Nairobi and Hargeisa

It was a non-transition, in a way; arriving in Kenya felt very much like going into something normal. It had all the trappings of a big change: the many, frequently rushed goodbyes, packing my Limehouse room into two rucksacks and ferrying the remainder to my parents’ house, and flying for many hours with a stopover in Addis Ababa’s great pretender of an international airport, all generating an expectation that things would feel adventurous.

Arriving in Nairobi felt, therefore, unbalancingly routine. Perhaps this was hardly surprising given that I’d lived there for several months not very long ago, and was even living in a familiar area of town. The traffic was still terrible, the wealth divide still stark, the people still laughing. October is a lovely time of year to arrive, not too hot, lilac jacaranda lining the streets and not yet wilting, the giant carapace of the sky clear and blue as jazz. It was good to be back.

I now stay in a guesthouse owned by my employer and share with up to five others, depending on how many people are passing through Nairobi in a given week. As one of only two long-termers it has the feel of living in a hotel, with the attendant perks and drawbacks. I was initially put in a bedroom without access to a bathroom, and it took delicate negotiations with Agnes, the clipped and impenetrable bookings secretary, to move into one of the better rooms. After two weeks of increasingly pointed discussions she moved me into something that is not so much a room as a wing, with a balcony the size of some of the spaces I lived in in London and a family-size bathroom. I was mollified.

My work was slightly unclear to me before leaving UK, and I’m conscious therefore that many of you aren’t sure what exactly it is I’m doing. Let me explain.

I work for Danish Demining Group, a subsidiary of the better-known Danish Refugee Council. DRC focuses on refugees and migration, while DDG focuses on the causes of migration and displacement, especially armed conflict. As well as its eponymous demining wing, DDG has an armed violence reduction wing, which is where I work.

My project is looking at armed violence reduction specifically in relation to border areas in the Horn of Africa. The logic of treating borderlands as areas of particular interest has three explanations: one, Western donors are presently very concerned with international migration, for obvious reasons, of which border crossing in eastern Africa is an important locus. Two, many eastern African countries have recently discovered oil reserves in their hinterlands. Vast tracts of territory that since independence had not been worth governmental attention are suddenly the subject of sharp contestation. Three, border areas are crucial in regional terrorism dynamics, especially with regards to Somalia’s Shabaab.

At present I’m concentrating on the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia border, known as the Mandera Triangle, and the Kenya-Uganda border, known as the Karamoja Cluster. Until January, my job is to collate DDG’s institutional knowledge on border security and management and publicise it on a standalone website. The idea is that any organisation interested in border issues will be able to quickly see who’s doing what where, and identify gaps and opportunities to work together.

I now work in the office, unlike my last time when I worked from home. I much prefer it: meeting people, attending staff meetings, and just being around is much more three-dimensional than sitting alone at my kitchen table all day. It does bring challenges though. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Outliers about something called the “power distance index”. The power distance refers to how directly subordinates are culturally permitted to challenge superiors. In the USA, and to a similar extent Britain, speaking your mind directly is basically encouraged, especially in the world of work. If you spot a mistake, you are normally expected to report it; if your boss tells you to do something that you can see a weakness or oversight in, it normally reflects well on you to raise it with him or her. The power distance in these cultures is short, and these countries are near the bottom of the index. According to Gladwell, in places such as Korea and Colombia the power distance is much greater, and dealing with tricky work situations must be done far more circumspectly.

I don’t know how much the index is accepted social science, but it’s a useful way of framing differing cultural norms. I would say that Kenya is nearer the top of the index than the bottom, and it’s taking more getting used to than I might have thought. For example, Veronica has my key to my office. She knows that I need it. My assumption is that she will find me and give it to me. This is not the case: she will wait respectfully with the key until I go and ask her for it, even if I don’t know that it exists and spend three weeks politely asking my two office-mates if I can use theirs. In another example, I need to have a meeting with David, and offer him a time on Tuesday or Wednesday. Whichever I confirm, he says the other would be better. After several oscillations I conclude David is pitifully inept, before realising that suggesting another time is a polite way of saying he can’t do either.

In many ways it is learning a new language. My speaking and listening skills are still rudimentary, and the real target of my irritation should be my own literacy level, not the people whose language I’m learning.

