During July 2013, I visited Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Kenya lies on the eastern coast of Africa. It borders the Indian Ocean and lies between Tanzania and Somalia. Although it has been a renowned tourist destination for some time, Kenya has recently made significant strides in economic progress and is one of the most promising entrants to the list of high potential emerging markets.
I visited Nairobi for work, but had sufficient time to observe and explore the city. My visit to Kenya was particularly interesting, as I had last visited Kenya in 1997 with my family for safari. I still had vivid memories of the beautiful wildlife reserves and animals, as I landed in Nairobi this July.
I seem to have overlooked the fact that July is actually a winter month in Kenya, until I arrived in Nairobi. The only defense I had against the chilly evening winds in Nairobi was a black shawl I carry with me whenever I travel, in case I feel cold on the flight. So much for being a seasoned traveler…
My first impression of Nairobi was a clean, green city, with a fairly low population (albeit one which has been increasing rapidly in recent years, according to my colleagues in Nairobi).The population of Nairobi is approximately 3 million and the people speak English, Swahili and other indigenous languages. Swahili is spoken in several countries of Africa, and has evolved through the merging of various languages, including Arabic. Among other familiar words, safari is Swahili and means ‘a journey or travel’. There are a fair number of Asians in Nairobi and expatriate American’s and Europeans, particularly in the more affluent parts of town. Remnants of British rule are visible in the colonial style buildings, particularly in the city centre.
One of the most striking differences from my last visit to Kenya, along with the many new malls, complex structures and development projects that are coming up, is the general education and sophistication of the people. Kenya has a well-developed education system, which is still undergoing slow but steady reform, through the efforts of the government. Kenya now has a literacy rate of 87.5 %, and the government is spending approximately 6.7% and 4.5% of the GDP on education and health care respectively. Military expenditure is approximately 1.8% of GDP in comparison. How much countries like Pakistan and India can learn from this example! The higher literacy rate was reflected in the general calm and courtesy of the people I met within and outside the office, and their analytical and communication skills.
Traffic is a problem in Nairobi, as is the case in many emerging cities. If you leave your office at peak times, it can take an hour – or more – to reach to your destination, as the narrow roads get clogged with ‘matatus’, the most popular form of public transport. Matatus are Nairobi’s answer to Karachi’s yellow minibuses – and they are about as law abiding.
During and after work, I explored the malls – for coffee, lunch or shopping. These malls reminded me of the new malls in Karachi, only more cosmopolitan. I saw groups of Africans, Asians, Europeans and North Americans at the malls, socializing and enjoying the ambiance. The prettiest mall that I visited in Nairobi was Westgate. It is a pity that it was destroyed as a result of the terrorist attacks in September 2013.
Although my first few days were spent close to my office in Park Lane, I eventually ventured to other parts of town.
During a weekend, I visited one of the nicest spots in Nairobi: the Nairobi National Park. The park is clean and well-maintained and has several sections. The animals in the ‘Animal Orphanage’ section are a delight, not just in terms of their reaction to people (who they are obviously observing with great amusement), but also the range of species rarely seen in other parts of the world. I saw the most unusual cats, lions, tigers, elephants, zebras and monkeys. It was wonderful to feed the baby elephants or watch them being fed. The lions in particular were fascinating – many of them would pose for the camera every time people took photographs and roar to display their ferocity and sharp teeth to visitors, particularly children. I should not say this, but I am so glad that the lions were at a safe distance and in their cages at the Animal Orphanage….I also visited a reserve park, where the animals were in a more natural habitat, and it was a matter of luck whether you managed to catch a glimpse. I made friends with a lovely, graceful giraffe but kept a safe distance from the crocodiles. All in all, the visit to the Nairobi National Park was one of the most memorable experiences in Nairobi. Although it is much smaller than the large reserve parks outside Nairobi, it is a treat.
Another place I visited was Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world. Having spent much time in Karachi’s slums, I wondered how much better or worst conditions would be among the poorest in another continent. The impact of AIDs on the population is evident, but so is the ‘will to fight back’. NGOs and social workers from around the world are working in Kibera, along with the public sector to improve healthcare, sanitation and education. Global publicity has also improved conditions in this now famous slum. It is amazing how in the depths of poverty, you see the same things you see in the richest parts of town: shops, entrepreneurs selling their wares, people walking around or talking in groups, children playing – equally oblivious to the environment around them. Everyone lives in their own cocoon, perhaps.
Kibera, one of the largest slums of the world
My experience of Nairobi can probably be summed up in my time with a friend I made there. She is a medical student from Ireland, who was completing an internship at a hospital in Nairobi in July. She was visiting Africa especially to learn from the work experience in a different environment. We spent hours talking about our backgrounds and future plans, exchanging ideas and solutions to the world’s woes. Nairobi provided the space and time for such discourse, as the city itself moves forward to new levels of economic prosperity and social development. I would recommend Africa, especially Kenya – its safari’s and sights – to anyone who has not been there yet.