When people go abroad, they sometimes fail to realize they aren’t the stars of some invisible travel show. A fantastical world where risky endeavors go off without a hitch, save for a few kicky hijinks, imagined out in montage form. This, of course, guarantees that when a wrench is thrown into the works, the world must grind to a halt so the situation can be resolved immediately. For such travelers, I would suggest steering well clear of Africa, where luck exists only on a moment-to-moment basis.
Despite my distinct lack of trouble in Nairobi, walking around alone, haggling, striking up conversations and making small connections, the city persisted with it’s bad reputation. The US State Department issued a number of warnings after some grenade attacks late last year. Combine these issues with some fairly high-attention kidnappings near the Somali boarder and the international reaction has been considerable. Some governments have gone so far as to label Kenya at a threat level 4, on par with Afghanistan. When talking to the expat and NGO community in Kenya, while most assure you that killing a tourist is practically unfathomable in regards to one-on-one crime, you rarely hear of anybody who stays for more than a few months without getting mugged or robbed. “It’s practically a right of passage,” an English teacher named Angela told me. She was driving me to a pub quiz at a diplomatic compound just outside Nairobi proper.
To enter the compound involved passing through two steel gates, a mirror check of the undercarriage, a trunk and engine inspection, and then another steel gate. Inside, the complex parking lot was dotted with red license plates, indicating a high presence of diplomatic figures. In a club house set around a back lit pool and surround sound speakers. A man on a microphone read off questions as employees of various embassies took sips of Tusker Beer and scrambled for points.
Later that evening, Angela made the rounds, dropping off a few friends from the quiz. After saying our goodbyes to a French teacher, we pulled through his apartment’s security gate and back out into the night. It was only moments later that a car coming from the other direction swerved directly in front of us and rammed our car straight on. “This is a bloody hijacking,” Angela yelled as the car stopped directly in front of us. She slammed the dusty Subaru into reverse and sped backwards down the dark road. “Shit, there’s another car,” she yelled, as a small sedan with no lights on pulled up behind us. And then, her car died.
Angela tried desperately with the ignition as I unbuckled my seat belt, deciding that running into the nearest apartment complex (which are all monitored by private security guards) was probably a better bet than staying in the car and seeing what the hijackers wanted from me. Meanwhile Angela had managed to get the car started and pulled forward, only to have it jerk to a halt again. The car that had initially slammed into us began to open it’s door. I craned my neck to see if he was armed, and it was then that she finally managed to get the engine to turn over, got the car in drive, and swerved around him and down the street.
We sped around a corner, not looking for oncoming traffic as we hightailed it down one of the busier throughways in the area. I checked behind us and didn’t see either of the cars. As we started to calm down, she explained that this was not her first time being hijacked. Before, she had been pulled from her car with eight guns trained on her. “Mostly they don’t give a fuck about you and it’s fine,” she said, her voice shaky with adrenaline. “But they’ll take everything. Welcome to Nairobi.”
The next day I found myself in the back of a matatu headed downtown. A matatu is the East African answer to metro transit. Dilapidated vans, usually packed with at least 14 individuals, speed down the roads (or lurch down, depending on traffic), pulling in and out of their lanes, while the ticket man hops on and off, enticing those waiting at bus stops to hop on. In recent years, there has been work to control and legislate the matatu situation, with “Compliant” buses (which is both the company name, and their whole point) not accepting more passengers than there are seats for them. For 20-60 Kenyan shillings (about 30 cents), you are able to go almost anywhere in the city with very little hassle.
I headed toward the train station so I could take care of my ticket to Mombasa. As I booked my second class ticket, the woman at the station looked at me and declared, “You’re a lucky girl.” When I asked why, she responded that this was the last train that would be running to the coast in the foreseeable future. Nairobi-Mombasa, one of the oldest lines in all of Africa, was notorious for taking two or more days (despite being advertised as a 14-hour overnight sleeper) and was scheduled to undergo maintenance until who knows how when.
I walked back to Uhuru Park, a rolling green oasis tucked into the corner of Nairobi proper. Packed full of ice cream vendors, lakes, boats, and walking paths, I sat down in the shade of a tree. It was no time at all before a preacher walked up and started his sermon. At first to nobody, but soon men in suits began to gather around him. The preacher, his pitch soaring and falling as he swung between English and Swahili ranted about the issues facing the Kenyan people. “Everything is falling apart, and the center cannot hold. And where is the center? The center is your heart.” He cites how Solomon chased the wind and asks the crowd, “What are you chasing?” He demands that everyone with love in their heart stand. About 14 men, all dressed to the nines despite spending their afternoon sleeping in the park, get up out of the grass and raise their hands in the air. “I implore you to forgive,” says the preacher. “If there is love in your heart, you must forgive.”
The next day I boarded the train to Mombasa. I was the only one in my compartment so I shut off the lights and watched as the train rolled out of the city. We lazily passed through the more industrial areas of Nairobi, rounded a way point, and then picked up considerable speed as we headed through the slums. Shanty houses, stacked mere inches away from the tracks, had no electric light coming from them. Rather, fires, either burning trash or roasting food, illuminated alleyways filled with puddles of waste. I watched as children flung rocks at the train filled with rich white tourists headed for the coast. We roared through and out into the star lit evening. Once the glow of the city was out of sight, it slowed down and maintained a leisurely pace through the countryside.
I stared out the window for what felt like an indefinite period of time. The constellations grew brighter and the milky way came into full view. The train occasionally honked its horn as animals no doubt wandered onto the tracks. In the morning, we rolled past tiny villages filled with children waving to the train. Some asked for handouts, no doubt given by a few passengers hanging out the windows. Women washing clothes in buckets and standing outside of earthen homes stared indifferently as we rolled by.
At noon, the train finally arrived at it’s destination: Mombasa – an old trading post town that serviced most of the Arab and Indian world, and spun its own lively mix of African, Arab, and Indian cultures. The mosques here call out to pray five times a day, and the streets are mixed with clothing from East Africa to Asia. While Mombasa is safer than Nairobi when it comes to violent crime, and far more open to tourists in a general sense, there is no lack trouble one can get themselves into here. I fully intend to search out every bit of it I can find.