Leisure and Learning in Nairobi

The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

Greetings from Kakuma Refugee Camp!

I arrived here Friday morning by plane, and have been spending some time with the staff, wrapping up a few things I needed to finish from the Nairobi office, and yesterday I went on some remedial class visits in the camp. I’ll wait to write about my experience here in Kakuma until I am back in Nairobi and have a more complete picture. For now, I’ll say that I’m surviving the heat, I’m getting used to the feeling of flies crawling on me, the rationing schedules for water and electricity aren’t so bad, and I can’t wait to get started this week.

I’m here in Kakuma to provide on-the-ground M&E (monitoring and evaluation) support, mainly with data collection and entry, which are immense tasks considering how busy the teachers and education officers are on a daily basis. I’ll be training some youth in Microsoft Excel and coordinating a big data entry exercise. By the time we’re finished, we’ll be able to add last term’s in-school performance figures to our database. I’ll also be running a consultation with KEEP’s community mobilizers and some head teachers to hear their input about challenges related to data collection and school matters in general. Finally, there’s a conference for scholarship girls coming up next month and I’d love to hear from the organizers about how the Nairobi office can better support their plans.

Buuuut this post is meant to update you about the last few weeks in Nairobi. Work-wise, I’ve been doing some data entry (not terribly exciting) and preparing for my trip to Kakuma. A few people have asked what there is to do for fun. I realize museums aren’t exactly everyone’s idea of fun, so I’ve included a different post about the museum.

During my first week in Kenya, some co-workers took me and the outgoing intern, Kevin, to a bar frequented pretty much exclusively by Kenyans. My co-workers said that we would be “going out for a beer after work” which meant something very different to me than it did to everyone else. We arrived at 5:30pm and stayed until almost midnight. When we called for a cab, everyone protested that we were leaving early. I was still a bit jetlagged and otherwise would have stayed. The highlight of going out for drinks with Kenyans is that you might order nyama choma (roasted goat). It’s the go-to snack to have at the bar. Instead of ordering nachos or poutine with your beer, you get a slab of nyama choma to share as a group. The first time I had it at the bar, we had it plain with a some salt on the side, so you could season to your liking. Other times you might have it with ugali (corn flour bread) and/or kachumbari (a mix of diced tomatoes and onions).

There are a few good beers made by East African Breweries that are popular here, two lagers called Tusker and Whitecap. Tusker is more to my liking, and it usually goes for anywhere between 150 and 200 shillings (about $2.00 CAD) for a 500ml bottle, but the more expat-friendly locations will charge more. Heineken and Guiness also pretty popular here. A lot of Kenyans also drink Jameson whiskey. When I’m feeling classy I can go to Beer Bistro near Junction Mall. They have a wide selection of beers (including some Belgian brews I want to try more of) and a really nice interior. It’s obviously more expensive but it’s not so bad during happy hour.


A popular club is Gipsy. It’s in Westlands and I’ve been there a few times. It has three bars. From what I understand, it has a greater mix of Nairobi’s people than other places: varying ages of middle/upper class Kenyans, including Indian Kenyans, and expats. I got into my first car accident in Kenya (probably not the last) during the taxi ride home from my first night at Gipsy. We were driving in a roundabout when a fancy car exited its lane and hit us from behind. Nobody got hurt. It was clearly the other driver’s fault. I sat in the passenger’s seat while the taxi driver argued with the other guy. Like always, their conversation began with a polite exchange of greetings. I didn’t understand everything because they went back and forth between English and Swahili. It was a passionate conversation at some points, as the men held each other by the hands and swore they were honest men. The other driver finally agreed it was his fault and whipped out 7000kshs (about $85) a considerable amount to be carrying around. After a 15-minute discussion, the taxi driver got back in the car and he explained that the man was a prominent government official, and he was driving drunk (I told a few friends this story and they were not surprised at this). No wonder he had no hesitation paying off the taxi driver for damages. Anyway, my driver went to turn his key in the ignition and the car battery had died (oh, of course) while his four-way lights were on. Another cabbie from his company came to jump start us and we were on our way.

