Nairobi, also well-known as “Nairobbery” – due to the large amounts of unlucky tourists who have been, well, robbed! while traveling through this East African city – is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the entire world. In fact, some even consider it the most dangerous city in Africa, quite the statement given the high competition in the region. According to this zeenews webpage, for example, Nairobi is rated as the 9th most dangerous city in the world. Having already survived a stay in Caracas, Venezuela (which is rated #5 on the list), I can concur to the authenticity of at least one of the cities listed in the top 10 because Caracas is – without a doubt – dangerous as hell. I have never been to Kabul, Mogadishu, or Baghdad; but I wouldn’t say the top three are too far off either. So, why is Kenya so dangerous? Well, according to zeenews:
… incidences of street crime are very high in the city. Night time travel in the city is very unsafe with mugging and looting being a routine affair.
Hmmm. You might be asking yourself right now, “if it’s so dangerous then why did you travel there in the first place?”. Well, as usual, I didn’t do too much homework before traveling – unlike you readers – and I was going as part of a tour group that would probably stay clear of all danger via sticking to safaris – because wild animals aren’t dangerous at all 😛 – and touristy areas – because who wants to rob a bunch of foreigners with cash on hand, right? :-P. Third, I had an inside man, a Kenyan who was going to meet, greet, and take care of me in his home country. Also, what I learned from my experience in Venezuela is that as long as you don’t flaunt something that somebody else might want (hence the low-quality photos & videos from my Blackberry phone camera for this post) you should be alright. Well, the plan seemed good on paper until an Indian girl from Mombassa entered into my hotel room. Tip #1, be very wary of a strange Indian girl from Mombassa entering into your hotel room.
A Stroll Around Nairobi
Karibu (Ka-ree-bu)! = Welcome!
Karibuni (Ka-ree-boo-nee) = Welcome (you guys)
So entering into this seemingly unsafe scene is one unknowing mzungu on a Fall Break vacation of 17 days from his routine teaching job in Saudi Arabia. A trip that will start off in Kenya, go through Tanzania, and finish in one of my favorite locations of them all, Zanzibar.
Mzungu (M-zoon-goo) means basically ‘white person’ in Swahili. Swahili is the lingua franca of African languages across East Africa in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Burundi. If you are going to learn a language to help you on an East African trip (assuming you already know English), Swahili is definitely the one. I actually picked up quite a bit on my trip because many words are cognates with Arabic, and the alphabet is very phonetic (the letters match the sounds they represent very well). However, I used it mostly to impress and charm the locals rather than for communicative purposes because their English was surprisingly quite good. However, it did come in handy more than a few times just to show people I know what’s going on because the first thing that comes into the majority of locals minds when they see an mzungu is $$$. When you speak the language a bit it sets you up to get better deals, and there is no better way to make a local smile than when a foreigner speaks to them in their own tongue, especially when you are an mzungu in East Africa. By the way, I am going to be teaching you several Swahili words that will come in hand during this post, if you want more detail, though, follow this link.
- How do you say ‘White Person’ in Swahili?
- What’s the best strategy to use to not get robbed in a place known for street crime?
- What is the lingua franca of indigenous languages in East Africa?
The “Real Kenya”
After getting picked up at the airport from my Kenyan friend, I checked into a local hotel that was located right by his house, far away from touristy hotel enclaves. So, basically, I was experiencing the ‘real Kenya’. How do you know you are in the ‘real Kenya’? Well, when you are walking down the street, and because you are the only mzungu for miles and miles, people randomly look, and even point at you and say, “Mzungu!” (true story). The term is not offensive, and the locals seem to like European tourists. In the words of my Kenyan friend, “They (Kenyans) get excited [happy] when they see an mzungu.”
To describe the scene as I was traveling around the city, there were so few Mzungu around, when I saw a few slightly light skinned Indians who were Kenyan nationals, as compared to the large majority of black ones, we couldn’t help but give to each other a little nod of recognition. In fact, my olive skin and Swahili skills helped me get out of a couple of situations where beggars, once seeing me, pursued me to try and hustle a bit of cash. However, after acting assertively and speaking a bit of Swahili (which is easy to pronounce and hence sound like a native) I assume they thought I was a local of Indian descent (or at least an mzungu who had been around a bit) and immediately abandoned mission.
