Nairobi is a metropolis where people from all walks of life gather to earn their dues to pay tribute to her. Obviously that means that the variety of people is one that could be envied by a city like Costa del Sol- which is full of ex-pats. With variety, comes oddness. Whoever said variety is the spice of life needs to let go of whatever it was s/he or it was smoking because what variety brings is a mix of cultures, behaviours and mannerisms that border on the bizarre. Essentially, not a spicy meal but a cornucopia of buffets.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against variety. I am not against what it comes with. I believe in the celebration of differences and revelling in multi-cultures. But I have observed a few odd things that I can only attribute to the fact that we are all so different.
Have you ever heard of the story of St Augustine? No? Well, back in 387 AD, St Augustine arrived in Milan to become a professor for the Imperial Court. While there, he saw that the church did not fast on Saturdays as they did back in Rome. The man was flabbergasted. And in a fit of curiosity, decided to consult with the Bishop of Milan, who told him: “When I am in Rome, I fast on Saturday. When I am in Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.” This is where the phrase, when in Rome do as the romans do,[i] comes from.
But in a city like Nairobi where we have embraced public urination and only momentarily frown upon public spitting, what doctrine is there to follow? What is it that Nairobians do? One of the few qualities we have in common is our affinity to novelties. Remember the wave of quail eggs? How about the fascination with the bendy bus?
Or being excessively overjoyed at getting a free warm pet soda on your matatu ride? We also like walking fast. Doing things at the last minute. Fast food. Discount sales.
Beyond that, we are a smorgasbord of diversity. This is a town where I have had a penis waved at me, along Ngong’ road. By a peeing stander-by. I horrifically watched the stream of flowing urine glistening in the sunlight like stained diamonds. I didn’t even know what to think. Or how to react. Seriously, how the hell do you respond to a penis wave? In broad daylight. When jaded Nairobians just watch you awkwardly try to avoid the stream.
I have been insulted for drinking lager. I was at a favoured restaurant and ordered a pint of Tusker. A passing lady saw me, sitting by myself, harmlessly enjoying my beer and she sneered, raised her offended hoity totty nose and “whispered” to her date, “Angalia vile wasichana wa siku hizi wanapenda pombe.[ii] Hao ndio unapata ata wanafanya kazi ya makanika.[iii]” What’s wrong with drinking lager? What’s wrong with being a mechanic? I would probably have given her and her delicate sensibilities a heart attack if I had been taking Guinness and was an actual grease monkey.
I like to wear short skirts. With starched shirts and my hair held up. Usually Nairobi’s residents barely pay attention to outfits unless you’re naked, wearing a shade of green that burns retinas or you’re half naked- and ugly. Now when I dress this way, it makes me look juvenile. I like to think of it as schoolgirl chic but who cares what I think? So one time, I was dressed to the nines in schoolgirl chic and this fellow accosts me and asks, “Madam, the way you are dressed, are you young or trying to be young?” Before I could even respond, the idiot goes on, “Is that your skin colour or did you Vera Sidika yourself?” I. Can’t. Even. I crossed the road, the idiot followed, then I ran back to the former side of the road. Shame the oncoming bus didn’t flatten him.
One day on my way to the office, a guy approached me and asked to take off my headphones. I assumed that’s what his gestures meant. The moment I put them against my neck, he tried to reach around and take them. Who does that? I am not your mother or your sister! Get out of my space! After hurling more unflattering statements to the bewildered fellow, I ran to the office wondering what could possess someone to be that familiar with a stranger. Did I miss a memo?
And I am not the only one. A friend of mine once told me that while eating groundnuts in a matatu, his seatmate helped himself to some. Some people may not care but you have to wonder, where have those hands been? Another friend of mine was in a bus and she was reading a Sidney Sheldon. She swears on her breasts that she got odd looks because she was the only woman on the bus not reading a Bible, The Power of a Praying Woman or Purpose Driven Life. My primary school teacher once told us about a time he watched a prominent figure buy shopping worth thousands of shillings but he pilfered a ten bob sweet (before scanners).
This $#*! happens in spades and it happens daily. The only reason why I think these kinds of behaviours manifest is because we are all so different that there is no set way to behave. So you can’t go telling people, when in Nairobi… Common sense isn’t a solution because these stances don’t fall under the realm of sense. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go wipe off a toothpaste stain. How did I get it? A neighbour had given me a lift and she’d left it in her car seat. Oh well, only in Nairobi.
[ii] “Look at the way girls these days like alcohol.”
[iii] “These are the girls who end up as mechanics.”
Costa del Sol photo source: The Independent
Bendy bus photo source: The Star