The weekend of the 22-24th of April 2016, I had the freedom to explore Nairobi. This was my third visit to an African capital. In 2009 I was in Dakar, Senegal and in 2011 I was in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. Each with its own eccentricities, Nairobi being no different. I suppose this is really my third visit to Nairobi, the previous two were only in transit and under the cover of the night so never had the opportunity to explore. My accommodation for the two days was the wonderfully simply Anglican Guesthouse, located 20 minutes from the airport if traffic is decent and a 15 to 20-minute walk into the city centre depending on the temperature and your energy levels.
The last three times I have visited an African capital I was part of a team doing work in more remote regions of the various countries, then returning to the capital to rest, explore before flying home. This time in Nairobi I was on a break between two separate parts of a trip, by myself with the freedom to explore as I wished. I woke Friday morning around 7am from an exceedingly comfy bed, enjoyed a lie in before heading down for a rather strange yet enjoyable breakfast mix (sausages, carrots, and toast). Before getting myself ready and setting off with two objectives; to see the Anglican Cathedral which I have heard so much about and to make it into the City centre and attempt to get some much-needed Items. After asking and receiving directions from the reception desk I headed on my two feet to explore whatever this eccentric metropolitan had to offer. I am muddled as to the state of directions or my application of them, but within a short period of setting off I admitted – I’m lost. Being wary of asking for help I scanned the people surrounding me and eventually found what I thought was a policeman, “Excuse me sir” I said, “I am looking for the ACK Cathedral.” “What street?” he replied with authority, “I am not sure….” and so our dialogue went on, using Google maps he was able to get an exact location, another voice joined the conversation and declared he would drop me down on his rather corroded and dilapidated motorcycle my palpable retort, “I would rather walk” – then something unexpected. The policeman told me to follow him and he would show me where it was, knowing from the map I was some distant from it I said not at all its too far, he insisted and with the same breath stepped out in front of the deafening stream of traffic and instructed a passing bus to stop. “Come on” he asserted, I stepped on board trusting yet somewhat confused as to what had just happened. He waved his baton at the bus driver and yelled something in Kiswahili, the bus jarred forward and we struggled down the road, swung around several turns and came screaming to a stop. The Policeman hopped off walked forward and I followed like a son after his father, pointed in the direction I should go, telling me what to look out for. I thanked him, headed off eager to explore yet not quite sure what had just happened. I had found myself at an entrance to a city centre park, not out of place in any city. I could hear the sounds of strimmer’s cutting through grass somewhere, I could see people relaxing on benches or on the grass and people buying some drinks to refresh them. With a small lake well in view, I could have been somewhere in Madrid or Florida. Determined, I set on to find the cathedral with nothing that looked like a church in sight I kept moving, until a friendly local car washer stopped me to say next time I was driving bring him my car, I said I didn’t drive – we chatted and eventually he pointed behind him and there behind a row of trees peaked a red roof. I walked round to the entrance, passed through a friendly security team, circled the majestic building that is All Saints Cathedral and then settled into the beautiful, comfortable and well-priced Jumuia Coffee which sits in the gardens of the cathedral in some of the old but very well maintained buildings. If there is room, you can find space on the balcony that overlooks the courtyard of the cathedral.
After a few hours of comfort, spent catching up on my journaling I decided it was time for some bravery, time to t take a step of faith into the unknown. I got up from my chair, paid my bills walked towards the exit looked in the opposite direction of my arrival towards a crowded skyline with high rises, hotels, and offices blocks. I assumed this was the centre and set off down the main road. As I walked further down the main road, I had sensed some interest from the person who was now matching my step and pace – I glanced to my right and said hello, we entered into a friendly dialogue it turned out he worked for a tour company had been down at a hotel doing some promotional work and was now heading back into the office. The reality was that he wanted something from me, he may be sensed the potential for a tour booking and was being friendly, the longer our conversation went on it became clear that he was a decent enough chap. A Pentecostal, just trying to make a living he offered to show me around the city I politely declined and suggested I would rather explore it on my own, he then offered to show me his office. Stupidly or not, I said okay and followed him down some main street to a high-rise office blocked where for some reason I was brought to the front of the queue and able to pass right through without much hassle. Took the lift to the 8th floor and then listened for some twenty minutes about their various trips and offerings. Eventually, I made my excuses and asked Peter, my new friend, to show me out, we walked back the way we came down a lift and then he walked me back to where I had met him. At this point, I was standing somewhere in the centre of Nairobi if you had taken me blindfolded to the same point and given me no knowledge of the continent I was in I would have been unable to inform you of the city I was in. Every building I gazed upon feeling new or refurbished, the people walked past me in the street were well dressed and relaxed connected to their smartphones through headphones. I could see a Subway, upmarket coffee shop, Clark shoe shop, Big Banks and other big businesses. I was lost in the wonder of all I was seeing and literally Lost.
