Nairobians have secret inclination towards deriving pleasure in the humiliation of others
A stranger once captured the true spirit of living in Nairobi, and you might have discovered this, through one meme or another. And so beneath Nairobi’s appetite for material wealth, lies a secret inclination towards deriving pleasure in both suffering and humiliation of others. And having been a Nairobian, and now a converted one reflecting from a distance, I can speak from the safety of a glasshouse on the highest floor of any skyscraper one can imagine.
I cannot say that I knew the Nairobian spirit, and which reflects a collective national value, until I was well out of the university and malnourished and walking on a faded jeans and without the safety of a permanent employment. But this is a diversion. The purpose of this address is to dissect the Nairobian culture. Yet, culture only emerges once there are legends and myths and stories that are invented and reinvented. And now I will invent one.
Now to return to the subtle message from a meme – those combinations of pictures and texts that nourish our online existence – there was one about a power blackout. I often caught myself in the habit of checking out the window to see that I am not the only one in darkness, even though most of the times I had depleted my prepaid tokens. I was gratified if it was a general blackout. If it is true for one, then it is true for all.
Before the advent of prepaid tokens this was an unimaginable habit, since there was no sense of individual suffering. A blackout was equally dispersed and it appeared bearable to suffer together.
For those in villages and small towns, power blackouts are evenly spread, and never appear as surprises. If you visit a remote shopping center on the fringes of the Rift Valley, for example, the shopkeeper would advise you to recharge your smartphone because between such and such hours the power is often out. And this is clear.
The soul of the sadist culture in Nairobi extends beyond utility. It is in observing the downfall of others that it becomes bold. Cycles of economic collapse have often hurled many from high income to low income, and those who face these unbearable circumstances are the most famous. It is as if there is a collective culture that revels in loss of status. One needs not go far in seeking an example, and turn the gaze towards Dennis Oliech’s fate. The sudden rapture that met Kenya’s legendary finisher’s appearance with a bushy locks of beard was almost uncalled for, but it drew attention to a sense of general expectations. To an expectation that his putative wealth will slowly but certainly decline.
It is perhaps a truth without exception. And most juicy stories are those about failure and suffering and loss. A cackle and laughter among couples rarely draws attention as the yelling of a domestic dispute. At such times, doors are ajar and window curtains – Americans call them blinds – are unfolded. Eyes fixed and ready to witness the appearance of a cloud of shame.
On this sadist culture, one can go on and on. And this spirit, in some way, compels Nairobians to scamper around to seal their success. Every obstacle is met with a lamentation. It is not the consolation but the aftermath of sympathy that defines the Nairobian culture. As one sage once noted, in Nairobi-speak, every time one falls in a misfortune, the first thing in mind is “Nitaambia watu nini!” And that sums the sadism that nourishes Nairobians.
Enos Nyamor is a Nairobi-born cultural critic who lives in New York City.