October 2014. It’s about 1 am and I just landet at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi. I’m tired and just want to arrive at the flat of my host (of course I’m couchsurfing also on this trip!) who lives in a suburb of Nairobi named Umoja (Swahili, engl.: unity).
The impressions and experiences I’m about to collect on this journey but above all also in Umoja had an everlasting impact on me until today. My plan is to rent an offroad car (Mitsubishi Pajero) and to travel through Kenya and Tanzania for 6 weeks.
The Google Map pin points to the bus station Umoja1/Jasho Stage, where Peter and I had to wait.
The route from the airport to the quarter of Umoja is about 10 km by foot (yes, sometimes I do stuff like that!) but since it’s already that late, and because I have a big backpack and a sports bag with me, I decide to just roll myself a cigarette and take the only taxi that is waiting in front of the airport. In fact someone offers me a taxi but there’s no actual car to see. Digging deeper he tells me that he has to call someone who brings the taxi, which he did and someone drove over the whole square from far out and brought the car. Obviously this is a shuttle service due to security reasons.
My host Marcus (the names in this article are altered due to discretion; ed. note) has about 25 positive references, which for me seems to be quite ok. What I’ve seen at home on GoogleMaps suggests that it’s rather a simplier area. But let’s take things as they come.
The streets in Nairobi, especially in Umoja, are dark and hardly illuminated. Therefore I can’t really see where I am and how it looks. With the telephone support from my host the taxi driver eventually finds the house of Marcus who’s waiting for me already. There’s no reaction in his face when he greets me. He helps me with one of my bags, we go through a big metall door into the roofed courtyard of the house and up on the first floor to his flat.
There I enter and are greeted by Marcus’ cousin Peter and two of their friends who are sitting on a black three-piece suite in the living lounge to my right.
Loud and booming reggaeton music videos, in which lightly dressed woman are dancing in front of expensive cars, and “rappers” with a lot of bling-bling look angry and call out for bitches all the time, penetrate my ears from the big flatscreen TV on the wall. It smells of cigarettes, weed and alcohol.
Marcus shows me my room, the modest kitchen and the bathroom situation. And he explains it to me right away: “There’s no running water, but you can have water from here”, while pointing to a huge (250 l?) water tank, blocking half of the entrance and with a small yellow bucket on it to take out water.
“Okay” I say and I think: “So I gonna brush my teeth only with bottled water! And pee in the stand – that’s for sure!”
Then we go to the guys who have reached a certain alcohol level already. They offer me a glass of vodka right away! Actually I am planning to get away from this stuff. But to be honest – I’m happy to have arrived and in my opinion you have to show a certain respect when you got offered a drink by your host. Eventually, and to prevent throwing over on their table, which was the ashtray at the same time, I switched to beer later on.
So much for the first impression. Hey, what can I say? Can’t wait for the adventure!
My own bodyguard
I wake up at around 11 am after a pretty boozy night. Of course I hear that bumping Reggeaton again, only that the rapper is not singing of bitches anymore but of big booty bitches.
Marcus is sitting on the couch, is wearing a beige caftan and looks at me with his big eyes. Peter is sleeping on the other couch and is covering himself uptight with a typical red-black chequered Maasai blanket. I wonder if he’s ok. He doesn’t look ok! But then Marcus wouldn’t sit here like that, right?
“Morning!” I say. He answers in a strong African accent (which I love so much!): “Morning! You know my cousin, Peter, right?”
Suprised about that question I say: “Yea, I know him. He was with us last night. Sure I know him!”
“He came a long way from his town and will stay here with us. You can not go out alone! He will be with you all the time when you go out and when you go to the city center!”
“Mmkaaay, no problem. Thanks… (I guess?)”, I say while I’m walking towards the bathroom. I’m thinking: “Why is he saying that? Why can I not go out alone?” But I’m also thinking: “Cool, I got a bodyguard! He seems to be an alcoholic and I hope he wakes up from his coma, but… I got my own bodyguard now, yeah!”
I have to go to the city anyways to take care of the car rental formalities. I soon should learn why it is better to have a local around.
When Peter, who meanwhile has awakened from the death, and I exit the building, which seems to be still in construction, through the cool and dark inner courtyard, I get blinded by the bright and hot sun.
I need a few seconds for my eyes to adjust and when I look around I see myself in a loud roaring crowd of people, motorbikes, handcarts, children that run around and shop owners waiting for customers. Peter points to a few men who sit next to the house and run a small vegetable and liquor store there. I friendly shake hands with all of them. The smell of grilled corn mixes with the waste gases of two-strokers, people shout for each other, salesman offering their goods and motorbikes horn.
I feel like in a torrential river of people which I can’t escape, while Peter and I walk down the Moi Drive, a ring road and one of the most important streets of Umoja, to the bus stop. Houses on both sides look unfinished and very simple, windowless with flat roofs. I see a lot of blank concrete, iron and tin.
I can say that I have no problem keeping up with Peter, who still has some list due to last night. But! I must not lose him! Only after a few meters I can’t really remember which of the houses ours is. Not only a lot of the houses looked pretty much alike, but also am I totally flashed by all the different impressions just whithin a few minutes!
I look to my left, to my right and back. My eyes jump through all the different faces that look at me with big eyes. Some neutral, and some like, at least that’s my feeling, as they were sceptical. But many smile and wave or even reach out their hand to me. “Jambo, habari yako?!”, which means “Hi, how are you?!” in Swahili, is what people say to me.
I don’t need long to realize that I’m totally standing out of the rest – not only because I’m pretty much the only one wearing a pure white shirt with long sleeves, but due to the fact that I’m 100% the one and only white ass around!
