Nairobi is a hard city to love.
Especially now. Especially in 2017. It feels like a constant ambush on the senses. Walking through Nairobi is having your nostrils assaulted by the smells of the city, and not in a good way. They waft towards you like currents in a tide, you know? Now you smell them, now you don’t. You’re walking peacefully down a road, minding your own business, thankful that there’s no tear gas today because it’s in the middle of the week and it isn’t a designated demonstrator day and then suddenly something grabs your nose and twists mightily. You try and remember not to inhale sharply from shock but it’s too late now and now the taste of the smell is in your mouth. Why? You just passed one of those alleys, the ones that you’re not supposed to walk down at a certain time, or walk through alone, or question what the lumps to the side are. And you hurriedly hold your corrupted breath until you pass…on to the next current.
Or when you’re, once more, walking to an urgent meeting – ok, let’s say driving, to an urgent meeting. It’s pretty hot, that sunshine is burning down your bonnet. You have the music paying loud, window rolled partially down, in the middle of traffic on Koinange Street, right at the junction for KIM. Nothing is moving, especially not the City Council guy watching for someone to jump the light. And you don’t have money to pay him, so you stay put.
Someone taps on your window. It’s a chokora. He’s holding something. You’re briefly confused, like, why is he tapping? What’s going on? He looks too young for you to have gone to school together. And he’s smiling like he’s being friendly. Then you catch a whiff of what he’s holding and the realization dawns on you faster than a greedy cop. It could have been a bit faster at this point, but oh well. Here we are, your window halfway open, with a kid threatening to throw a stiflingly potent ball of shit into your car and NO ONE SEEMS TO HAVE NOTICED, including the eagle-eyed kanjo. He just his hand out and you start – because you thought it was a flinging movement. You try and think fast like you always do when you’re watching a movie and know what all the characters should be doing. But nothing’s coming to mind. Your window is automatic but by the time you made a move it’d be Poop Express. Screaming? Poop Express? Begging? It’s a wild guess, but he doesn’t really look like the negotiating type. So you slowly put your hands up in pseudo-surrender, then grab your door and bang it open in his direction, sending him flying over the curb, buying you time.
Disclaimer: I don’t know if this actually works, but it’s what I’ve always thought I would do in such a situation. Maybe you get a little poop on you. But a little is better than a heap, no? Another disclaimer – I’m sorry that both these examples involve faecal matter.
In spite of these things that happen to people in this City in the Sun often, among a host of other nightmarish incidents, I do actually love Nairobi. And it isn’t like I even know why. I sure talk a lot of smack about it. I’m always like ‘these politicians do nothing!’ and ‘Why the hell is there so much traffic!’ and ‘Prosecute all the candidates who stuck their posters up with unga paste!’. I’m always droning on and on about Nairobi, but I doubt I would ever leave it. Why? I don’t even know. When I was in Greece in August, I missed this place, and I was talking about it, of course – because Kenyans really like to brag about their own when they’re abroad. Even though the closest thing we have to a metro station is the reliability of footsubishis over public transport. A train that comes and goes every 6 minutes? Not in Kenya. In Kenyan, the only thing that comes every 6 minutes is a fresh corruption scandal.
So anyway, I was talking about, you know, Kenyan things. ‘Oh my gosh, that roasted mai is so expensive. Ati 2 euros (244 KES)? That stuff is a TENTH of that in MY country!’ You have to say it with the smug tone, otherwise how else will they know that we have SOMETHING over Europe? We triumphed over colonization. In your face, white supremacy. Or, ‘Hmmm, the people are SO unfriendly. In NAIROBI, EVERYONE says hello to you.’ I was stretching the truth just a tad here, but in my defence, it doesn’t take a lot to get Nairobians talking to each other. One police officer stopping a matatu, and the passengers will unite in protest, talking about how unfair it is, as the disembark, even forging friendships as they get handed back their ten bobs to get home on their own. One accident on the side of the road and people start exchanging tips on what to do in such cases, and the laws against moving bodies. One football match in a pub. One particularly vitriol-filled news segment. And so on, and so forth.
On one of these smug occasions, the fantastic AirBnb host asked, ‘Ok, so when I come to Nairobi, what should I do first?’
