By all accounts I have read and heard, I knew Nairobi would be interesting…and a stretch. With over three million people, it is one of the biggest cities in Africa. Recent history has been turbulent with over 1,000 deaths and 600,000 displacements in 2007 due to post-election violence and many travel blogs offer warnings about petty crime. So, I arrived feeling cautious and became even more cautious when I learned that on my third day there, the first election nomination elections since the 2007 uprising were being held.
Many people use Nairobi as a gateway to safaris and do not spend much time exploring the city on their own. I had six days scheduled here so that I could go to Masai Mara for another safari, but when I arrived, I wasn’t inclined to spend the money or more time in a car and decided I would use the days to see other things and also just hang out a bit…feeling the pleasure of not being on the run.
My hotel, Khweza, is a small place where people really take the time to know you. They serve a custom ordered breakfast in your room and the whole place is decorated with interesting African touches. I probably got a bit too comfortable here because by the end of the week, I was also ordering dinner in my room and was burrowing in bed for amazing afternoon naps.
There is one thing I have learned about Africa…it makes you throw out all of your expectations about things. In most cases, I immediately feel at ease in a city. In Nairobi, my first day was filled with a subtle tension and I felt a bit off kilter. When working at the high school, there were days when you walked in the building and there was a certain buzz in the air…like something was going to happen that day…without being able to explain why, you just knew that before the end of the day, there was going to be a bit of drama or an altercation between students that would suddenly reset that negative vibe.
As you spend time in a city, you learn where to go and where not to go. On my first day, I passed areas with assertive salespeople who tried to pull me into their shops…areas I would avoid on future outings. The hotel told me to be careful of “Somalian areas,” but I was not sure how to tell what those were, so my high alert attitude was on all day. I was walking, but clearly missing the main area. I was in a small clothing store where Swahili music was blaring and all of a sudden, the music stopped and a clear, loud voice noted that the US State department had issued a travel warning to Kenya encouraging people to take extreme caution in the wake of terrorist threats. I kind of looked around to see if anyone else was listening, but then had one of those moments where I felt like the message was just for me. My unusual bit of internal discomfort and the well-timed message were enough to convince me that I would just enjoy an afternoon at the hotel…which I did.
As I walked back, I passed vans spreading political messages and saw a city COVERED with political posters….like nothing I have seen before. There is one poster than is especially interesting where the candidate in wearing gold rings on every finger and a has a neck covered in gold, too. It seems obtusely eccentric in a country with such poverty and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would put on this kind of political display. I asked around and according to my sources, the man is not only a former small time con-man, but also someone who publicly married the daughter of a known drug dealer. I was told that these opulent pictures are an example of how corruption is rampant and how some candidates don’t even try to hide it. I am not sure if that is fact or opinion, but I do know those posters were something to see.
My reading afternoon was leisurely and relaxed. I am enjoying a book called “Kisses from Katie” about a young girl who moves to Uganda where she opens a school and adopts loads of children…all before she is 25 years old. Her story is heartwarming, inspiring, and unsettling when you read accounts of the poverty she faces every day…children abandoned by death of parents, people left in hospitals with no care because they cannot pay small fees, starvation, illnesses…the list goes on, and Katie is in the middle of it all. As I read the first six chapters I felt like, “I could do that.” And…as I read the first six chapters I also felt like, “I could NEVER do that.” She is a strong, selfless, and faith-filled young woman and I can’t wait to read more.
The next day, election nominations were held. I decided to hire out the hotel car and driver….more money than I would usually spend when opting for the pleasure of public transportation. On this day, I just felt more comfortable outside of the city and in my own car. Muhammad was the driver and he made the rode to Hell’s Gate especially lovely by sharing stories about his family, picking up a special necklace for me when we made a rest stop, and sharing warm greetings with everyone we met along the way.
