Nairobi- Kenya's bustling capital

Nairobi is East Africa's most populous city with an estimated population in the metropolitan area of between three and four million. Largely an uninhabited swamp until the end of the 19th Century, it became a supply depot for the railway then in 1905 it took on the status of capital city. It is said that Nairobi was chosen because, at 5,500 feet, the temperatures were too low for the malaria mosquito to survive (although current advice is you must take anti-malarial treatments).

Our arrival was at the end of January, yet the archway over the road from Jomo Kenyatta Airport still wished us a Merry X-mass (sic) and a Happy New Year.

Nairobi has all the trappings of a modern city. The streets are bustling with people and cars. The Matatus are the main form of public transport. These privately owned minibuses, taking between 12 and 14 passengers. On our last visit, many of them were painted extravagantly. But now they are all regulation white with a yellow band which shows the destination.

For some inexplicable reason the current special for the
street vendors dodging in and out of Nairobi's traffic is...
television aerials!

Before you go to Nairobi you read all the scare stories in travel books and on travel websites.

Don't go out alone. Don't wear jewellery. Don't carry a camera. Don't stop for the police. Don't walk into Uhuru Park. And the classic, don't shout "stop thief" if you do get robbed, because the 'law of the street' means that person will be killed before they can be apprehended.

It may be our imagination but Nairobi seems a better place and less intimidating than it did just over five years ago. You still need to keep your wits about you. I carried my camera in what appeared to be an ordinary shopping bag and family formed a corral around me as I took any picture. We still drove with the windows shut and the doors locked.

There are vendors everywhere trying to sell you stuff. This trip for some inexplicable reason, the fashion for the vendors who defy death by darting in and out of the traffic seeking buyers, was television aerials. Five years ago it was mobile phone covers.

My advice for those wanting to buy souvenirs (as opposed to aerials or phone covers!) would be to avoid the pavement vendors and seek out the Undungu Society shop. Not only is the craft work in their little shop irresistable, it is also reasonably priced. Better still, the money you spend here goes directly to help the Undungu Society's work with the street kids of Nairobi.

Nairobi dukas
The 'ducas' where you can bargain for a bargain.

We ended up on both trips spending much more than we had intended.

When using a credit card in Kenya, remember to keep a watch on the transactions that come in in the weeks and months thereafter. This trip, sure enough, there was a transaction which the Royal Bank fortunately recognised as suspicious.

One of the big problems of Kenyan life is AIDS. Estimates are that are that one in four of the population has AIDS. If you face an uncertain future then you may live for today. If you live for today then taking the risk on the route to short-term wealth can be attractive.

Especially in Kenya where there is no unemployment benefit and healthcare, too, comes at a cost. On our visit five years ago I read in the Daily Nation that a doctor-assisted delivery at a hospital in Kenya costs 13500 Kenyan Shillings. Perhaps not a lot, but a small fortune for someone with no income.

So, seeing a foreign credit card can be a huge temptation for people who have little.

Nairobi down town
The old colonial meets the new tower blocks in downtown Nairobi

There are bound to be huge tensions in any society where there are two economies - the former colonial economy on one level and a huge gulf to the native Kenyan economy below. Those in the upper economy live in compounds guarded 24 hours per day, usually with razor wire boundaries, very probably electrified.

The lucky ones in the lower economy live in the slums and shanty towns. On our last visit it was extremely disturbing to see some, apparently, living in the centre of dual carriageways in and around the city. There was no obvious evidence of that this time.

The roads themselves are quite chaotic. There seems to be little order to the traffic and all gets by on a kind of anarchy. At junctions there are usually no priorities. The boldest at nudging out into the stream usueally wins. Three lanes on a roundabout often fight for two lanes on the exit road. But it seems to workin a chaotic manner.

Nairobi hoouse removal
House removal Nairobi style!

The drivingtest, I am told, consists of pushing a toy car around toy streets. Then a car load of prospective drivers is taken out onto the street by the examiner. One by one they drive the car a short distance. (The other way of passing your test, it is reputed, involves handing over the requisite amount of money.)

The other hazard for drivers in Nairobi is the 'sleeping policemen'. In many areas of town they are unmarked and have no warning signs. The first you know of them is when your head hits the roof. As if that were not enough, some of the potholes now consumng the ageing collonial tarmac look big enough to swallow a small car. Here again the five years between our visits seem to have helped.

When you arrive at a destination a white face is a magnet for the unofficial parking assistants who will eagerly guide you to a space - hoping, of course for a few shillings for their trouble.

I particularly remember one eager-faced smiling young man holding his hand aloft in a triumphant "I have a space for you", gesture, running along to the appointed place and gesturing to a place where there, quite simply, was no space for a car. Sometimes this is a kind of protection racket, they offer to watch the car for money. If you don't pay, goodness knows how much of your car will remain when you return.

Even on the petrol forecourts you are accosted by vendors of everything from wire sculptures to flowers.

Nairobi road side stalls
Road side stalls in Nairobi

In dukas, markets and with road-side vendors you are expected to indulge in bargaining. You always ask for the "best price" - much as you might at an antique fair back home. Then you make an offer which, many of the locals say, should start at half the asked price.

Global brands have made relatively small inroads into Kenya. Yes, there is the universal Coca Cola, with the local bottlers currently battling with the giant over the future of the local business.

But we could see no Macdonalds, no Burger Kings and no Hard Rock Cafes. Local food is filling rather than exciting, designed to fill and nourish on the very limited budgets. However, there are plenty restaurants to cater for the international palate - Indian, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, Japanese.

The meat is good, but tougher than we are used to in Europe. If you like your steaks rare or medium-rare at home, you might welcome a little longer cooked here. The toughness does not affect the flavour, it simply reflects the fact that meat here tends to be from older animals, the animals themselves have probably had to work harder and the meat tends not to be hung before it is butchered.
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