I’ve moved from the ex-colonial outpost that is the Sarova Stanley to Gigiri homestead, a posh home in a bubble next to the UN HQ – not a lot I can walk to but the place and the food is nice, and for now it suits me. I am headed for Kampala on an early bus on Sunday, and hope to be thrown back into the thick of things. I’ve been experiencing quite different forms of containment since being in Nairobi (all of 2 days) while at the Sarova Stanley, downtown Nairobi, I was advised not to walk around certain parts of downtown, especially as a white girl unused to the city, so I got escorted to the bank… Now there’s simply nothing to walk to.
I was taken out last night by some friends of a friend, an Indian couple who grew up here. We speeded about in a tinted mercesdes, sure not to linger at red light for too long for security reasons. I got to see the influence of India on Nairobi – it’s everywhere. I don’t know why I didn’t expect it, I guess I was thinking more of the Arab traders. I got to feast on Kenyan/Indian food, chapatti, Mombassa mix combined with incredible rotisserie chicken and chips – the latter bit is the Kenyan/English influence. Supposedly the potatoes are far better than India or England and people regularly smuggle them out of the country…Potatoe smugglers, hmmm. The Indian influence is very tangible in the culture and society but it’s interesting that the big building works are being done by China. There is an incredible looped overpass, the first of its kind in Nairobi which means that you can never get anywhere directly – you have to pass your destination first on a highway that’s tantalising close and then loop round and under and back on yourself. We did it 3 times today, I think Francis particularly delights in pointing out our destination as we pass it by, telling us we’ll be returning soon. I think the silliness of it tickles him.
The stories of 2 men; Francis, Austin. Francis is a taxi driver and has been driving me around Nairobi. He speaks Kikuye, Swahili and Enlish, and comes from central Kenya, where his family is. He moved to Narobi and got a job selling tea at his uncle’s kiosk for 2 shillings a day, 60 shillings a month. He learned how to drive and started driving for a paper mill. He managed to buy his own car and now works for himself. He lives in Nairobi in a room and sends back the money he makes for his wife and two children for higher eduction. His son is a computer engineer, could have been a graphic designer but decided against. His daughter wants to be a nurse, she wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the grades. When Francis was younger a barber managed to cut his head instead of his hair and his daughter has made it her personal mission to ensure she can look after him. He took me to his local place for food, chipati (indian influence again) and beef stew, and tea, happy days. I know this is not an unusual story, but still, it amazes me.
Austin is also a self-made man. I met him at the exchange bar of the Stanley Hotel, if you can imagine what the English colonialists would have built in 1902, I don’t think it has changed much since then – large leather arm chairs, fans…the whole gentleman’s-club-shebang. Austin hails from Aberdeen and is some kind of millionaire that started off as a butcher (he looks like he’s off to watch a game of football). His younger brother set-up in Singapore and he went out to help with a pub, it soon became a series of pubs, bars. It seems to have been a big success – he retired a number of years ago (he can’t be older than 50). And so now he travels, he drops by on his mum in Aberdeen long enough to buy her a Jaguar, and some rumps steaks, but then the cold gets to him and he has to head off for sunnier shores. To go back to the rump steak – as a butcher he knows how he likes it – he gets a 32 rump steak and gets it cut into 6 pieces, that and lemon sole, that’s all he eats… He’s bought land in an up-and-coming area in Nairobi, he doesn’t know what to do with it, but I think one day he hopes it will either make him some money or woo a wife. Yes, I learnt all this and more over a beer. I’d like to meet him again one day, his last words to me were unforgettable, “you see that’s what I believe, you use up here (he points at his head) for learning and down there (I was nervous at this point) for dancing.” I think I would like to include this in my epitaph.