First Impressions

Having arrived two full days late to Nairobi, we’ve now started to adjust to the new surroundings with the help of our kind host, Adriel, local partner Levis, and Phillip and Kipp from Sodnet, an NGO here in Nairobi that promises to be a great resource for Map Kibera. Thanks to these four, we’ve had quite a pleasant introduction to a city that is known abroad mostly for its crime, traffic, and as an unpleasant but necessary stopover on the way to your safari. So far, I’m more impressed with Nairobi’s greenery, wealth, and ultramodern conveniences than its after-dark dangers, and hopefully it will stay that way.

Just a couple of things that surprised me about Nairobi, as a first-time visitor. First off: mobile money. I might have known that mobile banking was well established in Kenya thanks to the Economist article a few weeks back, which I read carefully on the plane. I knew that in Kenya and several other African countries, money could be deposited into your cell phone account and sent via text message to a vendor or individual, who would then be able to access it and cash it out as they like. What I didn’t realize was quite how ubiquitous it would be.  M-Pesa I learned that you could send money to almost anyone, including the cop pressing you for a bribe. We were even told muggers might demand your M-Pesa account before your wallet. But as soon as you transfer the money, a receipt with the name of the recipient appears on your phone, so wouldn’t that seem to be a hindrance? But convenient, in any case. You can even withdraw mobile money from ATMs. Is this the end of bank branches? The next frontier of finance? Seems like it to me. And my favorite part about it is that it developed naturally as people experimented with sending phone minutes back home via text in lieu of cash remittances. So far, I’m a big fan – and I wonder, why don’t we have this in the US? We’re so backwards with all our “cash” (OK, so I haven’t actually tried this mobile banking thing yet, so I might have to eat my words – we’ll see).

What else? The Nakumatt superstores. Now, as opposed to mobile banking, which really has the potential to benefit poorer customers (as a way to safely store and use money without a bank account, for starters), Nakumatt is a brand designed for the wealthier Kenyans. Like a jazzier, more appealing Walmart, Nakumatt stores are enormous and carry nearly everything under the sun. Only, the grocery store is front and center, and the variety and quality of food there is amazing. There are flashy TV screens near the register to “entertain” you in line, and – get this – the place is open 24 hours. Apparently Kenyans will sometimes shop very late at night in order to avoid the horrendous traffic in the city, we were told. I cannot think of a 24-hour everything store that is open all night in New York or anywhere else I’ve lived. Shopping there felt like stepping into the future.

Now, all this might belie the fact that we’re staying in a quite posh area known as Hurlingham. Filled with enormous glassy new construction apartment complexes with elaborate security systems and right next to State House Road, tree-lined boulevard of embassies and the abode of the president himself, the area is hardly home to the hoi-polloi. However, more than most “developing country” cities I’ve visited, this type of wealth seems spread around the city and suburbs rather than relegated to one gated enclave. In other words, middle and upper class Kenyans seem to dominate a fair amount of the city. All this provides a certain context, and contrast, to the Kibera slum that we will be working in quite soon. Just after shopping at Nakumatt, grocer to the stars, we drove along the edge of Kibera past tiny corrugated-iron shacks sufficing for storefronts. The same kinds of goods could be bought there that we found at the superstore – vegetables, electronics, housewares, cell phone cards – but the shopping experience could not be more different. I hope that this contrast in culture can be illustrated, hinted at, in our map. It will certainly be on display here on the blog.

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