Jada sat in traffic, inching her car forward a few feet every five minutes. She watched the sky warily, hoping the clouds that seemed to be building wouldn’t bring with them rain. Nothing made traffic worse in Nairobi than rain did. She’d left early for practice at the Braeburn theatre on Gitanga Road, what would normally be a 15-minute drive from her apartment in Westlands. It had taken her thrice as long, and she still had a kilometre to cover.

She was stuck at a junction that was notorious for traffic, and there was no telling how long she’d be stuck there. A matatu had driven on the wrong side of the road to cut through traffic, and two eager cars had followed it. In their eagerness (and foolishness) they’d blocked the junction. Jada had watched as other drivers hurled insults and hooted at them for a good ten minutes, lost steam, and finally sat back, resigned to their fate. Jada had switched off her car and watched the road ahead as she began to reminisce on the past few months.

Jada had been a member of the Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra for a few months after spending a few years with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. She’d become jaded with the bright lights and the big city after spending nearly ten years abroad and had felt the longing for home. She’d packed her bags and gone back to Kenya, her birthplace and where she grew up, intending to start a life there.

But the Kenya she’d left and was used to was not the Kenya she found when she came back. She’d lived her whole life in Nairobi, the capital, before she’d left for the U.S. to pursue a college degree in music. She’d attended private schools and had a comfortable, if not rich, upbringing. She excelled at school and was a virtuoso with the violin. She wanted to pursue a career as a professional musician, but the opportunities were few and far between at home, especially for classical musicians.

In 2011, a few months after completing her final high school exams the year before, she left. She landed in New York, a scholarship to Julliard in hand, and lost herself to her studies and life in the west.

She got even better at playing the violin.

So good, in fact, that orchestras from around the world came calling. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, even the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. She accepted an offer to audition for the London Symphony Orchestra, attracted by the possibility of living in London, and played with them for a few years.

She got bored with London though and moved back to New York to play with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. She’d enjoyed her time in New York the first time around and was looking forward to having a similar experience. But adulting in college and out in the world can be very different. She found that while she enjoyed her work and what she did, she didn’t enjoy life as much as she did before. She had friends, but sometimes people got so busy with their own lives that it became difficult to spend time together.

She had visited home a few times since she’d left but hadn’t since she’d moved back to New York. Her schedule was so busy that she hardly found time for a proper visit. She wasn’t interested in a quick two-day visit. She wanted to be there long enough to spend time with people without feeling the pressure to be everywhere at once.

In May 2022, she resigned from the New York Philharmonic and moved back home to join the newly formed Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra, to a place she could hardly recognise. She had left a country that was still recovering from bloody post-election violence and trying to figure out a recently promulgated constitution. There was change coming, but it seemed slow and far.

But it wasn’t. Jada landed in Nairobi and thought that not much had changed. There was a new terminal at the airport and a few new buildings, but the same disorganisation she’d experienced before at customs still existed. Taxi drivers still pursued her as she got out of the terminal, each one trying to offer her a ride. And when she drove out of the airport with her brother, who’d picked her up, the roads looked the same.

Until they got to the main highway leading to the airport. Suddenly everything looked different. There were buildings where before there had only been bush. Factories and warehouses where the land had been bare. Roads where there hadn’t been any, some even suspended in the air. She took a few weeks to explore the city and the country before getting into the swing of things, and she found newness nearly everywhere she went. She found malls everywhere, with shops selling quite a few of the same things she’d find in shops in New York. The west had come to Kenya, and it was almost taking over.

The city was a beehive of activity. It almost never slept and enjoyed traffic jams a little too much. The pace of life was fast, sometimes frenetic. There used to be a famous national park in the city, a real jungle within the concrete jungle.

It still existed, but now a suspended railway ran through it.

Even the park couldn’t escape the development train. But it wasn’t just Nairobi that had grown and changed. The rest of the country had caught the development bug and followed suit. Far-flung towns had infrastructure and services that were a distant dream before. Security wasn’t a huge concern anymore, although it still paid to be vigilant.

The people had changed too. Yes, the Kenyan spirit was still intact. Kenyans still worked hard and played harder. The clock was still used more as an afterthought. But there was something different about the way the people went about things. There was more of an urgency to get things done. Newfound prosperity had brought with it a desire to keep and expand that prosperity.

Jada had struggled to reintegrate in this new Kenya. While she was for all intents and purposes a Kenyan, she had become more of a westerner in the years she had been away. She thought like one. She had a western perspective on life. She even dressed like one. A lot of things that were Kenyan about her were a memory, and a lot of the things that now made people Kenyans were foreign to her.

Her friends had moved on with life, as she had. They’d moved up the career ladder and the family ladder. Quite a few had got married, others had children. Some had moved abroad, as she had, and hadn’t come back. Others had moved to different parts of the country. Everyone had different responsibilities now, bigger things to take care of and to do. It made meeting and hanging out difficult. The nonchalance of their youth was gone, and those who still held on to it were not the types she’d want to hang out with.

Because of this, Jada often felt alone. She found it more difficult to make friends now, and sometimes didn’t have the heart to do it. She spent a lot of nights alone at home, especially the first three months after she got back, or at her parents’ house. She’d hoped for a return to what life was when she was growing up, and this was a huge anti-climax. It made her depressed. She began to wonder why she had ever moved home, and if she shouldn’t move back to New York.

Not being one to wallow, she found a distraction in her work, and threw herself into it. She had cofounded the Nairobi Philharmonic, and there was a lot to do to get it going and to keep it going. She scouted practice and concert venues for the orchestra. She found music by Kenyan and other African artists for the orchestra to perform. She networked and got financiers for concerts and events that the orchestra could put on for the public. She found jobs that the orchestra could do as well: weddings, funerals, galas, recordings of famous orchestral pieces, even recordings of film scores.

And as the profile and reputation of the orchestra grew, so did her own social profile. She started to meet new people and make friends. She began to attend events outside of her work. She made an effort to go where people were, and not wait for them to come to her. She pursued different hobbies. She kept herself busy.

She began to build a life outside of her work. She found purpose in what she did for a living, but also in the people she now surrounded herself with and the relationships she had. Almost six months into her return home, she felt that she had begun to find her stride. She no longer felt like a foreigner, even though some of the slang and pop culture still went over her head. She felt that she belonged.

The traffic at the junction in front of her began to move and she was broken out of her daydream. She chased after the car in front of her and squeezed through the junction, turning right onto Gitanga Road. Yes, she could even drive like a Nairobian. Gitanga Road was nearly devoid of traffic, and she made it to Braeburn in five minutes, still early for rehearsal.

She parked her car and got out, taking her violin and her music with her.

Nairobi traffic had been a pain when she’d got back.

It was stressful and terribly inconveniencing. But now, she found that it gave Nairobi character. Yes, it could do without it, but she could also work around it. There was something about being a Nairobian again and experiencing the challenges of the city every day, of developing a love-hate relationship with Nairobi. That was something she had missed, and something she hadn’t been able to replicate abroad. It wasn’t perfect, but it was home, and for that she was grateful.