12 February 2010


Another installment from my winter trip...

The last few days of my trip I spent exploring Nairobi.  Bernard and Woon also were flying out of Nairobi around the same time, so we all took the bus up together from Arusha to Kenya. 

In Nairobi, Bernard took us to Kibera, Nairobi's most notorious slum.  He worked there before with a World Bike project, so he had friends that he wanted to visit.  I'll admit I was nervous about going to Kibera, despite hearing repeatedly that it's one of the neatest (but perhaps also dangerous) parts of Nairobi.  Anything with "slum" in the name just sounded like a scary place that I probably shouldn't be going.  But it was absolutely amazing. 

Daniel M^2 was right - Kibera slum is full of smart, enterprising people. The type of people that would leave their village and migrate to the city looking for work, only to find that there aren't enough jobs to go around.   

Before I went, the picture I had in my head for a slum included lots of sketchy, scary men slouching on street corners, smoking and drinking, waiting for their next chance to mug someone. (Funny how my mind reflexively makes these half-formed pictures of places I've never been before.) Of course, the picture I found was much different.

Here's some first impressions:

Life. Everywhere.  People moving, breathing, talking laughing.  Kids. Everywhere.  Women selling vegetables, shoes, shampoo, everything you can imagine. Houses. Everywhere.  Patchwork of woven corrugated tin sea of roofs, mud walls, some concrete.  Narrow little turning twisting muddy fractal alleyways.  Doorways.  So many doorways.  The dirt road and branching alleyways are practically carpeted with plastic bags and trash stamped into the mud. So many home made TV antennas leaping up into the brilliant blue sky.

Hygenic nightmare.  Murky muddy channels running everywhere with waste water.  Many alleyways are filled with nasty-looking water, we need to tip toe at the edges and scrape by the walls.  Maze. The first time Bernard's friend came here, he rented a room, left to get his stuff, and when he returned, he couldn't find his alleyway or room.  He searched for hours before he went to find the landlord to show him where it was again.

Here's some Kibera photos I stole from this blog.

Actually what's interesting about the above photo is that it was taken about 5 years ago. When I went in January 2010, it seemed like every house had a homemade TV antenna shooting out the roof made from a pole, a frying pan, and old fluorescent lightbulbs. I have no idea why that particular combination works, but they were everywhere. 

Tons of enterprise. This guy may not have a roof for his shop, but a sewing machine is enough to start a business.  Check out the blog these photos came from for more examples of all the businesses to be found in Kibera.

Kids everywhere.  Plastic everywhere.

The day I flew out of Nairobi, I took a matatu downtown in the morning, spent the whole day walking around town.  Nairobi feels very modern.  It's worlds away from Lusaka in Zambia, and even feels more polished than Accra, Ghana.  I saw only a handful of other muzungus the whole day in the crowds.  And you know what?  Practically no one hassled me.  I walked past thousands of people, I think only two asked me if I wanted a safari, only one said something like "Hey white boy!" (My hair is still short.) Whereas, if I walk in downtown Lusaka, Arusha, or Accra, it feels like a nearly constant hassle, everyone's got something to offer or yell at me.

In the early afternoon, I decided to head back, and grab my bags for the airport.  All I had to do was find the place where the matatu dropped me off in the morning. 

No problem, I know right where it is, right? Eh, rather, my brain decided it would be hilarious to remember the matatu stop as being in a place where it wasn't.  It was a strange kind of being lost.  I knew exactly where I was, but where I wanted to be wasn't there. 

I had probably been circling around the same streets for about an hour, looking for my phantom matatu stop when I received a phone call from World Bike Dan.

"Which part of town are you in?"
"The east side.  Kind of towards your house."
"Oh. Good. There's a riot on this side of town.  You probably want to stay over there.  In fact, you should probably get out and go home.  I think they're moving in your direction."
"Oh.  Great.  Thanks."

The day still seemed normal.  Everyone around me in the street still seemed normal: happy, bored, walking, talking, sitting.

It felt like my nightmares.  There's something looming, something coming.  I can't see it, don't know where it is, but I've got to get out.  Keep moving, keep moving. Same street. I've been here before.  It's not here. Not here. This is so weird.

Finally, I mustered the courage to ask a shopkeeper where I could find the matatu stop.  (I'm really really bad at asking for directions, especially in Africa.  Admitting I'm lost kind of feels like painting a target sign on my back.)

He looked worried. "Well, it's a bit far from here.  And you can't go around asking everyone for directions..."  But he pointed me to a street and told me to walk straight. 

After about 15 minutes of walking, I suddenly recognized a building, and took a few turns and found a familiar line of matatus!  Jumped on, made it back in time to catch my flight, no problem.  Yipes.  Never saw the riot.  Read an article about it later. It's hard to fathom that was happening and the other side of town seemed normal.  I mean, it logically makes sense, but I suppose whenever I read about "hundreds of stone throwing protestors" I automatically imagine the whole place being shaken up.

1 comment:

Ken said...


Somewhere in this area, mankind was born.