Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting Tea in Nairobi


If I recall aright, a blurb on Nairobi in an old Lonely Planet travel guide that I read years ago started something like this: “Who’s afraid of big bad Nairobi?  Well lots of people, apparently”.  Needless to say, in the downtown areas, and even farther afield as long as you take ordinary precautions, there’s not much to be afraid of while the lights are on and the askaris are out in force.  Which they certainly are these days. 

Downtown is positively swarming with them, some presumably hired by the city and others by businesses.  And these days they are manning checkpoints at entrances not just to government buildings and towers, but to restaurants, coffee shops, and even the little ol’ YMCA on State House Road!  They also have nifty little wands that they wave ‘round your person and bags in an effort to detect I-don’t-know-what, but this is new since I was last in town, and I suspect it might have something to do with Kenya’s invasion of Somalia and the grenade attacks on nightclubs and bus stops that followed.

Yesterday, on leaving the National Archives (security in this imposing building, one of the few still standing from the colonial era, is surprisingly light) I decided to grab a cup of tea before returning to the YMCA.  My route ‘home’ takes me along bustling Moi Avenue, where I breathed in exhaust fumes from the street, where traffic trundles along steadily, but not so quickly that you can’t dodge between cars to cross.  ‘Bustling’ might be an understatement, as the street hums with activity.  Shops are crushed together, straining at the seams, a glitzy mobile purveyor crammed in alongside dilapidated, crumbling stationers and clothiers.  The street, named for the former President (not at all beloved by this humble blogger), feels on the verge of bursting with shops and pedestrians.  So much so that I absently imagine that the addition of one shop too many, just one extra passer-by, or so much as a single extraneous piece of merchandise, and the whole thing would explode, sending assorted human and material riff-raff sky-high, to rain down all over Nairobi. 

Just across from sunny, green Jervanjee Gardens, the city slopes off downward to what I think Lonely Planet called the ‘urban badlands’ (yes, I was anxious the first time I came to Nairobi in 2007, and had heard lots of bad things about the city, so I read all the ‘Danger & Annoyance’ sections of the guidebooks carefully).  And indeed, you could imagine the cloud of dust mingled with exhaust that seems to hang over these poorer sections of town that make up the majority of Nairobi as giving the city a sinister mien.  On the downhill, you’re more likely to get accosted by touts (or more aggressive ones at least, and they’re not selling safaris), or to be the recipient of hostile-seeming stares.

But I cut across Jervanjee, populated between dawn and dusk by old men and young men in greatcoats, and the odd ten-gallon hat, sitting in the sun amidst piles of rubbish and verdant bushes...a study in social and material decay, for most of them are not on a tea break but rather waiting like despondent, would-be passengers at a bus stop, where the bus has not come at the appointed time, and who have got word that it might be years in the coming.  I cut down another street where Asian shopowners sit on barazas, chatting to another and waving half-heartedly at potential customers.

The Nairobi Java House, where I treat myself to masala tea once or twice a week, is very different from all this.  The barristas have the same swagger they seem to have the world over.  The arrangement of the cafe, so different to where I eat my daily lunch of pilau with my tea in a chipped mug, where staff are constantly swiping the sugar or salt to take to another table, could mark it as a Starbucks in Seattle or a Peet’s in Portland.  The only difference might be the deep hooks beneath the tables where you can secure your bags to deter would be would be snatchers (Nairobi isn’t called ‘Nairobbery’ for nothing it would seem), although the super-vigilant staff and the askari at the door are probably better safeguards still.

Even the clientele seems familiar.  There are the young couples chatting intimately, the simultaneous feverish fondling of their respective mobile phones somewhat detracting from the budding romance.  And the people are as diverse as the menu (which sports a chicken burrito which I haven’t yet dared sample...I don’t think it would go well with tea anyway).  There are pinstripe suits, safari jackets, flowing white robes, skullcaps, precarious high-heels, colourful headscarves, t-shirts, tight-jeans, professorial jackets with elbow-patches, and so on.  Sweaters, which were very much in vogue when I was last in Nairobi, seem to be out of season.

There are groups of Chinese tourists with more camera equipment than an NPR crew (especially once the Republican Party gets through with them), and safari-goers dropped off by vans or land-rovers, who come in two types.  First are the elderly and well-heeled, dressed like they probably imagine the Happy Valley crowd did in the 1930s.  Then there are the more youthful, who tend to cultivate a deliberately-grubby look that together with their whiteness makes them stand out like sore thumbs amongst the always-respectably dressed Kenyans, particularly in swanky downtown.  There are men and women in business suits who looked like they just stepped off private jets from the Gulf, bringing with them the scent of financial success from over the water, gainfully-gotten or otherwise.  And there are the young, entrepreneurial types, who I think of as quintessentially-Kenyan, leaning in earnestly to discuss this venture or that, careful to keep their ties or necklaces out of lattes and iced-mochas.

When the talk isn’t of business, these days it’s of the election to be held sometime this year (or maybe January, others whisper, while still others say that the wily Kibaki plans to hang on).  The High Court may have ruled that newspapers and television cannot discuss whether William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta (indicted by the ICC for instigating the vicious bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 election) will throw their hats into the ring this time to challenge Raila Odinga (currently the Prime Minister and son of perennial political outsider Oginga Odinga, bloodied and just about beaten into submission by the Moi regime) to succeed Mwa Kibaki, but that’s not stopping Kenyans from talking politics at all times in all places.

Some of them, holding fast to ethnic loyalty, say the ICC trial is all a sham designed to undercut Kenyatta and the Kikuyu.  It’s never clear who has set this nefarious plot up, but that seems to be a matter of comparative irrelevance.  Others are outraged that two men who stand accused of crimes against humanity, rather than going to the Hague to do their best to demonstrate their innocence, are going around their respective heartlands thumping their chests, whining about conspiracies, and pledging to ignore any summons from the Hague. 

Now parliamentarians and civil society organisations are promoting a move that would ban persons of ill-repute from holding office, a move which seems commendable when designed to prevent potential criminals from becoming President but which, in the wrong hands, could lead into all kinds of dark places.

But surrounded by the bustle of patrons and staff inside the Java House, and by the swarms of people who populate Nairobi’s streets outside, with the sun shining and the birds singing (I’m sure they are, I just can’t hear over the grinding of traffic), it’s hard to focus on Presidential politics for now...

Although I understand that Rick Santorum is nutter-in-chief for the moment which should have the desirable effect of prolonging the sadistic circus that is the Republican Party presidential primary in the U.S....

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