Thursday, March 15, 2012

Snippets from Nairobi


You know how when you go somewhere to get a passport photo taken, the advertisement always features some anonymous if polished-looking model?  Well in Kenya more often than not, the signs feature President and Mrs Obama.

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KNA, bright and early on a Saturday morning...

Valentine’s Day was a big deal here in Nairobi (perhaps not surprisingly given that the cut flower industry has come to dominate whole swathes of the Rift Valley).  All around town people were setting up red and white tents to sell roses or whatever other kind of flowers you might send, teddy bears, and other corporate nonsense.  They even cleared out part of the city market between Koinange and Muindi Mbingu Streets, although the incredibly pungent odour of fish that characterises that stretch of street hadn’t gone anywhere, and probably accompanied the flowers to their romantic destination.

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Most Kenyans are very smartly dressed, but you do see some people in regular t-shirts.  The most unique one I’ve seen so far: Texans for Obama—2008.

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Crossing the street is initially a harrowing experience in Nairobi, where traffic lights exist, but are heeded at your peril. I’m convinced that I’ll be killed within hours of returning to the U.S. thanks to my acquired habits of ignoring signs, walking down the middle of lanes, between moving cars, etc.  These days, when crossing the street I can dodge and weave if not quite with the best of them, at least with the grannies and guys on crutches...

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I eat lunch most week-days at a little restaurant a block down Moi Avenue from the National Archives.  It’s on the first floor of a building, and after getting the once-over from an askari, you have your choice of several open rooms connected by arched doorways and barred windows.  It’s packed with too many tables, each of which have too many chairs, but the food’s pretty good (I usually get kienyeji, pilau or githeri with a cup of masala tea), they have a clean washroom, and I feel that my presence diversifies the clientele by keeping it from being an all-Kenyan establishment.  One day on my way back to the Archives from lunch I passed a guy wearing a familiar-looking blue and gold t-shirt.  And there, on its front, was Oskie!  I called ‘Go Bears!’ in his direction, and predictably, he looked at me like I was going to attack him...

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Shaking hands is a big deal in Kenya.  You always shake everyone’s hand.  When I arrive at the archives each morning I furiously wring the hands of each and every employee there as though they were long-lost friends who I hadn’t seen in decades.  The best example of this was when I was walking along a path in the gardens below the National Museum.  A father and his three kids, the oldest just barely able to toddle along on two legs, were walking on the path in my direction.  Each of the kids stopped, uttered a cheery ‘good morning’, and proceeded to solemnly shake my hand, to my amusement and that of their father. 

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A couple of times a week I treat myself to tea at one the Java House branches, which are just what coffee shops should be: easygoing, unhurried places where you can work, watch the world go by, or just read a novel.  Nobody should bother you or hurry you along.  They certainly don’t rush their patrons at Java House, particularly at the Mama Ngina branch which I tend to avoid because the service is so slow that I can literally feel my hair greying, the seasons changing, and life seeping down the drain and where, to get your bill, you are often reduced to yelling ‘Bomb!’ and hoping one of the wait-staff reaches you before the askari with the billy club.  But I went in the other morning while waiting for a bank to open, and after having what was probably my third or fourth cup of the morning, found myself wondering why the rest of the world appeared to be bouncing off the walls.  I was soon absorbed with my latest Jo Nesbo novel, and wonder of wonders, so much time elapsed that the waitress brought me the bill without my saying anything, and then brought the change without my having to indulge in any hand-waving or acrobatics to get her attention. 

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The security situation in Kenya appears to call for arming the countless askaris who patrol Nairobi with nifty little wands that they wave round your person when you step into a shop or cafe.  A clever plan to foil hand-grenade throwers...or something.  The askaris are often reluctant to wave them at me, but I demand to be wanded just like the rest of the wananchi, and if I’m feeling particularly generous I might even remind them to switch the device on so that they’re doing something other than dusting people’s trousers, which one of the archivists jokingly pointed out was their primary public service...

1 comment:

  1. wow. kenya = the anti-rwanda. especially the stoplight thing.

    ReplyDelete