I’ve managed to get myself invited to a few house parties in Nairobi with some friends I’ve made from work and elsewhere. I’m incredibly awkward at parties in general, so you can imagine how I appear when I am the only mzungu (foreigner, white guy) at a Kenyan party. Nevertheless, I’m learning/trying to be more outgoing, which is especially necessary when everyone is speaking Swahili and I want someone to talk to me. I’m slowly learning more Swahili as time goes on. Understanding the basic grammatical structures is not difficult, as the complexities with conjugation, gender, etc. with some other languages are not as prevalent. Still, it’s a challenge when the words and sounds have little resemblance to what I’m used to. So far I can introduce myself and greet people in Swahili, count to twenty, and ask a few questions (most importantly, vyo viko wapi? = where is the washroom?). At the office, I’ve been taking my Swahili phrasebook out at lunch time. While everyone is eating, I read out a few phrases I’d like to learn, and after laughing at me, my co-workers correct my pronunciation and provide some alternative (often less formal) ways of saying that phrase.

What else do I do for fun? Well, I’m learning to cook new recipes (partly by necessity, partly out of curiosity). There’s a gym in my building with a treadmill, an elliptical machine, and a bike. My neighbourhood is quiet and a good place to go running. I also learned last week, thanks to my roommate, that there is a bootleg movie store in Westlands. They charge 50kshs ($0.62 CAD) to burn one side of a DVD. For that much, you can usually get a season of a TV show! And it saves me the (sometimes very long time) of downloading. I pray that they are not discovered by the authorities. They have everything. I started watching Veep and I highly recommend it. Hopefully I won’t get too carried away with that luxury. I’m also learning what I like on Kenyan TV. When I’m not watching Aljazeera, BBC or a local news station like Citizen TV, I might watch the Simpsons on Fox Africa or watch one of many Latin American soap operas. Kenyans love Latin American soap operas. They are dubbed in English and it’s hilarious. My favourite so far is a Mexican telenovela called Corazon Indomable.

I think that’s enough for now. Stay tuned!


Nairobi National Museum

Last weekend I went to the Nairobi National Museum and had a fantastic time. A big highlight for me was their Human Origins section, which includes a fascinating Hominid Skull Room. Several major discoveries regarding the origins of humanity have been made in the Turkana region of Kenya over the past 40 years. Several skulls belonging to the world’s first discoveries of homo erectus, paranthropus, homo rudolfensis, and other prehistoric species are here in Nairobi. I was most excited about Nariokotome (Turkana) Boy, a 1.6 million year old specimen, and the most complete skeleton of an early hominid (homo erectus, though some consider it a separate species, homo ergaster). I asked a few passers-by to snap a few photos of me with him. I received a few confused reactions and below is the awkward result:

An excited anthropology student with Turkana Boy

An excited anthropology student with Turkana Boy

There was also an interesting exhibit on the History of Kenya, and another called “Cycles of Life” which described several of Kenya’s many ethnic groups through different cultural activities related to birth, childhood, becoming an adult, spirituality, social life, marriage, and so on. I was interested in the various tools and outfits intended for girls’ initiation, particularly surrounding circumcision. Often labelled incorrectly as FGM (female genital mutilation) female circumcision is a very diverse range of practices that differ physically and symbolically across different ethnic groups. While Western human rights and feminist discourses (as well as some Kenyan groups) misrepresent FC as a singular, destructive practice, the museum provided some insight into the significance of the practice to some girls’ initiation as a young woman. This isn’t to say that the practice is not forced oppressively in some situations, which it certainly is. There’s just a lot more to it than some people say.

Initiate decorations (Nandi, Samburu, Endo - mid-20th century)

Initiate decorations
(Nandi, Samburu, Endo – mid-20th century)

The museum also has large taxidermy exhibits. There are over 1300 bird species in East Africa and the region’s mammals are incredible. However, I think I would have been more fascinated if these animals weren’t dead.

