Yvonne Adhiambo is an award-winning writer who cites Nairobi as her muse but it isn’t a comfortable relationship she shares with the city. She explains “I was born in Nairobi, I grew up in Nairobi, I was formed by Nairobi. It has been my city but it has also been the place of my haunting. I keep thinking I need to exorcise Nairobi from my soul.”
Perhaps part of Yvonne’s ambivalence for the city comes from the gap between the Nairobi of her childhood and the exploding metropolis, which she finds herself in today. Growing up Yvonne would walk around leafy Kilileshwa, taunting little fish in the trickling streams that crossed the footpaths and if she was lucky enough she’d glimpse a duiker before it fled back into the bushes. Today Yvonne struggles to find the birds and butterflies that used to mark the seasons of her town. And where have all the hedgehogs gone? Now she says ” Because of the buildings that have emerged the shape of the city has changed and it has more edges that were not there before…There’s a hardening….I’m uncomfortable with that. It’s a horrible thing.”
Despite her reservations with Nairobi’s urbanization Yvonne keeps being drawn back. This is because she sees that there is “an energy of something being born… Something is emerging that is full of life, it’s very different from what is expected, different from what has come before.” Just after the financial recession in the United States Yvonne found herself walking down Wall Street. Comparing New York to the “buzz of life” she was used to back home she had a strange feeling, “this is death, this is what death feels like” she thought to herself.
Yvonne still experiences what she calls “Old Nairobi moments” such as the times when the lions leave the national park and warm themselves on the tarmac of the Langata road. Another favourite of hers is when the herders take their cows to town, hundreds of cows bringing motorways to a stand still. To understand these moments sometimes you must get out of your vehicle and walk. Yvonne experiences Nairobi through smell as much as through sight “The Nairobi smell you can’t explain it, you know it is warm, you know it has dark overtones and mango and cloves and something else.” You can’t smell that from an air-conditioned 4 by 4. For those that only witness Nairobi this way Yvonne says that “there’s some people who have been born in Nairobi but who are not of Nairobi.”
If people do step out of their comfort zones unexpected connections can be made with others in the city. Yvonne describes Nairobi as “a space of surprise, it’s also a transition zone for us in between people”. Connections are more likely to made in the “informal, grey lines” of gathering round a road accident than in a structured meeting. She explains “That’s what Nairobi does very well, bringing disparate people together in the strangest of circumstances”.
Though Yvonne describes Nairobi’s glassy modern skyline as the city “going for plastic surgery without understanding what face it wants” she believes there is an underlying resilience in the essence of her city. With her writing Yvonne hopes to keep “a little strand of Nairobi’s memory that even if it is not recognised now will be found later on. The idea of a Nairobi that will never go away because its memories are in tact.”
Yvonne has just written the novel Dust. Featured in the Guardian as one of the Best Books of 2014.