“The light drains out of the evening sky until it looks like a cheap T-shirt whose colours have run from over-washing. Nairobi, by weekday, is a mad asylum of matatu mayhem and stone-faced pedestrians hurrying to get home.
The Nairobi Night Runner is street-bumped by an albino and a pretty, square-faced girl in Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street where it is said 100,000 people storm by, daily and nightly”.
These words, off Tony Mochama’s latest experimental book, Nairobi: A Night Guide through the City-in-the-Sun (published by the Goethe-Institut), drip with nostalgia over Nairobi; a tempest of chaos, at once endearingly familiar and unnervingly strange.
The book gives a rare close-up of Nairobi, a certain culture in a certain time and place that could otherwise be lost in oblivion with the passage of time as the city evolves.
From the opening line, one quickly sees the indelible connection between the writer and the city he loves.
NAIROBI NIGHT LIFE
The writer wonders, “How can I describe how it is to night run; to step off the precipice of dusk and into the dark? Or how, in the dim lights of a club, the eyes of strangers always look mysterious, giving people a depth, a danger even, of which they are devoid of by day?”
Nairobi is the city Kenyans love but which also confounds, baffles, angers and even slaps them on the face sometimes. The words capture certain turmoil peculiar to big cities; a restless people, all hurrying somewhere.
Nairobi, as someone remarked, always has streams of people walking at any time. It’s one of the mysteries of the city. Another one is the mystery of cars appearing almost from nowhere on the roads when it rains causing sudden traffic jams and hiking of matatu fares.
Maybe these are some of the mysteries that inspired Mochama to find out what happens in Nairobi at night.
In Nairobi: A Night Guide through the City-in-the-Sun, the narrator is a kind of “voyeur” of Nairobi’s night life. The narrator rushes breathlessly from place to colourful place within Nairobi giving a sneak peak at the night life of the different places.
The narrator, almost lives the book writer’s life; a sensationalist gossip columnist extraordinaire known for his chaotic mix of footloose urban lingo and yes… experimentation with new, adventurous things.
An adventurous lover of life, his writing sometimes sounds like a promise of endless summers, perpetual tans and perfect waves.
He is at fault, at times, to paint life as if it is only full endless carousal – mellow golden sunsets, carefree walks through town; drinking vodka. It’s hard not to like the narrator’s company as he blasts through town.
It’s not all breezy, however. Nairobi cannot be the city it is without one getting caught accidentally between street hawkers and menacing policing officers generously dishing out tear gas canisters.
Anyone who has lived in Nairobi long enough knows that, in an instant, one can be mistaken for a hawker when the normally hawk-eyed hawker probably spots the police approaching and sometimes leave their wares behind with a bewildered client.
So the narrator is a typical Nairobian when he says, “One cop fires a canister at us, and I join a stampede of people who are fleeing up-town, with riot police hot on our heels”.
The typical Nairobian knows the drill: if you find people running, run first and ask later why people are running!
Tony Mochama is probably following in the tradition of “writerly walkers (other night and day runners)” who deliberately make their way through urban areas on foot.
Such works are usually somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. Though Mochama’s can pass for non-fiction with real names of real places and events, one can’t rule out some streak of fiction.
The most famous and recently-rising African “writerly walker” is Teju Cole who just published his novel, Everyday is for the Thief. It is a fictitious book that reads like a travel journal on place, exile and return to the streets of Lagos.
Cole writes like one who has what Salman Rusdie calls “disenchanted love for Nigeria”.
The narrator in the book returns to Lagos from the United States of America and blasts through the streets of Lagos mournful, angry and sometimes totally acerbic at the hopelessness he sees.
APPLAUD THE WRITERS
Mochama and Cole are in good company of other writers who loved, lived and walked the lengths and breadths of other cities and documented them for others, whether through fiction or non-fiction.
In A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin, writes about New York. It’s definitely a city he has a deep connection to: “Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away”.
Just as Mochama moves from place to place and club to club, Kazin walks from one place to another or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Mochama, Cole and Kazin should be applauded for writing about the things in our cities that we take for granted — the hurrying feet, the noisy matatu, the good and bad smells of the city.
Even if our matatus disappear, some aspects of the matatu culture have been captured in Mochama’s book.