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Nairobi, City of the Witty

nairoby-city-of-the-witty

The Capital of Kenya

Nairobi is the Capital City of Kenya and an important East African business hub. The city is increasingly taking on a modern look that is associated with developed countries. There are high-rise buildings that are not just tall but exquisitely executed; dual carriage highways that fly over each other and public parks that offer space for retreats and recreation.

Visitors are awed by the efficient privately run public transport system known as Matatu and the availability of WIFI everywhere for free. All hotels and restaurants worth their names have free WIFI as do some of the Matatus. All you need is to request for the password if it is not already posted on the wall somewhere.

Nairobi has its place in the World book of records. It is the only city in the world with a game reserve that is only 16 kilometers from the City Center. Visitors to Nairobi are surprised that one starts to see wildlife, especially zebras, warthogs and monkeys on their way from the airport to the city center. That is beside the herds of elephant, wildebeest, antelopes and their predators that are made of metal and scattered in the periphery of the airport.

Besides wildlife, you may be lucky to see herds of cattle within a 5 kilometer radius of the city that apparently take themselves out to graze and then take themselves back home, wherever that is, without the help of a herdsman. Interestingly, despite Nairobi’s traffic and the carefree attitude of motorcyclists, accidents that involve cattle are almost unheard off – at least not in Nairobi. It seems motorists would rather knock down a human being than destroy potential meat. Yet I have seen these beasts cross the road without first looking left, right, then left again.

Visitors report that the people of Nairobi are friendly and always willing to help. That is true for about 95 percent of them. These are the ones who faithfully report to the city everyday to open their shops, stalls, kiosks or work in offices, restaurants and cafes. There is a small percentage, as can be expected of any big city, that believe they are witty and deserving of other people’s property. This is the small number that tarnish the name of our city with their bad ways.

Seat of the County Government of Nairobi

City Hall - the seat of the County Government of Nairobi

City Hall - the seat of the County Government of Nairobi

The climate

Nairobi can be fairly cool, most of the time due to the high altitude and the lush vegetation that has been maintained in parks and several forests. Thanks to activists who have fought hard to stop encroachment of Karura forest, Ngong forest, woodlands in Karen and other patches around the city. There was once a concerted effort to green the city, when trees that still stand today were planted along the streets. A new forested park was created along the course of Nairobi river just below the Nairobi National Museum.

The name Nairobi comes from a Maasai word that means ‘place of cool waters.’ Before the Uganda railway Engineers identified Nairobi as a suitable place to build a station, the terrain was flat marshy grazing ground for Maasai cattle. Obviously the wildlife now occupying only a small patch of the National Park roamed freely and unhindered in all of what is Nairobi City. The marshes had to be drained with the help of Eucalyptus trees that had been imported from Australia by Colonel Ewart Grogan among other settlers. Grogan built the Getrude’s Children Hospital in honour of his wife who died in 1943. This hospital now has seven branches around the City.

Many visitors report that Nairobi is cold, especially during nights, much more than they expected to find in a city in the tropics. For visitors coming from wintry conditions, the Nairobi climate is just right – not too cold and not too hot either. June/July, temperatures can be as low as 13 degrees Celsius with highs of 23. The warmest period is between January and February with highs of up to 28 degrees Celsius. Before climate change started to make its presence known in Nairobi, August was a hot month but is no longer predictable.

Nairobi Water Basin

Several rivers that form the Nairobi River basin run through the city to drain in the Athi River. They are however throughly polluted and not good for anything for now. The government has formed a body to look into ways of cleaning up the basin and ease the pain of the large population that relies on the waters of the Athi downstream. Below is a full list of rivers in the Nairobi basin:

1. Gathara-ini - This river’s source is in Kanunga in Kiambu and has been dammed at ‘paradise Lost Resort’. It has lent its name to the housing estate of Kasarani and ultra-modern Kasarani Sports Centre.

2. Karura – Rises in Limuru and lends its name to karura forest that was defended by the late Wangari Maathai from land grabbers

3. Rwaka – Rises in Limuru and has lent its name to a residential area by that name

4. Rwaraka - This river was known as the ‘rui rwa aka’ - women’s river, in the Kikuyu language. The name was adopted into Swahili as Rwaraka. Its tributaries are the Karura and Rwaka rivers.

