Starving kids, their skeletal ribs pressing against dry brown skin, taut as a drum’s. Orange dust blows off a parched landscape in swirling ribbons while flat-topped thorn-bushes cast jagged shadows on the ground. Stands of withered maize droop. Women in technicolour batik wraps queue with emaciated infants hanging from their hips as aid workers in cargo pants disembark from white Toyota Land Cruisers and distribute food parcels. Gangster-warlords in hipster berets and Oakley shades sport AK-47s. Rape. Conflict diamonds. Sprawling slums with rusted tin sheeting. A never ending spiral of corruption, tribal infighting and resource wars.
Not so long ago, Africa’s image was more benign. Round mud-huts with thatched roofs. Tall Maasai warriors complete with assegai spears, rainbow beads about their necks and hair stained rust with ochre. Lions and zebras. The snowy heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro. White-smiled, ebony-skinned children beneath a searing tropical sun. The grassy expanse of the savannah. Dusk at the watering hole. A simpler time.
I love Kenya. I’ve been coming to the African continent on and off for more than ten years, and have spent a cumulative total of more than two of those years among sixteen-or-so African nations I’ve visited. But Kenya was the first, and I’ve always felt a certain closeness to the place. The East Africans in Kenya are some of the warmest, most exuberant people I’ve engaged with anywhere on earth, and the landscape is by parts gentle and rugged, but rarely dull. Nairobi is a city with an ugly facade but a vibrant heart, both a gateway and a hub.
I’m here now.
In Kenya, every man- however high or low his station- is a politician. I’m not in the cab from the airport more than ten minutes before my banter with the cab driver (“How is Nairobi at the moment?” “Nairobi is very fine!”) turns to a discussion on the merits of Mwai Kibaki’s rule and the changes that have come about since Moi’s regime was dismantled. Corruption is down. The police are more reliable- and out on the streets- and the crime rate has fallen. The economy is churning.
The biggest complaint I hear- and I hear it everywhere- is the traffic. I remember the road network in 2001. It was shoddy, potholed and governed by the maxim ‘might is right’. Vibrantly-hued minibuses with sound-systems so powerful you felt them before you heard them plowed up and down the laneways. Today the matatus are regulated, their colours bleached and replaced with a dull yellow stripe, but while the road network has been little changed, the volume of traffic has increased exponentially. Where a trip between Westlands and the city centre- three or four k’s- might once have taken fifteen or twenty minutes, it can now take over two hours in rush hour. Traffic snarls. The grid is locked. Exhaust belches, leaving the nostrils coated with grime, and drivers sit resigned, sending text messages while they wait. The new and somewhat perplexing 8-lane superhighway linking Nairobi with Thika and built by the Chinese does little to ease congestion in the city itself.
“In Kenya,” another taxi driver tells me, “They don’t like motorcycles. Everybody wants a car.”
It’s worse when it rains. I meet an old friend, C, and some of her mates outside the Java House Cafe at the Junction, a vast shopping mall that wouldn’t be out of place in a small US city. We’re joined a while later by K, who tells us he just spent forty-five minutes trying to navigate the 200 yards or so of the Ngong Road-Naivasha Road intersection to get into the place. We sit and chat. Around us is a cosmopolitan blend of Kenyans and expats- European, African and Asian. There are laptops and iPads making use of the free wifi. Groups are of varied ethnicities and backgrounds. Eclectic. Ours is no different. C, a Tanzanian, is part of the crew on a TV series in Dar-es-Salaam, and bemoans the impact that NGO-sponsored community messaging is destroying creativity in the East African film industry. K works as a political activist and campaigner, savvy and eloquent, and even in his youth expresses an awareness of the need to keep a low profile in his business; when his uncle passes by on his way to a meeting with the Prime Minister, K obligingly shakes his hand and shows the mzee due respect, but not before he’s quietly rolled his eyes at us. S, softly spoken and self-depricating, works as an administrator in the cut-flower industry- one of Kenya’s biggest. B, a white American who grew up out here, is back from the States for a few months and trying to get her small-aircraft pilot’s license.
My cab is forty-five minutes late as the rain pours down and the potholes fill. On the way back to the hotel, the driver echoes what I’ve heard before about domestic politics. He’s optimistic about Kibaki’s impact- nobody has a good thing to say about Moi, who pillaged the country and left a legacy of rampant crime and corruption- but there’s concern for the upcoming election season. The new County political system that’s recently been put in place was envisaged to try and avoid a repeat of the 2008 election upheaval that saw more than 2,000 people killed in community violence, but my driver says there’s still growing tension. He tells me he’s looking for a time when politics in Kenya is based on issues, not just ethnicity, and recounts candidly the time he and his daughter- then eight- had watched a Luo neighbour run down by a Kikuyu mob and beheaded. His daughter still goes to counselling. Still, he tells me after a pause, he is optimistic. The economy is strong, and there is good reason to hope. Like many Kenyans he expresses a belief in hard work. His family live in Thika, and he only sees them on the weekends, while during the week he drives his cab in Nairobi. When he dropped me off he still had the rest of the night to work.
