Dispatch from NairobiPosted: September 18, 2019
A friend was having a 40th birthday party in Nairobi, an excuse to see what’s up in Africa.
Top down view
On the first morning I was in Nairobi I walked over to the KICC building and went up to the top, 33rd story I believe, where you can stand outside on the exposed helipad.
Going to the top of a tall building at the start of a trip is a tactic I got from Neomarxisme. He recommends this for first-timers in Tokyo. Go somewhere high, and take in the vastness of what you’re dealing with in Tokyo. Then you can begin to appreciate what’s going on.
Nairobi is not as vast as Tokyo. Nairobi’s population can be estimated at somewhere around 4.5 million people, higher or lower maybe, if we’re counting commuters and outlying areas. Roughly equivalent to LA.
From the top of the KICC you can see the grasslands of Nairobi National Park. For LA residents, imagine if Griffith Park had free-ranging giraffe and zebras wandering around.
There is also a dense forest in Nairobi, Karura Forest. On the fringes of this forest I saw two fairly chill monkeys lolling about. I believe they were Sykes monkeys. The embassies, the Muthaiga Country Club, impressive and secure houses are along the edges of this forest.
The only other sightseer on the top of the KICC was an African girl younger than me who had me take her picture on an Nikkon camera and also filmed several jubilant videos of herself talking into her phone. I say she was African because her skin was very dark and her English accented but maybe her home was France or the Netherlands for all I know. My guess would be she was a tourist or a student from somewhere else.
From the KICC you can see the railyards. Nairobi was originally a railway town, founded in 1899 to service the British-run Uganda Railway. The train still runs to Mombasa on the coast but I was told it wasn’t running to Uganda anymore. “We’re not there yet.”
The KICC building is near Kenya’s Senate and Supreme Court. In this area, near the CBD (Central Business District) you pass a lot of security checkpoints. To get near these buildings, you’ll have to talk to someone with a gun. But none of the people with the guns seemed too anxious. This is good, I guess? In Kenya they’re obsessed with having you write down your name in a ledger when you go anywhere. But supervision of this process always seems indifferent. What are they ever gonna do with these ledgers, I wonder, with scribbled signatures? I wonder if there’s some kind of witch doctor / voodoo priestess who would pay for books of signatures for use in rituals, perhaps burning them while drawing on the power of these spirits. Gotta look into that.
Kenya is in a sort of war with Al-Shabaab and stateless actors in neighboring Somalia (maybe even Somalia itself if we consider that a functioning state with that name). There have been several dramatic,, extreme acts of terrorism in Nairobi. The bombing of the US Embassy in 1998 killed two hundred and thirteen people. Osama bin Laden was in on that one, and maybe we shouldn’t have allowed him to keep living for thirteen more years? In 2013 four gunmen shot up the Westlands Mall, an upscale shopping place. Seventy-one people dead. Maybe ghastliest of all was the killing of one hundred forty eight mostly university students in 2015. That happened outside of Nairobi, at Garissa University.
This article, by Katherine Petrich, about how al-Shabaab and Kenyan slum-dwelling sex workers do business together, I found illuminating.
Given this deeply conservative position inside Somalia, its willingness to cooperate with and reward sex work in Nairobi, where the group is more constrained in its activities, suggests al-Shabaab is a limited, rational organization with concrete territorial aims. It is not a maximalist extremist group prioritizing ideological principles over tangible benefits, and because the group has a state-based goal, it is comfortable supporting or at least engaging with activities that contravene sharia law. An informant remarked wryly, “Al-Shabaab likes [that group of sex workers] very much. They are worth many sins.”
If you’re from the US, can you really criticize another country for its mass shootings? An Uber driver taunted me that Nairobi is safer than US cities like Chicago. Uber works well in Nairobi, the drivers were good and showed up when it said. There seemed to be pretty reliable 3G service to communicate with them.
The columnist / travel writer cliché of quoting the cab driver is well-documented. I’ve noticed even Paul Theroux does it. But what’re you gonna do, you know? These are the Kenyans I ended up spending the most time with. There we were, may as well get their story. Traffic can be horrific in Kenya. Coming into/out of the city in rhythm with regular work hours could leave you crawling for an hour or two. The grind of that life must be immiserating. It’s also a sign of a boom, I guess. Nairobi is exploding. My host explained to me that it is the NGO/government/development/banking/energy/international business capital for East Africa. If you’re doing business in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia you might have an office in Nairobi.
From the KICC I could see a particularly crowded and chaotic street where it looked like the road itself was fully occupied by stalls and stopped minibuses. This was the area where Tom Mboya* Road meets Accra Street, and it was full of matutus, private competing independently operated (I think? maybe there’s some kind of informal union?) minibuses that might go as far as Mombasa, plus surrounding businesses. Around here I popped into a textbook store. The desire of learning in Kenya seemed intense to me, I went by many stalls selling books on business topics, and schools and colleges. Even in Kibera slum the kids are wearing school uniforms, and the desire to make money to pay school fees was several times expressed as one of life’s drives.
