Thar She Goes: A Lady in Nairobi

There’s been enough of poetic prose spilt on the languid art of vagabonding. Hemingway, Kerouac, and Frost have the grit, beauty and mystique of the road firmly covered. So without even attempting to add my name to that pile let me just say this: sometimes a lady needs to get the fuck out of town. 

Hi there. My name is Olivia. I used to live in Paris but now live”¦ well”¦ nowhere. I’ve taken my savings, a decent pair of boots and flown down to East Africa. My trip commences here (and now!) in the city of Nairobi. From here I will slowly work my way down. I’ll hit up Mombasa, do my best to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, explore some craters, some spice islands. Wander the streets of Dar es Salaam, head to Malawi to bathe with hippos before busing it over to Zambia to explore some waterfalls and caves. But the madness hardly ends there! After that I’m flying my ass across the Atlantic to Argentina and working my way down the Patagonia, up through Chile’s diverse landscape and into Peru where I shall find a travelling pan flute band and tag along. I’ll dance salsa in Colombia, squeal at spiders in Central America, and possibly tour Mexico before landing exhausted (and tanned!) in Southern California.

My globe trot, as I loathe the word “journey” thanks to its wide appropriation by the reality television community– dancing at a club and making out with an aging rock star is not a journey– but I digress. My globe trot started about a week ago. I flew from Paris to Frankfurt, where I was summarily denied passage on board Condor Air. What they failed to tell me at check in, but managed to tell me at the gate (guaranteeing I miss my flight and therefore they eat my ticket) is that I needed an onward ticket out of Kenya. After spending a night haggling with unhelpful customer service operators, I decided to deal with Condor later (and believe that I will). Instead I bought a round trip ticket with Qatar Airways, who take flying from a mundane task to an art form. Luxuriating in Parks and Recreation marathons and regular hot towel service, I flew to Doha where I spent the night in the airport, before heading on to Nairobi the following morning.

Sunrise at Doha Airport in Qatar

I was met in Nairobi by the personal driver of some friends I was staying with (because you know I’m posh like that). His car ambled down the streets, past mini shops and dusty sidewalk vendors. The first thing you notice about Nairobi is how green it is. Apparently if you throw a seed in this city it sprouts a tree. I met my hosts, who had gone out for a Sunday afternoon at the Nairobi Mountain and Diving Club. At the end of a large green, shady field was a swimming pool, club house, and bar. Many of Nairobi’s expats were gathered there, having a potluck and practicing their diving skills in the pool. 
A German woman named Anna stood nearby discussing an overland trip she was about to embark on. I introduced myself and found she lived in Nairobi with her husband, Samir, a man of Yemeni descent born and raised in Kenya. We sat down on the lush green lawn and he pointed through the trees to a ravine and its neighboring hill. “That’s Kibera,” he told me. “That is one the largest slums in Africa.” Earthen toned shanty houses, slammed together, were stacked as far as we could see.
“That large section that’s clear?” his wife said, pointing to a long rectangle of open ground on the hillside. “That was demolished just about a week ago.”
“It was the Somali refugee area,” her husband interjected. “The government claimed at Al Shabaab fighters were training there.” Al Shabaab is a large known insurgent group from Somalia and no joke in Kenya. They’ve been credited with the kidnapping of tourists, unrelenting violence in Mogadishu and the general unrest along the Somali-Kenyan boarders. “But it’s bullshit you know,” Samir said with pursed lips and quiet disdain, “the camps where Al Shabaab are trained are no secret. They are in another part of the city. But the city official over there keeps the slum operational because it renders him a million or so votes, a million or so fighters that will be on his side if he needs it.”

Most residents here are extremely pensive in regards to government officials and the current state of peace . In December of 2007, violence erupted after Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president, was declared winner of the elections. Supporters of opposition party leader, Raila Odinga, began to protest. While many of the protests were peaceful, a few, most notably in the slums of Nairobi, turned very violent, very quickly.

