A Week in Nairobi

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

My time in Nairobi, or Nai-robbery as it is often nicknamed, was mostly characterised by visa admin but was also a longer period in which to recuperate and regroup after numerous long journeys between African towns and cities. I spent a full week there, a long time in the scope of my two-month trip, often spending my time between the South African, Sudanese, and Ethiopian embassies trying to organise visas for the latter two.

For the majority of the week, I stayed at Manyatta Backpackers, a small and extremely affable hostel full of interesting people.

I met Khalid, a Pakistani photographer who had quit his job in Abu Dhabi after 26 years to travel the world: “I wanted to find authentic experience, not tourist experiences. So, in Kenya, I’ve spent most of my time in small rural villages, with the Maasai, and I want to go out to the refugee camps near the Somali border and document those.”

“I’m a documentary photography. I don’t think I could be a photojournalist: I would not be able to be objective enough. As a documentary photographer I can tell my story with my opinions, and I think that’s great. Part of its beauty is that everyone has different opinions, which makes it all so interesting. If everyone thought the same way or did the same things the world would be an awfully boring place.”

Khalid was an extremely thoughtful, remarkable man. He was completely at peace with himself, content with who he was and where he was going despite, on his own admission, having faced real prejudice and suspicion on account of his nationality. I felt that he was a happy loner of sorts, able to spend weeks on end with no company, constantly stimulated by his own perceptions of the world around him.

He spoke with passion of his travels, urging me in particular to visit Iran, Turkey and Iceland: [on Iran], “you know how the media dictates perceptions of places, most of it complete rubbish. It is incredible how they love foreigners there. It is a wonderful place to visit.” It is a hugely important point: we are to quick to readily accept common views of a place, letting others put doubt in our minds without wanting to experience it ourselves. It was a lesson that I’d come to fully appreciate in Sudan a little later in my trip.

On the other hand, it must be noted that the habit of stereotyping a certain place with certain characteristics is also true from both sides. Khalid highlighted this with a story from Iran: “I met a 21-year-old who approached me, probably because he saw my camera. ‘Are you a photographer?’ he asked. I said yes, and then he asked if I had Photoshop. I told him I did. ‘Did you buy it or did you download it for free?’ He asked, which I thought was quite a strange question. ‘I bought it,’ I told him. At this point, the man’s expression completely changed, and he looked quite incredulous. ‘Why?!’ He asked. ‘Well it’s an ethical matter for me: someone has worked to create this product and I want to use it so I buy it.’ And then he said, ‘well our teacher told us that America is the enemy, and so we must download their things for free so that we can punish them!!’ Now, I didn’t want to tell him that his teacher was an idiot so I said, ‘so what has America done to you specifically?’ to which he shrugged. I told him that he is old enough to make up his own mind and go from there.”

I met Emmanuel, an 18-year-old footballer from Ivory Coast, who also had a profound effect on me. He was full of life, flirting with the girls in broken English, and also extremely religious, praying in our communal room several times a day. I accompanied him to football once (firmly refusing to go back after practically dying from lack of fitness in front of Kenyan academy coaches) and often just wandered around the city centre with him: weaving around businessmen and women in suits, avoiding tourist touts, enjoying the hustle of Nairobi (which, I thought, did not live up to its nickname). He commented regularly on what he called the ‘stupidity’ of the Kenyans who mockingly called out to me on account of my white skin, while I smiled politely and walked on.

I met Anna, an affectionate 70-year-old Australian and an acclaimed businesswoman in her home country who had decided that life held more excitement in retirement through travel. She was great conversation, characterised by her loud, raucous, addicting laugh.

I met Kiya, a stunningly beautiful Norwegian girl who saved all her attention for Emmanuel and none for me.

I also stayed with Guarav for a couple of days in the middle of my week in Nairobi, an Indian marketer who had lived and worked in Kenya for 6 years: “I wanted to leave India because I was getting paid pennies and we had offices overseas where I could work. They said I had three choices: I could go to Indonesia, but I’d have to wait a year, which I did not have the money to do; I could go to Saudi Arabia, and there was no way I was going there; or I could go to Kenya, and I thought, ‘great!’ It’s funny, people in India hear Africa and they think ‘South Africa!’ Kenya is different but I’m really enjoying it.”

Guarav was a kind-hearted and considerate man, eager to talk about a range of topics from politics and religion to travel philosophy. We spoke of the separation of religion and logic in Africa, commenting on how people often practice religion daily yet the rates of murder, robbery and adultery are still high. He has a huge group of friends from the Couchsurfing community, having hosted many people travelling through Kenya: “It’s a great way to meet interesting people. At one point I think I was hosting 6 people at once – but then it got too much, people often misbehaved. I took my profile off for a while but then I made a new one, though I don’t host as any people now and not at the same time.”

Finally, I reconnected with Edgar Ogutu in Nairobi, a man whom I met in Uganda in 2014. He invited me to the offices of Ghetto Radio, where he works, so I could listen in on one of the programs: it was a fascinating experience and a hugely interesting insight into the fight for social justice in Kenya.

The session I listened in on was focused around a ‘Woman’s Rights Awareness Program,’ as Edgar and his colleagues as well as legal experts and woman’s rights activists hosted a community discussion on sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya. Ghetto Radio is aimed at the youth (such that the discussions were often intersected by reggae music), with a worldwide reach of 16 million people. They want to raise awareness and facilitate youth discussions around these issues, encouraging listeners to call in and join the discussion. I was once again influenced and encouraged by Edgar’s passion and commitment to the causes of social justice, taking responsibility as a Kenyan for Kenya.

Around the sixth day in Nairobi, I successfully received my Sudanese visa, though I was not quite as successful in attaining my Ethiopian visa: it turns out that you cannot get an Ethiopian visa at the border, and I couldn’t get one at the embassy in Nairobi either as I did not have a Kenyan work permit or residency, despite my pleadings and dangerous thoughts of bribery. The only way I could get into Ethiopia was at the airport, where I could get a visa on arrival: it meant, of course, that I had to fly from Nairobi to Addis Ababa. It was a disappointing realisation, as it meant that my trip would no longer be solely overland. Additionally, it robbed me of what was meant to be one of the most intense experiences on the African continent: namely, the roads of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, and the border in between. Despite this, I realised that I would be saving a lot of time, such that I could spend more time in Ethiopia itself or in Sudan.

With that, my week of relaxation in Kenya’s capital was over. I packed my bags, said goodbye’s to Khalid, Emmanuel and the rest, and headed to the airport with a feeling that I was cheating somehow. It was, naturally, a short flight of one hour where travelling by bus would have taken up to 5 days, and so, soon enough, I landed in Addis Ababa, refreshed and ready for the next leg of my trip.