When I first came to Nairobi, I tried my hardest to persuade myself to not hate the city. It took all my mental strength to do so. The roads were either narrow with no turn lanes or under construction; pollution was- is- a huge problem, especially for a runner; sidewalks were nonexistent; Internet was at a snail pace; and security forced me to take only a few trusted drivers who drove unregulated taxis everywhere. Simultaneously, I was working pretty much by myself, doing market research, creating a product, and making business connections. I had no colleagues to rely on, and I had to build a whole network- friends, life, and business colleagues- on my own. I was utterly alone. Within the first two months, I realized that getting on a plane to go to a foreign place without much thoughts to my personal happiness was an inconsiderate, ill-planned, immodest, but best decision I’ve ever made.
That was almost two years ago.
Now, as I close to my departure date, I consider Nairobi home. It took me a while to say that. It wasn’t until after my good friend told me, “you are not going to be comfortable here until you make up your mind 100% that Nairobi is your home. This is your home. If you have another foot in the other boat (Chicago), you will never be happy here.” That struck with me. She was right. Because of work, I was traveling back to the States every 3- 4 months. I was using these trips as an excuse to never settle down in Nairobi, and I treated Nairobi as only somewhere I have to be for work. I didn’t treated it as my home for 9 months out of the year.
Things had to change. And fast. My life was rapidly spinning into that on autopilot. As a coping mechanism, I made myself numb to everything and every emotion. Wins for g.Maarifa, my startup, were merely hurdle clearances- how things should be. Losses were thought out and then shrugged away. Social events with friends were attended with indifference and pre-judged boredom. My personal numbness turned into unhappiness as I moved mechanically through life. It began affecting the pace of the startup. I was constantly irritated at my employees, but the only reaction that I could muster up was rolling my eyes instead of dealing with the small but accumulating issues head-on. My pitches to investors and potential customers fell flat and lifeless. I was passionate about g.Maarifa but had no energy to liven up my tone. Most importantly and alarmingly, I turned passive, reacting to events, and lost my proactivity, the one main characteristic to which I attribute the majority of my successes. The only emotion I really felt was hatred for the place I supposed called “home”.
Life became more colored when my business partner, interns, and friends showed up at my doorstep during the summertime. But I still couldn’t shake off my hatred for the city. Being run over by a car, couch surfing for a good three months for the lack of housing, being groped and constantly sexually and racially harassed in public places, and falling into ditches at construction sites probably didn’t help. The only thing that made me feel alive was the progressively longer time I spent running every morning.
Yet it wasn’t September of last year that I had the epiphany that I had to change the way I viewed Nairobi. One of my friends told me bluntly that she was concerned that I was showing symptoms of depression: indifference, hating to leave the house, and lack of social life (though to be fair, the latter is mainly because of work). I knew I had to change because my productivity at work was dropping like flies.
I told all my Nairobi friends and asked for their help as I made it my goal to be more active and to do things that made me happy despite my startup (read: nonexistent) salary. I came out of my room more. I began to go to at least one non-work-related social event every week. I got a car so I could go to more places safely. I love creating memorable events for others so I began throwing parties and dinners. I climbed Mt. Kenya and did more outdoorsy things. I logged my emotions day by day and whenever I had three bad days in a row, I did something special for myself: longer runs, exploring new restaurants, etc.
I kept at it and my friends held me accountable until these things felt natural. As my personal happiness increased, my hatred for the city faded and my productivity at work shot up. For the first time since arriving in Nairobi, I felt alive. I was alive. Living life instead of being passed through.
Happiness became a friend instead of an enemy I could never reach and hunt down. I even started dating again. But as usual, when I become comfortable in a place, i.e. I have a guy for everything in Nairobi: plumber, fruitseller, shoe hawker, motorcycle driver, etc. I become restless. Now, Nairobi is familiar territory. It’s my territory. My city. I’m proud to be called a Nairobian. Alas, as Teddy Roosevelt says, “don’t ever get too comfortable. You will get a rude awakening.”
So I’m packing up my bags, leaving behind loved ones but taking a spider web of good memories with me to my next adventure. I certainly learned my lesson from being in Nairobi and will apply them to setting up my new life in Jordan. If life is about turning the uncomfortable into the comfortable and then moving onto the next endeavor, I sincerely hope that I am living life as it is meant to be.