Surviving Nairobi As An African Immigrant  


Surviving Nairobi As An African Immigrant  

I slide and lean back on the leather seat watching my feet soak in a pedicure massager. It is a few minutes past 2 p.m. My eyes pace around the room on the fourth floor of a building on Nairobi’s Moi Avenue. As it tends to happen, the place is a  salon, a barbershop and a spa too. But mostly, it is an adda, a place for conversation. The high cost of living was the preamble to an ongoing conversation about a certain lady, let’s call her Rose.  

I overhear that Rose’s husband drives a Range Rover Discovery, but she has never set foot in it. That, apparently, he is an angel to everyone but her. The narrator, a short man with a thick afro, recollects how Rose broke down during her birthday party, to which he was invited to do her makeup. The husband is way older, probably twice as old, in his estimation. He was not at the party. 

“Thank you for showing up. I feel alone most of the time. Like I am married to myself. I want to be looooved. To feeeel …” he mimics Rose’s shrill cry onomatopoeically and blames her for turning a vote of thanks into a court session as she litigates against an unloving husband. The Narrator doesn’t blame Rose. He blames women in particular and in general. No one, man or woman, protests.

“She even waits at the visitors’ bench for clearance whenever she visits his office,’’ the Narrator baffles his audience. ‘‘Her sister-in-law walks through the doors like she owns the building.” 

I fake disinterest in the whole affair but remain in awe at the thinning and thickening of the Narrator’s voice intonations. The moral of the story, the Narrator’s audience agrees, is that the high cost of living is not as bad as getting married to a rich man. I choke in silent protest. About 30 minutes go by in the conversation.

I look at my bubbling feet. The foam has risen too close to my erratically folded pants. What is taking the nail technician too long? He had asked for 10 minutes at most, to pick up his french fries at the food store on the next street. I look out through the window. Crowds. 

I love crowds. In crowds, I can be anyone or no one at all. I can be that lady in a blue fascinator, moving quickly, her eyes prying into a cosmetic store on the side of the road. Or, I could be that man with a sun-bleached jacket holding his sack of merchandise across his shoulder. I feel drowned in crowds but I still love them. Sometimes though, I just want to find a quiet spot where I can watch what looks like invisible hands pulling people in opposite directions. Some break away. 10 minutes, maybe 15, go by.

I look at my bubbling, foamy feet. I feel anger pushing up my chest, wanting to be let out. To shout at somebody. But who? I hold it back. I want to call Pierre*, the nail tech, but I remember he left his phone charging. I want to ask the hairdresser next to me where he is but I am scared it is not her business. And she is busy dyeing a client’s hair yellow. Yellow? What are you? A minion? Butt out. I look at my feet again. It is almost 4 p.m.

Kwani huyu Pierre alienda wapi?” I throw the question to no one in particular.

Pierre’s colleague offers to go to the food kiosk to find him but soon after he leaves the salon, Pierre calls the salon’s official line. Kanjo has arrested him.

“For what?” I ask.

“Do they need a reason?’’ the receptionist answers as she orders another staff member to attend to me. ‘‘He is not lucky because he did not carry his passport.”

The new nail tech comfortably wears a timid look, like this is how he looks every day. He tells me his name, Jean*, a Burundian. For not carrying the passport Pierre must now part with KSh 1,000, I learn from Jean. 

“Money works just as well as the official passport,” Jean says. “But if you have neither, you’ll have to spend the night at the filthy City Hall cells”.

Jean has a passport, but he has been arrested many times. He often prefers giving the 1,000 bob passport to the official one.

“When they (Kanjo) are hungry, they will find an issue with your passport,’’ Jean explains. ‘‘Sometimes they confiscate it, keep you for hours, wasting your work day.” 

Jean says if you don’t play ball you are handed over to national police officers and hauled to the City Hall Court with trumped-up charges that attract hefty penalties.

“How do they know you are not Kenyan before they target you?” I ask.

