Nairobi, Kenya: How to Survive in the Big City

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Nairobi, Kenya: How to Survive in the Big City

Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya, a major developing country that lies on the eastern coast of the African continent. Nairobi has a special place in my heart because I was born and raised in this bustling metropolitan city. I, along with 3.375 million other Kenyans, call this city home.

We are a collection of several different tribes and cultures, including some that come from beyond the boundaries of the country. As such, there is no one single language used by all of us. The most common languages spoken within Nairobi’s boundaries are English and Swahili. ‘Sheng’ is especially popular among the youth of Nairobi. ‘Sheng’ is a mixture of English, Swahili and words borrowed from other traditional languages.

I have always wanted to write about this city and give others a feel of what it is like to live here. It is a beautiful African city famed for its world-class hospitality and entertainment scene, as well as being a rich business and investment hub.

With so many people living in one city, you need to know how to live alongside many people. You also need to know how to survive in this ever-moving city in order to enjoy its vibrant culture.

Having lived here for more than 25 years, I can say with certainty that the following tips will help any visitor have a pleasant stay in this great city.

Traffic is Commonplace in the City

Like most busy cities around the world, traffic jams are a common feature in Nairobi. There is usually a traffic jam at almost every major road throughout the day. Motorists usually experience heavy traffic during the early hours of the morning when everyone is going to work, and early evenings, when everyone is leaving their offices. You should also expect heavy traffic when it rains.

Just like every other major city around the world, Nairobi is a bustle of activity all day long. It is a city that never sleeps with people moving about at all times of the day. Despite the challenges, this is a great city to live and flourish in


Even the afternoons are prone to light traffic jams. For instance, I live in Langata, which is the southwestern part of Nairobi, and it takes me approximately half an hour to an hour to cover the seven kilometers (four miles) between my home and the city center on a weekday afternoon. However, during the weekend afternoons, it will take me less than thirty minutes.

The best way to beat the traffic is to be off the road during the times that traffic is bound to build up across the city. This entails waking up earlier than most motorists do in order to reach your destination before the traffic jam begins. The same will apply for the evening and afternoon traffic jams. During the evening, you should begin your journey home earlier than normal. This way you will be able to beat the hectic evening traffic jams on most major roads.

Alternatively, you can use the shortcuts, otherwise known as panya routes in the local dialect. Many experienced motorists know these routes like the back of their hand, and they use them when the Nairobi traffic jams become unbearable. If you are a new driver in the city, you can use Google Maps to guide you through these roads.

Know How to Handle Hawkers

Hawkers are a dime a dozen on the streets of Nairobi. These business-people sell different kinds of wares, from fruits and vegetables, to clothes, toys and cutlery. The majority of the residents in Nairobi get most of their fruits and vegetables and small household items from these hawkers. I often purchase shoes, clothes, jewelry and fruits and vegetables from the street hawkers whenever I am in the city center.

However, the hawkers are sometimes a nuisance because they pester passers-by to purchase their wares. The best way to handle them is to avoid stopping and touching their goods, unless you want to purchase what they are selling. Do not be rude, but do not be intimidated either, just continue walking and mind your own business. They will move to the other customers when they notice that you are disinterested in their services.


Even when you see goods that you like, inquire about the price and attempt to bargain. Your bargaining skills will help you avoid being over-charged for these simple products. As a veteran Nairobi resident, I have perfected the art of bargaining. There was one time when I bought a pair of boots at Kshs 800 (~$2) after bargaining with the seller to lower the price from Kshs 2000 (~$19). It takes street smarts in order to become an excellent bargainer in our dear city.

Another thing you need to know about hawkers in the city is that they are constantly engaged in a running battle with the local county officials. Thus, always be on alert when you see hawkers running, and step to the side to avoid being hit.

Power Outages

Another common feature of this beautiful city is power outages. Scheduled power cuts are announced in the daily newspapers, and they occur to allow the local council to conduct maintenance on the power grid and lines. The announcement usually describes the length of the power cuts and the areas that will be affected around the city. Thus, it is imperative that you constantly check the newspapers to find out if there are any scheduled power cuts. You can then adjust your schedule accordingly. These scheduled power outages usually occur during the day when most people are at work or school to ensure that the residents suffer the least inconvenience.

In addition, you should expect a power outage when it rains heavily. These outages usually last for about ten to thirty minutes, and can occur several times a day during the rainy season.

Some residents buy generators to ensure that their activities continue smoothly even when electricity outages occur.

Water Shortages

Water shortages are another regular occurrence in the major estates of the city. However, like the electricity outages, they happen during the day.

Sometimes the water problem persists in some residential areas, especially when it rains. Thus, prudent residents buy special tanks where they store water for emergencies. It is advisable that every resident finds a way of storing water for household duties just in case there is a water shortage in their area. I have a 1.5l tank in my home where I store water for emergency purposes. I fill my tank with water when the taps are still running, and consume this water when my taps are dry. I always remember to fill the tank up when the water comes back.

Just like every other major city around the world, Nairobi is a bustle of activity all day long. Despite the challenges, this is a great city to live and flourish in, especially if you employ the simple tips outlined in this article. It might take some adjustment for individuals who have never lived here, but once you learn how to live here, you will never feel like leaving. I have lived in this city for all of my life, and I keep falling in love with it every day because of its people and our way of life.

For more on Nairobi, check out Mercy’s article.

Georgina Wangui

Georgina Wangui