Nairobi: 1st week behind

Dear family and friends,

I write to you all on this fine Sunday afternoon from the home of my hosts
here in Nairobi, Carol and Michael, good and long-time friends from Ottawa
who have been residents here for 6 years now. They have been the most
gracious and hospitable hosts to me my first week here, easing my
integration and accelerating my comfort level in my new and strange
surroundings. Although, I’ve been here before, back in 2008, I was mostly
sheltered in my hotel, and ventured little beyond going to work at the
Canadian High Commission, and going on safari in the Masai Mara. This
time, being with residents, it will be different and I will come to
appreciate this place more as I visit places a little more off the beaten
path. Other than starting my first week with a terrible cold, I’ve
adjusted well to my new reality.

Although the air is polluted due to the diesel fumes, the flora is lush,
the trees green, and the insects abundant! I wake up to the sounds of
calls for prayer from a mosque just stones throw away from the house and
to chirping birds. In fact, the calls for prayer precede my alarm going
off for work at 6AM, so it is an early start for me here. Kennedy, the
High Commission driver, who picks me up every morning and who drops me off
every evening, is here at 6:30AM sharp. It must be this way for security
reasons, and also because Nairobi has no reliable transportation system.
Don’t even think about biking! You take your life in your hands if you do.
The early start is to avoid getting stuck in any traffic, which happens
with as much prediction as in Los Angeles. The roads here are very narrow,
twist and turn, and are in very bad shape (one needs to constantly watch
for walking pedestrians who have no sidewalks and to the endless
potholes). They weren’t build for the number of cars now on the road. So
to get to the High Commission from my house is about 7km but that can take
a half hour in the morning, and almost an hour in the late afternoon.

I’ve learned a great deal from Kennedy about life here in Nairobi during
our daily rides, the fact that many people come here to work from the
villages and endure long separations from their families, that Kenyans are
very religious (already been asked on many occasions what is my
religion!), that Wednesdays are “ladies night” (self-explanatory) and that
Fridays are “members’ night”(friends go out for drink at bars, they don’t
use the word “pub” here I’ve learned). As we drive to the High Commission,
I observe the people go by and wonder where these shadows, beyond reach,
are going.

My first week at the High Commission has been rewarding, but what a
gruelling schedule! I had very little breathing space and little time for
lunch. One must manage and learn the ropes quickly. Luckily I’ve had some
refugee families not show up for their interviews, which allowed me to
finalize some earlier interviews and get prepared for the next ones. Also
an asset was access to colleagues who could provide some context as to
some of the trends in our refugee program here in the Horn of Africa. All
in all first week of interviews went well, and now feel more confident to
do the others.

Over the course of my first weekend in Nairobi, I’ve managed to cover some
interesting terrain. We attended a fantastic art exhibit yesterday of
local artists that was a fundraiser for “Art Without Borders,” an NGO that
promotes the arts for the disabled and children living with HIV. I bought
a beautiful tableau for about 18,000 shillings (about $250) and some
paintings for the kids painted by kids here in Nairobi afflicted by
poverty or illness. Onwards from the exhibit, we hiked in the Arboretum,
not far from the house, but lovely wilderness right in the centre of the
city. It is good to exercise, and I am grateful. Today, I placed an order
with a local Ethiopian carpet maker, from whom I purchased two small
carpets in 2008. This time the order was more ambitious as it’s for my
living room. I look forward to seeing the final product and ultimately
seeing it on my living room floor. Abraham, the carpet maker, was a
genuinely positive individual (helps sales I suppose) and often when I
would ask him if we could move carpets around his shop so I could compare
them and get a better sense, he would always respond: “why not?” I’ve
decided to adopt that mantra as my own from now on.

Nairobi is a place of contrast. The rich live well, and the poor live
poorly. The well off Kenyans or working expats live on compounds, securing
their possessions from the masses. I am getting used to living behind a
locked gate, barbed wire, and guard, but it’s an uneasy existence.

Tomorrow, I leave for Kampala, Uganda, where I will stay for two weeks.
More interviews. I promise to write from there, please write to me if you
have time.

Hope this message finds you all well and in good health.

Kwa heri! (good-bye in Swahili)



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