The View from the Bubble

Nairobi's Kibera District

I was first introduced to Soweto by Eddie Grant: 

While every mother in the black Soweto fears the killing of another son.   

I was kid in the 1980’s, so for me Gimme Hope, Johanna was just a fun tune with a catchy chorus.  It was jarring when, as a teenager, I realized that the song is about apartheid and that Soweto is a Southern African slum.  Kind of like the feeling I have when re-watching a movie I liked as a kid only to realize I had no idea what was going on the first time around. 

Johannesburg’s Soweto holds the dubious distinction of being Africa’s largest slum.  It is generally agreed that Nairobi’s Kibera district is number two.  As an expatriate, you can live in Nairobi for years without visiting the place.  Kibera wasn’t always a slum.  The land was originally awarded to Nubian soldiers of the King’s African Rifles for their loyal service to the British crown in the early twentieth century. Today almost all of Kenya’s tribes are represented there, making it a hotbed for conflict.  Kibera saw brutal violence in the aftermath of President Kibaki’s reelection in 2007.

I visited Kibera to pay my respects to a local UN colleague who had lost a family member.  I was the only foreigner making the trip.  Kibera is in a valley.  As you enter, you look down on row after row of corrugated metal roofs.  It was a bright, sunny day.  I watched goats pick at piles of garbage and excrement and thought of the advice a Somali friend once gave me, “never order goat at restaurant in a city.”  I imagined how the rainy season must transform the space between the rows of houses into rivers of floating plastic bottles and shit.  The streets were crowded.  The masses split reluctantly to allow my vehicle to pass.  I was a light skinned black American driving around Africa’s second largest slum in a diplomatic plated, white land cruiser.  I stood out a bit.      

Nairobi is a city of extremes.  Is Kibera more representative of the city than, say, the Runda area (which contains the UN headquarters and several embassies)?  It’s hard to tell from the expatriate bubble – the shopping malls and cafes have a way of shrouding the city’s stunning poverty.  Nairobi doesn’t lie between these extremes – it is these extremes. 


“I love Kenya, but I can’t stand Kenyans.”  A French woman (I’m going to call her Maryse) told me at a dinner party recently.

For all this woman knew one or both of my parents could be Kenyan.  Yet, Maryse spoke without a hint of embarrassment.  Maryse had lived in Africa for over 15 years and felt that her time on the continent granted her impunity in describing its native residents.   

“That’s funny – I feel the same way about France.” 

I didn’t say that.  I wish I had, but it wouldn’t have been true.  I like the French.  And I just don’t have access to the type of outrage I would have felt at her comment ten or even five years ago.   

Maryse was trying to come off as an old Africa hand, but only succeeded in describing her particular view from the bubble.  Kenyans were the ladies who eyed Maryse while cleaning her lavish residence.  Kenyans were the street kids who prompted Maryse to lock the doors on her SUV.  She disliked these Kenyans.  I disliked her.  But I didn’t hold the fact that she lives in the bubble against her.  The fact that Maryse was a bitch – yes, I held that against her.  Living in the bubble – nah.  How could I?  I live in the same place.  My view’s just a bit different.  Not better – just different.  And for that, I thank Ukraine.    

All told I spent more than five years living (or based) in Kyiv.  The first two years I was in the military.  The Marine Embassy Guard bubble is extraordinarily opaque – my Kyiv encompassed the embassy, the Marine House and the night life.  When I returned as a graduate student my Kyiv expanded to teachers & classmates at the Linguistic Institute, catching marshootkas (shuttle buses) and chatting with neighbors in our building.  Don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t enamored with everything about my new view of Ukraine.  But the experience reminds me that I will never have a non-expatriate view of Kenya.  While a lot of expats in Nairobi don’t even realize they’re in it, I am well aware of the fact that I live in the bubble. 


My colleague’s home in Kibera was clean and cozy.  He had his children line up in the foyer to greet us as we entered.  He was proud of his tall, good-looking, articulate sons.  His silent daughter smiled beneath her hijab.  A friend of hers, at the house helping out, was dressed like one of the girls at the nightclub ‘Florida 2000.’*  Nairobi is nothing if not a city of extremes. 

The interaction was uncomfortable.  How could it not be?  My presence conferred a certain amount of respect on my colleague in his community and he reveled in it.  When introducing me to his neighbors my colleague added weighty adjectives to my title and job function (principal, vital, premier, key).  His daughter served me a plate heavy with samosas and cookies.  Everyone watched me eat.  How many of the dinner-party “old Africa hands” visited places like this?  Or had they spent their fifteen years on the continent attending and hosting dinner parties at palatial residences? 
The post-election violence in 2007 & 2008 surprised a lot of Kenya’s long time foreign residents.  But I’ve never heard a native-born Kenyan describe him or herself as “surprised” by the violence.  Disgusted, frustrated, even terrified – but not surprised.  Far be it from me to criticize anyone for inhabiting the expatriate bubble – I’m a resident myself.  I just wonder if all of the expats here know their address.       

The view’s different out there. 

* “Florida 2000” isn’t just notorious among UN Security personnel.  In The Zanzibar Chest, journalist Aiden Hadley commented, “I swear to God, you could smell the AIDS in there.” 


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