Nairobi. The city under the sun or for the better part of last year, the city under tear gas. This city will show us things. When you’re not jumping over potholes while trying not to get run over by unruly buses, you’re breathing in tear gas.
For the most part of last year, city council askaris were involved in a push and pull battle with hawkers to push them out of the city. This resulted in chaos almost every day. If you went to the CBD regularly then you were bound to be caught up in this war or its aftermath. Lucky for me, I always happened to leave before it started or arrive after the dust had settled.
“Heh kumewaka leo.” I remember one bus conductor saying as I smelt a faint hint of tear gas in the air very early in the morning.
All I could think of was that could never be me. Little did I know the city was about to teach me a lesson in humility that very day. My day went on as usual. Actually, it was payday. For me, that meant a pocket full of cash. Literally.
I had an envelope full of cash in my bag which wouldn’t make me nervous on an ordinary day but I wanted a tailor-made outfit for an upcoming event and I had to go through that bad part of town or as we call it “downtown”.
“Sasa mrembo.” The catcalling started as soon as I turned into this uneven road riddled with plastic bottles and patches of water from God knows where. It was the middle of January, one of the driest months.
On the other hand, women called for customers by yelling out the prices of their goods. To be honest, I didn’t mind walking through these streets. I’ve bought some really nice shoes during these night thrifts. I just wished they would be more organized which is what the city council was trying to do.
“Hapana… Sitaki… Si leo.” I repeated to the more aggressive sellers.
I finally got to my tailor after dodging a lot of things. We took my measurements, chatted a bit until I had to leave before it got too dark.
“Nikusindikize ama uko sawa?” he offered.
“Nah.. Niko sawa. Si ni hapa tu.” I said referring to the bus terminus which was barely 500 meters away.
Sure enough, I was there in 5 minutes after taking a detour to the supermarket to get a snack. The bus was almost empty so I sat in a window seat close to the front and put my earphones on. Since that place was known for thieves and pickpockets, I decided to stash my cash on a different compartment in my bag.
Just as I was arranging my bag, the people at the back started screaming. My instinctive reaction was to ask what was going on to the person seated beside me. Before he could answer, I looked back and saw a cloud of smoke. Then the people started running out yelling, “bomb!”
I still had a bunch of cash on my hand and my phone which were the most valuable things in my possession. That’s when I learnt that the survival instinct is real. My mind was telling me it can’t be a bomb because bombs explode unless it’s a smoke bomb which technically won’t hurt you. However, my body was in full flight mode and I didn’t care what it was at that point. With everything still in my hand, I was ready to jump over anyone.
Everything was in slow motion. I barely took a minute to get out but it seemed like I was on that bus for 10 minutes. When we got off the bus, we realized it was tear gas, not a bomb. Everybody was running through this cloud of choking smoke. It was madness. Shop owners start closing their shops as people run inside to take cover.
“Nini kimefanyika?” someone asked as we made our way to the back of the shop where there was more space. I managed to put away my phone and cash discreetly but no one really bothered with them.
“Si ni hawa kanjo.” Another replied.
In that whole mess, that’s when it hit me that I could barely breathe. I started coughing hysterically and my eyes burned. If I wasn’t going to die in that bus, I was about to die in some random shop in a strange part of town.
Luckily, a good Samaritan brought water from his shop to wash our face. I decided to drink some which, surprisingly, reduced my coughing situation.
“Asante.” I said to him as he continued passing out water bottles.
“Hii Nairobi ni kuangaliana. Ukingoja gava na ndio hii inataka kutumaliza.” He stated. I think that was his way of saying ‘you’re welcome’. I took the opportunity to narrate what had happened and why I was so affected by the tear gas. Then, five more people said they were in a similar situation but their bus was more crowded.
“Ni bahati hatukukanygana huko. Mimi nilisikia wamama wakiwika nikajua kumeharibika.” He narrated in a humorous way which eased the tension in the room.
After a while, everything died down and we went about our business as if we weren’t washed with teargas a few minutes ago. I got to experience what hawkers through regularly just to earn a few shillings every day. Let me tell you this, it’s not pretty.
I also have a new respect for Boniface Mwangi and other protesters who willingly put themselves in situations that are likely to end with tear gas. In fact, I applaud them. Tear gas is no joke. I also wondered what would happen if someone with asthma inhaled such amounts as I did or more. It’s risky, unnecessary, inhumane and pollutes the air. There should be a petition to ban these things.