It was 2013 in Barcelona that I first experienced deep fascination for a physical place in space and time. Here we go again! This time, I think I am falling in love! Kenya’s intricate blend of simplicity, splendor, dysfunction, and potential has captivated and provoked my heart in ways words cannot truly describe. I am humbled by my discoveries living in Nairobi and visiting other towns and municipalities including Mwingi, Makindu, Thika, Embu, Meru, Isiolo, Mwea, Malindi, and Watamu.
I began my journey to Kenya unsure of what to expect. I had defined my desired end goals – to update my narrative of “Africa” and discover where I fit in its development, albeit through the lens of one country — but I did not have a clear picture of what it meant to live in “Africa” as an adult and a professional. Even though I am a daughter of the continent — born and raised in Nigeria — my mental picture of “Africa” had been frozen in time to 2001, the year I left to attend college in America. It also did not help that I had failed to make the home visits necessary to circumvent the icebergs of western media’s Africa narrative. So I acquainted myself with second-hand views of Kenya via Google images, YouTube videos, stories from friends, and "Shuga." With nagging thoughts of the Westgate Mall terrorist attack and wild animals running amok in Nairobi neighborhoods, I boarded my flight looking forward to at least a much warmer weather than the cold Boston spring… or so I thought.
It was 12C the morning I arrived Nairobi! Surely this is not “Africa,” I thought as I flipped through the weather app on my phone hoping to confirm this was a fluke. I had been warned I was arriving during “winter” but the forecast before my trip had been in the low 20s. I shrugged off the cold morning secretly hoping the updated weather predictions in my app were wrong. Unfortunately, the cold morning persisted into two months of 12 – 18C mornings and nights. Thankfully, I had double espressos and almond-milk cappuccinos to comfort me.
ALMOND MILK CAPPUCCINOS… Nairobi’s first move that had me at hello! Nairobi’s “urbanness” took me by surprise. I did not expect to walk into Dorman’s or Art Caffe and easily order an almond-milk cappuccino. You see, this seemingly simple order is a feat that many coffee shops in Boston have yet to achieve! I was further amazed when I discovered that my organic hair and skin care products were ubiquitous and reasonably priced at Healthy U, which has two stores within 800m of my Westlands apartment. I reached a state of euphoria when I discovered I could order fresh organic vegetables via a phone app and have them delivered to my doorstep same day at no extra charge or that I could order breakfast, lunch or dinner from 100+ restaurants in Nairobi via several food delivery app options and have them delivered for pennies within an hour! The ability to seamlessly continue my US lifestyle via Kenya’s urban coffee shops, supermarkets, natural grocery stores, farmers’ markets and restaurants made me feel at home. I definitely regretted the luggage space and dollars I wasted hauling products in triplets from the US and paying overage airline bag fees.
I could write at length about the serenity I experienced outside Nairobi in the lush greens of Meru, the nyama choma and company of locals I enjoyed at the winding hills of Isiolo, and the warm embrace of the powder-white Watamu shoreline. Yet, in all its magnificence, Kenya is not without thought-provoking contradictions. The chasm between the quality of life of expatriates versus locals is a turn-off. It’s like leaning in to kiss a dashing prince only to keel over from his halitosis.
Ijeoma Emenike is the 2016 ABF GE Fellow.
Header image: Nyama choma in Isiolo