“Do you have a city that you think is your soulmate?” I asked my brother. Puzzled, he answered: “I definitely felt a connection with Edinburgh, there’s just something about it. Haven’t felt that way anywhere else.”
“Paris,” offered my cousin, “because it’s an illusion and I buy into it every time and no matter how many times I tell myself it isn’t real, I can’t get enough of it.”
For my friend Nanjala, Antananarivo is the one. “Underneath its rough exterior, it has a beautiful heart,” she says. And in a sentiment shared by many, Georgie tweets me: “Kigali. All I have is love.”
Travelling to or living in a particular place is like dating; there are flirtations and frustrations, the same constant communicating and navigating. It’s interesting to see how people experience places differently – almost like a compatibility issue.
Being a child of the diaspora with the privilege and opportunity to travel, I first realised this when I was discussing London with my friend Henna.
As we complained about the dark clouds and rain which is one of the hallmarks of the city, she said: “London is like that moody boyfriend, forever inconsistent yet too exciting to leave.”
It absolutely is. I have spent most of my life in London; its weather is infuriating, the collective misery sometimes on display is exhausting.
Yet despite all this, stroll around the streets of Central London at night and you feel a certain thrill. When summer arrives, the city lights up in the same way one’s eyes do at the sight of a lost lover. At Christmas-time it twinkles, and when adorned with autumn leaves, it’s like an impressionist painting come to life.
Walk through Hampstead Heath in the spring, and the breeze touches you like a kiss on the collar bone. Yet you are fully aware that all this is transitory, and that good old sulky London will soon return.
If a city is like a soulmate, I find myself wondering if I’ve met mine. London is not it, although we tried. God knows we tried, but it has always been the withdrawn lover in whose arms I sit forever lonely.
I had a relationship with Dubai for a while; it is a city like that guy who dazzles you from the get-go. He brings out the fancy cars, the high-rise apartments, takes you to designer stores and buys everything you want.
Everything is shiny. Everything glistens.
Shopping? Nightclubs? Bungee jumping? Fine dining? Markets of gold? “My wish is your command.” Dubai was that guy – surely this was it. Except it wasn’t.
The gold and glitter became blinding and monotonous. I wanted the drama and the mess – I wanted more, and this was one lover who wouldn’t let me see beneath the surface.
And so the speed of the breakup matched the excitement with which our relationship began.
I craved stability after the exhilaration of Dubai, and it arrived in the shape of Geneva. Serene, easy on the eyes and peaceful; sure it was chilly and dark, but at least it was consistent.
Geneva was the man who would have dinner ready when you got home to a spotless flat with everything in the right place. I absorbed the city’s exquisite scenery with an unexplainable hunger, as if it wouldn’t be there the next day.
Yet the day eventually came when I could no longer fake it. In a typical it’s-not-you-it’s-me breakup, there was no bitterness, just a long hug goodbye with a keep-in-touch, and that was that.
Kampala came out of nowhere a few months later, its entry unexpected, its impact phenomenal.
Imagine waking up one morning to find you’re out of milk, and head to the supermarket bleary-eyed with messy hair, and right there in the dairy aisle, a beautiful being approaches you and begins to chat you up.
That was Kampala – the love affair which took me by surprise. The one I had not anticipated.
My mornings began with a matatu ride to work at a small office on Bukoto Street, my afternoons with lunchtime walks in the sun. I remember the first thrilling ride on a boda-boda, zipping down Kiira Road to Kisaasi with the wind in my face.
There would be many more boda-boda rides and an unfortunate accident, after which there would be still more boda-boda rides.
Visits to Kafundas; nights of eating rolex (forget kebabs, this is post-clubbing street food at its best); fried chicken in Wandegya; clubs playing music from all corners of the continent (Zuena by Radio and Weasel still gets me moving) – I could never tire of Kampala.
I realised Kampala was The One as I stood on a friend’s balcony on a balmy evening looking over the city. And just like the moment you look into someone’s eyes, I thought: “I could make a home out of you. We could do this, you and I.”
Kampala is the beau you find yourself falling into with neither fireworks nor drama, but just a sense of ease. When the day of departure arrives, you stand in the airport, telling yourself and your (now long-distance) lover: “I’ll be back soon.” But you know deep inside that this is it.
Back in London, the longing for Kampala lasted many months.
Other lovers came and went; there was Paris, the weekend paramour that wined and dined you with its charm, and once the performance was over it was definitely time to leave.
A week in Antalya, with its seductive views and the spine-tingling touch of the sea; the sweetness of the baklava was like a holiday romance you’ll think about years from now and be grateful to have experienced.
Yet despite all that, my ache for Kampala never quite left. Perhaps Kampala was the one that got away.
Then one March I arrived in Nairobi. I stepped out of the airport around midnight and was taken aback by the unexpected chill. This wasn’t my first meeting with this city; we were well acquaintanced, yet I felt restless.
The next morning I ventured into the CBD. It was Easter Friday and everything was quiet. Strolling down Koinange Street looking at the flowers in the trees my body finally began to relax. On towards Market Street then Kaunda Street and onto Parliament Road, past all the Government buildings. Cherishing the temporary serenity.
Nairobi was a myriad of identities, new and old, traditional and modern, showy and plain – it was difficult to find the words to describe it.
From laughing with Uber drivers in the infuriating traffic to the wildlife and hotels and shopping malls, Nairobi was a city of infinite promise, some of it unfulfilled due to the powers that be.
It reminded me of someone who overwhelmed you in the best way possible, but every so often got a faraway look in their eyes as if they were dreaming of all they could have been. As if dreaming of greater things.
I found myself in Eastleigh on a Sunday afternoon, weaving my way through the crowds as people bargained and bartered. It was loud, it was busy, there was a jam of cars and matatus with people shouting at each other to move out the way in harmonious chaos.
After escaping into Kilimanjaro Restaurant, I realised that Nairobi was the person you never quite looked at in That Way. Then one afternoon, while sipping camel milk tea for the first time, you look up at them and muse: “I think I love you. Being with you is like learning a language.”
This was a city with depth and character; complicated, messy, flawed, alive and bewitching in its own way. The more you learnt the less you knew, and it was ready to surprise you at any moment.
Back in London, I find myself thinking of Nairobi a lot.
The feeling is like a dull ache that never quite leaves, and is heightened when memories triggered by the senses kick in; the taste of coffee, the sound of two women on the bus speaking Swahili, and the familiar touch of a leather jacket.
I don’t know how or why we feel a connection to certain spaces – I just know that some of us do. For many it’s somewhere they’ve lived their whole lives. For some it’s a village “back home”. There are those for whom it’s a place they’ve read about or seen on TV and somehow, they just know.
For others, it’s a destination they have travelled to and never quite been able to let go of.
If a city is like a soulmate, Nairobi is mine.