As we adapt to our new world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at where we are. Though my professional focus is on Somalia, we do happen to live in Kenya. And I can say without hesitation that there are far worse places to live.
Nairobi is a fairly young city by many standards. It didn’t get its start until about 1900, established as a stopover on the British East African railroad between Mombasa (on the coast) and Kampala, Uganda. By comparison, Chicago had a population of about 1.7 million by that time. Today, Nairobi has long since surpassed Chicago in total population (3.5 million to 2.7 million) and continues to grow.
Other than as a railway stopover, the city grew in importance to the colonial powers as a big game hunting destination. It also served as a center for exportation (exploitation) of the country’s tea, coffee and sisal. Kenya gained its independence in 1963 and, except for a few hiccups along the way, over time the city has grown to become an African economic powerhouse and the game hunters have morphed into safari tourists and aid workers.
It’s easy to see what the attraction was for the Brits. In addition to the big game, access to the amazing Indian Ocean coast, the rich natural resources, etc., the city lies at an altitude that produces the cooler air that the English would have appreciated. At 1,795 meters (5,889 ft.), Nairobi is much higher than you would think. In fact, it is around the same altitude as the base of a ski area in my home state, Brundage Mountain (5,840 ft.). However due to being a little over 100 kilometers (about 65 miles) from the equator, you won’t ever see any snow. In fact the vegetation is quite tropical-ish (“subtropical highlands” to be precise) with lots of palm trees and flowering vegetation year round.
What the colonial masters didn’t have to deal with was traffic. Nairobi was not designed; it just happened. There seem to be some weak attempts to fix the transportation problem but it’s generally a complete mess. Like many African cities, the prosperity means that more of the population can afford cars. That’s good news and bad news. We’ve opted for an apartment that allows us to walk to work/school and provides us some shelter from the ubiquitous traffic jams. But it doesn’t protect me when I need to venture out to the billions of meetings I need to attend at the UN, at hotels, in international organization and government offices etc. Thank goodness for a smart phone and a driver that provide me the ability to use that time in transit effectively.
What’s great is that Nairobi has a middle class. Wealth is sinking deeper into the population. There is still tremendous disparity and the wealth tends to be concentrated in and around Nairobi but it’s good to see that it’s not foreigners that are driving the economy.
Last weekend we ventured out to see the Giraffe Centre. Founded in 1979 as a core breeding centre of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, it later expanded its conservation efforts and opened an environmental education centre for the Kenyan youth (and tourists). We had been there before when Kiran was about two but she had no recollection of it. This time we took both girls and their nanny, Emilienne. For Emi, it was quite the experience. Until she met us she had never traveled more than an hour from her native Bujumbura, Burundi, and never outsider her country. We took her on an airplane for the first time last year (to Kigali) and then to Nairobi this year to help us out for a couple months as we are transitioning to Kenya. Her perception of the world has changed considerably and I’m glad we’ve been able to expose her to new things – things she likely would have never seen otherwise. It’s probably odd for Westerners to think that a woman from the African continent has never seen a giraffe before but unfortunately it’s quite common. Most sub-Saharan Africans do not have the means to visit national parks and thus they are reserved for the rich and/or the foreigner. In any case, it was fantastic watching her feed the giraffes.
So overall we like the place. It’s not all roses but we shan’t complain. Our transition will be complete once the truck arrives with our belongings from Burundi – something that for some reason still may be weeks away.