Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Different World

My loot from the Masai Market in hand, I set out to reconnect with a friend from college who is stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. The directions I gave the taxi to arrive at her place were quite convoluted, and I quickly realized why. Neither the U.S. Embassy nor the embassy housing are in Nairobi, but rather quite a distance away, in a vast gaggle of embassies and U.N. facilities in a suburb that reminded me of Burleith or Foxhall in Georgetown. After four separate security checkpoints, the last of which included a brief interrogation and through search of the taxi, we entered a gorgeous group of modest sized houses with modern facades, gleaming SUVs sporting red diplomatic plates in the driveways, carefully cultivated lawns, roads as smooth as glass, not a speck of paint missing from the walls, and some white kids playing basketball on a flawless court with bright white netting. It was like we had not only left the city, but left the planet. Ellen and her new husband Felix were extraordinarily gracious and we were able to spend a few hours relaxing on their terrace, reminiscing, catching up, and talking about the state of affairs, and the likely state of the future, in Kenya. Felix’s insights as a former Kenyan journalist (he films documentaries now) and Ellen’s from her various interactions with Kenyans all over the country, confirmed some of my deep-seated American cynicism and exposed a bunch of issues, good and bad, that were new to me. The degree to which political gossip is a mainstay of Kenyan discussion was clear as soon as another Kenyan, Eunice, joined the conversation. I think some of this stems from a sense of powerlessness developed over years of having no other outlet with which to even symbolically reign in Kenyan leaders, but clearly another part of it stems from the ludicrous antics of the Kenyan first family. Ellen will be back in DC for a year starting this summer, and hopefully we’ll be able to keep in touch on that side of the world as well.

Felix was kind enough to give me a ride back to the Tea Room (an establishment long since closed, but still the term of reference for the main matatu stop in Nairobi), where I hopped a matatu back to Nyeri.

One of the most amusing parts of matatus is their naming conventions. Apparently, matatu decoration was an art while the industry was still the wild west. Now matatus are by regulation white with a yellow stripe down the side that lists their route and maximum capacity. However, the last vestige of this radical individualism is the names painted or placed by stickers on the top of the front windshield. I've made a small collection of matatu names which I present here for your reading enjoyment.

     Unique Shuttle
     Exalted King Coach
     Ultimate Leader
     Spirit Queen
     Watch Out
     Da Blues
     King of the Road
     Yours 4 Da Asking

... and my #1 with a bullet ...

     Relax, God's In Charge

It's not as roomy as it looks here
The view in my matatu
My matatu was unnamed, but left almost immediately, a bonus, with me in the back corner seat next to a six year old girl who was not allocated a seat on her own. Her eyes went wide when she saw me - my pigmentation is not common on matatus at all, let alone those heading to Nyeri. Her mother seated next to her said something that loosely translated “Just sit next to the mizungu and don’t complain, he probably won’t bite.” The little girl stroked my arm a few times, played with my backpack straps a bit and fell asleep on my lap after a few minutes on the road, despite the bone-jarring bumps which are fare of any travel on Thika Road these days. The ride was largely uneventful, but there was a hilarious moment when the matatu pulled off the side of the road for no obvious reason, and a *mob* of people charged the van from every side, pulled open the windows from the outside and shoved their arms into the van up to their armpits and started shouting. Far from a terrorist ambush, dangling from their invading limbs were stalks of bananas, bags of mangos and sack of fresh cut sugar cane. I was too constrained and amused to actually participate in one of these transactions, but I would say that at least half of my matatu-mates did some of their produce shopping right there in their seats.
My teammates had returned from Lake Nakuru hours before I got back, and were ready to go to dinner soon after I dropped my bags. After a quick jaunt to the Outspan, we came back to our hotel where it was “disco night” with a DJ playing to a completely empty terrace. Not to let a good set of music go to waste, the team created an impromptu dance floor and spent a few hours cutting the proverbial rug. I am indebted to my American male colleagues for ensuring that my utter lack of anything resembling dance skills did not render me a complete outlier.


  1. What an experience! You wonder if the driver gets a cut of the sales! After the Matatu experiences US taxi rides will be a pleasure! stay safe.

  2. I'm a fan of "Watch Out" :-)

  3. The matutus have seat backs? Oh the luxury! Here the vans have the seats removed and replaces with thin wooden benches so as to allow 50 people or so on a bus built for 10. Looking fwd to seeing you in Kin (no dancing required)!