Sunday, 16 October 2011

Intermission: Downpour

In what started as a pleasant, if cool, day, I am now trapped in a trendy cafe, sipping masala chai and patrolling the information superhighway, while rain buckets from the clouds.  Seems like a good time to reflect, since there isn't much to engage with, at this point in time.

This period of time, or 'season', if you can call it that, is what my friends in Nairobi refer to as the light rain season.  Intermittently, it will pour rain for about an hour or two, before clearing up.  The rain is much different than what normally occurs on the west coast of Canada (cold weather, windy, humid, unpleasant, dreary), where one still goes on with what was planned for the day.  Here, when the initial drops start to fall, there is an imperative to get to shelter, as soon as possible.  The weather stays nice, there's a slight breeze, and the water falls from the clouds like one giant shower head.  But walking outside is virtually impossible.

So, I've sequestered myself into an artsy cafe, managed to stake out a spot with an electrical outlet, and am abusing my wireless internet privileges as much as possible.

Nairobi is an incredibly difficult city for me to capture.  It feels massive, in terms of physical size.  It is large, in terms of population (3-4million).  And there is something oddly disorienting about it.  Perhaps it is the lack of concrete addresses.  Perhaps it is the multitude of curving streets, especially the ones that seem to arbitrarily change names.  Possibly it's the fact that there are no distinct boundaries between different districts in town (I was once taken on a meandering taxi ride, when I said that 'Gitanga Rd. was in Kileleshwa', when it is actually in Lavington (but not Lavington Estate).  Either that or I got ripped off.  Maybe both.  Regardless, one of the main things that disorients me is the traffic - there is just so much of it, and it's hard to fathom where people are going, much less where they are coming from.

The city itself has a curious mix of greenery, concrete, and squalor:

  • I have only driven past the Kibera Slum, at this point, but if one does not look for it, one would not notice it.  It is nestled in between a golf course, and a section of town full of seemingly nice apartments.  Nevertheless, it is there, an expansive tin-roofed, tin-sided, red dirt maze.
  • The trees and bushes are more than just cosmetic here - often they are the thorny security and privacy mechanisms for apartments and houses.  Whatever they are used for, the greenery is lush.
  • Concrete is, however, slowly taking over Nairobi.  The Central Business District has the same layout and feel of any metropolitan city, with Uhuru and Central Park standing in stark contrast to the overdeveloped sections of the Business District.  A glimpse of the outskirts of downtown see masses of greenery bulging, as if it looks like the forests and shrubs are doing their best to reclaim the red dirt from the cement.
  • Even in the suburbs, there are signs everywhere of development - more apartments, more shopping centres.  And the apartments and shopping centres that already exist are building themselves upwards.  The buildings are all concrete and brick - the skeletons of new buildings are all iron bars with poured concrete and stacked bricks.  A far cry from the wooden frames of new houses and the steel structures of new buildings in Canada.
In my location and working area, the predominant kind of people I see are upper class urbanites.  But even then, they come in all shapes.  Colourful headscarves, designer jeans, skinny jeans, baggy jeans, baseball hats, suits.  Junction, the mall I'm writing this from, has a curious mix of Kenyans, Indians, Wazungu, and everything that falls in between.  It makes for some interesting people watching.  It's readily apparent that it is mainly the North Americans (I am making assumptions based on skin colour, style of dress, and a few other things) that have a propensity to (a) hang out on their own, (b) spend the most time on laptops, and (b) dress the most 'out of context'.  Of which, I am probably a perfect prototype right now.  Everyone else comes in groups of 2-9, the conversations are loud and lively, and there are children everywhere.  In fact, it's very difficult to see any Kenyan walking alone here.  I wish I had an entourage, at this point.  Besides, everyone here seems to be very good looking.  It's a good vibe.

It is also clear that hiring 'house help' here is an accepted practice among the more well off.  Even in our apartment building, instead of a coin-operated washing machine, people hire domestic help to do the laundry, by hand.  Dish washers don't seem to be common-place here, either.  And, there really doesn't seem to be the same attention paid to furniture here - especially when it comes to beds.  Even the beds shown on Kenyan soap operas don't seem particularly comfortable.  What an incredibly first-world observation.  

As I get slowly more comfortable with Kiswahili, and start to pick out words and phrases in conversations, there are a few things that are becoming noticeable.  First, people love to talk.  About anything.  Explaining how one goes about buying groceries has turned into a 30-minute conversation.  A favorite topic at work is what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a good relationship/marriage.  That topic makes everyone laugh, a lot.  

Second, people expect everyone to contribute.  This is interesting for me, because my natural tendency is to just sit and listen, and occasionally weigh in with my opinion.  And often, when chatting with friends in Canada, we tend to wait until invited to speak, to put forth our opinions.  Here, friends have mentioned that I am 'too quiet' - not as a criticism, just as a recognition that I'm different.  They, on the other hand, have no problems expressing their opinions about everything, at any time.  This makes me slightly uncomfortable - in Canadian culture, often a controversial opinion will kill a conversation.  Here, the opinions flow freely, and from all areas of the spectrum. The ingredient that dispels conflict is laughter.  It is always close to the surface.

Finally, the hand is a predominant cultural tool.  High fives, hand shakes and hand gestures abound.  Waving hello is exuberantly done. Firm, business-like handshakes are rare - more often, it's a soft handslap, followed by a hand clasp, followed by the thumbs meeting each other, and flicking past each other.  I have re-read that sentence and realize that, unless you've actually experienced something like this, that entire description seems meaningless.  You'll just have to ask me to show you, sometime.  Nevertheless, it is an ever-present facet of social interaction.  It makes me feel like being in Kenya is like being part of a vast sports team.  It's a good feeling.

Also, hand gestures form a vital part of non-verbal communication.  I haven't figured out exactly when people use certain hand gestures, but I haven't seen one that expresses anything negative (although I'm sure flipping the bird means the same thing here as at home).  There is hand waving, double hand waving, hand slapping, knee-slapping, hand flicking, fist-slapping, karate chops, hand to hips, hand to heart, hand to face, hand to head.  I have a feeling that if I participated in a conversation with my hands in my pockets, there would be a lot of miscommunication.

OK.  The sun has set.  The music is hard core reggae/rap.  And I'm needing to buy food for the week.  Check back in later on this week for more stories about my work here.

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