Visiting Kenya

I’m visiting a friend in Nairobi and while I’m here I’m going to try and blog about the experience. I haven’t travelled much (that’s if I’m comparing myself with some of my friends). The first time I ventured into the continent was a trip to Mozambique last year with friends. This time I’m travelling alone visiting a friend who moved back to Kenya after studying in South Africa after many years.

I never have high expectations when I’m travelling. This time around I travelled to see a good friend and to make sure I’m not at home come New Year’s Eve. When I booked the ticket to Kenya I knew it was time I travel alone and navigate an airport in another country all by myself (I hate airports. I always feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t know what’s happening and I’m paranoid until I sit in the aircraft).

Once I landed in Kenya I decided to follow the crowd that was in my flight. Passport control was mayhem and I eventually found a familiar face as I had made small talk with a woman while I was boarding the flight in Johannesburg. We selected a random queue with a sign that looked like it was applicable to us, only to find out there was a form to fill in and we had to change queues. Eventually we got to the front of the line with our blue forms and we were scanned into Kenya by very grumpy-looking KAA (Kenya Airways Authority) officials. We found our luggage still in tact, exchanged names so we could find each other on twitter and went our separate ways.

My friend and her brother were waiting for me patiently when I eventually stepped out into the Kenyan sun. I quickly glanced around looking for the section of the airport that had been burned down a few months ago. Scaffholding at the other end of the building confirmed that the fire was indeed a reality. Driving from the airport I was transformed into a pseudo-tourist and my attention was drawn to the National Park that’s very close to the airport. There are constructions along the highway and there seems to be a fair amount of development. It felt as though I was driving through somewhere in South Africa. Not as flashy as Joburg or Cape Town, maybe somewhere in the Eastern Cape, but I still haven’t been able to put my finger on the sense of familiarity with this place.

Fast forward to the evening...we had dinner at my friend’s aunt’s place. Driving through the city important landmarks were identified. The National Park where Wangari Maathai’s work blossomed, Westgate Mall that was attacked a few months ago, the UN Campus in Randu. While driving through suburbia, it’s easy to notice the lush plant life that envelopes most of the houses and buildings. Nairobi is a very green city. And of course, one cannot write about an African city without writing about the roads and the matatu’s, minibus taxis. The Matatus aren’t a novelty given that I’ve used taxis in South Africa all my life.

Day two in Nairobi was visiting the “shags” the rural areas (shags comes from the Kikuyu word gishagi). My friend’s family is also based in Machako County. Kenya recently did away with the provincial system and introduced a local government system in the form of counties (more than 40 counties). While driving through the lush hills past the Athi River towards Machako, I couldn’t help but notice the many signs for schools in the area. Many of the signs indicate primary or secondary schools. I’ve never seen this while driving through any rural area in South Africa. It was overwhelming seeing such a visual image of the extent of the importance of education in Kenya. My favourite sign read “St Catherine’s Girls School” in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. Single-sex schools in South Africa are prestigious and only exist in wealthy areas in urban areas, definitely not in rural areas. As is the case in most developing countries, Kenya also has two economies, but the level of poverty in Nairobi makes the wealth in Nairobi difficult to distinguish. But the poverty in the rural areas is palatable.
A bench in Machakos
Kids fetching water in Kivimbu, "the shags"

We drove as far as Kivumbu and Masii in the Machako county and then drove back to Nairobi at the end of the day. The stark difference between Machako and Nairobi is not surprising. The word development begins to mean something and in Nairobi development means tall buildings made of glass, driving an SUV, housing developments and malls spring up everywhere. Development also looks like university institutions like Riara University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture; more examples of the important of education and studying further. The question of the quality of these universities is a conversation for another day.

Of course I'm leaving many stories out. The conversation in the car while travelling to Machako, eating a triangle-shaped vetkoek, the conversations in my head about what I was seeing and hearing.There's a proverb in isiXhosa, ukuhamba kukubona, to travel is to see/learn about new things. Apart from learning about the above observations, I'm learning about myself too. I think I'm a bad traveller. Perhaps I'm yet to master the art of travelling but I find it very stressful. I don't plan very well:I left my travel arrangements from Durban to Joburg to catch the flight until last minute, I didn't find out about changing currency so instead I have a bank card for a bank that isn't in Kenya, I don't even have a decent camera to take photos along the way.I like blending in when I travel, I'm not a tourist. But I hope the remaining 9 days won't be marred by my travelling anxiety.
Ikhombe: where maize is stored to let it dry
Neighbours working in the fields in the shags


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