After bouncing around some of the Middle East and the Caucus area it was time for us to make our next big regional jump in the path of our journey – East Africa. To be more specific, we would be departing Amman, Jordan and less than 24 hours later arriving in Nairobi, Kenya. Africa for us, as with many other people, is the land of many unknowns. While East Africa may be a bit more explored than other regions of the continent it still remains a mystery to many, including us. You rarely hear of people ‘backpacking’ through multiple countries of Africa. And THIS was exactly what magically drew us to this part of the world. The unknown, the adventure, and the desire to embrace a new culture. When one combines the lack of and often contradicting information you find online with statics and rumors of robbery and crime in Nairobi and Africa in general, it can be intimidating. And we won’t lie – even after trying to stock our brains with as much knowledge of possible transportation, visas, safety tips and more for almost three months some fear/anxiety still brewed in our bellies (mixed with excitement). But this is part of life, the reason we travel, and what allows us to grow as humans is to explore our fears. With less than a day behind us in the city of Nairobi (rated one of the most dangerous cities in East Africa) our fears had dissolved and in only a week we faced the same realization we had after quitting our jobs and leaving our life behind. It is so much easier than we think. Sure, bad things are everywhere… and you should be smart and careful. Maybe more so in some places than others. But the fact remains the same – so many of our fears are based solely on the unknown. We are just glad that some spark in us shined greater than the shadow of fear we had. Because in the end we could have never imagined the wonderful welcome to this part of the world that we found in Nairobi.
Subtle Signs – Welcome back to Africa!
Our journey from Amman to Nairobi would be two flights that sandwiched a lengthy layover in Cairo, Egypt. The flight was comfortable, on-time, and Egypt Air had surprisingly high end service (mostly surprising considering the price we paid). Each flight was complete with meals, beverages, and comfortable seats. The sandy city that lay below us as we landed was tempting and inviting. While we may not be exploring the Egyptian lands this leg of the journey, we were inspired by the views to return one day. What shocked us most was after landing in sandy Cairo the airline offered to give us a hotel room for the day at a nearby hotel since the layover was over nine hours. While it was tempting (comfy bed, TV, private bathroom) we decided to save the $20 visa fee each and administrative process each, and instead opted for the free meal vouchers and headed to the adjoining international terminal our flight would depart from that evening. The airport wasn’t super comfortable but it was clean, safe, relatively uncrowded (probably due to reduced tourism), had a crappy wifi connection, and overall not so bad.
This was a stark difference from the ‘international terminal’ we arrived at in Nairobi International Airport at 4am the following morning. Amanda had seen smaller and similar airports on some of the islands of her youth. However, I think both of us had expected a bit more from a capital city with the population of 3 million. We later would learn that their international terminal had been burned down by a huge fire of unknown causes only few couple weeks prior to our arrival. The immigration (which was a guy with a small desk that seemed to be plopped right before the baggage claim) didn’t even bother to look at the info cards we had been given and filled out on the plane. He, like everyone else, seemed half asleep and was just concerned with the $50 fee we each owed. With the money in his hand he smiled, put some fancy stickers in our passports and said ‘Karibu’. With bags on our backs we ‘exited’ the terminal/baggage claim and which immediately plopped us on the street. Many touts were there eager to get any business out of us they could (safari, taxi, hotel, etc.). You got to give them credit though for being there at 4am for only one plane of people. Hard workers!
Feeling a bit jostled we sat in some chairs near the make-shift cafe/food stand that was there on the street. There we struck up a conversation with a nice guy who seemed to sense our confusion on everything. We learned from him there was no ATM machine, and the bus (or matutu) would not start running until 6am. Being alone for our first time in the unknown Nairobi at 4am with no local currency we took up his offer to give us a ride for the equivalent of $22 including stoping at an ATM on the way so we could get cash. Overpriced cab rides are probably one of the top things we avoid during our travels. But of the few situations that have arisen where we have caved and paid the tourist rates, in a majority of the time it was for the best and worth the money in the end. This was one of those times. We reflected that this probably would also make our families feel better about our safety back home. In the end the guy who gave us a ride, Michael, was a good guy. We arrived safely to our CS hosts home and after quick introductions we were fast asleep.