“Can’t you tell that I am not Kenyan?”  Jean asks. Well, I cannot.

“It’s not just foreigners who fall victim. Even Kenyans bare the brunt. Bill* muambie,” Jean ropes in his Kenyan colleague, who has lost track of the number of times he has been arrested by Kanjo. Bill says the first time he was arrested, Kanjo accused him of stepping on the flowerbed. 

“They arrested me at the entrance of a mall. They pulled me aside and that is how I stepped on the flowerbed, that had no plants. I could not believe it. I tried to argue but a guy who had also been arrested cautioned me. He said it was easier to comply and pay KSh 500 for your freedom” he said.

He has been arrested several times after, for hawking, loitering and other offences he does not even recall. Quickly, the adda picks up the topic, everyone sharing their experiences in the hands of Kanjo.

Jean says the fear of being locked up is the reason they rush to pay bribes. If you have legal documents, he says,  Kanjo will create trumped-up charges like hawking, littering, idling, jaywalking, stepping on flower beds or hugging, which they say is a public nuisance.

In the midst of the anti-Kanjo pitty party, someone remembers Pierre.

The receptionist sends someone with KSh 1,000 to free Pierre, telling me that in case one doesn’t have cash but only has money on M-pesa, and therefore ask Kanjo to accompany them to an M-pesa agent to withdraw the money, Kanjo will up the bribe by KSh 500. They can see the money.

Jean is better than Pierre in colour selection but he is too slow. If the paint does not chip, I might consider cheating on my nail technician. Pierre calls me later to apologise. He tells me he has a valid passport but no work permit. He had been arrested for apparently hawking without a licence but was released after paying the 1,000 bob bribe.

“What would I be hawking when I have left my client waiting?’’ Pierre wondered. 

I decide to attend the city court eager to see offences brought forward. 

On a Tuesday morning, I make my way to City Hall Court. The courthouse is chock-a-block with people, mostly men. I calculate my steps as I elbow my way through the crowd unsure I would get space inside. Behind me, people are clicking and sneering loudly. One lady sneers loudly and then mutters something. The people next to her laugh. She has a huge blonde wig like the one Madea wears. I ignore it and proceed gently. Even if they were willing to move, space would not permit. So I push on till I find a spot at the back, near a broken bench. I stand there.

The air inside the courtroom is filled with a concoction of body odours from sweat to urine to chang’aa and fresh cigarettes. I hold my palm close to my mouth, to control how much air I breathe. 

The court’s Chief Magistrate, Roseline Oganyo, arrives shortly after and asks those not facing any charges to step outside. A handful leaves. Her nose is hoisted, and she complains about the number of times she has to remind court staff to make sure windows are open and people are let in in batches. Turning to the prosecutor, Oganyo inquires if there are any cases to be mentioned before the suspects take pleas. There is one case to be mentioned but the parties are absent. Plea-taking begins.

The session starts with the blonde lady’s case; Lucy*. She is being accused of loitering at night with an intention to engage in prostitution on Kenyatta Avenue. 

An intention to engage in prostitution, how did the arresting officer know? 

I am dismayed that Lucy admits the charges. I thought it would be very difficult to prove an intention in court.

For the hour I stand in the courtroom, there are dozens of people being charged with petty offences from loitering, being drunk and disorderly, being in the country illegally and hawking without a licence. A police officer outside the courthouse tells me that most of those arraigned in court opt to plead guilty. The fines, he says, are cheaper and less complicated than bail or the long and tedious process of getting justice.

“Unfortunately, some are slapped with hefty fines which they can’t pay and are still in remand,” the policeman tells me.

The Nairobi City Court magistrate mainly handles at least 13 cases every day, mostly relating to the breaking of city by-laws which have never been reviewed since it was passed in the 90s. Annually, 2,400 such cases of dumping and around 700 cases relating to prostitution are handled at the court. Some of the offences are charged in the Penal Code which is more than 59 years old.

*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s identity.


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