Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Glimpses of a City

What the Lonely Planet says of Nairobi:

Nairobi is a spirited city with a hint of danger.

Kenya's capital is cosmopolitan, lively, interesting and pleasantly landscaped. Its central business district is handily compact and it's a great place to tune into modern urban African life. Unfortunately, it's also a great place to get mugged. Security, especially at night, is a definite concern.

Originally little more than a swampy watering hole for Maasai tribes, Nairobi grew with the advent of the railway and had became a substantial town by 1900. Five years later it succeeded Mombasa as the capital of the British protectorate. Today it's the largest city between Cairo and Johannesburg.

What it DOESN’T say (whatever I remember, in random order):

1. Nairobi looks like a city out of a developed nation, not a developing one. Tall gleaming building, sparklingly clean sidewalks, little cafes where one relaxes over coffee and croissants, and multiple-shades-of-pink faces everywhere. Its only when one really looks hard, that we see the non-white ones. An overwhelming impression I carried with me from Africa, to be honest, are of the whites there, throwing around their money. The blacks are still serving them and calling them “sir”, but this time, they are extracting the full dollar for it. And more power to them, too!!

2. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there are forests! In the middle of the city. Rising tall and dark, on either side, as we drive down from one point of the city to the other. Beautiful shades of dark green foliage, little streams flowing with burbling sounds, birds flitting from branch to branch trilling to each other. These forests are carefully maintained, i.e., no cutting is allowed. It grows wild, within a particular area.

3. It’s a city of a million dichotomies. There are either the extravagantly rich or the exceedingly poor. There is practically no “middle-class” at all, unlike other cities. Villas are passé, and Mercs and BMWs and Pradas the cars of choice for the affluent.

4. People who don’t travel in aforesaid Pradas and Mercs, travel in Matatus and City Hoppas. I assume the words are derived from the words Matador (van) and City Hoppers, respectively. Both can happily be called “angels of doom”, and one can totally understand why, when you see these wildly careening around corners and screeching to a halt in front of the bus stands.

5. There are huge slums in Nairobi. But these are contained, not scattered about few houses at a time, like in India. And they’re CLEAN. If I hadn’t been told Kibera was a slum, I wouldn’t have recognized it for one, while passing. Neat little 1 bedroom houses, whitewashed and gleaming, form which people come out in droves and head off to work.

6. The common man, on the road, is so well dressed, that they beat us hollow, any day. The men walking out of the slums, wear blazers. As Joel, my sister’s chauffer (and our guide around Nairobi) put it, “people might be lazing the whole day, not doing anything, but from 9am to 9pm, they’re perfectly attired”. Women go to shop for groceries, dressed to kill. Little fashionable skirts, colored and braided hair, and they are off wheeling trolleys through the aisles and picking up groceries. Jaw-dropping sight, really!!

7. Consumerism is at its height in Nairobi. Nowhere else, not even in India, where pre-teens are doing the moonwalk to Channel V blaring out its discordant tunes, or truly believing that “they don’t need no education”, have I seen a 15 STOREY tall poster, proclaiming Coke to be the drink of the future.

8. Nairobi has no industry at all. Their main income comes from tourism, and they have taken that to a fine art. Each and every little thing shows it, from the level of hygiene maintained at all times, to the cuisine and the shopping. Money also comes from the freight industry. The huge industrial buildings in Nairobi are only used to “put things together’, i.e., trucks, et al.

9. The “Little India” in Nairobi, is chock-a-block, stuffed to the gills, crammed with…the Gujju community. They are about 20% of the population there, and control 80% of the city finances. Big cars, full of youngsters dressed in the latest MTV hip fashion, roll in, to have chaat and tikkis at the “Bombay Choupatty”. Sunidhi Chauhan looks smokily and seductively down from stalls selling tapes of Hindi films, and remixes blare away. However, and sadly, the Indians everywhere are dirty. The place is immediate recognizable, since it’s the only place where people flick personal dirt around the place.

10. Nairobi is a very laid-back place. I saw people on a weekday, lazing around and sleeping in parks, while lovely and exotic looking birds pecked the ground around them. The newspaper vendors sit and happily read those papers themselves, without bothering to sell their wares. At the garden cafes where one has lunch, people sit for hours with a beer and a book, on weekday mornings.

On a side note, these cafes were brilliant. Excellent food, great locales, people serving you, with lovely smiles lighting up their faces. . Best of all, they allow pets in the garden. Imagine.. a chilled beer, a good book, the sun warming your back, and a dog sleeping at your feet. That, I think, is my idea of near-perfect bliss.


gopasen said...

OK great. Now the picture begins to emerge. Tell about the safari too. What kind of acco, food, vistas, pitfalls, I am all ears.

Scout said...

hey sri.. this makes me feel bad about our cancelled trips :( let's go to france to all those cafes! or anywhere with a cafe is fine

gypsy said...

Nice to know u liked the place -- interesting observations too..but just a few refutations --
--The gujjus in Nairobi have replaced the "mzungus" (whites) and they are now ordering the locals arounds..what a shame!
-- Kibera is just one of the slums. There are slums in Nairobi that will put Dharavi to shame! and incidentally 55% of Nairobi's residents live in slums! and there is a "middle class" you probably didnt visit those areas!
-- "Matatu" comes from the swahili word for three (tatu=three). It used to cost 3 shillings to ride in a matatu..and they play the LOUDEST gangsta music!
--There isnt any "Little India" in Nairobi -- or is there NOW??! there wasnt one when I was last there!

and your post has inspired me to write my 2 cents worth on the city i call home! :-)

mobius said...

hello mashi, lovely to see u read and like blog.. will keep writing, as soon as possible

scout, lets met up one of these days, will tell u about africa, office, et al.. and plan that trip too :)

gypsy, thanks for the post.glad i could inspire you..be sure to send me link :)