Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why I Love Kenya

There is no reiterating that the savannas and safaris have a merciless hold on me. But that is not the only reason why Kenya has me, or anyone who visits it not quite knowing what to expect, bewitched. Kenya is an optimal amalgamation of European “notions” of civic responsibility and cleanliness, native African warmth and hospitality and a dash of Indian touch that makes for a genteel existence.  In contrast, modern India’s pervasive mammonism and what it is cheering as new aggressive and attitudinal shift of GenNext seems jarring, especially for someone who has seen the “upside” of a so-called underdeveloped African country. After coming back home, the contrast between the two countries appears even more stark and striking. Indians may have a stereotyped notion of “Africa” as an overcrowded and poverty-stricken country but, ironically, it is Kenya that brought home lessons of “civic responsibility” and “happy co-existence” more than all my years in India.
 In my experience, Kenyan men and women are, largely, soft-spoken, courteous and civil whether they come from higher echelons of society or from the working class. A courteous “Good Morning” or a hearty “jambo” with a smile has to set pace for the day. An anecdote illustrates the point well, also the fact that it came from my local house help. Once a man wanted to buy fish and asked the vendor the price of the fish. The lady offended by his lack of social etiquette replied: “Since you do not want to greet me first, you might as well ask the fish its price”!
Indians, at least in the metros, are losing out on these basic niceties. Streets and public places have become arenas for slanging matches if one doesn't get right of way be it while bargaining with a vendor, jostling for parking space, clambering onto a bus or local train or hailing a cab. And we cannot do anything subtly or softly; everything has to be proclaimed loudly to the world and its neighbour.While Geography, climate and weather may have favoured Nairobi more than any Indian city, there is no reason why old-world values, courtesies or ordinary decencies be given short shrift in day-to-day dealings. 

Megapolises in India, small towns even more so, are increasingly getting caught up in appearances – hip hair style, snazzy electronic gadgets and popular designer labels worn on sleeves - has become the measure of people’s worth.  Contrast that with the Kenyan get-up where there is little emphasis on what you wear save a dazzling smile, easy laughter and a ready jig. Drivers may have one or two pieces of ensemble but they will be worn nattily and with great élan. Women are usually in trousers or skirts and do dress bold but there is singular absence of eve-teasing – no leering, no jeering, no pawing or pinching! The fact that Kenya is an open society in contrast to Indians, who are a repressed lot, may have something to do with it.

The wholesale vegetable market at Nairobi’s City Park is a revelation. The Mama Mbogas (women vegetable vendors; in Swahili, mboga means vegetables) are patience personified and blind trust seems to rule here. They will not chastise you for rummaging through their wares or sneak after you to count the bundles of spinach you picked up yourself. And the vegetables themselves are gleaned as though under “Quality Control” requirements – the okra and french beans tender as the babies’ fingers. Cheerful disposition, easy manners and charm are the hallmark of hawkers and shopkeepers, everywhere. As a spontaneous community effort by the vendors the squelchy mboga waste is composted on site to produce organic manure (a simple idea, yet elusive in our scenario; correct me, if I am wrong) which is sold to the denizens of the garden city.  

Nairobi is truly deserving of the title. Trees line streets and adorn house gardens throughout the city. In Mumbai, trees covered with layers of dust wear a forlorn look and waste away in the human jungle.  Greening the cities and countryside is an intrinsic ethos in Kenya thanks to the legacy of Tree Mama, Wangari Maathai, and also due to the presence of international bodies such as UNEP.  Public places wear utterly spruced up look and are clean - no garbage on the streets, none spilling out of trash cans or garbage trucks, no plastic bags floating in the air or lying on the ground. Garbage collection is entrusted with private agencies and UNEP statistics vouch for nearly 90% collection which is as good as it can get.

