Nairobi, Kenya

I knew maybe three things about Kenya when my plane landed in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in late February: The traffic was awful in Nairobi; it was a “party city,” with the good times rolling as late—or, er, as early—as 9 a.m.; and in 2013, the city’s most upscale mall, Westgate, suffered a four-day siege by the Somali Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab. It’s the same group that attacked Kenya’s Garissa University College on Good Friday, killing 148 people.

Of the few things I knew, I knew the most about the mall tragedy. One Saturday afternoon when I had somewhere to be, I sat glued to HBO watching Terror at the Mall, a documentary about the siege.

So why go to Kenya, given its history of terrorism? If I were afraid of terrorists, I wouldn’t live in America, certainly not in New York City. Terrorism in Kenya was the least of my concerns when I booked my ticket in December. A friend had sent me a link to a glitch fare from New York to Nairobi. A plane ticket that would usually cost around $800 was only $250, including taxes. I’d never been to East Africa, and the pictures of Nairobi captured my interest. That was enough for me, but not for my mother, who couldn’t think of anything but my safety. She stopped just short of begging me not to get on the plane.

“They blow up malls over there!” she (inaccurately) pointed out when I called her from the airport.

“They threatened to blow up the Mall of America, too!” I countered from the bar.

Neither she nor I knew that the “they” we alluded to were the same group: al-Shabab.


Two days later I arrived in Kenya at 7:00 a.m. My first thought walking out of the airport? “It smells like 9/11.” I’d lived five blocks away from the World Trade Center back then, and after the buildings fell, and for months after, everywhere below 14th Street in Manhattan had this weird smell, kind of like burnt metal and something else I’ve never been able to identify. It’s a distinct smell that I would know anywhere. And there it was in Nairobi. Weird.

The traffic was worse than what I’d been told. Nairobi traffic is like rush hour in Atlanta and Los Angeles combined. Based on the distance, it should have taken maybe 30 minutes to get from the airport to my hotel. It took two hours.

We pulled up to the gate of the Hilton, a landmark of sorts. Three guards surrounded the car, peering in first, then asked the driver to pop the trunk for inspection before we were allowed onto the property. Before I was allowed to enter the hotel, my bags went through an X-ray machine and I went through a metal detector.

More or less, this was the procedure everywhere I went in the city center of Nairobi. Every big hotel has an X-ray machine, and every mall entrance has at least a guard who scans everyone up and down before they’re allowed to enter. Security guards stand at the entrances to some, but not all, restaurants. As I walked the streets, it was common to see guards holding what looked to me like vintage versions of the AK-47 I shot at a gun range once. The heightened security—heightened in comparison with America—should have made me feel safer, but I actually wondered how big a problem terrorism was, whether I was safe and whether I should have listened to my mother.

Read more on The Root 

I Ugly Cried in Nairobi

Painting of Maasai Warriors, as seen on the wall in my hotel room in Diani. I had a breakdown in Nairobi. Like full-on heaving sobs, snotty tears and all.

Don't be alarmed. I do this at least once every time I travel overseas. I love traveling. I love seeing new parts of the world and meeting new people and learning and appreciating new cultures. As long as I am able, I will get on a plane regularly and go see some world. But there’s stress that comes with being far out of your comfort zone, especially when you're solo, as I was my final day in Kenya.

Solo at home, you can operate on auto-pilot. You know the rhythm of “your” world. Abroad, you don’t. And as a result, you're hyper-aware, operating with all senses (if you're smart). There's the realization that there are thousands of miles between you and the next person who personally gives a damn if something goes wrong. You are all you've got. That means you've got to be over sensitive about looking right to cross the street, your surroundings, your purse, your cash flow (because credit cards are iffy, as are ATMs) and the battery life on your phone, a savior for its GPS and list of places to go, as much as it is an emergency lifeline to you and home.

Taking off the blinders and living completely is the thrill-- and occasional trigger-- of traveling. This caused my flip out. Allow me to explain.

I had a lot on my plate that day. Getting back to Brooklyn, required a plane ride back to Nairobi, a 9 hour layover in the city, then a 8 hour plane to Heathrow, a 3 hour layover there, then another 8 hour flight to JFK. It's all minor when it's broken down. But combined it's an (lengthy) ordeal.

The plane back to Nairobi was one of those 8 seaters where you feel every bump in the air. I hate little planes (mostly because of Aaliyah). I sang gospel songs softly the entire ride. The driver who was arranged to meet me at the airport didn't make it. The cab driver who took me to the hotel couldn't find it. The hotel-- though safe and secure-- wasn't at all like it was advertised.

