Sunday, August 5, 2012

Motherland ahoy!

After nearly a year and a half break from the African continent, my hands are once again slick from hand washing powder, my feet have a nice bronze glow from walking in the red dust, and my nostrils are black with the soot of diesel exhaust. I’m back!

I arrived in Nairobi late Thursday night with wide eyes and swollen ankles and checked into Milimani Backpackers on the edge of town. After a short night of failed attempts to reset my days and nights, I set out early Friday to explore the city with a fellow American and an Irish girl I met at the hostel.

In the 6 years since I was last in Nairobi, so much has changed. The taxi driver who picked me up from the airport warned me that the Chinese had “taken over” and built up the city, but there’s more to it than that. Modern looking, neon-lit mega hotels with quasi-African names have sprung up in previously abandoned industrial areas. Billboards advertising four new prepaid cell phone networks colorfully line the streets of town where previously SafariCom had the monopoly. The matatus (mini buses) all have signs and prices, standardized by city ordinance, and new trash cans warn of the hefty fines for littering in the streets. The city council has even banned smoking outside of all private residences within city limits, including smoking on buses, in restaurants, and while walking down the sidewalk.

Still, the place is familiar. The sidewalks are broken to pieces and full of unexpected 2-foot-deep holes where cement barricades have been uprooted by stray cars. The overcrowded streets are full of white and yellow striped taxis and westerners’ Land Cruisers, their windows and door panels engraved with VIN numbers to prevent theft. Prices are negotiable by at least 50% to account for the “mzungu” (white person) mark-up, and twenty-something men at every turn shove business cards and brochures in your face while shouting “Jambo! Nice safari, good price!” Women with improbably high heels and brightly colored wraps walk next to Muslim women in full hijab, only their brown eyes showing. And my favorite building, which looks like an upside-down Lego man, is still a great start over point when I get disoriented in the look-alike streets of downtown.

Friday morning we wandered with an affected sense of purpose in search of a chemist (pharmacy with clinician on hand to write prescriptions), a working ATM with reasonably unshady-looking security guards, the Agricultural Campus of Nairobi University (where we were paraded around and introduced to several classes) and cheap authentic Kenyan food. Eventually we ended up on the fourth floor of an office building/casino at Wambo’s Food Place, a questionably clean glass-walled cubicle of a cafĂ© lined with benches (no room for tables!) that offered standard fare at local prices (and also manicures). I ordered a heaping plate of pilau (spiced rice) with beef, a side of sikumu wiki (kale and cabbage), and a mug of chai (milky Kenyan tea). The whole meal, including tip, set me back 100 shillings ($1.30) and gave me enough energy, despite my lack of sleep, to spend the rest of the afternoon haggling for fabric and scoping out dressmakers for what promises to be an exciting addition to my wardrobe. Just before dusk, I made the smog-filled trek back to the backpackers and tucked my exhausted self into bed at 7:30.

This morning (Saturday), I woke up bright and early as the rest of the dorm packed for their early bus to Tanzania. I took a hot(!) shower, threw on my clothes from Friday, and headed into town with two new arrivals I met at the breakfast table. My goal for the day was to find the Masai Market, a tourist trap full of mass-produced, “my-uncle-made-this” goods sold at exorbitant prices. In 2006, the market was a daily affair set up on an uneven plot of land on the outskirts of the CBD, but in the years of development since it has been displaced by the cement pillars of a new overpass. I’d heard rumors that the place to go for “local” prices was the Saturday morning market in the parking lot of the Kenya International Conference Center (KICC), the tallest building in town (and topped with the only helipad in Nairobi). We navigated the heavy police presence surrounding Hilary Clinton’s entourage and made our way to the colorful madness of the market.

At the door, we were swarmed by men greeting us in the kind of Swahili that is printed on tourist t-shirts and offering to show us around the market (in exchange for a hefty commission from any purchases). I quickly fended them off with my Swahili and made my way to the piles of brightly colored fabric in a sea of beaded jewelry and black shoe-polished figurines. I unfolded (and refolded) kitenge, khanga, and kikoy (3 types of fabric), negotiated for local prices on earrings made of wood and sisal, and explained repeatedly to harassing men why I speak Swahili. (Incidentally, all I bought was a plug converter so I could use my computer!)

Perhaps the biggest (and most fantastic) difference between this visit to Nairobi and my previous experiences in the city is how comfortable I am with Swahili. I’m can so much more easily negotiate my way through both the market and the city as a whole, which is even more helpful than I expected. I’m confident that I know what is going on most of the time, I’m quick to ask questions about things I don’t understand so that I don’t end up in an unsafe situation, and I’m able to easily fend off anyone trying to take advantage of me. I was worried that I’d forgotten some of the more complex grammar rules and advanced vocabulary since I last took a Swahili class in 2010, but it has all come flooding back! I’ve sort of embraced every interaction with Kenyans as an opportunity to practice my Swahili, and everyone so far has been really helpful, especially in correcting my Tanzanian Swahili into Kenyan Swahili.

So far, it’s been an awesome experience, and my actual purpose for being here hasn’t yet begun! Tomorrow (Sunday) I’ll be moving to a proper hotel (where hopefully there’s enough water pressure to wash the days old conditioner out of my hair!) and on Monday I’ll begin my course. We’ll be learning about urban refugees who have fled famine and violence in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere who have ended up in Nairobi’s slums, and meeting with organizations (both international and local) that work to provide services and support to the refugees. I’ll have a better idea of what exactly we’ll be doing in the next 2 weeks when I actually have a syllabus, but regardless of what we end up doing I’m sure it will be exciting (and will give me opportunities to use my Swahili)!

After the course is finished I’ll be heading to Swaziland to visit my host family and all of the kids at Pasture Valley Children’s Home, so there will be more blog entries to come!

In the meantime, if you’d like to call me my number is: +254 729 731 349

Love from Kenya! (It just doesn’t have the same ring to it…)

1 comment:

Erin said...

Miss you!!! Get me lots of fabric!