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I first visited Nairobi in 2007 with Ericka. Coming off a week-long safari, we needed to find someplace to spend the night before flying onward, and found a mid-range hotel on the edge of town closest to the airport, where we spent an awful, noisy night listening to the adjacent bus terminal and sweating on questionable sheets. Morning came soon enough, and we hoofed it out to Jomo Kenyatta airport and got on with our lives. No metropolitan center can compete with the magic of one's first visit to the Masai Mara or Samburu National Park, but Nairobi was a necessary evil to that trip, not a destination.

Two years later we passed through on the way to the Seychelles, and stayed with friends in an upscale, gated community burgeoning with diplomats and expat aid workers. The houses were lovely, with manicured green gardens sparkling under the tropical sun, and their shaded interiors whispered of hard woods and cool evenings. But the traffic we experienced getting across town to our friends' house! It was shocking.

I found myself in Kenya a third time ... and then again ...

I found myself in Kenya a third time in 2016, passing through for the simple obligation of securing a new Ugandan visa. A friend gave me explicit taxi instructions that took me through a lovely, wooded area to a fancy, (yes, gated) residential neighborhood. He showed me to a guest room where there was a bright, red panic button mounted to the wall. "If you press this, there will be armed guards here in response in fewer than three minutes." It sounded like a joke: incredibly, it was not.

All this and more came flooding back to me in 2018 when I spent a week in Nairobi for work. This too was a unique experience: a fancy, business hotel buzzing with Indian, European, and Middle Eastern business people, a conference hall hosting Russian exporters and South African sports outreach events, corporate retreats and team meetings. Kenya never fails to impress me: their business-like punctuality and efficiency, their sharp procedures and attention to detail. These days I found it a more pleasant, warm, and friendly atmosphere than the increasingly withdrawn and sullen Americans of Washington DC. From office to office for meetings, I was greeted with the warm smiles of Africans whose congeniality and friendliness were natural. But lurking in the shadows were the silhouettes of electrified razor-wire fences and the beep of metal detectors we passed through at every gate.

Africa is a continent of haves and have-nots, but increasingly, so is just about everywhere else. It's hard not to feel sorry for grinding poverty, and the desperation that draws one into lawlessness. But it's also hard to imagine what it's like to live with it, windows drawn at the traffic lights, trudging across town in the horrific jams of rush-hour Nairobi.

This trip I remembered everything that makes Africa challenging. But I also remembered everything that makes it so compelling. For all its flaws, Nairobi will remain very much a gateway to the continent.


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