Watch Out! Kenya is back like a heart-attack
In the 1990’s, Kenya’s capitol developed a reputation as a center of thievery and lawlessness. People would be harassed by glue-sniffing street kids, their cars robbed of anything valuable, and any respectable citizen fled the city at sunset. That’s why they called it “Nai-robbery.”
When I was here in January 2003, President Mwai Kibaki had just been elected, ending twenty-seven years of rule by Daniel arap Moi, rule that became exponentially more corrupt over time. Kibaki’s arrival was greeted by two weeks of parties, the country rejoicing over the change, with optimism so high it frothed over in the streets of Nairobi.
For the first time in decades the zebra crossings were re-painted and cars stopped for pedestrians. Traffic police were refused bribes with drivers requesting a real ticket instead. The whole country seemed to cleanse itself overnight. At the time, I was impressed, but I didn’t think it would last.
Arriving in Kenya last night, I realized I was wrong. First off, my taxi from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was relatively new and clean, not the wire and bubble gum jalopies of past. Then, when downtown, I was first struck by the streetlights. They were on. And their glow illuminated a city alive at night. Nairobians were up, out, and about, dressed fine and crime not on their mind.
Asking the driver, and then dozens of Kenyans over the next week, I came to understand that Kibaki’s election was a real watershed for the whole city. Gone was Nairobi’s outward criminal element (corruption is still endemic) and down was the random street crime. While Nairobi is still Nai-robbery – a friend’s side view mirror was stolen from his car while he sat in traffic – it’s not the same city as before.
Now it is similar to any other large African city. Keep your wits and your jewels about you. Don’t be stumbling down a street drunk at night, and always fear the Mad House. Yet, enjoy its energy, its beauty, and above all, enjoy its people.
Nairobi is back!