I have given up on loving Nairobi. To give that up means to stop asking it for favors, to stop asking it to be livable, and to stop defining it in my sleep fiction. Also to stop loving it in my new poetry of history mnemonics memory annotations long sentences no commas in between lesser and lesser full colons the smell of mornings and the sound of anthems in the early 90s when everything was quiet and I mistook this to mean peace. It is to stop wishing for more trees and more park benches, to stop wishing for the violence to stop, for the loud noises to stop.
Yes. That’s how I will no longer love Nairobi. To love it, and this is the way I love, means to need it and to assume it needs my footfalls and wide gazing and my body. I have made my love err* by way of obscuring the city through the years, a fault I have no one else to blame for. Yet the refractions and many colors provide a basis for my love. I don’t know when I started loving the city, for as long as I can remember it has always been far and uncaring. My very first memories include teargas smoke, a lady with blood sipping in or out from under her fingernails, the GSU beating up a man, my mother carrying my brother on her back and holding me with her other hand, and all around us people running running running. At that point I was standing at the intersection of the state and a woman protecting her two children, and that woman remains my mother. I cannot therefore really say why I love the city and I’m more at a loss for words trying to convince you that it’s possible to stop loving it. I should say I love my mother instead.
All I am hoping for is that you like a good love story with a tragic ending.
I have given up on loving Nairobi. I need to state this as often as I can, such is the unreliability of memory, the transient immaterial that is always taking and not always giving back in equal measure. This reaffirmation, the ritual, the goodbye of over and out all over again, the statement of halting, this is evidence for myself and echo for you.
The city goes on and on without me, I accept this. I have given it up as a collective city, as this big pleasure dome and pleasure garden of bureaucracy, sex, secret meetings, and imported gadgets and sensibilities.
I have also given it up as a place of detail. I have given up on it’s promises of factory-floor coffee (best when stepped on by barefoot workers), cocktails, cake, chocolate, red roses, pleasure temples, long walks, reading a book in traffic, bad restaurant service (to mean beautiful people with too much on their mind), loud matatus and cheap second hand books.
I know enough of folklore to know they had to delimit and censor the monsters and bloodletting, in fact I know enough to want to wrongly protect myself from the alternative narratives of the city, where people die everyday, to create my own space, or at least force myself into un-being and existing only in the grayscale places that seem fit for the moment. This need to censor myself is why my love is imperfect. To change that I have to completely stop loving.
Or I need to move to a different city. I could go south to Mombasa or west to Kisumu. I could live outside Kampala. I don’t know enough about Dar but I could go there as well.
It’s very easy to imagine another city, different from the city you live in, holds the things that you lack now. Another city is another country. It’s a promise. Remember, which is not to say don’t forget, because I have no way of knowing how you create and archive you memories, remember there’s no way of me knowing if this is already inside you the same ways it’s in butterflies migrating north, remember a city continues without and outside you and a city does not bow to anyone, it consumes everything and lets out nothing. A city is a bad child. It stores up the dead bodies of birds and hides them from view.
There is the city you imagine, a place of trees and open space, chocolate and burgundy walls, banking hallways because you have just enough cash, but most importantly there is a city that continues after you sleep, to mean a city that does not depend on imagination, and one that is a selfish monster that goes on consuming even the air you need to pulverize nightmares as you sleep. It is a stark city of concrete and dust and full of other sleeping bodies probably having the same nightmares as you. A city that loves you back by reminding you death is very very possible and language cannot stop it. Actually language can enhance it and prepare a way for it.
A city has to exist outside the collective conscious, it has no choice, and it has no structure as much as we protect ourselves by giving it our own definitions of structure. That’s one way we the sleeping bodies can have a thing that ties us all together, to appreciate that the city goes on without us, it continues outside structure. We have to find the things that connect us, not to mean we have to be connected, for our journeys and ends are different, but if we can accept this city continues after sleep, that’ll be important although I wont tell you how or who taught me that. We need to let go. Maybe I learnt it from the city I am trying to forget.
When we travel to a different city what we are carrying with us are the fictions of our first city, what we are searching for and hoping to find are the fictions our first city has denied us. We are already forming other fictions about our second city, unfurling like a gentle animal before us. This is not to mean the animal of the other city has always been asleep, but we want to imagine and impose sleep on it so that on that first dawn of arrival and mist and fresh morning air what we see in front of us is not the real city but the city we have conjured through six hours of bad roads. If we travel to this other place and find it most uninhabitable and all its museums empty we will say at least not in the ways of our first city, a form of coping that equates variations in absence to find the least romantic and the easily culpable. We have the fictions of our first city next to us as we walk in this other city, we need the first city to understand the second city, which is not the best way to find peace in another city. It’s possible to forget the first city. Possible yet difficult and tiresome.
If I can forget Nairobi I can stop loving it. For loving is memory of yesterday now tomorrow and those cotton candy days at Luna Park where my brother and I watched as the other children created a fiction of fun, complete with a Ferris wheel and the parking lot lights of Serena right there behind us, not forgetting Intercon when the government still ‘owned’ it. Children are the majority shareholders of fictions about what a city should be. The stakes are highest for them because they have no idea what’s in store for them. They do not know one day they will need to forget in order to stop loving. I am not a child any more, despite my protests and fairy-making ways and the beautiful veils in front of my eyes. The central place of the Ferris wheel is replaced by a crumbling building and government propaganda and the one-week old memory of dead bodies. Many bodies can become one body can become a single memory that unfurls in front of you and in the middle of a park to replace the cotton candy machine that you still had not stopped loving because your mother tried as much as she could to get you to Luna Park but what you did to define fun was entirely up to you. Dead bodies can become the museums with which we hug kiss say goodbye, the names of children waiting to be born.
I am more aware now of the many forms of violence this city uses, I don’t know how I can unlearn that. I find myself a lot of times taking myself to the middle of the city and creating what is fun and ideal as a stop motion film I will never show to anyone.
To be fair, my heart is breaking, I have no way of remembering this city therefore I must forget not the city itself but myself as a child and adult, forget I ever lived here. I must go back home and hug my mother and tell her she reminds me of what love really is, and it does not involve limits or definitions or fictions, her love is not in language and it is not in any form of gesture, her love is not parking lot lights and easy mornings of pancakes and tea with too much water not enough tea leaves but all this made bearable by too much sugar, no, her love is not that at all. Because she has really loved me in the most silent ways and she is the city I carry with me even when I am forgetting and searching and dying a little everyday.
I used a lot of imagination as a child to understand how simple it was for others to be happy. I made excuses for them and myself, next to their happiness I placed angels of my own making and next to my unhappiness I martyred myself by placing the monsters of their sleep and senseless definitions of a word like ‘lexicographer’ right next to me. I grew up and gave up the business of manufacturing angels. Now I make and read poetry and think about poets like Komunyakaa who have a really beautiful voice. I even read the conceptualists when the truth is I cant stand them and I have taken them up on the offer made myself one of them as one of the things I make myself to be everyday. To adapt I have found it useful to assume the forms of the things I do not like. I don’t know if that is irony or fluff. I knew for sure life in a city can be beautiful. What language has done is that it has given me the means to understand violence and finally give up the possibility of a beautiful city life.
*love err can become lover but such are the light years between one city and another.
Image courtesy of Kimani Waweru