6. Kibagare – Rises in Kangemi area about 12 kilometers from the city and later joins Mathari

6. Gitathuru – Rises in Limuru and is later joins Mathare. It has lent its name to the Kitisuru residential area.

7. MathariRises in Limuru. It is damned at Kabete as the kabete dam and has lent its name to one of the biggest slums in Kenya – Mathare.

8. The Nairobi River – Rises in ondiri swamp in Kikuyu. It cuts right across the City Center, below the Nairobi National Museum, through Ngara and the business area of Gikomba. As the main river in the Nairobi River Basin, it is polluted enormously is a matter of grave concern.

9. The Ngong river – It is called Motoine at at its source in the Ngong hills. It has lent its name to the Ngong residential area. Like the mathari river, it has slums on its banks – mukuru, fuata nyayo and Sinai.

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10. Mbagathi – It rises in Kibiku Ngong in the same area as the River Athi.

11. The Athi River – all the rivers in the Nairobi river basin are tributaries of the Athi. It flows across the Kapote and Athi plains and has lent its name to the Athi River Town. It forms the famous Fourteen falls at Thika town. In some areas down stream it is known as the Galana or the Sabaki, flowing all the way to the Indian Ocean.

As can be seen, the Nairobi river basin contributes its waters to numerous Kenyans all the way to the Coast. It is therefore imperative that the pollution that has gone out of control is totally curtailed.

A section of the Ololua Nature Trail in Karen

A section of the Ololua Nature Trail in Karen

A water fall in the Ololua Nature Trail, Karen

A water fall in the Ololua Nature Trail, Karen

Gikomba Mitumba Market

As a commercial hub, Nairobi has the biggest second hand clothes market in East Africa called Gikomba. Traders come from all parts of Kenya, and even from the neighbouring countries to purchase bales of this fast moving commodity. To spur growth in local garment production, the sister state of Rwanda banned the sale of mitumbas as second hand clothes are called. Kenya has made threats to do the same for a number of years now. In the meantime, the business thrives.

A shop with second hand clothes - Mitumba

A shop with second hand clothes - Mitumba

Eastleigh – a wholesaler’s and retailer’s paradise

Eastleigh, probably named after a suburb in Britain, is home to Kenyans of Somali origins for historical reasons. It has also attracted migrant Somalis from the volatile state of Somalia who blend in seamlessly with the locals. Eastleigh however, is probably the face of Kenya, more than any other suburb in Nairobi. Every Kenyan community is represented in the trading that takes place in malls, basements, corridors and even on the streets. Wares for sale in wholesale are usually in stores within the buildings. Wares for retail are both in the buildings and in wheel burrows on the streets. Buyers, motorcyclists and matatus jostle for the little remaining space on the tarmac. There is always a carnival atmosphere in Eastleigh which gets worse just before Islamic Idd holidays and the Christmas season. If Nairobi is a business hub, Eastleigh is the epicenter. In case you want to start a business and don’t know which one, just go to Eastleigh and spend a whole day soaking up the trading. By the end of the day you will have even identified a trade and a supplier.

For those who want to import goods from China, several Import/Export agents have their businesses in the former ‘Eastleigh Garage.’ For goods imported by air, charges are per kilo, with 5Kg as the base. For goods coming in as sea freight, charges are per cubic meter with 0.1 cubic meter as the base.

Eastleigh – Nairobi’s spice island

Need spices? No need to fly to Zanzibar. There is not a spice that you can find in Zanzibar that is not available in Eastleigh. Below is a list of spices I have identified in Eastleigh:

Pepper, Thyme, Coriander, Bay leaves, Cinnamon, Rosemary, Ginger, Basil, Nutmeg, Mint, Turmeric, Dill, Cumin, Cloves, Cardamom, Star Anise, Fenugreek, Saffron, Vanilla and Fennel seeds.

There are many other spices that I could not identify but will in due course. They also stock coffee berries, jaggery – unrefined sugar blocks, gum-arabic and baobab seeds which I doubt can be categorized as spices.

Vasco da gama would be envious of Kenyans who can find every spice in Eastleigh without looking for a sea route to India.

A wide array of spices in Eastleigh,

A wide array of spices in Eastleigh,

The Matatu Culture

This is the name of the privately owned public transport minivans, minibuses and buses that ply all the routes in Kenya. Interestingly long distance buses that are well branded and belong to Limited liability companies are not referred to as matatus. The word Matatu is asociated with a carefree attitude, disregard for traffic rules, a penchant for bullying other road users and using bribes as a business management tool much to the delight of errant traffic police officers. The law is clear about where passengers should be picked and dropped but laws are there to be broken, right? Matatus pick passengers at any spot along the way and drop them at any sport that is desired by the passenger. Occasionaly traffic officers perform a clampdown on law breakers, but the passengers and the Matatu operators know that ‘things will soon get back to normal’.

