Thursday, 5/29. Nairobi.
I arrive 7:30 a.m. and everything goes perfectly: I already have my Kenya visa so I avoid that queue. My enormous red suitcase is already spinning on the carousel when I reach baggage claim, and in less than a minute I’m out of the airport and in the friendly company of Okoth, the African man who works as guard and cook for my Nairobi hosts, John and Madelle Payne.
John and Madelle are the brother- and sister-in-law of my cousin, Jim Munn. When I arrive, they’re in a training session on the other side of Nairobi, which, given this city’s traffic, could mean a delay of three to four hours getting home.
I sleep for several hours and in the afternoon Okoth lets me tag along on an errand. It’s fascinating because we take local transport and see places where only the locals go. We take a matatu – one of the crowded, 14- to 24-seat minibuses — to see the furniture maker who’s making a bed frame for Okoth and his 8-months-pregnant wife, Edna. Everything is spoken in Swahili.
Okoth and I walk through a series of dirt alleys, past junkyards and shanties and bicycle repair shops. Everything is funky and improvised – huts patched together from wood scraps and sheet metal, whatever materials can be scrounged. “Twenty percent of the people in Nairobi participate in the economy,” John later tells me. “The other 80 percent see that from the outside.”
The air smells of diesel exhaust, open latrines and meat cooked on open fires. I need to change money so Okoth takes me downtown. All the matatus are brightly illustrated – sometimes with a popular hip-hop artist, one with the image of Cristiano Ronaldo, the handsome Portugese soccer star who plays for Manchester United. Each bus has a driver and a conductor/tout who hangs half-way out the door taking fares and announcing destinations.
Our bus stops and the driver says we’re as close to the Nairobi center as he can go. Other buses disgorge passengers and nearby a group of people are yelling and gesturing angrily at the driver who falsely told them they’d be driven to the center.
Okoth, who is gentle and dignified and even-tempered – he has a face like Alfre Woodard – says we can walk the rest of the distance. But he warns me to hide my camera and not take pictures. (Crime is off the charts; the city’s nickname is “Nairobbery.”) We walk a mile, passing through a large open-air market. Not once do I see another white person.
We reach the center and Okoth takes me to a currency exchange shop. Very odd arrangement: you sit in a narrow waiting area facing three partitioned rooms masked by dark glass doors. A security guard tells you when to enter an enclosed room, then shuts the door behind you. I’m lucky to have Okoth with me because he knows which exchange shop gives the best rate – 6,200 Kenyan shillings for $100.
We stop at Burger Dome, a fast-food joint, for a cold drink. It’s a faux McDonald’s, only more boisterous and with a cyber café attached. I offer to pay for a cab home but Okoth suggests a bus. He’s easy to be with: doesn’t say much and yet there’s no discomfort, never the feeling that something is lacking because of the silence.
John and Madelle arrive after the long slog of Nairobi traffic. They’re smart, articulate, curious. Full of optimism about their work in Nairobi. They’re missionaries and do their work in the heart of Nairobi, often in slums. It could be a literacy initiative, AIDS education and prevention, microfinance, sanitation, nutrition, agriculture.
“It really depends on what the community needs and asks for,” says Madelle. Their job is to bring the information, train local Kenyans to do the hands-on work within their community and then connect them with government or NGO resources.
We talk about the tribal wars that broke out in Kenya earlier this year. Most of the skirmishes were outside Nairobi and things are tentatively peaceful since Kofi Annan brokered a truce in March. “There’s a huge interest and desire for forgiveness,” John says.
I retire early, after dinner. John asks if I want to get up at 5:45 a.m. to run with him and his neighbor. They make a circle inside the gated compound, about .4 miles. I take a pass.