Essayist's return visit to Nairobi finds people concerned about the rising cost of living, but optimistic that they'll make it somehow.
By Frank Bures, World Ark contributor
Illustrations by Robert Roth
In a bookshop on Kenyatta Avenue, in the heart of downtown Nairobi, I was talking to an old woman named Patricia who was working there. I mentioned how much Nairobi had changed since the last time I visited, more than a decade ago. There were more cars now. More people. There were so many huge stores these days full of goods to buy.
"But the cost of living," she added.
"You mean the food prices?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "That was when life began to change for us. The cost of living keeps going up. There are some people who can't even feed themselves. Can you imagine not being able to feed yourself?"
I nodded. "Yes," I said. "I can imagine."
It seemed like the right answer. But later, as I thought about it, I realized that in fact it is very hard to imagine. I can imagine it in my head, but I can't really imagine what that would feel like. Maybe the mind doesn't let one imagine those kinds of things. Maybe when your belly is full, the possibility simply vanishes. There is no way to know how you would react.
Later that day on a bus out of Nairobi, I looked out the window and saw some graffiti on a wall. It said, "WTF: Where's the Food?"
This was a question on many people's minds, since food prices started to rise back in 2006 and saw a huge spike in 2008, before relenting a little. Now food inflation in Kenya was rising again and the price of everything was going up. Sugar and flour had doubled. Meat had tripled. In the north there was a drought and a famine where people were dying.
No one knows exactly why food prices have shot up so much in the last few years. Some have argued it's caused by commodity speculators. Others say it's decreasing productivity. And still others point to the new competition for land between food and biofuels.
Whatever the cause, the effect has been clear: higher prices in the markets and grocery stores. Traveling though East Africa, the subject came up frequently and without prompting -- in the line in grocery stores, on the bus, in the street. Walking through Nairobi, I stopped at a little Indian shop called Ravi's Herbal House on Ngara Street and asked the owner if his prices had gone up.
"Oh yes!" Ravi said. "When I started in this business five years ago, that cooking oil was 150 shillings. Now it's 450. Three times! And people's salaries have not gone up three times. It is painful to watch. It is beyond the reach of the common man. I think after they get paid at the end of the month, they are eating well for maybe 10 days. But there are still 20 days left in the month."
"What do they do?" I asked.
"They pray to God. People here are not violent. In India, they will stand up. Here they do not stand up. But also, I think they rely too much on God. They say, shauri ya mungu. It's the affairs of god. When really it is the affairs of men."
Where the affairs of one end and the other begins is one of the big questions in life and how you live it. There is a phrase in Swahili that I have always liked but rarely use:Mungu akipenda. Roughly translated, it means, "God willing" or "if God likes it." To me it has always seemed to sum up the precariousness, the unknowability of the future. It suggests that anything could happen. The future will come, and we should both accept that and be prepared for it. In other words, it's out of our hands.
In this part of the world, people have more practice with things that are out of their hands. Buses don't come. Equipment breaks down. Power goes out. Appointments don't materialize. Help, often, is not on the way.
Life, in other words, is hard, unforgiving. But then again, life has been hard for much of human history, and there must be a way to keep that hardness from overwhelming everything. I don't mean that we should simply accept whatever comes our way. But at the same time, I think there is a graceful way to endure difficulty. That is something I have admired about the people I've met in Africa.
It was also something I admired about my Grandma. She called it sucking it up, and her generation knew more about it than we do. She lived through war and Depression, lost a child and a husband, and watched the world change beyond recognition. Yet still, she was always able to muster a wry chuckle. She had a kind of equanimity that let her move on, let go of the things beyond her grasp.
I suppose that is what Reinhold Niebuhr meant when he talked about being able to accept the things we can't change and change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference. Yet we in the West are not trained to think that way. In our years of comfort, we have lost some skill in dealing with a world that is out of our control.
I was talking about these things with a woman in Kenya, who grew up there and is now a successful banker. The woman, Paula, was telling me how her mother could find humor in any situation, no matter how dire. One time, for example, her father made some bad investments and the family lost everything. When they were being evicted from their apartment, men came to throw their furniture out of the house, through the windows and doors. Meanwhile, the family stood out front and watched while their mother made jokes about their situation and they all laughed till their stomachs hurt.
"I try to look at life myself like that sometimes," Paula told me. "Some things just happen and there is nothing you can do about it, so you might as well have a laugh."
I do not know what the balance is between the affairs of God and the affairs of man, between what you can change and what you can't, between what God likes and what I like, between fate and fatalism.
Maybe I won't ever find that perfect point of equanimity. But I'm sure there is a better place, somewhere between the two. In an era of constant crisis, with more and more things feeling out of my control, I have been thinking hard on this, trying to remember that even if nothing in this world is guaranteed, I should not let fear or sadness wash away laughter. I can always snatch some enjoyment from the jaws of despair.
Not far from the Indian shop, I stopped to buy a pineapple slice from a man selling them out of a rusty wheelbarrow. The smaller slice cost about 10 shillings, which was about 10 U.S. cents. We started talking, and he said his name was Stephen. I asked if the price had gone up.
"Yes," Stephen said, and pointed to the unsliced pineapples. "I was paying 40 shillings for these. Now I'm paying 100. The cost of life is up. Way up. It is very hard."
"Mungu akipenda," I said, "the price will come down.
"But for now, what will you do?"
"We will pray," he said, then took my hand and squeezed it hard.
Frank Bures is a Minneapolis-based writer whose stories have appeared in Harper's, Esquire, Outside, Bicycling, Wired and previous issues ofWorld Ark.