Matatus are admired by visitors for their ‘body art,’ additional external lighting and the loud music within. The inclusion of video to the music has earned them the moniker – disco on wheels. Be warned that sometimes the videos can border on ‘sleezy’ so you are well advised to avoid the ones with video when you are accompanied by minors. Requesting the driver to lower the volume will get you nowhere. The conductor might embarrass you by pointing to a sticker that says “if the music is too loud, your are too old.” What this Matatu operators forget is that by the time they are ‘organically old’ they will most probably be deaf as a result of exposure to loud noise for most of their working life.

The one major draw back of leaving public transport to the private sector is that profit overrides all other considerations. When it rains, the fares are raised. When petrol goes up by 2 shillings, fare is raised by 10 or 20 shillings. Never mind that the 2 shillings increased on the fuel are shared by 13 passengers in minibuses and up to 24 in the larger ‘lorries that were expertly converted into buses.’

If you want to have some control of your travels within the city, use the taxis that are hailed online using a mobile app. Some of the taxi hailing apps in operation in Kenya include Uber, Bolt, Little Cab, Farasi and Click Clubs.

A Matatu passenger vehicle

A Matatu passenger vehicle

Notice the yellow line minivan matatu followed by the red 'big brother'

Notice the yellow line minivan matatu followed by the red 'big brother'

Border Border (Motorbike) Transport

A Border Border is a motorbike that is used to ferry passengers from one corner or end of town to another. If you thought Matatus are prone to circumventing the rules, Border Borders bend them, spit on them and throw them out the window. To make a long story short, below is a list of regulations that they are supposed to follow:

  • All motorists and cyclists to drive on the left side

    Border Borders keep left most of the time, but depending on circumstances, they use the side of road that will keep them moving. Borders borders believe that they are emergency vehicles in the same category as ambulances and fire-brigades.

  • When you get involved in an accident, stop

    Border Border riders do stop when they are involved in an accident – on one condition; that they have weighed the situation in a split second and determined that it is not their fault but the fault of the other motorist. That is when you will know they have clout. Every other passing Border Border will stop, even if it means ejecting a passenger. Within ten minutes there will be such as large caucus of riders who will all be in agreement that their compatriot has been wronged and should be compensated. For the motorist, it will be a case of the “cockroach in a court presided by chicken.”

  • Go clockwise when on a roundabout

    Tell it to the wind. If traffic is obstructing on the clockwise side, Border Borders will go anticlockwise, even in the presence of traffic police officers. I once asked a police officers why Border Borders were allowed to break traffic rules. His response was – “we left them to the devil.”

  • Carry one passenger at a time

    It sounds like common sense, right. Well common sense isn’t so common. Border Borders can carry two, three and even four passengers. In Kisumu I witnessed one who had five passengers, some of them being children, which does not make the crime any smaller.

  • The Motorcycle rider and the passenger must wear a helmet

This is where the Border Border riders approach a mean score, but not enough to pass.

A good proportion have helmets, reflector jackets, gloves and knee pads. Very few have a helmet for their passengers and when they do, it is so filthy that the passenger ends up carrying it under the armpit. Some perennial passengers carry their own helmets.

I heard from the grapevine that some of the helmets have been purchased from dubious sources and do not meet the standards set by the Kenya Bureau of Standards. They are a decoration on the head that hoodwinks police officers that the rider is within the law, but when an accident occurs, something bad happens to the rider’s head.

  • Last but not least – A rider must have a valid driving silence

    Unfortunately many of the riders do not have valid licenses for their category of motorized vehicle. Driving schools charge good money to take your through the highway code and practical driving or in this case, riding, on public roads. After all, they have rent and workers to pay besides other overheads.

    There is a category of trainers whose only facility is an open field. They charge a pittance that anybody can afford and by the time you leave their hands in the late evening, you have the relevant skills to carry a passenger while still maintaining your balance on a straight or circular motion. When it comes to taking corners, that is left to the laws of weight, motion and speed to teach you when the time comes. Many riders pick up some basics of the highway code long after they started carrying passengers.

Motorcycle accidents in Kenya are so frequent that almost every hospital worth its name now has a special ward for motorcycle victims.

