If you’ve ever been an expatriate (a person who lives outside their native country) working in a developing country, you will find the following equal parts comforting as well as affirming of the challenges/loneliness/confusion/(fill in your blank) you may face on a frequent basis.
Nairobi is one of the largest international development hubs in the world. This means that within Nairobi’s parameters, and estimated 4 million person population, you can essentially throw a stone and hit someone working for a development organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). And if you throw a stone at an expat (I am in no way recommending this), their NGO employment is practically guaranteed.
As of today, I’ve been living in Nairobi for 10 months (minus the extensive travel involved in having a regionally based position – example here).
I am the proud owner of a Kenyan resident card (meaning I pay local prices at hotspots such as the Maasai Mara, local museums, etc. and I don’t have to carry around my passport – hallelujah).
I can walk, drive, or take public comfortably around the city. When driving, I generously use my horn – hooting is a beautiful thing.
I am accustomed to blowing brownish-black boogers.
I say things like ‘imagine’ and ‘even me‘ and ‘I’m from U.S.‘.
I can bargain in Swahili.
I know which markets have the best deals.
I am a pro at rocking the bi-weekly headlamp and lighting rooms using candles in wine bottles (the power tends to get cut…a lot).
I know the best joints in town to eat fish. And listen to live music.
I have learned to find solace in the constant honking and bartering of matatu drivers throughout all hours of the night (AKA ear plugs are my best friends).
I love it when people say ‘Sorry‘ every time I trip (Yes, every time meaning this has become a casual occurrence).
Living in Nairobi, I have met a copious amount of ridiculously talented and fascinating individuals – lawyers, UN workers, freelance journalists, pilots, entrepreneurs, researchers, business developers, teachers, students, web designers, whistle-blowers, app designers, dreamers, photographers, and doctors…the list goes on.
It is safe to say that 89% of my conversations transmogrify into an attempt to mask my obvious jaw-dropping expressions – I’m in a constant state of ‘impressed’.
In terms of networking, feeding off of other’s motivation, intellectual conversations, innovative passion, and career growth opportunities – Nairobi seems to have it all.
In terms of steady, deep-rooted community,……hmm.
For those who truly call Nairobi, Kenya home, solid community is not difficult to find. The longer one has lived here, the more likely he or she is to have nearby relatives, friends of old, and established social circles.
Then there are the many of us who profess Nairobi as home, and mean it from the depths of our hearts. Yet, we constantly find ourselves searching to know, to be known,…for that something steady.
It’s a tightrope act. Or, to bring it closer to home – it’s like walking down Gitanga Road, while wearing heels, venturing to balance on uneven road – attempting to stay steady between a sea of pedestrians and the aggressively oncoming jam.
If forced to describe the early 20 – mid 40 year-old Nairobi population in one word, it would be: transient.
We are on the move. Here for a few month internship. Out to the field to teach a workshop. Gathering stories for two weeks in South Sudan. Traveling to South Africa for some R&R. Staying on a one-year contract, waiting for our next placement.
Don’t get me wrong, if you can handle it, the constant change in the wind is a life of adventure. You will never have any issue finding an empty room to rent.
But when the adventure somehow becomes a normalcy, and after only ten months, eight of your potentially new best friends have left the country (or moved to different areas within), the excitement of it all is slowly peeled off. [But never without resistance. It’s like Velcro – because who ever really wants to leave this amazing place?!]
There’s a nice ebb and flow to life in Nairobi. Work hard to be a social butterfly, make a few solid groups of friends, say goodbye to most of them at once (for some reason it tends to happen this way), then do it all over again. It’s exhausting. Yet, it also means bounteous opportunities for sharpening up my socializing skills and meeting an insane amount of people. Again, the balance.
In such a transient community, it’s expected to learn about a person’s current job, favorite local restaurant, and views on development work. It’s usually not-so-expected to learn about how many siblings they have, what their college major was, or what sport they played in high school.
At the end of the day, I’ve been blessed to meet too many beautiful people in this crazy morphing city. And at the end of my two years, I don’t doubt that I will have established mini pocket communities all over the world (truly, this might not be an exaggeration).
So, for now, I’ll work on this transient complex. The complex of here, but not here; known, but not known. And I’ll continue to practice walking in heels (like a local) down those pot-hole infested dirt sidewalks.