I’m in Nairobi, Kenya, sitting in our lawyer’s office. He has a very strange glass table with a hole cut out of it. The hole is filled with another piece of glass which can rotate and acts as a raised lazy-susan. Weirdly, it’s jointed so it can tip as well as rotate.
Paul is clearly quite a high powered lawyer. His office is on the 20th floor of a 20-story high rise in downtown Nairobi. The windows look out over the city and there aren’t many buildings taller than this one.
He jokes with the other lawyers in the elevator: “This is Bill, he runs my errands… [laughs all around] No, actually, he’s a partner.” I feel a little awkward: despite the joking, I pay Paul a tenth of what expensive corporate lawyers cost in the US; and I have, in fact, asked Paul to do a bunch of annoying errands while coordinating remotely with him in the last month or two.
The rest of the furniture in this office is very nice by Kenyan standards. It’s about the level of a medium to low-end office in the States – matched leather chairs but not particularly fancy, some of the leather is peeling, but nothing is ripped or torn. The low-shag carpet is kept very clean with no visible stains. There are laser printers and photocopiers and water coolers. In contrast, other places I’ve been to in Nairobi – banks, etc – are furnished more like a frat house with peeling upholstery, worn mismatched wooden chairs, and so on. No company in the States except maybe a very early stage startup would have furniture that ratty.
Oh yeah, and the power has gone out twice in two hours! Even Paul in this luxurious high-rise cannot afford to keep the lights on continuously. It’s no big deal since the power always comes back within a few seconds.
Transit: Yesterday I took a matatu, today a city bus. They’re both the same price (40 Ksh / 50 cents). In all cases, you get on the bus and then someone comes to collect the payment during the ride. There’s always a conductor riding in the back whose job it is to collect money, open and close the door, and tell the driver when to stop. The matatu is essentially a 14-person van whereas the bus is an actual full-sized bus, with all seats facing forwards (as opposed to modern American metro buses which typically have many seats facing sideways, and more room to stand). The matatus leaving from the city center wait until they are full to leave, so they always squish everyone together. I haven’t seen many instances of people hanging off the sides (though I was told to expect this). The matatus play deafening popular music from two giant speakers mounted on the wall behind the driver.
It’s very hard to figure out where to get on the bus on the way out of the city. I’ve only tried once and I got on the wrong direction and had to take a taxi home. I even asked “46 Argwings Kodhek Road?” when getting onto the bus and the guy nodded and waved me on. But he apparently didn’t understand what I was asking. Luckily, the ride took me somewhere special: Huruma, which is a slum east of Nairobi. I was hoping to see the slums but I didn’t have plans to visit. The bus ride dropped me off on a dirt road where there were a lot of people living in makeshift dwellings. I was horrified by the stream running through the city - there were people sitting along it but it was just filled with trash. Essentially the stream was a landfill. It smelled awful. There was a backhoe moving trash around - I have no idea why. The landfill went on for like a mile before we turned off onto a bigger road.
Someone asked me if seeing the slums made me want to donate more to charity. The answer was no, not particularly. I already have a strong altruism drive, but it’s not very sympathetically/empathetically motivated. It’s more along the lines of “yes, I know people are suffering and we can probably do something about it. Let’s make it happen.” I did find myself slightly more motivated to succeed with my startup after coming back, but that could be caused by other things (like not having much time to get good work done for the whole trip, or reading motivational books on the plane).
Restaurants: The restaurant experience is pretty… odd. In all the restaurants I visited, the waiter brought me the menu and then just STOOD there waiting for me to order. My eyes flick to the drinks section and I order a drink quickly. “Anything to eat?” Oh, you want me to order my whole meal while you stand here? Okay then. I find the entrees section, scan it, give up and finally order whatever the waiter recommends.
I went to a Chinese restaurant. I put in my order for takeout and then sat at a table. They brought me a hot towel and some appetizers and I became confused because I wasn’t sure if they understood what takeout was. The appetizers were actually really tasty: egg noodle chips doused in sugar, and a carrot & cucumber finger salad with a sweet sesame dressing. I scarfed it all down and then they brought me a carryout bag with my food. So I guess they understood.
I got fast food a few times. Pizza in one place, fried chicken in another. But fast food in Kenya is not particularly fast! It takes about 10 minutes.
In Nairobi there is a chain of “Java House” cafes. They are all over the place in the city and they cater heavily to foreigners/expats. To give you a sense: outside of Java Houses I saw maybe five white people the whole trip. Inside Java House, between the two times I went, I saw about twenty. They have recognizably American food like burgers and tuna sandwiches, as well as coffee, espresso machines, and DELICIOUS masala chai tea with milk.
M-pesa is a popular mobile money system in Kenya. It’s what we’re basing our business on - that nearly everyone has a way to receive money transfers onto their phone. It is very popular and definitely a household name, but it is not widely used as a payment method, unlike what I had expected. Most merchants do not accept it yet. (A local company, Kopo Kopo, is working on making “pay with M-pesa” a big thing.) But I did figure out how to use M-pesa to buy pizza from a pizza chain, and most taxi drivers also accept M-pesa.
