Nairobi (and civilisation)

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March 3rd 2011
Published: March 3rd 2011
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As the bus pulled closer to Nairobi I started to get nervous - a victim of the hype about 'Nairobbery', and not helped by the fact that we were due to arrive in an area 'rife with petty theft' according to the guide book. As we entered the city we passed mile upon mile of red roofed shacks, and then moved into the city where the dirt and rubbish built up and at times became the road itself. Hardly an inspiring entry. The bus pulled to a stop in the chaotic, crowded, and manic eastern side of the center, and as we stepped into the city it felt like we were walking into a maelstrom - there wasn't an inch of space on the pavement, the roads weren't much clearer either, and as traders, shoppers and hawkers all went about their daily business, we were pressed from every direction. Not having a clue where we were, or how to get out of there, we quickly jumped into the nearest taxi, and had a drive-through tour of the city on the way to the hostel.

At first glance Nairobi was exactly how I thought it would be - scruffy, busy and chaotic districts, with tarmac hidden below inches of waste, that are the reality of life for the majority of the population, just meters from the high-rise business district in the centre, full of suits and skyscrapers, which then gave way to wide avenues and leafy suburbs of the expat and colonial areas, where the hostel was located. The hostel itself was a little piece of calm amid the mayhem, although at times it did feel far too much like a gated white community, with locked gates, guards, and barbed wire to keep Africa locked outside.

On my second day I headed to the supermarket to stock up, and as I walked through the automatic doors, into the air conditioned aisles, with everything neatly stacked on the shelves, and more products than you could ever imagine, it felt like I was walking back into Western civilisation - so clean, sparkling and ordered. It reminded me of the supermarket I went to on my last day in Europe, and as in the Sheraton in Addis, I was again culture shocked, and walked around in a daze at all the choices available.

After so long on the road, it was time to sit back and relax, and I spent the following week relaxing and almost setted into Western living - buying the daily paper, drinking fantastic coffee in expensive cafes, using lifts, elevators and air-con, and generally ignoring the fact that I was in the middle of Africa. Walking around the business district, with a copy of the Daily Nation in my hand, jumping on the number 48 bus, and eating greasy fish and chips, I almost started to feel at home. Something I never thought I'd be thinking about Nairobi. In the end, as a tourist, Nairobi seemed to be all bark and no bite, and I never felt threatened during the eight days I spent there. I actually really enjoyed the city, and although it's a long way from the usual image of 'Africa', it felt like a return to normality and Western civilisation after the dusty ride down from Ethiopia.

It's not all good in the city though, and after the initial shock and awe of the glass covered buildings and fancy cafes had passed, I started to see the segregation lying just below the surface. Having spent the previous three months immersed in African life, it' suddenly very odd to be locked up in a white enclave of a campsite, especially when you know the majority of the city's population are living in slums just a few miles away, and when the hostels are full of their fair share of white idiots. I guess in the end I either got used to it, or learned to ignore it, after all, the rest of Kenya was only a short matatu ride away...


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