For reasons like this my ex-flatmate Barbara, mercifully still in Nairobi, frequently chaperones me around the city in my non-work life, puncturing my vision of myself as a streetwise Nairobian blending perfectly into the crowd. On hearing I was going to a clothes market one weekend she insisted on joining me, and not only because she needed a new pair of work trousers. We wandered into the knotted centre of Toi Market where the cubicle stalls are so stacked with goods you can no longer see the stalls themselves at all, an entire geometry of Vietnamese apparel. Barbara ducked into a tunnel of khaki trousers and began full and frank discussions with its caretaker about the dimensions of her hips. She eventually found a pair that she liked but were too long in the heel. “No problem”, assured the vendor, “the tailor will adjust.”

“How much?” demanded Barbara.

“Very cheap,” evaded the vendor.

“How much?” Barbara called after his disappearing shoulder. “If I have to pay a hundred shillings for this because I’m with your lily-white butt I’m going to be furious,” she hissed at me.

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Later, hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stall, I took my jeans off and began trying on the pairs of work trousers that the vendor had given me. I had a paranoid fantasy of a terrorist choosing that exact moment to set off a bomb in the market and having to flee, my picture propelling me to international fame as the mzungu running away from the Toi Market Attacks in pink stripy boxers.

As well as Barbara I met up with a small handful of other old friends, hanging out in their flats or plunging into Nairobi’s glittering, pulsing nightlife. Nairobi’s affluent young are incredibly stylish, the first generation born and brought up in a black middle class and accordingly able to mix a deep exposure to Western fashion with the work of professional African designers. We drank cold beers in the warm nights, watching drunken old men dancing with the gorgeous hookers in the cantinas or going to rooftop bars resounding with Tanzanian r’n’b and Nigerian dance tracks.

After a month, I was sent on my first trip to another DDG office and made my first visit to Somaliland. I flew via Addis again, feeling smug at being part of the small crowd who transferred to a separate terminal for the Hargeisa flight and scowling at two blond tourists for making me look less intrepid.

East Africa is red and green: Somaliland is white. White sand, white walls, white dust, white goats. Hijabs shone turquoise, red, or golden like paint on canvas. There were few people on the streets, which were wide, and often gave onto areas of rubble or scrub with black plastic bags clinging to pointed surfaces. In the centre of town smartly painted banks and hospitals stood out against the weary housing blocks, no structure apart from the minarets rising more than two stories from the ground.

Hargeisa was bombed to the ground by Somali dictator Siad Barre in the late 1980s but won its freedom from him in 1991. It is an irony of the international system that Somaliland, with a bicameral parliament, multi-party elections, its own military, and an independent currency is recognised as a state by zero governments worldwide, while Somalia, barely able to pacify its own capital city since Barre’s demise, is recognised by every government in the world.

Concrete blast absorbers the size of hippos lined the entrance to every compound, watched over by guards dressed in fatigues and carrying old, wooden-stocked rifles. I didn’t see anyone else carrying a gun. We weren’t allowed out alone or after 9pm, and for the week I was there I saw only the office, the guesthouse, and the inside of a van with tinted windows. I went out once, to a shop, full of Turkish biscuits and fizzy drinks. The few photos I managed to take were snatched on the way to and from the airport from the back of the moving pick-up. It didn’t feel unsafe at all, and whether that validated or invalidated the pervasive security I couldn’t tell.

I spent a week there attending a security training. The corridors of the office were lined with disabled ordnance. The Somalilanders laughed a lot and talked more, naughtily picking up their phones and checking their emails despite being told repeatedly not to. They chewed gum with their mouths wide open, filling the lecture hall with obscene quiet squelching. I learned how to say hello and thank you in Somali and practiced frequently, but either my pronunciation was so bad or they were so unprepared for a white newcomer saying Somali words it never elicited a reaction. The men were either indifferent or would greet me with big grins and laugh at everything I said. I would reach towards the women for a handshake before their stillness would remind me. They must have thought an awkward half lurch was a traditional British greeting. In the guesthouse in the evenings I played with Ninja and Elan, the house cats, and watched movies or football with the expats.

In the airport at the end of the week, passengers’ bags were passed through four X-ray machines and our carry-on luggage was unpacked and searched through by hand. We were asked to switch every electronic item on and off in front of the security staff. The painstaking diligence was dispiriting and slow (why is there such a strong urge to get through bureaucracy even when there is only a waiting room on the other side?) but also faintly inspiring. Not just a national security incident but the reputation of a would-be nation is at stake in the security of Egal International, and if was my nation, I’d be diligent too.

