Uselessness comes in many forms like the ‘EA’ in tea, traffic police on a closed road, Aladdin’s Uber account or a kamusi[i] when listening to Lumumba. However, I find some tidbits very worthwhile. Snippets of street wisdom that make life in my city just that more bearable. And I thought it my civic duty to share some of them. Go ahead and appoint me an Order of The Golden Heart.
Living in this city is not for the lily-livered. Nairobi is a fickle mistress with the charm of a fairy princess and the heart of an evil stepmother. She is cantankerous, unpredictable, and sporadically unsafe and seems to have forgotten that the current swag is global warming. Why she wants to freeze us, I am unaware.
The Nairobi starter pack is a jacket, good shoes and a money carrying mechanism safer than State House. The jacket must be as warm as a mother’s womb and water-proof. Your shoes have to be better than military grade combat boots. They will be subjected to dust, murram, tarmac, mud, water, broken tiles, uneven pavement slabs and even dung- human and otherwise. Your shoes have to have soles that can be subjected to heat without melting and cold without cracking. They have to be easily washable and can dry as fast as a duck. Your heels should be made of diamond hard materials lest they break when you inevitably sink them in mud. And when it rains and the water collects at the sides of the roads and the matatu drops you in the middle of the deluge- make sure you have a shoe that will still come out whole when you wade through the water.
When embarking said matatus, observe them. There is a reason commuters will insist on boarding an already full matatu and the other one will be left empty. Sometimes it’s because they are being unthinking and want to board the new artful one with the booming music, television screens and Wi-Fi but sometimes it’s because there’s a manure smelling man occupying a whole bench. Other times it’s because the seats are raised and the idiots who “pimped” the rides decided to install some decorative board in the ceiling that seems to be out of a torture device handbook. When you sit in such, you are forced to fold into yourself like a decrepit hunchback and you end up losing feeling in most of your neck and back.
Shopping in the city is an adventure. You could stumble on magnificent merchandise and luckily, it could be fairly priced. But depending on luck in this city is like praying for a four course buffet from heaven in Darfur. Highly unlikely to be successful. Your best bet at getting fair prices is dressing like a hustler. Trade in your Bata heels for your high school sneakers. Wear ragged jeans and not Levis. Don’t wear your headphones and keep that smart phone hidden away. Unless the merchants already know you, refrain from showing off. Jeans that are normally 400/- will spike to 1000/- or 2500/- depending on whether you are using a Tecno or a Samsung.
When choosing a restaurant for the first time, consider the street, proximity to a bus stage, and if the loo is right at the entrance- as those have very cheap food but cuisine that seems to have been cooked in a low budget prison then water was added. There is no taste and if all you need is your stomach filled then- go ahead. If you want both taste and reasonable costs, don’t consult Trip Advisor or online reviewers. They aren’t there. Ask your friends or friends of friends. And when you go there, consult with the waiters. Don’t go ordering an extravagant meal like chicken curry in a joint where gnawed sponge is peeking out of the cracked leather seats. You’ll end up eating kuku boilo[ii] filled with Royco and food colour. Never forget to ask for a menu if you don’t see a display for the prices. You’ll pay a small fortune for hot water, two grains of sugar and the 5/- packet of Nescafe.
Sometimes, you will receive a call or a SMS telling you that they accidentally sent you money via m-pesa and if you will kindly refund them. Or they will send you a message telling you about the manifest of an arriving package. Then when you tell them they have the wrong number they will call you thanking you profusely and will ask for your account details so that they can “thank you properly”. For the love of all that is holy, DO NOT give out any of your details. Understandably, this doesn’t happen to Nairobians only. Nevertheless, don’t encourage these hoaxers. Block their numbers as soon as you can. Alternatively, you can register their phone numbers as a phone sex service and advertise them on porno websites or put it on a poster at “massage parlours”.
With those few tidbits of enduring day to day living in this city, you should be better equipped to conquer Nairobi. When you predictably become successful enough to relocate to Chicago or London where you can use your phone in downtown without fear of losing your arm- you can then teach your locals how to improve their lives. Or at least invent a way to make sure wrists stay on when you have to answer a call in River Road.
[i] Swahili dictionary
[ii] Boiled chicken