We were driving on a busy road in Nairobi when I saw a policewoman stop a car. Next thing I know, she got into the car with the driver and they drove off. Puzzled, I asked what the policewoman was doing and found out that most police in Nairobi work on foot, without a car. So if you are caught speeding or committing a driving indiscretion, and need to go to the police station, the police officer will get into your car and you will both drive to the police station together. This is Africa. #TIA
Then there is the driving. There are no rules of the road, except that smaller vehicles give way to big SUVs. In Nairobi, lane markers, stop signs and traffic lights are merely guidelines and not respected. Traffic is shameless in Nairobi, making the Don Valley Parkway look tame in comparison. Potholes can be the size of small craters. Honking is incessant. You honk in Africa to make your presence known, to encourage other drivers, to say hello, to cuss, to show frustration, to exert your power, to connect with others, to ask people to get out of the way, and just because! After a while, you start to differentiate between different honks. The honking is so incessant that I saw a proper sign at the Makupa Flats in Mombasa that said, “Absolutely no honking between 6 pm and 6 am”!
And addresses are nonexistent with made up names. I have never seen anything like it. It is impossible to direct a cab anywhere. With some miracle, long conversations on the cellphone and many landmarks, you might get to your location – or not! Zanzibar was the most interesting. It is a small island with winding alley ways that go on forever. At nights (and during the day), it is easy to get lost as one alleyway looks like another. When you ask for directions, it often starts from the banyan tree (as in see the banyan tree? From there make a right, and then another right and two lefts and you will get to the hotel!).
Everywhere, cellphones are prevalent. Housemaids, drivers, hawkers are constantly on the phone or texting. I was shocked to see so many people with cellphones in the slum where people exist on $1 a day. The reason for this is that you don’t need to be tied to a phone plan; prepaying for phones is very cheap and locals will buy 20 cents worth of credit to get 20 minutes of phone and text. Canadian telcos, take note!
Also, there is something called MPesa, which is a great system of letting you pay someone easily using your cellphone once you set up an account for free.
I can’t get over the purchasing power of money. 1,000 Kenyan shillings is equivalent to approximately $12.50 Canadian. In Tanzania, it’s even worse: 1,000 Tanzania shillings is equivalent to about 60 cents Canadian. When we went on safari and filled up for gas, the price at the pump showed thousands of TZ shillings.
I’ve noticed how people tend to buy things in small quantities here. You can buy one egg for 5 cents, and cars are rarely filled up to a full tank of gas. Part of the small consumption is due to a cash flow issue, part is due to fear of theft, and part is affordability – you only buy what you need today. Today I washed some clothes in the washing machine at Shayne’s place. I asked where the dryer was and he pointed to the clothesline!!!
I find it interesting how all businesses and shops have pictures of the President displayed prominently in a frame, visible to all who enter. It’s the rule and after a while you don’t even notice it much. I also find it interesting how you have to stand for the national anthem in movie theatres before a movie begins!
Then there is the “Africa stomach syndrome”. Basically you can expect to have tummy problems in Africa; the question is when on your trip this happens. Food is the culprit. The other day, at Forodhani Park in Zanzibar, a vibrant public park near the port, we consumed beef and chicken skewers from street vendors. We tasted shark, tuna, red snapper. To top this off, we had “Zanzibar pizza”; the one we had was a crepe with Nutella, bananas and mangoes. And we had chai from the popular “Babu’s Chai”. We consumed this knowing full well that our stomachs would be angry with us. The food is so tasty that you just can’t resist – just ask Anthony Bourdain!
A big business in Africa is used clothing. Markets are filled with used items, attractively displayed on poles and windows. Sometimes you can get a steal and pick up designer items for a few shillings.
I have seen locals wear Atlanta Braves hats and ECCO t-shirts. I even saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said, “I only kiss Red Sox fans”! I wonder if she knows who the Red Sox are.
The other day we went to an ATM to withdraw money. The machine had run out of money. So we tried a second, and then a third ATM from different banks, and got the same message. And yes, the problems with intermittent power and water are real. After a week, you just get used to it. It’s moments like this when you just sit back, take a breath and say #TIA.
While there are so many wonderful advantages of being in Africa, people are very concerned about security. Everywhere you look, you see gates, guard dogs, Askaris, barbed wires, surveillance, alarms, locks, double locks and keys to lock each room. KK Security signs are visible on gates of houses and businesses. When we went to a grocery store, I was surprised to be patted down by a security guard. A recent development in Mombasa is that everyone needs to carry their papers with ID on them when they leave their homes for the police to view upon request. The problem with security in some cases is due to political persuasions. It is also due to the extreme poverty that people live in and the difference in lifestyle between the haves and have nots.
Another major issue in Africa is healthcare. Someone remarked this morning that being sick in Africa is a curse. Medical facilities and treatment are not readily available, extremely costly and not affordable for the masses. Many Africans rely on plants and herbs as medicine. For instance, when Sabrina got stung by a sea urchin, the locals suggested she apply the milk from an unripe papaya to dissolve the spines (it kinda-sorta worked). The sad truth is that many locals simply die when they get ill because of lack of affordability for treatment.
Perhaps my biggest observation of being in Africa is the concept of time. Time just goes on and on, and every day feels like two days. There is no hurry. There is only time – and lots of it. It is definitely a much slower pace than what I am used to – and I am liking it a lot!
We have 1 week left in Africa and I plan to make every moment left count!