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I landed in Kenya at 1.30 on Friday morning, not looking forward to catching the minibus to work at 7.30. As soon as I switched my phone on it chirped with a message from Safaricom, my Kenyan network provider: “Welcome home!” it smarmed. OK, I thought.

 

What I’m reading:

  • David Shields, Reality Hunger
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

What I’m listening to:

  • Ben Pearce, “What I Might Do”
  • Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda and P’tah the El Daoud
  • Nina Simone, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”
  • Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
  • Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa

 

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Lamu, Suswa, and London

At the start of March I was sent for my first ever trip into “the field”, which in this case was a tiny island called Lamu off the northernmost tip of Kenya’s coast. I was to do a series of interviews with a range of people who would in some way be affected the LAPSSET project, a giant infrastructure investment by the Kenyan government that will connect a new port near the island to a network of roads, railways, and oil pipelines that reach across northern Kenya. I had no idea how to go about doing this, and despite travelling with two other staff from Nairobi, I felt totally reliant on three DRC staff who were based in Lamu itself.

The team leader was Muhammed, stockily built like a weightlifter and with short greying hair. He single-handedly made our trip work, arranging and re-arranging interviews, sorting out logistics, and informing us of all the political and diplomatic information we needed to get people on our side. He worked incredibly hard for us while also attending his own busy schedule of meetings and workshops. He stopped only to answer the call to prayer five times a day, the last of which in the early evening meant his day was done, when his earnest frown would relax into a smile as he wandered off to the mosque.

The near-silent Rachel had a perfectly circular face and hair which, apart from a thin streak of grey emerging on one side, was exactly same colour as her skin, which reflected well her aura of being complete in herself. She smiled almost always but rarely spoke, contributing instead through her easy laugh that showed her teeth and shook her shoulders. I hoped she was somebody’s mother.

Juma had huge long legs and big hands and feet, which made his ability to appear and disappear even more unlikely. He guided us round Lamu like Virgil, popping up with his rucksack hitched high on his shoulders like a schoolboy to point us to the right office or hotel lobby before vanishing again. At the end of our interviews as we stepped squinting back into the white sun he would invariably be waiting for us, listening to Tanzanian pop music on his telephone headset and swatting the mouthpiece away as he picked the next track.

Being a coastal town, Lamu is Islamic in heritage, having been a trading post for ships that used to come down from the Middle East. We stayed in a lovely house built by the Omanis a few hundred years ago, full of wide open spaces and low-slung sofas around the edges. Lamu is built from coral rock and mangrove timber, giving the buildings a beautiful granulated texture.

Lamu’s main mode of transport was donkey. They were all over the place, tethered to drainpipes, wandering free, being ridden by youths who’d devised halters from bits of rope. As pleasing as this was at first, the novelty soon wore off. There were piles of droppings everywhere and any street not on the seafront reeked of piss.

It was 30ᴼ by the time we finished breakfast at 8am, and so humid that even in the shade I sweated throughout the day until the sun went down at around 7pm. On top of this were the flies, which we wafted at like absent-minded orchestra conductors as they settled constantly on our arms, our faces, our drinks, our notebooks, and our food. Fishermen carried the fruits of their day’s labour through the streets, in pungent baskets full of red and blue catch, or on strings with tiny sharklets, aghast fish, or stringy octopi hanging off them. One evening a young man struggled past me with a barracuda fully five feet long in his left hand, his right held horizontally away from his body as he tried to avoid dragging the fish in the dirt. Another guy tried to sell me a live lobster, its eyes swivelling blankly.

Our interviews went well and we were lucky to be able to meet a wide range of people, from the newly installed County Commissioner to representatives of hunter-gatherer groups from remote areas of the mainland. The seafood was fresh and delicious, and I loved the specialty fruit juices that bartenders would blend from baskets of fruit on the counter. Even half full of crushed ice, the drinks were warm by the time I finished them. There was very little alcohol: Lamu is a traditional Muslim town. The women mostly were fully covered in long black dresses and brilliant headscarves that flowed around their shoulders. My favourites were the honey yellow and the turquoise, but despite them being very beautiful I avoided taking photos.

