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HomeAfricaCity lights, silent nights: Memories of hiding in Nairobi’s labyrinth

City lights, silent nights: Memories of hiding in Nairobi’s labyrinth


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Nairobi, a dream etched in my mind, beckoned me from the small town of Ifo Nuura in Kenya. The daily bus from the capital, laden with goods, shaped our lives, and almost everything in Ifo Nuura came from Nairobi.

Nairobi, a city alive with deals and negotiations, fascinated me. It had a rich life, often making headlines with its provocative remarks on the world stage. Drawn to its teenage temperament, I longed to explore it.

Personal stories from my mother’s encounters with tall buildings to my sister’s tea-selling tales painted Nairobi as the only city that truly mattered. In 2011, fueled by an insatiable desire, I boarded a bus during a school break, aiming for Nairobi. However, my journey was halted in Garissa due to age restrictions, leading to a night in jail before my family intervened.

It was then that the reality struck – as refugees, we were confined to our town. The term “refugee,” previously abstract, now held profound meaning. Kenya’s involvement in Somalia against al-Shabaab heightened security, making travel challenging.

Undeterred, I crafted a new plan, persuading a lorry driver to let me hitch a ride, navigating police checkpoints concealed in the cargo. The vivid memory of my first glimpse of Nairobi, with neon lights and bustling streets, still haunts me. Arriving late at night, I wandered the streets, missing the familiarity of my small town. A brief stay in Eastleigh, the Somali neighbourhood, marked the beginning of my three-week journey to unravel Nairobi’s mysteries.

A bookish explorer, I scoured the streets for dog-eared paperbacks, uncovering the disorganised charm of Nairobi. The city defied maps, demanding physical exploration and commitment to memory. Wary of revealing my refugee status, I seldom sought directions, relying on faith to piece together Nairobi’s puzzle.

With abundant time and energy, I traversed neighbourhoods – Pangani with cramped police stations, Kasarani with its smaller-than-expected stadium, Westland with shiny escalators, Donholm with numerous street kiosks, Langata with long paved roads, and Gikomba with its thrifty market. The once-intimidating city became familiar, divulging its secrets.

Navigating the morning traffic in matatus, I devoured paperbacks, trusting that both the city and my readings would fall into place. Beyond the streets, my curiosity extended to people and their stories. Eavesdropping in restaurants, chatting with street kids, and listening to tailors’ life stories became my routine. The Daily Nation became my guide to the city’s voice resonating globally.

Living in hiding, I embraced Nairobi, falling in love with its diversity. Despite occasional detentions and police encounters, I felt at home. Officers became inadvertent guides during night patrols, introducing me to unfamiliar neighborhoods.

Returning to my hometown at the end of the school break became a temporary retreat, for Nairobi had captured my heart. Sneaking into the city repeatedly, I was driven by an unyielding spirit.

In 2012, as al-Shabaab threats reached Ifo Nuura, I sought refuge in Kisii, southwest of the country. The roads from Nairobi to Kisii were smooth, devoid of checkpoints, and belonging in this part of Kenya was taken for granted.

Yet, Nairobi’s grip persisted. In hiding, I carved a life, reporting for the Daily Nation and briefly attending Brookhouse. My parents even visited without papers. Rooted in Ifo Nuura and still a refugee, my relationship with Nairobi remained complex.

In 2018, leaving Kenya as a refugee to study at Princeton, I faced a four-year ban on returning. Memories of Nairobi lingered, from the terror of the first arrival to dining with friends. Classmates from Kenya bridged the gap, bringing me notebooks, Daily Nation copies, and stories, connecting me to Nairobi second-hand.

Forbidden from returning, memories narrowed to one episode – a night of robbery, where even the robbers recognized me. Nairobi, to me, is unique. It’s the only city where recognition extends even to those who would rob.


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