Thursday, May 18, 2017

Kenya



I visited Nairobi in 2013 to attend the International Water Association's Water and Development Congress. As luck would have it, a friend and colleague at my university is from Nairobi and was gracious enough to let me stay with his family. Their hospitality was truly unforgettable, and I wasn't even allowed to help wash the dishes although I did try to pitch in when no one was looking!

My favorite part of visiting Nairobi was staying with my friend's family and spending time with them chatting around the kitchen table while preparing the day's meals, with Mexican tenovelas playing in the background. I remember one day, my friend's mom made this amazing vegetable dish using fresh coconut milk (sidenote: my friend's family are from Mombasa so coconut probably featured more prominently in the food they made than in other parts of Kenya), homemade chapati and fried fish marinated in chili and lemon juice. I was in food heaven. I later mentioned this to another colleague who was also attending the conference, and he was definitely a little bit jealous since he didn't get to stay with a family or get treated to such wonderful homemade meals. I've realized that as I get older, while I do enjoy "seeing the sights", the memories that usually stay with me are those personal connections and the rhythm of everyday life in another country.

My least favorite part was the traffic. You need to have a lot of guts to drive around Nairobi. Traffic lights are just a suggestion, and on the highway, due to the horrible traffic jams, off-roading becomes not a past-time but the only way to make it to your destination on time.

An aerial view of heavy traffic jam along Outer Ring Road in Nairobi. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE
Photo Credit: Jeff Angote for Nairobi News

Despite the traffic, I loved my experience in Nairobi. It's such a vibrant, fast-moving, rapidly changing city, and an economic and political hub for the entire region of East Africa. I say this with the utmost admiration, it is a city of and for hustlers in the best sense, in that almost everyone that I encountered had some kind of side business going or was seeking an opportunity to start one. An example of this was showcasing some local designers at a fashion show, a first for me at an academic conference. I liked the idea and the designs, especially the patterned fabric:

Fashion show at the conference gala dinner (October 2013)

My visit occurred shortly after the Westgate attack so people were on high alert and there were additional security measures in most places we visited. We had to go through metal detectors before entering shopping malls or hotels. Unfortunately, the attack deterred several participants from attending the conference and probably a number of other would-be visitors. While that wariness is understandable, it also highlighted to me some of the double standards that we apply to our notions of "safety" or "safe places". Many "developed" western European countries and Asian countries have unfortunately also been targets of terrorist attacks, but they do not generally experience wide-spread cancellations of travel plans as a result or get classified as dangerous unruly places. A similar response happened after the Ebola outbreak in many countries in West Africa. People coming or going to any African country were suspect, even though countries like South Africa which is thousands of miles away from the outbreak, never had any reported cases during that period while the US and Europe had multiple. As many of my friends would like me emphasize, Africa is not a country! On that note, I would highly highly recommend visiting Nairobi and other parts of Kenya which has so much to offer. Unfortunately, I only got a small taste of it during my two week visit so I'll have to go back for more.

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