Goodbye to Nairobi
Nairobi airport; its 6am on 10th May as I wander round the gift shops in genuine disbelief that I’m shopping for my journey home. My sojourn in Brighton seems like it was in another century. I’ve said goodbye to my trusted driver Steve and he tells me to be sure and say hi to Jo back in Brighton, she’s great he says, with a broad smile. The carpeted dashboard of his car complete with curtain frills seemed so funny back in March when I arrived, but over time, that and the routine of opening the electric passenger window to access the door handle became second nature. There was no need to haggle with Steve either and in a city where the fare could start at €20 and eventually drop as low as €6, this was quite refreshing.
As I walk on board my Kenya Airways flight to Schipol I’m no longer fazed at being one of the few white people, I’ve grown accustomed to the odd curious glance and in a peculiar way I know I’ll miss it. Is my journey over I wonder or has it just begun?
I fix my gaze on the frenetic activities outside as if to capture one last memory of this wonderful country before the cabin crew march through the aircraft, aerosol cans aloft ensuring that only humans take this flight back to Europe. ‘This is your captain speaking’.....and we’re off.
My blog was late to spring into life and as I settle back into my seat I vow to bring it up to date someday soon – far too many memories and so much learning to share. As I said goodbye to friends this week one jokingly asked ‘Still hoping to change the world, Dec?’ I know that when I arrived I was bubbling over with enthusiasm and I had so many ideas; I didn’t want my time in Kenya to be purely a personal experience, I did want to make a positive and measurable change. I’m sad that this did not happen entirely as I had hoped but there seems to be a general acceptance that change will not happen or else it must take an inordinate amount of time. The despairing words of the villagers around Lake Victoria as they recounted their experiences of NGO’s echo in my ears.
An enduring memory of my time in Kenya will be the issue of personal security. The walls surrounding my apartment complex were festooned with razor wire and an electric fence. Access to the complex was via double gates controlled by security guards with a 24 hour armed back up. Response time for the armed back up was quoted as 3 minutes but even the apartment manager admitted that the notorious Nairobi traffic would challenge this. The area I lived in was safe but it was still not recommended to walk after dark and any notions I had of using a bicycle were quickly banished when I saw the condition of the roads and the standard of driving. As time passed I grew accustomed to all of this and even had to be reminded at times not to be letting my guard down, taking unmarked taxis or walking after dark. I think that everyone who returns safely will wonder whether the security issue is over hyped but then again as a local said to me – the chances of being attacked are one in a thousand, the challenge is not to be that one!
‘The rain comes falling, splish splashin, down the town in a Galway fashion’ It was 3am and we were in Black Diamond, the final watering hole before home, when suddenly an air of excitement spread throughout the club as people crowded onto the balcony, cheering and laughing. I wondered what was up. Now it’s not often you see an Irishman smiling at the rain however you just couldn’t help but share the joy knowing what this meant. It’s a scene I won’t easily forget as the lightening sparked and the streets quickly turned to rivers but not a complaint to be heard. This rain was to be an almost daily occurrence for the rest of my stay. Generally it was preceded by a few claps of thunder then the predictable exodus from work would plunge the city into traffic gridlock. One Friday evening I recall sitting in a taxi for one and a half hours to travel about 3km. The infamous Matatu drivers ignored all rules of the road and added to the chaos by driving on the wrong side of the road.
Back in March I attended the first ever initiative in energy by an acting UN Secretary General. Kenya had been chosen as one of the countries to focus efforts on getting universal access to energy for all and to champion the use of renewable energy. Over 25m people in Kenya do not have access to energy. The venue was the Intercontinental Hotel, an incongruous setting of opulence which I was to experience many more times across a city where extreme poverty and crass materialism co exists.
As the conference progressed I had to focus intently to understand the strong African accents but the consistent thread was that solutions to the problems in Kenya are to be found in Kenya and that many initiatives by external actors had not succeeded because of a failure to understand the local culture. As the conference drew to a close a booming voice came from the back of the room ‘terribly sorry for being late’, an unmistakably Irish lady introduced herself as Country Director for the UNDP and offered some concluding remarks on behalf of the UNDP. She emphasised the commitment of the UN to South - South co operation and urged the Kenyan government to take action on rolling out renewable energy projects as there were 3.7m people facing drought again this year. There is a failure to recognise the link between food security and energy and this needs to change she said. I introduced myself once the formalities were over and it turned Maria Threase was from Clontarf, a suburb on the north side of Dublin, but was working in the developing world for over twenty years citing conflict resolution in areas such as Somalia and Bosnia as some of her most rewarding assignments.
Having accepted Maria Threases’ invitation to lunch at the UN I visited in my last week in Nairobi. This was yet another wonderful experience. The compound was home to a 7,000 strong workforce and the largest UN base outside of New York. I couldn’t help but wonder about the efficiencies of such an enormous operation with this sprawling compound which even boasted a 50m outdoor pool. Located on the outskirts of Nairobi it was a virtual fortress and the shiny new roads and infrastructure in the suburb resembled a US town providing another stark example of the vastly contrasting lifestyles in Nairobi.
37,000 feet below I can see the Nile River as it meanders through a totally arid landscape but I must sign off for now as my two hours sleep last night is catching up. I hope to get back to some more blogging soon though – the 80th St Patricks Day Ball in Nairobi, my visit to the Coffee Research Institute and what the media says in Africa are just some areas I’d like to cover. If you’ve been following my journey and would like to offer comment or ask some questions I’d be delighted to hear from you email@example.com
Slán go fóill