Nairobi is both the capital of Kenya and it’s largest city. Nairobi has the highest urban population in East Africa at between 3 and 4 million people. The city was founded in 1899 and in 1901 it became the capital of the British colony after the former capital, Mombasa. Unfortunately, almost all of the colonial-era buildings have been replaced by bland modern office buildings following Kenya’s independence in 1963. Nairobi is a relatively new city and almost all of the buildings have been built in the last 100 years.
Before the 1890s the whole area on which Nairobi now stands was an isolated swamp. It was after, that the East African Railway established a depot on the land at the edge of a small stream. The Maasai, a prominent tribe in East Africa, called the small stream uaso Nairobi, meaning “cold water.” In 1998 the US embassy on Moi Avenue was bombed by militants linked to Osama bin Laden killing more than 200 Kenyans. Four suspects were convicted, but lenient sentences and a meager compensation still anger many Kenyans today.
Nairobi is very modern compared to the rural villages and has rush hour traffic and skyscraper buildings. Many of the things that we take for granted in the United States can also be found readily available, such as running water, electricity, post cards, pizza, and ice cream. At first glance, it is a very cluttered city. There is a lot going on in a relatively small space. The buildings, traffic, and people seem to be stacked on top of one another. In Nairobi, unlike the rural villages, the streets are named and have signs to label them. The two major streets are Kenyatta and Moi Avenues, named after the first and second presidents of Kenya. Street names tend to be preferred for giving directions over the landmark and fingering-point approach used in the villages. But don’t let this fool you into believing that there is any kind order.
Nairobi matatus are the most outrageous in Kenya.
The streets are congested with cars, trucks, buses, and matatus. Matatus are easily the most popular and most outrageous form of travel in Kenya. The traffic seems to flow wherever there is a space on the ground that nobody is using, even the sidewalks. There are lanes painted on the streets, but it seems rare that anybody uses them. Standard traffic is full of near misses until there is an accident. In the midst of all this chaos, there always seems to be at least one car with a student driver. Surprisingly, there are many driving schools in Nairobi. It’s hard to believe that behind such madness there is actually a learned method.
In Nairobi, there are also many high-class hotels and exotic places to eat. The Norfolk Hotel, built in 1904, is the city’s oldest and was the place to stay in colonial days. While on the southern outskirts, the Carnivore restaurant serves all-you-can-eat nyama choma or “barbecued meat” where one can taste camel, ostrich, or crocodile.
Nakumatt is the "Wal-Mart" of Kenya.
Downtown Nairobi contains many restaurants, shops, and cyber-cafés. The various restaurants offer Kenyan, Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Italian, and Western-style American food. The shops are many, but the obvious stand-out is the huge Nakumatt Supermarket, which is very similar to America’s Wal-Mart. It proudly carries the slogan, “You need it, We’ve got it.” The cyber-cafés are popular and scattered throughout the city. Internet access is a standard 1Ksh (Kenyan shilling) per minute, roughly $1 US per hour.
The National Archives in Nairobi
The City Center contains the National Archives, official Parliamentary buildings, and also the residence and offices of President Mwai Kibaki. One heavily guarded building contains the tomb of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first President.
The Holy Family Basilica Cathedral
Lastly, I visited the Holy Family Basilica Cathedral in Nairobi and while I wasn’t there for mass, I was told that it is much like it is in the States. Mass on Sunday is offered at many times and is in English and only lasts one hour. This alone is very different from the churches in the rural villages.
Holy Family Basilica Cathedral Interior