I knew maybe three things about Kenya when my plane landed in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in late February: The traffic was awful in Nairobi; it was a “party city,” with the good times rolling as late—or, er, as early—as 9 a.m.; and in 2013, the city’s most upscale mall, Westgate, suffered a four-day siege by the Somali Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab. It’s the same group that attacked Kenya’s Garissa University College on Good Friday, killing 148 people.
Of the few things I knew, I knew the most about the mall tragedy. One Saturday afternoon when I had somewhere to be, I sat glued to HBO watching Terror at the Mall, a documentary about the siege.
So why go to Kenya, given its history of terrorism? If I were afraid of terrorists, I wouldn’t live in America, certainly not in New York City. Terrorism in Kenya was the least of my concerns when I booked my ticket in December. A friend had sent me a link to a glitch fare from New York to Nairobi. A plane ticket that would usually cost around $800 was only $250, including taxes. I’d never been to East Africa, and the pictures of Nairobi captured my interest. That was enough for me, but not for my mother, who couldn’t think of anything but my safety. She stopped just short of begging me not to get on the plane.
“They blow up malls over there!” she (inaccurately) pointed out when I called her from the airport.
“They threatened to blow up the Mall of America, too!” I countered from the bar.
Neither she nor I knew that the “they” we alluded to were the same group: al-Shabab.
Two days later I arrived in Kenya at 7:00 a.m. My first thought walking out of the airport? “It smells like 9/11.” I’d lived five blocks away from the World Trade Center back then, and after the buildings fell, and for months after, everywhere below 14th Street in Manhattan had this weird smell, kind of like burnt metal and something else I’ve never been able to identify. It’s a distinct smell that I would know anywhere. And there it was in Nairobi. Weird.
The traffic was worse than what I’d been told. Nairobi traffic is like rush hour in Atlanta and Los Angeles combined. Based on the distance, it should have taken maybe 30 minutes to get from the airport to my hotel. It took two hours.
We pulled up to the gate of the Hilton, a landmark of sorts. Three guards surrounded the car, peering in first, then asked the driver to pop the trunk for inspection before we were allowed onto the property. Before I was allowed to enter the hotel, my bags went through an X-ray machine and I went through a metal detector.
More or less, this was the procedure everywhere I went in the city center of Nairobi. Every big hotel has an X-ray machine, and every mall entrance has at least a guard who scans everyone up and down before they’re allowed to enter. Security guards stand at the entrances to some, but not all, restaurants. As I walked the streets, it was common to see guards holding what looked to me like vintage versions of the AK-47 I shot at a gun range once. The heightened security—heightened in comparison with America—should have made me feel safer, but I actually wondered how big a problem terrorism was, whether I was safe and whether I should have listened to my mother.
After a few days in Nairobi, I started to think of all the security as more of an annoyance than a threat or a sign of one. Having my purse searched to walk into the grocery store incited the same roll of my eyes as taking my shoes off at the airport. I mean, you do it, but all the while you’re thinking, “Is this really necessary?” (Obviously, the business owners thought so.)
On my fourth or fifth day, I walked with a friend near a city park. It was rush hour, so the streets were basically functioning as a parking lot and there were hundreds of people walking in every direction. Suddenly there was a loud boom!
Everyone froze, including us, waiting to see what would happen next. The only other place I’d seen that happen was in New York City, and that was only after Sept. 11. Before that, a car could backfire and it was just part of the soundtrack to the city. I could tell from the reaction of the people around me that Nairobi was shell-shocked, just like New York. Police officers ran in the direction of the sound. Nothing else happened. Still, we waited to move until everyone else did.
For the first week of the trip, I had the same driver, Amos. He was always on time and full of random facts about the city. I considered him reliable, so I asked him about the safety of Nairobi, given the reaction after the loud boom. He said that the guards and metal detectors were a relatively new thing that happened “after the mall.” But he said the city was safe. Other parts of the country? Ehh …
Amos told us about a bus traveling from Mandera to Nairobi that was hijacked last November by al-Shabab. The inhabitants were asked questions about the Koran, and those who couldn’t answer—i.e., the Christians—were killed. Twenty-eight people died.
We left the city shortly after that, traveling for safari, then on to Karen, a suburb of Nairobi, then to the coast for a trip to Diani Beach, an hour outside of Mombasa, where “Islamist gunmen” shot up a passenger bus in December. Finally, after 17 days, it was time to head home, back to New York. Just getting out of Nairobi was nearly as great an ordeal as getting to the States.
After an arduous drive from the city center—rush hour can go as late as 10 p.m.—police officers stopped the cab about 2 miles from the airport. Officers peered into the car and into the trunk before we were allowed to proceed toward the airport. Close to my departing terminal—but not at it—my driver pulled over and said we’d arrived.
But the terminal was a city block away and I had two big bags. Yes, he knew that. But cars aren’t allowed to pull up to the terminal anymore.
At the terminal, my bags went through security before I was allowed to enter the airport. At the gate to board my flight, I was scanned by an officer twice, then instructed to walk through two metal detectors. I had my bags X-rayed twice before I could board the plane.
Nairobi is a country that takes its security seriously. Is it too much? Maybe so, I thought at the time. Now? Given the deaths of 148 people at Garissa? Maybe it isn’t even enough.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.