It felt good when we once again get back on the highway. I think it would have felt good for Muchoki as well. Once more the ‘string’ was visible. They simple had to follow it, one step after another.
At this point, city is still somewhere in the distance. There are indications it’s getting closer–more traffic, more people, more houses, more roadside stalls and stores–and then all at once–it appears. Nairobi is beyond the understanding and even the imagination of my characters. To say that Nairobi would be overwhelming for Muchoki and Jata is beyond understatement. The little that Muchoki knows of the city is that it is dangerous, akin to a gigantic hole that might will fall into or a dangerous animal that could kill them.
I wanted to portray this city through the eyes of my characters–two young orphaned children who had never seen it. I had with me four young people who had had almost no prior contact with Nairobi. In fact, before to this trip, Keli and Baraka had never been to the city. They were awed, confused, and frightened. Baraka in particular seemed to need to stay very close to either myself, Henry, or the armed guards. He had all of us; Muchoki had nobody. We were a large group; Muckoki was alone with his sister. We had a guide, a driver, maps and a familiarity with this city. He had nothing. How terrifying.
I remember so clearly our group going into a “mall” so that we could get lunch. There were two escalators. None of the four had ever seen one. They eyed it curiously, figured it was safe and then ‘leaped’ onto it from safe distance, held on, eyes open, hands clutching the rail, and then long before it reached the top, jumped to safety!
Nairobi is a city of somewhere between 3 and 6 million people. It is a jumble of high-rise towers, stores, stalls, shopping malls, shacks, mansions, and ghettos. Traffic congestion defies understanding or adequate description. Picture a bizarre mix of trucks, cars, matatus, donkey carts, pull carts and pedestrians. Traffic rules seem to be almost non-existent with vehicles running lights, going the wrong direction, rumbling up onto the shoulder and sidewalks forcing people to dodge out of the way. Fancy shops can have chickens and goats grazing in the storefront and sometimes piles of garbage burning right outside. People are everywhere. There is a never-ending flow of people walking, running, standing, selling and buying. Nairobi is a city that seems to overwhelm every sense.
Almost all buildings which contain anything of value in Nairobi are behind high walls topped with razor wire, electrified fence or embedded pieces of broken glass. The factory in the picture above was not in Nairobi but is typical with its walls, wire and broken glass. I wanted my characters to stay behind the walls of the building for a number of reasons. I wanted them to have to trust this Luo and other Luo they didn’t know. I wanted them–particularly Muchoki–to be protected by the people he sees as his enemy.
I also just wanted them to be safe. I know this isn’t real. I know I made up these characters. That doesn’t mean I don’t care for them. To be alone in Nairobi, unprotected and exposed, was just too painful to me as a writer. I needed them to be safe. This is a rather personal indulgence and one of the things I always have to guard against in my writing. I have an urge to solve problems, protect my characters, and get them to a happy resolution quickly. There could be no happy ending yet. They had to remain in jeopardy because more bad things still have to happen.