By Hanna Azemati, KF9 Kenya
Nairobi is dangerous, polluted and sinister. Nairobi is generous, beautiful and lively.
I woke up on my third morning in Nairobi to the twittering of a myriad of birds intermingled with roosters crowing, the occasional neighbors greeting one another in Swahili and finally the church bells announcing that I could go back to sleep as it was only 6 am.
But it seems to be as early as this that the city wakes up and gets to work. So I too woke up and decided to explore the Upper Hill neighborhood, where I will live for the next three months. I copied a simplified map into my notebook for quick and inconspicuous reference to avoid being confused for a tourist. Equipped with camera, sunglasses and water, I set off.
In need of coffee and a destination, I decided to walk to the closest Nairobi Java House, a small chain of coffee shops started by an American. I was still getting used to the British custom of driving on the left and found myself skirting cars and matatus frequently. More frightening yet, however, were the motorcyclist that occasionally took over the unpaved sidewalks during traffic hours (24 hours). In Nairobi, I realized, you must have a 360 degree vision. Similarly intense though thankfully innocuous, I found to be the colors. I marveled at the pale purple blossoms from the Jacaranda trees punctuating the red dust of the “sidewalk” everywhere. Finally, at the coffee shop, I traced the route that I had taken and realized that my newly purchased map was actually rather outdated. I decided that I wasn’t very far from Museum Hill, where the Nairobi National Museum was located and set off around noon on another walk.
This time I got very lost. I asked two guards dressed in camouflage at the gated entrance to the State House for directions. They discussed in Swahili and either didn’t know the way or rightly so didn’t trust me to find it by myself. They asked a colleague passing by to lead me. His name was Masoud and he worked and resided at the State House, the three square kilometer residence of President Kibaki that was built in 1907 for the Governor of British East Africa. Security at the State House is apparently very strict though less efficacious against monkeys, which were reported to have invaded the grounds in 2003 from the nearby Arboretum park and had to be removed by the Kenya Wildlife Service rangers.
As we walked, Masoud told me about himself. Originally from Mombasa, he had moved to Nairobi after meeting his wife and has a daughter. Like most Kenyans that I have met, he doesn’t just have one profession. Besides working at the State House, he is also continuing school (as is his wife) and just finished a proposal for a youth project that was recommended for government funding. The aim is to remove young people from vices, such as drugs, poverty and crime, by keeping them occupied with remunerative projects to fund their education. For example, he wants to purchase sewing machines to give young girls, who are resorting to prostitution, an alternative means to earn money by making clothing. I felt terrible for taking him out of his way but he insisted on accompanying me and explained that he was raised to feel obligated to help when someone asked. In my case, this meant dropping me off at the footsteps of the Nairobi National Museum, where we exchanged email addresses and said goodbye.
Not that this was surprising. Since my arrival, I had been continuously amazed by how kind and helpful Kenyans are. My roommates had welcomed me into their home and patiently answered my endless rudimentary questions, helped me hang up my mosquito net and shown me the best route by foot and matatu to Faulu. Also, indispensable had been the unprompted advice such as “guards and traffic policemen are least likely to give wrong directions” and “beware around holidays as crimes go up.” As my roommate Tony told me, he feels as though I’m in his custody. And I must admit that I find this reassuring.
It was already 2:15 but I found that the long walk had been well worth it as I was surprised to find an exhibition on Iranian Miniature Art by Jamshid Ma’dandar as soon as I entered. Having worked on an Iranian contemporary art exhibition this past summer in New York, I did not expect to be see Iranian art so soon again, certainly not in Kenya! The exhibition was sponsored in conjunction with the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I happily browsed through the paintings, many of which were complemented by short verses, before moving on to some incredible Kenyan art for sale (unfortunately I was not allowed to take photographs).
Particularly striking were Dennis Muraguri’s elongated mask sculptures made of wood and iron. Upon further research I found out that his work is rooted both in music and in current issues, such as the recent drought that led to rationing of the water generated electricity. Along with some other artists in the exhibition, Muraguri belongs to the Kuona Trust Art Centre, a non-profit organization that provides some 20 artists with studios, workshops and exhibitions to promote visual arts in Kenya.
But the main attraction of the Nairobi National Museum, which towers majestically over the Kenyan National Botanic Gardens, is probably its extensive collection of pre-historic artifacts and fossils, including 25 million year old remains of primitive apes and the skeletons of Lucy and Turkana Boy, who died 3.2 million and 1.6 million years ago, respectively. I marveled at these for a while before leaving in order get home before dusk.
On my way back south, the Uhuru Highway was completely congested with traffic, included the occasional truck filled with goats. Traffic in Nairobi is infamous. The Kenya Police updates the status of traffic on major roads every two hours and traffic costs have been estimated at over $700,000 per day in fuel consumption and pollution. Terrifying also is the hovering black exhaust smoke emitted from the ancient cars that makes the heat unbearable. Even though Nairobi is very different from New York, I couldn’t help compare the two as I passed through the lush Nairobi Central Park and thought of Central Park in New York, which must by now be covered in snow or at least be completely bare of leaves. One thing that they may share though is the unpredictability of the people. Still distrustful perhaps, I did not return the greeting of a man, who had set up shop to sell candy and water on a blanket on the street, upon which he laughed and called out “It’s ok. Feel at home. Welcome!”