Nairobi

Kenya. A country I feel familiar with, and instantly more at home in than Ethiopia. The people are friendly – some a little too friendly, such as the bus conductor who held my hand for nearly a whole block to encourage me onto his vehicle, and a likely gentleman who greeted me with a slap of a handshake before informing me I was going to pay for his ride home – but in general I feel welcome as a foreigner, and I enjoy being greeted hi by people I walk past in the street.

The bougainvillea is disappearing day by day but still provides wonderful splashes of colour throughout the city. I smugly told Katy on arrival that I never get sunburned and promptly got burned on my first day, feeling weak and prickly by nightfall. Since then the weather has mostly been overcast, but still warm enough that my standards have completely readjusted. I went for a walk today in 20ᴼ heat and took a coat in case I was cold.

Nairobi is a more developed city than Addis (although maybe not for long), and comparing the two brings home to me the staggering functionality of Western cities. The work required to make sure that on thousands of streets no traffic light switches off, no pavement crumbles into mud, no road loses its surface, is enormous, overwhelming to imagine.

And Nairobi is a big and ever-growing city. Smart, expensive malls seem to be on every junction, and even in residential areas the streets are full of pedestrians. There are more white people wandering around than I remember, although taxi drivers and market stall owners tell me that tourism has dipped since Westgate and Garissa. The Pope’s face is up on billboards in the centre and people are proud of his visit, their enthusiasm undimmed by the huge crowds he drew, the road closures, or that it rained for the duration of his two days in town. The smell of petrol pulses on the streets. Buses are covered every inch in artwork, announcing devotion to Manchester United, Spiderman, Rihanna, or Jesus.

nairobi

Public transport works well, in the sense that if I need to go somewhere, there will be a bus that takes me there. The problem is knowing which one to take. The system is completely arcane, the majority of buses without any visible number or route information, instead interpreted by conductors who are more interested in your thirty shillings than your precise destination.

What seems opaque to me is easily managed by local people, of course, so I’m sure working out bus routes is just a matter of familiarity. What I think would take me longer to get used to is the traffic. The traffic in central Nairobi has transcended an urban planning issue to achieve a sort of elemental status, the citizens rendered insensitive to it through its sheer scope. On Monday I had a meeting in a building that would, on empty roads, take perhaps 25 minutes to reach from my flat. It took me two and a quarter hours each way. The queues have to be seen to be believed, and at any time a given road is as likely to be in complete gridlock as not.

Having the meeting felt like a victory. Simply getting through to an NGO feels like a small success, and a face-to-face conversation rather than a phone call or a reply to an email even more so. Prospecting for work is a strange activity and my mood surfs up and down depending on how I feel the search is going. Zora Neale Hurston argued during the Harlem Renaissance that hierarchies are not simply technical; that it’s possible to attain the trappings of a certain class but still be excluded from it if you’re not the right type of person. In my own case I’m talking not about huge social injustice but the finer points of privilege, yet in a tiny way I’m encountering the same truth about the NGO sector. I have my qualification, but I’m still not part of the club. Whether I find work here or not, I’m angry that at 25 and with two excellent degrees I’m still reliant on someone doing me a favour to get even the most lowly of job opportunities.

If nothing changes, I will be home in a week, and will never know if I was attempting something impossible or whether one more phone call or email would have been my lucky break. After so much exertion of making contact with people and attempting to sell myself, there is a curious feeling of things being out of my hands, and my efforts being unrelated to whether there is a prize or not. Or to put it another way, if someone does employ me, it will be through no different approach on my part than to all the people who didn’t employ me.

That is getting a little ahead of myself. There are several days to go during which anything might happen. And, I have to remind myself, if it doesn’t, there are worse things than flying home and looking for work again in my own culture and in the same country as my friends and family. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to knowing what I’m doing.

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One thought on “Nairobi

  1. Oh Dom! I feel for you, I feel for you. Beautifully and evocatively written. ‘Stick in there…’ (I can’t think of anything more to say right now.)

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