PEARL TOWER. GREY PEARL. Total Energies. Galito’s. PHARMACY.
My 2:03 a.m. panoramic view of the next block’s street is an abrasive sweep of harsh white and red fluorescence: luminous neon signs that denote buildings, and rental spaces opposite the large curtainless windows of this new apartment’s dark landing strip.
At this hour, the cars six floors below are intermittent showers; that one *nduthi is a jetting bee. All feels detached and alien; spectral; surreal. All of it. I stand stiff as a pin between the back-left adjacent stairs, and an ironing board to the fore-right so as to stifle slipper echo. Any sudden move, every minute detail of sound is critical to the ears of both the neighbours surrounding, and inhabitants living within a mostly vacant dwelling – or dare I say ‘minimalistic interior’? The elusive but present dust, and paint fumes in this new humble-but-not-so-humble abode caused the flu that causes my eyes to burn and blink rapidly as if to extinguish their fire; my throat to itch and scratch without mercy. However, this is not what robs me of sleep.
In this particular penumbra backdrop of a Wednesday night, the gears of my mind won’t stop grinding; my stomach won’t stop churning; my heart is chalk that won’t stop breaking.
What is touch? I’ve lost it.
It’s May 2021: my friend from college and I are in his and his roommate’s living room, the late afternoon sun pouring in, and flooding the coffee-brown couch on which we’re seated. I am casually sipping on a can of Modelo that further drenches me in warmth from my crown to the tips of my toes. He is wholly invested in meeting the deadline of a pending graduate assignment to the point of his countenance taking to a rectangular shape. Paúl had generously offered to house me in the spare room of himand his boyfriend’s shared two-bedroom after I habitually had to vacate the dorms for summer break – forced to vacate now that I had been two weeks with an undergraduate degree. “Ma’am. Ma’am,” I could hear the imaginary Resident Advisor call out to me, “it’s ‘Student Housing’, not ‘Alumni Housing’.”
Not taking his eyes off his laptop, he asks, “What are your plans going forward, Noni? Do you plan on staying and working here, or will you be going back to Kenya?”
The water snail’s underbelly adheres to the aquarium’s translucent-green glass that faces me. It too awaits an answer. I do not respond. I am embarrassed at how small my ambitions may come across in comparison to that of the people I know and went to school with. It is only when Paúl tears away his concentration from his screen, and eyeballs me expectantly that I begin to give way:
I want to have my own small place in Nairobi, from where I commute to and from work via public transport – preferably a studio/one bedroom. I want to live as the average Nairobian does while making a decent living and getting to know the ins and outs of its public transport system like the back of my hand. I want to camouflage as the average Nairobian while leading a self-sustained unproblematic life. I want to be socially and financially independent: in charge of my own little world. I want peace.
He nods but, him being a first-generation Ecuadorian-American in the process of organizing his father’s papers so that he too can join his family (at last!), I am almost certain that he does not comprehend why anybody would leave The States and return to the Third World in the name of “peace” – and frankly, I too do not half-believe what I’ve just said. Not because Kenya is not peaceful (it is relatively peaceful), but because I have not been at peace – at home with myself – for as long as I can remember. Not only has this instability persisted, but also it keeps getting worse the more I progress from one point of reference to another: be it a lover; a romantic partner; a friend group; a shelter; a developmental stage; an age demographic; a culture; an ideology; an institution; a state of mind; a hemisphere; a time zone; a city; or a country. I already did not feel like I belonged growing up in Mombasa, and now, additionally, after bouncing between different geographic, geo-political and socio-political points without fully acclimatizing to any, I have an increasingly muddled sense of self.
Every time a person asks me where I live, or what course I did in college I take offence; anything that discloses social labels that aren’t obvious on sight, but upon knowing are likely to elicit stereotypical responses, thinking, or expectations from inquiring parties, I would rather keep to myself. Whenever a person from upcountry asks me where I’m from, and I say that I’m from the Coast, they question my lack of a Swahili accent. Does that make me less of a Coasterian? Does a stranger’s scepticism undo my biographical thread? Whenever I am asked what course I studied, and I say Aeronautics, people either assume that it is tough and cerebral or ask me to explain it. How do I explain to them that it is neither engineering, nor piloting; that through the painfully confusing, six dragged years I myself did not know what I was doing, and what the degree was to achieve; that the only level of difficulty was in figuring out what classes to take in order to successfully exit the nightmare? My first language was Kikuyu, then English, and Swahili came thereafter because that was both the order in which they were introduced to me. I aspired to be a journalist, but at the nexus of my parent’s disapproval and my ill-devised loophole around it, I landed myself in aviation. These are but a few examples. None of them was outcome shaped by my free will.