Tip: If you find yourself in a situation with an aggressive beggar, just keep it simple and say assertively:
Pole (po-lei) = Sorry + Hapana (ha-pa-na) = No
– Or –
Samahani (Sa-ma-ha-nee)= Excuse/pardon me + Hapana = No.
(Note: The letters in bold indicate the stressed syllable; in Swahili the second to last syllable is almost always stressed).
Then assertively keep walking.
One time a guy actually tried to charge me money for taking pictures of some matatus (more on that later), but after speaking some Swahili & Arabic (he was a Muslim and knew a bit of Arabic), joking a bit, and acting assertively; he smiled and left the subject of money alone as I took more photos.
TIP: Speaking of money the local currency are Kenyan Schillings and the current exchange rate is: 1 USD = 96 Kenyan Schillings. Places will accept dollars around town, but they most likely will give you a worse exchange rate, so exchange your dollars first before shopping.
- Is Mzungu an offensive term?
- How do you say ‘no’ in Swahili?
- How do you say ‘sorry’?
- How do you say ‘excuse/pardon me’?
- Should you exchange dollars for Schillings before buying things?
Jamia Mosque & Somali Lunch
During the day trip we visited the Jamia (Ja-mee-a) mosque which is listed among the ‘to do’ things in Nairobi. We visited during Friday Prayer, which is a weekly ritual performed by Muslims similar to Christians going to church on Sundays. Afterwards, we had lunch in a restaurant that was packed to the brim with people who just finished prayer services – after Friday prayer, it is common to go out with friends for lunch.
My BlackBerry camera and angle really did not do the mosque justice. Here’s another photo via Flickr. The Jamia mosque is located downtown: it was mostly just a place to pray if you are Muslim, nothing too spectacular (I’d say the flickr photos exaggerate its appearance).
However, the lunch was really good and as authentic as can be. If you would like to get a good idea of the different Kenya dishes, check out this webpage of 20 of Kenya’s favorite dishes.
Taxis: Although in general, at least by Western tourist standards, Kenya is cheap; relatively speaking, however, car taxis can be pretty expensive. When there is a lot of traffic, which is common in Nairobi (and I mean A LOT of traffic), a motorcycle taxi is the quickest way to go via narrowly – and often dangerously – swerving through the rows of backed up cars. However, as you can probably imagine, the trip can be a bit of a hair raising adventure. So let me put it this way, motorbike taxis are cheaper and faster, but they are definitely not for the elderly or small children.
Matatu: A matatu (ma-ta-too) is a stylish bus/caravan that usually has either a funny name, for example, some I saw were ‘THE CIA‘, ‘BABUSHKO‘ and ‘OBAMA‘; or names relating to religion such as ‘GOD IS GREAT‘. They are very affordable (less than one USD per trip), and safe. However, they obviously are not as direct and convenient as a taxi, nor do they provide a shortcut through traffic as a motorcycle can provide.
Side Note: Religion is quite apparent in Kenyan society, both for Muslims and Christians. The majority of the populace is Christian though there is a significant Muslim demographic as well. There are also many who adhere to a pagan (pre-christian) form of religion too, such as the Maasai (more about them later).
So as we learned from the video, matatu comes from the word for three, which is tatu (ta-too). Here’s a link to more Swahili phrases and numbers.
- What’s the cheapest, quickest, yet most dangerous form of transportation?
- Are taxis relatively cheap in Kenya?
- What’s an economical and safe alternative to taking a taxi?
Miraa (AKA Qat)
Miraa (Mee-raa) – better known as qat in the Middle East – is a controversial plant that is found in East Africa and parts of the Middle East, most notably Yemen. It is a chewable plant that has a stimulating effect. Some countries have banned and labeled it a drug while others have not, for example, in Tanzania it’s banned, while in Kenya, it isn’t. Likewise, in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia it’s banned but in Yemen it’s not.
