I promised you a post about Nairobi a while back didn’t I? I haven’t forgotten. Everything you read about Nairobi mentions how it’s referred to as ‘Nairobbery,’ and that you should take taxis everywhere at all costs and never walk around at night. I was therefore both cautious and extremely curious about what it really was like. I ended up being incredibly surprised by Nairobi, for many reasons. The Nairobi I saw was a pleasant, cultured, courteous and safe one. Maybe I was just lucky, or blessed by guardian angels, but it felt like a nice city, except for the truly disgusting level of pollution in the air. The traffic is intense and the smog and dust and construction dirt and soot from industry means that on arrival you immediately start sneezing, coughing, and making your handkerchief black – that is the gross part of Nairobi.
I traveled there with my Director Gabi for a 3day weekend back at the end of September. We left 10pm Friday on an overnight bus. We splurged a bit and got tickets on the nice bus, which was comfy, spacious, and came with snacks even. The road between Mombasa and Nairobi is in notoriously bad shape though (and dangerous, so many accidents), and it seemed like the bus had to go off-roading, um, the whole trip. So there was a ton of turbulence whenever I tried to nod off, and I didn’t sleep a whole lot. We arrived about 5am, and waited for our friends Nikki and Nick to come collect us from the bus stage on the side of the road. It was here that began our weekend of guardian angels. A pikipiki (motorbike) driver stood with us, very much standing guard, not taking any passengers until our hosts showed up and we were secure. We walked to their apartment and fell into sleep. The next day we spent recovering from the journey, and helping prepare the apartment for a party Nikki was hosting that evening. We hung out with a bunch of Kenyans in the NGO and tech scene at this party, making new friends and connections. Possibly the biggest surprise for me about this city was that everyone speaks English to each other! Such a change from life on the Coast, where everyone speaks Kiswahili, and English is not guaranteed. The people of Nairobi are a mix of not just internationals, but of so many Kenyan tribes too. Each of these tribes has its own mother tongue, so Engish IS the common language here. And we were hanging out with a well-educated bunch too. All the same, it was a welcome relief to be sitting in a room full of Kenyans, and understanding the conversation for once. I also met someone who’d just moved to San Francisco, and was working for Samasource, a friend’s former employer. It’s fun to say “small world!” when you actually are on the other side of the world. 🙂
On Sunday we met with and interviewed a Kenyan girl who’d applied for an internship with us. She was very impressive and has now been a great addition to our office the past three weeks. We then headed towards Impala Park, to check out a “Classical Fusion” concert we’d seen advertised. A string quartet from South Africa was headlining, and we’d missed the Mombasa show, so we decided not to miss it twice. It was such an unexpected experience!
Immediately after walking through the gate, the classical music, not-crowded grounds, and the atmosphere of the event made for a pleasantly abrupt change from the matatus and traffic-heavy road just outside. I was blown away by how familiar and normal everything and everyone inside was – from the picnic baskets and box-wine to the kids playing in the bouncy castle and the teenagers looking impressively stylish and hipster-like for their age. Just like home! The only difference was that ~97% of the people there were African. All ages, all styles, but definitely most all were in the upper middle class, happily enjoying this outdoor concert on a hot summer day. Like I said, unexpected! The music too: it was definitely “fusion” – I think they intended that to mean a combination of Classical and African beats… but it felt more like Irish folk music!! Seriously. The entire crowd got up on their feet and danced when asked to by the band. And they stayed dancing, everyone, until the end, which was capped off by fireworks no less, in front of a brilliant sunset. Really such a fantastic time.
We then went off in pursuit of Thai food. I’d read that there were quite a few restaurants in the city and I had to get some tasty Thai, my favorite, while I had the opportunity. After a trio of matatus across town, and a few more guardian angels helping us find our way, (even accompanying us out of their way a few times!) we made it to Westlands and a Thai restaurant – oh no it was closed on Sundays! But thankfully, there was another one in the building that was open! Oh the magnificent options of a real city, how I miss thee. We enjoyed a very delicious meal, and not just because we were in Kenya. It stood on its own as really delicious, and I made note to attempt some Thai cooking back in Likoni, to diversify the options for my tastebuds. (See: Thai cooking post) We headed back to Nikki’s, enjoying two more matatu rides (gasp, at night!). Not once did we take a taxi, our entire time in Nairobi. So there, Lonely Planet!
On Monday we went to the Tarehe School for Boys to visit their library and take notes, as we were organizing our own community to get our library completed. The school and library were clean, orderly, impressive. Freshly inspired, we were to then meet with Gabi’s friend who works at a school in Kibera. She had to cancel, so I called a friend of a friend, and we met up with him for lunch instead. He is building schools throughout the slums of Nairobi, and meeting with great success using a corporate model (Bridge Academies – the site is pretty empty though!). The nicest part about meeting Jay was talking to someone about our mutual friends, while also about development topics and issues on a professional level. I want more of that in my life! I’m eager for more of my socializing to be with people in my chosen career world. That might mean leaving all of my loved ones in San Francisco for a while. I found the immense size of Nairobi comfortable and exciting, and it made me wonder if New York might be the place I want to live next. I’m applying for jobs all over the country, we’ll see where the winds blow me…
We parted ways with Jay and headed to a second-hand clothes market for some shopping. Even though I don’t really enjoy bartering at all (I’ve found that I miss pricetags so much – don’t ask me what I want to pay, just tell me how much it is!), we managed to get some good deals, and some cute new items. We went back into town, met up with a coworker’s sister for a drink, and then went to another place to get some burgers. Nikki and Nick met us there after a bit, and Gabi and I intentionally drank our beers quickly so that we’d sleep well on the late bus home. It worked! I managed to sleep, and we got into Mombasa just about sunrise. Our words were few and our eyelids heavy, but a satisfying and fun time was had. I was glad to leave before something happened to sour my experience!