Nairobi Stories and Tips

Nairobi souvenir shopping: an experience in itself

Nairobi street Photo, Nairobi, Kenya

Walking? On foot? Two girls, alone? In Nairobi? Shocked, the receptionist's eyes flick from me to D. and back. We have just asked her if she knows about walking tours in the city of Nairobi, and she is appalled. Apparently, walking is for the poor in Africa, and certainly not an activity fit for a couple of white, female tourists. A bit shyly, not wanting to alarm us, she warns us to be careful about wearing watches and earrings.

We explain that that is the precise reason why we want to have a guide along on our intended walk. We point to the rest of our group: my parents and brother. The nice lady at the reception breathes a little easier when she realizes D. and I did not intend to go walking by ourselves but with a whole group, including two men. Still, it is a daunting prospect.

She promises to make some phonecalls and see what she can arrange for us. Some ten minutes later she waves us over. For US$40 each, she can offer us a city tour, a trip to the National Museum and to the Snake Farm. Dana and I exchange a look. This is exactly what we hoped to avoid: another tourist excursion. To make matters worse, the exact same trip was offered upon our arrival for US$20. Kenya must suffer from heavy inflation.

We shake our heads and again try to explain to the receptionist that we want to experience some of the city, and not the museums; we have plenty of museums at home. She blinks when we inform her of last night's 20-dollar offer and goes back to the phones.

In the end it takes a direct conversation between D. and the tour operator on the other end of the line, but then we have an offer that suits our purpose and budget. For 70 US$ we'll have a driver-guide plus van that will take us to see some of Nairobi's lesser known sights and will guide us for a short walk through the center. We agree, and a short while later the van comes to pick us up.

Our driver's name is Peter, and it's obvious he does not quite know what exactly to do with this bunch of odd tourists. However, he does a good job of pointing out the main sights, passing by the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial several times.

The first stop Peter takes us is the colorful City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street. As soon as we disembark from the van, chaos ensues. People trying to convince us to visit their shops surround us and clamor for attention. According to Peter, most of them are (unpaid) helpers that will ask the shop's owner for a percentage when they convince you to buy something from that particular shop.

A woman pushes a tattered notebook in front of me. "Money for school," she explains, and I see a long list of foreign names and places, with amounts of 100 Kshs or 200 Kshs beside them. I doubt the money will actually be used for education, but it's a clever scheme and I do have a couple of small bills in my possession. I sign her notebook, musing that at the very least she'll have an interesting list of foreigners that visited, and hand her a bill.

A young man tells me his name is Aisak - and I probably misspelled that. He owns a shop, he says, and will give me a good price for whatever I desire. "Do you have a writing pen?" he asks. "A pen?" My eyebrows raise in confusion. "Yes, I have a pen." "Good, you give me a pen and I'll give you a good price," he tells me.

I have a vague and blurred memory of ascending stairs before going inside a building where the City Market is located. Everyone in my group has been 'adopted' by a couple of Kenyans and is shown the wares of the various stores. Aisak leads me to his store, a small alcove somewhere in the City Market. He points at the merchandise. Soapstone sculptures and woodcarvings stare down at me from shelves lining the walls. "All made by hand," the owner tells me proudly, "no machines." He asks what I want. Candles? Or animals? The choice is widely varied. Lions, leopards, giraffes. "I'd like an elephant," I tell Aisak, remembering that I planned to bring home another for my collection.

A dozen helpful hands fill mine with elephants in all shapes and sizes. Made of ebony, rosewood, or other materials. A foot-high elephant of a deep-red wood catches my attention. I only have to glance at it or someone grabs it and sets it on the floor at my feet. "Rosewood," I'm told, and someone else demonstrates that the tusks can be removed for securer transport home. Aisak pulls over a low stool and I sit down. Negotiations can begin.

Aisak writes a number on a piece of paper. 15.500 Kshs. I glance at the Shilling-to-Euro conversion table I brought along and swallow. I make a counter offer that in retrospect is way too low. But hey, I just got here! I have no idea what I'm doing, no idea how much money I want to spend on a souvenir, and hardly any clue how much a Kenyan Shilling is worth. Realizing this, Aisak changes the bidding process to US dollars. At least a currency I can understand without too much mathematics.

M. wanders past. "Are you negotiating?" my brother asks and grins when he sees me sitting on the low stool with the elephant at my feet. "I think so," I reply. I ask Dana how much she thinks I should pay for the elephant. She has no clue. H. drops by. "Fifty guilders," she ventures when I ask her advice. I know that's too little; the gap with Aisak's offer is too wide. In the meantime, three or four Kenyans have gotten involved in trying to convince me how much the carving is worth. I do believe them when they tell me that rosewood, like ebony, is a valuable wood. The sheer weight of the elephant proves the validity of their statement.

Their arguments are hard to resist. Am I buying this souvenir for someone else? In that case, why not get a crude, orangy elephant, two inches high? Or am I buying for myself? Then I should spend a little money. Am I not worth it? "Remember," a young man tells me, "someday you may get married, and you show your children the elephant." I'm not even surprised he's already noticed I don't wear a ring.

In the end, we agree on a price of 75 US$. Time to pay, and a new problem arises. Slight consternation when I inform Aisak I'm not carrying that much money around on my person, but that I need a bank first. It's Sunday, and the market is about to close. "ATM?" he asks hopefully, and relieved I nod. Yes, an ATM would help.

"Come," he waves, while other eager hands start wrapping the elephant in a newspaper. I follow him, outside the market building, along a Nairobi street, to a Visa ATM machine. I withdraw the money, pay him on the spot and he takes me back to the market. The rest of the group, surrounded by happy merchants, comes to meet us. I receive a heavy package, wrapped in paper and plastic, and two thin wood tusks. Realizing I have lost sight of my purchase for a while, and with the suspicious part of my brain telling me that this is an easy way to con an unsuspecting tourist, I try to ascertain that it is the rosewood elephant that's inside all the paper and tape. It does have an elephantine shape and I shrug. In any case, it was fun!

My suspicions were unfounded; it was indeed my elephant in the package. It survived the ten-day safari without sustaining damage and is now proudly decorating my living room. The 'writing pen' never got mentioned again.

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