Kultural konnektions: 10 funny things about Nairobi

Nairobi is a big cosmopolitan city, where many residents – and all Western expats – enjoy a pretty high standard of living. Running water; access to fresh fruits and vegetables; the occasional rooftop bar with blue Star Trek lighting, martinis, and lounge furniture. Most apartments come with some level of daily housekeeping – ours is considered fairly minimalist, but two ladies come in every day except Sunday to make the bed, wash the towels and wipe down the surfaces. So we’re hardly roughing it. And yet, there are frequent cross-cultural surprises. In no particular order, here are 10 points of interest in our Nairobi life:

1. Despite the size of the city and the volume of its traffic, there are few stoplights. This is sort of surprising, for a place that looks like this:

How does it work? … you may wonder. And the cynical answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Traffic is awful, and driving conditions often resemble a game of bumper cars in a dry riverbed. But the practical answer is: roundabouts. In fact, most of the few stoplights Nairobi does have are auxiliary, generally ignored guidance devices adorning a roundabout. Sometimes, in addition to the usual flow of the roundabout and the metering attempts of the lights, there will be an additional traffic cop directing the flow, often in contradiction of whatever the lights indicate. But, anyway, there are very few lights. Considering how unreliable the power is, though, the absence of traffic lights sort of makes sense. If traffic depended on the lights working… I hadn’t really been trying to think of ways to make the city’s traffic worse, but I think I just hit on one. Anyway, here is the surprising thing I’m building to: In Nairobi, tow trucks just hang out at intersections, waiting for business.

2. So, plenty of tow trucks. What we hardly ever see are fire trucks or ambulances. Not never, but very rarely, and we have heard a siren maybe twice since we got here. Also: specialty service vehicles like ambulances and school buses are often just white vans labeled “Ambulance” or “School bus” on the hood.

3. Supermarkets here are very much on the model of supermarkets in the U.S. Less fancy, but large, and with diverse inventory. The two markets within walking distance of our place comprise smaller electronics and furniture stores, for instance, and you can buy lots of kinds of pots and pans, glassware, etc. there too. The merchandise isn’t of particularly high quality, but the stores themselves are pretty comprehensive and one-stop shop. At Nakumatt, the slightly fancier supermarket, you can even buy camel milk. (Friends of Kevin Gibbs will be unsurprised to learn that he’s trying to arrange for a group tasting.) But it’s clear that we in the U.S. benefit from a ton of packaging research and optimization that is not at work here. The plastic packaging on stuff here is so flimsy that the bag containing our sandwich bread rips when we pick up the loaf. And things that would be re-sealable in the U.S., like cereal boxes, are not re-sealable. Also, within the packaging, product quality really varies. We bought a bug zapper that just didn’t turn on. And this week we bought some butter that proved to be riddled with gray spots and carrying a strong odor of cheese.

4. Speaking of which, let’s talk about cheese. NOT a thing here. Almost all the cheese brands are waxy and terrible. We asked a Kenyan coworker if he ever ate cheese, and from his reaction (“No. NO! No.”) you might think we’d asked if he regularly ate horse anus. If you come to Kenya, here is the reasonable brand of cheese: Brown’s. That’s it. Of course, there are plenty of societies in the world that do not enjoy cheese, but the local aversion is interesting because a) British colonial influence is evident in other areas of Kenyan culinary life; there’s tons of tea drinking, and affection for pastry and meat pies. And b) Kenya has huge dairy production! I have never seen so many kinds of yogurt available. So it’s not dairy that’s the horse anus. It’s cheese.

5. Also, cereal! Not popular with Kenyans, we’re told, and as a possible consequence, it’s a strange facsimile of the breakfast cereals we’re accustomed to. The oddities vary: some corn flakes we got are merely bland and thick, but I got some Rice Krispies-style cereal that has a strange oily quality. Two bites, and the roof of your mouth is coated with a thin layer of what feels like cold Crisco.
So I guess points 3-5 have all been the same point: Our shopping has been hit-and-miss.

6. Recycling! Perhaps unsurprisingly, recycling is not particularly big in Kenya. Not that environmentalism is unknown here – nearby Rwanda has banned plastic bags, and checks you at the border to make sure none enter the country. But there isn’t really the infrastructure to support a comprehensive recycling program here. I mean, there’s barely mail service. So we were excited when we learned we could return beer bottles – not wine bottles, not water bottles, but at least beer bottles – to the less-fancy local supermarket, Uchumi. But then it was explained that we could only return as many bottles as we were buying. Something to do with planning the proper stocking of crates? So there is not actually bottle return, but there is one-to-one bottle exchange. Huh.

7. The teenaged grocery bagger who kindly explained to me about the bottle exchange was, at the same time, trying to put my groceries into plastic bags, while I was trying to politely direct my purchases into the reusable cloth bags I’d brought for the purpose. (Even bringing your own bags only does so much good, because each individual produce purchase has to be put in its own plastic bag and sealed with its price sticker. This makes me itchy, but them’s the rules.) The bagger obliged me for my regular purchases, but pushed back when it came to the big jugs of bottled water. He pointed out that these would not fit in my bags. I pointed out that the jugs have handles. He was unimpressed. I said I already had enough bags at home. And then he smiled knowingly. “Ah,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “En-vi-ron-ment.” I laughed. “Yeah, OK, you got me. Environment.” He clearly thought I was nuts, but we had a nice moment.

8. We are staying in a nice furnished apartment. The décor is a little weird, but overall it’s a nice place by any global standard. A few of its features – the little washing machine in the kitchen, the excellent super-high shower head, the wide built-in window seat – are actually improvements over our usual standard of living. But there are no smoke alarms. And if this worries you, we definitely shouldn’t tell you about how the front door can only be locked and unlocked with the key – meaning that we have to lock ourselves in, and in an emergency would have to find the key in order to get out.

9. Also, refrigerators here come with locks. We’re not sure whom these locks are intended to bar – one’s children, one’s maid, oneself? This has not been explained.

10. Here’s a nice one. In the building where we both work – which is a one-level U-shaped building around a central courtyard, surrounded by lush overgrown gardens containing hibiscus bushes and a guava tree – Baraza, the kind of office support-staff dude, makes big carafes of Kenyan tea with milk twice a day, and everyone crowds into the kitchen for a mug. There are sodas available in the fridge for about 30 cents. And every day around 10, a woman from a nearby canteen comes by to sell delicious hot chapattis, meat samosas and unsweetened doughnuts called mendazi. Mendazi and chapatti cost about a penny and a nickel respectively, while the samosa is about 30 cents. We may not get out of here with our pants fitting, but I will really miss the Convivial Cheap Tasty Snack portion of Kenyan office life. By comparison a vending machine just seems sad.

The cumulative effect here is that I swing back and forth a lot in my enjoyment of Nairobi. Sometimes I’m really tickled by the surprises, appreciative of the warmth and patience of the people, and feel just massively grateful to be having this eye-opening experience of living in another country and being racially in the minority and adjusting to a slightly unfamiliar set of customs. And then sometimes I think that the second I get back to the U.S. I’m going to go to, like, Home Depot, and lie down on its flat clean* floor among its satisfaction-guaranteed wares and hug the ground. The good news is, the latter feeling doesn’t really interfere with the former – even when I’m uncomfortable and long for familiarity and ease, it’s clear that coming here was the right thing to do, that I’m going to be greatly the better for having spent time here. So on the whole I think it’s a win.

* Oh yes it is.
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