I was excited about Hell’s Gate because instead of visiting in a car, I could rent a bike and also hike low into the gorge area. Willis, who rented the bike to me, also came along as the guide that is recommended for the gorge hike. I was glad he was there because the area is not well marked and I am sure I would have been lost without him. We biked for a total of 20 kilometers through fields of zebras, gazelles, giraffes, and warthogs and hiked for 5K. There were so many zebras…I loved that. Honestly, it was my favorite way to enjoy the parks here.
Last year, my cousin Maria did a mission trip to work in a school in Nairobi. She put me in touch with someone working there now, so I could stop in for a visit. I spent Friday morning hanging out at the school and doing a tiny bit of teaching. The kids were sweet and open and full of love…but also serious about their work and anxious to learn. While they did not have many resources, and likely were facing things far beyond my imagination, the open engagement with life was powerful. Ben, who is volunteering from the US, did a great job of organizing the school day and connecting with the kids. Cool for me…he is living in Westmont and we will try to find ways to connect my future students with this school to build relationships and support systems. That will be so cool! I love when new doors open!
On Saturday, I ventured back into downtown and it was amazing! All of the buzzy anxiousness of the other day had passed. No more politician mobiles blaring. The streets felt positive. I was in my city element again…happily visiting the market and doing my first real shopping of the entire trip….and it was a bit ridiculous. I think I got swept up into the fun of bargaining and always get excited about buying gifts for others, but my suitcase and extra carry-on are stuffed to capacity now. I am shipping myself a box from Australia so I think that gave me a mental carte blanche to make purchases that I would never otherwise want to carry. It was a great day and I was happy that my perception of Nairobi turned around.
On Sunday, I was not traveling, so I went to church. Being raised Catholic, I spent years practicing being quiet in church, so places of worship with rousing outward expressions of faith are a work in progress for me, but I like them, but I am not always 100% comfortable…which I like, too! Being in Africa has given me a view of being a minority in a new way. In most places, because of my olive skin color, I can fit in. I have been mistaken for Spanish, Latin American, Egyptian, Indian, and find that the only usual surprise for people is when I try to convince them that I really am half Polish. In many places in Africa, I am the only white face in the crowd, and that was the case at church today. I am very comfortable, but is just harder to blend in and be invisible.
The service was powerful with people actively worshiping and revealing some of their addiction issues. The pastor called people to move toward the front of the church, and while I tried to stay in my seat in the back, a woman came and encouraged me to move forward. She didn’t just encourage…I think she wasn’t moving until I did. People were praying, falling to the ground, screaming…experiencing spiritual moments I had never witnessed before…calling out their battles with prostitution, drugs and alcohol for public prayer. While parts of the service were so different, I really appreciated the transparency of the people. I thought about how many of us sit in churches with much smaller issues that we would be too embarrassed to bring forward like that…for fear of being judged. Here…there were women and men who shared the most private parts of their lives…without fear and with the support of their church community.
I wanted to stay for the entire service, but after two hours and 18 minutes…the exact moment when I looked at my clock and realized I couldn’t sit anymore, I tried to slide out-with the full knowledge that it would not be easy. As I walked out the door, a woman followed after me to tell me that I was welcome to come back and ask if she could pray for me. We shared a nice moment as I listened to the congregation start to walk out of the service that ended after two hours and 20 minutes.
Tomorrow…I am traveling to Melbourne, Australia. Honestly, I can’t believe it. I am sad to leave Africa. It has been the hardest travel of my life, but the effort needed makes it feel gritty cool! I am captivated by the people…their culture, their faith, their lives. At the same time, there are things that make me feel sad and guilty for having so much while some people don’t. The opportunities and open doors before us in the States are never far from my thoughts and not a day goes by when someone isn’t telling me of their dream to visit America (or as Kenyans call it… “Obama-land”) someday.
I am a bit refreshed after Nairobi nap times. In fact, I napped so hard today that I Googled symptoms of sleeping disease caused by Tsetse fly bites…just in case. Luckily, I don’t have all the other symptoms…just a relaxed state of mind, I guess!