48 Hours in Nairobi: 10 New Observations
1. So yesterday, I told you that the first song I head on the radio in Nairobi was Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me”. It stood out to me because the station didn’t appear to be oldies. The announcer was doing a call-out for women who had given birth at 12/13 and were now raising daughters who were pregnant at 12/13. The demo had to contain a lot of women 24-26 for that call out (and my driver was no more than 25, okay maybe 30. You never know with Black people). The station was also advertising an upcoming expose about homosexuality in Nairobi. Apparently, sex tourism and “down low” behavior are an issue, and homosexuality isn’t all that tolerated. It all sounded very Springer 90s. I say all that to say this: for a station with salacious topics and a mid-20s demo, I expected to hear hip-hop or R&B, or whoever the local music artists are, not a song that was popular when I was, literally, 19. After that came some unidentifiable Michael McDonald-esque music.
2. So yesterday, our driver, Amos, takes us from the cottage to the city. We were supposed to go to this tourist heavy all-meat restaurant, literally it’s named Carnivore. (I was along for the adventure. I’m a pesca.) Anyway. Traffic was abysmal, so Amos was like, “um, no.” So he says he’ll take us to the city to a nice place. Great. (He’s also not sold on us going to a tourist spot where the waiters dress up in zebra print.) He recommends an American coffee shop that serves burgers and shakes. I get it. We’re Americans, he thinks we want American ish. We don’t. We detour to an organic spot for local food instead. What’s playing from the speakers? Usher’s “Confessions”, and Kelly Rowland’s one-hit, the one about “make Mama proud.” Oh, and that one Kerry Hilson song that had Kanye on the intro. On repeat. We figure someone put together their “moving on” playlist and is smitten with a new boo. I tell you all this to say, in, now 48 hours, I’ve heard no hip-hop, which I am delightfully fine with. And the radio program directors of Nairobi have great taste in music.
3. When in doubt/ lost/ in need of A/C or wi-fi, find the nearest American hotel, talk loud so everyone hears your accent and assumes you’re staying there, and use what you need at your leisure.
4. They have a Coldstone Creamery in Nairobi. So far, I’ve seen one McDonald’s and one KFC, which please me greatly, but not for the reasons you imagine. I like going to visit another country and feeling like I’m in another country. Traveling to shop in a bunch of stores with marked up American goods that were made in China isn’t a vacation. Nairobi has some imports, but they mostly have their own ish. This makes me happy.
5. Every city has its classic cup caking spot. For BK it’s DUMBO or the BK waterfront. For DC, it used to be Hains Point, but it seems to have moved to National Harbor. In Philly, it’s the top of the “Rocky” steps. For Nairobi, it seems to be the rooftop of the International Conference Center. It’s appears to be the tallest building in Nairobi and there’s a 360 view of the city. There were multiple couples just hanging out, enjoying the breeze and the view. From what I can tell, PDA isn’t a big thing here, which I only noticed because I saw a woman holding a man’s arm and it stood out because I’ve rarely seen people touch. Is that the culture? The influence of Islam? I dunno. But even on the roof, the couples sat or stood close next to each other, but never touched.
6. So. We try to go to this restaurant, only to find out its actually closed on Tuesdays. Whatever. We hear live music, so we wander over to the crowd. It’s a outdoor music spot, Seemas (not sure of spelling.) The first thing I notice is the abundance of men, and two girls in tight dresses grinding on each other. Hmm. This strikes me as odd because of my previous observation. So, we sit and have a drink and a meal. One of my traveling companions orders a “Tusker” because they’re advertised in Kenya the way Heineken is advertised in the US. Cool. The bottles are ginormous. I sneak a sip. It tastes exactly like Corona. I notice a few tables full of women. Most are sitting, some standing and they’re in really tight dresses and standing wide. The service was a little slow, but we only minded because we were in a rush. That’s not the point of this, this is: a woman my friends met in the airport while waiting for me, called out of the blue to ask where we were. Turns out, she works near by. So she comes to meet us. As she walks us out, she asks what we thought of the spot. It was cool for what it was. She comments on the number of prostitutes. The girls grinding?And standing really wide? Advertising services. They call them “night girls” in Nairobi. The woman says that there are tons of them in that area and she’s surprised more weren’t out that night. She adds that while technically illegal, police mostly turn their heads about it. We mention this to the driver, Amos, in the car on the way home. He says otherwise: “run away or you will be arrested,” he cautions. He adds that he doesn’t drink Tuskers anymore. “I drink two and I black out.” Womp.
