I suppose you are aware of what happened in Kenya recently, at the Westgate Mall. This morning there are more photos of the wreckage of that mall and I was looking at them. Even in the black ashes of what remains, I could see the shiny first days of when Westgate arrived to our neighborhood in Nairobi, and feel the mixed emotions it brought: excitement over a posh cafe and a theater that showed Sex and the City; a sinking feeling that the old Nairobi---wild animals, dusty streets, a freedom and quiet and simple life---was being replaced.
Here is a post I wrote about our first trip to Westgate when the kids were babes, and Mads was living in New York and we were to join him in a few months. It was a shiny time, it really was for everyone.
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We who live here in Nairobi pride ourselves on its cosmopolitan, international, cultural-mecca status of the world. It is one of the largest, or at least one of the coolest, cities in Africa! The headquarters of several UN agencies, it's also the media base in East Africa for journalists and writers. There is an airport in Nairobi---two airports!---and airplanes take off and land all day. They are going to exciting places, and bringing in fascinating, complicated people, and the complicated people come from all over the place, and sometimes they up wind up at a dinner party with you that night and tell you about the World Beyond---talking about shoe fashion and technology and bicycle races in DC.
It leaves me breathless!
But there are some things that are still provincial, which is also why we appreciate Nairobi. Like malls. They exist---four come to mind---but they are sort of quirky, with long, slow ramps connecting the floors, or little bridges over fake pools. There is always limited parking and many stairs. Sometimes it is a whole flight of stairs and sometimes three or four stairs and sometimes stairs that rise over fake ponds that you have to cross by stepping on fake rocks.
But this morning, all that changed.
Last year, they finished a new mall located about a mile from our house. I am a bit stuck in my ways I guess, but we did---me, the girl and the babe---finally venture down there this morning. It was kind of scary, I admit. First, where do I park? Will there be signs directing me? Well, yes! Not only that, there is an underground car garage. I wondered if the Range Rover would fit... It did! The girl said, "Hey we went into one of these when I broke my arm at Yaya's house!" That was last August, good memory!
We were all very excited, it was so weird. The babe went HUUUUMMMMMMMM to imitate the giant underground parking garage hum, and the girl was laughing at that, and so was I. The girl took his hand in an uncharacteristic gesture of protection, and the three of us went to the mall.
There are tons of Nacumatts (one of those everything stores) all around Nairobi, and more built every day it seems, and sometimes I think they're going to rename Nairobi "Nacumatt," because it's probably taking over the government as I write. We have been to Nacumatt, yes, we're not that backward! But this, THIS Nacumatt has two escalators in its store! The babe, who has never seen snow, or watched PBS, or ordered a pizza, has never been on an escalator either. We held hands and the three of stepped on together. Forget Disney Land, this was great! We almost wiped out getting off at the end, but we didn't.
But then, there were the bathtubs. Rows of bathtubs! Some were big and some were small and one was the shape of a triangle. This was too much for a two- and four-year-old who know about guavas, chameleons, askaris, police, jambos, giraffes, birds of prey, tea, monkeys, flamingos, Mombasa, Sudan and Somalia, but have never seen Bed, Bath & Beyond. Those bathtubs killed about twenty minutes of an otherwise rainy, slightly lonely, kind of endless Saturday morning.
Once the sheer excitement of so many bathtubs began to ease, we crossed the floor to the bakery. It's an all new and shiny area, with bakers wearing those white hats and though it has the same products of any Indian duka, the setting reminded me of produce market in San Francisco. There were two Italian men arguing over pastries. They were gay I was pretty sure. There was something so familiar and comforting seeing those Italian arguing gay men. It was like suddenly being home (but where is home? west? here?) in a way that I can't explain because you don't live as an American housewife in Nairobi, or if you do you'll know what I mean without me explaining it. It was like the air between us was thinner than the air elsewhere and I could have just walked up to them and started talking like we'd been friends for 14 years.
We bought croissants. They cost like a million dollars. But then it was time for the ride in the glass elevator. (The kids were so easily swept from one amusement to the next! No whining! Disney Land!). The girl pushed the button and we waited for it arrive, and then we got in and stood there carefully, looking at each other like "I'm ok, are you ok?" The doors closed. I pushed the top button which the girl pointed out was FOUR because she is FOUR!
We started to lift in our little glass box. The fake ferns fell away, the water feature too. We slipped past the first floor, the atrium below seemed to grow. The second floor. The kids were bewildered, brave, accepting. I was getting a little sick though. By the third floor, I was questioning who built this thing. You always question who built this thing when you're in Africa because, well, will it work? The roads don't work. The steetlights don't work. The electricity is sporadic. The water too. Getting passports renewed as well as ordering a cup of coffee---none of that stuff works. So why should the glass elevator work? What if they cut corners on installing the cable, and took the cash meant for the good cable and bought some shitty rope cable? I know that's the kind of thing the plumber is doing on my kitchen sink right now, because he's fixed it twice and it still drips. So why shouldn't the elevator cable guy do it? Maybe his kids are sick. He probably lives in the slum Kibera. I probably would take the money if my kids were sick in a slum too.
Then, we passed the fourth floor and the fucking elevator kept going. The glass elevator passed into a wall---we were inside some elevator tunnel, no longer overlooking the atrium. We were ascending, and we shouldn't be I didn't think, and my knees were giving out. There were no controls. I started to panic, honestly I did though I hid it so the kids wouldn't panic too.
When we reached the roof we were all still fine, but I thought I was going to throw up. When, in the last seven years of limited elevator experience, did I become scared of elevators? Or is this some sort lack of faith in my fellow man? Do I question the success of an encroaching civilization in the highlands, or anywhere? Well, bravely---as an example to my fine children---I said, What fun! I pushed the ground floor button, and down we went.