Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ode to Nairobi

Nairobi largely gets a bad rep. I remember the first time I arrived in Nairobi, my head filled with knowledge of its violent reputation, I was increasingly terrified with every step I took off the plane. A woman who worked in the airport must have seen my fear, because she got me a taxi and actually took it with me into town, pointing out all the hotels and nice, modern things that Nairobi has to offer. She walked me into the hotel, told me not to leave until morning, but then during the day, she added, feel free to walk around the city, and went back to the airport. Now I know that even in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, it’s ok to walk around during the day. There is considerable risk at night and of course during occasional violent rallies, for both Kenyans and visitors, but during the day you are probably safer in Nairobi than you are in, say, some parts of New Orleans.

So although this is still a dangerous city, the days of “Nairobbery” are largely over. That said, it’s not exactly a pleasant city either. One day it will be—with all those glorious trees and huge forests and parks interspersed throughout the city, it must be one of the greenest cities on earth. If only you could breathe to enjoy it! The pollution, mostly from unregulated exhaust fumes, makes walking around the city literally a sickening affair. Also, in my week here, there's only one day where I've scheduled more than one meeting in a day and I worry I won’t make them both, even though they are pretty close to each other. Traffic. A large part of each day in Nairobi is spent on matatus, 14-seater Nissan vans that constitute the public transportation system. A 7 mile drive takes at least an hour, more likely an hour and a half. Sitting in traffic at the best of times is a pain, but in the midst of the horrible exhaust from Matatus, huge lorries, cars and the occasional tractor, I think it constitutes a public health problem.

One little subway, Nairobi, that’s what you need, one little subway. Kenya could probably find the money in its own government coffers if it wanted. It also would be a great project for a foreign donor, even if the project is rife with potential for corruption. It makes me sympathetic to all those politicians in Western Kenya who think all this funding for human rights is crazy and a little hilarious-- they don't understand what it means to fund human rights, but they understand what it means to have poor road systems and a shortage in medications. C'mon World Bank, or newly arrived masses of Chinese donors, build a subway in Nairobi!

I explained to a taxi driver the subway system in New York and he was very thoughtful about it for a minute and then said slowly, “The problem is, that would require planning.” Well, ok, until then I’ll stay in Kisumu.


  1. Finally....You said it!!!!Hello politicians!!!

  2. Start the planning in Kisumu, please. Kisumu actually has (surprise, surprise!) a real rail network. Lacunous but existing. Simply re-using the existing old tracks would allow for urban rail, and would help so many commuters.
    For example, did you know that the airport has an (unused) rail link to industrial area and to town? But yes, it has - it dates back to the imperial flying boats time in the 1930s and 1940s, with its big former hangar (now derelict).
    One does not need fancy adviserry firms from the Global North, nor a shmoozy viability study for that; all that is needed are five to ten track gangs (cheap labour), and three used diesel-powered light rail cars. Done.