Nairobi is the Epicenter for East African Growth and Investment
Nairobi is an exciting city with a juxtaposition of growth and abject poverty but it is getting better quickly.
Most Meaningful Experience: Making friends, working at iHub, and visiting Kibera
On arrival in Nairobi, I let out a sigh, as the airport was much more modern than the others and it did seem like the economic situation would be better here. This would be my new home for the next three weeks. My main goal was to spend time understanding and connecting with people. I had plans to reconvene with Toto who ran an orphanage in Kisumu and to visit a refugee camp that Aurore had introduced me to, as well as meet my friend Jeremy who would safari and hike Kiliminjaro at the end of my trip. Being home to award-winning marathon athletes, I was also looking forward to running with Kenyans if I could fit it in.
My trip would be divided into three distinct parts: hanging out in Nairobi, heading west for some volunteer work, and then spending time at the Kakuma Refugee Camp.
As I would be spending much of my time in Nairobi, I chose to stay at the Manyatta Backpackers Hostel in the heart of the city close to a city park and government buildings. It was a nice facility with a lot of travelers from different countries bouncing in and out from Mount Kenya, Mombasa, and the Maasai Mara.
I met with Aurore who – I hiked with in Congo – was about to return to France after her assignment. She invited me out to meet some local friends introduced me to her host in Kakuma, Innocent. She sensed my fear to visit the refugee camp so she set up a skype call with Innocent, her host there. I realized my fears were just made up in my own head, aren’t they usually?
Later on, I headed out to discover Nairobi. Aside from the crazy traffic jams in the morning and evening rush hours, I realized that getting around Nairobi wasn’t as difficult as I had assumed. Public service vehicles (locally known as ‘matatus’) ply different routes and there are different bus terminus within the city. One thing that caught my attention about these buses was the lively graffiti on the outside, with scenes taken from diverse walks of life, inspirational leaders, music icons and sports. Some had Obama, Mandela, basketball or rock ‘n roll scenes and (to my amusement) one even had fire-flamed baseballs. Talk of artistic expression at its best! The artwork also made it easier for me to differentiate between the various routes. Although buses seemed to be the most popular mode of transport, motorbikes were also common (albeit a bit dangerous). Like with most major cities, the Kenyan capital also had Uber and several other taxi apps, including Little Cabs and Bolt.
As I hopped from one place to another, one thing was clear – Nairobi is incredibly diverse in economic development. It’s a city with cranes and construction, shopping malls and hotels with casinos (for Chinese overseas workers) and university after university. But it also has large slums in Kibera with tens of thousands, impoverished, homeless, and downtrodden. The huge divide between the rich and the poor was so vivid. It was clearly the center for East African investment and economic development.
While I got settled in Nairobi I did a few things. First I enrolled in a Kiswahili class with a local language school. As I was hoping to do more humanitarian work and Kiswahili is widely spoken in Kenya, I decided to take Swahili classes. I enrolled and stayed at the Language School of Nairobi/Kenya, http://languageschoolofnairobi.com/, where I was taught by local teachers. The key Swahili phrases I learned came in handy and helped me to get around Kenya. They even offered me a place to stay in the apartment building located in the Upper Hill. My teacher Karen was also a knitting professional and I later purchased several scarves from her in the designs of the Kenyan, Japanese, US, and Chinese flags.
The Upper Hill area was full of interesting activity. Chinese hotel and casino. Upscale shopping center. Movie theatre. Andala – a workspace and training center for engineers that Mark Zuckerberg invested $24 million. Mama Oliech, the famous fish restaurant he visited. M-Kopa a company started by an American and British and invested by overseas technology investors. Fruit vendors lining the heavily trafficked streets full of buses, motorbikes, and cars.
During my stay, I met Laak, a young refugee from Sudan who I got to know through Aurore’s friend who lived in Sudan and worked at the Catholic University of Sudan. During a violent revolt, Laak was a student and helped her escape. She really wanted me to meet him and so I did. When we met, he invited me to his home in Kibera.
