A city worthy coming back to
5th June 2018 – Three things strike me when I arrive in Nairobi; First, the hustle, as in business and huge billboards and a heart of commerce. I’m also struck by the traffic and rust-colored dust, making breathing difficult.
And there’s no escaping the chasm between wealth and poverty, between the manicured lawns of Karen and Muthaiga and, a world away, the rutted tracks and refuse of Mathare and Kibera, the city’s two largest slums.
Wealth disparity isn’t Nairobi’s only contradiction. Visually, the city is unusual: a huge national park sits in its heart. Along its edge, residents and workers ensconced in the skyscrapers are impervious to the giraffes feeding on acacia trees or the lionesses prancing around with their cubs.
This wasn’t my first visit to Nairobi and in past I’ve had mixed feelings about this city. During campus, I spent an entire month here and concluded I’d probably not willingly return.
Children begging under bridges, filth in the streets, petty theft, and as a Ugandan, it speaks volumes when I say that the thuggery in Nairobi CBD was the worst I’d experienced. It made the kifeesi back home look like child play. So when I found out I was returning recently, I didn’t jump for joy. Every City deserves a second visit… this was Nairobi’s chance. A fourth visit!
An immediately noticeable difference from my last visit is the city’s cleanliness. Nowhere near pristine, mind you, but the heaps of garbage that once littered the center of town have receded to the city’s poorer neighborhoods. I remember thinking of Nairobi as a seething urban blight; I was now looking at a classy continental city, one where disparity, diversity, laughter, political frenzy and constant movement rub elbows.
While the street stalls remain, they coexist with block after block of extravagant shopping malls stuffed with great foods and grocers and name brand clothing – a Nairobi that surprises me with contrasting feelings of familiarity and newness.
It is by no means an ideal city.
Abject poverty is impossible to miss and you still have to drive with your car doors locked to stay safe – just like Kampala, but somewhere along the line Nairobi transitioned and is fighting to come into its own. Look beyond the Nairobi’s perpetually clogged streets, its exhaust fumes and the pervading sense of insecurity and you’ll find stylish eateries, brilliant vegetation and a sense of humor unequalled in the rest of East Africa, possibly Africa.
Now if only the corruption, land grabbing, inequality and violent elections could disappear…When it came down to what to do in Nairobi, I had a single sightseeing goal in: see wildlife, for which Kenya is so famous. With a heavy work schedule I only had a day to visit Nairobi and in that day, I went to the savanna.
Here’s how I did it.
I started with Nairobi National Park Kenya is home to the major mammals that roamed the earth millennia ago. While a trip to the Masai Mara is an unforgettable experience – I know this from earlier trips – half a day in Nairobi National Park is the absolute next best experience. You can easily forget you’re in the city and the wildlife viewing experience will be memorable, especially if you’ve never been to a game park.
I had imagined a compact, protected zone with scattered monkeys and the occasional giraffe staring off into the distance.I was terribly wrong.
The park is immense, its 117.21 square kilometers (28,963 acres) stretching into the horizon from the edge of the city. As for the few monkeys – yes, I saw them. And the giraffes. And the hippos, and crocodiles, and two lionesses playing with their cubs. In the distance, a rhinoceros or two, their path crossed by a herd of nonchalant zebras. Ostriches, impalas, gazelles. Almost everything other than the elephant lives here.
The park isn’t fenced, although there is a gate. Warthogs and monkeys have no trouble getting out and I saw them wandering around the streets near the park. Drivers are only mildly surprised – they reserve real shock for the occasional lion that accidentally leaves the park and heads towards town before being promptly returned home.
The slums of Nairobi
Wildlife is a glorious side of Nairobi, but the city has other sides. Some three million people live in the city, more than half of them in slums or insalubrious informal settlements that usually lack even the basics, such as running water or electricity.
There is plenty of discussion about slum tourism, with a number of pros and cons about touring around for a few hours in these neighborhoods. I spent half a day in Mathare for work. I went in with members of a local grassroots charity with a specific purpose. But I won’t be writing about individuals, nor will I be documenting their faces or poverty or taking selfies among the rubble.
The many Nairobi attractions I didn’t visit
I had so little time to myself in Nairobi I sadly didn’t visit a number of places on my list.With more time, I might have gone to the Railway Museum, to the Nairobi National Museum to better understand Kenya’s position as the “cradle of mankind”; and one of the Maasai markets, which shift daily and carry handicrafts from beyond Nairobi (if you’re not a bargainer, try honing your haggling skills first).