What it's like to live in Nairobi

Page and I have now been living in Nairobi for a little over a month. Over that time, I’ve been writing down some notes: about what things feel different in Nairobi, and what details give insight into what it’s like to live here.

I do want to say, from the top, though: I like it here. Nairobi has a lot of ups, and a lot of downs, but ultimately Nairobi feels like the underdog that you can’t help rooting for.

One month in, here’s how Nairobi feels to me:

  • People. In my day-to-day movements, I think I interact with more people here than at home. Even in my first few weeks here, I found that most days I’d greet and have a short conversation with: our security guard Jeffrey; our apartment-building manager Marion; our cab driver Amos; and our office support staff Njambi, Izeka, and Braza — on top of everyone I directly work with daily. On a typical day in SF, I might talk only to 5-6 people in my office who I work with directly, and that’s it. Now, there are two factors playing bit roles here. One is that in Nairobi, we’re wide-eyed visitors, trying to meet people and understand Kenya better, so of course we’re chatting with people more than we might back home. And the other thing you can’t miss is the radically lower cost of labor here. It very often makes sense to hire a live-in security guard, cook, and house cleaner here, because the cost is low, and you’re providing someone with a job. Similarly, most restaurants we go to have a ton of waitstaff. So it feels like there are a lot of people to talk to everywhere you go. With all of that said, though, I still think that the culture is a little different here. People by and large are kind, friendly, and believe in saying hello. Without fail, every person in the office comes by and shakes my hand each morning — which is the standard Kenyan greeting for someone you know, rather than a hollered out “Hello” or a wave. (A wave is even a little bit offensive, I’ve come to understand.) Here, I feel surrounded by people, and that nobody is a face or a neighbor that I just politely ignore each morning.
  • Thinner margin for error. Fast cars zoom by you while you walk down a tiny dirt shoulder-sidewalk, with only 2 inches to spare. This is normal. Everywhere you go in Nairobi, it feels like things are running much closer to the redline than we’re used to. Cars drive within millimeters of each other, and swerve rapidly once every few minutes or so. Concertina wire might be coiled inches from your face — don’t trip! Once you’re used to it all, it feels safe, and not terribly problematic or even something you think much about. But you need to keep your senses honed a bit sharper than you might in the U.S.
  • Middle class. White is the minority here. Almost no place you go — the airport, the fancy mall, a nice restaurant, anywhere — is it entirely white. That feels good. Nairobi has a large Kenyan middle class, and this contributes a lot towards Nairobi’s feeling comfortable to me. You don’t feel like you’re in an expat bubble when Kenyans are rubbing elbows with you at the nice brunch place and the Lebanese restaurant. If all of us do-gooder gringos, Chinese embassy attach├ęs, and multi-national management consultants left, daily life in Nairobi would go on, largely without skipping a beat. By contrast, visiting post-apartheid South Africa (which we did — more on this soon) felt radically different. There, I instantly felt like the oppressor. In Kenya, though, I feel like a visitor, and like I can have interactions as an equal — a relationship that feels reciprocal with how it would feel if a Kenyan was visiting my work in San Francisco.
  • Tunnel from place to place. It’s really not that easy to get around in Nairobi. The distances are too far too walk, usually, and often impassable for pedestrians. And after dusk, it’s not safe to walk much of anywhere, even if it’s only a few minutes away. Driving, conversely, is not for the faint of heart. (As a side note, I’ve never seen drivers more aggressive than Nairobi drivers— not in Boston, not in Vietnam, not anywhere.) So, the outcome of all of this, is that you take a lot of cabs in Nairobi. A lot. There’s not really any other way to get around. Because of that, it feels a bit like everything in Nairobi is connected by a series of underground tunnels. The tunnels are not that hard to take, but they aren’t scenic (you can’t see much out of the tinted windows), and they take some planning (a cab usually takes 20 minutes to arrive, and 30 minutes to take you where you’re going). For the first few weeks, I think these taxi tunnels made me feel a little trapped. “I just want to go down the street! It’s going to take an hour! I’m stuck here!” After the third week, though, it started to feel normal, and acceptable. But now I understand why people in Nairobi talk wistfully about being able to walk at night.
  • Trust. Trust is different here. Some Kenyan coworkers have explained to me that by default, people here are assumed to be not trustworthy, until proven otherwise. They see this as the opposite from how we think in the U.S., where we tend to be open and trust people easily, until we see something questionable. The example they cited was the process of applying for a job: When you apply for a job in the U.S., they might call your references, but often they won’t. And no one will expect you to bring a copy of your diploma with you to an interview, whereas here apparently that’s common. At the same time, here in Nairobi, when someone decides that they do trust you, they trust you far more than we would in the States. As an example, take the place where we get lunch, a little canteen near the office where most of the local office and NGO workers go. If you’ve been there a few times before, and you don’t happen to have enough to pay for lunch, they don’t bat an eye, and tell you to pay next time. They’re not taking any notes, and I’m sure they’ve forgotten once you walk away. But they trust you’ll pay. Similarly, when we rented our apartment here, in a building where another co-worker of mine also lives, our landlord let us move in, and then gave us a lease to sign later. She never bugged us about it. We gave it to her a few weeks later.

I love Nairobi. It’s not perfect, and in many ways, it’s not comfortable or easy. But it has a lot of heart. It’s a real, successful African city — by Africans, for Africans, and you can feel that when you are there. It’s large enough to be a proper city. It’s prosperous enough to have basic and high-end services, and to not be completely stumped by poverty. Of course, plenty of people here do live in poverty, in slums and peri-urban areas. But it feels like the government is likely stable and functional enough to allow the city’s prosperity relative to grow and continue.

So, in the final analysis: Page and I are doing just fine. We even like it here. And, perhaps more importantly, we have a guest room. Come visit!