Between October 14 and October 20 this year I went to Nairobi for a conference as part of the Better Migration Management Programme sponsored by the European Union and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. Here I will write only about my experience in the city, copying down the scattered notes I took on my journal.
I land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport on Monday 15 at 2 in the night. Large, empty roads, kind taxi driver. Arrival at the hotel: massive security devices, big gate, armed guards. It is a consequence of the terrorist attack at the Mall in 2012, I am told. The hotel is in the same neighbourhood where those events took place: Westland. It is the richest neighbourhood of Nairobi. My room is luxurious. The whole building is luxurious. A stark contrast with the city. Still, I love the dress of the staff: lean and colourful.
First impressions of the day: loud, sandy, buzzing. The streets are full of traffic. There are no sidewalks for pedestrians. Only mud and grass to walk in. People come and go, everywhere. This strikes me as a poor place but in a different way from Cuba. In La Havana, for instance, I had the impression that people idle all the time. Here in Nairobi people run around. They seem busy. What do they have to do? Where do they run?
There are high hotels everywhere, half are finished half are being built. Most of them are property of the Chinese, who bring in their money but also their own workers. Locals do not fancy that.
I walk out of the hotel with wallet and my camera but Victor suggests me to do otherwise. It turns out it is forbidden to take pictures in the open spaces. Another consequence of the terrorist attacks of 2012. I am not sure sure it makes any sense; but people tell me they feel safer. Other actions that are forbidden: walking with a plastic bag and smoking outside. Only the Chinese can do whatever they want: they bring in so much money that the police does not dare stopping them. I ask about the odd plastic policy. It is the government’s strategy to reduce pollution. Seems radical; it is certainly easier for the government to proceed this way than organising large recycling structures.
Bizarre: everybody seems to wear a Manchester United t-shirt. I ask why: nobody is able to explain. While it remains a mystery to me I can promise you half of the youth in this country has a Manchester United t-shirt.
I visit the National Museum and the Nairobi Snake Park. Fact: Nairobi was built only in 1899 when the British authorities decided to connect Mombasa, then the biggest city of the country, to Kampala in Uganda by rail. Thousands of Indians died in the construction of the railway. (Today it is the Chinese, back then the main foreign work force was them). Nairobi, an uninhabited swamp, was selected as the site of a store depot, shunting ground and camping ground. A hundred years later it is one of Africa’s biggest cities.
I feel guilty about it, but on the second day I take a safari in the early morning. We go to Nairobi National Park, only 7 kilometres south of the centre of the city. Though I did not take the picture myself, I swear this is how it looks like.
I take my first walking tour of Nairobi on Thursday, courtesy of Joshua from Machako Country. He is a crack. The first tour he gave, one year ago, ended up in a disaster. He was unable to speak to his three clients, blonde Swiss girls, because they were too beautiful and he was too embarrassed. He then got arrested by armed guards because he did not see one of them taking pictures in front of a government building. He was released after a few hours and was reprimanded by one of the girls, who noticed he had peed on himself during the arrest. Things are better now: I promise him I won’t take any picture without his permission.
We start from the ancient site of the American Embassy, which was bombed in 1998 by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda. Joshua tells me the terrorists came from Somalia and goes on explaining, like many others will do in the following days, that the main problem of Kenya are the porous frontiers that make it easy for bad guys to come in.
We walk to Wakulima Market, where he defends me from several snatchers. All the food there comes from Tanzania: such a rich country resource-wise. In Uhru Park Joshua tells me several stories about his and his father’s polygamy and the various problems that come with it. He is not good at sex, though, because he is not a Masai. The Masai are known to excel in bed, didn’t I know it? In Jivanshee Park I notice a large assembly. Who are they? Students, they come here every day to talk about politics, in circles. Hundreds of them. This is something we do not do in Europe any more.
Joshua brings me to eat chapati and uguali at the university, where we float amid thousands of students who eat a simple meal in temporary wooden barracks. I want to remember the rustic bowls where the meals are cooked. When we are walking out of the campus I am approached by some ten-year old kids who are begging. One of them cannot stop laughing and asks me to take her with me to America. She is high on glue.
I bid farewell to Joshua in a coffee. He does not want me to go into one of the Java shops that are mushrooming around the city. They are owned by the Somali entrepreneurs. The Somali are smart but they are evil. I will remember Joshua. He is what we call a genuinely good guy. I like how he kept saying “trust to me” when telling his stories.
I take my second walking tour on Saturday, the day of my departure. Though invented only one year ago, this activity has huge popularity and you can read more about it here, watch the special on the Swiss television, or the trailer they produced. My three guides, Donga, Kissmart and Cheddar, have a thick skin. I remember their “buah buah buah” to greet their buddies on the street.
After leaving them, I take a long walk by myself. Near the mosque I see a child running happily into a shop. Someone is calling her from behind the corner. I turn and I see her mum – or so I suppose – crawling on the floor. She has her shoes under the hands and drags her legs behind the body, unable to stand. She is chasing her daughter. A part of me wants to take a picture but I refrain from doing so.
There is a special atmosphere around the mosque. It reminds me of the mosque of Sarajevo. I like it.
I leave on Saturday night. The guard at the airport jokes with me saying I should give him 10$ to pass the gate. I am not sure he is joking after all. In any case, I have no cash left with me. He does not mind and lets me go. I am leaving this place. Nairobi is full of opportunities. There is extreme poverty, sure, but also a rising middle class. Most of the people I met I really liked. I am surprised by the students, who are eager to study, travel. They know what they want. This has been such a different journey when compared to Cuba. The contrast between the two places I had the privilege to visit this year could not be starker.