The drive to the office takes us through Dagoretti Corner. The road is brimming with activity. Shacks house workshops producing wares that mound up at the side of the road like a Wal-Mart turned inside-out. Wrought-iron bedframes, mahogany furniture, tall slender statues of grassland animals, and pottery emblazoned with raucous colours. The avenue bustles. In the rain, umbrellas unfurl everywhere like a host of eager mushrooms. Out in an open field, there are always kids playing football, whatever time of day we pass.
Our office is well-lit and open-plan, far more pleasant a working environment than my home-base in Australia. There’s a staff of hundreds, and most are dressed far better than I. I only see one other white face my entire stay, but I feel at home. I talk operations, I talk finance, I talk strategy. My main counterpart here, M, is passionate about the concept of innovation.
“How do we innovate?” he asks me. “What are cutting edge ideas we can present to donors?”
At short notice I’m ushered into a meeting to present to a group who are working on a major submission. There’s a mix of our staff and some national government representatives. I’m only briefed on the composition as I’m being led to the room, and I’m quietly horrified. Ad hoc presentations to a couple of staff on operational issues is one thing, but suddenly I’m being asked to brief this team on how to write a cutting-edge design, on a sector I’ve never worked on, to a donor I don’t generally engage with. Somehow, there’s an unspoken assumption that as the token westerner in the building, I have pearls of wisdom to impart.
I don’t buy this, and I suspect they don’t either, but it’s something deeply engrained in the post-colonial mindset.
I fumble my way through a project tree analysis and state, in as many ways as I can, that the real experts in the room are the people I’m talking to. They listen politely. A young Kenyan on the far side of the room gently critiques my approach, and a few minutes later presents a wonderfully elegant alternative as part of his own presentation to the group.
Tonee Ndungu is slender and well spoken, with a rich intonation and vocabulary that would put most Australians of our generation to shame. He opens his talk with a TED presentation on changing educational paradigms, pausing it periodically to emphasise points before launching into the meat of his pitch. A born innovator and salesmen, he has us transfixed for the half hour he’s before us. His slideshow is textbook, infographical and trim, but it’s his ideas that have us locked on, and he’s caged them in such a simple yet comprehensive framework that it’s clear the level of thought and research that have gone into it.
Girl children are missing out on education, he says, but we assume that therefore we have to work harder to get them into schools. It’s a flawed assumption. Why not bring the schools to them?
He argues for the digitization of Kenya’s library of school textbooks, which can then be loaded onto cheap (<$100) solar-powered tablet computers, with access to books, chapters or pages paid for by the hour or day. His vision is to see these tablets (market models already exist) in the hands of every Kenyan schoolchild, right out to the furthest villages. The model is more profitable for the textbook companies (cutting out printing costs), cheaper for families (who can rent access to school material as and when needed), and most important of all, increases education penetration, allowing children (particularly girls) to access material when it’s convenient for them, not just in a school classroom.
The model is incredibly attractive, and not only that but has clearly been thought through to offer a win to all the stakeholders invovled- something that leaves many innovations falling flat when it’s not done. Whether or not it’s flawed- and I’m sure there are challenges in the mix, as there are with any idea- is in many ways irrelevant. I’m blown away by Tonee himself, and what he represents: a generation of out-of-the-box entrepreneurs, lateral- and critical- thinkers who are driving innovation in the Kenyan marketplace. Tonee’s presentation is as slick, confident and inspiring as any I’ve seen, anywhere.
We head out to the field. I watch the sun rise as we leave Nairobi, casting hordes of workers in dusty silhouette as they walk into town. Skeletal towers rise above the roadside waiting for giant billboards to be affixed. Traffic grinds, clogged by heavy trucks that power commerce and industry alike but make commuting miserable. I watch the sun turn mist silver behind strands of silhouetted acacia trees. We see giraffes and zebras off to the side of the road.
An hour out of town, M points to a vast fenced-off expanse to the right. It’s a new planned city, he explains. He and T, our driver, refer to it as Africa’s Silicon Valley. It’ll be a new development to help ease the pressure on Nairobi and provide an expansion for the growth that’s currently taking place. On the one hand it’s a shame to think of the waving grasses of the savannah being bulldozed into tech workshops and new housing. But this is the future, and as long as it’s regulated, nurtured, encouraged, there’s a lot of good that can be drawn from it.
