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Nairobi is the wonderfully modern and vibrant capital city of Kenya and is home to over 3 million residents. It has a cosmopolitan vibe mixed with colonial influences and is a city that belongs to the young.
Nairobi comes from a Maasai phrase, which translates to “cool water.” The colonial government established the city in 1899 as a railway depot on the Uganda railroad. The colonial feel of Kenya comes from decades of British rule when Kenya was part of the East Africa Protectorate from the late 19th century until its independence in 1964.
Kenya is truly multi-ethnic and enjoys a diverse population. If you travel down the Indian Ocean coast to Mombasa, you will find an enormous Arab influence as part of the Swahili culture that has its roots in the Arab trade routes developed hundreds of years ago.
If you are looking for the traditional African safari, Kenya is the destination for you. Dozens of national parks and nature reserves are located all over the country and trips can easily be booked online. But today Kenya is a whole lot more than safaris. If you explore any travel website, it is not hard to see why tourism is the biggest industry in Kenya. If you are into the outdoors, you won’t be disappointed with the incredible adventure that awaits you.
We were not allowed to leave our tents at night because the hippos would come out of the river and feed. Here is an interesting fact – hippos kills more people than lions and elephants combined. Hippos are fearlessly protective of their turf and their young, and will not hesitate to charge and trample people to death.JS
I came to Nairobi under less than pleasant conditions. I was an Air Force Major and just returned to the Horn of Africa from the States, where I had to leave my family behind. I was assigned to the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I worked in the Defense Attaché Office as a senior military liaison. My wife and two daughters were back in the States after they were evacuated from the country because the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was reaching a critical stage for violence. The State Department ordered a Non-Combatant Evacuation (NEO) of all family members at the Embassy and I was now on my way to Nairobi, Kenya and was missing them terribly.
Since the U.S. had suspended all military to military programs in Ethiopia until things cooled down, U.S. Central Command reassigned me for three months from Ethiopia to the Kenya U.S. Liaison Office (KUSLO) in Nairobi, Kenya. The less than pleasant conditions that I spoke of involved the terrorist bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi the year prior, where more than 200 people were killed, including members of the KUSLO staff. I was assigned as the budget officer to help the military staff recover and to keep US/Kenya military programs running. We were working out of the USAID building, and as you can imagine, security was incredibly tight. It was a long process just to get from my hotel to the office each morning.
Life in Nairobi
I was excited to see how modern and alive Nairobi was. After living in Addis Ababa for some time, I was expecting the same kind of feel in Nairobi. Addis seems like an older city to me with not much beyond a good meal at a quiet restaurant. Nairobi, however, has a great variety of entertainment like malls, movies, fashion boutiques, bookshops, electronics and grocery stores, coffeehouses, restaurants, night clubs and casinos. It seems that the modern part of Nairobi grew up around the old colonial vestiges of the past century.
You can’t escape the fact that the British had colonized Kenya in the early 1900s and built a colonial city in Nairobi, complete with the attitudes that came with it. Those remnants are slowly but surely fading away. The reality is that many of those colonial artifacts bring in tourists and the country does what it has to to bring in visitors and their money. Because I am a historian at heart, I sought out those colonial institutions right away.
One of those institutions was the Stanley Hotel, which I visited every day. The Embassy had a gym membership at the hotel, so I would go over after work every day to workout and relax in the historic splendor of colonial Africa. The Stanley opened in 1902 and was the first luxury hotel in Nairobi, playing host to world leaders and international celebrities. After my workout, I would have a Tusker Beer at Lord Delamere’s Terrace, once one of Africa’s classic bars. This was the place that men like Ernest Hemingway go to tell of their exploits on safari.
Golfing in Kenya
I have to admit that I am a golfing junkie. I took up golfing when I joined the military, and you will find the golf course is the hub of activity at any air force base in the world. I have golfed in Ethiopia, England and Japan, and was itching to see what the Nairobi courses had to offer.
My first chance to golf in Kenya was at the Kenya Railways Golf Club. It is a public course, and green fees are very reasonable. It is in the heart of Nairobi and readily accessible from anywhere in the city. It is the only golf course in the world that has a fully functioning railway line traversing the course.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the Windsor Golf and Country Club during my stay. The Windsor definitely has an old colonial feel and is considered the best golf club on the African Continent. The course was fantastic, and it comes complete with wildlife. I had a golf ball stolen from the fairway by a vervet monkey. My caddy did not have a ruling on that penalty!
Adventures in Dining
The cuisine of Kenya is as multi-ethnic as the culture. You will find an eclectic mix of world cuisine in Nairobi, from Thai to Indian and everything in-between. There is a rather large Indian community in Nairobi, and it seems that there is no shortage of Indian eateries. Indians came to East Africa to work on the Nairobi to Mombasa Railway on contract. Many stayed after their contract was up and settled in Kenya and Uganda. Many of the prominent business leaders of Kenya are descendants of those early laborers from the colonial past.
If you can’t live without your fast-food, you can also find a KFC, Burger King or Subway just around the corner.
You can’t leave Nairobi without dining at the Carnivore Restaurant. It is the ultimate feat if you are a meat eater. They have a huge open pit where they cook the traditional meats of the Bush. They have ostrich, crocodile, buffalo, antelope, zebra and camel. They are roasted and served on traditional Maasai swords and carved at your table. You have to end your meal with a cup of Kenyan coffee.
Adventure Safari in Kenya
The highlight of my trip to Kenya was an excursion to the Finch Hattons Camp in Tsavo West National Park for a true African safari. The entire KUSLO office went for the Fourth of July weekend, and had an amazing time. The camp gets its name from Denys Finch Hatton, a British aristocrat who came to Kenya in 1911 and fell in love with the country. Robert Redford portrayed him in the film “Out of Africa.”
I was not expecting it to be a luxury resort, and each of us had our own private luxury tree house suite. We had driven down in our Land Rovers from Nairobi, and were allowed to drive the park ourselves. Self-drive safaris are the only way to truly explore the park without having to be part of a guided tour. We were warned to stay in our vehicles at all time because you will encounter lions, elephants and leopards on your safari. In fact it was this very area that two lions, dubbed the “Tsavo Man-Eaters,” attacked and killed over 100 workers during the construction of the Uganda-Mombasa Railway in 1898. This was made into a 1996 movie called “The Ghost and the Darkness.”
We were not allowed to leave our tents at night because the hippos would come out of the river and feed. Here is an interesting fact – hippos kills more people than lions and elephants combined. Hippos are fearlessly protective of their turf and their young, and will not hesitate to charge and trample people to death (they are vegetarians).
Even though I came to Nairobi under trying circumstances, the people at the American Embassy made my stay one I will not forget. The city was awesome, and the people of Kenya were some of the friendliest I have ever met. They have done an amazing job in moving their country forward, and Nairobi is a thriving and happening city with so much potential. The Kenyans have been able to come to grips with the past wrongs done during the colonial era, while looking forward to what I see as a bright future for Nairobi and all of Kenya. Jambo!
For more on Nairobi, check out this article.