Nairobi Noir

A paean to a kind of African woman I see, rising

I own a home just off the Charles Bridge in Prague, one of the world's most socially level countries, where the disparities between the highest and lowest incomes are among the least in the world.

A rainy day in Prague - a view from my window, from the Charles Bridge

to St Nicholas (Kostel svatého Mikuláše), in the Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana).

Although there are significant pockets of poverty – among the Roma, in rural communities, and in single-parent households – and there is certainly significant wealth – I like to think that this social equilibrium is present at street level in a most granular, convivial and amber-hued way.

It's expressed there, somehow, in the bars, subterranean clubs, and especially in the troglodyte pubs that are wedged, reamed, and compressed into every available urban niche, and often amplified into brewery palaces that loom over the pearlescent cobble-stoney streets.

If I lean out my window, I can call out to both those I frequent: the late, late night Blue Light, where film stars spook and infest the inebrial corners when they're filming in Prague, and where I drink to excess with Gabi and Marko; and the much earthier Roessel's, owned by my friend David Hajek (and where I also drink with Gabi and Marko).

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An album by made the writer, former dissident and then President,

Václav Havel, showing the true source of his inspiration - a Czech pub.

In these Middle Ages baronial halls and hobbit cavities, the Czechs, rich and poor, seated shoulder-to-shoulder in a solidarity of intoxicant companionship, enjoy the birthright of every Czech, which is an endless stream of some of the world's best and cheapest beer, drunk in atmospheres of cerebral and devotional communion.

The chorus of clinking glasses, slurps and belches is a beatific rapture interrupted only by the hum of conversation, and the call for closing time.

'In cervisia est aequalitas'

Quaffing jugs of beer is as much a matter for Czech women, who seem to me to also be among the most eloquently and elegantly liberated from the familiar constraints of the recent past - that is, a denial of property rights, the social expectation to produce children, reduced professional expectations, and an inculcated resort to marriage as the framework for a contented life.

I now (since the past six weeks) have a home once more in Nairobi, which is surely a city with one of the most extreme disparities in the world. Perched at 1700 metres, the city claims 5 million inhabitants (I suspect that this is a gross under-estimate), of which almost one quarter exist in abject poverty.

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Alongside Nairobi's oldest golf club is Kibera, one of the world's largest slums.

The entire city is seeded throughout with these juxtapositions.

This is an entirely different kind of city, a metropolis burning with the fever of relentless growth, galling in-your-face poverty, improbable wealth, steaming corruption that infests almost every exchange, human grit set alongside wastrel debauchery and sybaritic self-indulgence, and vulgar ostentation set like some deformed brooch against a superstructure of toothless, squalid, keening and wailing want and suffering.

Among the people of Nairobi are the uncounted and impoverished, the wretched of the earth, the uprooted and rootless, and the extraordinarily resilient people of the slums. These slums (or informal settlements as they are more politely and generously named) are either vast and famous fields of tinned roof dwellings such as Kibera, or multitudes of shacks wedged, reamed, and compressed into every available urban niche.

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There's no Hobbitian Middle Earth orderliness here: It is Hobbesian. The poverty is often grinding, in a Dickensian way, without sewers, running water, insulation against the fierce heat and winter frost, or paved roads.

You cannot escape the poor, and the poor cannot escape the rich, by which I mean not just the wealthy, but the mercifully emergent middle-class, those enriched by the modest sums of money required to rise above the sordid and ramshackle decay that so exhausts the poor. The poor sustain the wealthy, with every household that can afford it employing a housemaid, a gardener, a chauffeur perhaps, so that the two ribbons of existence flutter side-by-side, touching and entwining, but always separated.

In the evenings, long streams of the poor walk home, or takes the ubiquitous and fiendish matatu communal taxis. The city itself, this heaving Nairobi animal, is an arena of slums, glittering towers, streams of traffic and traffic jams that can last for three days (!!), roads that disappear in rains and reappear in Chinese-built freeways, parties and bars and fine restaurants and cattle driven by Masai tribespeople through the heart of the snarled streets to find feed on lawns and abandoned lots in a drought that is asphyxiating the country.

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Stop the traffic. La Dolce Vita. Let me get off...

Still, this city, so diametrically opposite to Prague, somehow contains the same shoulder-to-shoulder sociability as that of the Czechs (with some of the well-built elements of Jane Jacobs' Great City, such as mixed living, organic growth, human scale, and the presence of business), which is the humanity of the truly lived-in metropolis; and the nakedness of lives exposed to one another instead of gated-off and shielded and shuttered, as though to endure misfortune is an offence against God, modernity, and our own lives.

This city is raw and wounding and filled with the smoke and cry of battles conducted against somnolent and corrupt bureaucracy, negligent and corrupted government, and the sheer exhaustion of fighting against polluted odds.

Nobody who is not somebody can rest in Nairobi, for fear that you might slip beneath the waves of existence as if you had never existed at all. And still Nairobi draws them in, the heat from this furnace of activity compelling Kenya's people to join the yearning throng.

Antidote to despair and alternative to beer: A Kikuyu baptism in the hills above Nairobi.

Among the observations I find so electrifying right now is a certain kind of Kenyan woman, a symbol perhaps of New Africa, this vibrant continent sparking and snapping with a high-voltage current that has ebbed away from Europe.

