Old Land, New Story

If I tell you I’m an African, what comes to mind? Poverty? War? Genocide? Lions and elephants? Black people living in primitive grass huts?

We think in stereotypes, but reality is so much more complex and therefore more beautiful. The Africa I know is not one of grief and limitations. It is a land of creativity, entrepreneurial endeavors, opportunity, cutting-edge cell phone apps, and streets full of cars and energy. It is multi-racial and multicultural.

My description might surprise some people. Perhaps it’s a story they don’t want to hear. After all, stereotypes are more comfortable. They reassure us that the world is as it has always been; it’s predictable; we know and understand it.

I’m not denying that there is some truth in the stereotypes; there definitely is. But there are also false assumptions and outdated notions. They crumble at the edges as a new generation of Africans create an alternative reality for themselves, a reality that is becoming more modern, more urban and more connected to the emerging global culture. Kenya, my home, epitomizes this new narrative.

Urban centers are developing at mind-boggling rates; new roads and tall buildings pop up against the backdrop of rising incomes. Music festivals are becoming annual events, and showcase local bands playing jazz, hip-hop and soulful ballads. Plugged into their phones, Kenyan youth in the rural villages, the urban slums and the high-income residential suburbs listen to the same music their counterparts all over the world enjoy.

A section of Nairobi is referred to as Silicon Savannah and is a hub for all things digital and IT: business incubators, start-ups, collaborative centers of research and development. It’s populated by a cadre of smart, sophisticated Kenyans who aren’t waiting for the world to hand them charity or solve their problems. Using the latest smartphones and laptops, they are creating their own solutions and defining a future on their own terms.

Against this new story are the contradictions that linger in our midst. The country that developed the first pay-by-cellphone system in the world has a challenge supplying basic services to its people. There are slums with open sewers and growing piles of garbage covered in a spaghetti network of thin, leaking pipes that are illegally connected to City Council water. However, these same slums are home to educated, well-dressed, career-minded residents carrying top-of-the-line cellphones as they saunter past hair salons, butcher shops, Internet cafes and a forest of TV antennas.

The newest models of BMWs roar past women bent double with a load of firewood. Anything can be fixed unless you’re at a government office trying to get through the bureaucracy without paying a fixing fee. Imagination creates outstanding arts, crafts and innovations; it also produces scams and crime of shocking dimensions.

There are times (too numerous to name) when I shake my head, roll my eyes, grit my teeth or sigh in exasperation. Many moments more have been spent pondering why we’re still here and what were we thinking, and wouldn’t it just be easy to call it a day and head back to South Africa or Canada where the roads are smooth, water runs and high-speed Internet really is high speed? And yes, it would be easy, in so many ways.

But then there are those other moments: when a bus driver lets me into the line-up of vehicles simply because I smile at him. Or a police officer greets me with a cheerful face or the driver in the next lane waves at my daughter who is waving at everyone in sight. When the waiters in the restaurant create a crib out of chairs, without me even asking, just because I have a sleeping child in my arms, and they see I need help.

When I catch a stranger’s eye, and we both smile. Not small, tight, shy or suspicious smiles; these are welcoming smiles as big, wide and open as the savannah stretching away from the city. Even coming through immigration at the airport, those smiles are there, greeting me, embracing me.

Or when the early morning sun cuts through at just the right angle, to cast a glowing haze that shimmers over dew-kissed leaves until the garden looks as if it’s been Photoshopped with gold, a kind of light that I’ve never seen elsewhere.

Or the weather of Nairobi. Ah, the weather. As close to heavenly as you can find. The sun shines almost every day in a perfect blue sky, not too hot, never really cold. But us thin-skinned Nairobians complain bitterly if the temperature falls below 15C.

Even in the built-up urban areas, appreciation of natural forces still has a hold on our hearts, and the needs of our farmers are never far from our thoughts. We greet the arrival of the rainy seasons with appreciation for their blessings. After the hot, dry, dusty winds of February and March, the sweet-scented April rains arrive; the land and all its people sigh with relief. As the heavy drops pummel solidly against the dusty plants and rooftops, deafening us in its thunder, the air is perfumed with the rich fragrance of fresh life and warm, red soil. Gardens and crops spring up overnight.

It’s a mixed blessing though, especially in Nairobi which has become a victim of its own success. The congested roads flood, traffic builds up, and the city retreats before nature’s onslaught.

I’m sure those of a more poetic bend could create a haiku out of this. My son certainly had a go at poetry at the age of five. One day, when it was raining large, heavy drops, he gazed at the sight, and commented, “It’s like little petals from a flower, falling down on the ground, bursting into flames, and the ground is fire.”

After the April rains finish, we endure several months of dry air before the rains begin again. October and November are especially beautiful in Nairobi. The trees all burst into flowers: yellow, orange and red flowers fill the trees; the Jacaranda bloom and drop their flowers everywhere, decorating the ground with a delicate sprinkle of purple petals. The bougainvillea add magenta and pink into the colorful mix. It is common to see two types of flowers intermingled as bougainvillea love to climb up other trees. Out in our garden, the hibiscus provides a cloud of pink against the stormy sky, while our richly scented Angel Trumpets buzz with bees.

Often at night, when it rains the most (because our rain is normally too polite to disturb us during the day), the termites launch their squadrons. Swarms of flying ants swirl around the outside lights, or bat against our windows if there is a light in the room. In the morning, their wings can be seen everywhere like bits of lace scattered amongst the fallen, purple Jacaranda flowers.

Then there’s that first moment, stepping out of the plane after a trip abroad, when I take my first breath outside. The air is heavy with its uniquely Nairobian scent of fresh hay, warm soil and diesel. At that moment, I know, I know this: I am home.

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