If I had to chronicle all the times I felt scared while I was traveling, you’d wonder why I do it at all. I feel scared on the plane (it’s going to crash); I feel scared in cars (they’re going to crash); I feel scared walking down the street (I’m going to trip, fall into the street, and a car is going to crash into me).
I was aware of the potential hazards in Kenya before I left. I knew, vaguely, of the threats against Westerners by the terrorist organization al-Shabaab. That in February, there’d been a scare in the town of Nanyuki where I’m staying when I’m not up north, and where I’m writing this from now. But it was only when I arrived that I began to feel the weight of what those threats meant.
When my Uber pulled up to my hotel in Nairobi’s affluent Westlands neighborhood, security swept a large mirror under the car, searching for bombs, and both the driver and I were wanded and patted down before we were allowed to enter the property. Every time I came or went, I passed through two metal detectors and had my purse scanned. During my only full day in Nairobi, I walked about 15 minutes down the dusty road to Westgate Mall to get myself a SIM card, where I underwent another similarly rigorous search that made airport security at JFK look like a farce.
All of this struck me as slightly odd, particularly since it didn’t happen everywhere. The supermarket, I noticed, had no metal detectors; nor did the cafe where I sat with dozens of others sipping lattes and staring at my laptop. Turns out Westgate was the same mall where more than 70 people were killed in an attack by al-Shabaab in 2013. And just a half-mile down the road from where I was staying, terrorists attacked the upscale DusitD2 hotel just this January, killing 26.
On my way out of Nairobi on Monday, my car passed DusitD2, and a sort of unpleasant reality settled its weight upon my shoulders. There were people here who saw me and wanted me dead. This was true in America, too, of course, but it felt much more personal in Kenya, a place where Westerners are far from uncommon but also the minority. No matter where I went or how low a profile I kept, I’d stand out.
By the time my car rolled into Nanyuki three hours later, I’d thoroughly spooked myself. I was exhausted, I knew, thanks to a 2 a.m. alarm that went off in my hotel and didn’t stop for an hour. In the end, it was nothing, but it did succeed in rattling my already strained nerves. What was I doing here, anyway? Why was I here when I could be at home, where I could drink water from the tap and sleep without a mosquito net?
I crawled into my hotel, an exceedingly clean and comfortable place along the main road and texted everyone I knew about how freaked out I was. “You’ll be fine!” was the near universal response, chiefly from people whose travel experience was confined to nice hotels around Europe’s finer arrondissements. Only my aunt, who has traveled extensively in Africa and everywhere else in the world, had anything else to say.
“The work you want to do can put you in slightly precarious situations. It is an important thing to keep in mind as you think about the next steps in your career—and what you want.”
I considered this. For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted a career as a foreign correspondent. I’d envied reporters who went to war zones and churned out copy from dingy hotels while danger and uncertainty raged outside. I’d long considered myself well-suited for such a career because of my toughness; my ability to make myself comfortable in extreme environments. But the idea of such a career is one thing; the reality is different. Parasites, violence, malaria and any number of other threats abound. My point person at the NGO with which I’m embedding sent me an email a few days ago with the subject line “Samburu sites and security situation in the north,” which informed me that I’d be accompanied to the area by a security detail comprised of both Turkana and Samburu forces, after clashes between those two tribes left eight dead last week. Certainly there are people who do this work all the time, and for whom such an email is nothing to raise eyebrows over. For me, though, it’s uncharted territory.
Maybe everything will be fine. Maybe I’ll get very sick and have to spend a week throwing up into a latrine. Maybe I’ll get robbed. These things have happened before. And has it been fine? Yes. Do I want it to happen again? Not especially!
Unable to sleep around 4 a.m., I started watching an interview with Alex Honnold, the climbing savant who skittered ropeless up El Capitan as if it were an oversized jungle gym. He was discussing what it was like to have so many friends die on the mountain, and his responses were characteristically blasé. “You start to realize it really can happen to anybody with a little bit of bad luck, and timing, and whatever else,” he said. He went on to talk about a gruesome accident he’d witnessed the year before, in which a novice climber had fallen to his extremely graphic death. He described the way the victim’s belay partner desperately wondered whether she could have done something to save him.
“It was horrible. And I hate to follow that up with ‘but,’ but basically I was like, ‘That’s climbing,'” Honnold said. But while witnessing such a tragedy was terrible, it was only a drop in the vast pool of his climbing life. “I think I weigh that against the cumulative joy of having been outside, having great climbing experiences,” he said.
And that, I suppose, is traveling. Will I be fine? In all likelihood, yes. But it’s not a given the way people love to insist that it is. I understand the utility of the expression—it’s an easy response to an existential terror best not dwelled upon. It’s all very American, the way we refuse to acknowledge the possibility of death; the way we consider it a horrible aberration and not the inevitability that it is.
But the better way to think about it, to me, is that I have weighed the risks, and decided that I’d rather live a life filled with adventure than stay curled up in the safety of my apartment. It’s okay, I think, to recognize the danger, and confront head-on the fact that not fine remains a distinct possibility, and then, to suck it up and do it anyway.
2 thoughts on “Nairobi, Nanyuki and the Tyranny of “You’ll Be Fine!””
Thoughtful and accurate piece.
Fear, friends, and knowledge will keep you safer. Recognize and appreciate the first for keeping you aware, but don’t give into it. Cultivate the other two as much as possible.
I lived in Kenya for about 18 months, including during the Westgate attack, which was a 30 minute walk from my flat in Westlands. I understand your fears and they’re valid. I could have been a bombing victim on one of the last days I was there. You will get used to the precautions for expats/Westerners (driving primarily during the day, avoiding or being quick at bus stations, red license plates, etc).
But I hope you find the experience overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. I returned to Kenya just this past March as I was traveling to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro and was amazed at how much had changed in the 5-7ish years since I lived there. But also, somethings were unchanged, like the intense security at the upscale malls (now nearly a dozen in the Nairobi area!). I loved living in Kenya and especially Nairobi; it made moving to New York much easier, also a city known for high security!
Looking forward to more dispatches and next time you’re in Nairobi, hit up Brew Bistro for me 🙂
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