It’s Our Turn to Eat

An excellent description of Nairobi streets by Michaela Wrong in the prologue to ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’

It was early evening, that time when the traffic jams that clog the Kenyan capital of Nairobi’s arteries for most of the working day reach their apogee.

Down below, thousands of honking matatu minibuses, drivers hyped on adrenalin and pent-up frustration, were doing their best to get their passengers home. Fighting for space against the lumbering Public buses, sagging like old mattresses under the weight of their clientele, the customized Toyotas and Nissans jerked in fits and starts across the crumbling roundabouts, their touts leaning out of half-Open doors to wheedle and abuse, pounding on the bonnets of encroaching cars in a manner more bullying than friendly. Choking on the black fumes pumped from hundreds of over-revved, under-serviced engines, blue-uniformed policemen struggled to keep the flow moving.

On the fifteenth floor of the Ministry of Finance, however, the beeps and angry shouts were barely audible. Most of the messengers, clerks and secretaries, keepers of the ubiquitous departmental Thermos of tea, had abandoned their perches behind the varnished wooden partitions, silence was creeping in to take their place. From this elevation, the world below seemed calm and peaceful, lent Tranquility by the approaching chill of evening. Wheeling in cooling eddies of warm air; kites traced monotonous circles high above, like black smuts whirling over a dying fire. Even higher above them gracefully looped Nairobi’s sinister valkyries, the marabou storks, and hardworking scavengers of the nearby slums.

From up here, the historic landmarks of the city centre, so grubby at street level, looked almost pristine. One side of the ministry gazed south-east, across the rusting, dilapidated entrails of the giant railway depot that was both the city and the country’s original raison d’être: for Nairobi was the spot where British railroad engineers paused to gather their material, manpower and energies before flinging their ironware up and over the escarpment and dizzily down into the Rift Valley, aiming at the giant lake lying at the continent’s alluring heart.

Beyond stretched the hangars and go downs of the Industrial Area, the capital’s main airport and the savannah expanse of Nairobi’s game park, hemmed in by the dry Ukambani hills, where the odd Feather of grey smoke – some peasant clearing land – plumed skyward. The other side of the ministry looked across Harambee Avenue, past the colonnaded Law Courts, towards the clock tower of Parliament Buildings, City Hall and the conference complex named after Jomo Kenyatta, once dubbed a ‘leader unto darkness and death’ by a British official, now honored as the nation’s founding father. The small dots moving about on the esplanade below were Kenyan sightseers come to have their pictures taken in front of the late president’s seated statue, which showed him in chieftain’s cap, flywhisk in hand. Beyond the square one could glimpse the lawns of Uhuru Park, where Mwai Kibaki, Kenyatta’s former finance minister, had been inaugurated president eighteen months earlier. From up here, the park seemed the green and pleasant public garden its planners had originally envisaged, rather than what it had become in the intervening years: open-air toilet, haunt of roaming muggers, resting spot for the homeless and exhausted.

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