‘How can you write at that place?’ A friend asked me this question last year while I was trying to finish my book. We were both expats in Nairobi. The place she was referring to was the Artcaffe at the Westgate Mall, or just ‘Westgate’, as everyone called it.
‘It has good Wi-Fi,’ was all I could think to tell her. (This was not a lie: at our house we could go without a signal for days, forcing my husband to climb up on the roof to install the expensive satphone his employer had lent him). But what I really believed and didn’t say was something different, which was that lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Both my friend and I had been in Kenya long enough so that al-Shabaab’s attack on the mall in September 2013 was still a fresh memory. I had found myself in Nairobi nine months earlier, renting a house in the neighborhood of Westlands, a short drive away from the mall. It was not hard for an expat to fall in love with Nairobi – with its LA weather, its cheap childcare, the cosmopolitan mix of entrepreneurs and artists, many of them Kenyan-born and US- or UK-educated, returning to take advantage of the African markets while First World economies stagnated. That every dwelling, aside from those in slums, was nestled behind a concrete wall was a fact that I accommodated myself to in a matter of time. So much so that when my mother visited and remarked on all the unsightly barbed wire and cemented shards of glass, I realized that my eye had somehow learned to enjoy the greenery while airbrushing these details out.