The Beginning

It could have been a scene out of a bad ‘80s movie. Men in high-waisted khakis sporting bad mustaches, standing in front of airport duty free shops lined with whitewashed cartons of Marlboro Reds. Old Coca-Cola ads proclaiming that there are “A Billion Reasons to Believe in Africa” and Citibank posters of half-clothed African bushmen that instruct onlookers that the word “rafiki” is Swahili for friend.

In the cab on the way out of the airport, the streets all looked like Taigu's—massive dirt roads undercut with uneven cobblestone paving and highway arteries clogged with cars passing indiscriminately over the median. The two hours of nearly standstill traffic today were to be blamed on incompetent police officers, said my taxi driver, a dark, big-bellied man named Saidie. “If they would just let the lights do their job, we wouldn’t have any problems,” he shouted over the blaring Swahili broadcast of the Nairobi-Kenya World Cup qualifier on the car stereo. Traffic runners, quick to capitalize on the immobilized passengers, showed off their wares—bags of mangoes, top-up phone cards, newspapers, head towels, throw rugs. Saidie waved a dull hand and rolled up his window. There were many things that I wanted to ask him—like why he had traveled to Iran, and which mobile service provider offered the best rates—but I could tell he had a lot riding on the match, and I thought it best that we just listen.

Safety is more of a concern here than I imagined. The reality according to nearly everyone I spoke to is that you can’t go out without a taxi past sundown. Even a one-minute walk from the Fellows apartment to an Italian restaurant across the street for dinner proved tense. A big group of mzungu is always the easiest target to hit. Once past the barbed-wire gate and a pat-down reminiscent of the old TSA, candles were lit and big logs were set on a pyre for outdoor dining. The waiter brought over four menus to share, and pretty soon the eight of us were sharing toasts of Prosecco over bowls of linguine and parmesan.

At dinner we talked of sneaky pick-pockets, robberies at gunpoint, bodies thrown from an overnight bus after a roadside collision. I got up to use the bathroom and asked a leery man at the front of the kitchen where it was. He looked me up and down before pointing a finger towards the back of the restaurant. His eyes were shaded from the dark, and he looked like the drivers we had passed on the way in, unrecognizable through small cars with burned-out headlights as they crept along the empty streets. I caught the eye of the man again on my way back to my table. I paced him for a few steps before he stopped dead in his path and turned around to face me. “Hi,” he said, and I responded back in kind, as if, ultimately, we each needed to be clear of the other's intentions.