Saturday, November 14, 2009

Nairobi Calls and Mr. Guy Responds

Somehow "I had a job in Africa" does not have quite the ring of Karen Blixen's "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills...."

But it must do.

And today I was driven to Karen, to see the beautiful Ngong Hills. A suburb of Nairobi, Karen is named for Karen Blixen and her house - which I saved for another day so I could have an appropriately reverential visit - is there.

I also, by way of adventure and as part of this same drive got to observe a large herd of cattle wandering all over the road and some distance away to enjoy a conversation between my driver and the Maasai herdsman as they talked about the herd's (apparent very natural) wandering ways. And they don't get lost.

The cattle viewing was one of several highlights of what started out to be an ordinary first excursion for this tourist, just in Nairobi for his third day (the first two days having been occupied with rather intense professional activities and recovering from jet lag). The request to my driver had been a simple "show me around." I wanted to be taken to the City Center (some several miles away from where I am living and work) to see what "downtown" Nairobi looks like, and to see if in reality "downtown" matches the rather crisp and clean maps displayed in the guidebooks (it doesn't).

The driver, picking up on my enthusiasm and my obvious interest in exploring anything new, took great pains to do more than just show me that part of Nairobi. We went there, of course, and I was not surprised at what I found: a rather busy place, city streets filled with many people, amazing traffic jams (and this was a Saturday! - what must it be link on a week-day?), open markets all over the place, modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers cheek and jowl with buildings - some rather stately - from a century ago, and government buildings everywhere. Apparently the Kenya government employs a great many people and government offices seem to inundate one complete section of the Nairobi City Center.

Then out of the major business/government district to Upper Hill, a neighborhood of many hospitals and medical centers, private medical facilities, and, again, many government buildings, many new or just being constructed. Then a continuing drive along crowded roads ducking in and out among buses, automobiles of every shape and size (and condition - we observed several situations where cars were broken down and men were pushing them along to get them off the road and/or started again), and the infamous matatus, minivans providing low-cost, ear-screeching, and what seems to be death-defying maneuvering in and out of traffic on the crowded roads. It's no wonder taxis are so many and so popular. Highways are terribly crowded, and if everyone owned an automobile the country would be paved over with idling vehicles not able to get anywhere. And yet there are still people walking all over the place, whether there is a pavement (sidewalk) or not. So obviously those who can get to them will try to use public transportation or the matatus. Or they'll walk.

Our drive through the city (and Nairobi is very spread out) was not a dangerous one though. My driver was obviously very experienced and very confident, and to watch him ease in and out among moving vehicles left this non-driving Manhattan-ite somewhat breathless, with both admiration and possibly a little fear as well.

I was taken to visit two of the Nairobi slums, including one that is reputed to be the second largest in Africa, only after Soweto in South Africa. I had been to Soweto some years ago, and while Soweto might have more numbers these slums simply defy description. We drove along both the main roads that serve as a sort of boundary for the slums and even - in one case - into and rather far along one of the roads that meandered in and out of the slum (and we weren't harrassed or given any odd stares, even though I was pretty obvious and we were in the only automobile on the road - which was packed with people, walking all over the place). Leaving this second slum, we drove up on to one of the hills overlooking this part of the city, and I could see - actually for as far as I could see - the vast size of the slum. It was an amazing and definitely unsettling experience.

Our next stop was very nice shopping center with good restaurants and coffee shops (of course) and a lunch of "sizzling chicken." I don't think I've ever had this before, hot chunks of chicken served with vegetables all cooking up together on a hot skillet that is brought to the table, with the dish spooned out over vegetable fried rice. Very nice, but whether it is a typically Kenyan dish or not is still a mystery to me (I was told it is); the vegetable fried rice and some of the spices made it seem vaguely Asian. But who knows? Or cares?

The day wore down (and just tin time, too, as a massive monsoon-type rainstorm came along not long after I got back to my hotel, and went on all night) and I ended my first day out by being driven through Karen to see the hills and incidentally to see the many private schools there, some quite extensive and evidently very well supported. Karen in where many of the descendants of the early English settlers live and, indeed, has for many generations been known as sort of the "community" for English expats, so I suppose many of the schools got their start back in the days when posh "public" schools were the standard. Beautiful to see, and impressive in the pursuit of academic training that provides Kenya's educated young people with the qualifications they require for leading this fascinating country.

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