Back in the refreshing, dry 28ᴼ of Nairobi, I woke at 5 the morning after getting home to go hiking on Mount Suswa, a crater around two hours’ drive from Nairobi. With a small group of young Kenyans I climbed through inclining scrub for two or three hours before hitting the edge of the crater itself, from where it was another two hours upwards to the peak. The crater was thickly covered in little trees that rustled together in wind and sounded like the ocean, and underneath them sprouted a layer of lemongrass that made the whole mountain smell fresh and clean. After hitting the peak there was still around 14 kilometres back to the minibus, too far, really, and those among our small group who weren’t used to hiking suffered. I reached the van with shaking legs and feeling slightly nauseous with tiredness after walking so far in the baking sun after a draining week and threw myself down on the grass. The guide, who had walked the whole way without so much as a sip of water, looked at me expressionlessly. “Exercise,” he said, and continued chatting to the driver.

After that it was back to work, and a final few weeks that bounced from fraught to empty, as is the nature of collaborative work. I find myself frustrated that so many things are outside my control, which is definitely a good learning experience, but also satisfied to be working on something intellectually stimulating and (hopefully) that will be in some small way influential in helping Kenya’s rich and powerful make sensitive business decisions.

As I enter my last few days I find myself listing what I will miss and what I won’t. The weather is an obvious one and not worth dwelling on. I look forward to supermarkets where I’ll be able to predict what’s on the shelves and that don’t get flooded whenever the freezers get hit by a power cut. I’ll miss being able to buy freshly grilled corncob for 20p from any busy street. I won’t miss the power cuts, the mosquitoes, or being metal-detected every time I enter a public building. (Public security measures have been in in Nairobi ever since the Westgate attack, although they’re so cursory they’re more annoying than reassuring.)

I’ll miss being able to jump on the back of a motorbike and zoom to any part of the city for a couple of pounds, but not when the driver assures me he knows exactly where my destination is, doesn’t, and then gets annoyed at me for not giving accurate directions on the fly. I won’t miss the traffic, taking my life into my hands whenever I cross Waiyaki Way, or being a pedestrian in general. Nairobians as a public (but not in person) are somewhat inconsiderate and pushy, as I suppose the citizens of any overcrowded city are. I’ve often been unable to cross a road because a driver won’t stop accelerating, never mind slow down, or had to jump a ditch or go onto the road while running because the people walking towards me on the pavement won’t so much as rotate their shoulders to create a space.

I’ll miss my mental inventory of football shirts, which I realise I’ve been half-consciously building ever since arriving. Manchester United and Arsenal are comfortably out in front, followed by Chelsea, with Manchester City, Liverpool, and Spurs lagging some way behind. From Italy the usual suspects of Juventus and AC Milan dominated, with an honourable mention to Roma, while from Spain Real Madrid, interestingly, far outstripped Barcelona. Bayern did extremely well overall, and Dortmund, appropriately, punched above their weight. The Old Firm was won 1-0 by Rangers. The real pleasure was in these one-offs, which included Ipswich Town, Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Valencia, FC Köln, and even, poor fellow, Aston Villa.

I’ll miss my flatmates, my balcony, and being able to afford a pleasant living space with a big kitchen. I won’t miss working from home, which often led to days of feeling isolated and cut off from the outside world. I look forward to seeing my friends, most of whom I haven’t seen since July, and of course my family, including my newly arrived nephew who I will soon meet for the first time. And mostly I look forward to seeing Katy, whose graciousness and warmth from afar has helped me both to bear the low moments and enjoy the many privileges of living here.

I fly back to London this weekend, hoping to find a job quickly. Thanks for reading – I hope to see you soon.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Return to East Africa

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Mum was practically singing. She had no right to be feeling happy: it was almost one in the morning, we’d been travelling for almost 24 hours and the airline had lost our entire luggage. For my family and me though, being back in Kenya for a two week holiday was more than enough to make up for it. I stood in the grounds of the guesthouse for a moment before bed, absorbing the still-warm tarmac on my bare feet, the raucous cicadas buzzing all around and the quiet smell of the bougainvillea, faintly orange in the dark.

It had been a long time. 13 years, almost, and much of the holiday was spent judging how much had changed in that time. Plenty had. The populations of Kenya and Uganda had rocketed over the last two decades or so, and it showed in Nairobi. If you’d asked me to name infamous traffic spots, I would have said Moscow, Mexico City, Mumbai, but not East Africa. We crawled and baked in the jams, watching billboards proclaiming investment banking and insurance policies, chatting to taxi drivers about politics and football. (“Liverpool,” snorted Kamau. “Most of their fans are ladies in Nakuru.”) I was sad at how completely westernized the development process was: all glossy corporate assurances of a prosperous future.

