Africa Stories and Tips

Safari Day 4: Nairobi city (Heart of Darkness revisited)

Nairobi Slums Photo,

Jet lag played havoc with our sleep so we ended up waking up near afternoon. Today (Sunday) was a day where nothing had been planned. Rather than sit around the hotel all day, I called our Safari operator and arranged a tour of Nairobi. I did this despite warnings, from those that had been here, that a tour of Nairobi will ruin the vacation. But I had to see it for myself. We also were interested in changing hotels to something within the city so we could walk around there and explore. We did not understand why Vintage Africa had put us so far outside the central city. Well, we did get a good look at the city today and yes, it is depressing and yes we know why our operator placed us outside the central city!

My mental imagery of Nairobi was of an exotic gateway to Safari and a vestige of British colonial Africa. Travel magazines show a gleaming metropolis with tall, modern buildings. A beacon of success to the rest of Africa. What I saw changed that image, depressed and sickened me and made me rethink the definition of third world. I had adequate warnings from past visitors to Nairobi but had to see it and now I am sorry I did! I am not sure that even Paul Theroux’s description of the poverty in Dark Star Safari really prepared me.

There are three million people living here with less than half employed. The modern skyline is deceptive. Below the buildings are wide areas of very filthy, shanty towns. Refuse of every description actually layered and built upon! People linger about looking as if they have nothing to do. Interestingly, though, I saw no begging, most wore old but not tattered clothing, nobody looked emaciated, and I saw nobody lying sick on the streets. This may be the case deeper in the slums but I did not see it while crisscrossing the city. Our guide said that the tribes take care of their own. It was Sunday and slow but still filled with people. Most shopping areas were closed and the traffic was minimal. We noticed most of the poverty and filth along the areas abutting the Nairobi river. Nearby was the luxurious Norfolk hotel next to Nairobi University. The University looked clean and somewhat modern on the outside but very small. The national museum occupied an impressive colonial style stone building. On the inside it was interesting but remarkably small. But it was a good place to get an overview of the country as well as having a very good collection of stuffed native birds. Next door was a snake park. Very poorly kept and run down but a safe place to get a close look at some of the most venomous snakes Africa has to offer such as the Puff Adder and Black Mamba. The rest of the city was extremely unimpressive. Lots of wide streets, tomb of Jomo Kenyatta, hotels, offices of every description, banks, insurance companies, Parliament, British colonial buildings now used for city government, trade schools, shops of every description, and not much more. On a small rise in the city was a vantage point to take photos of the skyline. But on this day our guide told us not to as there was what appeared to be a Christian revival in a sports field below. These congregations seemed to be taking place all around the city parks today. I asked why I could not take a photo and our guide said that people are afraid we might be terrorists trying to identify them. In all, Nairobi does not look at all like the small town featured in the 1960s film Born Free. There is really very little here of interest for the traveler unless here on business.

We drove along the convoluted streets, traffic circles and highway back to the Safari Park Hotel. At the gated entrance to the hotel the guard placed a mirror under our vehicle looking for anything suspicious. He then snapped a smart salute and we passed into the luxurious grounds. We wandered over to a restaurant and met up with the Vintage Africa manager, Evans, and also our Maasai friend and his family from southern California here on another missionary trip. Our first question to them was what they thought we could safely eat as we were now 72 hours into our travels and had eaten very little. He laughed and understood our concern and went through a list of what he and his family had eaten safely (he recommended NEVER eating lettuce or vegetables while in east Africa). We talked all night about our experience in Nairobi and hearing their views on the political, economic, and commercial directions of Kenya. They said that the previous government had been very corrupt but there was great optimism that the new government was ready to pay attention to the needs of the people.

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