Being on medical visit means that I get to be spending all my time in Kenya’s largest city, the shining star of East Africa, Nairobi. I will not bore anybody with the details of this city and its history, but keep this article deliciously subjective as I tear into the bits and pieces of the city as they pertain to me.
The city itself is broken up into neighborhoods which, like many cities, become stratified representations of class and wealth. Each neighborhood has its history, its list of famous residents, and so forth. The Peace Corps office is located in the neighborhood Westlands, which, to my understanding, was the first up and coming “wealthy,” neighborhood in the city and as the number of wealthy has steadily increased, the truly wealthy have slowly moved on to other neighborhoods, making Westlands now a middle and upper-middle class neighborhood. Nice single-family houses built into housing compounds, placed behind heavily-fortified (seriously) walls, guards out front.
The hotel volunteers stay at when brought into Nairobi for, “official business,” is also conveniently located in Nairobi, making it easy for Peace Corps drivers to pick us up on time, avoiding the notorious traffic jams that plague all parts of the city, but particularly routes heading into the central business district. We are about a 5 minute walk from the main road, and about a 10 minute walk from the shopping district of Westlands, which includes the Sarit Center and Westgate (western-style shopping malls), and plenty of food.
All of this is to our benefit. But it’s very expensive. All of it. We call it ‘mzungu-priced,’ which is fine for the wealthy Kenyans and western-salary development workers who frequent Westlands, but is not ideal for Peace Corps stipends. This is not a rant against our stipends, and in fact I am quite happy with our stipends to the point where I would rather the office spend extra money on other things before us (don’t tell the other volutneers, shhhh!), but it’s also impossible to deny that our stipends are not Nairobi-friendly. Stipends are supplemented by a per diem when here on medical, but even then, it is not truly Nairobi friendly.
On top of this, its in our best interest to not travel at night, especially alone, unless in a cab. That is not inexpensive, with one-way cab rides alone costing our entire per diem. It creates a true sense of being caged into Westlands, which also significantly reduces options for finding more stipend and per diem friendly prices. It is also a necessary move however, with the city being so large, and not safely navigable via public transport at night. The result: I was never a mall-rat at home, but people-watching at the Sarit center has become a favorite past-time of mine.
Then there is the jam itself. Almost every day, in seemingly 2 hour intervals, the city’s roadways jam up. This can be due to cows crossing the road (Nairobi was traditional Masaai grazing land), the roundabouts, annoying police checkpoints, push carts or any other myriad of reasons. 10 minute trips easily take 40 minutes or more. Getting even from Westlands to downtown becomes a stressful endeavor. Peace Corps drivers refuse to take volunteers into downtown because of the jam and the unpredictable travel conditions that exist outside of Westlands. I say that it seems everyone in Africa is waiting for Jesus to come, but he’s stuck in the Nairobi jam.
There is fantastic food though, especially for Western-food (read: cheese) starved volutneers. A future post will be on one of these restaurant alone. So when it does get worked into a budget (more times than it economically should…), volunteers are in heaven. Also, with Nairobi being the medevac for many countries in Eastern Africa, we always get to meet volunteers serving around the our corner of the continent, swapping stories, intrigued by the differences of service in other places, and bonding over the similarities.
Other ammenities are also abound. Java House has free wi-fi (via which this is being posted), and it seems to be speeding up. The hotel also has nice hot showers (in most rooms). There are no sidewalks however, with the exception of the downtown region. This can be hard to conceptualize for those of us accustomed to sidewalks everywhere, especially in cities. Trust me, it’s not fun.
Also, a note on the language. Most people will tell you that Nairobians speak english, and that’s true. Nairobians speak english. As a result, many [white] people simply speak english. But this is still a class difference. If you listen to locals speaking to each other, they are speaking kiswahili. I can count the number of personal conversations I have heard shared in english or even sheng (kiswahili/english mix) on one hand. Instead, the cityfolk are using kiswahili or their mother tongues. It is a reminder to me that english is still not the people’s language. People in this country do not use English, they speak it, but they do not use it, and until everybody admits this, I just feel communication issues will still exist.
Finally, Nairobi is the center of everything in Kenya. Politics, commerce, culture, transport, all of it is centered in Nairobi. But it seems to be a very introverted center. People do not look from here around to other parts of the country. Instead, “getting here,” has been the goal for many Kenyans, and once achieved, it seems all the problems of the rest of the country vanish. Don’t get me wrong, this is a horrible generalization, with plenty of holes. Do people move to Nairobi to get jobs and send money home to the villages? Yes they do. Do villagers succeed against all odds and get to come here to get a veritable education at some of the best Universities in Africa? Yes they do. But we all know how one bad apple spoils the bunch, and there are plenty of bad apples who drive around in million shilling Mercedes-Benz, “serving their fellow countrymen,” while those fellow countrymen are in their drought-stricken, famine-prone regions, starving, and dying, living with no sense of hope or oppurtunity.
Yet we are all here. It’s the “Little West,” of East Africa. It’s where there are resources. It’s where there is some sense of infrastructure. It’s where there are doctors and dentists. It’s where there are other NGOs. It’s where the government is, the Embassy is, the UN is. And for the next week or so, it’s where I am.