Doug: Week 2—Still living and (barely) breathing

August 16, 2011


I’m still alive and, for the time being, malaria-free and well! My second week in Nairobi proved to be a little less hectic than my first.

I’m finally settling into my daily routine, which consists of being up and out the door by 8:25 for 8:30 Swahili class (luckily, I live right across the street from Nazerene University, a university/church combo, with a small collection of simple classrooms). We have 4 hours of Swahili language class (I’m in the “Intermediate” class with two other girls. It’s basically 4 hours of conversation and some grammar, which is helping me to pick up a lot more), with a 30 minute “tea time” break in the middle (enter continued British colonial influence. French fries are also “chips” here, silly British people…)

There is an open-air eating area with an attached kitchen nearby where we get Kenyan chai every day. They also have traditional Kenyan chakula (food). So far I’ve been eating a lot of mchuzi wa mboga (vegetable stew with cabbage, tomatoes, and potatoes), ugali (a white, moldable flour that you eat with meals), chapati (it’s like pita bread, but much better) sikumu wiki (this green spinach-like stuff is with almost every meal. The name literally means “stretch the week”—because it’s cheap and filling, it’ll last until the next pay check”).

There have been some cultural differences that this Ohio mzungu (friendly Swahili term for a white person) is still getting used to:

  • Kenyans not only drive on the left side of the road, they also, naturally, walk on the left side of the sidewalk (which is often just a dirt path). This has resulted in my walking almost directly into multiple Kenyans, but I think I’m finally getting the hang of it.
  • Traffic laws, or rather, a lack-thereof. The rule of thumb is basically if you can get somewhere faster, just make it happen by any means necessary (and I mean by, literally, any means necessary—see previous description of my journey outside the city via matatu)

    Pretty typical sight in some parts of Nairobi

  • The mzungu price. This is whenever you are in a new situation and you don’t know the price of something, the first price they say is probably inflated drastically. For example, I was catching a taxi to meet up with my friend Jeremy and his host family for his birthday dinner. I knew it should be 300 shillings (roughly under $3). I get in the taxi, the driver begins driving a little bit…silence…then “You know how much this costs? It’s 1,000 shillings”. Naturally, I expressed my disbelief, and he went on and on about how far away it was (I knew it was a 10 minute drive), and how there would be construction (there wasn’t). I offered to pay 200, he refused and said 800, I then said 300 or I was going to leave. He freaked a little, saying how little money that was. I then started to get out of the taxi, to which he promptly said “Okay! Okay! Okay!”. The rest of the taxi ride continued in silence.
  • No Hooting! –These signs are everywhere, posted mostly around residential areas. Took us a little while to figure out that this is Kenyan English for “No Honking”. Still, I’ve been hearing my fair share of hooting…
  • The pollution. I’m not much of save-the-trees person, but, simply put, the pollution in Nairobi is AWFUL. I’ll be walking along Ngong Road (the main road outside my house) and I’ll see a matatu or big bus approaching, pumping out a massive cloud of black death. It’s then a race to see how long I can hold my breath.

    Awesome skyline. Not so awesome pollution

  • No snacks—Kenyans don’t really snack. It’s three meals per day (no Cheezits, no Doritos, or chips and salsa, and also no soda at home, perhaps explaining the less obesity—though I’m sure the lack of McDonalds and fast food is also a contributing factor). I can feel my American stomach shrinking daily.

Regardless of being an mzungu here (as well as being in the minority for the first time ever, which is proving to be both a humbling and eye-opening experience), Kenya is already starting to feel like home.  It’s a much different way of life, but, as my professor and advisor at Tufts says “There is order in the disorder”. From the crazy traffic, to people walking everywhere along dusty paths, to street vendors at open-air markets, things here seem to have a different character and life to them. Needless to say, if there ever was any doubt, I’m here for the long haul (aka until December 21st).

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