Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Nairobi Nights

Just returned from an incredible few days. My friend Celia is just about to leave Kenya after five years and we decided to do a girls' weekend away to the Maasai Mara to celebrate. I hadn't left Rwanda in a year so jumped at the chance. One of the massive perks of the new East Africa agreement is that I can travel around Kenya and Uganda as an East Africa resident, so I get local rates when I go to places like Maasai, and I don't have to pay for a visa, thanks to this little slip of card on the right. It's a really great incentive to travel more. Just wish internal flights were a bit cheaper. A one hour flight to Kenya costs almost as much as a flight back to the UK, but the alternative of 24-hours on a bus is a bit beyond me now.

Our friends Tracey and Francis run a tour company called Overland Travel Adventures, so we were in really good hands. They organised the entire thing.

Tracey picked me up at the airport and drove me home to Ongata Rongai via the back roads because the traffic was so heavy.

It was really strange for me. I'd only been to Nairobi once before. Back then I'd been out of Africa for five years and I was staying in a very posh part of town called Westlands, where all the expats stay. At the time I guess I didn't think much about it, because my memory of Rwanda had faded a little and I was just happy to be back on the continent. But this time, having lived in Rwanda for the past three years, the differences between Nairobi and Kigali really stood out.

Some of the major differences:

  • Giant shopping malls with shops in them. We really don't have malls like that in Rwanda, they're much smaller and much more empty. In Kenya there's loads of Western brands like Clarks shoes and KFC. The sheer scale of Nairobi is quite a shock when you come from Kigali, which we refer to as 'the village'.
  • Rubbish - there's a huge amount of it on the streets. Plastic bottles and bags clogging up the drains and caught in the trees. Rwanda banned plastic bags a long time ago and, as a business owner, I contribute a Kigali City Cleaning Fee which makes Kigali one of the cleanest cities you're ever likely to visit.
  • The 'real' Africa. Which sounds a bit weird, as every country in Africa is Africa, but Rwanda really is so incredibly green and clean that you don't always feel like you're in the thick of things. We don't have any of the street shack markets you see at the end of that video, and we don't have any street food either. One thing I would very much like to export to Kigali are donkeys. There's loads of them in Nairobi. I like donkeys. I tried to persuade Tracey to let us put one in the van, but there wasn't enough room for that and Celia's baby zebra.
  • Slums. Nairobi has a huge migrant slum called Kibera. It's really weird because, having been a British colony, many of the inner city houses are styled like British terrace houses. So you go past these two-up, two-downs that would look perfectly at home in Birmingham or Bristol, then the back of the houses just stop in a flat brick wall and you're staring at a shanty town of corrugated metal. From a distance I'd say the refugee camps in Rwanda look better built. It reminded me of Go Down in Uganda.
  • Corruption. Rwanda is famous for its hard line on corruption. No country is perfect, but low-level corruption is rare in as much as it doesn't tend to affect your day-to-day. You don't get stopped in the street by police or skip the queue if you flash cash about. There's even a hotline to report issues if they arise, and if you report it, someone will take you seriously. Whereas we saw bus drivers on the highway slowing down to pass cash to police officers so as not to get stopped and stories of corruption are rife in Kenya.
  • Dust. Kenya has just been through a bad drought and the air is thick with dust. You used to get something called the Kigali Cough for similar reasons in Rwanda, but then the government said 'plant things' and now Kigali is so green that the dust issue seems to have gone away.
  • Hills - there aren't any. Everything is so incredibly flat. It's quite a shock, and hard to get your head around the idea that Nairobi is higher than Kigali in altitude. Just high enough that they get mosquitoes but not malaria. Because it's so flat and vast, there's a lot more agricultural produce on sale - lots of fresh fruit and veg.
  •  Work visas and social distribution. I have friends who live and run businesses in Kenya, and it's fascinating to discuss the differences. In Kenya you have to put down a $1,000 bond for your work visa, which you're supposed to get back when you leave - if you can find the paperwork by then. In Rwanda a two-year working visa costs you around £100 ($124). In Kenya, there's a really strong expat community which some friends have likened to a clique, or several cliques. Many expats live in the same area, socialise in the same groups and some have told me they feel a bit of racial tension between foreigners and locals. I'm not saying there's no tension in Rwanda, but I honestly don't feel it on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps I'm just oblivious. But in Kigali there has never really been much of an expat scene. There are places you're more likely to see muzungus (foreigners), and you still hear that word sometimes (though rarely in the capital), but I think the major difference with Kigali is that there is no specific expat area. Except for a couple of very small areas (perhaps central Nyamirambo and the main bus station at Nyabugogo) the whole city is fairly safe, so foreigners living here are completely spread out amongst the Rwandan community. Perhaps this goes some way to lessening any resentment. President Kagame is also pretty egalitarian about welcoming foreigners and accepting that they bring money into the economy and have skills to share. It doesn't sound as though Nairobi is quite as relaxed in that sense.
We talk a lot about how safe Rwanda is. As a lone woman I can travel anywhere I like, even walk the streets at night, and - although never 100% guaranteed in any city - I'm not going to face hassle or violence. People say Nairobi isn't very safe (its other name is Nairobbery). Last time I stayed in the posh area. I woke up to gunfire one morning, a guard down the road was murdered and it was during an unsettled period where a market was bombed and tourists were advised to leave. This time, staying in a much poorer area of town, I really didn't feel unsafe at all. Tracey and I went walking in the dark to find street food and I didn't feel worried at any point. Just a  little wary of falling down a ditch as there wasn't much street lightning and no footpaths. Another reason I knew I was in the 'real' Africa - falling down an open drain is an initiation rite. We've all done it.