My Kenyan friend invited me to chew with him. I was really tired from the airplane trip over and was curious to see what this controversial yet widespread phenomena was all about, so I decided to give it a try. We ventured deep into Nairobi where I was, once again, the only mzungu for miles and miles. We sat around a plastic table watching some really corny 80’s music videos on an old school television and started to chew, and chew, and chew some more. After a while, without noticing anything different in my mood, I started to feel like a horse chewing on hay. Which led me to think, “why do people chew this crap?” & “maybe I’m doing it wrong..”, but then I noticed a bit of energy start picking up and started enjoying my surroundings of corny 80’s music videos in the middle of no where more and more…
I’ll return to Miraa later, but now it’s back to the hotel and how I discovered the true meaning of the nickname “Nairobbery”.
Safety: Despite the really bad reputation of Nairobi, I felt completely safe walking about – even being the only mzungu around. Well, during the daytime at least. At night my friend strongly advised me not to wander outside at all without him; however, I did it anyways and after doing so, I would concur with my friend’s advise. For example, I saw some guy who didn’t look all that mentally stable walking around with a crowbar. YIKES! So I’d suggest don’t travel around too much at night in Nairobi.
Although there weren’t many impressive sights, just the experience of Nairobi with the locals was definitely memorable. Would I recommend someone to plan such a trip? Probably not, but the way it worked out for me personally was fun.
A Stroll Around Nairobi: ★★★☆☆
A Bowl of Nyama Choma
Returning back to the hotel, we went to the restaurant to order some food. Although my buddies were complaining that Nairobi is one of the most expensive cities in Africa, I found the food to be really inexpensive (and really good!), especially when I was getting local prices (because my friends were the ones doing the ordering).
After ordering, it was time to partake on some Nyama Choma (N-ya-ma Chow-ma = Roasted Meat), a famous East African dish, for the first time. It was delicious! The meat tastes super fresh in Kenya and East Africa in general, and it’s all halal following Muslim slaughtering practices.
A Bite of Ugali
As I was waiting for my food, I walked up to grab something from my hotel room. Along my way, I bumped into a young lady who had some food of her own. She had some ugali (oo-ga-lee) – another famous East African dish that is made of cornmeal. After hearing that I’ve never tried Ugali before, she insisted that I have some. I told her, “Oh no, thanks. I actually have some food downstairs right now”. However, she continued to walk with me to my hotel room, and when I opened my door, she followed me right in. I thought to myself, “I might be kind of a handsome guy, but come on” :). So I told her, “Ok, ok. I’ll take a bite”. So after taking a bite of the food, I grabbed what I wanted, and left the hotel room quickly. After locking the door behind me I asked her where she was from because she obviously wasn’t black, to which she responded, “Oh my ancestry is from India, but I’m from Mombassa.”
After eating and bidding farewell to my Kenyan buddies, it was time to crash out in my mosquito-netted bed that looked like it was made for a honey moon. And I mean CRASH.
Note: The presences of mosquitos and the malaria that they might hold, seemed to be a complete non-issue in Nairobi.
I slept in until around 4pm and then the only reason I got up was because it was time to meet my tour group to discuss the next morning’s safari trip to the Maasai Mara nature reserve. However, as I was getting ready I had an unexpected visitor, the Indian girl from Mombassa.