In Nairobi there’s a neighborhood called Karen, named after Karen Blixen, real name of author Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa. Meryl Streep played her in the movie.
Karen is around where Karen Blixen’s farm was (in fact I sometimes heard the neighborhood called Karenblixenfarm). It’s funny to me that there’s a neighborhood called Karen, partly becomes of the meme-ing of the name, partly that it’s just cool that a neighborhood is somebody’s first name. How great would it be if after I’m dead my neighborhood is called Steve? I remembered reading somewhere that late in life Karen Blixen ate nothing but oysters and champagne, but she also died of malnutrition. Karen’s farm can be visited, a guide will sit you down and recite some of her biography, and then they’ll show you things like her old wooden toilet. They don’t let you use that toilet.
The first line of Out of Africa the book, intoned in the movie by Meryl, is “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” The Ngong Hills where Karen tried to grow her coffee are now spotted with windmills.
Karen Blixen’s farm was one of the sites on a little tour a Stanley Hotel-recommended driver took me on. The elephant orphanage was next. Be advised you can only see the elephants between 11am and noon, unless you pay extra to adopt one I believe. It’s kind of fun to see young elephants doing their thing but the idea of an elephant orphanage is so sad, and the crowded circle of humans around them kind of unpleasant, so I bailed pretty fast on that.
Next is the giraffe center, where they give you a little bag of molasses-based giraffe treats and you can feed them and feel their rough tongue. But you can do that in San Diego too. Across the grass of the giraffe center is Giraffe Manor, where you can stay (pricey) and the giraffes will poke their heads in the window apparently.
Last stop was some kind of depressing zoo where they did have some good venomous snakes but the vibe isn’t very cheery, it’s next to a dreary, unused amusement park. The girl leading me around, Valentine, asked me if I wanted to hold a snake. No thanks. Had she ever used the anti-venom? Yes, once. On a snake-handler.
It was about three in the afternoon. I asked my driver what was next and he said “that’s it.”
The City Outside
On the streets of Nairobi I encountered no more people asking for money than I would in downtown Los Angeles or West Hollywood. Surprised, before I went, not to find a Tyler Cowen snapshot/bleg for Nairobi. There’s an active street market scene at most busy corners. You will find vendors selling boiled eggs served with salsa and small chicken sausages. None of the street food looked too appealing to me, but around the Nairobi Railway Museum there were some makeshift restaurants that looked like they served goat stews and stuff that I might’ve liked to try if I’d had more time. Always a challenge when traveling and especially in non-Western places is like figuring out the system, how you order, what the deal is with the line, etc. This can be kind of fun and always interesting but when you’re traveling you’re often pressed for time or you find yourself kind of exhausted and suddenly very hungry, the cognitive and sensory overload is too high and the fuse is too short to deal. There’s rarely a time I pass a McDonald’s in a busy foreign city and am not at least a LITTLE tempted by the freedom and temporary mental break offered by the dependability there.
Buying, selling, marketing, cooking, eating, sitting, life being lived outside is a striking part of Nairobi, if you’re coming from an American city. But I can’t declare this especially African or Kenyan, you see this in the cities of Central and South America too.
For two of the nights I was in Nairobi I was in the care of a friend, an American semi-resident. We ate a dinner at a Peruvian Japanese kind of fusion place on a high floor of shopping structure catering to expats and wealthy Africans. The following night I was part of a group dinner at 45 Degrees, which my host said made a strong case for being the best restaurant in Nairobi. The roast pumpkin soup was excellent, and the setting, in what I was told was the owner/proprietor’s own house in an almost country-seeming neighborhood was pleasing. On the one night I was on my own I ate at Nyama Mama, now a chain with a few locations. Chicken stew with chapati, totally fine, if I were in Nairobi again I might try Wasp & Sprout.
Got a lot out of Vogue’s Kenyan Cool Girls Guide to Nairobi:
Local style: “It’s in our culture to dress up on Friday, not knowing what kind of party we’ll go to, but the whole crew has to look fresh.”
Go explore: “My favorite part of the city is downtown. I am lucky as a majority of the stone merchants and gold smiths I work with are based there. There is lots of quirky buildings and you see the real hustlers of Nairobi. Watching them go about their work inspires anyone.”
Muthoni Drummer Queen recommends:
Her spot: “The Nairobi Railway Museum. It’s smack in the middle of downtown. All the old trains no longer in use transport me back to an imaginary time. Its also super cool that a lot of these carriages are now occupied by visual artists with great studios and galleries.”