I navigated the city just fine. I walked around sucking up the energy and people watching. Nairobi's Central Business District is more vibrant and alive than even Times Square. I had lunch by the rooftop pool of a swanky hotel, then headed to the city market to pick up last minute souvenirs for friends and family. I haggled for bracelets and stuffed animals and a belt for my husband just fine. "We are not arguing, my Sister," the vendor, a woman, said. "Just discussing what's fair for us." It's a great line. I was overcharged, of course, but I didn’t feel ripped off.

I left her stall with my gifts in tow, and wandered toward the exit. On a wall, I spotted a print of Maasai warriors similar to one I'd admired in the hotel room I’d just left. The woman, older and who reminded me of my deceased maternal grandmother, saw me looking and quoted a price. Too much. "I have more for you," she said. "Come..." So I followed her into the stall.

She's got a pile of 200 paintings and she's flipping. And I want to take home half of them. Two, I just couldn't leave behind.

The walls of my apartment are like an art gallery (they’re blank on The Show because the network won't pay for clearance, and blurring the art out looks weird on camera). I’ve made a habit to pick up a painting (and/or jewelry) in every country I visit.

Years ago, I went to the summer home of [name redacted so as not to name drop] a well-known magazine editor who I (and my mother) admire. Her house was like an art gallery too, with sculptures and paintings collected during her travels. I complimented a piece of jewelry she wore that day. She told me she'd picked it up in another country and it was years was before I was born. I admired her lifestyle too. I committed to creating an art gallery and jewelry box reflecting my travels.

So, at the stall in Nairobi, I got a painting for me, and one for my mama/parents house. My mom is no fan of my travels to anywhere in Africa and will likely not see the continent herself. But she will have a piece of the continent in her dressing room.

I didn't have enough money for the purchase, so I offered to go to an ATM, and return. Or, I had American dollars at my hotel close by. I could go and come back. The woman suggested I take the paintings and her husband would walk with me to my hotel to collect the money.

Her husband, the splitting image of my (also deceased) maternal grandfather, walks up. He's an older man, in his 70s, he'll tell me later, on our walk. I ask how long they've been married. He smiles. His upper row is perfectly straight on the left side, entirely missing on the right. If he had his full teeth, he would have had my grandfather's smile too. He says, “oh, a long time.”

So we walk to the hotel, 3 blocks away. He, Mr. Geoffrey, tells me he was born near Mount Kenya. He had 2 sisters and 6 brothers. One sister is gone, 2 brothers died. They were all over 100 when they passed. He, in his 70s, is the baby of the family. He doesn't go back to his birthplace because he doesn't like it there. He and his wife have a house in the Nairobi suburbs. They've had their current business for 10 years. He asks where I'm from, if I have family, if I like Kenya. He tells me he's worked in the stall for 10 years and never walks this way.

At the hotel, he waits while I run up to grab the money. We exchange money for posters in the lobby, and I offer to walk with him back to the market. He smiles and looks at me incredulously. "I am fine. You don't need to walk with me," he says. I tell him I have to go back out, and that way, as I need an ATM. I don't have money for the cab to the airport.

He says he'll walk with me to find one. I insist I'll be fine. He tells me that the area is fine during the day, but can be seedy at night. They call Nairobi, "Nai-robbery" sometimes and it's not always safe after dark, he says. Dusk is coming. I don't see any harm in accepting his chivalry. I relent.

So we walk, and he asks me if it's my first trip to Kenya. And he asks if I'm married and have family. And if I like Kenya. And he says he's worked in the stall for 10 years and he's never walked this way before. And I assume he wasn't paying attention earlier because he was making small talk with a stranger. And then we find an ATM and it doesn't accept my card.

So we start walking again and he asks if it's my first trip to Kenya and if I enjoyed it, and if I'm married and have a family. And I answer the third time just like it's the first as I realize something is wrong.

He stops to ask a security guard in Swahili where there's an ATM, and the man points inside a building and it turns out it's a money exchange, but no ATM. As we walk out, he cautions me to slow down. I apologize. I walk fast even when I'm trying to walk slow, and I've inconvenienced my elder. He says, no, he's worried about me. The sidewalks aren't always smooth and he doesn't want me to fall. He's fine*.

So we walk again, slowly for my own good, searching. And Mr. Geoffrey tells me that he hasn't walked these streets in awhile and he and his wife have worked at the market for 10 years. And then he asks if it's my first trip to Kenya and if I have a husband and family. And then I realize he has Alzheimer's.

