Skip to content

My Africa Diaries: The Little Things

My first full day in Nairobi, as with any first visit to a foreign country, was full of little observations – the similarities and the differences.

The Bathrooms: Public bathrooms all have ceiling-to-floor doors. I’ve only ever seen them this widespread on cruise ships before. Not sure if it’s privacy, security, or just some weird throwback British custom from colonial days. I wanted to see if the water rotated the “other” way, but most toilets have too little water to tell.

The Cityscape: Few skyscrapers, many trees. Lush and a bit run down in many places. The noises about are a strange mix of British-sounding car horns, sirens, roosters, and hammering from construction site (but noticeably absent from those same construction sites are the sounds of construction equipment.) Nairobi’s pedestrians run the gamut, from well-dressed businesspeople to people in simple traditional dress balancing impressive and almost comically large sacks entirely on their heads.

Morning view of Nairobi from the top floor of our office tower. The city is very green from above.
Morning view of Nairobi from the top floor of our office tower. The city is very green from above.

The Phone System: I bought a SIM card yesterday for my old unlocked Windows Phone 7. I am irrationally amused by the fact that the network is called “Safaricom” – a constant reminder on my phone’s home screen that home is actually a long ways away. (In other countries, the names are always generic, like “Rogers” or “Orange”. Canada should totally have a phone network called “Hockeycom” or something.) If you can unlock your GSM phone when coming here, that’s totally the way to go – the SIM cost me Ksh 200 (about $2.30) and then you can charge at almost any convenience store in lots of amounts. There’s no packages – it’s costing me about $.12 a text and local calls/data are not terribly expensive either (3G only). At the airport I ended up using my AT&T phone to make a call to my driver, which is a total rip-off but I had no local SIM yet. (AT&T’s global calling plans in Kenya are $30 for 15 minutes. For the package!)

The Currency: Exchange rates are between 83 and 89 Ksh (Kenyan shillings) per dollar. But the value of a “dollar” varies widely based on context. My colleague took three people out to an Ethiopian lunch for the equivalent of $11. My “expensive” in-building lunch yesterday was 600 Ksh (about 7 dollars) for a quesadilla, bottled water and tips/tax. Seems normal by US standards, but too expensive for most residents here to afford. At tourist spots like airports or nicer hotels, it’ll be as expensive as you expected in the States. Tipping is a bit cheaper here – less situations require it, and it’s usually max 10% instead of 20% when it does occur.

The Power: We’re in rainy season, which means thunderstorms. Thunderstorms and wind mean lots of power interruptions. We’re in a large office building but still lost power 4 times yesterday. What was really remarkable was that no one flinched. I was sitting in a room full of folks on their laptops, clearly using the wireless Internet which was no longer accessible, but they were all so very used to the interruption that they just kept working. Stark contrast to Microsoft, where all it takes is a slight Internet disruption to cause panic, much less a full power outage. 😉

Buildings: There’s a building under construction next to the office building we’re in. The building methods here appear to be a hybrid of old and new. You see a little bit of scaffolding, but in many cases they’re using long branches instead of lumber or steel to build the framing. Also, the folks doing the construction are completely unprotected and oft hanging off the side of the building to work.

Security: Security is an ever-present concern in Kenya, especially right now with increased threats and incidents of terrorism. Our hotel has an armed guard (With an automatic rifle and army fatigues) at all times. Nearly every office building has an exterior gate and security guards – at the least, they check bags and wand for concealed weapons, and in some cases they use bomb sniffing dogs and under-car mirrors as well. However, in many cases it seems to be more of an illusion – at one or two buildings we’ve been in they already treat us like regulars after just a day.

Fashion: At the risk of making massive generalizations, everyone here is generally very attractive. In Nairobi, as a friend counseled me, everything is one to two notches more formal than it would be in the States. Even at this tech incubator – which in the States would be hoodies, sandals and jeans – you see a lot of well-dressed programmers in button downs, slacks or suits. There are some more casual folks too, but it’s the exception not the rule.

Devices: I haven’t seen a single iPad yet since arriving in Nairobi. I’m the only one here using a tablet (my Surface RT). There are a few netbooks here, but mostly it’s big beast laptops, probably about 30% Apple and the rest an assortment of Dells, Toshibas, HPs and the like. In the realm of smartphones, I have seen a few Windows Phones in the wild, but it’s still predominantly iPhones, Androids, and a larger number of Blackberries and older flip styles than we’re used to seeing in the States. I’m sure that outside of this tech bubble, it’s mostly feature phones. (Because smartphones aren’t terribly common, it makes it harder to take and share pictures without drawing undue attention to oneself. All of my photos so far have been in the confines of this office building.)

Driving: First off, it’s British driving rules here – left side of the road, a fair number of traffic circles. Traffic is not as chaotic as say, India (according to my travel companion – I’ve never been there myself), but it’s very aggressive. At rush hour, there’s a fair bit of traffic and foot patrols needed to untangle major intersection gridlock. And there’s lots of improvising and avoidances due to pedestrians and MASSIVE potholes in all but the most major roads. I’m fascinated by the traffic lights, which include a countdown timer to the light change (usually about 30 seconds worth of green and 60s worth of red, incidentally) If we tried that in America we’d get a whole bunch of drag races.

Social Responsibility: This is a really interesting one. A trend in Kenya right now is a growing focus on “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR). In a way, it seems the government adheres to this standard as well. The Open Kenya initiative shares government data with the public, and a number of startups have developed open source web apps and services that interpret and expose that data in useful ways. It’s not as if it’s a panacea of good behavior – there’s still corruption and exploitation out there – but it seems the momentum is to continue making progress in a positive direction.

Languages & Tribes: Kenya is really diverse. English is the official language and Swahili is the national language. Most signage is in English, but you’ll see ads (particularly digital) in Swahili as well. But many folks here are trilingual – there are also three tribal languages that and most everyone has strong identification with a particular tribe and their associated language. (my main contact, for example, volunteered that he is of the Kikuyu.) This diversity has led to political strife in the past but doesn’t seem to be a social issue on a day to day basis. As an American visiting, it’s a little less disorienting than I expected because of the wide prevalence of English in conversation and signage.

Mobile Payments: Mobile payments are pretty common, it seems – M-Pesa “till numbers” are all over, and you use that information to transfer money via phone to the businesses you’re frequenting. (You either need a national ID or a passport to set up an account.) Credit cards, on the other hand, are rather infrequently used outside of hotels and businesses catering to internationals – if you’re not set up for mobile payments, cash is the order of the day. (Even when credit cards are accepted, I’m told the transactions take a long time and are unreliable.)

I certainly don’t claim to have a deep understanding of the country or culture yet, but there’s so much to observe and learn. I’m enjoying my stay so far and today starts my own teaching adventure – I’m excited to see what questions my students bring to the table. And tonight we meet with our safari guide! More stories to come, I’m sure.

Discussion

comments