If you must travel by Border Border, take the one that is hailed on-line with a mobile app. You can be sure that the vetting done to put riders on the platform is stringent enough for your own safety. Safeboda is a good example.

Border Border Riders

Border Border riders waiting for customers. Note the lack of helmets

Border Border riders waiting for customers. Note the lack of helmets

Border Border wait strategically at road intersections

Border Border wait strategically at road intersections

Nairobians, going about their business

Nairobians, going about their business

The Choice of Hotels is Great, from the Starless to the Five star with Presidential Suits

The Nairobi Safari Club in Lilian Towers - one of the five star hotels

The Nairobi Safari Club in Lilian Towers - one of the five star hotels

The Four Star Meridian Hotel

The Four Star Meridian Hotel

The famous Hilton Hotel, closed in Jan 2023

The famous Hilton Hotel, closed in Jan 2023

On the far left, the 680 Hotel on Kenyatta Avenue

On the far left, the 680 Hotel on Kenyatta Avenue

Nairobi's Wildlife

The Nairobi National Park is managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service. It is fenced off to keep the animals in and poachers out. But small mammals such as warthogs and monkeys do not respect the fence and can be seen outside the designated areas. Since they are not harmful to humans no one bothers about their breach of territory.

At the parking spaces near the entrance, families of baboons interact freely with visitors who are trying to find their way to the ticketing office, occasionally stealing snacks by snatching them from children. Within National Park animals roam free so you have to be in a vehicle for your safety during the game drive. Those not keen on driving through the park can see caged animals in a section known as the Nairobi orphanage. Hosted here are leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, serval cats, Sokoke cats, warthogs, lions and buffalo. The orphanage also hosts some birds that include the crested crane, parrots guinea fowls and ostriches. Animals at the orphanage are there for treatment after an ailment or injury.

There is also A Nairobi Safari Walk – a raised wooden platform that takes you on a tour of a section with selected animals that appear to roam free, though the design is such that they cannot get to you. For example the fencing around where the buffaloes are grazing has a trench on the inside. In another section a hippo has suitable a water environment that is mean on acreage. The animals that get a really raw deal in the Nairobi Safari Walk are the Colobus Monkeys. They are truly caged and don’t look too happy about it. Especially since the cage allows humans very close, leaving these – our cousins – with very little privacy.

A water body at the entrance to the Nairobi Nature Walk

A water body at the entrance to the Nairobi Nature Walk

 A hippo snoozing in its corner at the Nairobi Nature Walk

A hippo snoozing in its corner at the Nairobi Nature Walk

A mother and her daughters on the Nairobi Nature walk. Notice two buffaloes in the background

A mother and her daughters on the Nairobi Nature walk. Notice two buffaloes in the background

A colobus Monkey at the Nairobi Nature Walk

A colobus Monkey at the Nairobi Nature Walk

Traders on Pavements

Ideally if you want to trade in Nairobi, you have three options – rent a shop or space within a shop, rent a stall in any one of the markets that have been built by the County council or be a hawker and move from door to door with your wares. In Nairobi the term hawker takes on another meaning all together. It refers to both those who move from door to door and those who, tired of moving jostle for space on the pavements, outside shop entrances. In some streets they form a long train, constraining pedestrians who now have little walking room and annoying shopkeepers whose entrances have a bottlenecked access. Of course the latter ‘squatter’ variety of hawker is illegal. So why aren’t they arrested? They make doing business difficult for shop owners who not only pay rent and silences to the County Government, but also pay taxes.

The hawker problem is mainly due to Kenya’s cycle of elections, every five years. About two years to an election, these Squatter Hawkers are actually encouraged to do business on the streets because, politicians see votes in them. After elections it takes about a year for the new administration to gather the courage to enforce the law. By now the hawker problem is big so it takes the council security officers and the National Police Service to attempt to remove them. Of course the hawkers don’t want a disruption of their businesses after three or so years of tax-free, rent-free profiteering on the streets, so they fight back. This paralyzes normal business so the war is intermittent to allow for periods of peace when other Nairobians can go about their business with a semblance of normality. After about two years of on and off skirmishes, the next election is round the corner and votes be sought. Hawkers are a voting block with votes perceived to be in hand and must be protected. And so the Squatter Hawker remain on the street for another term.

The Squatter Hawker hawks everything – shoes, clothes, fruit and vegetables, toys, kitchenware – name it, they have it somewhere, if not on this street then on the next one.

