Tear Gas City

A typical Nairobian has a guy, who knows a guy, with the latest locational coordinates of the NTSA (National Transport and Safety Authority) alcoblow checks. The sensible thing when you go out drinking is to call an uber. We all know the refrain. Do not drink and drink then drive.

But who follows their own great advice on the slippery slope of a typical heavy night. The evening starts out innocently. One polite single evening beer after work, to let the traffic ease up at the regular. Shortly, 9pm arrives like a thief in the night. One reasons they might as well stay for the news headlines. 30 minutes later, suffering from the effects of a depressing news cycle, a last drink is called for to aide the process of extracting sense from the rabid noise that passes for political discourse these days. Indeed, the more things change in Nairobi, the more they become normalised.

I was having a polite single evening drink with an old school friend at a restaurant adjacent to Uhuru highway, when we realized that we were both twitching our noses, sniffing the air. “Do you smell that”, he asked. I did. We could smell residual tear gas. Earlier that day, the police had dispersed University students with the usual zeal and doused the neighbourhood generously with tear gas. It brought back memories. We were both products of Nairobi university where eating tear gas was a rite of passage. My first time was two decades ago on my way back to the main campus from a side hustle and I ran into a maandamano on the run from tear gas. You never forget the first time you got stung.

Tear gas smells are going to be normal this election October if you work around the Anniversary Towers in Nairobi or live within a km radius of Kisumu’s CBD. You do not have to be part of a demonstration to eat tear gas. If the wind blows your way, everyone will get their share.

“By the way, do you have the strike schedule” my mate asks expectantly. I start racking my brain for sources. I must know a guy with verified whatsapp updates on alarmist security briefings. The kind of security warnings that only the expatriates working for the UN get to see. It is no fun innocently running into tear gas. It will help a great deal to keep updated with the demonstration patterns.

Mondays and Fridays are the NASA days with the anti-IEBC demonstrations. Tear gas expected. You also have to watch out for the counter demonstration from the Nairobi Business Community, a bunch of highly dubious looking business owners turned vigilante going out of their way to protect the mama mboga from getting their street wares trampled on by wayward protestors fleeing from the police. On some days of the week, you might run into the nurses who are a diligent horde of loud and peaceful protestors with stamina. They have been on a work strike for over a 100 days and no one seems to notice. Tear gas incidents are rare. Look out for when University undergrads resume classes. They have a few issues of their own and if Babu Owino is embroiled, the police get tear gas happy. When the students are done, look out for the lecturers demanding better pay and the police are not particularly fond of them. Therefore a tear gas incident is likely. Occasionally, you will run into uber drivers. Hardly any teargas in that space.

Serves no good to be an innocent inhaler.

Nowadays, even nursery kids know the smell and effects of tear gas. “Did you see the clip of the nursery school tear gassed in Kisumu last week?” my mate prods. “They are starting to know tear gas too early”, he notes with remorse. All this tear gas floating about is going to radicalise the children I tell him as I remember an incident.

A few days ago, I was talking to an old friend on phone. I followed the conversation with strain because of a ruckus in the background. It was too much, so I asked, “Is someone trying exorcise nyawawa spirits in your house?” He laughed and invited me to listen in. It sounded like a school of children banging on mabati and shouting, “Haki yetu” slogans in chorus. The heckling rascals were at a mean age of 5 years and had decided to hold a mock demonstration outside his door, in the spirit of fun and games.

We chuckled. My people say, Lak chogo. Teeth are bones. They laugh even when they should not. Children are sponges and they show an exceptional ability to absorb stress and process trauma. In parts of Kenya, they are appearing in the news regularly as collateral damage of a fierce political contest and acclimatising to the effects of tear gas before they have figured out how to balance on a bicycle.

So, pragmatic parents are forced to have the talk with the 5 year old in nursery with the intent of drilling in tear gas survival tips. Make sure to ran against the wind. Run towards fresh air. Try and stay calm. The pain will pass and don’t rub your eyes.

Not even a nursery school is safe from tear gas. These kinds of incidences are now considered normal.


Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.

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