Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Nairobi in a Nutshell: USIU and Kibera

The past few days have been super busy, and it feels like I have about a million different thoughts whizzing around my brain right now. I'll try to make some sense of them, but sorry if I seem a bit rambling or disjointed.

Saturday was the last official day of orientation, so we had Sunday to ourselves. My room mates and I took advantage of the free time to find the nearest grocery store in Westlands. What an experience! We went to a Nakumatt, which seems like a Kenyan Wal-Mart, and it was incredibly busy. It was also pretty overwhelming - I recognized maybe one out of every ten brands, and shopping for everything I needed was a challenge. I think that was when culture shock first set in; what's (supposed to be) more familiar than grocery shopping? I think it finally hit me just what a different environment I was living in, and the lack of familiarity made me a bit homesick for the rest of the day.

Monday was our first day at USIU (the US Int'l University), the oldest private university in Kenya and one which prides itself on its American-style education. We had sort of guessed at our USIU orientation on Friday that this was going to be our least favorite part of the program, and unfortunately it turned out to be true. While the campus is gorgeous, the professors are interesting, to say the least. My Sustainable Resource Management professor didn't show up to class (which actually worked out sort of well, since I had to navigate the USIU bureaucracy to get my student ID), and my 20th-century East Africa professor is not only more than a bit anti-American, which I can deal with, but also pretty boring. But oh well - past students had told us that USIU wasn't the best, so most of us were prepared for it. I also have other AU students in both my classes, which definitely helps. So USIU probably won't be my favorite part of the program, but we'll all muddle through it together.

USIU is also an incredibly rich school, as are almost all the students who go there. While some took the USIU bus from town, like we did, a good portion of the others were dropped off at the gate by their private drivers - yep, it's that sort of school. I had already seen a bit of Nairobi's massive wealth disparity before Monday, but my experience at USIU just served to reinforce it; more about that in a bit.

Today, we visited Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum. It was a truly amazing experience. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting, but the settlement wasn't at all like anything I had in mind. We broke into small groups and were shown around by people who lived there and were engaged in community development work. My guide was Ken, a really sweet and funny guy who had moved to Kibera when he came to Nairobi for school and couldn't afford any other housing. While my first impression of Kibera was the smell - it's kind of inescapable - it was an incredibly vibrant, active, and friendly community, at least the parts of it that I saw. Though we got tons of stares, I actually felt really comfortable walking the dirt-path roads. Everyone we met was really friendly and welcoming (all the little kids greeted us with "How are you?" and "mzungu!", and lots wanted to touch our hands and my hair). We got to see where Ken lived, as well as his landlord. While it's really hard to imagine how people (especially 6- or 7-person families) spend their entire lives in two tiny rooms, Ken also emphasized a lot what a simple (and not unpleasant) lifestyle it was. I don't know what sort of abject outpouring of misery I was expecting, but everyone seemed pretty happy, for the most part. Interestingly, the people we talked to had vastly different opinions on Kenya's slum upgrading project, which has been going on for almost a decade. I was also really surprised about the rows upon rows of small shops and kiosks we walked past - Kibera really is a city within a city; according to Ken, you can get everything you need (except sunscreen, I jokingly told him) right in Kibera, without ever having to go into downtown Nairobi.

While the people in Kibera didn't seem miserable, having such a different experience at USIU just the day before really helped highlight the wealth gap Nairobi, and lots of cities in low-income countries, is known for. It really was amazing to me that some people have private drivers for their BMWs, while others in the same city often live on less than 200/- (about $2.50) a day. It's just astonishing to see those types of lifestyles juxtaposed. Even though I've spent the past year or so reading about just such problems, it really is incredible - and sort of indescribable - to see it for yourself. Right now, for me, it's not even an issue of injustice; it just sort of takes your breath away to see some of the richest of the rich living about a 20-minute drive away from the poorest of the poor. I can tell this is going to be an issue I come back to again and again throughout the semester, and right now I doubt I'll find any answers or make much sense of it, but I will try.

Another thing that's been on my mind a bit lately is the crime Nairobi is also, unfortunately, known for. Almost all of the crime that occurs in Nairobi is theft (most of it isn't violent), and most of the crimes are ones of opportunity. Sort of related to that is the "highway robbery" I experienced at Masai Market the other day; haggling is a necessity, and sellers know that most wazungu don't know the real prices of items, so they jack them way, way up (I had someone ask me for 19,000/- for a picture that was probably worth about 100/-). I got a bit angry about this at first, seeing it as blatant dishonesty and wondering why an entire society would chose to lie like that. This "stealing" that occurs so often, both on the streets and in the markets, at first made me a question the morality of Kenyan culture. How could all forms of stealing be so rampant? Gradually, though, I'm starting to see that's it not any sort of moral failing but, rather, the idea that most people here just don't have as much, and it you don't protect the stuff you have, you sort of deserve to have it stolen from you. (Of course, one could also argue that Kenya's overwhelming government corruption is also a form of theft, so a precedent has already been set). I'm learning to see that it's just different, and I'm trying really hard not to judge Kenyans for the differences I'm starting to experience more and more. This sort of open-mindedness is definitely hard for me, but I'm working on it. Just one more way this program will help with my personal growth : )


  1. Hey Emily!
    Wow, it sounds just like Cairo- the huge disparity between rich and poor, the univeristy (the students with the hired drivers for their fancy cars lol) and getting ripped off when buying stuff. Out of curiosity, is there any harassment? I heard it could be a problem in Nairobi.

  2. Hey Jenny,

    Not really harassment, but because we're white we do a get a TON of cat-calls, hisses (which are like whistles in the US - not sure if that's the same in Cairo), and "hey pretty lady!"s. It's definitely something that takes a bit of getting used to. Most of it isn't malicious, just, I think, a lot of curiosity. Was it like that in Cairo?

  3. Hey. It sounds really awesome! And you sound really excited. We miss you. By the way, you would get a lot of those hisses in Rome too :-)

  4. Hey Emily,
    yeah, it was just like that in Cairo. Definately got a lot of cat calls and hisses. Haha, they would also ask "how many camels?" but i think they liked playing around with the tourists lol