Maybe I’m just used to it, but some days, life in Nairobi seems indistinguishable from life in New Haven. I get up, make coffee, drive to work listening to silly contests and chatter on the radio (“KISS 100, Nairobi’s Fresh Hits”), spend the day pecking at a keyboard, attending meetings and juggling phone calls, and then head home. I might stop at the gym or the supermarket, or call a friend on my mobile phone on the way, and maybe arrange to meet for pizza or sushi or Indian food. I’ve found it relatively easy to meet other ex-pats to hang out with; we might go to the mall to eat at the food court and see a movie. Back home at my apartment complex, I might catch something on DSTV (digital satellite television) or go for a short walk if I’ve managed to get home in time—the sun sets around 6:30, and walking after dark is dangerous. If it’s too late, I can walk around the apartment complex, a compound of seven four-story buildings. It’s safe behind the 10-foot wall, topped with an electric fence, with five askaris on duty around the clock.
Weekends offer a chance to head out of the capital city’s bustle and smog. Just outside of town, beyond the suburb of Karen (named for Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen) are the Ngong Hills. Shaped like the knuckles of a fisted hand, legend holds that the hills were formed when a giant tripped over Mount Kilimanjaro and rested his fist to steady himself. A walk along the spine of the hills offers a view of Nairobi on one side and a spectacular drop-off to the Great Rift Valley on the other. Venturing further away from Nairobi, there are game parks, campsites, eco-lodges, mountains to climb, lakes and the Indian Ocean.
Beyond Kenya, the two other official East African countries, Uganda and Tanzania, offer their own charms. In Uganda last March, after a weeklong workshop in its pleasant, quiet capital, Kampala, I spent an insanely exhilarating day whitewater rafting on the Nile just below the source. While villagers on the banks watched in amazement, about 20 crazy tourists navigated class 4 and 5 rapids, even going over a four-meter waterfall backwards (on purpose, according to our very relaxed guide). In April, I visited Zanzibar, the archipelago that forms, with the mainland of Tanganyika, the United Republic of Tanzania. Stonetown, on the main island of Unguja, is a maze of narrow, winding streets, some so small you can reach out and touch buildings on either side. The culture is very Swahili and very Muslim; the Kiswahili language has its roots in Zanzibar, and Zanzibaris believe they speak its purest form. (In Kenya, most people speak a more casual version of Kiswahili in addition to their native language and at least some English.) Most Zanzibari women wear a bui-bui (black robe and head scarf). Wooden dhows in the port are still very much in use.
Wherever I go, and whatever exotic experiences I enjoy, I’m acutely aware that my privileged life here bears little relation to the lives of most Kenyans. Nairobi has a large expatriate community, working in government, business or the huge development sector. Most of us live far better here than we ever could at home, and our resources insulate us from many discomforts. When I arrived in August 2000, the city was gripped by severe power rationing and water shortages; I found an apartment complex with a backup generator and a well. I’ve become frighteningly accustomed to having someone else wash my clothes, clean my house and carry my groceries to my car. Most days do feel ordinary—except when I’m trying to make a phone call across town and it won’t go through, or I have to stop on the way home to let a cow or goat cross the road or I decide to spend a Sunday at the Nairobi Game Park on the edge of town, looking at giraffes or warthogs or lions. Then I remember—I live in Africa. For real.