18 July 2009

Freedom of Movement

In July 2006, I found myself in Nairobi, Kenya for 3 weeks coordinating and getting feedback on IT training courses. They do not call it "Nairobbery" for no reason, and I found my time here some of the most fascinating that I have ever spent in another country.

About 2 weeks prior to my arrival, one of my best friends - who was living there at the time - had the property that she lived on broken into and all three houses were ransacked..including the home of her 80+-yr old landlady. My friend was not home at the time, but her landlady was. The robbers tied her and her gardener and cook up and placed them under a mattress, where they stayed for 6 hours.

I found this out upon arrival, where I also learned that once 6:30pm hit (about 30min before sunset), every person in the city sequoisterd themselves in whatever property they were on at the time, emerging only in the relative safety of a taxi.

I described my time there as a love-hate relationship with the city. During the daytime, the city was beautiful and eye-opening. During the night, the city was scary and limiting. Many evenings I would end up in my hotel room - working or reading - or at the hotel restaurant getting lectured by the waiter on how and when to say "Asante Sana" instead of "Thank You".

My first day in our office there, I was informed that I needed a security briefing. We were not able to schedule that for a few days. In the meantime, as usual on all trips, I walked around to learn about the city. I walked around the city centre to a large park where I just people watched. My friend and I took a Matatu (small bus-type thing where they squeeze as many as 16 people into a van that we would expect to seat 8 at the most) to a local market. I walked the red roads from the training centre to the office. I learned to become shocked when there was actually a sidewalk available.

At the security briefing, I was trained on how to ride in a taxi (windows up, doors locked), on how far I was allowed to stray from the hotel (only walk to the office and back), and was then lectured on how much I had been walking around, particularly around the city centre. I didn't even mention the Matatu.

Although I now understand the lecture was a good thing to hear (another co-worker was caught in cross-fire in the city centre about 4 months after I had been there), I heard it, took notes, and "lessened" my walking. But the security issues of the city were never far from my mind.

One night, my friend and her co-worker and I decided to go out to dinner at this newer restaurant across the street and down a little from her house. The restaurant opened at 7pm, after our "curfew", so we had to make the decision...Do we walk there and back (less than 300m away) or do we do the smart thing and take a taxi (again...only 300m). We ended up just running that distance as fast as we could. But I was struck with how strange it is - considering how to go from one place to another 300m away.

Another night, I was meeting with some of the "suits" that had organised the training at a restaurant that took me 2 minutes to walk to. Until the end of the meal, I was planning on asking one of the waiters or front men to just walk with me back to the front gates of the hotel. They are so close. I ended up sharing a taxi, because the rest of the group needed one anyway.

I never realised how valuable freedom of movement is until this trip, which is why it was so fascinating. The way that I reacted mentally and physically was very intriguing because it was unexpected. I became depressed a lot easier and quicker. I developed my aforementioned love-hate relationship with Nairobi. In my one night stop-over in Amsterdam on the way back home, I literally walked through the streets until past 11pm with my arms open breathing deeply and saying to myself, "I am doing this just because I can".

And my experience is nothing compared to many around the world: Native Nairobians for whom this life is normal; Palestinians living in the West Bank who are now unable to get to work, to visit family, to go to the hospital because it is on the other side of a great wall.

Nelson Mandela said, "For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

I knew that going to Nairobi would change my perspective, but I never knew how much. Having my freedom of movement restricted makes me think about the freedoms I am blessed with as a US citizen, and the freedoms that some have taken away from them - or have never had. I want others to feel how I felt in Amsterdam. They are free and they do things just because they can.

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