In the second in the series of lessons from Kenya, here are a couple more of the insights I've gained from a month in Nairobi.
Public transport is based on trust.
Or at least for a blow-in like me it is. I have, in previous posts, explained a bit how buses and matatus work here in Nairobi. There are route numbers, yes. And the routes do provide a guideline as to where the matatu is going. But these are mere guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.
If the driver encounters a road closure, flooding (which is getting pretty common at the moment) or even merely a traffic jam he is likely to turn around and try alternative routes. For me, as someone who is just about getting used to where my bus and matatu is meant to be going, this can be a little unnerving. Even though I will have clarified - most likely more than once - that the matatu that I am boarding is going 'down town', I always feel a lurch in my stomach when half way through the journey the driver swings an abrupt left and I am hurtling down an unfamiliar sidestreet. Mostly, these detours do end up bringing me to my desired location. Only once have I ended up being dumped out of a matatu unceremoniously in the middle of somewhere I didn't recognise. Luckily a schoolgirl took pity on me and showed me to where I could get a matatu the rest of the way.
I thought I'd end this section with a few gems from Classic 105. However stressful my commute can be as a result of detours or traffic, it is often rescued by 'choons' such as these:
GAA jerseys are this season's 'must-have' item in Nairobi.
I have spotted 4 GAA jerseys being sported by Kenyan men since I've arrived here. I've also seen one man wearing an FAI tracksuit top from circa 1994 and only yesterday an older woman wearing an emerald green t-shirt emblazoned with 'Irish Men Do It Better. Do Kenyans feel a deep affinity to Ireland, perhaps to do with their shared relationship with the British Empire? Not quite. The jerseys have made their way over to Kenya from Ireland, probably having been donated by their owners to a clothing collection.
The second hand clothes trade is a huge industry not only in Kenya but right across Sub-Saharan Africa. According to one report I read, it is estimated that 1/3 of the residents of the region wear 2nd hand clothes from Europe or the United States. It is commonly referred to as 'mitumba' here, which directly translates to mean 'onslaught'. Some observers fear that the practice is damaging to the indigenous economy here (hence the term mitumba). Others argue that 2nd hand clothes are vastly more affordable than new clothes, and in a country where a large proportion of the population is actually getting worse off as a result of a weak shilling, high inflation and increasing unemployment, this is hugely valuable.
I myself have bought 'mitumba' here. The weekend before starting work I headed to Toi Market with some other volunteers to pick up a few office-y type pieces, for wear in the UN complex. I found lovely brown wool River Island trousers, Topshop blouses, even Dunnes Stores tops, all for a fraction of the price they were originally sold for. So right now, I'd say I'm in favour of mitumba!