Love letter to Nairobi


I’ll miss you

I’ll miss your ‘I’m fine’s’ to my hellos
Your ‘imagine!’s
Your Swa(g), sheng and silences
Your kenyanisms;
Last week but one’s
You really tried!

I’ll miss
Taking to the streets
Candle lit vigils
Solidarity with Busia, Palestine, Chibok, Garissa
Ranting on the airwaves
Inter-faith iftars

Paying for artists who never showed
Shows where artists never got paid

Your hustle
Your politiks and scheming politikers

Your mats screaming for pedestrians to get off sidewalks
Being duped explaining the dupe
Being held at (toy) gun point

Your social media suave
Your (tech)novations
Your witty hashtags and comebacks

Your sema’s and subsequent woiyee’s
Your kesho’s and majaliwaa’s
Your sawa sawa’s
To my ‘kidogo tu’s’

Your kuku’s and samaki’s
Nyama choma I never quite caught on to
Your Java’s and Ankara’s
Dawa and masala

Self made designers
Your local brass, wood and fabrics
Dressing my fingers, home and shoes

I’ll miss your boda bodas
And your matatu wisdom’s:
“Don’t lose your temper, nobody needs it!”

I’ll miss your bookstores and kahawa spots
Your cinemas and green spaces
Your KICC rooftops
Your Pawa’s and your hub’s

Your book clubs and writing collectives
Movie nights
Lost friendships over taboo

Your hollowed and patched streets
New as they be, making no room for walkers
Your low lit alleys
And moody askari’s

Your wordsmiths and music makers
Your tear drops and Mufasa’s
Your Sarabi’s, Fena’s, Suzanne Owiyo’s

I miss you
Before I’ve even left…


Police Trips Over Power

We are standing outside Nyayo House, the one-stop shop for all things immigration, whose basement is also said to have housed torture chambers during Moi’s time. You stand in line waiting for the security check, only for your bag to be prodded haphazardly and you waved on insignificantly. If you’re going to do something, might as well do it well.

We proceed to the entrance when we hear an officer in military uniform shouting at a young man who must have been in his late teens or very early twenties, “YOU COME TO KENYA TO BOTHER POLICE OFFICERS?!” The young man walks on, and infuriated, the officer continues to shout and repeat his question. He follows the young man and though a distance away, we can hear quite loud and clear the same question being shouted. We can’t hear what the young man says but the same questions are angrily repeated in increasing pitches. Unsatisfied apparently with the responses he’s getting and seemingly high off power, the officer removes the one meter rifle from his shoulder and shoves the young man. He points the rifle at him and continues to shove him with it until he is out of the gate. I hope it ended there, but only God knows…

And we wonder why we have enemies of the state when we humiliate, degrade, strip people of their dignity, point a gun at them and just make them feel utterly worthless. As a good friend says, “don’t take the job more seriously than it takes you” and that’s exactly what this officer was doing. I don’t know what the young man said to the officer, but the reaction was unwarranted and overblown. When the officer could have easily let the situation pass, he made it a point to showcase his authority and flaunt his power. It’s shameful that we are so power hungry that we use every opportunity to abuse it, and go on a power trip.

This is what we should do with all the guns in this world:

We need to end police brutality – let’s start with citizen policing.

Nairobi, are you that place?

Are you that concrete jungle
Crumbling under the weight of
Maneuvering, manipulative matatus
Where passengers are shuka’d at whim

Are you where darkness whispers sweet lullabies
Or where lights play dirty tricks

Where money is mobile
And glass ceilings tower as high as KICC

Where freedom is plastered on bus stops
And injustice deeply rooted
Into territorial boundaries

Where few attest their tribe is indeed Kenyan

Where tusker runs like maji

Where unga is revolutionized
And revolutions are most definitely not televised

Where radios relentlessly relay well kept secrets

Where the rain commands the city
And payday drives traffic

Where the likes of Kibera & Sinai make way
For the likes of Karen & Spring Valley

Are you the capital of thieves and robbers
Or a mega polis of IT geeks, business gurus and self made men

Where every pocket is packed with dreams
But not every dream packs pockets

Tell me, Nairobi, are you that place?

© Nebila Abdulmelik, February 2012

Blessed to be Alive

My classmate, who I hadn’t seen in 9 years was in town, so we headed towards Naivasha, Kenya on Sunday, April 22nd. That date didn’t seem so significant at the time. We had two destinations in mind, Lake Naivasha & Hell’s Gate: Apparently the inspiration for Lion King. I didn’t see the resemblance… We were to head to the lake first, and then head over to Hell’s Gate in the afternoon. Upon consulting with guide books, we decided to head to Hell’s Gate first to avoid the scorching heat that comes with the noon/afternoon hours. Not sure how it got it’s name, but we proceeded to Hell’s Gate, where a geothermal plant has been set up to harness the energy of water beneath which gets up to over 400 degrees. Apparently the the plant is the largest on the continent. And funny enough, the guide book says about it, “doesn’t ruin the landscape”! Oh yes it does! I know it’s clean/alternative energy and all, but it does ruin the landscape. Question is which do we value more.

Anyways, our very knowledgeable guide was a 12 yr old by the name of Charles. You couldn’t help but fall in love. He’s a seventh grader who will be a pilot when he grows up so that he can travel the earth. He took us down 90 meters to the gorge, took us to Hell’s Kitchen where you can boil eggs from the steam of the boiling water that emerges from the rocks. We proceeded to the caves, the mini waterfalls and hideouts and saw everything there was to see of Hell’s Gate.

