Mama Boooooga! Mama Boooooooga! Na taka nee nee? Iko dizi, biyazze, nya-nya, daaniya…
Mama vegetable (is here)! What do you want? I have bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, coriander…
Her shouts from downstairs wake me easily from a light morning sleep. I spent my first night in Nairobi listening to bats squeaking at the windows, and desperately trying to find a comfortable bed corner. Eryn is in unfamiliar surroundings, so she’s sleeping with us at the moment. But since she’s a bed hog (as is the Hubby) this means she gets the prized (and most comfortable) centre bed position, while I’m stuck using my arm as a pillow and balancing my butt off the edge of a sagging mattress.
I get up, grab the baby who has already been playing with Hubby’s nose, lips and eyelids for 10 minutes, throw on my hijab and walk downstairs to greet the vegetable seller.
Jambo, habari yako? Hi, how are you?
Mzuri sana. Good thanks.
My aunt and MIL jump in to bargain for green chillies, onions, leeks, cucumbers and tomatoes. We buy the lot for just $4.
Nairobi feels very familiar. I’ve been to other “rural oriented” locals before — where daily business life is concentrated outside, among local growers and businesses. It’s like any other city with high-rises for the stock market, competitive multi-national companies, lucrative businesses and high end shopping — and open space for the fish market, vegetable market, livestock, handmade furniture sold on street corners, and strip-mallesque centres for hairdressers, auto shops, and dépanneurs (corner stores).
I’m shocked at the amount of people on the streets. Life is outside. I’m coming from the more “outside is too hot” austerity of Kuwait, where life is inside — mostly in grand, air conditioned shopping malls. In Kuwait, you may see 20 or 30 people waiting for buses or tending to gardens or working on construction sites. Here in Nairobi, there are millions.
Millions of people on the streets, in cars, on the side of the road, shopping, selling, cooking, playing, learning. People are selling curios, bananas, and puppies in between cars in heavy traffic. People are woodworking, making textiles, running to work downtown, waiting for cabs, taking road trips. People are carrying their babies, breastfeeding, sleeping, begging, singing, pouring out of the churches on Sunday in their finest, going for lunch, dinner or to the local amusement park.
It’s a hustle-bustle I’ve never experienced before. There is a never ending stream of people coming in and out of the house, and we’re always on the move. First it’s Mama Boga, then a miskini (miskin… common arabic for ‘poor’ or ‘down on your luck’) comes to the door and recites some verses from the Qur’an. He’s from Sudan and has an amazing voice. My uncle gives him a few Kenyan shillings. Then it’s my other uncle, aunt and baby cousin come to visit. “Hi, how are you, nice to meet you finally!” Another miskin comes calling — this time it’s a local person with blindness and his young helper. Now we’re off to the market to pick up some bananas and avocados for Eryn. And it’s only 10:30 in the morning.
The market is like 50 grocery departments all housed under one tin roof. English is extremely prominent here, so it’s fairly easy to barter and bargain for fruits and vegetables — and fresh off the machete sugar cane.
Nairobi is also extremely green — as if this sprawling city appeared in the centre of the jungle. Massive pelicanesque-type birds flock in almost every tree and make really funny squawking noises that Eryn finds hilarious. The grasshoppers are also MASSIVE. The first time I saw one I thought, “since when did bright yellow birds have four wings?”
Sadly, you don’t go to Nairobi city to see the big five (elephant, rhino, water buffalo, leopard, lion) — you have to drive about 5 hours to see them. And no, the stereotype is not true: people in Nairobi don’t ride elephants to work.
The city is divided into different regions: Pengani, South C, and Westlands to name a few. Some are more high-end than others, and while I thought I would see a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, I was actually surprised to see a large section of middle and working class (and perhaps that’s because of where my family falls in the spectrum. We didn’t actually get to see any of the rich areas up close… although I did catch a glimpse of a few very large and impressive mansions).
Village Market is a high-end shopping locale designed to be like a city within the city. It has winding streets, an outdoor water feature, restaurants and cafes, art galleries, clothing stores, curios and the Apple Store.
You’ll find poverty-stricken images, stories and lives in Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa. We drove past it once. Even though I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t believe just how many modest dwellings were packed in there. I couldn’t even imagine the numbers of people living in tin shacks. It seemed to go on for miles and it left me with sad eyes. I almost wished we could have gone in — but to do so without an organized charity would have soured the experience and possibly turned a charitable act into exploitative tourism. For this trip, it’s better for me to research and give through charities, give to locals when I can, and send clothes back with family members. Imagine though, for me to feel pangs and a need to do something about poverty simply by having a glimpse of this slum in real life, how much more impressive it would be to visit people where they live. TV pictures of Susan Sarandon or Angelina Jolie helping illuminate the problems of poverty is nothing compared to seeing it in real life.
People also keep asking me how I’m liking “Black Africa” (coming soon to a post near you). Yes, of course I like it. Reminds me of places I adore like Barbados, the Sudanese mosque across the street from my favourite restaurant and parts of Toronto. But I am amazed at the diversity of the city. Not so much in people, as for sure Caucasians and south Asians are crazy minorities, but in different cultural expressions.
On Sunday morning I hear the adhaan at dawn along with the bats as they make their way to bed for the day. A couple of hours later I’m serenaded for 2 hours with Swahili gospel music from the church next door. Meanwhile, the neighbours compete using Shakira’s “Waka Waka” and a classical Indian soap while my own family yell good-naturedly at each other in English, Swahili and Gujarati. On the way to an animal reserve we pass 2 Hindu Temples, 5 churches and a mosque. Oh yes, I can definitely smell the ganja in key pockets and sheesha in others. Everything is laid back. No restrictions on church bells ringing or announcing the Muslim call to prayer. Fashion is whatever you want to make of it. Everyone is just doing their own thing.
…and Mama Boga told me to sell her picture in Canada and make a fortune off it. She was sure that no one in Canada is as black or culturally exciting as she.
Up next: Black African Pride; Traffic woes; and Kenya, Safari Kenya.