By Bernard Wainaina
“For every person complaining of floods in my Nairobi City, there’s three blighters, not necessarily Kikuyus, thinking of the dough they could make if rice grew on flooded tarmac.”
The other day I thought, “What is unique about my Nairobi?”
Then I asked the same question to a few chaps.
Here is Nairobi as seen by myself and a few different folk.
It’s easy to moan about Nairobi.
Moan about floods.
Moan about traffic-jam and “matafakas” cutting you off in traffic.
Moan about the drainage system
and about solid waste heaps.
(Those two are not related,at least not to our city fathers!.)
It’s easy, in moments of cynicism to think the worst of Nairobi, how hopeless and desperate it has all become.
It’s easy to stare at the iconic KICC building and get angry at the Koreans for putting their SONY logo up there. (Yeah, like Ketepa
will put a banner up there?).
And don’t you just hate this new army of
obnoxious motorbike taxi guys with their
stinky leather jackets in 32 degree heat,
choking life on the roads and literally
begging you to run them over?
It’s so easy to sit and think this city has totally
gone to the hounds.
Well, until you leave the country and you realise that, with all its dysfunctions, this is heaven.
That there is a reason expatriates cling to the
trousers of the immigration ladies when
it’s time for them to go back home.
You,a bachelor like me, are sitting in the house on a Saturday night, no plan, feeling depressed because you are broke and someone said, I will call you later for drinks and they didn’t call.
And the Baby mama you were hoping to hook up with hasn’t said a word even though the two
ticks have turned blue on your WhatsApps chat.
You feel like you aren’t loved.
That the best part of your life is over.
You have a loose thousand shillings? (Surely you must).
Then wait until 10pm and drive to Best Western
Hotel, take the elevator to 7th floor, use
the stairs to 8th, there is a bar there called Level 8.
It’s overpriced and it’s blue, so don’t go in. (Not yet).
Stand at the edge of the rooftop, turn the collar
of your jacket, thrust your hands in your
pocket and look out at the arresting vista
of the beautiful Nairobi.
There is nowhere in Nairobi with a more spectacular view of Nairobi than that rooftop.
It’s gobsmackingly gorgeous.
Don’t take a picture, because this is one image you need store in your heart.
Later, jump into Level 8 and order a hot
Old, meet new at the ancient Kipande House
The bank sits in a building on the corner of Kenyatta Avenue and Muindu Mbingu
Street (I think). It’s an old building,probably built at the start of the century.
Pre-colonial architecture: Arched windows.
Heavy wooden doors in deep brown.
White and gray concrete that refuses to age.
The pillars at the entrance, they stand so tall you HAVE to tilt your head back to see how far up they run.
Working my way up the stairs past those
pillars reels me back to a time where
nothing surrounded this building but
And time momentarily stands still when I am
stepping into the bank.
When I have one foot in and one foot out, I feel as if I am crossing over the line that separates one century from another.
I overhear conversations of men, from a century ago,planning to build a great city.
Men on the outside speak of building a great city, men on the inside are writing cheques and counting bills to conquer that city.
They don’t speak, their money speaks for them.
The men on the outside built us a city –
our city – and we took it from them.
The energy this building exudes defines
Nairobi for me; an energy that drives men who dream of building and conquering cities.
My words shiver with that energy.
The sun,meanwhile is still shining in Nairobi.
They once called it the “The Green City
in The Sun.”
The only green left,perhaps, are in the golf courses.
But the sun stayed on.
I asked Ayisi Makatiani – Venture Capitalist, CEO Fanisi Capital – what his Nairobi is and he said, “Nairobi for me is a perfect sunny day, and they are more of them in Nairobi than any
other city I have visited or lived in.
Despite the cloudy or dry days that you
might occasionally get, the perfect sunny days in Nairobi more than makes up.”
Uhuru Highway Traffic~beautiful noise!
There is a scene in ‘Training Day’ Movie where
Denzel Washington tells Hawke to roll down his car window and “listen” to the sound of the
We spend time in traffic in our air
conditioned cars, locking out Nairobi.
Crack it open next time as you sit there
Let the spirit of Nairobi fill your car.
That sound you hear, that restless sound?
That is the sound of Nairobi’s inertia.
Diamond Plaza Snack Bar~a view of Angels
Go at 9pm.
Ask for this guy called
Jackson. His number is 0725 ¤¤¤ ¤¤¤.
Get that chicken in coconut sauce and
two garlic naans. Eat with your hands.
Then later sit there and have a fresh
pineapple-mint juice and watch the
smorgasbord of Asian families on a
It’s a carnival, this place.
There is a family on the next table; they
have this amazingly handsome little boy
whose chin is at the edge of the table, as
he struggles to see the rest of the table,
and his sandaled feet swing gaily from
the edge of the bench.
That boy’s innocence has not been scratched by
the city and it drowns all the hubbub
Finish your juice and go home.