Even the most mundane of conversations her brings up the possibility of violence in the next election cycle. Voting is set to take place some time between August and December of 2012 (although the exact date is still unknown at this moment). As Anna and Samir discussed moving into a new apartment, she absentmindedly asked if it would be safe in that area of town if violence were to break out again. “I don’t think it will be a problem there,” said Samir. “That’s if violence even breaks out. I’m sure it will be fine.” I asked him why he thought so. “It’s still too fresh in our minds. I think it was a breaking point and a lot of stress will have to build up again before we go over a tipping point like that.” Still he hasn’t ruled out the possibility completely. “That apartment we were looking at was in one of the safest parts of the city,” he told his wife. “Although before elections my parents will have to come and live with us.”

Samir’s parents, who live on the main road into he city, were in the center of much of the post-election violence. “There were shots fired at random, people with machetes just roaming the street. My father and I, we made a number of petrol bombs just in case we had to defend the house.” Luckily everyone in his family stayed safe through the majority of the upheaval. “In the end,” Samir said, “both parties screwed them over. Both sides fought for nothing. For people who didn’t care about them. I think we’re more aware of this now, so it’s less likely to happen.”

Looking out from what was, essentially, a country club with a view of one of the poorest areas in the world is a disquieting experience. It’s easy to assume that as one person you can’t do anything to help. Indeed, Kibera has some of the largest  NGO and aid distribution systems in all of Africa. But there is, and I think, ought to be, an uncomfortable innervation when considering the extreme level privilege division. Between those who dive in their spare time, and those who live in corrugated metal shacks piled up around noisy train tracks.

The Slums of Kibera, Nairobi

Which is not to imply that there is nothing but poverty and violence simmering just under the surface in Nairobi. Despite having one of the worst reputations for a city in all of Africa –often referred to as Nairobbery–I spent the day walking around alone in parks, at shopping centers and along dusty dirt roads. Most people I met have not only been friendly but helpful. A group of men sitting on a truck called “hello” to me, and I waved and said hello back. Then I asked them if I was going the right way to the Arboretum. “Yes, yes, it’s this way, you’re fine,” one said, and I went on my merry way. In the park couples would say hello as I passed by, and not once was I harassed or bothered. While being a white person is a bit of a novelty here (and regardless of your actual ethnicity, if you are at all light-skinned, you’re known as muzungu, the Swahili word for white person) the attention has yet to make me uncomfortable.

In the following days I’ll be off to an elephant sanctuary, and doing some more exploring around the city center. After that I’m officially on the hunt for Eames as I take the bus down to the city coast of Mombasa to work on my tan–or burn. My skin is used to the winters of Paris. It has been dry and primarily exposed to gray clouds in the past few months. Here the weather is beautiful, but I’m afraid my forehead has garnered a bit of a lobster flush.

So farewell for now, gentle reader. I’ll no doubt be updating with continuing stories of my globe trot as well as some (hopefully) insightful pieces on the emerging Africa. Because for all the talk about violence and elections, one thing that evident above all other aspects, is how the city is constantly moving forward. New towers, new car parks, new cell phone operators, new roads”¦ Even the ads along the road show a certain level of optimism about the future, “It may not look like much now,” a local ad for paint says next to a mass of new construction, “but just wait for us to put the finishing touches on it.” This seems emblematic, really, of the attitude of Nairobi: It’s not perfect, but just hold tight, we’re working on it.  Until next time, happy trails to you all.

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Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

2 thoughts on “Thar She Goes: A Lady in Nairobi”

  1. Nairobi has that bad of a reputation? Maybe IN Kenya, but there are cities far worse in Africa. I went to boarding school in Kenya for high school, and although I knew there were parts of Nairobi to avoid–especially at night–I never got the vibe that it had a terrible reputation. Perhaps things have changed since the last election and the ensuing political/social upheavals? Jo-berg is worse than Nairobi by far.

    Best of luck in your travels! Let the dust of Africa settle on your heart. :)

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