Once I realized I could pay taxis with it, I started asking every time. It usually takes longer than just handing them cash, even if you have to wait for them to make change. But you don’t get screwed when the driver doesn’t have any change. One driver asked for a bit extra (+25 shillings on a 450 bill) to cover the M-pesa withdrawal, which costs a small percentage.
Getting a cell phone: I showed up at the Safaricom store at the mall the very first day I was in Nairobi. The store was packed and there were about 30 people in line waiting for help. Fortunately, there were only five people in line waiting for sales, but they all took nearly 10 minutes each, so it was about 40 minutes before I even got to talk to anyone about what I was trying to buy. What I wanted was slightly complicated – a new phone, a GSM modem, two SIM cards and an M-pesa account for each SIM card. I got as far as talking to the person and telling him all this when he handed me a big form and said “fill this out”. Of course, since the store is packed, there’s nowhere to fill it out, so I ended up using one hand to support my pen writing through the paper.
They are out of the cheapest phone so they sell me the next one up. It costs 6000 shillings, about $70. I bought with my US VISA card. I only bought 100 shillings ($1) worth of airtime for it, which lasts about 10 minutes of talk time. I ended up buying another $5 worth of airtime during the whole trip - so at least that’s relatively cheap. The GSM modem was about $20 and the SIM cards were free. To get the SIM cards I had to show them my passport. Then I had to go to the M-pesa desk and register my SIM cards with M-pesa, which required showing my passport again. Fortunately, nobody gave me any trouble about being a foreigner.
Being white: There seem to be a few people in the city who prowl around, looking for touristy-looking white folks. Two days in a row, the same guy found me on the street and would chat me up, teach me Swahili words and act really friendly. It was obvious, though, that he was trying to bring me into stores (perhaps on commission) or taxis. I actually used him to find me a place to buy a plug adapter I needed, and having friendly human contact (however insincere) was still kind of pleasant.
But the real interesting one was that while I was waiting for the fried chicken, I was accosted (or maybe awkwardly hit on?) by a local, a girl named Carol. She was very polite. She sat next to me and started asking me questions. She was a student studying biotechnology at the University of Nairobi. She wanted to move to the US since some of her family lived there, but they would not give her a visa since they thought she would stay as an illegal immigrant. She added, “and they’re probably right!” She wanted me to look at her visa application and try to see if I could make any suggestions, but I declined to help in this case.
The few instances when I would pass white people on the street, or ride elevators with them – quite rare, and I always felt a bit of companionship. I guess this is how people who look different feel most of the time in the US? Definitely good to have experiences like that.
Everyone was dressed like a businessperson in the city. There were very few t-shirts – basically everyone wore at least a button-up shirt, and lots of jackets and slacks. Long sleeves were quite common but lots of short sleeves as well. The weather was warm enough (high 70s F) that in the US I would never wear long sleeves. When I would talk with taxi drivers they would always comment on it being “cold” which I found funny.
Sunscreen costs $15 a bottle (I guess not many people need it?). But deodorant is very cheap! And every taxi driver made some comment about Obama when I said I was from the US.
The security! Oh! Let me make a quick list: Checking the trunks of cars as they enter any private parking lot (malls, office buildings, etc.) Showing the contents of my bag at the entrance to malls, office buildings, and restaurants. I probably got wanded about 8 times a day, and had to open my bag maybe 4 times per day. There’s a guarded gate to the entrance of every apartment complex. My taxi got stopped at night in a police check on the street - they were stopping everyone and shining a flashlight into the car. My hosts told me I should not walk around after dark or ride matatus - since I’m white I am an attractive target to be mugged. Of course, I did ride matatus and wander around after dark, and never saw anything resembling danger, but maybe I just didn’t get unlucky enough (or maybe the danger is overblown). Walking around after dark was quite scary, but mainly because there are no streetlights, few sidewalks, and the cars go fast on narrow streets.
Modern conveniences: “The Junction Mall” is a very much a US styled shopping mall. It’s in the western Nairobi suburbs, not too far from where I was staying, in an area where richer people live. The only difference from US malls is that there are no stores with entrances to both the mall and the outdoors, so you have to go in through the main mall entrance. But this was a full size mall - multi story, food court, fashion stores, cell phone stores, video game store, even a Subway. Perfectly clean and well maintained. Free wifi in the food court. Actually, there was a surprising availability of wifi in the central business district of Nairobi as well – not too hard to find, and for relatively cheap (under $1 for 24 hours of wifi).
But the real treasure at Junction was a two-story store at one end of the mall. This was unlike any store I have seen in the US. The closest is probably Carrefour in France. This store sold (deep breath): all kinds of groceries including health food, basic clothing, fashion clothing (including sub-stores like a Skechers shoe store), books, kitchen supplies, home goods, refrigerators, indoor furniture like couches, outdoor furniture, camping supplies, gardening supplies, yardwork tools, lawn mowers, motorcycles and home gym equipment. Also, there was a woman at a kiosk who offered to make you instant ramen on your way out of the store.
I think that about sums up Nairobi.