I had no clue. I never have any idea what to tell people to DO when they get to Nairobi. I enjoy Nairobi because I enjoy BEING in it, not because of anything I’m going to do or places I visit. Apart from clubbing – which, in my moderately travelled opinion, is incomparable to anywhere else on the planet (and you don’t pay for entry!) – I don’t know what else to say without sounding vague and uninformed. ‘ ‘Immerse yourself in the culture.’ ‘Take a matatu.’ No. It falls short of the true experience. So what I usually end up saying is, ‘Go to the National Park.’Don’t judge me. It’s the easiest to get to, even though it’s the most cliché, and not a lot of people who live in Nairobi, in my experience, actually go to the National Park. It isn’t really a ‘Nairobian thing to do’. It’s what Nairobians take tourists to do when they come, because it’s still a couple of hours till Happy Hour, so while we wait for that…let’s go see the lions. Or, the elephants at Sheldrick. Or, the giraffes who come to you at Giraffe Manor and give you a good long snog, which is the most action you’ve had this month.
Animals are an easy sell because there are not a lot of countries who have the Big 5, or the Wildebeest Migration and such things. When I was in Dubai, the thing I wanted to do most, even more than visit the Burj, was swim with dolphins. I mean, we’ve been fed this mystically magical experience through every single human saviour movie there ever has been – Jungle Book, Free Willy, Life of Pi, Old Yeller…as I age myself, you get the drift. A human bonding with an animal is a beautiful story. With dolphins in particular too. Dolphins are symbols of good fortune in most cultures, and, they’re very smart, and can show and express emotions and bond. All that fun stuff. I wanted to do this until I found out just how much it was, and until I also found out the complex ethical considerations that go behind locking animals up so that humans can come and pet them.
I mean, think about it. Animals are not necessarily domesticated, and even that happened over centuries of rewiring, with our now domesticated household pets. But strictly speaking, wild animals are supposed to live and thrive in the wild. Logically, something must happen to them if they are captured and put in restricted areas, for protection. Which is a lovely sentiment until that cage becomes an exhibition at a premium, and the poor things are never allowed to leave.
At the Sheldrick Orphanage, baby elephants are brought in when they have been abandoned, or poachers kill their parents and they are left alone, unable to fend for themselves. After a certain time, however, they are let back into the national parks to find their herds, who remember them (because elephants) and they live out their lives there. In contrast, dolphins in locations much like Dubai often spend their time as captured zoo attractions. There are studies to show that dolphins slowly go mad in such enclosures, because of various factors such as, the echolocation sensors they use to communicate and move with is permanently damaged by bouncing off the walls of their enclosures.Trip Advisor even launched a ‘ “no touching of wild animals” policy, whereby it will no longer sell tickets to attractions where travellers come into physical contact with captive, wild or endangered animals. As well as swimming with dolphins, the policy also covers petting tigers and elephant rides, a tourism experience that animal welfare charities have long campaigned against.
I know, because I was trying to find out how much those tickets cost, which is what made me go down that road in the first place. It also made me take a long hard look at why I even wanted to swim with dolphins in the first place. For The Gram? Sure. But surely that isn’t a good enough reason to lock animals up for the rest of their lives. So that your social media can be lit and you can get lots of likes? No. And certainly, I can see the beauty of communing with the wild. But that isn’t what most of us do, is it. It’s more unnatural than that – we’re trying to get a selfie with a wild animal because it looks cool. The animal is a prop, basically, for our ego. For entertainment.
Look, animals are great. But they’re still living things. I’m not saying don’t go to parks. God knows we need the money as a country – this national debt is not going to take care of itself. Our parks are vast and allow animals to live in the wild, still, with protection from poachers. Also, I’m not saying don’t get a selfie with the buffalo in the background, hell, if you’re feeling that courageous go ahead.
All I am asking of you is a little responsibility.
What I’m saying is, don’t think that these wonderful creatures are like the anthropomorphized versions found in Disney movies and do something stupid like step out of the car. What I’m saying is, think about the cruelty that puts animals into spaces where they cannot be animals, where humans touch and pet and nudge and scream at them for pictures 16 hours, every day of the week. Even you as a human being, would not survive an environment like that. Not even when you are a Kardashian. Or a Trump. So why would you do the same thing to another creature that is less intelligent, yet more vulnerable than you?
The rule of thumb when it comes to enjoying the presence of wildlife is this. DON’T take a wildlife selfie if: they are being held/restrained/hugged or if you’re baiting them with food or if they could harm you. However, feel free to take a wildlife selfie if; (a.) You keep a safe distance from them, (b) they are in their natural home and (c) they are free to move and not captive.
The largesse and extraordinary exquisiteness of the animal kingdom is not solely here for your delight. Enjoy it, if possible, without ruining it. And if the Holy Ghost lands with a tongue of flame on your head after reading this post, then feel free to sign up to the Wildlife Selfie Code. Yes, there is one. It is completely possible to enjoy and deeply appreciate Mother Nature’s handiwork without having to consume, own and obliterate it as well.