Saturday, October 17, 2009


Last night was my first southern California earthquake, a magnitude of 3.2 with an epicenter in our zip code that had me a little freaked out in a room of unperturbed Californians. It started a conversation about the various disaster drills that punctuated our days growing up. We practiced two such catastrophe-readiness procedures at my school in Nairobi. One siren sounded to send everyone to the soccer fields in the event of a fire, and another prompted the intruder (aka terrorist – and this was even pre-9/11) drill, where the teachers would lock the doors and we would all be quiet and stay away from the windows. While my US friends got snow days off, we had riot days when violent student protests shut down the center of town and prevented us from getting to school.

As excited as I am that I’ll be back in Nairobi in less than two months, I also feel the rise of the familiar and unwelcome sense of fear. I remember the morning I woke up to be told that I had slept through hearing the guard in the compound next door screaming as he was tortured by thieves who returned three times over four nights (my brother heard the whole thing). I remember my heart racing at the gate of our compound every time we’d arrive home after dark, knowing that carjackers preferred to strike at that vulnerable moment. I remember on my last visit feeling helpless sitting in a matatu next to a man who was trying to steal my phone, knowing that if I called “mwizi” (Swahili for thief) he might be lynched in front of me. And I remember knowing that something had shifted in me when I cried myself to sleep that night for both my own fear and the poverty that drove the man next to me to attempt the robbery.

Growing up in Nairobi gave me a somewhat warped sense of personal safety. If I woke in the night to the sound of sirens or gunshots I would run my mind over each layer of security measures between my family and the outside world, from the hedge around our compound, the guard at the gate, the motioned-sensor lights, the bars on the windows, the multiple locks and bolts on the doors to the metal cage we built to separate the second story of our maisonette, and the panic button installed by my parents’ bed, ready to summon a truckload of private security guards. On trips back to the US I would struggle to fall asleep at my grandmother’s house in rural Pennsylvania knowing that only a single, simple lock separated me from the outside.

I still like to keep my car doors locked. I still watch the cameras and jewelry of my friends when we’re in a crowd and worry about carrying a bag that isn’t closed with a zipper. And I hate the thought of having to live that way, and knowing that I was one of Nairobi’s residents who could afford to be most insulated from the insecurity. This week I read an article on the recent rise in kidnappings in the city, with the targets being wealthy westerners but also middle-class Kenyans. It makes me ache.

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