I knew my way back, but I did not know the path I would need to take to see things of interest and to get the few items I wanted. Peter, still present again offered to take me to where I wanted to go and this time I accepted. So began our wandering through the different parts of Nairobi city centre, we passed down the main street past new high rises housing; offices, bank, and tech companies. We passed by thousands of people in the street, judging from their attire where everything from Students, Bankers and Business people. We passed through the City Marker full of stalls and empty of people because the tourist season had not yet arrived; the sight of foreigner brought the place to life with everyone offering something I did not know I needed. We eventually made our way out the back door and left behind a strong smell of fish onto another main street. A street that was full of Muslims coming out of the largest Mosque in the city, further and further we walked until we arrived at what is one of the largest shopping centres in the city. I looked up and could barely see the top of it piercing the blue sky, we joined the security line and after 10 minutes, a full body check and bag scan we were inside; when I looked around it was like being inside an old shopping centre in the UK, grey but full of brands. There were a couple of American shops selling everything from perfume to shoes, then we passed into the main shop a sort of Tesco stretching six stories up and four stories down according to my friend. Selling everything from treadmills to razors (the very thing I was looking). It optimised a city that had grown and a people with some disposable income, a shopping centre with a leak in the top floor being collected by rather large basins not because it is falling into disrepair; but because it is creeping ever higher by the work that goes on to add more stories to sell more things.
I purchased the items I needed and we headed back towards the Cathedral, along the way we passed Nairobi University and other various landmarks. Peter lead me to a roundabout complete with traffic lights that are never obeyed because the traffic police control the flow of traffic. Men who stand and stare at their phones before stepping out when the spirit leads them into the oncoming traffic and waving the frustrated drivers on. I said my goodbyes to Peter and gifted him some change for his selfless help made my way back to my refuge Jumuia Coffee and began to reflect on the city I was now in. A city that is a microcosm of Kenyan, a country that is being slowly transformed by a new middle class. With improved access to free education for every child. According to Peter, by 2020 Education and utilities needed for it will be free until secondary school and the brightest students will receive scholarships to some of the best third level education in Africa, with Nairobi University ranked 6th in Africa overall.
Nairobi in its previous life was known as ‘Nai-robbery’, and in the areas I had access to that was definitely not the case. There is an urgency about people and a sense of hope for the future. As Peter himself said the focus is no longer on children and cattle but the future and education. There is also a decency, I dropped a receipt and about 2 minutes’ later down the road, a young male student I had noticed coming out of the university only by the way he was engrossed in his girlfriend came pounding down the street, tapped me on the shoulder and returned my lost item. In Kenya and Nairobi that I have experienced over the last few days, there is a hope for the future, and a desire to get there.
I have been in three African capitals’; Dakar, Bissau, and Nairobi. Each it is own. Dakar, from the vaguest of memories, was developed and secure enough but had been highly used to tourists due to its popularity amongst the French. Bissau, is untouched by the modern West, a country abandoned by Portugal and devoid of any tourists, whom a friend once said every time he returns it seems the city has sunk further into decay. Nairobi, is a city with two faces; the face I have viewed over the last few days is one that would not look out of place in any developed and stable nation. The roads are in a decent state of repair and full of new cars from Range Rover sports to BMW and Mercs as well as the normal African vehicle’s you get used to seeing. There are new towers rising in every direction you turn, new hotels for Foreign nationals setting off on adventures and soon a new terminal at the airport, most of all there is a hope for the future. However, I am not foolish because there is an obvious shadow cast by this face, a shadow that would be foolish to ignore. The shadow that lies at the edge of the city, in its slums; where people of no hope try by the providence of God to eke out a living, where there is little hope for the future, little security and little comfort. Overall, the Nairobi I have experienced the last few days has been a breath of fresh air, a place to relax and unwind over good food and coffee. Somewhere in my modest opinion that would be popular for a short city break for Europeans if it wasn’t an eight-hour flight from London Heathrow.
So until next time Nairobi.