JOY ~An Angel in the rain
Her name is Joy and she has a face so
beautiful it hurts my eyes.
I meet those eyes the moment I walk into Kaldis
Coffee, wet from the rain.
Joy finds me a place to sit. Kaldis was once this quiet spot where I slid into to get away from
the heavy breathing streets of Nairobi.
These days it is always full and noisy.
Murmurs gather in the air and hold a raucous marketplace sort of din.
I have been meaning to find another spot which chaps from city suburbs have not turned into a spot for informal meetings.
But I still do not know any other place that
serves better milkshakes than Kaldi’s Coffee.
And then there is Joy.
She is the kind of waitress that makes it hard for me to leave after my cup of coffee.
She has a heart I would like to kiss.
I sit facing the door.
Outside, the sky is leaking by buckets.
Joy comes back with a menu.
I look up at her, at those African poetry
eyes and she says to mock my regular order at this joint,“Joy, get me a vanilla shake and…” “…sirloin steak, well done with chips. I
Meanwhile outside, water rolls down the
glass door like tears from a tired heart.
Nairobi is weeping, but I know she is not
one bit sad. Its joy in the rains!
A city stirs. My city.
Chris Bitti – CEO, the TheDBagency –and my friend, lives on the penthouse suite of International House.
Sometimes at 5am he steps off his balcony with a cup of tea in hand he looks over the city slowly stirring awake.
“It’s still at that time, there are a few people up and about but mostly it’s still. But you can feel the city slowly awaken, like a hungry giant. You
can feel something major coming, like this massive wave that is building somewhere and is headed right to the heart of the city and you know something serious will happen in the
day, you know someone out there is about to take your place. Nairobi is a beautiful mix of heaven and hell.”
The Tunnel~inside the intestines of Nairobi
The only place Daisy,my partner, loves more than a swimming pool is that tunnel that gets
you off Thika Road and into Forest Road.
That tunnel that looks like you are in Nairobi’s large intestine.
She could be asleep at the back of the car but you have to wake her up to experience that
tunnel or she sulk for hours.
“It’s because of the darkness, and the lights,I just love them so!” she explains.
Whenever I drive through there, I tilt the rear view mirror and watch her at the back, the lights slashing her face in rapid succession, and when we finally emerge into the sunlight she always says, “let’s do it again!” And there is an echo in her voice that rings erotic,though it’s just the tunnel she is talking about.
I am not from Nairobi.
I just live in Nairobi. Tried. Tested. Contented.
Being there, done that and did not even
want the T-shirt.
My Nairobi is all about contrasts.
The anguish of bumper to bumper traffic on Langata Road versus the open savannah of the Nairobi National park. Totally English. Karen
Blixen, afternoon tea on greens at Muthaiga. Little India. Maru Bhajias at DP in Parklands. Or standard Central cuisine with Kienyeji boilo, mukimo at Njuguna’s.
Best of Kisumu flavours at Mama Oliech’s in Dago for fresh fish and osuga. Bonding with the boys. Kuku choma, beer baridi(cold beer) and a car wash at Nairobi West. Back uptown for a little bohemian experience.
Cappuccino at Java House.
Chilled Mojitos at Mercury but still keep it real with a White Cup and Rhumba at Carnivore.
Picnic for the expat friends at Blankets n
Shake a leg at Choices Baricho Road with the clandestine gal before the Midnight ratchet special at F1 with the usual perverts.
Mdundo, Old school music with
E-Sir and Ogopa DJs. Doing the Lipala
with Sauti Sol or the sophisticated air
guitar with Jonathan Butler at Safaricom
Jazz. This is my Nairobi.
The Post Office,a funplace for masochists in Nairobi
I recently went to the registered mail section of the post office to get my mail from abroad.
It’s down a steep staircase that drops you into the soulless pit of GPO.
There I found a sluggish and uninspired old man who shuffled around in sandals. (It was a Saturday).
He barely looked at me (or my ID) as he
pointed with dark nails at the place I
It was this old massive book.
Then he went and sat on this wooden chair with a sigh (or was it the chair that sighed?) and got back to his newspaper and mug of steaming tea and I wondered if he had an email address.
Three wise”sculptor” men? A Sculptor of a foreign war fought by my people
A sculptor is pedestalled majestically alon Kenyatta Avenue.
It tells of heroes of Second World War.
Our men fought in that foreign war.
“There are three men on Kenyatta
Avenue. They have been standing there
for nearly eight decades, watching as the
swampy town became a city right in
front of them. The man on the left is
wearing a shuka and carrying a staff in
one hand, as if he is going to herd goats
and not to kill other men. He has his gun
slung, almost like an afterthought, to his
left arm. You can tell he wants the one
in the middle to think he is staring at
him, but his gaze goes far higher. The
one in the middle is a conformer, in his
ironed shorts and military pose. He is a
man of war, the kind you don’t want to
mess with. He stares at the obelisk on
the other side, the story of another war.
