Nairobi, still

A combination of persistence and luck a few days after my previous entry allowed me to stay in Nairobi. One of the many NGOs I had approached needed a researcher to start work immediately on a project that they had fallen behind on, and, happily for both of us, I was qualified and able to start immediately. I spent the remainder of December and January mapping large-scale infrastructure projects across East Africa, including pipelines, power stations, and railways, and looking into how they might affect security in the areas they’re being built in.


At the start of February I handed over the research to a team of consultants based in Canada, and am now writing up the results of some studies into local stakeholder engagement. Infrastructure projects tend to bring in a lot of opportunities for local communities, but also risks, and my NGO has spent several months studying how construction companies can work with local people to make sure projects are mutually beneficial. I have to read technical reports into things like the difference between one and three radio broadcasts a week in illiterate communities, but I also get the satisfaction of contributing to a project that might help prevent a farmer’s house being bulldozed or a construction worker being shot at.

It’s fantastic work experience. I feel extremely lucky to be gaining a breadth of experience, in-country, for a well respected international NGO.

And, of course, I get to live in Nairobi. On being offered my contract I used Airbnb for the first time and found a flat just outside the city centre. Flatsharing is not really established in East Africa as part of the yuppie culture, but is beginning to catch on and I had a choice of ten or so once I’d put in my search parameters. I’ve again been lucky to find a very comfortable flat with three friendly flatmates, two Americans and a Kenyan. A far cry from my warehouse attic in Limehouse, I now have cable TV, an en-suite bathroom, and a balcony, from where I can have a coffee and watch birds, butterflies, and even once a lost-looking monkey in the trees outside.

I work from home and visit the office occasionally for a meeting. I’m glad I don’t have to commute. Nairobi’s roads were built in the 1970s for an urban population of 800,000. The city now holds around 4 million people, and (somehow) the growth rate of vehicle registrations is even higher than the growth rate of population. Traffic is a major feature of life and one that must cost the city thousands of hours of productivity every day.

At rush hour, queues for minibuses called matatus stretch whole blocks, hundreds of people at a time shuffling down the road for their turn to get into a 14-seater vehicle. For many Nairobians the charge of around 20p a journey makes a matatu the only affordable way of getting around. If you’re rich, you can spend eight to 10 times the price and get on a motorbike taxi, a boda-boda, and if you’re rich and prudent you can pay 10 to 15 times the price for a taxi or an Uber.

However you travel, being on the roads is somewhat anarchic, the stultifying traffic both a cause and effect of lawless driving. Boda-bodas in particular do whatever it takes to keep moving, overtaking around corners, driving on the wrong side of the road, and if things are really bad, simply mounting the pavements and forcing pedestrians out of their way. As someone who walks as a matter of preference, this irritates me. I once gestured pointedly at the road as a motorbike honked past me on a pavement, and the driver frowned at me confusedly. In my mind, there is a rule, written or not, that as a walker I have at very least priority of use of the sidewalk. Here, that assumption does not hold.

In autumn 2015 I was commuting to and from an internship in Oxfordshire. The last leg of my journey was on a bus from the centre of Oxford to my parents’ house. The little bus shelter was far too small to cover all those waiting, and I was endlessly fascinated to see every evening, even in the rain, the commuters form an immaculate queue down the street away from the shelter. No-one had to communicate to form this queue and, as far as I know, there is no law requiring it. There is no need; rules and regulations, and the benefits of obeying them, are part of the psychological profile of Britain. When I was younger, this used to either grate or amuse me, and I loved my time in countries where following rules was much less part of the collective mental landscape. Now, whether it’s the effect of several consecutive years in the UK or just that I’m more conservative as a venerable 25-year-old, I find the inefficiencies and disorganisation of the developing world annoying more than affirming.

I don’t want to become one of those people who chooses to live in a less developed country and then complains thoroughly about the poor customer service, the traffic, the politics, the corruption, and the expense of imported luxury food items. Nor, however, do I want to settle for appalling traffic and dangerous road use because really what can you expect from Africans.

Apart from the traffic, Nairobi is a fun place to live with all the opportunities and attractions of any major city. I’ve started taking French classes three evenings a week at the Alliance Francaise. I’m enjoying them in spite and not because of my teacher, a Monsieur Shadrach, who with his shaved head and neat goatee looks uncannily like a black Walter White. Every evening he arrives five minutes late and performs a showcase of laziness and dis-incentivization with a consistency that deserves some sort of documentary recognition.

Shadrach’s classes consist of working through exercises in a textbook, and his sole pedagogic technique is the question-to-the-group. I’ve had about five minutes of teacher training in my life and even I know that just throwing a question to a group is poor practice. We don’t reply because we don’t know the answer, because the answer is too obvious, because we know the answer but not the French vocabulary, because it’s awkward when more than one person begins answering at once, because people are unconfident, because we’re not sure if the question is rhetorical, because every answer apart from the one M. Shadrach is thinking of is incorrect, or for any other reason that dangling a question in front of a group of people who speak very little of a language is a bad idea.

Shadrach, however, is a firm believer that if a question is met with silence, it needs asking again, louder, higher pitched, more insistently. If that doesn’t work, he coos “cla-ass? Cla-ass?” and asks a third time, at which point, to give him his due, we’re in such despair that someone usually offers a reply to make him stop repeating himself. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has a habit of chirping at the end of every instruction, explanation, or question, “ca va? Ca va?”, a habit that I’m somehow unable to zone out and find incredibly irritating.

In another example of my inability to tolerate situations not to my liking, I’m changing classes next week.

My contract finishes on the last day of March; although I’m just beginning to feel like I know the city, I’m already a dozen applications in to the next round of job-hunting. Having got this current role on my CV, I’m feeling much more positive than last time. While I’m waiting to find out what the next step is, I’m lucky to have interesting work to be getting on with and good weather to enjoy. It was a gamble to come to East Africa, and I’m very happy that things turned out so well.


2 thoughts on “Nairobi, still

  1. Great to hear you’re doing so well!
    I know what you mean about having safety in rules and self organisation but I actually think we miss a lot of life because we are so dominated by our environment and social constructs in really meaningless things like who gets on the bus first. But being able to cross roads without fear of dying is quite nice, I admit!

  2. Hey, Dom!, so great to hear how things have been going and to imagine all the ramifications of the really interesting issues you’re researching and trying to improve. Oh, ‘Development’; I’ve not encountered another career that’s so mind-bendingly self-revealing. Lovely stories of your Nairobi life… as I look out of the window at a pale blue sky, and see the Norwichers walking past hunched up against the cold. Do let us know when you get your next job opening! With very warmest wishes from Howard and Anna.

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