Monday, March 14, 2011

Slums and Souvenirs

Sunday was an overcast day in Nairobi, but I quickly set out to accomplish the few items I had set out for myself. The first and simplest was quickly thwarted, as although all the barbershops list hours starting at 8 AM, none of their signs mention that they are uniformly closed on Sunday. This country has some sort of vendetta against giving me a haircut. I proceeded into the city center to verify that there heretofore unmentioned City Hall Masai Market souvenir fair was indeed present. Its vendors were just starting to set up, so I followed my original plan to go to YaYa Center, a suburban shopping mall which hosts the published Masai Market on Sundays. I caught a “City Hoppa” bus (I assume that it’s a play on words since Hapa in Swahili means “here” but I’m not at all certain) which engages a staff of two – one driver and one hawker who shouts at people on the street to entreat them to board instead of opting for a competing bus company or any of the parasitic matatus that follow the identical route. The hawker also collects the 20 KSh fee (about 25 cents). The bus arrived at YaYa Center much more quickly that I expected and I missed the stop. Since it was still early though, I decided against disembarking and taking another bus in the other direction and instead decided to ride this bus for the loop, see a little bit more of the neighborhoods of Nairobi, and then jump off when it came past the mall going in the other direction. The circuitous route took me through some truly lovely tree-lined suburbs like Hurlingham, but then passed through those into Kawanguare, a suburban Nairobi slum. Many of the people were boarding in their Sunday best heading into town for church, but that made them stand out against their environment even more. Clapboard shacks with corrugated iron roofs as homes and kiosks. Not a shred of green to be seen, as whatever scrubby weeds surfaced were quickly mowed down by the emaciated livestock. Mountains of open garbage as tall as the window on our bus with goats rooting at the top and children rummaging around the bottom. The estimates of how many people live in Kawanguare range from 250,000 to 500,000. Having struck up a conversation with my hawker by this point, I asked him what these people did for work, and he replied “Nothing”. He said that many of them expected to inherit farms, but when those lands were transferred away from them through a variety of unsavory means, they came to the city seeking sustenance. But in his words, “They have no land, no jobs, and no hope.” Although that is likely an exaggeration, it is true that this is an area with some of the most extreme poverty in the world, with people living off about US$1 per day. He did say that the schools in that area are slowly but steadily improving, and agreed that education was the only hope for preventing the slums from being inherited by another generation.
Even the Nebulons are getting in on the action...
Disembarking at YaYa Center could not have provided a more sudden or stark contrast. For those of you in the DC area, YaYa is like Tyson’s Corner Center, but with even more white people. Exclusive brand names stores, gleaming marble floors, upscale coffee shops, even a street team in full space-age regalia hawking the new Samsung smartphone for a sum which exceeds most Kenyan’s annual income. 

It keeps going...
... and going
Arrayed in the parking lot were close to a hundred mats, splayed on each were hundreds of African tchatchkes ready for the haggling. Every step I took though the market was met with “Hello friend! Jambo! Karibu Kenya! What is your name? Where are you from? Please come with me just a moment to see my shop, looking is free, but you must hold the wares to know their quality and for you as my first customer of the day I have a special deal which I will not be able to extend for very long, so please let me feel like I am working today, sister please start wrapping these products for our foreign friend. Wait, but you are not buying, let me give you another price just for spending this time with us, and you are still not buying? Do you prefer this price? I feel this is our special time, and that we should do business together, but you are walking away. Do you promise you will come back? I will hold this piece for you, but you promise you will return?” Rise, repeat, multiply by one hundred, I am not exaggerating. I wended my way through the warren of pressing venders jotting notes down on what prices I was hearing and what products I was interested in procuring as gifts. Finally, I looked at my list and realized that if I were to go negotiating each of these gifts from vendors separately, I would be there all month. I decided to take a chance and try to make the system work for me. I beckoned one of the particularly earnest sellers, Mike, over to me and explained the system of agency, whereby I would provide him with a list of products, he would procure them for me at the best prices, and then I would negotiate with him and only him on a price for the bundle of goods. If I like the price I got from him, I would only need one agent, and if I didn’t then I would engage another agent to compete with him. Industrious as all Kenyans I’ve met, Mike eagerly set out on his task, engaging a deputy to help on his search. I sat in the shade with a mango juice, while they busily traversed the shops, bringing me products to verify. At the end, I had a pile of about 25 gifts, and hadn’t lifted a finger. Mike started with an absurdly high price for the group, and I re-explained that I could easily get another agent to engage on the same task. He immediately cut his price in half. I negotiated him down to about one third of his initial asking price, happily handed over the cash, and received the hefty bag of loot in return. Before letting me go, Mike asked me what course I studied in school. I told him Software Engineering and Business, and he paid me what I can only take as the ultimate marketplace compliment, “You are a tough customer.”


  1. Hi David,
    Always glad to be "hearing" from you. You definitely have accomplished a great deal, with much being enjoyed. You combination of business saichel and Mom's influence are a profitable combination.

  2. Awesome - just found this by dumb luck (OK, linking through R's Facebook account). We saw your better half on Sunday night, will see her again next Sunday IY"H.

    More later =-