all this talk was nothing compared to the beautiful two-bedroom house with an equally beautiful flower garden that I found. It was right behind a police station. It was safe. I came in late from work sometimes and could walk to my house unfazed. It was here that I learned how to drive, courtesy of our caretaker — Ndungu — who doubled as my driving tutor after my actual driving classes in Westlands.
Gachie was closer to my new workplace in Kitusuru, at the African Population and Health Research Center. The research institution gave me a chance, after I left the newsroom, to work with researchers and scientists from the continent to tell their stories of how their work was transforming lives.
Gachie was my home for about two years, with no hitch or security scare, until I moved out late last year, as I prepared to get married to my Nairobi Prince, Muraya (explains the hyphenated name on my Twitter account) early this year.
Its been 11 great years, of being a Nairobi resident!
Nairobi has taught me how to be ambitious, to have the fake it till you make it confidence, to walk into rooms you are qualified for but not certain you would be welcome in. I’ve gone into these rooms all the same and took up space, not just holding it for myself but also for others.
Nairobi has taught me that there are different lanes for different people and you will do yourself a favour, if you know your lane and stick to it.
Nairobi has taught me that there are many kind people here as they are in my hometown in Mombasa. Nairobi has taught me sheng, an evolving language that came in handy as a journalist chasing stories in Nairobi’s estates, hospitals and institutions.
Nairobi has taught me how to blend in with different people and cultures but still have my Mombasa mannerisms with me.
So, am I ‘Nairobian’ now?
Maybe somewhat. I walk in haste while in town, I have my radar on to smell a con, and I have learned how to think quickly— on my feet — like a Nairobi matatu driver.
But more importantly, I have become a Nairobi explorer looking at the world through the curious-laden lens. Like most people in my hometown, while we are cautious, we trust people to keep their word. We do not carry biases about a city or a town or its people but are keen to learn about these new places from a clean slate.
Nairobi has reminded me that sometimes, it's okay to create your own history.
I wrote this story as part of the six-weeks Engage Masterclass. Engage is a platform for people to share their stories and experiences to a live and online audience so as to Inform, Inspire and Influence. The next class begins on September 29, 2020.
— — — — —
Now that you are here, I do a monthly video series called #KalundeLearns, video storytelling for creatives and creators. The monthly series affords you a front-row seat to see the deep craft that goes behind the scenes as creatives turn their passion into an income and a living. Simply: Authentic storytelling of the creative process. Watch here.