I had left my door unlocked and slightly open as I was preparing all of my things, such as: my passport, travel documents, bags etc. My new visitor decided to walk directly in to give me a late afternoon greeting. Very kind of her. She pointed to a prayer rug on the ground behind me and mentioned that she was a Muslim and that the rug shouldn’t be kept that way. I turned around for a bit, grabbed the rug, folded it, and put it on the table. As I turned back around, I saw she had sat down on the couch next to my table. Once again I was thinking, “Maybe I’m not a bad looking guy, sure, but come on what’s going on here!”. She then quickly said, “Oh I just wanted to say “hi”. I’ll see you later” as she proceeded to quickly depart. I thought to myself, “That was weird. Thank God all of my money is on the other side of the room!” and then took a nap. Tally this up as another time someone has deceitfully used religion to rip me off 😥
When I woke up, I noticed that something was missing, MY PASSPORT. Which was a big problem because obviously it’s a pretty important thing for travelers to have, and something that I needed to get back. So first, I needed help from my Kenyan buddy who talked to some people he knew to get the police involved who eventually managed to get a hold of the Indian girl from Mombassa. Apparently, during the investigation the girl gave a bribe to the police to be released, resulting in me never getting my passport back :cry:.
Who knows, maybe there is some Indian from Mombassa out there right now trying to pretend as if he were me. I guess being able to kind of pass as an Indian isn’t always a bonus in Kenya! Consequently, I had to bypass the Maasai Mara trip to focus on the passport issue. Oh, and by the way, did I mention it was my birthday? HAPPY BIRTHDAY everybody! Here’s a link to getting a new passport on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi’s webpage just in case you have any unpleasant encounters with shady characters who like to abruptly enter into your hotel room.
Maasai Mara Nature Reserve (what I missed)
The Maasai Mara Natural Reserve is named after the Maasai African tribe: the face of East African tourist industry. Although a minority in the region, their adherence to traditional practice and way of life makes them a tourist industry icon. You can take a tour through Maasai villages in addition to the safari trip. Although this particular region is named after them, they are spread throughout Tanzania as well. I discuss them in more detail in my Tanzania blog; Arusha, Snake Camp.
Here are some photos of the things that I missed (thanks to a friend on the tour group):
I got to see plenty of wildlife in Tanzania, but I never did get to see a rhino which is a shame because I always thought Rocksteady was the badass of the Ninja Turtle villains. Tear Tear 😥
The Rich Drunk Business Man
After the police ordeal, I met a really rich land owner who was drunk as a skunk, and after hearing about my plight he invited me to come to his property on the Massai Mara for free. In fact, my Kenyan friend told me that he is a really well-known and influential man. He wanted to show me around his property and get into business together. Like I told you, the first thing a local sees when he lays his eyes on an mzungu is: $$$. In fact, he wanted me to bring in other Americans and more $$$ to his safari tour company. You know what they say, when one door closes another one opens! Unfortunately, I had to get a new passport and I never ended up contacting him regarding his business proposal, but now that I have this website and all, maybe there’s some kind of agreement we could come too….
Miraa, The Cowboy, and Fight Night
So after the police ordeal, there was a UFC fight on that I really wanted to see, UFC 178 Cerrone vs. Alvarez as a matter of fact. I’m a big Cowboy Cerrone fan going back to his days at the WEC, and I really wanted to see the fight. Since it was my birthday, and my friend felt bad about my passport getting stolen, he let me use his high-speed internet connection to watch it via laptop. Due to the big time difference between the USA & Kenya, the fight was on really late, so naturally the answer was to chew on some miraa to stay up all night. Here is some of the action that transpired:
New Passport: 135 USD
Passport Photos: 6 USD
Bribe to get across Tanzania without Kenya Entry Visa: 20 USD
Experiencing Nairobbery first-hand and getting my passport ganked: PRICELESS!
Missing Massai Mara Safari sucked but there were plenty of Safaris to come on my itinerary. And there’s something special about a police drama ending in bribery, meeting a friendly drunk business man, and chewing miraa all night watching one of your favorite fighters leg kick the crap out of his opponent. One great thing about Nairobbery is that every time you come back to your hotel room, and all of your things are still there, it’s like a holiday! Where’s the BIRTHDAY CAKE BABY!