Party Bus or Matatu
No matter what kinds of descriptions you read online or how many youtube videos you watch I can guarantee you that nothing can fully depict the actual experience of matatus in Nairobi. There is not a true government-provided transportation service in and around the capital, or anywhere in Kenya for that matter. If you want to get around, almost everyone goes via matatu, or the highly modified private ‘busses’. And since there is no true way to prepare one for this magical experience, the matatu culture is probably one of the biggest shocks when you first go to Kenya. Those in the metropolis of Nairobi are especially delightful and unique.
First of all, most of them look like a high-schooler who watches too much of MTV’s Pimp My Ride designed them. They often have after-market body kits, are painted in bizarre color combinations or are completely neon, and are covered in inexplicable stickers. Why would one put a sticker advertising anti-diarrheal medicine next to a sticker for Monster energy drink next to another with a nonsensical quote in english? A Nairobi matatu owner would. On the inside it was usually an even more intense experience. The interior was usually refinished by carnival operators with left over material. Quite literally, the green, purple and silver or gold interiors were exactly what you experienced going on rides in your childhood at the fair or local carnival. Often this would be paired with maybe an interior TV to play music videos and a pole along the roof above the isle – giving it the quazi twist of carnival meets strip club.
And the matatus were incredibly loud. Our luckiest rides were in the matatus that the driver had forgotten to bring his normal playlist and resorted to 80’s dance music. Otherwise loud rap and loud reggae were what you would be listening to for your 20 – 90 minute journey (depending on traffic). And the interiors were usually covered with stickers of rap albums, and often had rap videos on display as well for anyone who needed to see stereotypical booty-shaking to go along with the swearing in the rap while on the bus to work at 6:45am. Over the course of the time in and around Nairobi we learned a few other things about the matatus. First, the one or two young guys assisting the driver make the business for the matatu companies. They try getting as many people on their bus as fast as possible so they can take off and make more runs per day than their competitors. What this translates to for the consumer, however, is that these young guys will often grab you by the arm and push you on their bus. This was really alarming the first one or two times, but then you get used to it. It is not a kidnapping, they are just doing their job and really a western’s idea of ‘personal space’ just doesn’t apply to the law of the jungle in Eastern Africa.
Another interesting thing about the matatus is that the price is strictly demand base. Depending on how busy the matatus were, the cost of the ride would fluctuate between 30 and 80 shillings. Soon we learned taking rides on ‘off hours’ saved us not only time but also a little bit of money in the pocket too. Got to love the free market!
Westgate Mall Shooting
This event was a bit of a ‘welcome to Kenya’ for us as it happened only eight ten hours after our plane had landed on a dark and wet 4am morning that day. We were fortunate to in Central Nairobi (not very near the site of the incident) having a snack in the local Sizzling Grill when the event happened. It was in this cafe that we also first heard the news about the crisis in the Westgate Mall. Two TVs in the cafe were providing live coverage of the shootings, stating that robbers had entered the upscale mall to loot the stores, and that the mall was not yet secured. The severity of the situation had not been fully realized, probably both by government as well as the media. The next morning we awoke and found the news coverage to still be fully focused on the now developing story of the hostage situation at Westgate Mall. In one night the story had progressed a long way and the reported number of those deceased and injured had more than doubled. We figured this would be a good time to tell our family we were still alive.