Hanging Out at Tracey's Place

With Scooby the Dog

View of the Burbs


I really liked Tracey's apartment, but it was very strange going up steps. I felt the same in DRC where many houses are multi-story. In Rwanda, most apartments are very expensive and houses tend to be single story bungalows. The other thing I noticed is that people in Kenya seem to be much kinder to animals. There are a lot more stray dogs on the street, and many people have a dog in their compound, but I didn't see anyone throwing stones at them, I just saw people feeding them. I've witnessed a lot of unkindness to animals in Kigali. My kitten got outside the compound the other day and when I went to find it - two minutes later - someone was throwing something at it. Animals just seem to be part of life in Kenya.

Talking of which, Tracey has just adopted the most adorable kitten - Poppy. She is absolutely gorgeous.

And that's not the only new family member. Tracey and Francis will be welcoming a baby in June. I truly can't express my admiration enough - that Tracey is out running safaris at this stage. She is totally amazing, and it was so nice to be able to spend some time with her at this special point in her life. She's healthily irreverent about the whole process, and I'm looking forward to meeting the bump when it finally arrives. It's certainly going to have a very adventurous life.

Though it does throw into stark contrast the issues of expat/immigrant life. Our friend Celia is leaving in a couple of months, which is why we're going on safari. Another friend joining us on the trip is also leaving. Their friend Kirstin has left, and  another friend she used to go to tea with a lot. Just at the time when a little female support would be helpful. I think of my own life and what I'd do if Jo and Maia suddenly got up and left, and I think my life here would be missing a huge amount of support and love. But that's the difficult thing living in an adopted land, people come and go frequently. It's hard to make new friends the longer you're here because you get tired of repeating your story to people who are likely to leave soon. The friendships you have are so important, because you see each other at your very best and your very worst. You can hang out and have a drink and a laugh, but you're also on call when the unexpected happens. You're a tight family bonded by shared experience.

I'm glad Nairobi is only a short plane ride away, but like I say, I just wish the flight was cheaper. I feel similarly about Nairobi as I do about London. There's so much going on there, it's such a big city, you could never get bored. If I had more time I'd love to go on a clothes spree. You can get anything in Nairobi. But at the same time it's a bit overwhelming. I've never been a big city gal. It's nice to visit, but I suspect it would be quite draining to live there.


  1. What an incredible read, glad it went so well. Interesting contrast between two African towns. Must do Cape Town sometime as it's sort of inbetween the two, though I suspect its townships (& its well-healed areas) dwarf those of Niarobi. I'm envious of your passport. Mine used to be full of border stamps but not many countries do it so much now - or maybe I need to get out n about more ;)

  2. Well, once Brexit goes through, I'm sure you'll get to collect one from ever European country ;)


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