After midday we’re halfway through the field visits. We’ve stopped at a school to visit some water installations. We’re forty-five minutes down a dirt track, somewhere not far off Tsavo National Park. The school is a collection of single-storey concrete blocks with holes for windows and kids in haggard uniforms. None the less I can get a cell-phone signal, and because in Australia it’s 7.30pm and therefore Magic’s bedtime back home, I call to say goodnight, while the kids eye me suspiciously as they eat their lunch.
The cell phone revolution in Africa is well attested to, but it’s none the less dramatic to see the change in such a short period of time. When I came in 2001, cell phones were just being introduced and were still limited in coverage and uptake. I can remember sitting at an internet cafe in Nairobi for 45 minutes to get a single HTML email to load on the web. This week I downloaded 8GB of an Anime series over my hotels’ free wifi network, and had I wanted to, could have checked my email in that school’s courtyard.
I chat with T and M in the car on the way back to Nairobi. The late afternoon light is full of drama, silver shafts cutting down past restless clouds and painting the landscape in mottled greens. M is voicing an interest in deploying to our emergency response in West Africa, and I learn he’s trying to pick up French. T, behind the wheel, periodically drops in phrases in French, and occasionally, Spanish. Both men are in their early thirties, and both go to night school after work, chasing more degrees. Their linguistic endeavours, while entertaining, don’t surprise me. Almost everyone in Kenya speak at least two languages- Kiswahili, and their tribal language. Those who have had a few years’ schooling will add English to that, and it’s not unusual to find those who speak one or two tribal languages other than their own, especially if they have worked multiple places in Kenya, and among those who’ve studied abroad, one, two or more colonial languages.
Kind of puts those of us in the UK, Australia and the US to shame, doesn’t it?
Compared to the overhauled Westgate Shopping Centre, the Sarit Centre’s now looking quite dowdy, with its bare concrete floors and dim lighting, and here the changes are subtle, but still evident. Flatscreen TVs now replace static billboards to advertise in shop windows. Outside the entrance to the Uchumi supermarket, the stall where you used to have to check your bags to ensure nobody was shoplifting has now disappeared. In its place is a Sony store selling top-end home electronics. A large billboard below the ceiling advertises Samsung’s latest foam washing machine, “Made for Africa”. Evidence of the power of this market is everywhere to be seen.
On Monday an explosion hits downtown Nairobi. A small shopping mall filled with stalls blows up. Local TV shows a small building emitting black smoke between glass-fronted high-rise towers. 35 people are injured, many of them seriously burned, and while initial reports blamed an electrical fault, the FBI are now investigating whether or not it was a low-yield fertilizer bomb. For the rest of the afternoon, Twitter is abuzz with local tweeps sharing their stories, punting their theories, and circulating links and photos about the #MoiAvenueBlast. One commentator wrily notes that a large crowd had immediately gathered at the scene of the explosion- highly inadvisable- and everybody had their cell phones out, recording the aftermath.
This isn’t Africa. It’s Kenya. It’s not even Kenya- just little snippets of Kenya, as seen by one white guy travelling through for a few weeks. I don’t want to be patronizing. I have no desire to set up a new stereotype. No desire to imply, either, that everything in Kenya is rosy, or high tech, or successful. Far from it. Poverty is deep here. The slums in Nairobi are some of the direst in the world. Last year’s food emergency in the north was devastating, and has been replaced this year by patchy rains that have helped out some communities and flooded others, while skipping out others entirely so that they continue to spiral into crisis. Grenade and IED attacks happen in various parts of the country on a weekly basis. While I enjoy meals with friends in cool stone manses in Karen, lush and green, I am painfully aware that I am exposed to the very privileged of this nation.
I’m not trying to give you a new stereotype. But I am trying to break down the old ones, add a little depth and complexity, another angle.
I’m not naive. Our perception of any place we’ve never seen is only ever going to be an amalgamation of the things we’ve read and heard. Our memory of a place we’ve been to will be a simplification of the sum of those memories, ordered subconciously into some image or recollection we can make sense of. Stereotypes and simplifications are simply the inevitable outworking of that process, and to some extent this is unavoidable in any perception we hold of a place, person or event.
But if our instinctive perception of a place is informed by what we’re shown of that place, then our perception of Africa will certainly be dominated by those narratives given us by mainstream media- of drought, fragility, violence and poverty. Or perhaps of wild animals and the natural beauty of the continent. Either one is a drastic and lazy oversimplification, and does no credit at all to the rich heritage of this vast and diverse place.
I hope this little piece offers a little more depth to the stereotype, a little colour to the narrative. It is partial, incomplete. It is just one tiny corner of this continent called Africa. But I hope it gives a little window to the fact that here in Nairobi, life goes on. Just like it does where you live.
Note: All photos my own. Photos 1 & 4- Niger. Photos 2 & 3- Kenya.