The following weeks (and especially few days) it was amazing to see the city and the country come together. Being there during the times of the attack gave us an insight we would have never experienced if we had not been there. On one hand the attack had happened in an upscale mall in the more wealthy western area of the city. Although we did not spend any time in the more wealthy West side of Nairobi, we did find another high end shopping center near the embassy that must have been of a similar tier to the Westgate Mall. Here we got our first free wifi in Africa. The difference between these high end shopping centers (that reminded us of Southern California) and the markets (where 98% of the population shopped with their salaries of $115 a month) was very visible. We got the full experience of some of the feelings about this apparent part of the puzzle (that wasn’t as spoken of in the media) on a train ride to town early one morning. We were the only white people of over 60 people crammed into our car and probably the only white people on the entire train. A few kids had started some jokes about the attack – in Swahili so our understanding of them was next to nothing – that were apparently funny because people were trying hard to hold back their laughs. Eventually these led to them bringing attention to us ‘muzungus’ and switching to English. While they weren’t directly rude, the comments definitely highlighted the ‘divide’ between income levels and skin-tone. This obviously had an underlying connection with the attack that happened in the wealthy part of the city. Other than this incident though the majority of people cared and related to the new tagline the media formed bringing people together. The lines to give blood in the city center were blocks long. It was apparent that despite the jokes and division the majority of the people stood by the new uniting message heard all over Kenya “We Are One”.
The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphan Center is only a matatu ride away from the center and is worth the visit. The center is only open for one hour every day (excluding Sundays) and features one of the daily feedings of most the baby elephants as well as an educational talk. We managed to find our way to the elephant orphanage in plenty of time. We learned that the center actually lay a couple kilometers within a side gate to the Nairobi City National Park. Once there we sat near the small lot for cars behind the rope which would be removed once the center was officially open. Anyone that shows up early to the center gets the added bonus of muzungu watching as well. It felt a bit strange to all of a sudden be surrounded by not only those of the same skin tone but true tourists (for a lack of better word to describe them). There was no doubt we were the only ones that came on ‘public’ transportation. Most came with tour groups, private hired cars with drivers, and a few with maybe a local ex-pat friend that was living in the area. Watching and listening to people before we entered was almost worth the time to get there in itself. At 10:55am the rope was lifted and the flood of people entered the center grounds. 500 ksh was collected from everyone (roughly $5) and then you could pass to stand near another roped off area. This one however would feature the feeding of almost 30 baby elephants over the next hour. They march in single file, then spread out in the good sized roped off area, guzzle down 10-liter bottles of milk, and chase it down with branches of green leaves. While this is going on, one of the managers of the center is giving a history of the organization, answering questions, and telling the personal stories for each elephant. He told us it was established in 1977 to help wild elephants that were abandoned, injured, or otherwise could not make it in the wild on their own. Some of the elephants were orphaned when their parents had been killed by poachers, others had fallen down wells, etc. We learned the number one reason they baby elephants were abandoned was because of poaching, which still remains an issue most parts of Africa. The center focused on raising the elephants until about age 6 or 7, and then releasing them into the wild again. Since the orphanage is in the park the babies are raised in an environment that is as close as possible to their natural homes which helps ensure their survival once they are released.
After most of the milk is gone, the baby elephants get to be a bit silly and feisty. They play with each other, sticks, and anything else they may find to play with (much like actual babies do). We found that despite the large crowds of people it was an overall fun and worthwhile experience. You not only get to see cute baby elephants (and lots of them) in a natural environment (as we mentioned before the entire center is in the National Park) but you also get to learn a bit about elephants and some of the problems they face in Africa.
On the same side of town as the elephant center and only a couple small matatu rides and a kilometer walk down the road we found ourselves at the Giraffe Center. Unlike the elephant orphanage this center is open for about 8-9 hours a day, thus thinning out the crowds. When we arrived we were actually only a couple of maybe seven or eight people that were visiting. This was a relief to us after the mass of people we had just accompanied an hour before to see the elephants.
The Giraffe Center (officially titled African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya limited or AFEW — but everyone knows it as the Giraffe Center) was established in the 1980’s in order to protect and breed the endangered Rothschild giraffe that is found only in the grasslands of East Africa. Since that time the center has been a huge success and expanded into conservation education and activities. They have also opened the Giraffe Manor where guests who stay the night can enjoy a ‘breakfast with the giraffes‘ (the giraffes will reach their heads through the beautiful french windows of the dinning hall to eat off your plate). Room rates start for only $580 a night. That cost is about 150 times what we have averaged on lodging for a night and also equilivant to about how much it will cost us to fly to Thailand from East Africa! Pricy breakfast. We opted to not do the breakfast and instead settle with paying student rates to kiss the giraffes at the giraffe center. Currently they have about nine giraffes living on the grounds.