The only Mzungu
Among all the people I’m the only white guy, the only Mzungu – a term from the Bantu language which stands for people with white skin or European hertiage respectively.
Just in this moment I realize how I stand out of the rest of the society. This is one of the most important moments of my life in general, and as a traveller. Even though I’ve been in similar situations before, for example on a market in Bangkok, the contrast and the impressions here is much higher and intense than anything I’ve seen before. Never have I felt so different and never have I been to a place so different to my home country.
In this very moment it is clear to me how it must feel to look different. I can very much imagine how some people who look different must feel, for instance in my home country.
But at the same time I’m also very happy: because these are the very moments I’m looking for when I’m travelling. I want to go far away, where everything is different and nothing like at home.
Why should I travel otherwise? To see what I already know? To make experiences I already have?
No! I refuse! I want to browse through this world and all its facets. Be it also something negative, be it cold or hot, be it even dangerous or harsh conditions. Travelling is living! It is breathing! I will suffocate if I don’t travel.
“Hakuna Matata” means as much as “no worries” whereas “Matata” means “problem”. A often used saying for different life situations, which I’m going to recite like a mantra more often in the following weeks.
A matatu on the other hand are the public busses, on which Peter and I are waiting. The bus stop we are standing is called “Jasho Stage” and doesn’t really look like a bus stop to me. At least I can’t see a clear sign (coming from Germany I’m used to signs actually – we even have signs for signs!). I’m sure I’d have missed it 100% and would have get lost somewhere here. There’s also no time table and Peter makes it clear to me that “we have to wait”. Thanks god I’ve Peter!
One quite good video I could find that shows you what a Matatu is in a nutshell is the following by Drew Binsky:
When the first bus stops I can’t believe my eyes and ears. The Matatu is painted colorful with opulent drawings of mother Teresa and Tupac Shakur – yes, the rapper! And from the loudspeakers I hear Genesis’ “land of confusion”! Of course the volume is pumped up to the fullest…
A young man wearing a red coat stands at the side door and holding a thick bundle of bills in his hand. He drowns the loud music successfully by shouting out the prices and the given route of the matatu to the crowd.
People are stirred up right away and some are also yelling back at him things I don’t understand. I’m thinking that one could also decrease the volume of the music or just listen to the conducter from the bus. Alltogether twas a big mess but hey – I enjoyed it somehow and what can I say: childmemories arise – 80s baby!
“We need the one that goes to the city center” Peter yells to me while a big truck is pushing himself through the street by his horns. Here the strong win over the weak, meaning you give way to the bigger vehicles if you are smaller. No doubt about that.
The air is literally standing, it is dusty and and there’s a biting smell of uncatalyzed exhaust gases in the air. We are waiting since about half an hour here at this shadeless corner and every five minutes a matatu is stopping by, always painted different to the other and with different music. From Madonna, DJ Tiesto over some Reggaeton up to african music/pop.
Finally the right matatu stops that goes to the city center. I can’t tell if it’s the first one since I don’t know if Peter was always aware of what was going on. On the other hand I wonder if it is maybe plausible that there are not many matatus going to the center with its high rise buildings since not many people from here have business to do there.
Maybe both is right somehow. At least the bus is almost empty when we jump in. After give or take two hours of driving and standing in the traffic jam we finally arrived in the center, looking for the car rental which is located at the ground floor of the Six Eighty Hotel. I do have the exact adress but I have no Google Maps available (I try not to use my phone too often when I’m travelling) and Peter doesn’t know how to find it. So we are walking around for at least 30 minutes until we find it.
Actually I just want to manage some formalities and I was thinking that I will pick up the car right away. Buuuut! No! I have to fill out some papers which I have to do at home since I need some more data I don’t have with me here. In plus the car rental has to manage some formalities with some federal office(s) so this already takes a while.
Wow! I never thought it will be that complex and I hate it to commit myself to a certain date. Luckily I don’t have to decide now when I will do the border crossings but I have to tell it to the car rental in one week prior to the crossing, including the re-entry to the country.
In fact I could take the car with me since formalities consider the border crossing but there’s another thing. The boss of the car rental asks me in his Indian accent: “Where do you stay in Nairobi?” I answer: “In Umoja”.
“Do you have secured parking there?”
“No, I don’t. I thought I can let it on the street.”, I say.
“Then you can’t take the car with you. You let it on the street, the next day it’s gone!” he implores to me with his raised index finger.
“Anyways we have to do the formalities first, they might be finished by Wednesday. And I need to know when and where you want to cross the border to Tanzania and on your way back to Kenya.” So I need to tell them when and where I will cross the border to Tanzania – reason: I will officially export the car as well as I will re-import it when I come back to Kenya.
Here I can already see that things are different. Perfect! Given the circumstance I get those things done which can get done so I post the deposit by credit card whereby I can see that an old addressograph is used for that. I got to admit that I’ve never seen something like that but in older movies from the 80s. Also the boss notices me inspecting the device and how he uses it while he simply says: “We use the old technique”. “Yes, indeed!” I’m thinking.
The sun at the equator is setting early so we have some quite good falafel at a nearby shop later and eventually pack up to head home. Also Peter slightly urges to do so. This time it was much easier to find a matatu since busses seem to be better organized in the center.
I can’t really remember the rest of this day since the impressions I had were so various and intense and I’ve been quite tired from the whole trip and from talking to so many people, not least also by walking around, looking for the car rental, managing the rental formalities and getting back with a matatu again.
The first day was exhausting. But it was exciting! I’m happy to get along well with Peter. He’s caring of us and we are laughing a lot together. The crowds fo people in the street seem to look at me and I admit to feel watched a little bit. But I have to say that I feel very well overall.
Tomorrow I have to go to the city center again. And I have to find a barber shop…