My view from Nairobi

In Home Life, International Development, Kenya, Travel on October 24, 2011 at 9:42 am

24 October, 2011 Nairobi, Kenya

This has been the weirdest trip on the overall spectrum of my 2011 trips, all to Africa. January, N’Djamena Chad, 3 weeks. August-Sept, Ethiopia, 3 weeks. October, Nairobi Kenya, 3 weeks. I say Nairobi because that is where I have mostly stayed – my NGO has no real operations in Kenya and what I’m working on involves places where I can’t travel.

I’m here to shepherd my NGO’s relief efforts in Somalia. Maybe some day I’ll move my blog to an anonymous format where you don’t know who I am and who I work for, and then I’ll feel more free to write about what I really want to write about…

So I’ll just stick to venting a little on being a traveling dad again. It just plain sucks, no doubt about it. The trip started out as a voyage to a relatively mundane, well known and well travelled and documented place – Nairobi. I almost don’t feel like writing about it because there has been SO much written about Nairobi. It’s the quintessential, anglophone-friendly stand-in for an African city. What could I bring to the conversation? I haven’t really had the time or motivation, and now I do not have the nerve, to go out exploring too much on my own and meet Nairobi like I have in other cities I’ve visited.

The main issue is that the reason I came here ended up making my trip a little more restrictive, stressful, and annoying. Somalia is a mess because of Al Shabaab. Somalis have been experiencing a famine exacerbated by a messianic cult cutting off people’s access to their livelihoods. Somali pirates have been taking advantage of the instability to venture into Kenya’s territory and kidnap foreigners for ransom. Kenya sees these kidnappings as attacks on their sovereignty and as a risk to their tourist-led economic growth. Therefore, Kenya saw fit to attack Somalia and beat back Al Shabaab and the pirates further away from their borders.

In general, I think the Kenya invasion is a good thing, and one Somali-Kenyan friend of mine thought it was too, and implied that his community was in support of it. However, it’s more complicated than that. There are Al Shabaab sympathizers here in Nairobi, here because they want to mess with Kenya, and they have promised mayhem and retaliation.

I would say that in general, I’m about as safe as I am in New York or Washington DC on 9/11. The Kenyan military, not as bound by civil rights laws as in America, has cracked down and rounded up “illegal” Somali’s in Nairobi. But that doesn’t lower my stress level, and it certainly kills any motivation I have to leave the hotel on foot or go to other, cheaper places to eat than my hotel.

In general, this is par for the course in international development. We work in unstable places where bad things can happen. But this is just an annoying trip where the circumstances changed in the middle. My friends and family members saw on the CNN website a sensationalist headline warning Americans about “imminent attacks” on us in Nairobi, which caused a flurry of emails and frightened calls, which is totally understandable. The other thing is that on the home front, my kids have been sick a lot, my son’s got his first two new teeth, and it’s just damn hard to Skype home and be interested and present in the job I was sent here to do, especially with the other extenuating circumstances that I should just not write about.

So that’s where I’m coming from and how I’m feeling now. I needed to get that out of my system before I wrote anything else.

I did get out and about over the weekend, I got to see the “Out of Africa” house of Karen Blixon, as well as check out some of the various animals in medium captivity here in the Nairobi national park. Yesterday, I got to hang out at a kind of garden restaurant on the outskirts of Nairobi where a lot of expats hang out. The atmosphere was very festive, with many many families present – large tents were set up with widescreen TV’s, and a seemingly equal measure of French and New Zealand fans would roar as the momentum changed. There were lots of kids running around, the restaurant had a bounce-house set up for the kids and the non-Rugby inclined (myself included) were just chilling out drinking beer and watching the scene. It was nice.

I then got to leave Nairobi for Naivasha lake, about 90k northwest of Nairobi. It was a beautiful ride, as you leave the city, small suburbs give way to forested hills, then you come out over the hill and suddenly the Great Rift Valley is spread before you. It was a view that definitely lifted my mood a bit. The view was expansive, and reminds you what a big place Africa is – savannah bordered by extinct, jagged volcanos, with the puffy rainy season clouds casting shadows and sunbeams on the acacia trees and villages below. Masai herders occasionally walking with their animals, and small villages with their pubs, butchers, grocery stores, and mobile phone places lining the road every few kilometers.

Lake Naivasha is beautiful, but it’s threatened. Expat-targeted lodges rim the lake, which is shrinking because of the acres and acres of industrial flower production greenhouses that share the edge of the lakebed with the lodges. The flower companies are sucking too much water from the lake, which was already threatened due to climate change. Therefore, when we walked along to the lakefront, you can see where the trails and boat-moors have had to shift. In some places you see abandoned old boats, too far from the lakeside to move.

Still, it was new to me and beautiful – the air was clear, there was some nice, natural quiet, beautiful big sky with the puffy clouds, and some true wildlife nearby. I got to walk within 10 yards of Zebra, baboons, monkeys, some really big horned animal I can’t ever remember the name of, hippos, and countless exotic birds. Not a bad way to spend a day.

I leave here on Friday. I would love to come back here to Nairobi with my family some day – take my kids on a Safari, drive out to the big country, enjoy the nice restaurants and friendly Kenyan service. But for now, I need to summon up a little more professional motivation to push me through the next few days so I can get home safe and move on to my next (and former) gig at my NGO – supporting their food security projects in West Africa. After this I’m done with emergency response (such as it is has been for me with the short notice long travel) for the time being.

  1. This is a really scary time for all Kenyans. I for one being abroad and reading the news about grenades exploding left right and center. I don’t know if sending the Kenyan army to Somalia was the smartest thing to do but I hope the outside world realizes that Somalia has been a problem and will be a problem until their governance issues are sorted out.
    I am waiting to see what the reaction from the West will be on this one.
    Meanwhile, enjoy some Tuskers and hopefully you will get some motivation to do work. 🙂


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