Kibera was about eight miles from the Central Business District. Being one of the largest and poorest slums in Africa, I had my reservations about touring the place as a white guy but Laak said it wasn’t a problem during the day time. Later on, I discovered this was just my own internal racket – everybody seemed to be happily going on with their daily activities.
Driving into a slum becomes quite noticeable. Sometimes there is a gate or sign of demarcation that lets you know you have entered. In the case of Kibera the road slowly turned to dirt, the crowds magnified, and the housing was stacked on tin rooves then appeared a sign. As we walked up the rotting stairs, there were clothes hanging from a line that extended across the 10 room on the 2nd floor, water buckets sat outside waiting to be filled, rodents crossed the floor looking for its next meal. His small, 150-square-foot room on the second floor of a slum building had a couch, three mattresses, and only a handful of utensils. There was no electricity and they used tap water dripping from a shared bathroom outside their home that had to be boiled. This was a slum and he was trying to figure out how to get out.
Laak took me around Kibera. There was a tremendous amount of hustle and energy in Kibera. People were selling, moving around and transporting objects. Side of the streets were filled with vendors selling electrical equipment, fried fish, snacks, drinks and more. This type of work wasn’t for Laak, he was searching for something more thoughtful and academic. They were entrepreneurs at work; he was an aspiring academic.
I enjoyed chatting with the locals as I walked around, taking my time to learn about the area and its people. During these interactions, I learned that people living in Kibera were from a whole range of different Kenyan tribes and that humanitarian work can be hard, especially between cultures.
We talked, explored the area, and I told him I wanted to help. He told me that he’d like to take a course, since education is the only way to succeed in Sudan. I introduced Laak to Sophie, a social worker from HaartKenya (which helps sexually abused orphans). She helped me structure a way for him to get started, without paying for a complete University logistics education. On a subsequent trip to Kibera,
He and I connected with a non-profit run by two young Americans who majored in technology and economic empowerment using technology. They set up a small school in Kibera called TunaPanda (www.tunapanda.org) that tech skills and training for those in the area. Laak connected with them, we got him a new computer, and he joined a few months training. Later, Laak did end up finishing his logistics education at a local university.
Back in the city, I continued my volunteer teaching at www.iHub.co.ke. I met some great entrepreneurial minds who are trying to build companies in Nairobi. I became good friends with people at iHub where I ended up teaching a full day session on sales and did a few one-on-ones too.
During a teaching session, I also met Jael. Through our interaction, I came to learn she was a runner, an entrepreneur, a traveler who had lived in China, and the daughter of a diplomat. She invited me for a run but on the agreed Saturday, it rained heavily. On the flip side, it also happened to be the day that Kipchoge Keino tried to break the two-hour marathon record sponsored by Nike. Since it was live on YouTube, we opted for coffee together as we watched the race. He ended up running for two hours and one minute! 🙂 Later, however, he would break the record. Just watching this fueled my desire to run with Kenyans in Iten.
Jael introduced me to her sister Marcy. Both of them worked out every morning, ran, lifted, and played field hockey. They were warm, kind, compassionate, and we eventually became good friends. They even offered me places to stay as I moved around Kenya and introduced me to Kenyan delicacies, including the BBQ nyama choma, fish and tomato dishes, beans, and many more. Jael and Marcy embodied the Kenyan spirit of “hard work, perseverance, and hustle”, all with a strong desire to improve Kenya and their surroundings.
Speaking of working out, I was constantly running and also went to a spin class where I almost passed out. The instructor was the most intense spin instructor I’d even seen. He looked like a professional middleweight boxer blasting disco music while standing and pedaling the entire hour. He never sat but just altered the tension and said “butt up, butt down, now faster, faster, up/down/up/down”. I must have sat up and down several hundred times during that hour.
My trip to Nairobi might have been short but it had a positive impact on me. What I appreciated most was that I interacted and made friends with new people each day and created a lasting friendship with Jael and Marcy. I was also able to conquer my fears by being open to exploring crowded places such as the Kibera slum.