Thursday, August 26, 2010

Farewell Kenya

It was strange to be sitting in the airport at Nairobi...leaving. The city is billed as the most dangerous in Africa, but I found it to contain the charms and necessitate the precautions associated with any large city. There are districts, of course, where extreme poverty leads to crime and violence, and the early sundown means that the streets become sparsely populated by 7.30, but by and large it feels like a very safe city. And, in spite of the crowds, the chaos of the streets and roundabouts--or maybe in part because of these things--Nairobi grew on me.

My last days I kept to my routine as much as possible. After a 6.45 breakfast at the YMCA, I walk into the city centre, grab a newspaper, and arrive at the National Archives shortly after eight. My last day left I had just one file left (albeit a thick one), and so was finished before noon. I bid a farewell to the archivist on duty, the indefatigable Philip Omondi Otieno, and to Mzee Richard Ambani, patron saint of researchers, long since formally retired, but still coming in every day to assist with document delivery. Ambani knows the files like the back of his hand. I'll ask after an obscure Machakos land file, DC/MKS/somethingorother, and he'll say, 'Yes, yes, I know just where that one is'. And then his eyes light up, and he'll continue, 'But if you want that, you might also want to see the one of the Chyulu Triangle and the Masai corner, LND/6.a something'. The archive's digitised catalogue has nothing on Ambani.

I leave the silence of the archives and am back on bustling Moi Avenue. I go down to the corner where the matatus congregate, and have lunch upstairs. A waitress comes by my table an doesn't even bother with a menu. 'Pilau?' Yes, but since it's my last day I splurge and have chai and andazi as well. I'm known here as the absurdly cheap mzungu (an oddity in itself) who orders the least expensive thing on the menu that counts as a proper meal, while the Kenyan clientele spend $3-4 on proper chicken and fish dishes. The staff's exasperation has given way to amusement over the weeks, although early on a waitress vetoed my request for sukuma wiki on the grounds that I had to eat more than that.

I knew, sitting in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, that when I arrived at Heathrow and went to the coach station I would miss the chaos, the shouting, the great press of people swarming around, and I would feel a bit unwanted absent the hordes of people trying to drag me off to their matatu, coach or taxi. And the buses in London and the East Bay weren't going to be the same without the colourful, personalised lettering. Although it's a bit unnerving when you're wandering around the maze that is Ubungo station in Dar es Salaam, and you ask for your coach, to be told that it's the one that says not 'Nairobi' across the top, but 'To God'. 'Gosh', I said to myself, 'I hope not'. But you never know the way people drive around here.

And I would miss the YMCA, where I've stayed whilst in Nairobi, with its limited supper variations on the timeless themes of chicken and beef, the incredibly friendly staff who feel a bit like an extended family now, the constant coming and going of weird foreigners (yes, I'm one too, but I realised the day before leaving that I hadn't spoken to another mzungu for a month and a half). I was awoken one morning by the growling of massive trucks and the sounds of Teutonic voices, and I wondered if the German army had arrived. It proved, on inspection, to be a massive horde of German scouts (perhaps they were going to Nyeri, where Boy Scout founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell is buried facing Mt Kenya).

I'd also miss overhearing--and occasionally taking part in--impassioned political conversations, the mark of a people who know just how much is at stake when they go to the polls, and who take nothing for granted. And the blend of formality and easy humour that characterises Kenyans. And the frankness. A ranger in the Aberdares commented that they didn't get many Americans trekking up there. I asked why he thought that was, and he thought for a moment before saying, 'Americans are very...sensitive'. 'And fat?' I prodded. 'Lazy?' 'Yes, yes', he agreed, before realising that he was addressing a specimen of said species.

But what I would miss the most, to be perfectly honest, was being told in Tanzania, probably a dozen times a day, that I looked like Obama (purely coincidental that they were usually trying to get me to part with some cash). I tried not to let it go to my head, but during my final days in Dar I caught Jeff referring to himself in the third person. Kenyans, oddly enough, don't seem to see the resemblance...clearly not as perceptive as their southern brethren. Either that or it will someday be discovered that Tanzanians are affected by chronic shortsightedness.

Kwa heri ya kuonana, Jamhuri ya Kenya!


  1. Sounds like you had a blast and your prose is, as usual, awesome. Your anecdotes are clear and vivid: I can imagine you, sitting in a bustling restaurant, alone & content, munching on a meager meal that baffles the locals--"Who is this guy? And why does he call 'cookies' biscuits?"

  2. was definitely a fantastic experience. I'm waiting for the blog on Korea to materialise (and I hope that things are going well there). I must say I enjoyed the pithy commentary on the typhoon! I miss those Mesa dinners.

    And the benefit of being in a country like Kenya is that everyone says 'biscuit'...