Hall of Mammals

Hall of Mammals

Speaking of death, I continued my visit at the museum’s Snake Park, where the residents were very much alive. The facility includes an open pit about 6 meters long and wide and 2 meters deep, surrounded by a waist-level wall with a few trees and dozens of snakes and turtles. This included an enthusiastic black mamba that for a few minutes was standing up (in the snake way) eagerly trying to reach the outside of the enclosure (but thankfully not coming very close). The more dangerous cobras, vipers, and so on were in sealed tanks encircling the facility. There was also an American Alligator (not sure why) and a Nile Crocodile with whom I took a selfie for my co-op class’ animal selfie competition.

Black mamba

Black mamba

Croc selfie

Croc selfie

I concluded with a visit to the museum’s botanical gardens, which profiles several indigenous species capable of healing various illnesses. “Traditional” plant medicines (and their unfortunate commodification by development projects and big pharma) are a common topic in my cultural anthropology classes, and so naturally I was excited to check out what varieties exist in Kenya. The paths along the gardens were all covered in beautiful mosaic designs.


Botanical gardens


Getting to Know Nairobi

Hi friends,

Tomorrow marks two weeks that I’ve been in Kenya. I’m having a wonderful time so far and feel like I have learned a great deal already. Nairobi is a diverse, bustling, rapidly growing city with various opportunities for economic and social activity and a strikingly wide wealth gap. The city is headquarters for many East African industries and is a hub for regional and international governance, while also being home to huge informal settlements and poverty. From what I’ve gathered so far, the city is made up of a small downtown core known as the CBD (Central Business District) surrounded by neighbourhoods of varying character, some of which have quiet residential areas tucked away from the major streets. I live in such a neighbourhood. It’s called Kileleshwa and I’m pleased to call one of its apartment buildings my new home.

My apartment building  is visible just behind the vendors and trees.

My apartment building is visible just behind the vendors and trees.

A notable first impression I’ve had is the level of security in this city. Before arriving, I knew Nairobi would be highly securitized given its history of crime and recent acts of terrorism. But it’s been more of an adjustment than I had expected. Guards with metal detectors stand at the entrances of various public spaces, like the mall, restaurants and bars, and even a KFC I went to in the CBD. They open your bags and sometimes pat you down. If you’re driving into the parking lot of a mall, a guard may check your back seat and trunk, and possibly check under your car using an extendable mirror. My apartment is in a gated compound with a friendly guard, and the entrance to our flat has a heavy wooden door with two locks behind a barred metal gate with a padlock. I’m really bad with keys and so getting into the apartment is its own event. I’m sure I’ll get better at it. Anyway, despite the nuisance it can be, I’m privileged to be able to keep myself safe the way I can.

One of my favourite aspects of Nairobi it its public transport. I take a minibus, or matatu, to work. A matatu is a 15-seater van (although they can hold many more than that!) that races through the city streets at incredible speeds. The conductor hangs out the side door waving to passengers and yelling out the final destination. Once inside, you might enjoy some East African hip hop or reggae, sometimes blasting so loud that you wonder if your ear drums are still in working order when you hop off. You’ll see Kenyans in suit and tie on their way to work, parents with their kids, and maybe the occasional nerdy mzungu trying to fit in (me). At most of the loading stages, a matatu can arrive as frequently as every two minutes. Depending on where you’re going the cost is between 10 and 50 shillings ($0.12-$0.60 CAD).

Last week I went to the CBD for some exploring on my own. I walked around, had KFC (chicken tastes the same but I had ugali instead of fries), and visited the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC). The KICC has a rooftop observation deck that offers a great view of Nairobi. I was able to see various hotels and commercial buildings in the CBD as well as the Parliament building and Nairobi’s city hall.



The view from the top of the KICC.

The view from the top of the KICC.

This past week, I went on a staff retreat with the Kenya Equity in Education Project (KEEP) team. We stayed in a lodge outside Machakos, only 60km away from Nairobi. KEEP hosted a weeklong planning session and had some critical discussions about the project’s progress and areas for improvement. It was wonderful to meet the rest of the KEEP team and learn about the roles of education officers, counsellors, finance/procurement officers, scholarship program coordinators, and so on. We are 31 in total, which includes the Nairobi team and staff in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps. I’m thrilled to be part of this team and will certainly tell you more about the project and my role in future blog posts. For now, check out these photos of giraffes, wildebeest, gazelles, and zebra that I captured only a short distance away from our lodge!





The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.