Nairobi is like a wild lover: Intriguing but dangerous, rugged at the edges but with an irresistible allure; the bad boy your momma warned you against but who can fill the void in you. That’s the city I’ve lived in for the past two years. There are more people in this city than back home in Kampala and here, people walk in such a hurry you wonder if they are late for the plane to London; and they move in huge crowds.
When I moved here, walking at a leisurely pace became stressful, as I would I get knocked about and stepped on with not even a single “sorry.”
I was warned never to trust anyone, so I always hold on tight to my bag and look over my shoulder. What a life!
At the matatus is when it gets really interesting. We pay the fare a few minutes after the matatu starts moving. Now, this is not the case back home, where one pays as they get off at their destination. I always wonder what would happen if the matatu broke down along the way. And why do we have old, rusty contraptions in the capital of a country that does not allow importation of vehicles more than eight years old? Shouldn’t these monsters be destroyed?
Matatus are only supposed to carry 14 passengers but, often, this rule is broken. We, the passengers, sit meekly as more people are squeezed in. We are usually told we are “helping others get home.” The extra passengers either squat in the aisle, or perch on the conductor’s seat. Some hang dangerously from the door.
But what surprises me most is that there is not a squeak from the loud, supposedly confident Kenyans, the ones who are supposed to know their rights. I usually protest loudly.
One day, I was told off by a conductor, known as makanga.
“Si ushuke? (Why don’t you get off, then?)” he said.
“Nirudishie pesa zangu basi, nishuke niite polisi. (Give me back my money, I’ll get off and call the police!),” I shot back. Only one woman spoke out, the rest were hellbent on reaching their homes, alive or dead, in the rusty contraption. Another day, as the makanga was busy pushing in passengers the door fell off. I laughed as it was hauled onto the top of the matatu and we scooted off, right past a police check, the makanga hanging out the doorway.
The matatus, however, come in handy during traffic jams, where people who own cars will be stuck for hours while we in the rusty contraptions come horns blaring, overlapping, driving on pavements and doing all sorts of things to beat this crazy hold-up, and I get home in 15 minutes flat.
And guess what? Nowadays, when I visit Kampala, I find myself getting frustrated with the leisurely pace of life there. Why are people here so slow, I mutter to myself.
In Nairobi, someone will stop you and ask for directions or some kind of help without a hello and move on without even a thank you. Whenever I have the opportunity I say, “Uh, thank you too,” or “Good morning/evening to you too.” But Nairobians rarely get the hint.
In this city, prices of goods depend on which side of the city you are in. The same pair of shoes that costs Ksh10,000 in shops on Monrovia Street or in Westlands will go for Ksh1,500 on Taveta Road. So after being cheated a few times, I know where to shop. Prices of groceries also differ depending on supermarkets in different areas.
Hanging out in Kenya is interesting. There is an unwritten law that separates the haves from the have-nots. Nairobians know this and will not throw away their hard-earned cash at an expensive wine bar when they can get the same somewhere else for less.
What has fascinated me is the love of dingy places like Njuguna’s on Waiyaki Way. Big, sleek cars park outside this little, drab iron -sheet roofed bar. On the day I was there, my host showed me rich people, CEOs, the who’s who in this city, sitting on logs in a smoke-filled area waiting for their choma!
Nairobi has some good, polite and caring people, who will help you up when you trip up and fall on the street. And it is not all about robbery.