My grandmother had it. And she did the same thing. She would get stuck in a train of thought and just loop the same conversation over and over and over. And I feel... sad. And vulnerable. Like, this old man who looks lke my grandfather saw me, and saw my vulnerability as a "stranger in a strange land" and he wanted to look after me, and he may or may not know that he's the one that needs looking after.

We find a Barclays ATM. My card works. I can get to the airport just fine, assuming I can find a cab, but the hotel should be able to call me one.

On the walk back to the hotel, he asks if it's my first time in Kenya, and if I liked it, and if I have a husband and family, and this time he asks if I'll come back to Kenya. I say that I will and I will come with my husband. He invites me to stay with him and his wife as they have a house outside of the city. We could come and stay for one or two days. I tell him I will take his information and I would love that. He tells me that he's worked in the stall for 10 years, he and his wife, and he hasn't walked this way before. My eyes begin to well up with tears.

He is a very kind man, who looks like my grandfather (except shorter) and reminds me of my grandmother. And for whatever reason he has taken a liking to me and wanted to keep me safe, though it's debate-able whether I needed it or not, and what could a 70 year old man do if harm came anyway? But it was a kind gesture and it eased my anxiety. And it also made me feel extra vulnerable as this very vulnerable person sees me as the one in need of help. And now I'm emotionally rattled, even more vulnerable. And trying to hide it from Mr. Geoffrey.

I also wonder if his wife knows he has Alzheimer's. She has to know he's forgetting things. But does she know how bad this gets? We (my family) knew my grandmother couldn't remember things the same and would get stuck in a loop. But she was otherwise fine and doctors said there wasn't anything we could do. The loops weren't so bad and were pretty harmless. So we paid a bit more attention and more or less let her be.

But then one day she told her husband she was going to the grocery store and didn't come back. Hours later, someone called my mom and described my grandmother to her and asked if she knew her. Grandma had gone to the grocery store, come out to the parking lot after shopping and couldn't find her car. She was looking for a vehicle she had when I was growing up, not the current one. She's been walking around the parking lot aimlessly until the woman spotted her, stopped her, and found my Mom’s number in my grandmother’s purse.

At the hotel, Mr. Geoffrey scribbles his name and mobile number on a piece of paper and I sniff back tears. The desk attendant notices something is wrong and offers me a bottle of water. I take the water and the paper and thank Mr. Geoffery again and ask him to thank his wife and say goodbye to her. And I ask if he remembers how to get back to the market, and he looks at me like I'm stupid. Then he offers to give me his number so I can come visit him and his wife when I come back to Kenya.

I show him the number he just gave me. He smiles and shakes my hand and I thank him as he waves goodbye and walks out. I follow him to the sidewalk and watch him walk to the corner. He turns left in the direction of the market three blocks down.

I go back in the hotel, round the corner for the stairs to my room and COMPLETELY LOSE IT, like fat tears, and spit and bent over heaving sobs. I’ve done this twice before in my life. One, I don’t really talk about (I was barefoot in the middle of the street, but it’s the reason I left the Hamptons in Season One of “The Show” and I won't talk about it publicly as along as my father is alive out of respect.) The other time was when my grandfather died.

I'd gone to the nursing home where he lived with my grandmother. Their room had twin beds, and his was made up and empty like he had never been there. My grandmother and parents were in the room, and my grandmother kept asking, "where's my Honey?", her name for my grandfather.

She had Alzheimer's so she couldn't remember he was dead. The fist two times she asked, we told her he'd died. And we watched twice as she absorbed that traumatic shock of finding out her husband of 60+ years was never coming back, then promptly forgot. After that when she asked, we lied and said he was on his way back to the room. I held it together until my parents and I had to leave her to go to the funeral home and see the body. I walked out the room, turned the corner, leaned against the wall and lost my entire sh-- (just like I did in that Nairobi stairwell) as my parents stared at me wide-eyed.

So I go up to my shabby room and sit on the edge of the bed and sob and snot, and tears and spit get on my dress, and then I call CBW, one of only four people in the world (other than my parents) who can calm me down when I'm like this. I tell him the whole story and then apologize for scaring him because, you know, your wife calls you from the other side of the world crying uncontrollably, the first thing you think is that she’s been raped or robbed. And really she's just upset because she misses her grandparents and feels helpless. He talks me off my ledge and tells me it’s okay and because he said it is, it is.