A street hawker of shoes

A street hawker of shoes

Street vendors

Street vendors

Non Motorised Transport

A handcart pusher or puller - one of the small scale services for traders in the City

A handcart pusher or puller - one of the small scale services for traders in the City

You might be lucky to see a horse rider and camel riders in Nairobi. They are used to give rides to children in entertainment joints

You might be lucky to see a horse rider and camel riders in Nairobi. They are used to give rides to children in entertainment joints

Every Big City has Hazards

While in Nairobi, be conscious of your surroundings at all times. The following are some of the hazards to look out for:

Phone Snatchers – They will sneak on you when you are on phone, snatch it and wade through cars to disappear in a side street. If you have to talk on your phone, don’t do it while walking. Stop and stand against a wall so you can see all around you. The phone snatcher will look for easier prey.

When riding in a bus , do not use your phone next to a window even if the window is closed. The thugs use enough force to open a window in a split second and take off with your phone while you are still in mid sentence.

Drink spikers – Nairobi is famous for its vibrant night life. do not go alone, and if you do, finish every drink before visiting the loos. Your drink can get spiked and guy or lady that comes to help you out “because you are too drunk to go on your own” is part of the spiking enterprise. Befriending a lady that was not part of your company could also put you in the spiking danger. The spiking cartel can involve a bartender, a waiter, a twilight girl and the watchman at the main gate. The business is lacerative (for the criminal) which is why it is rampant in all major Kenyan Cities and towns. Even a soft drink can be spiked so do not be complacent just because you are a teetotaler.

There was a time when the trend was to drug passengers in a bus. A very friendly guy would sit next to you while sipping juice from a can. Then he would strike a conversation with you and in no time, your new friend fishes out a drink, similar to the one he is drinking and offers it to you. Quite a number of youths who had been well targeted never said no to the drink. When they came-to, usually in a hospital ward, they had been robbed off mobile phone and valuables but could not remember what happened. In some cases, the thugs even acted ‘good Samaritan’ and delivered the dazed fellow home, only to clean out the house off every valuable item. Some people are knocked out by these drugs for days!

Notoriously driven motorbikes

We have covered the Border Border motorcycle, but unfortunately they still make it to the hazards list. Remember they rocket any which way and go clockwise or anticlockwise in roundabouts. That is what makes them hazardous. You may be looking out for vehicles on the right side before crossing a road because that is where they should be coming from if the driver is keeping left. Then out of the blues a motorcycle sneaks on you from your left side. Motorcycle riders also avoid using their brakes for reasons only known to them so when they do sneak on you, you are the one who will make a dash for your life. So when in Nairobi City, expect that a motorcyclist can come from in front of you, from behind your, from your right and even from your left. If you get hit, it will be your word against his, that is if he magnanimously stops to argue.

Conclusions

Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and is host to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) at Gigiri. It is a paradise, no doubt. A city that did not exist before 1900. It owes its inception to the arrival of the Uganda Railway whose construction had started at the port of Mombasa in 1895. We know Nairobi is a magnet by the number of tourists, both local and foreign who flock in especially during the December holiday season. It has a tantalising local cuisine for the adventurer and an international cuisine for those that want the familiar. Hotels range from the one star bed and breakfast to several five star hotels with presidential suits. Iit is well worth a visit

Foreign correspondents who want to cover the East African region make Nairobi their headquarters mostly due to its modern and highly developed communications infrastructure. With 4G internet and 5G in the works, you can post your vlogs live and on the go.

Nairobi, here we come !

References

References

http://www.kws.go.ke/park-type/animal-orphanage

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ewart_Grogan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ewart_Grogan

https://kenyangeography.com/a-guide-to-nairobis-rivers-and-streams

https://kenyangeography.com/a-guide-to-nairobis-rivers-and-streams

Places of Worship for Muslims and Christians

A rear view of the Jamia Mosque

A rear view of the Jamia Mosque

The Holy Family Basilica

The Holy Family Basilica

Besides New and Modern Supermarkets, the Old Market that Grew with the City Still Stands

The colonial style City Market, very decorated for a gazetted building.

The colonial style City Market, very decorated for a gazetted building.

A frontal view of the City Market

A frontal view of the City Market

A colonial style building, gazzeted as a National Monument but still in use as a bank

A colonial style building, gazzeted as a National Monument but still in use as a bank

© 2023 Emmanuel Kariuki

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