I missed this gallery area, if it’s still there, though there is a lot of rich street art around the area. What I found at the Nairobi Railway Museum was rooms full of old train lanterns and the chair Queen Elizabeth sat in, and then old engines parked outside.
Several times in my life I’ve found myself, as I did at the Nairobi Railway Museum, the only customer at the place, sort of dragging out my time and staying longer than my interest would hold because I don’t want to offend the guy who took my ticket by bailing after five minutes without really inspecting the old printed out articles about the man-eaters of Tsavo.
If you have time for a day trip out of Nairobi, you can pretty quickly be at a vantage point where you can see the Rift Valley. Something like 35 million years ago the continent of Africa nearly ripped apart along here**. The African Great Lakes are along this continental cut, and some of the oldest fossil humans and pre-human ancestral primates have been found here too.
One problem I have as a casual iPhone photographer is capturing depth of field, I’m not saying I’m satisfied with this photo, but maybe you can see how quickly and dramatically and how across a vast area the elevation drops along this part of Kenya.
My driver, Samuel, took us out to Hell’s Gate National Park, where you can see zebras and so on. What was most impressive to Samuel is the immense geothermal workings at Hell’s Gate. Jonathan Franzen seems sad about the “green” (quotation marks his) energy in Kenya’s national parks in his latest New Yorker piece. But to Samuel this construction was a miracle. Samuel kept saying that “they should feature the power plant!” He several times recalled that he’d once taken around an engineer who could explain all the different parts of the geothermal plant. Maybe he was disappointed that I couldn’t explain anything about it. It appears I didn’t even take any pictures of it.
In Hell’s Gate there are chunks of obsidian rock lying around everywhere, blown out by the eruptions of Mount Longonot (last one was apparently in the 1860s). Couldn’t help wondering if our millions-ago ancestors used this stuff for tools. Made me think of 2001.
On the shores of Lake Naivasha we got some fish. Samuel told us he’d once been out on a boat on the lake. You have to pay more if you want a guy with a gun to protect you from hippos. I passed on a boat ride.
It’s well-known in Kenya that people of Obama’s tribe, the Luo, are very smart because they live on the shore of the lake and eat so much fish.
Here is a roadside vegetable market. I was told this is called Foolish Market, because the prices are so low. A bag of potatoes seemed to cost about 100 Ks (a dollar or so).
If I’d had the time to get all the way out to Lake Victoria, would’ve really enjoyed that. Would’ve required about eight hours of driving. Instead I lounged by the pool of the Muthaiga Country Club and then took a guided tour of Kibera.
Kibera is an enormous slum, supposedly the largest in Africa, a sprawling ramshackle area of shared toilets and tin houses, originally given as a kind of grant by the British to Nubian soldiers in their army. This might be where you end up if you move to Nairobi from a rural area, renting a small room with a tin roof for $30 a month.
Moses was my guide there, by way of Experience Kibera. He suggested I bring two bags of rice or sugar as a donation to local single moms, many of whom are HIV positive.
Was sorta bracing myself for this experience, the trash and open sewer scene, leaky roofs, survival-level subsistence is pretty tough but there did seem to be a positive kind of community spirit to be seen in Kibera. Moses’ sense of potential for the future and improvement over a past noted for election-related violence, sexual assault and general bad times was contagious.
Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa. The 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census reports Kibera’s population as 170,070, contrary to previous estimates of one or two million people.
says Wikipedia. No one seemed to think in a white guy walking through with his guide was worth staring at, although quite a few kids wanted to say “howareyou” — I asked Moses about this and he said various NGO type people come through all the time, it’s not much of a novelty.
When I’ve been describing Nairobi to Americans they often seem interested to hear there’s a Cold Stone Creamery in one of the malls.
Kenyan English, like the English in India, is full of suprisingly rich phrases and constructions. I noted a few down:
- re: some bikers who’d died in a flash flood in Hell’s Gate: “these young chaps were still taking selfies”
- Samuel suggesting that Chinese road loans could be predatory, always qualified with “according to my observation.”
- Churches called “First Born Of The Holy Spirit” and “Bride of the Messiah”
With the signs of growth everywhere, and the potential for the region, I think real estate in Nairobi would not be a crazy investment, although I don’t think I myself will bother getting involved. There was much talk of oil discovery in the remote Turkana region, where many of the early man fossils were found. There are huge gains, it would appear to me, to be made in infrastructure and transportation development both in Nairobi and around the countryside.
Here is a bus themed after Dr. Ben Carson.
* Tom Mboya‘s work with JFK allowed African students in the ’50s and ’60s to study in the US — without him, would Barry Obama have been born?
** this statement not strictly geologically accurate, or at least a geologist would quibble, but for our purposes it’s approximately right I think