After I get off the phone, I wash my face, gather my sh--, and hop in a cab to go meet a reader (and new friend) who lives in Kenya. It's my last night in Nairobi and I want to make the most of it and keep building memories, even if the man who just triggered so many probably already doesn’t remember me.


*Kenyans be walking. Like I walk fast, just because. But when I was out for my morning walk in Diani, I was hoofing, and this guy pushing a wheel barrow of old electronics came up from behind me out of nowhere and outpaced me... barefoot. And did not break a sweat.

Nairobi Day 4: Baby Elephants x 100 Shilling Tequila Shots

  We went to visit orphaned elephants, under that age of 3 years old. Cute as hell.

I planned to write an actual Day 4 post, but….

Cousin G and I went to see the elephants in the morning.

And on the way back to the cottage, we stopped at the grocery store.

And at the grocery store, I bought two big bottles of water, a bug bottle of juice, and a bottle of rose for under $6.

I drank half the rose for brunch, sorta. It would have been actual brunch, but there was no food because we only bought enough for 4 days, but we've been here for 5. And I would have bought food at the store, execpt our third party was supposed to be ready when we got back*, so we could go eat, but she wasn't, so....

So then we (finally) all went to the market to eat. And then we went to the Maasai market to shop (which I have to go back to before I leave because everyone and there mother wants me to bring them bangles home… which I’m complaining about like I mind, but I don’t.)

Bracelets from the market. Everyone wants some. I'm happy to share.

And then we left the market and went to the Tribe hotel for a sundowner, ie, drinks at a location that has a great view of the setting sun. I drank virgin juice because, you know, I drank half a bottle of wine for “brunch” while I waited (and waited) for the third party of our crew to get ready to go to the mall. I’m 35, I think about the state of my liver, and I fear hangovers.

View from the roof or The Tribe hotel :-)

And then… and now we get to the real issue.

So remember the guy Cousin G and I met last night? The party promoter? Him. Well, him told us that Juniper Social was the move for Friday night. And we took him’s advice.

A sign at Juniper Social.

The spot is a mini-mansion run by an ex-pat who moved to Kenya to do serious work, but then quit her job to host parties in her backyard. Her house is huge, the grounds are too, and she just does these random parties on the weekends. It’s like Chef Roble’s “Everyday People”, but like not with a retractable roof, and to be fair, less people. The DJ here is sick, although I couldn't identify any of the songs. There was a groove going. The people were very fly.

Oh, and shout out to the South African chickie who tapped me on the shoulder and was like, “I knew it was you! Ok, I thought it was you, and then I went to your blog and saw you were in Nairobi and then I was like, 'it’s you!'” Sweet chick. She watched The Show That Shall Not Be Named in South Africa. Go figure.

So, the guy from last night, left a few things out about this party.

  1. how dope it is.
  2. how good the food is.
  3. the 100 shilling tequila shots.

If you follow me on IG, you already know this story.

Tequila at discount prices.

Juniper is an unoffical restaurant that turns into a "scene". At 8:30, they stop serving food and table service is no more. They’ve found an ingenious way to get people up from the table ad to the bar: 100 shilling shots.

At 8:30, a bell rings, and tequila shots go on sale… for the US equivalent of around .90 cents. They’re served with orange slices instead of the traditional lime. Salt is optional. I don't partake.

Oh, and there was a tub of beer.

Le tub of beer.

How many I had is none of your business. I’m on vacation and I’m not driving. And I’m sober enough to crank out 500+ words for this post and upload the pictures. (But cannot operate heavy machinery.)

And with that said, good night.


*the third party has requested that I note she was on meds.

Day 3- Tales from Nairobi: “White, like you and me…”

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 1.18.14 AM So, I mentioned yesterday that I hadn’t seen any white people really, and that it was odd when I did. I was accused of seeming “slightly irritated” that there were none around. Um… not sure where that assumption came from, especially given the crack about gentrified Brooklyn. But for clarity, it was an observation about the things that I’ve seen, or not. I’m the same chick who wrote 3000 words on Black Jesus changing her life and quoted  Khalil Abdul Muhammad calling white Jesus, “cracker Christ”  on IG. Don’t get me twisted.

Anyway, we didn’t do much today. I didn’t get to sleep until 4AM, because: jet lag. I finally woke up around 1, then proceeded to do almost nothing, unless walking around the cottage trying to take pics of our duo of monkeys count. Oh, and I turned in my assignment for The Root.

Around 7, Cousin G and I headed out to the Westlands. Remember the girl from yesterday who my friends ran into at the airport? She said there was a string of clubs and it was worth checking out. So we did.