What an old flame, a friend’s friend, and a friend’s brother have in common is their fascination with my baggage-carrying phenomenon. The old flame found my habit of carrying a backpack to and from my part-time an endearing quirk, which they relayed was a part of my charm; the friend’s friend would remark on occasion that I was always travelling, or on the go; once I was visiting a friend, their brother was earnestly stunned that my visit was devoid of luggage. On nights out I carry a bag of essentials just in case I do not end up going home – and more often than not, I wake up at a friend’s. In public I pride myself on my survivalist tendency, showcasing it as a party trick. The bags have become a gimmick replacing, and assuming the stead of personality. Alone in secret, I loathe the latter – that I never fully belong – but this is all I know, and seem to have perfected: the cyclic dance of search, and escape. My body may be here, but my mind is a series of vortexes, each unique from the other, spinning simultaneously in different loci and locales. I am an addict of deriving comfort from and within pockets of transit. I’m afraid that this addiction may be my downfall.
If I were a metaphor, I’d be the ironic package stuck in transit: a package no longer progressing towards its destination as its physical movement has been temporarily or permanently suspended, and is therefore in limbo. In my restless, sometimes reluctant frequent movement, I never set roots. I barely grow. I am metaphysically stagnant in physical flux. I may not know who I am, but I know the kind of place I want to be in, and this place, I believe, is the answer to the question that is me. Unfortunately, no one, nothing, nowhere with fundamental ties to my life has been able to provide me with “home” – a good reason to end my search and escape.
This is no fault of their own. I decided, have decided, and have been deciding to create a blueprint of my own.
To anchor myself I would need to build my own money and wealth, afford a place of my own, and acclimate to a locality whose existential crisis mirrors mine: Nairobi is still figuring herself out. One can tell by her sharply contrasting urban planning and slang whilst traversing visually, and sonically from her west to east; her north to south. Nairobi is very different things to different people: a different rhythm to different drummers; a different beat to different dancers. She is the embodiment of paradox, and opportunity born of a matrix with chaotic possibilities abound. She is the East African Wild West. An oasis for nomads, and expatriates. A fledgling full of promise.
It’s hard to think about promise. Almost impossible to conceive of my blueprint’s materialization when I’m still unemployed, and have low self-worth as a consequence of both starved and failed attempts at friendship, family, and romance. Nairobi increasingly does not belong to a majority of Kenyans. From one regime to the next, the high accruing national debt; high taxation by our new government; hyperinflation; high unemployment and devaluation of, and including some of the best skills, talents, and minds of our era and generation; unpaid dues of civil servants; blatant crony-capitalism; exploitation and slavery perpetuated and abetted by foreign investors, venture capitalists, and our own institutions in which we’re to trust; vested interests and well-oiled scams under the guise of relief, charity, diplomacy, and religion; human trafficking; Nabii and co.’s stealth and steady push of Christianity (Islam riding its coattails as its complimentary enhancer) to not only the nation’s religious centre, but also its politic; anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments; Maandamano (anti-government protests led by Baba, the opposition party leader); discrimination, disenfranchisement, and indoctrination of our youth; police brutality; severe neglect, and abuse of our children – our present and future, reflect everything a citizen ideally could, would, and should take flight from: the monopoly of choice, and duplicitousness of identity. Despite this majority of Kenyans, Nairobians, choose to fight in stoic silence with a feigned, or learned indifference that has been regurgitated into lore. A facsimile, of a facsimile, of a facsimile.
William Mayange. Kianjokoma Brothers. Stephen Mogusu. Tony Katana.
I want to be real. I want to be whole. And live.
In this corner of Nairobi where I am bombarded with the high-end, I wonder, where is the common *mwananchi? How far is the common Nairobian? How do they survive here? Have they found peace? Is peace their necessity? I want to be with them. I want to be connected to them. I want a reason to stay. I want my finger on Nairobi’s pulse beneath her oppressive lights- but how can I, six floors up, retreated from the unseen expanse on the other side of thick glass?
*nduthi: Nairobian slang for a motorbike used as a means of public transport
“the common *mwananchi”: a collective term used to refer to the common people; the common citizens.
Noni R. Mwangi
My name is Noni R. Mwangi. I am a Kenyan living in Mombasa, Kenya. I graduated from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University with a BSc in Aeronautic, and minor in Applied Meteorology in May 2021. I am currently unemployed and job hunting; optimistic that my current situation will turn around very soon. My publishing consists of a poem titled “ANTI-STASIS” that was published in The Avion through my aviation college’s creative writing club, Creative Ink. I have no forthcoming publication, and this piece has neither been accepted, nor published elsewhere for now. My goal, and passion is to be a scholar and writer of the Humanities, and venture in it fully as a career.