Nairobi. Nai-robbery. Nai-Hermione Granger. I’m not sure why the last one was getting a run from Sam’s mash-ups, as he calls them. It was the largest city we had been to, and everyone we had met who had visited to a person had said it was the sort of place you stay in for as little time as possible. Get in, get out.
I actually didn’t think it was that bad, and Sam loved it. Mind you, the crime rate apparently rivals Johannesburg so maybe we were just lucky. The hostel we were staying at was basic but functional. There weren’t mosquito nets but the WiFi was the best we had experienced. However, there was the issue of McDonald’s. I had assumed that Nairobi would have several, but it turned out they had none, only three KFCs set away from the city centre.
‘Why are there no McDonald’s?’
‘I don’t know Sammy.’
‘There should be.’
‘I can have McDonald’s when we get back to Sydney.’
Despite the thousand or so conversations we had had about going to McDonald’s in Nairobi, when he discovered there was none it was dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. It seemed he was measuring the sophistication of cities by what fast food chains they had present, and when he saw that Nairobi had big modern buildings and other trappings of a major city, it didn’t really matter anymore.
A few days of school, shopping, neuroplasticity workouts, restocking and recharging. Pythagoras’ theorem, a PowerPoint on the Congo, public speaking practice, chess, boxing. Kick, kick, uppercut, uppercut, cross. Meeting people, talking to staff, ordering meals, playing pool. Doubling on motorbikes, walking down broken sidewalks, ignoring hawkers (Sam was always better), discomforted by the disabled beggars rattling their coins in plastic cups. A blind 10-year old boy, a woman with cerebral palsy using her arms to propel herself along the street while her wasted legs trailed behind, a preschool-aged girl with a severely deformed wrist.
On our third and final day in Nairobi I’d organised for Sam and myself to visit a school on the outskirts of the city where a cousin of mine, Denise, had worked as a volunteer several times over the last few years. The school, funded by the Australian Consulate and donations from Australian sponsors, taught children from Kibera, the largest slum in Africa.
Home to 1 ½ million people, the tin and mud brick shacks of Kibera latched onto the rolling hills; a chronic rash on a scarred surface. Denise was home in Australia but her close friend, Sister Leonida, was there to greet us. A vibrant and kindly soul, she outlined the tremendous work the school did, and introduced us to her staff, who were all fascinated of course by Sam and what we were doing. We were well used to that.
One of her staff members, the head teacher, Jeremiah, took us for a walking tour of Kibera, his home for all of his life. As a child, he had been bright enough to earn a scholarship to complete his schooling and subsequently complete an education degree at university. As a teacher for the most disadvantaged, he was now giving back to his community in spades.
We walked down the narrow winding alleyways, where rubbish lined the open drains, children spilled out of doorways and chatter filled the air.
‘A typical house is about six square metres, and somewhere between six and 20 people live in that space. During the day there is a table, but this is packed up at night and people sleep together on the floor.’
‘So space is at a premium.’
‘Is there a lot of crime here?’
‘In some areas, but not this one. I was brought up here. If someone came up now and stole your camera, they would chase him, catch him, and beat him to death.’
‘Well, I certainly hope that doesn’t happen!’ I said
Despite the poverty, people were smiling and laughing.
‘So is there a sense of community spirit here?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes! You know, you see people who live in big fancy houses in other areas of Nairobi, and they don’t even know their neighbours. Here, everyone knows each other and looks after each other.’
I suspected Jeremiah, an intelligent and articulate man, was a local hero. People smiled and nodded on his approach, and we were welcomed because we were in his company. I looked at the communal water pump, funded by the World Bank, where women and children filled their plastic yellow containers, at the local medical clinic where doctors and nurses stole the medications so they could sell them at private clinics, at the garbage, the chaos, the confinement, and was in awe that he had come from this to be where he was today.
Sam was cool. This sort of experience didn’t faze him at all these days. I thought back to Cape Town, where the sights and smells of the township had distressed him so much. We had come a long way in a geographical sense, but he had come a long way in many more ways