Ratio Blog: Sanity and Safety of Cities
Monday, 01 November 2010

Friends had asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be willing to speak to a US American woman they were keen to hire about what it’s like to live in Nairobi as a single foreign woman. Sure thing, I said. We arranged a Skype conversation, and during our chat, I surprised myself. Yes, Nairobi can be massively irritating: I don’t even want to see people anymore if it means leaving the compound and dealing with traffic, which brings out the worst in me (I recently outraced a matatu on a slip road on principle – because it’s not a bloody bus stop). I’m fed up with KPLC giving us a scheduled full-day powercut once a week for several weeks in a row, and garnish this with unscheduled ones, and act clueless when I call. I’m tired of arguing over that ridiculous KES150,000 water bill that Nairobi Water thought fitting to send me for my office, even though we paid all their bills on time, and it being an office, i.e. no laundry, no showers, the consumption can’t be higher than at my house (and no, I don’t run a jeans factory in its back garden). Politics is a clown show minus the trained poodles, who certainly display more skills, politeness and social awareness than some of the honorables. It’s so easy to get caught up in this, and I am aware that I’m still incredibly privileged, and the above are very middle class gripes.

But even though I warned her about all of this and the security issues, the Skype chat also helped to remind me that this isn’t the whole story: Kenya is stunningly beautiful, many people pay lots of money to come here on holidays, and if you’re an outdoor person, you’re in paradise. If you’re doing business, it is, for all its frustrations, still one of the most vibrant economies – and a place where you can genuinely still do things, because not everything has been done already. If I still lived in a small flat in London, I couldn’t have Ollie, the Intrepid Doglet, and I couldn’t go horse riding twice a week. I went to a wonderful Salif Keita concert on Thursday. And during the StoryMoja Festival two weeks ago, there were so many other events going on that the choice became really difficult.

How functional cities are matters. No need to take this to any excess: I’ve only been to Switzerland once and I was sorely tempted to push a flowerpot off a window sill to upset its neatly organised tranquility. If I had to choose between Kigali and Lagos, I’d be off to Lagos in a heartbeat: I love it for its insane energy, even though I suspect that living there might transform me into an even more frazzled maniac than Nairobi. I had more of these conversations recently: an East African friend who had lived in Europe for a small eternity and who was offered a transferral to become the East Africa regional head by his employer, a multinational. He wanted to know what living in Nairobi was like. Another friend, who lives in the US with his family, has started a business here and eventually needs to move here full-time. Both friends have family, and so that’s a whole different decision to make: certainly there are good schools here, but what about security? My friends’ prospective employee and I can take this decision for ourselves, but the other two have a family with kids that they are responsible for. If you have reluctant partners, how do you weigh your professional priorities against the higher risk of a gruesome traffic accident because public transport is run by homicidal sociopaths, or the risk of a carjacking that can easily go wrong (or wronger, because a carjacking is kinda wrong already)?

Like everyone else, I need to go back to my village every once in a while, so I run off to London, the city that will always have my heart (although I’m a fickle lover on those mornings in late January when the cold and darkness just seem interminable). Earlier this year, I made a new year’s resolution to be in London for Gay Pride, the annual festival of the gay, lesbian and transgender community. It’s part civil rights movement, parts massive street party with extra sparkles thrown in. As a woman, you can only concede defeat to the drag queens’ endless, cellulite-free legs and their ability to strut around for the day on heels matched in height only by their hairdo. I have always loved the Pride mixture of those ueber-women, the buff boys in the tiniest Speedos, the sleek androgynous lesbians, the gay families on a family day out, the many community activists, the heterosexual friends and family and partygoers, the Japanese tourists glued to their camera. Pride is as much an annual celebration of hard-won civil rights as it is an amazing party.

This year, strolling through the streets of Covent Garden, Soho and over to Leicester Square, I was also reminded how functional London and this festival were: public transport gets you there, the police will help you with directions, there are ambulances on stand by, Pride has a host of ushers, streets are blocked off for the party and traffic is directed around it. Pride is better organised than Nairobi on a good day, and of course it is by far not the only festival of that sort. If a city has that management capacity, it not only makes it more attractive as a place to work, but also as a tourist destination for great festivals. StoryMoja was in a tented enclosure. When can we take this out on the streets and grow it into an international attraction?

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