Arriving In Kenya

1st blog from Programme Support Volunteer Matt Kinsella.

I arrived in Nairobi from London a little after dawn.  This is my first time in Kenya, and in sub-Saharan Africa.  I will be working with Renewable World here for three months, before moving on to Nepal, helping to develop their Community Implementation Model.  This is the bespoke process model by which RW’s programmes are implemented, and the organisation’s knowledge of using renewable energy to reduce poverty is operationalized.

Exiting the airport, dark clouds hung over the city, and the air seemed humid and heavy after the air conditioning on the plane.  Having picked my driver out of the crowd waiting in the arrivals area, we headed to my accommodation in the Kilimani area of town.  Traffic on the Mombasa Road and in the centre of Nairobi is notoriously bad – but, we were lucky, and made the journey in good time.  On the way, I chatted with my driver, Francis, about things to do in his home city.  I plan to pursue both of his top recommendations: the National Museum, to learn more about Kenya’s heritage; and the elephant orphanage on the edge of town, to meet victims of the illegal ivory trade.

One of the first things to strike me about Nairobi is the contrasts of wealth and poverty.  Kilimani is a relatively well-to-do and cosmopolitan residential area, inhabited by better-off Kenyans and quite a few expats.  The bustle of commerce is obvious everywhere.   It is not unusual to see expensive 4×4’s on the streets here, while brand new shopping malls sell smart phones and designer sunglasses.  In the cafes, business is done over a cup of coffee.   From the roof of my building, I can see the gleaming towers of the central business district, and new offices and apartment blocks being constructed across the city.  As the major regional hub for East Africa, Nairobi bears the signs of ambition and growing wealth.

Yet, the marks of poverty and insecurity are obvious too.  Most of the larger houses and apartment blocks in Kilimani are secured by fences and armed guards.  The malls are protected with bag searches and metal detectors.  On the streets outside, I was approached by two children, of five or six years old, begging for a few shillings.  And just a couple of kilometres away – next to the golf course – lies Kibera, one of East Africa’s largest shanty towns, and one of several dotted around the outskirts of the city.  In Nairobi, it is obvious that booming economic development is coexisting, a little uneasily, with real poverty.

Yet, overall, my first impression is that Nairobi rewards those who spend time getting to know it.  All of the people I have met and spoken with have been friendly and helpful, without exception.  In the streets, people strike a balance between purposeful bustle, and unaffected nonchalance – there is less of the frenetic rush which characterises a city like London, for example.  The traffic here is busy, and a little chaotic, but not aggressive – drivers have often waved for me to cross the road, with a smile.  Huge beautiful birds circle and swoop above my neighbourhood; there are trees and flowers dotted everywhere.  Crucially, I have sampled both Kenya’s coffee and the local beer, Tusker, and can confirm that they are very good!  And on my second day here, the clouds have cleared, and the weather is idyllic – warm, sunny, with a pleasing breeze.  I sense that I will grow to like Nairobi in the coming months.  Tomorrow, I head to the office to meet up with Geoffrey, our Regional Programme Manager for East Africa – and then, the real work begins!