The “old” heart of downtown Nairobi may only date back a little over a century, but there is still enough here to while away a morning or afternoon while you decide what you think of modern Kenya. The Central Business District is not the most cosmopolitan part of the city – that dubious honour would have to be shared between several suburban malls – but after the dark, anti-democracy period in the 1980s and the collapse of security in the 1990s, twenty-first-century central Nairobi is beginning to feel like a world-class city again. One advantage of strolling around here in the daytime is that if you choose to check out the CBD’s nightlife, you’ll have some idea of where you are.
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Security in Nairobi
Security in Nairobi
Nairobi isn’t nearly as bad as its “Nairobbery” reputation would suggest. The city has cleaned up considerably over the past few years: the city centre is less threatening, there are fewer street children, beggars and touts, and a dedicated tourist police force patrols the streets. That said, it pays to take some precautions against crime. It helps to memorize any route you’re walking, as lost-looking tourists are easier targets. Keep your hands out of reach, as a handshake can sometimes throw you off guard, and be – rationally – suspicious of everyone until you’ve caught your breath. It doesn’t take long to get a little streetwise. Every rural Kenyan coming to the city for the first time goes through exactly the same process.
At night, be extra vigilant if you’re walking in the city centre and don’t wander outside the CBD unless you’re really clued-up. Be especially wary in the River Road district, which in practical terms means anything east of Moi Avenue, and indeed sometimes including the avenue. Even some locals avoid walking there and taxi drivers are quite often reluctant to venture into certain parts of the district. Obviously don’t walk through the parks at night.
All the main bus and matatu stations are somewhat chaotic and ideal for pickpockets and snatch-and-run robberies. If you’re driving or being driven, avoid displaying phones and cameras and laptops, and keep your windows rolled up, especially at traffic lights.
Said to be the largest shanty town in sub-Saharan Africa, Kibera is a sprawling mass of shacks, just a few kilometres west of Nairobi’s city centre. Although it’s perhaps best not to just wander down there, it is safe to visit if you’re accompanied by local residents or NGO workers, and is now an option as a morning excursion, offered by a number of local operators. The slums were a flashpoint during the post-election violence in January 2008. Protestors torched buildings and uprooted the Nairobi-Nakuru railway line that runs right through the slum. Few Kibera residents buy newspapers or own TVs: the Kibera community radio station Pamoja FM (99.9 FM; wbit.ly/Pamoja) provides a vital “glue” that helped prevent Kibera from ripping apart.
Kibera started at the end of World War I as a village housing Sudanese Nubian soldiers of the demobilized armies of British East Africa. Subsequently, as rural-to-urban migration increased, people moved into the area and began putting up mud-and-wattle structures. Today, Kibera is home to several hundred thousand residents (no one knows exactly how many), most of whom live in makeshift huts. The typical home in Kibera measures 3m by 3m, with an average of five people per dwelling. Access to electricity, running water and sanitation ranges from zero to very minimal – the occasional makeshift pit latrines are shared between anything from ten to one hundred homes, though foreign donors have constructed some new toilet blocks. The streets are a mass of seemingly endless trenches, alleyways and open gutters clogged with waste and sewage. As well as lacking even the most basic services, Kibera has an HIV infection rate of more than twenty percent and the number of orphans rises daily. However, the slum somehow works and is full of small businesses, from video cinemas to bakeries.
Several tour operators now run escorted visits to Kibera. Make sure before you sign up that you know exactly where your money is going: some businesses are not above running “pro-poor” tourism as part of their activities while pocketing much of the cash supposed to be supporting slum projects. As you visit various premises and community projects, you should find the experience deeply affecting, if not enjoyable, and not without its lighter moments. Contact: Kibera Tours (wkiberatours.com), Chocolate City Tours (wbit.ly/ChocolateCityTours) or Explore Kibera Tours (wexplorekibera.com).