Nairobi when they are gone

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Our Nairobi-based editor-at-large, Jackson Biko, finds peace in his hometown this Christmas… and invites you to join him for a rare walk.

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya

I’m writing this a few days before Christmas, on a Sunday morning. The bedroom window is open, a large shard of light spears the floor. My son has just scraped his chin (again) because he imagines he can fly when he jumps off the sofa. He will cry for a minute then climb back again and try to jump, and the world goes on and on and on.

In two hours I will bundle everyone in the car and drive out to my brother’s place – about five roundabouts away (or an hour) – to see his new baby, who is named after my departed mom. The drive will take me through the city, which will be like driving through a ghost town, a Nairobi I don’t know, a Nairobi you have never seen before. There will be fewer cars; fewer matatus jostling and pushing you off the road; lone vehicles will stop at blinking traffic lights; no cops will stand at roundabouts defying the traffic lights; no City Council askaris in their dull grey uniforms (and even greyer look) will harass you because you double parked to wait for someone; couples swill stroll hand in hand. The city will be silent, like an angel of doom passed through it.

The city is empty because Nairobians have migrated either up-country to introduce their children to farm animals, or to the coast to enjoy the beach and the sand and to take pictures of the sunset. Then of course there are those who flew abroad, the privileged ones, who will come back with suitcases full of tales from Dubai. And fridge magnets. And so the city remains beatifically orphaned.

This is the Nairobi nobody sees. A lovely Nairobi that is free from chaos – the blaring horns and the rushed people running the hamster wheel. This is the best time to walk in the city. Nobody really comes to the city to walk. Nairobi wasn’t built for walkers. It’s not like, say, Dublin, or Arusha, or Zanzibar, which invites you to stroll through it because Nairobi’s relentless thud, on any given day, is deafening.

But at this time you can walk down empty streets, take pictures of iconic buildings like Stanbic House (Kenyatta Avenue, Banda Street and Kimathi Street), which was the first building in Kenya to have an elevator installed. It was built in 1920 as Torr’s Hotel by Major Grogan, a British explorer who walked from Cape Town to Cairo (through Nairobi) to impress his wife Gertrude (after whom Gertrude’s Children’s home is named).

You can walk down to the National Archives along Uhuru Highway, where normally it would be thronged with pedestrians. Across is the iconic Hilton Hotel, where one can walk across for a cold beer at the bar. Stand outside Nyayo House along Kenyatta Avenue, a building with many dark secrets. Next to it is the cinematic National Museums of Kenya building, that preserves the dark nostalgia of Nyayo House. There is Kipande House, along Kenyatta Avenue, another colonial relic where Africans lined up to be given identification cards called kipande in kiSwahili. You can also go into the All Saints Cathedral and say a little prayer for the soul of Nairobi.

You almost want Nairobians not to come back to their city. You want it remain this way, pure and untainted by its restless souls.

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