By comparison, Europe seems stagnant, if still outrageously beautiful and snagged in a river of selfies and social media posts; Europe, stranded roadside like some magnificent Fellini-esque cinematic courtesan, her flowing hair blown by the rush of modernity roaring past on the highway of the 21st century...

Right. Steady son.

I have a friend - I'll call her Rebecca as a tribute the Old Testament meaning of that name, which meant that she embroiled and enchanted men – who was born in Nairobi's Eastlands slum.

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The serene and beautiful Rebecca knew no father. There were days when the children did not eat, and the three girls huddled in a miserable solace, waiting for their despairing and abandoned mother to return home, which she often did not, until eventually her mother was killed in a matatu in one of Kenya's apocalyptic traffic accidents that often take 10, 20, or 40 people at a single bite.

So, alone and the eldest, Rebecca learned to fend, quickly, driven by the raw laws of the street, and with a life-force of a swimmer rising and rhythmically struggling against waves of erratic misfortune.

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What I find at my threshold in Prague, the dawn lights of Charles Bridge

(Karlův most), straddling the Vltava river since around 1357

She left school of necessity, and won a job doing manicures. A famous politician now running for the presidency paid for her to go to beauty school.

She worked, scrimped, disciplined her thirst for a better life, and now owns one of Nairobi's best spas. She owns her own home, car, and a plot of rural land, and she raised her son alone after quickly throwing out her drunken, slovenly, violent and unemployable husband. She is a model mother, whose son perfectly understands the value of education, and how it can preserve a person from the maw of helpless poverty.

Her life is not guided by self-pity, gnawing resentment, or learned helplessness, let alone the mantle of victimhood that might have come so easily to her. Nor did she enfeeble herself with a desperate search for a compensating male saviour to rescue her from her rotten luck, her inadequate education, her fears for the future, or any sense of failure.

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In one sense, relationships have never quite 'worked' for Rebecca, but she bears no resentment. Her lovers are a long string of pilots, detectives, humanitarians, and diplomats. Yet as she has matured into a fully-formed 38 year-old young woman, with the usual disappointments over love, she has not let herself be defined by another. She is actualised and made radiant by her accomplishments, and she carries with her that sense of confident composure that is the gift of one who overcomes the odds with dignity and grace.

Rebecca is a symbol of a kind of new African woman I observe all around. These are women whose immediate forbears practised polygamy, were almost entirely uneducated, were bound by strict patriarchy, were often oppressed by colonialist racism and segregation, and whose culture bore almost no resemblance to the one that has come to dominate the earth.

Fighting for resources, Samburu National park

I have another black Kenyan friend - I'll call her Artemisia – who is equally defined by the clarity of her choices and her dizzying rise to self-command, with its consequent reward of accomplishment and actualisation and contentment (even if hers is a more thoughtfully restless form, the gift and curse of the exceedingly bright).

I call her Artemisia here as a tribute and reference to that great Renaissance artist, with her tribulations and triumphs over early oppression at the hands of patriarchal Roman society, and the talent, grit and sensitivity that flowered in her art.

My Artemisia was fortunate enough to be the child of two black Kenyan university graduates, but their always incipient genteel poverty (they were both school teachers and scholars) meant that Artemisia's barefoot, tree-clambering childhood in the rural midlands of Kenya was one of relative deprivation (relative that is, to the bounty that might otherwise have been the reward of two such gifted parents), which she nevertheless regards as a Golden Age.

Artemisia is composed, charming, desirable, feted with awards acquired through a string of scholarships that carried her through school and university, and acutely aware of the distance and terrain of her journey – one she sensibly frames as 'privileged,' acknowledging the role of luck in her life – and the value (to the herself, to the world) she has accrued en route, like a string of exuberant baubles.

At just 32, my Artemisia is a writer and thinker, a classy and beautiful corporate lawyer, and a burgeoning philanthropist. She has a radiant smile and eyes that sheen with her high intelligence. She is complex, universalist in her interests, and sparing in her toleration for plastic prattle or received ideas, or the general garbage and swill of our transactional and overly publicised lives.

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A portico on a street behind my apartment, Prague.

She parses ruthlessly her cultural baggage, which led to an early decision that she would not have children, but would rather devote her attention to bettering the world around her, doing things like mentoring students through university, and establishing a trust fund with a group of professional women friends.

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Czech peasant children, 1917. Barefoot, and not far from pregnant.

The truth for most of us is that we are just a generation or two removed from the scrabble and fruit of the earth, when our days were guided by the need to furrow and plant our fields, without which we would not eat. My father was certainly raised close to that reality, in the thin soils of the Bohemian plateau.

In this sense, there is nothing remarkable about the starkly different world into which much of urban Africa is moving.

What is most remarkable about Rebecca and Artemisia and their ilk is the speed at which personal and social transformation happens, driven no doubt by the availability of the tools of modernity, and how quickly women in particular, once liberated by education and financial independence from cultural contractual captivity (the dulling traditional marriage contract above all), make such radically different choices from the generation that immediately preceded them – perhaps the most radical generational choices I've seen – about their bodies, their emotional lives, their capacity to self-actualise, and their reckoning with the world at large.

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