Talking Location With author Leigh Russell – YORK
Talking Location With author Rebecca Stonehill – Nairobi
31st December 2016
#TalkingLocationWith… author Rebecca Stonehill, sharing her very personal experience of her home city of Nairobi.
Nairobi: City of life and colour, of traffic jams and Maasai-herded cows snarling up market lined streets, of hot swirling dust in the dry season and red mud and flooding during the rains. A place where the new rich in their black-screened cars rub shoulders with those who eke out a living in the sprawling slums. This is Nairobi: city of contrasts.
I have lived here for three and a half years with my family. We came with my husband’s job in the development sector as water and sanitation engineer and are making the most of our time here, escaping as often as possible at the weekends to experience Kenya’s wild expanses, teeming with a rich variety of landscapes, animals and birdlife. It made sense to set my second novel here; I was on location in Nairobi after all and I would be able to conjure the tastes, sights and sounds of my surroundings far more easily than if I was writing from afar.
But Nairobi has not always been the city I live in today; in fact, it has metamorphosed and mushroomed from a tiny colonial township to the bustling hub of modern Nairobi in an astonishingly short time, and that is what I have found so fascinating and wanted to research. Iris, the eighteen year old protagonist of my novel, comes from a small Cambridgeshire village in 1903, leaving behind all she knows to wed a man in the colonial administration she has never met before. The Nairobi of 1903 would have been unrecognizable: barren, windswept plains teeming with wild animals, a couple of shopping streets to cater to the settlers, a market area and not a great deal else.
Iris, understandably, is lonely. She cannot relate to her new husband and starts to observe the birdlife around her. This new interest leads her to Kamau, a local Kikuyu schoolteacher. Her growing friendship with him will take her on a journey that is to irrevocably change the course of her life forever.
I loved researching for and writing The Girl and the Sunbird. It wasn’t always straightforward though: libraries here are underfunded and few and far between so I had to think as imaginatively as I could, visiting the few remaining old buildings of downtown Nairobi, museums and archives. On the other hand, researching the final section of my novel, set in the early 1950’s was less complicated. It was easier to access old newspapers and maps and also speak to people who were alive back then. This included two men in their nineties, one of whom is a prominent Kenyan sculptor but back in the 50’s was interned in a Mau Mau detention centre and the other who fought for the Kenya Regiment under the colonial administration, rooting out Mau Mau dissenters from the forests.
If you are thinking of visiting Kenya, don’t be tempted to skip out Nairobi. It is a fascinating, colourful place to visit and boasts the world’s only national park within a capital city, over a hundred square kilometres of lush plains and roaming wildlife, set against a backdrop of high rise Nairobi. Some other ideas are visiting the elephant orphanage where you can adopt a young elephant, experiencing the art and quirkiness of Kitengela Glass run by the indomitable Nani Croze, walking in Karura Forest, a large and lush gazette area and treating yourself at the end of a day to a delicious dinner in tropical surroundings at Talisman.
Nairobi has a wonderful climate, it is never too hot or too cold, though visitors are sometimes surprised by the chill in the mornings and evenings as the city rests at 2000 metres above sea level. As East Africa’s fastest growing economy, modern Nairobi may not be as wild or starkly beautiful as it was when Iris lived here one hundred and thirteen years ago. But is full of unexpected surprises and certainly a lot safer than it used to be. After all, Iris’s house was surrounded by a fence made from thorns to keep wild animals out. As for today, on the odd occasion a lion wanders out of the national park and the whole city comes to a standstill whilst rangers recapture it. But it’s all very good humoured and unthreatening. Pole pole (slowly slowly – the favourite expression in Nairobi), the wandering beast is captured from a roadside and Nairobi returns to its unharried, cheerful pace.
‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito.’ African Proverb