Walk On: Navigating expat life in Nairobi

While walking home from a nearby shopping mall in Nairobi one evening, I was assaulted and robbed at gunpoint. Most of my friends, family and colleagues responded along two somewhat predictable and justified lines: 1) “Why were you walking in the evening? It’s dangerous—stop walking in Nairobi!” and 2) “I can’t believe someone could be so vicious; this place is becoming so violent!”

It was a rather vicious attack. Out of the three men who assaulted me, two had guns. One fired his, and all of them kicked, punched and hurled nasty verbal insults throughout the entire ordeal. I felt fortunate to make it out alive and limped the 100 meters to my door with a cracked left humerus, cuts and bruises all over and ruptured muscles in my left thigh that would require surgery two days later.


But as I sat recovering on bed rest, I was not struck by a personal sense of violation, an overwhelming grief about what the world is coming to or any real anger in any form toward my attackers. That is not to say that I agree with what they did, but I think I understand it. This understanding is responsible for my sense of tranquility around the incident.

In my career, I have always worked with issues relating to children and young adults in developing countries. Invariably after forming a relationship with each group of kids—whether it be in Guatemala City, Nairobi or in my own United States—these kids would protect me, advise me and in general demonstrate a tremendous sense of loyalty toward me. And it was not because of my money (I have never had that much anyway); it was because I reached a hand across an aisle that is almost never crossed. This aisle is the invisible and oft-ignored socioeconomic and racial barrier that separates us.

Taking a peek into history, why were the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, or the 18th Street Gang founded? I would argue, and have publically done so on many occasions, that these groups were founded as a method of protection, as no one on the other side of the socioeconomic/racial aisle attempted to help these young gang members. The 18th Street Gang began in the 1960s in the Rampart District of Los Angeles—a group of Latino teen boys trying to make it as immigrants in a new place. Imagine what it must have been like to be a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking Latino immigrant in the United States at the height of racial strife throughout the country. No right to vote. No access to medical care. No money or social support network for clean or safe housing. No interpreters at the courthouse. White and black police protecting their own socioeconomic and racial interests before those of the communities they patrolled.

This is not a case of social marginalization; it is a case of social exclusion. The same is true for the advent of youth gangs in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Isolated from the stronghold of the Nicaraguan Revolution, communities could not vote, were cut off from education, health care, access to food and water and were stuck on the front lines of a Contra War they knew little about. When your government cannot provide even basic survival security for your community, what is the natural reaction? Recruit young men and older boys and protect yourselves, economically as well as physically. I do not think anyone will disagree that throughout the course of history this has been precisely the common reaction to such circumstances (think U.S. military drafts for World War I, World War II and Vietnam—or even a pack of wolves).

In many ways, living in Kenya has taught me about the immigrant experience and how, in the great melting pot, the most comfortable thing to do in one of life’s most uncomfortable integrations is to find those who are like you. But a stark division down the middle of a community is not socially healthy for humans and never has been. Still, in the United States, we have many ethnic neighborhoods—Iranian communities, Pakistani pockets, Chinatowns and the like—formed not so that locals could try new theme restaurants, but to recreate a bit of the home-grown comfort that we, as humans, rely upon.

Nairobi is no different. I am a member of a group called the Nairobi Expat Social, in which members of the Nairobi expat melting pot can come together in social fellowship. Everyone is welcome in the nearly 3,000-member group—except for Kenyans. As expats, we learn to “pocket” ourselves. We drive from compound to shopping mall to compound; we park behind barbed wire; and we raise our windows at stoplights. We create our own pockets of N.E.S. participants. We meet at ArtCaffé at least once a week, and we have lunch bills equivalent to what our house cleaners earn in a single month.

Kenyans living in the Kawangware slum, where my young attackers came from, are young, excluded men. They live under a government that steals their money, abuses its position and uses its citizens only when its personal power centers are at stake. They wait for hours in emergency rooms at public hospitals. They have no social welfare programs and suffer community-wide unemployment. Homes are typified by inhumane living conditions for children born in Kawangware—bathrooms are the infamous “flying toilets,” or excrement-filled plastic bags tossed into ditches next to the homes.

Whether our group likes it or not, we are on the other side of the socioeconomic/racial aisle, rarely offering our hands across. This does not mean we are racist, and it does not mean we are bad people. It means we are human, in an unnatural environment, doing what the standard human reaction is. The problem, however, is that these common reactions continue to cause neighborhood wars, spark ethnic conflict and contribute to the creation of armed robbers. I am, therefore, unintentionally and unknowingly complicit in my own assault.

We expats at times complain about poor service, saying, “We are creating an economy for these people” or “They should work harder for everything that I’m providing them.” But as a friend constantly reminds me, we choose to live here, and we have the financial and personal capacity to leave if we do not like it. What we do not discuss is that we not only arrive and create an economy, but we also disrupt an economy—and a society—that already exists. Every ArtCaffé that goes up behind the concertina wire was built atop someone’s land. Every dollar spent at big-name restaurants and shopping malls broadens the socioeconomic/racial aisle.

I am going to challenge the first and most common comment people made in response to my story. I would argue that the problem is not that we walk in Nairobi; rather, it is that we do not walk. In not walking, we do not make friends with the street kids en route, we do not know the first names and life stories of our security guards and we have never met the gangs in the daytime. We do not close the socioeconomic/racial gap; and unsurprisingly, our Kenyan neighbors do not protect us, feel a sense of loyalty toward us or blink at robbing us of our goods in their attempt to create a better economic and social reality for themselves—or, as they may see it, protecting their already precarious socioeconomic reality.

In short, by not recognizing the humanity—and the human reactions—of our Kenyan brothers and sisters living just down the road, we do not elicit a very loving reaction. I would argue that we are not being attacked; rather, we are being pushed off someone else’s land, and not because we are not welcome there. In fact, much to the contrary: it is because we never shook the hand of its owner.

Our local office is located in a building in one of Nairobi’s business districts, and a few months ago, before hiking back home, I ducked into the cantina next door, abuzz with life and energy and full of Kenyans on their lunch breaks. I stepped up to a counter and ordered chicken and chips while everybody stared at me (I am used to it by now). The waitress came up, and, in a far-too-complimentary tone, said, “Thank you so much for coming to eat with us.” This broke my heart. So few of us expats actively attempt to bridge the gap that it is actually notable when we do. We did not walk into an “us vs. them” reality. We created it.

So maybe we do not walk at night until things get a bit safer, but I also humbly submit that we have a role to play in the repair of the social structures surrounding the individuals we find assaulting us in the evening hours on footpaths—footpaths on which we all too rarely stride.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Burbach
4 years 11 months ago
Brilliant. Thank you.


The latest from america

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019
This week on “Inside the Vatican,” we explore the topic of women deacons.
Colleen DulleJanuary 16, 2019
Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019