Posts Tagged ‘Out of Africa’

I’ve recently returned from a work trip to Kenya, and in doing so have faced the inevitable question: ‘what was Africa like?’ I struggled to answer this question. I couldn’t neatly package an answer up.

Of course it was great seeing herds of zebra and elan and wilder beast roaming outside the office in Kenya, but it was kind of weird seeing them beneath the pylons. I am sure that the armed guard who patrolled the floor of my hotel room was put in place to keep me safe and make me feel safe however it had the opposite effect. And the armed guards at the entrance to shopping malls, hotels, car parks and at road blocks (check points) had me more curious than anything else.

The difference between poverty and wealth was, as expected extreme. I drove past some of the most impressive houses with beautiful manicured lawns and exotic flowering gardens. These contrasted with the shanty towns where everything was brown, the rusting corrugated iron houses, the brown earth around them and there was not a tree in sight.

Everyone I spoke to at length expressed a real desire for peace and democracy and were working hard to eke out a good, honest living. Most people had been affected in some way by AIDS and knew a friend, father, mother, brother, sister, uncle or aunt who had died from AIDS. I was surprised at the capacity of people to forgive and move one, from everything from colonial rule to rioting, everyone is looking forward. People worked out of buildings with dirt floors and no electricity, windows or doors, but they wore suit pants and jackets and a tie.

The language Kiswahili was easy and fun: Jambo means hello, asante is thank you, carribo is welcome. I arrived with no local language and had the essentials for greetings, exchanging pleasantries, shopping and eating under control by the time I alighted my first cab. There are many tribes in Kenya all with their own languages and Kiswahili was created as a language common to all.

Recycling was taken to a new level, market stalls full of second-hand clothes, newspaper vendors selling newspapers and magazines from this week, last week and the week before, plastic bags, tarpaulins and all other manner of odds and ends giving new meaning to the term ‘second life.’ Nothing is thrown out, nothing goes to waste.

The food in Kenya was amazing, although people found the concept of vegetarianism extremely odd, to say the least, the menu was well set-up for me. Meat on the left as the main dish (choose your meat first), and vegetables and staples (rice, chapati etc) on the right, (chosen as an accompaniment). It’s also great for kids as if you want cutlery you have to ask for it, otherwise everything you need is (in most cases) on the far end of your arm. Market gardens abound, the food is fresh and mostly organic and overall it is yummy, yummy. I ate in local places, drank bottled water and came Out of Africa (pun intentional) fatter and happier than when I went in.

One of the other strange things of note (as a kiwi) is that there is kiwi boot polish in every store, everywhere you go. John said simply, this is because it’s the best (go figure).

Big John or Fat John as John proudly refers to himself as, is without a doubt the best thing about the Silver Springs Hotel in Nairobi. I accidentally, or serendipitously found John here and he was my guardian angel throughout my trip, driving me around and providing me with insights into the city, people, history, culture and food. If you are in the neighbourhood send him a text (+254720701271) or rock up at the Silver Springs Hotel (I’m not sure I’d recommend staying there and I would definitely not eat there) and find him.

I am quite sure that without John, the big bad Nairobi would have had a few less than pleasant surprises in store for me, instead I came home to far more danger and drama in the mean streets of Erskineville than I experienced anywhere during my travels. Cops and robbers, literally at my front door, high speed chase, guns going off, lots of bad language (the police), recovery of money and arrest of robbers.

Police car at my front door

Police car at my front door

The getaway car, photographed from my bedroom window (the police car is onthe left)

The getaway car, photographed from my bedroom window (the police car is on the left)

This is my front door, look closely between the door and the television and you can see the grill of the police car almost coming inside the house.

This is my front door, look closely between the door and the television and you can see the grill of the police car almost coming inside the house.

Several things stopped this from being more serious for me: I’d moved my car 10 minutes before hand. Had I not it would’ve been pushed through the side of the house. Also, the planter box outside the house had been replaced the week before, from it’s old fragile state to a new, heavy duty one bolted into the asphalt. The ‘robber car’ ran aground atop it, rather than keeping on going, again straight into the house.

While it was kinda scary for a little while, the ‘baddies’ were face down and then shunted off in the paddy wagon pretty quickly.

This was a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny taste of what things are like for people elsewhere. Living here, tucked away from the rest of the world, it is difficult (impossible?) to imagine what it is like to spend weeks inside your house because it is too dangerous to go out. In Nairobi at the beginning of the year this is exactly what happened. Protests over the election spiralled out of control resulting in wide-scale rioting and looting through December, January and February. During this time people were confined to their houses and those I spoke to couldn’t even go out for food and by the end of it all were (almost) starving with their food supplies having run out.

More than any of the other places I’ve visited recently Kenyans seemed not so caught up in matters far from home. There was a keen interest in other, neighbouring countries, at the time I was visiting, the goings-on in Zimbabwe were often the topic of discussion. Travel desires stretched no further than Mombasa, and a mid-size, second-hand Toyota van in order to transport families is the dream for owner-operator taxi drivers. John sent me a text a couple of days ago, wishing me well and hoping I’d returned safely from travels, even Kenya Air called me last week to apologise for not providing a vegetarian meal. So maybe I’m not so far away?

Overall would I recommend a visit to Africa? Yes. I found it provocative and confusing, the people lovely and engaging and curious and although everyone is open and friendly it was difficult to get under the skin of Kenya when visited so fleetingly and from the particular perspective that one necessarily brings. I’m still trying to work out whether it got under my skin and I still don’t know how to answer the question, ‘how was Africa?’

A funny anecdote to finish and returning to the title of the post. I was asked by a woman “if those,” she said pointing at my numerous, freckles “hurt.” I laughed, apparently they were thought to be some kind of allergy.


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