The third man has a rifle strung to his
left shoulder. There isn’t much to him,
not enough character even other than a
seeming discomfort with his new role.
There are three men on Kenyatta
Avenue. They share the same rock, a
symbol of a shared destiny lost in the
sands of time, in the stories of other
thousands of men forced to be the ‘ feet
and hands of the army.’ Under their feet,
Rudyard Kipling promises “Even if you
die, your sons will remember your
name .” But their sons didn’t, and their
stories got lost in the struggles that
followed. Their story is Nairobi’s story,
Mama Ngina Street
Stand at the edge of Hilton, facing Mama
Ngina Street at 8pm, when a large throng of people are heading home.
Its thick mass of humanity, worn faces who
are always hopeful about tomorrow.
One entrepreneur told me, “When you see this mass going home you can’t help asking yourself, ‘what product do I have to come up with so that all these people can buy it?’”
It is an early Monday morning, the chill
is at its harshest and the roads are flooded.
Flooded by hordes of people and vehicles wading through the water.
Like always, everybody is in a rush.
Navigating through the pavements, I
catch brewery whiffs of the weekend on people’s’ breaths.
Cars pass by, splashing water on us because, well, that’s what floats their boat (read Toyota vitz).
Archives Building looms large,indifferent to everything happening around it.
It has had to endure Gor Mahia Soccer Club fans vandalism for eons, nothing much can surprise it now.
It does not give a whit that for all the lessons they could learn from their past, Nairobians prefer to use it as a beacon in giving directions because it knows that’s how Nairobi people are.
They do not conform.
For every person complaining of floods in my Nairobi City, there’s three blighters, not necessarily Kikuyus, thinking of the dough they could make if rice grew on flooded tarmac.
It is all so fascinating.
As I trot down Tom Mboya street, I walk past the same people daily; the balding newspaper vendor with playboy magazines hidden beneath Parents, the conductors who double up as peddlers and the capped dude who walks around selling dummies to dummies.
The only thing you can be sure of, and that I have learned about Nairobi, is that “it
don’t belong to your mother.” I wouldn’t even try to fine tune that African proverb into sense~it simply warns of lurking dangers in Nairobi,my City.
The great divide in Nairobi
If you stand on the balcony of any of the
residences of the new National Housing
corporation houses in Langata, something powerful is clear.
Immediately below you, the rooftop of
your little 2000cc car is clear.
After that, another block, then the wall, the big
one. The mighty Kibera slum starts immediately after it, and that wall makes all the difference.
You are standing on the middle class side, where the gates create the big difference between you and everyone else.
Rusty tin roofs litter the horizon, with the slum’s streets invisible to your bird’s eye view.
Yet your host’s househelp comes from the other side, because it is the only way the system
The wall separates the lower working class from the lower middle class.
Nairobi is defined by its walls.
Gray and unforgiving, at least on the side you
can see from the balcony, that wall makes all the difference.
Nairobi’s walls are its stories.
Best Music Band in Town
Tuesdays and Thursdays,Explorer Tavern, Kilimani. Izzo on keyboard. Mayor on drums. Johnny Bass on guitar. Then, standing before the microphone, is Linda Muthama,
breaking this musical testosterone with a voice that anchors the night (and you) in one spot.
When birds mate in Nairobi
Nairobi is a place of extremes, the litmus
of limits and testing point of resilience.
It shuffles your cards, topples your dominos and rearranges your normal nervous balance.
Take traffic jams,for instance.
They are the melting pot of all pseudo-classes.
We meet here every day from 6am to 9pm.
The poor and the rich: the pragmatic
and the romantic.
Crazy Traffic equalizes us all then neatly encapsulates Nairobi’s two
great exports: radio and patience.
We sit and listen to radio hosts talk about
traffic with the same enthusiasm teenage boys talks about girls.
You try to be patient as you watch two grand
Marabou stocks recklessly mate on top
of a tree branch above your car.
We pray that at least the monstrous Mbukinya trademark bus in front of us will have moved before the birds break the weak branch which will fall smack on your windscreen for the frantic exertions of these gigantic birds in their mating dance.
We pray the guy hawking life saver vests gets to you before the flash floods hit town.
We watch as the sun sits on the horizon like
an old sultan as it eats the skyline like
Then, the city will turn to a smorgasbord of grace, soft crime, jazzy tranquility and Sabina Joy hookers joint.
And for the rest of us in traffic, radio and patience.
But let me tell you what Nairobians have
managed to do that other cities have not
– they have anaesthetized themselves
You’ll know because the next morning, in their true métier, Nairobians will all meet up again in the crazy traffic for a crazy snail dance back into the bowels and intestines of my beautiful city!
Bernard Wainaina is an Independent Agribusiness Advisor and CEO at Profarms Consultants®,Nairobi,Kenya.
He mainly works with Agribusiness Youth Groups in Eastern African Region.