7. The Hustle— so we pass by the City Market, and go in. It’s beyond obvious that we’re not American. People who were just chilling in their stalls, look alive, and start calling out to us, “My Sister…”, “My Brother…” Like every. single. vendor. They call “jambo”, “karibu” (welcome), invite us to look at their wares (“looking is free!”) They are super aggressive, and I say this as a New Yorker. In fact, I was so overwhelmed at being verbally accosted, that I turned around and left. As our small group was walking along the street, two different men came up to chat with the gent in our group. They wanted to know if we were going on safari, where we were from (more on that in a second), what our plans were for our visit, blah, blah, blah. And even when we gave the brush off, the guys continued to walk with us for blocks. like at least 6 blocks each.
8. We’re Jamaican. I don’t know what about any of us reads as Jamaican, but that’s the assumption. One of the girls in the group has braids, but so do half the women of Nairobi. The guy has a beard. I have my hair in a high bun. I know Jamaican. Nothing about us looks so. But constantly we’re asked, “You all are Jamaican?” I’m missing some backstory/cultural link, I think.
9. Musky Men: let me say this blunty: the vast majority of the men I have encountered in Kenya are scentless. As a whole Kenyan men smell exactly like American men. I am not in anyway implying that the men of Kenya smell bad. I am, however, saying that in the 48 hours I have been in Nairobi, I have encountered more men with with a strong underarm scent than I have encountered in other places I have travelled to. And I don’t mean homeless men or poor men. I mean men that are working jobs and funk up the whole phone store when they walk in on what appears to be their lunch hour. I mean the guy who checked my ticket to get to the roof where the couples were cup caking. I mean, just a random collar-shirted guy you pass in the street and think, “Good Lord, man!”
10. The Sixties— Nairobi is a modern city. It’s a tech hub for Hova’s sake. Everyone’s got a cell phone, there are electronic stores every five feet you walk downtown. And you can’t go in any crowded place without passing through a metal detector and getting swiped down like you’re going though airport security. At the really important places, your bag goes through a Xray machine. But the infrastructure, especially the buildings, is very 70s. It’s like the government built everything they needed, did a good job the first round, and decided they were done. That’s not a bad thing. It does however make you feel like you’re in a time warp as you walk around the city. That said it’s a relatively clean city (sorta), especially given the number of people walking around. I walked around in flip flops, which when I do that in NYC, the bottom of my feet are black. Not even grey here, even though I walked and walked and walked today. I did see a couple open sewage streams, and the alleys weren’t the cleanest, but where, I ask, are alleys clean?
BONUS: I’m… intrigued by the security here. In addition to noticing the metal detectors everywhere today, I also noticed that the cops walk around holding vintage AK47s… like baseball bats, if you’re just walking along at your leisure with one. So again, I’m wondering, is Nairobi that bad and America is better off in this regard? Or is it about the same and Americans are naive? I dunno. The guy and I were walking from a park back to the city centre earlier today, right? We’re talking about being bummed because we can’t do Lamu and Mombasa. There’s no plane that goes between the two cities anymore and the bus that travels is frequently robbed, or worse. Six months ago, some extremists hijacked a bus and killed all the infidels. So… yeah, no. We’re not taking the bus. My mother and husband would never forgive me. The alternative is to fly to Mombassa, fly back to Nairobi, then fly to Lamu, which again, no. So we chose Lamu. We’re talking about this as we walk, and suddenly there’s a BOOM! We freeze immediately. And the “let out”, hundreds of people everywhere, do too. Cops go running in the direction of the sound. The guy and I stay frozen until everyone else starts moving. I can tell from the reaction that this city is shell-shocked just like NYC, post 9/11. (Literally, my VERY first observation walking out of the Nairobi airport was “hmm.. smells like post 9/11.”) Maybe all the security is the government’s way of providing peace of mind. Maybe they actually need that ish.
BONUS 2: Before our guy of the group began going along with the Jamaican thing, he tells this one guy, a market vendor that he’s American. The guy responds, “America? We call it Obama Land”. LMAO.