Change Yourself…Change The World.

Nairobi (The ‘Bubble’ Has Burst)
September 1, 2010, 1:50 am
Filed under: Kenya

I just keep on churning out these realizations right in a row, don’t I?

Over the past few days I’ve realized that the area that I live in Nairobi- the Kilimani area, home to a large number of expats- is a complete bubble, and not an accurate representation of the city at all. In fact, all of the areas I’ve traveled around in Nairobi the past few weeks: Kilimani, Westlands, Central Downtown (near the Hilton Hotel), all cater to expats, which means they are INCREDIBLY posh. These are hubbubs for those who work for the UN, USAID, or some other kind of international organization (mostly in development). The streets are clean and calm, chain stores in the imitation of Starbucks (I’m currently typing from a delicious café/restaurant chain ‘Java Café’) litter the sides of Ngong Road, shopping malls catering to every need and desire of what the West expects Africa would be (flower-printed dresses, zebra-striped tableware, giraffe carvings) garnish Kilimani like an overgrown garden.

This has been my experience of Nairobi: an upper-class, highly sophisticated city (at least compared to other major African cities like Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). How is this city even nicknamed Nairobbery? I remember asking myself. Admittedly, I’ve been EXTREMELY lax with my valuables, wandering up and down the streets without a lock on my backpack, pulling out my iPhone to check the time and maybe change the song while I stroll to work, flashing my valuables at the office and sometimes even leaving my hostel door unlocked while I chill in the garden. Not once have I been mugged, or turned around to find a valuable missing in my pack. I’ve even dared walking down the road to my hostel alone at night, without fear or threat. Where is this Nairobi I’ve heard so much about that are full of thugs, carjackings, and violence?

Reality check: Nairobbery exists, and I experienced it today.

I woke up early this morning to head off to a branch meeting with Faulu Kenya (the micro-finance institution I’m working with for my Kiva fellowship). This was my first time visiting a Faulu Kenya branch, and I hopped onto a bus with the Kiva assistant, Mercy. We drove down past Ngong Road and farther East, into downtown. At around 6:30 AM, I was pretty tired and not really paying attention to the change of scenery: I hummed along to the cheerful Swahili music blasting from the bus’s stereo, and quite suddenly Mercy was tugging at my sleeve, signaling that we had arrived at our stop.

I stepped out into a completely different world. Bus upon bus jostled each other in the road, honking madly and followed by cars, taxis, tuk tuks, motorcycles, bicicyles, and every other ilk you could imagine, while large scrap timber and wood junkyards hung around the background in a smoggy haze . Dust swirled up into the air, blowing across the streets and etching themselves into my clothes. Walking on the sidewalk was a battle of bitter survival: food stalls containing roasted corn, peanuts, pineapple, and sugar cane dominated the walkway; top up centers, and clothes kiosks spilled out onto the road, in which mobs of people sidestepped like a well-worn maze, carrying hefty bags of cement, bricks, mattresses… beggars roamed up and down the street (or limbless ones dragged themselves), women in suits and high heels clutched their purses as they marched to work, jaw-set men in flip flops and trousers shoved their way through the open gaps, grandmothers in heavy scarves clutched their grandchildren as they squeezed through the cracks. It was absolute MADNESS.

Moreover, I was the only white person in sight. Gone were the expertly dressed white twenty-somethings with briefcase in tow, gone were the tourists with their traveler’s backpacks and map for directions; trying to find a Java café would be absolutely laughable here. Pulling out my iPhone to check if we were late was unthinkable.

With our multiple branch visits today (most consisting of me being squeezed into a miniscule seat onto an overcrowded bus for an hour at a time to get there), I felt I was finally able to get a real sense of what the city of Nairobi is. It is dusty, incredibly noisy (mostly due to music blasting from every bus and matatu that passes through: if you’re riding in one of those things, bring earplugs if you want to save your hearing), and teeming full of people. In relation, Kilimani is a little slice of heaven, a quiet pocket of Nairobi that occupies the rich.

Now that I know this, I feel conflicted: part of me arrived back to Kilimani with a  sigh of relief, exhausted from all of the dust, the endless walking, the nonstop staring crowds, and from being crammed into a shared bus seat for two hours with a pole jutting into my back. The other part of me feels guilty that my perception of Nairobi has been so skewed, and that I haven’t embraced the real side of the city, which, while overwhelming, is brimming with flavor. Am I really getting what I came here for (experience and perspective) by living in this super posh area of Nairobi, a boring jive stuffed full of amenities I could easily find back in the United States? In my experience, you don’t learn or grow until you push yourself out of your comfort zone: and eating at Java Café every other night doesn’t really do that for me.

I’ve made myself a truce, of some sorts: I plan to stay in Kilimani, where I have more of a peace of mind over my valuables (my computer, camera, and other things I needed to bring along for my fellowship)- and consequently, where my work is. However, I’m going to make a considerable effort to start branching out to other areas to really experience the chaotic-ness of Nairobi, a city that you could say is much like a brand new, gigantic crayon box: hundreds of varied pristine colors, ready to sample.

Much love,

1 Comment so far
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nairobi is a mix of both worlds as i imagine you have realized by now. nairobberry doesnt do it precisive justice either but what happens in the city is that you may flaunt say you expensive phone or ipod n next you check your pocket, my lady you find it gone! thats nairobbery. advice…nairobians detests these kinds of muggers, never walk to empty alleys, always stick to streets with many people, feel someone snugging closer to yuo in the street, keep away, may nairobber you, catch someone tryna get your stuff shout thief n hell will come in handy for him…they’ll b lynched by the crowds so maybe forgive him/her. just fit into the city, its people n most importantly, just try to even talk in swahili, even one word, they love wazungu that try speaking their language n they’ll shower you with help all the way n once you get in the system, you will never wanna leave, that my lady is a guarantee.

Comment by sam

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