Reflections on holiday travel 2011: Part 1, Kenya

First trans-atlantic travel in almost 20 years, first time in Kenya in 17 years although I was Kenyan birth. See I am what is referred to as a TCK i.e. a ‘third culture kid’ in cultural studies–this is because I’m Kenyan born, grew up in France, but have lived most of my life in the USA.  So for better or worse (I think better) I don’t necessarily identify myself exclusively with one flag or culture.  Still it was good to travel to Africa, and yes, I experienced reverse culture shock.  It was short-lived though, and by the time I was leaving I felt at home.  I think one quality about myself I”m noticing is that I am able to adapt, or to “feel at home” to different environments quickly.  Perhaps it’s as a result of the aforementioned travels, but also because of the many roommates I had from age 18, when I stopped living in a conventional family setting.  Anyway, for me three things were notable about Kenya–the poverty, the ‘organized chaos’, and also how in other ways it was remarkably similar to a typical Western city.

Poverty

There is a lot of poverty in Nairobi.  A lot of slums all over the place, perhaps I’m using the word loosely here–but its challenging for me to describe places I saw in any other way (I should have taken more photos).  Anyway, Nairobi has the Kibera slums, one of the largest in the world. Other than a few suburban havens, you’ll see the poverty everywhere mixed in with regular life.  I drove to my cousins place in the other end of town once, and then at night at another time to another cousins, and was dazed looking out the window.  In fact, the family house was an example of such a place–it is in a nice area of Nairobi (Westlands), yet behind the large backyard, there was a  slum. The district office where I went to obtain some documents had people living at the back of the compound in “city huts” (basically makeshift housing, no electricity–but not mud houses with straw and mud–you see lots of this in Nairobi).

This is the most extreme example, Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world. However, smaller scale setups like these can be found in many places in Nairibo.

Backyard of the family house in Nairobi, Kenya. There's a small slum behind it.

While I’m discussing slums here, I’d like to stress that I’m talking about the environment (compared to the sanitized Washington DC environments), and financial status.   There was not a sense of anarchy, gang-warfare, or anything.   While I’ve been told Nairobi has a fair share of carjackings and robberies, but for me it is not that because of the poverty there was an underlying sense of terror everywhere.  Life goes on.  These slums/poor outposts (I’m not finding a way to accurately describe them!) had restaurants, enterprising businesses, clubs, etc.  In Nairobi this is part of the environment. But I didn’t detect that people were *suffering* or waddling in misery necessarily–if anything I found the whole vibe there to be LESS stressful than here in DC.  I think many who participate in OWS protests don’t know how good they have it frankly, much stress here in the US is because of a sense of entitlement and self-created but I won’t get into that here.

Organized Chaos

Another aspect of Nairobi was what I’d describe as organized chaos. I say chaos because relative to home here in Washington DC, things are not as ordered and predictable. This is seen in various ways such as architecture, roads, driving, police behavior, etc  As described above with the slums, there is no zoning really.  Apartment complexes spring up anywhere…..you’ll see Korean and Japanese restaurants in residential areas (also with the same fences and gates).    For example, everyone wants money for everything they do–the guard at an an embassy wants money, the guy that helps you at the airport load your bag wants money, etc etc. People there have learned to live with it, they get to learn the rules, how much to give, when not to give, etc.  It’s a reinforcing cycle as sometimes you’ll have to give a little just to make sure for example the parking attendant doesn’t vandalize your car, but doing that solidifies his expectation and so on.  This is not ideal, but if nothing else, at least it is open and known in the open.  The driving in Nairobi is crazy, but not nerve-wracking like in Cairo which I’ll write about in the next blog.  I’d say it’s about the same as in Italy, where I found the driving tough too.

Just like the West

Despite such difference, in other ways it’s just like any other city I’ve lived in.  Some nightclubs are playing house music.  There’s LG outlets with the latest flat screen TVs.  There’s coffee hangout spots like Starbucks (called Java House there). Basically, if you have the money, there’s nothing you can’t find.  This might seem like something obvious to state, but its easy to get caught in perceptions of places that are not classified as “advanced nations”.  Again life goes on.

In ending I strongly I recommend that if you live in a Western city, that you do your best to travel to a non-western city at least once in your life.  It’s eye-opening to see how others live.  Grateful to live in Washington DC, appreciate the people and the circumstances that have made it so. Also I had a blast in Nairobi, catching up with cousins and old friends–interesting how it did not feel like I’d been away almost 20 years, I think this is because of facebook, which has eliminated barriers of distance. There’s a lot more to Kenya than all of this, but this was just a sampling of observations I had, feel free to drop any observations in the comments.  Hope to share reflections on the Egypt leg of the trip within a week– look out for it!

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