Back in the vicinity of the smoke-bath of Nairobi — congestion in the streetways, sheng in the airwaves, guards in the doorways. Dad sums up the demographics of the city k’dogo cynically when he says that one third of the Nairobi population is hired by another third of the population to protect itself from the remaining third. But maybe his summary holds true, and I can’t help but carry a l’il unnecessary guilt for classifying myself in that second third. It’s the reactionary blush of bounty, de self-reproof of de rich — something I never experience in the United States of Amerika where I’m deemed semi-needy relative to surrounding society.
In my head I sometimes picture Nairobi in rings, like a bulls-eye: the unabashedly wealthy ringed by their armed askaris, skirted yet again by the hoi polloi in slummy hoops around the city. But allegorical geometry loses any credibility as soon as you descend into the city’s quotidian chaos. Nairobi is muddied and mangled and occasionally marvelous in every aspect: fashion, traffic, language, ethics, u-name-it. No one really knows which language they learned first and the definition of cool is always up for debate.
Nairobi fashion. What’s more fascinating than all of the borrowin’ and blendin’ are the different levels of cultural awareness and cosmopolitan acumen as evidenced through clothing choice. There are still some mamas on the streets dressed in kangas, Bata flips & donated T’s from River Valley Community Church Men’s Friday Nite Volleyball. Next, middle-class teens who parody western fashion in studded jeans and Abercrombie. Then there’s the strain of Nairobians who wear Masai-beaded sandals and skirts sewn out of African fabric, aka fashion that’s adversely more western than normal American clothing and signifies both a familiarity with American aesthetic and a fierce reclamation of “my Kenya.” And kwa mwisho, the supah-savvy dressers who wear Bata flip-flops ironically, because the best shoes to own when you’re filthy rich are bright blue and cost 99 KSH.