Nairobi, Kenya: Survivors by Default

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Nairobi, Kenya: Survivors by Default

Nairobi – sounds familiar? Even without knowing the exact location of Nairobi, chances are you have heard it mentioned either by a colleague or in the media. In any case, if you know who the first black American president is, then the name Kenya must ring a bell. His father, Obama, was actually wholly Kenyan – what the famous West African writer, Wole Soyinka, might describe as by birth and inclination.

Nairobi happens to be the capital of Kenya, an East African country that is home to half of Lake Victoria, the source of the river Nile. And this river is arguably the longest in the world, stretching a good 6,670km to Egypt.

Nairobi is famous for a variety of things, beginning with being a world force in athletics. It is also home to Lupita Nyong’o, who has captured the world’s attention in recent years, strutting down the red carpet in Hollywood. Kenya’s Rugby 7s also stands out internationally, giving the All Blacks of New Zealand and others a run for their money. The late Professor Wangari Maathai, the environmentalist Nobel Laureate, also hailed from Nairobi.

Still, Nairobi has its own share of weird things. But it’s mostly peculiarities that you smile about rather than frown or curse.

Nairobians Are Survivors by Default

Let me begin with how you get from Point A to Point B in this city that was once known as The Green City In The Sun. Well, it still is… What with the green vegetation and trees that provide a cool natural habitat for lions, giraffes, monkeys, birds and a whole range of animals – right within the city environs.

You won’t go more than seven kilometers from the city centre before you get to the Nairobi National Park. That’s an interesting phenomenon; living within the same city as wild animals without the threat of being mauled. But this is not the gist of the matter.


Let’s assume you’ve been lucky to have a local friend drive you around in a personal car, and you’ve just come back from wherever you’ve been in the evening. It’s a little too early for bed and you would like to sample a bit of Nairobi’s nightlife. Walking around from one joint to the next is definitely possible, and safe.

Nairobi’s economy partially runs on a 24 hour basis, so there’s life all around you – even at night. Food is always available, ranging from roast maize to roast meat (popularly known as nyama choma), and anything else you can think of. You can dine in world-class restaurants like the Hilton, the Tamarind, Villa Rosa, Kempinski, Fairmont, Norfolk and others. And there are supermarkets open 24/7.

The interesting bit is when your car becomes a burden. Say you want to visit Kengeles Bar and Restaurant, where you can enjoy all kinds of dishes – local, Mexican, Asian, you name it – within a very welcoming environment, and then walk to, say, Simmers, an open-air entertainment spot that feels like a never-ending party. Kengeles is on Koinange Street, while Simmers is a couple of meters away along Kenyatta Avenue. As you try to find a parking space outside Kengeles, you are likely to notice an urchin, locally known as a chokora, approach you.

Oh – oh… He wants to start begging now? No – he doesn’t, calm down. And he won’t even try to tag at your coat once you get out of the car as he would crudely have done years ago.

Kenya has come a long way since President Kibaki took the reign in 2002. Everyone has to work to earn a living – as his government kept reminding Kenyans. And he led by example.

So, in the same spirit, this street urchin is out to earn. He is filthy dirty alright, but watch his moves. He looks around as your car continues to rev, and then he begins gesturing to your friend. The way he does it, you might be fooled into thinking the two have known each other for years.

Nyuma… nyuma… nyuma… hapo. That is, back… back… back… there (meaning stop).

These are calls to help your friend reverse the car without bumping onto others.

Sasa ingia hapa – meaning, now enter here.

And as easily as that your car is securely parked… Well, other cars cannot easily ram into it, but other dangers can befall it. For example, your side mirror and headlights can mysteriously disappear when you are inside the diner. And here is where the urchin’s services formally come into play.

Nairobi is famous for a variety of things, beginning with being a world force in athletics. It is also home to Lupita Nyong’o, who has captured the world’s attention in recent years, strutting down the red carpet in Hollywood.


In a two or three sentence conversation in Kiswahili, the street urchin and your friend seal a business deal without any paperwork. The urchin is going to guard and protect your vehicle from burglary – at a fee. Ksh.100, roughly one US dollar, does it. If you sweet talk him, he might accept half of that. After your time at Kengeles and before proceeding to Simmers, your friend will holler street style (Mambo poa? Meaning are things fine?), and the urchin will assure him that he is still taking good care of your car and you need not worry.

