A Walk on the Wild Side

Nairobi, Kenya

I wrote this story while working in Nairobi, but I held off on posting it because I didn’t want to scare people.  However, reading back through it, I realize how much I changed while in Nairobi, and how quickly we adapt and become desensitized to our environment.

My first month of walking home, I was scared and on edge.  Perhaps I was hyper-sensitive. By time I left, I was walking home like it was no different than walking down the street in Chicago.  Confident and sure.

I did change the side of the street I walked on, based on the trusted advice of my friend and taxi driver.  One side of the street was harder for thieves to make a quick getaway.  Therefore, I was less likely to be robbed.  It also meant I avoided the trash heap men.

—-

In order to leave work at a reasonable time (Nairobi traffic is brutal) and to gain some freedom from being dependant on others’ schedules, I’ve been experimenting with walking home.  The hour walk home is…interesting. The first ten minutes after leaving Strathmore University, where the Kiva office is located, I walk down a bumpy, dusty dirt road, passing a couple of primary schools and few street vendors.  Given the size of Nairobi, I’m surprised by how often I’m walking on dirt roads and sidewalks.

Once I reach Mbagathi Way, a four lane major thoroughfare, I must walk along the edge of Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world. It’s a very busy area packed with people making their way home to Kibera.  I can count on one hand how many times I saw non-Kenyan walking along this stretch of road.  I also stand out because of my dress. Most people stare at me intensely, probably thinking ‘crazy white girl’.  Some of the meaner-looking ones appear to be thinking ‘how much money does she have’.  I don’t want to brag, but quite often I’m told how beautiful I am.

I walk over an underpass with a long railroad track below.  I’ve never seen a train on the tracks, which is good, because it is a major pedestrian thoroughfare for those returning to Kibera, nearly as busy as the sidewalks above.  There is also a pedestrian overpass, supposedly providing safe passage for those trying to get to the other side of Mbagathi Way.  At first it seems puzzling that the Kenyans prefer to dart across the road (including scaling a cement barricade in the middle) and risk a real live version of Frogger instead of use the overpass.  But then I’m told that it’s not safe, and robbers sit in wait for pedestrians.

Afterwards, I pass a couple of small trash dumps along the side the road, before passing a bigger trash dump, about the size of a 7-Eleven.  This is the scariest part for me.  Or rather the men who live in, urinate in and start fires in this trash dump are the scariest part for me.  Recently, they’ve taken notice of the mzungu walking alone.  Two days in a row I had someone run out of this trash heap ‘to greet me’.  My roommates laughed at me for memorizing ‘niache’ (Swahili for ‘leave me alone’), but it’s come in handy.

The last 30 minutes are fairly normal, thankfully.  So what kinds of interesting things have I seen on this walk?

  •       A body laying in the grass, head and chest in the bushes, feet and torso near the sidewalk.  No movement.  I’m assuming he was just passed out.  No one else paid him any attention.  But who takes a nap with their face in a bush? (Don’t read that the dirty way)
  •       Unattended goats grazing on the side of the road. A busy, traffic-packed, four-lane main thoroughfare in a capital city.  Is it sad that this one made me wonder the most?  Whose goats are these?  Is this the best grazing area available?
  •       A guy with eyes so completely blood red it gave me chills.  And an angry face staring me down to boot. Maybe it’s the changaa, Kenyan moonshine?  The name means ‘kill me quick,’ and can contain jet fuel or embalming fluid.
  •       A guy from trash heap running out of the dump like he’s going to grab me.  Yet he only gently brushes his dirty arm on mine and leaves. I scrubbed my arm excessively when I got home.
  •       A man with his trash bag of goodies disappearing into a drainage tunnel, presumably a shortcut to where ever he was going.
  •       Another guy running out of the trash heap to follow me for the next 20 minutes until I got to the ‘safe section’ where I was able to lose him.
  •       A guy telling me I looked scared in an area where I was definitely not, making me wonder how scared I must look in the areas where I was actually scared.  I need to perfect my ‘don’t f with me’ look.  Apparently Chicago standards are not sufficient for Nairobi.

I’ve begun experimenting with taking a matatu home instead of walking.

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