No jostling crowds at malls, hotels or in public places. No cows or stray dogs roam, hardly any beggars or homeless languish on the streets of Nairobi. There is no dog poop (or worse) littered on roadsides, no paan spittle painting walls, no jets of spit streaming out of bus windows. What is it about us Indians that we cannot get our act together when it comes to garbage and general hygiene? The appalling state of Indian roads and public spaces vis-à-vis waste is a widely acknowledged fact. But it is shameful when historical records suggest that Indians, as a people, are a filthy lot. The town of Nairobi came up as an Indian Quarter to accommodate indentured labourers and, subsequently, Indian merchants that followed to support these "residents”. The town spread gradually and soon became the headquarters of British administration with a mixed population in the early 20th century. Records point out that it was in the Indian Quarter that plague started and spread. Is the “emerging superpower” also vying for the distinction of being the filthiest nation on earth?

Traffic is a bane; it can get particularly erratic when the rains come, no matter they may be mere passing showers, but no honking please, we are Kenyans. We are patient and take life “pole pole” (literal Hindi translation – holle holle). In the streets of Mumbai even as the traffic is moving as fast as it possibly could the driver has his fist on the horn which is a substitute for a punching bag to vent his ire and angst and rage – emotions common to the common man of Mumbai or any other metropolitan city in India. The neo-Indian’s aggressiveness reveals itself on the road as much as elsewhere.

With all that traffic Nairobi has little pollution. The weather is pleasant and cool - like Wellington summers - throughout the year. Incidentally, I came across a temperature graph of major cities in the world in a diary and it revealed (not surprisingly to me) that Nairobi has world’s best averages - min 11 and max 24 - throughout the year! The equatorial sun can be harsh if you are outdoors during the daytime, but it is not the sapping heat of tropical regions. In fact, as you traverse north towards the Equator, from Nairobi to Central Highlands, the weather gets even more salubrious, particularly in the vicinity of Mt. Kenya and Aberdares. This is where the Europeans settled replicating their countryside lifestyle.

If all that has been mentioned here is not enough, then here’s more… I did not sight a single cockroach – big or small – during my entire stay there; mobile phone companies don’t interrupt your waking moments with  unsolicited messages from naughty videos to salacious gossip; and TV programmes and channels do not bush your brains with inane commercials, ad infinitum, peddling crass commercialization. Though cantonments in India are a welcome respite, there is no escaping the larger reality of India being ugly, unkempt, slipshod, uncaring, uncouth, and unsophisticated in its Great March to Modernity.  Kenya is a blessed land not just for its savannas and safaris, but also for its cities and the people. I have become richer, more patient and tolerant with the Kenyan experience.


  1. Wow, so interesting and thoughtprovoking, Paddy! I do hope you get this poublished in one of our Indian national papers, so that there is more awareness there of these issues.
    cheers, Dr Raj

  2. HI!! I loved this read.. I smiled :) Followed your link from facebook and so very happy to see an essence expressed so positively.

    will b following your blog for sure!!!

  3. Wonderful insights and beautifully written! There is much to learn from every culture and place in the world... and we can all borrow a piece or two and incorporate in our lives. What makes this special is it comes from a so-called "underdeveloped" part of the world. I am still in somewhat of a shock about how Africa and Africans are perceived in India - from my trips to the foreign office in Bangalore. I agree with Shobs - oops, I mean Dr. Raj - you should get this published in a wider, mainstream forum.

  4. I came to this piece from a link Ishwar posted on FB. Lovely, evocative writing and so many lessons for India. Thanks for sharing an aspect of a part of the world that I have no intimate knowledge of except for my roommate in college who was from Kenya and embodied all the qualities of generosity and gentleness that you describe.

  5. Well written. My grand father was one of the first to arrive, and settle in this country ( 1888 was his first visit ) . Five (5) generations have , since, made this our home. A visit to India really shocks, and you wonder, are WE here, in Kenya, the Third World?

  6. Kenya is possibly what India was fifty years ago...pristine, uncrowded, and still connected to nature and farming. I don't know how fifty years or so might have changed people, but you characterize Indians and Kenyans well...and yes, we do have a lot to learn from them--hakuna matata. Wonderful writing!