We decide on a restie called Havana, which I chose solely because of the name and the assumption that it had margaritas. (They did, but I actually went with Amarula since it’s hard to get in the States.) The place next door, Bacchus (?) was super cute, but empty.

It was pretty light in Havana when we walked in, but filled up quickly (and was rammed out by the time we left at 11). Oh, and there were white people. Like almost all white people dining and drinking, which is weird to see in, you know, a Black country. Oh, and hip-hop, mostly of the Mos Def, Talb Kweli, dead prez, Ghostface variety. It was, in short, heaven.

Anyway, white people gonna white. Me and Cousin G are sitting at the bar talking about nothing and watching a football game (and by football, I mean soccer) and this white guy comes and taps me on the shoulder like a kid would. I turn, he wants to know if me and the woman sitting next to me, who I am sitting with my back toward, are together. Um… no.

Well, in that case, he wants to know if I can scoot my chair two inches to the left and if she can go two inches to the right and he can squeeze a bar stool in there.


I look at him. I look at her. I look at the space, and I say, “Sir. You think it’s a good idea for you to squeeze yourself into this tiny space and you want both of us to move so you can do it?

He nods.

Like I said. White people gonna white.

I scoot over. She scoots over, and he grabs a stool and moves in so he can watch the game at the bar.

Speaking of the bar... these are included the drink selection.

So me and Cousin G kick it. A guy, whose name I wish I got, overhears us, and comes over to ask us, “Are you American?”

“How did you know?” I ask. Random observation: I’ve stopped using contractions when I speak. People do not use them often, if at all, overseas.

“I have ears,” he says.

Turns out he’s a party promoter and he’s hosting Nairobi’s First Mardi Gras next week. Yes, he knows it’s late, but no one in Nairobi knows that. And he didn’t get the sponsors until late, and nobody in Nairobi parties on a Tuesday. It’s contained from Thursday till Sunday.  Oh, and he did this event in Cape Town last year and it was a hit.

He wants to know if we’ll come and passes G a flyer. The headlining DJ? A friend of a friend I was e-introduced to before the trip, who I’ve been trying to get up with all week. He told me he’s “a musician”. He never mentioned he’s like the MOS of Nairobi. (Though I did think something was up when he mentioned he had to leave this weekend to “work” in Nambia, and when I mentioned wanting to do an event at a local hot spot and he was like, “you want me to put you in contact with the manager?” An hour later the manager was like, “whatever you want. Have it.")

So since dude is chatty, I have questions, starting with, “Where did all these white people come from?”

Turns out there’s a bunch of ex-pats that live in Nairobi, a bunch of white folk who work for the embassies or UN, and then there are the white Kenyans with colonial family ties and old money and they been here forever.

Then he gives me an alternate spot to host my meet up and a list of places to go. Bet. Then he excuses himself to meet up with some “mates”. Good day.

So our time has come to an end. The bill comes and G and I are trying to figure out what to do about the tab. I mean we covered it, but the tip is in question. The lady from last night said if you leave anything, it’s 50 shillings or 100. There’s no percentage tip here. But that just feels wrong, you know?

So we’re picking money up and putting it back down, and picking it up and putting it down. And then the white guy next to us finally asks, “what are you doing?”

We explain: we are trying to figure out the tip.

So he explains, it’s basically what the girl said last night. Then he asks where we’re from. We actually tell the truth: America not Jamaica. We ask where he is from, Kenya, sorta and Sweden. Either he or his dad was in the Navy, he lived a bunch of places, but he’s here now, so… Then he goes on to explain further that

Kenyans in general don’t tip each other, but… wait for it… “they expect it from white people like you two and me.”

I’m sorry, what?!

I look at Cousin G, like did I just hear what I heard? I’ve been called a lot of things: light skinned, not light skinned, caramel, red,redbone, Black, African-American, Negro, colored (South Africa), Sistah, Sister, Queen, Princess, N-bomb and more, but not never-ever have I been called “white.”

White, eh?

Cousin G, who is my complexion, has no reaction. He’s just listening, so I just turn and look at the man again. He’s kinda dark for a white guy, but he is melanin deficient sitting up in the East African sun everyday. I have no idea what he’s talking about now. “White like you and me…” is looping through my head.

Now I gotta find out how Kenyans define race (as it’s a social based system, it’s subject to the whims of each country). Is there some weird hierarchy, like foreign-with-money (the assumption worldwide is that all Americans of al colors are wealthy) equals “white". Or was this like the most delusional and literally color-blind white man ever?

I need answers.