Final Bon Voyage
Emergency Passport & Bulging Eyes
Come Monday, it was time to get an emergency passport, switch hotel rooms, visit my friend’s sick relative in the hospital, and get a sleeping bag for my future safari endeavors. Once again with such a busy itinerary, there was some miraa chewing taking place. On Monday, during morning hours, there is A LOT of traffic. So I had to take the motorbike transportation option to make it to the embassy in time to get the emergency passport. Once there, bada bing, bada boom; I had a passport that was good for, if I can remember correctly, one year. Thank God! the US embassy in Nairobi was so accommodating and easy to deal with, big kudos to them. However, on my passport photo, I look like some loked out mzungu with bulging eyes after staying up all day & night chewing on miraa.
Java House & Push-Ups
Right down the street from the embassy section of the city is a Java House which I noticed was #5 on the top ten things to do in Nairobi list according to The Times website. Although agreed, it’s not saying too much about the tourist attractions to have a coffee shop chain listed in the top ten (or who knows, maybe they paid for their spot!) sure enough the coffee was especially tasty (and I ensure you that I’m not getting paid, at least not yet! 😛 ). I had the coffee along with some chicken curry. I know I’m not in India, but it was super good! So good that I actually took a picture of it for some reason. One thing is for sure, Indians do know how to make some nice curry 😉
Here’s a link to their menu if you want a further look.
After returning back to the hotel room, and not having slept for about 24 hours or so, I was still completely awake. Between the coffee (I rarely drink coffee) and the miraa, I had so much energy that I shyly asked my friend, “Hey bro, would you mind if I just did some push-ups?” LOL and then proceeded to perform a number of push-ups right in front of him. AWKWARD.
That goes to show you how much of an effect miraa can have on you. In fact, my friend hadn’t slept for over a day as well. I guess that’s pretty normal if you continuously chew that stuff.
Carnivore, Ostrich Balls & Jambo Bwana
On the aforementioned Times website, it discusses the restaurant Carnivore as the place to go for some good Nyama Choma (N-ya-ma Chow-ma), and my friend also recommended it. The restaurant was inside a large landscape that had some exotic animals, a playground for the kiddies, and a lot of space for special festivities. True to its reputation, the food was amazing! In addition to Nyama Choma, I also ate some ostrich meatballs. YUMY! They offer different varieties of strange animal meats such as crocodile as well. It was a day later than my actual birthday, but to celebrate, they sang the Jambo Bwana (Jam-bow Bwa-na) song that is famous throughout East Africa and a catchy chant that will improve your Swahili:
Jambo, Jambo Bwana – Hi, Hi Sir
Habari Gani, Mzuri Sana – How are you? Very Good!
Wageni, mwakaribishwa – Visitors are welcome
Kenya yetu, hakuna matata – (In) Our Kenya, there is no problem
Hakuna matata… hakuna matata… hakuna matata
As it happened I had a great experience in Nairobi, it gave me a glimpse into what the city life was like in a big East African capital. I missed the Maasai Mara reserve, but I did plenty of safariing while in Tanzania. Having said that though, what happened just happened, I wouldn’t recommend any tourist to venture around Nairobbery the way I did. I would stick to the touristy enclaves, spend a couple of days on safari in the Maasai Mara (I know a rich drunk business man that might be able to help you out with that 🙂 ), have a bon voyage dinner at Carnivore, and stay as far away from any girl that tries to force feed you a bowl of Ugali and enter into your hotel room!
- What does Habari Gani mean?
- What is a bus in Kenya called?
- How do you say ‘No’?
- How do you say ‘Sorry’?
- What are two popular dishes in Kenya? U _ _ _ _ and N_ _ _ _ C_ _ _ _.
- Now translate the last one into English. What does the first word mean? The first word is a noun or an adjective? What about the second word? What does this say about noun-adjective order in Swahili?
- How do you say ‘your welcome’?
- How do you say ‘excuse me’?
- What’s an mzungu?
Now memorize the Jambo Bwana song!
- If there is a lot of traffic what’s the best way to get around the city?
- Should you pay with dollars or exchange your money first?
- Is it safe to walk around Nairobi downtown during the day? What about during the night?
- Is the reputation of Kenya as ‘Nairobbery’ warranted?
- Is Carnivore a restaurant worth going to?