Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Things I've Learned in Kenya - Part 5

'Kenyans live according to their pockets'

A colleague of mine from UNAIDS remarked this as we were stuck in traffic on our way to the UN compound after a meeting a few weeks ago, on Friday June 29th. The driver of the car nodded furiously in agreement when she said it. This was their explanation of why the roads were so jammed that day
1) It was just after payday
2) It was a Friday.

People in Kenya can afford to fuel their cars after payday so there is always increased traffic around the city streets in the fortnight after payday. After that the traffic begins to dwindle until only those who have done some excellent budgeting, or who have lots of money, can fill up their tank.

A typical Nairobi road after payday...

...and just before payday (disclaimer - this is actually a
picture of Tom Mboya Street during the curfew in 2008)

Other VSO volunteers and I had noticed a similar phenomenon after Christmas. In January our buses were more full than ever. And full of people in fancy suits, who looked a little out of place crammed into buses and matatus, laptop cases and briefcases gripped tightly on their laps, having spent their December wages (and then some) on Christmas trips to visit families upcountry.

Obama mania?

When I came to Kenya on my holidays in 2009 Barack Obama was everywhere. You could not escape his image or his name. His face was to be found on kangas, shops and restaurants were called things like 'Yes We Can Ltd' or 'Barack Obama Cafe', bookshops had shelves teeming with copies of his books.

And yet in the last 9 months since I have been here I have seen very little evidence of the American president. Many of the shops and businesses have been renamed, other images and patterns cover Kenyan women's bums.

A Barack Obama kanga - the fashion
accessory of choice in Kenya in 2008/9

Yes We Can Kinyozi (Barber)

I was only reminded of his past omnipresence when I spotted a matatu during the week sporting the sign 'Still Obama'. I couldn't help but wonder (sorry, I couldn't resist!) where has Obama gone? I hadn't noticed his disappearance until prompted by the matatu.

What might be behind this?

Well I think partly it's a quite natural process. Obama swept to power in America on such a wave of enthusiasm and popularity - a popularity he enjoyed both in the United States and overseas - that it was unlikely that it could be sustained for the entire 4 years of his first term. In Africa, there was a feeling that his election could mark a new phase in U.S. African relations. Increased trade, development assistance and tourism were all expected to come on the back of the election.

However, many are disappointed in his apparent lack of interest in Africa, and Kenya more specifically. Neither he or the First Lady have visited the land of his father since he became President. When I tell people that Obama has Irish heritage, and has visited his relations there, they are usually incredulous. This lack of a visit, combined with a feeling that he has not done enough for the continent have provoked ill-feeling in many quarters. Under his watch PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief - an initiative of Obama's predecessor George W. Bush) has seen it's budget slashed drawing heavy criticism from advocates of people living with HIV/AIDS. Over a million people depend on PEPFAR funding for their Anti Retroviral Treatment. Obama's Global Health Initiative (GHI) is a $63 billion initiative aimed at tackling a broad range of tropical diseases, as well and maternal and child health issues. However, it has been criticised so far for being unfocused and uncoordinated in comparison with PEPFAR.

Even the upcoming US Presidential election has failed to relight imaginations here. The election contest is being covered in the foreign news sections of the papers, but reference to Obama's heritage are thin on the ground at the moment. Will it change if he wins in November? We shall see.

Nairobi has hipsters too

This weekend I headed along to 'Blankets and Wine' - a monthly one day music festival held just outside of Nairobi. On the first Sunday of every month, Nairobi's trendiest (and this month, me) descend on this outdoor venue armed with, as the name suggests, blankets and wine. Gig-goers are encouraged to bring their own booze and picnic with them while they enjoy what the organisers terms 'Afro fusion' music. The performers are a mix of Kenyan, and international artists. Yesterday we were treated to the sounds of Kenya's own Yunasi and Sauti Sol as well as Tumi and the Volume from South Africa.

Tumi and the Volume warm up the crowd early in the afternoon

More people arrive as the afternoon wears on

Gemma and I enjoying being among Nairobi's
cool folks ... for an afternoon at least

For me, the attraction of the event - apart from the music and the al fresco dining and drinking - was the chance to do some serious people watching. The crowd were a mix of Kenyan and mzungu (with Kenyans definitely being in the majority) families and groups of young people, hipsters and the not-so-hipsters. The style was incredible. However my personal favourite style icon of the day was the gentleman below whose blazer was made out of the exact same Maasai blanket material as I was sitting on. There are few guys who could get away with this but I think he pulls it off. What do you think?

Nairobi hipster

A hastily taken picture of the blanket
in question but you get the idea.

Also in this series:


  1. Nairobi hipsters! Joy.

    (As ever, loving the auld blog.)

  2. Andrea, would love to publish this story on a piece we're doing on cupcake delivery in Kenya and the traffic involved. It would be a conceptual image. Woul you kindly email me at leslie (at) ozy (dot) come please so I can tell you more info

    Thank you