5 Things You Didn't Know About Nairobi

by Lynn Yu

When you think about Africa, don’t think like a Westerner. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina delivered a satirical piece several years ago titled “How to Write about Africa” that perfectly encapsulates the world’s stereotypes of the continent — “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving.”

Zebras

Africa, and certainly Kenya, is not simply a land of wide, sweeping sunsets, nor is it a story of abject poverty and rampant corruption. Indeed, portrayals of Africa consistently forget to mention the rise of the African city and the African middle class. At the forefront of the Kenyan urban movement is Nairobi, East Africa’s hub for trade, investment, and culture. When you visit Nairobi, think like an African. Here are 5 things you need to know: 

1. Mats are Safe Than They Seem 

Guidebooks will tell you that Matatus, the mini-vans-turned-buses that every Nairobian uses to get around in, are dangerous and prone to roadside muggings. But unless you’re looking to take a private cab or car everywhere, Mats are your best bet for traveling Nairobi. They’re famous for their loud music and cramped spaces, often sporting bumper stickers that read “if the music is too loud, you are too old.” Sure, you may be crammed in with more people than you thought possible, but the fare is incredibly low and the drivers sound. Don’t be a snob. Take the Mats like a Kenyan and roll with the experience. 

2. Nairobi Has a Wonderful Underground Literary Scene

Some of Kenya’s greatest writers, including the aforementioned Wainaina, often show up to underground literary events. Kwani?, a Kenyan publication featuring African writers and artists, hosts slam poetry, panel discussions, and author meet-and-greets on a regular basis, most of which are conducted in English. Find your way to one and you won’t be disappointed by the wellspring of talent that these young Nairobi poets and aspiring authors display. In fact, slam poetry is one of the best ways to understand the social problems afflicting a society — tune in to Nairobi’s slam scene, and you’ll hear a youth generation filled with anger. But more than just anger, you’ll hear determination and hope. 

Fruit market in Nairobi

3. Go Straight For the Tusker

Nairobi’s bar and club scene gets rolling around midnight and can last well into the morning. Don’t wait to settle in to Kenya’s favorite beer, Tusker Beer. It’ll only cost you around 300 Kenya shillings each time (80 Kenya shillings is equal to one U.S. dollar, so as you can see, Tusker is a lot more affordable than beer at American bars). Not to mention, they’re incredibly delicious. Nothing more needs to be said for Tusker.

4. Learn Swahili For Cheaper Goods

Kenya has two national languages — English and Swahili. Learn Swahili for the sake of being a culturally sensitive traveler. You’ll be able to function satisfactorily if you spend your entire time operating in English, since almost everyone speaks it, but if you pick up some of the local language, you’ll not only find that people will respect you more for it, you’ll also find that your goods and souvenirs will be cheaper. Much of the Nairobi economy is an informal economy — one of Nairobi’s famous tourist traps, Masai Market, operates completely on a barter basis. If you speak only in English, you’re gonna have a hard time bargaining your way down to a lower price. Sprinkle in a couple words of Swahili though, and merchants will be a lot more willing to be lenient with you. 

Traffic in Nairobi

5. Relax. Everyone’s on Africa time.

Don’t expect the stringent time-keeping that Northern Europe runs on. Yes, there is something called “Africa time,” and if you need to be somewhere in an hour, leave an extra half hour in advance. Mat drivers will take their time to detour and grab gas, maybe even a snack, and events may not start until a solid hour after they are scheduled to begin. You may find this incredibly frustrating at first, but learn to go with the flow of it. Complaining won’t get you anywhere and will do nothing to change your situation. Settle in, and learn to plan your activities with plenty of leisure time built in. This is Africa.