We left a little before 2:30pm before the rains began to descend. After getting home, we hear that 7 people drowned in that same spot after we had left due to the heavy rains. It had really become hell’s gate for them. It was shocking news, more so because we could’ve easily been among those 7 had we not changed our plans, or had we spent more time there.

It was also a reminder that no moment should be taken for granted…we shouldn’t be so complacent to think we are invincible or immortal. Young or old, we have limited time on this earth. The fact that we don’t know whether we’ll live to be 5, 25, or 85 means that we have to make the most of every day, so that when our time is up, we’ll have no regrets over things said or unsaid, deeds done or undone…

May they rest in peace.

Excerpts from Halfway Between Nairobi & Dundori

Excerpts from Halfway Between Nairobi & Dundori
By Muthoni Garland

And with too much money in too few hands, in a land of too many people wanting, Naivasha has become a magnet for highway robbers, ethnic tension, and women.

He doesn’t understand that to me Dundori is not a place to grow but a vacuum of a place that sucks the answers out of a father leaving him nothing to offer his children. A rural nowhere so bereft of challenge or entertainment that it thrives on a mother’s cruel testimonies.

“Do you think it coincidence that these clashes happen immediately after the season of circumcision when teenage boys are brainwashed into believing they’re warriors?”

Come the 1997 clashes…the battle lines were drawn as cleanly and dramatically as the fault-line that created the Great Rift Valley.

Murage’s ‘whatever’ suggests that whether I am right or wrong, my point of view bothers him less than any old jiggers infesting anybody’s toes. I am about to lash back when Murage turns over on the bed, presents me with his back. It is shaking. I am shaking. I should crawl into the bed so we can shake together. I want to, and I know it is what Murage needs, but the eight steps between where I stand and where he lies seem greater than the distance between Nairobi and Dundori.

“She’s like those women who keep threatening to leave their husbands by saying their hair will never turn grey in his house while all along making sure to avoid the mirror!”

But in Nairobi a slip can be a great fall.

Clearly, a drowning man will even grasp at a hollow potato.

“As if I can’t afford to go to KU or NU and buy myself a certificate. Even a P Hesh D.”
“Put Him Down…that kind of P Hesh D, right?”

He graduated from Nairobi U-you wouldn’t guess an urban planner from the lack of direction in his life…

…maybe a new baby would only create new worries to drown the old ones.

Accusation has consequence, am I ready for that?

Of course, she named Njoroge after our father, but it wasn’t enough to save Gladys from his fury when she got pregnant again. Especially after Fafa sent an emissary to enquire in the carefully worded ways of the Kikuyu what the man intended to do now that he had invaded a neighbor’s farm and broken the leg of a favourite goat. The man answered, ‘It was already broken’.

When she sprays herself with a perfume she once claimed could only be purchased in dollars, what pops into my mind is that not even foreign incense can disguise something rotten.

His face is dry, and flaking in a way that makes me itch to rub it with a dallop of Vaseline, roughly, like Mama used to rub mine.

…telling him she’s not ashamed of her God-given assets. As though that is good reason to flaunt them.

Guess Gladys knows younger Acacia trees are thornier to protect themselves from being over-consumed.

Gladys and I stare at each other, our history recent and old…young and ancient, clothed and naked. Needy. She, who was so powerful in my house, is a sad old act in this party of young girls and rich white men…and I, who felt so helpless in my home, have the power to destroy her. The stink of our fears stops us from taking this any further. It is better to lose my eyes, I realize, than to lose my heart.

TIA (This is Africa)


It’s Cairo, Casablanca & Cape Town
Addis, Abuja & Accra
Ouagadougou, Timbuktu & Antananarivo
Lagos, Lomé, Lusaka & Lalibela

Its peace and turmoil
Order and chaos
Evolution and revolution
Anarchy and regulation
Innovation and duplication
Progress and retreat
Static and constant change

It’s Nouakchott, Niamey, N’Djamena & Nairobi
Monrovia, Mbabane & Maseru
Tripoli, Tunis & Tangiers
Harare & Gaborone

It’s democracy and dictatorship
Youth and elderly
Traditional and modern
Indigenous and imported
Local and foreign
Metropolitan and cosmopolitan
Rural and urban

It’s Bujumbura, Bangui, & Brazzaville
Dakar, Dar & Djibouti
Freetown & Libreville
Mogadishu, Monrovia & Moroni

It’s you and it’s me
It’s him and it’s her
It’s us and it’s them
It’s East and it’s West
It’s North and it’s South
It’s core and periphery

It’s Bamako, Banjul & Bissau
Kinshasa, Kampala, Kigali & Khartoum
Malabo, Maputo & Mombasa
Algiers, Alexandria & Abidjan

It’s scholarly and illiterate
Ambitious and unmotivated
Political and apathetic
Construction and destruction
Truth and propaganda
Scribes and scholars

It’s Juba & Goma
Yaoundé & Yamoussoukro
Victoria & Windhoek
Porto Novo, Port Louis & Port Elizabeth
Sao Tomé, Praia & Cotonou

It’s unpredictable and expected
Unconvential and conformist
Extraordinary and banal
Hope and despair
Riches and rags
Scarcity and extravagance

It’s flaura and fauna
Valleys and mountains
Deserts and waterways
It’s Kilimanjaro and the Denakil Depression

It’s both ends of the spectrum
And everything in between


©Nebila Abdulmelik, May 2011

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