In these instances, the driver/chokora relationship is far more reliable than banking on cops on the beat. If you don’t involve the urchins in guarding your car, they’ll dismember whatever is easy to detach, and then hang around to save your day by offering to quickly search for second-hand parts – never mind that all hardware shops are closed at night! Do the math. Of course there are many Nairobi hotels whose parking spaces are taken care of by hotel guards, so, despite the enterprising spirit of the few urchins still in the city, you and your car are largely safe.

A Visit to Eastlands

One day, your friend could decide to leave the car behind and show you the Nairobi where real people live. I mean, people who live on $1 each day and save the balance of their daily earnings (a dollar or two) for other important things like children’s school fees. The best place for you to see this is Eastlands, which is a series of city estates that were built by the British for the African workers when Kenya was under colonization. These estates include Maringo, Jericho, Jerusalem, Kimathi and a few more. In these estates, you will find one happy lot; people who live in old one or two bedroom houses and feel blessed that they do not live in the real slums where tin shanties cover the land.

There are different city spots from where you can board a public transport minibus or van, commonly known as matatu, to get to Eastlands. The most popular is Commercial Stage. In the 14-seater Nissan or Toyota van, passengers will seat in threes and you’ll soon be on your way.

Before 2002 when President Kibaki took over leadership, the same matatus were allowed a seating capacity of 18. But guess what? A single one would carry almost double that. You would enter an empty matatu and move to the farthest seat trying to escape the roughness of extra capacity, but it would only take a couple of minutes before a grown man or woman stuck their butt in your face as they stood bending in front of you, trying to avoid hitting the roof. In minutes, the vehicle looked more of a chicken coup than a passenger van.


Why would grown men and women allow themselves to be packed in vehicles like sardines? Well, it was the matatu culture then. But the Minister of Transport under President Kibaki, John Michuki, left office a legend by turning the crude rides into a decent transport system. Before then, you’d refuse to travel in an overloaded vehicle, only to realize that the next one in line was no different. And the matatu crews at the stage would make fun of you. Someone would ask:

– You’ve been standing here so long – What’s happening?

And even before you could answer, a colleague would respond:

Huyu achana naye… – Leave this one alone.

And he’d proceed to explain mischievously that you expected someone to pluck out a car seat and set it outside for you to sit where there was no shoving or squeezing.

Life Is Cheap but Fun

Let’s say you go to Maringo, an estate in Eastlands that has been given a facelift by companies advertising their wares on the walls – and paying the city council commercial revenues to do so. You could alight at Namba Kumi or No.10. This has no semblance with No.10 Downing Street – it’s the destination for the matatu No.10 to Maringo, a spot popularly known as Jobless Corner or simply Jobless.

A crowd of youths hang around here idle. Grab a coin as you approach the guy roasting green maize in the open a couple of steps away. A piece worth Ksh.20 ($0.2) will keep you busy as you walk to wherever you are going. You won’t believe the irresistible flavor of the freshly roasted green maize, as people from the office and elsewhere stand beside you to await their turn.

This entrepreneur sells a minimum of a sack of maize on a daily basis. Many such guys began by roasting a few cobs of maize until they graduated to a sack or two daily. They are survivors who bring a smile to people’s faces as they make a living. This man is everybody’s buddy, and you don’t want to miss him as you walk by.

At the same Jobless Corner, you’ll find some enterprising women who cook and sell food to tired and cash strapped employees coming back from work. A person living alone can take home a mug of githeri, two chapos and a cup of uji. These items, whose total cost is around Ksh.50 or half a US dollar, will serve as supper and the next day’s breakfast. Githeri is a popular dish of maize and beans boiled together, and chapo is the Kenyan name for chapatti. Uji simply means gruel or porridge. Mark you, these entrepreneurs have mastered the amount of food that sells out in a day. So you can be certain that what you are eating is fresh – and I must add, delicious.

Also check out Growing Up In Johannesburg.

Mercy Njari

Mercy Njari

Mercy is a writing nomad. Since she started freelance writing 4yrs ago, her laptop has become her best companion. She moves with it at will from the city of Nairobi to her rural home in Nyeri County, and from Nairobi to other towns. She has always enjoyed reading and writing, and this is not surprising considering both her parents were teachers by profession. Incidentally, Mercy was once an accountant, and even had the pleasure of working with the British multinational company, Diageo. She has since written an English Revision book for High School students, and continues to write as a freelancer. She enjoys spending whatever time she can with her kids, nieces and nephews, her sisters and brother, and her rural friends as well.

1 Comment

  • Erika

    You really feel like you’re in Nairobi. Thank you, Mercy.

    May 27, 2017 at 8:47 pm