It happened mid-morning one fine Thursday, a few weeks back. The sky was the most magnificent shade of blue. The kind of blue that Lupita Nyong’o was likely referring to as the inspiration for her Oscars 2014 gown. Jacaranda was in bloom and the streets of Nairobi were scattered with the lush purple of the jacaranda flowers. I had just finished with my appointment near Valley Road and decided to take advantage of the good weather by opting to walk to town. I put my headphones in and started walking towards Uhuru Highway, all the while soaking in the sun’s warmth and basking in the good vibes. I called my friend and spent the next few minutes chatting excitedly about everything and nothing. The traffic lights on the highway were red so all the cars coming into town were at a standstill. I was approaching the Uhuru highway roundabout when a white cloud of smoke billowing into the air caught my eye. I froze for a moment, unsure of what was happening. That’s when it hit me. Teargas.
“Shit. I have to hang up.” I said as I hurriedly stashed my phone and headphones into my bag. My adrenaline was rising and my mind whirred with thoughts, trying to figure out what was going on and what I should do next. More canisters were thrown onto the highway. The boda boda operators all hopped onto their motorbikes and zoomed off away from the teargas clouds. I heard someone yell that the police were on a mission to try and drive out the boda boda operators from town. I had seen my fare share of teargas-riddled running battles between police and civilians on TV but this was my first time getting caught up in one.
My first thought was to run off in the opposite direction. Then I panicked wondering if the police were going to descend into a full blown chase after the boda boda operators. I did not want to dare get caught in the cross hairs in case things were to escalate to chaotic levels. So my next plan was to attempt to get out of town asap, which would require me to cross the roundabout to get to the other side where things were calmer. I covered my face with my scarf and tried to run through the smoke but it was all futile. The pungent fumes hit me with unexpected force and I started coughing uncontrollably. My eyes stung and my throat felt like it was on fire. I ran into Uhuru park, barely finding my way through tear-soaked eyes. I tried taking gulps of fresh air but each inhale only seemed to fan the flames in my throat.
“Weka maji kwa macho,” I heard a voice say. I grabbed my water bottle from my bag and splashed water in my eyes, taking a few sips in between. I stumbled and found my way to a bench in the park and sat down as I continued rinsing my face and inhaling deeply. Gradually the stinging and burning sensation lessened. I listened keenly to the nearby group of passersby as they discussed whether it was safe to leave the park. Thankfully it appeared that the police were satisfied and uninterested in continuing the assault. I joined the small crowd that had gathered as we made our way to the roundabout and crossed safely to the other side. As I raced out of town, I thought about all the people who attend protests knowing that they face the risk of being assaulted, with teargas or worse, and felt a newfound admiration and appreciation for their temerity.
[Image c/o Mutua Matheka]