Kenyans call their capital ‘Nairobbery’ and after dark I’ve been told to take a taxi for trips as short as a single block. But the danger keeping foreigners from Kenya these last months was tribal fighting that left more than a thousand dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
So you’ll excuse my surprise when I strolled the streets yesterday morning, somewhat cautiously at first, and found the most inviting city I’ve encountered on the continent.
If Nairobi is indeed on the same continent as Niger and Benin and Burkina Faso it is certainly a very large and diverse chunk of earth.
The German I shared a cab from the airport with insisted Lagos to Nairobi is considered a domestic flight. That so many westerners—even this one traveling in Africa—have trouble comprehending that Nigeria and Kenya are as distinct as Canada and America is deeply baffling to me.
To be honest, the toll of West Africa was starting to register on my good humor. The temperature topped 100 degrees (40 Celsius) nearly every day the last two months, and often reached 115. It had been several weeks since I compelled an ATM to function. The dusty, filthy air of the utterly polluted capitals leached out of my clothes as I washed them in another guesthouse sink. But probably worst of all, I lived in a bubble of my own making, unable to communicate with the French-speaking Africans or the small sprinkling of French-speaking travelers.
After two days, a gauntlet of all-day buses and multiple border crossings and near abductions and last-minute plane tickets deposited me in Nairobi at sunrise yesterday.
Prepared for the estimated two-hour visa wait I walked towards the empty immigration area. A guard took my passport, scanned my visa form, accepted my $50 and stamped me into Kenya all within 10 seconds.
The guard was extremely good-natured, so much so he paid little attention to his little-used stamp, which marked my entry on 26/12/07 (December 26, 2007). I pointed this out to him so he fixed the stamp and issued me a second visa for December 26, 2008. On the third try he corrected the month and I headed down to collect my luggage and walk past the idle customs officials who didn’t even look in my direction as I walked out.
The downside to being the only white person in the arrivals area of an airport that once had hundreds of tourists is the attention you receive from the folks who feed their family with tourism dollars.
But the aggressive taxi drivers and safari touts, even the ones crying poverty, were easy to ignore after months of smiling, one-armed boys gesturing to their mouths and asking for food. Let me show you some pictures from a village in Niger, I wanted to say, and then you tell me how bad your life is.
I could say that to them because they could understand me! They spoke English! Oh boy that was nice.
And the air was clean and cool! Sixty-degrees!
There were so many ATMs in the arrivals lobby I had trouble choosing. And they didn’t just take Visa cards (terrible, terrible transaction fees) but my Plus-network card that’s fee-free! Fee-free money!
Nairobi is a fine, modern capital that cannot really be compared with Dakar or Lagos or whatever West Africa would present as its urban beacon. Nairobi could easily be the capital of a less-prosperous European country.
It’s worth admitting that the people here may seem more friendly, more attractive, more engaging simply because I can communicate with them. But I don’t think that’s really the explanation.
If this is Kenya at the end of its dark days, then Kenya should be just fine. It’s more understandable to me now why commentators wondered at the height of the unrest here, ‘If this can happen in Kenya, what hope does the rest of Africa have?’
In the afternoon I stood outside my hotel and talked about American and Kenyan politics with a very well informed guy who in an ideal world would sell me a safari. He spoke freely and thoughtfully about the last several months. He was opinionated without being polarized, hopeful without being naïve. If the American citizenry were as engaged and levelheaded as he, we’d be in good shape.
In the evening I asked the reception desk if I really needed a taxi to go two blocks away for dinner.
“At night?” he asked. “Oh yes. After 7pm you need to take a taxi there, and when you are done take a taxi back.”
But there was a restaurant literally around the corner and it was decided I could walk there since on one side of the corner there was a parking guard and on the other side there were four ATM guards for each of the banks on that street.
“If someone attacks you the guard will shout,” I was reassured.
“Can you walk in the city after dark?” I asked my politically aware friend.
“Oh yes, I walk all around the city at any time. But because you are white they think you have a lot of dollars.”
Nairobi isn’t a perfect city. But the headlines of the last four months have been the story of dangers and casualties suffered by the Kenyan people. The threats to tourists appear no different now than they’ve long been.
So I’ll do what the immigration official, and safari seller and front desk clerk have all asked me to do. I’ll tell you to come to Kenya.