We spent a lot of time here petting the giraffes, feeding them leaves and pellet treats, making noises at the baby warthogs, learning about the giraffes in the educational center and even giving them kisses. Afterwards we were able to enjoy the lush natural grounds on some of the trails where the giraffes roam occasionally. Amanda found some cool warthog holes on the way back, and we got some nice views of the lush vegetation that lies just outside the city. This also helped enlighten us for the first time to the drastic contrast between the beauty of nature in Africa and how dismal urban dwelling in African cities can be.
The Nairobi City Center Itself
Kenya is a country with a population of approximately 40 million (similar to California), and there are 3 million in the capital of Nairobi. The downtown is a moderate size, and when you come in via matatu they will inevitably leave you near a main artery of Tom Mboya (named after the famous politician), or behind the National Archives Museum where the small vans depart and arrive from for other cities and towns across the nation. At this intersection the hustle of the city has already begun: people rushing around; disabled people pacing through the streets; vendors selling clothing, leather goods, books and used electronics, and stalls selling burned DVDs of movies while blasting music into the mix. Another thing we noticed after the noise is that every store or cafe has a security guard with a metal detector wand asking to see inside your bag and check you for weapons. This is one way that Nairobi has tried to address it’s reputation as a ‘dangerous’ city– apparently the mayor didn’t like the nickname “Nairobbery”. Overall, we felt pretty safe though. The pace of moving through the city and trying to push your way through the traffic and crowds of people could be tiring and we were constantly aware of our backpack to make sure no one was trying to get into it, but we never felt unsafe.
In the city center we walked around several mostly indistinguishable government buildings, the office of the President and across the street the office of the Deputy President. It was interesting to see these two buildings facing each other across the street, almost in a standoff. It came across this way in part because we had been learning more about the International Criminal Court case that was going on, where the President and Deputy President are both being tried for inciting violence in 2008 when the two sides were running against each other for the presidency, and over 1500 people were killed in violence after the election. After this the two managed to join a ticket in the next election and now they are supposedly working in harmony. Behind the President’s office is the Kenyatta Conference Center – named after the first President of Kenya after gaining their independence in the 1960’s, named Jomo Kenyatta. At the heart of the downtown is the Nairobi Hilton, surprisingly enough. This is a common meeting place, and we met a local couchsurfer here before going for coffee one day. We also discovered a good internet cafe, or cyber, across the street. We had checked to see if there was free wifi in the Hilton, and they charged $8 an hour in the business center. The cyber across the street was 1 shilling a minute, or in USD about 50 cents an hour. Guess where we ended up going to for our online needs?
We also stumbled upon a Sunday Funday near a grocery store one afternoon. One of the downtown parking lots had been turned into a roller rink. Hundreds of young guys, girls and children filled the lot either learning how to roller skate or showing off their skills. Watching the scene was awesome. It looked like roller skating was coming into fashion (again?) and everyone was really getting into it. We opted not to partake, even though the guys looked pretty cool in the Barbie brand roller skates. Other than that Nairobi offers the usual nightclubs and restaurants that many cities would offer. We did not venture out into the Nairobi nightlife, however, as we had been warned that we would be targets for theft as two muzungus out drinking after dark. There is also a large park beyond the square section that makes the downtown area. It offered a nice place to get away from the pace of the city and enjoy some people watching by a nice pond with a questionably intentional fountain (it might have been a broken pipe that just didn’t look that bad as it sprayed mostly over the pond).