We spent three days in Nairobi waiting for our lost luggage and getting our hands on a vehicle via an old friend from our residency days. “It’s not a car, it’s a steam engine,” complained Mum as she, Dad and my brother got used to driving the old Land Rover we eventually tracked down. As if the dodgy lights, speedometer that fluttered ceaselessly in a thirty-kph radius and woeful steering weren’t enough to contend with, the ruthless driving practises and pedestrian competition kept things high-octane throughout. Everyone had a car, but the major trunk roads between the biggest cities in the region were still single lane. I saw one working traffic light the whole time, and it was brazenly ignored by everyone.

We stopped in at a giraffe conservation project and an elephant orphanage, both crowded but slightly unreal – almost like watching oneself on television more than taking in how much fun it was. Visiting the giraffe centre was one of my favourite moments of the holiday, as we climbed up to a platform and placed food in the mouth of sauntering, six-meter-tall giants with foot-long tongues that wrapped themselves slimily around our fingers.

Leaving Nairobi, we ventured northwest along the Great Rift Valley towards the lakes: Baringo, Naivasha, Elementaita, Bogoria. Baringo was perhaps the biggest shock, the campsite we’d stayed at years before was almost fully submerged by the lake. My parents reminisced to the owner, Moses, whose courtesy and helpfulness were untroubled by the rising water and falling patronage, even if his business was. We watched crocodiles sunbathing at the bottom of the gardens and went onto the lake in a canoe, where we saw giant fish eagles and tiny kingfishers swooping into the water for lunch.

As we travelled between the various lakes, we made a detour to visit my brother’s old school, where he’d boarded for a year before we moved to the UK. It feels strange being in an empty school under any circumstances, but this venerable English institution in the middle of the Kenyan countryside, with childhood friends still in old pictures on the wall, was important, especially for my brother.

We walked alongside wild giraffe, antelope and wildebeest on Crescent Island, and sneaked up on flamingos that were wading in the warm water of Lake Bogoria. The Land Rover’s engine blasted out a cloud of smoke and we spent a lot of time and money and cortisol on getting it fixed. We drank Tangawizi ginger beer. Every Kenyan we met smiled warmly and talked to us in their beautiful accent, when we could get them to switch away from Swahili with Dad into English.

Halfway through our holiday, we crossed the border into Uganda in a nightmare of traffic queues, persuasive insurance artists and night driving, which is even further from the categorical imperative than day driving. The Ugandan police stopped us to have an exchange of opinion about the Land Rover’s brake lights. Mum got sick. Dad sang. The battery light came on and we all prayed. The car’s electrics flickered on and off and we arrived in Mukono, our home of seven years, five hours later than planned and went to bed.

Over the next three days we explored the town, grown almost beyond recognition. The university where my parents had worked had grown from under 800 students in 2000, when we left, to over 8,000. The journey from there to the capital Kampala, which used to take us maybe half an hour, now took three times that. We met up with old friends, my parents’ colleagues mostly, and Tabitha, the lady who used to work for us. She cooked for us with her family at her home and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, we felt like Ugandans. We met students and young professionals we’d played with as children; they looked us up on Facebook on their phones.

After that, we spent a couple of days by the Nile, including Christmas Day when we ate tilapia and the mince pies Mum had smuggled in from England, and headed back across the border. We had one day left, which we spent in a national park, where we were lucky enough to see buffalo, hippo, rhino and two indolent lions all in the space of a few hours. “Gno gno gno, I’m a gnu!” volunteered Dad.

Back in Nairobi, preparing to leave for the airport in an apocalyptic downpour, I reflected on the trip. For us at least, things like water, electricity and internet were much better than I remembered, but both countries had far to go: what little I saw of Nairobi made the glossy “artist’s impression” of development plans in the in-flight magazine look wildly optimistic. I suppose most importantly, on both sides of the border, the people had been wonderful: warm, engaging, welcoming, quick to laugh. I would miss the tin roofs turned thunderous by rain, mosquitos slapped stiffly onto whitewashed walls, vast, bald-headed Marabou storks loitering balefully on lamp posts. Sitting in the Land Rover and watching East Africa go by: blue sky, green hills, yellow bark on the acacia trees, red earth.