For the majority of the five weeks we were in Nairobi we lived and worked in the community of Githruai, which is about 16 kilometers outside the city. Since we had applied to get new passports (our old ones were running out of pages for visas) we had to be in Nairobi for a couple weeks. And while Nairobi is cool there really isn’t too much to do and see after three days. Knowing this we began to look into work/volunteer opportunities in the area thinking we could try to do some good while we waiting. After finding Fountain Youth Initiative on WorkAway.com we met with Josephat (the founder of the organization) at the cozy office in Githurai. He told us about the organization and the projects they were doing in the community. We were impressed with the programs and Joseph was such a friendly guy we left excited to come back and start helping out.
Over the next few weeks we worked both in the office with the small and enthusiastic team of five and also in the community aiding in sanitation pad program. Right away Amanda started with a workshop on strategic planning, something the organization wanted to do for the following year. It was a tiring week as the we worked with the organization to dig through their brains and put everything on paper. The team examined together where they were now, where they wanted to be at the end of next year, how they would get there, and what tools they would use to implement the plan. Once that was laid out we aided them in laying our their 2013 budget and how to keep proper budgeting for the following year. We shared with them the magical ‘break-even’ equation to use when laying out new programs, projects, and events. Ben did a workshop on how to prepare a concept note and other tips with grant-writing. And on top of all this we taught them about crowdfunding and worked with them to launch a campaign that would raise funds for the Vocational Center opening in 2014. The days were filled with work, laughter, learning and teaching. In the evenings we came home tired but ready for the multiple children that would want to play or have you help them with your homework. It wasn’t long before we felt like we had ten new sisters and brothers (age ranged 2 to 14) always visiting us in the evening. We became a part of Joseph’s family, always joining them for dinner in the evenings and hanging out with his two awesome kids Cayden and Cenwein. On the weekends we would join the others in the compound in doing laundry and chores. We also took this time to relax, practice and learn swahili, write and read books.
One of the weekends we spent fighting off a bad stomach flu we both managed to get at the same time. Everyone had told us our trip to Africa wouldn’t be complete until we got sick at least once. Amanda was sure we would be able to escape this apparently inevitable experience. Unfortunately she was wrong. Luckily we had some emergency medications on hand (that Amanda resorted to after a few days) and ramen noodles were easily accessible to buy. These two items paired with the fact we weren’t technically ‘on the road’ and were surrounded by a community that cared and kept an eye on our health made things a bit better in the healing process. Even the children would come in with a thermometer to make sure our temperatures weren’t going over 37 °C. While the few days of sickness were long and hard ones, we survived to tell the story.
Before we knew it three weeks had passed and it was time for us to move on. While we could have stayed in Githurai easily for multiple months we knew if we didn’t get on the move we would end up living there for a year (as a Spanish volunteer had recently done). However our ties with the community and Fountain Youth Initiative are continuing. Ben is still writing and submitting grants for the organization. Once we return to the states he will continue the process to connect Fountain Youth Initiative with One World Children’s Fund. Amanda has made a connection with Ruby Cup and is working to start a pilot implementation next year. We both are continuing to help raise funds and help the launch of a Vocational Training Center launched in 2014.
If you haven’t already checked out the campaign page please do so!
You can CLICK HERE to see the full campaign with more details.
Sharing the campaign with others and spreading the word is just as important. We have two weeks more to go before it ends (just in time for Thanksgiving) and every donation no matter what size helps out.
Although we had tried to limit our expectations when going to a completely new part of the world for us, our introduction to sub-saharan Africa was still nothing we would have expected, and quite an endearing one. The intellectual stimulation was intense, but then again so is most everything we have seen so far here on a continent of extremes. While we had spent several weeks researching, planning and getting excited about this step in the journey, the mix of challenges and inspiration and good people we met made our first month in East Africa something we wouldn’t change.
To see photos of how we were living and what we were working on in Nairobi and Githurai, click HERE
And now that we’ve done some work and dug into the culture of Kenya, we knew we were ready to see some more of the famous nature and wildlife of the region. Check back shortly for our post from Naivasha and Hell’s Gate in Kenya.