Saturday, June 2, 2012

Kenya: A Study in Contradictions

Speed bumps were placed somewhat indiscriminately upon the main highways and secondary roads. It was obvious that these were not planned for protection of pedestrians.  Their most common function was to test the vehicle's nonexistent shock absorbers, tire pressure or the weight of passengers or cargo being carried. In most cases, these traffic control devices were so severe as to cause each vehicle to slow from its typical right next speed to a near stop, before speeding off again. As in many other cultures, automobiles come first and have the right-of-way, often missing the many people walking on the shoulder of the highways by inches. Even on the modern thoroughfares, of which there are a number, cutting in front of other drivers, tailgating and driving far beyond the mechanical safety margins of the vehicles are all part of normal everyday traffic congestion. Of course, all of this is slightly more disconcerting to North American visitors, given the fact that Kenya is a right-hand drive country (like South Africa).
Since arriving in Kenya it has been difficult to get a grip on which is the real Kenya. It is a country, like others in Africa, with an abundance of contradictions. It has incredible beauty, and some extraordinarily modern commercial and residential skyscrapers. Yet urban housing for the poor often consists of little more than a small, tin shack or mud and sticks structures with none of the basic services available. Despite being equatorial, it is green in many places, yet struggles with supplying many of its citizens with the basic requirement of clean water. Education and healthcare can often be out of reach for the country's poor, thereby condemning them to shortened lives, and a lifelong search for meaningful and remunerative work. Yet there is a thirst for knowledge that drives young people who will form the future of this country. The country's capital, Nairobi, is proud of its multinational company offices and modern technology, equal to many Western cities. Yet the rural population ekes out a living farming small plots of land or working in tiny shops that make minimal profit despite working long hours.
Our experiences with the contradictions that make up Kenya were numerous, commencing from the moment we first arrived. Despite being the hub of this East African country, the Nairobi International Airport lacks any of the polish of an international point of entry. On the other hand, Kisumu International Airport is modern, efficient even though it is small (only 3 gates) and, despite its name, has no international flights arriving or departing from its facilities. On a side note, the Kisumu International Airport does have one of the best bookstores we have encountered, despite the fact that it is no more than 10 ft.² (3 m²).
Next, there was the comparison between the Macedonia Resort Hotel in Kisumu, where we stayed our first night, and the Sarova PanAfric Hotel in Nairobi, where we stayed our second night. The former, while clean with friendly staff, was a colonial style building with some difficulty in living up to its name "Resort". However, it was the least expensive of any hotel that we stayed at. Despite the power outages during a rainstorm, and the total lack of functioning Internet connection, we felt comfortable and welcome there. On the other hand, the PanAfric was an elite hotel has the distinction of being the most expensive accommodation thus far. While the staff was very service-oriented, we had the impression that tipping a few American dollars somehow inadequate. The meals served by both hotels were further indications of their differences. The tilapia had the Kisumu hotel was fresh caught from Lake Victoria, deep-fried whole and eaten with one's hands (while we studiously avoided looking into the unblinking eye of our evening meal). We were the only people in the restaurant, and our server, as well as cook, checkout clerk and, we expected, maid, was a friendly, simply dressed lady by the name of Teresa (she told us, as she had no name tag). In the Nairobi high-rise hotel, there was every type of international cuisine available in the busy hotel restaurant. Served by efficient, uniformed waiting staff, the meal was delicious, costing quadruple the price of the prior evening's supper. 
As always, there seemed to be lessons any alterations made. It is not just Kenya it finds itself in contradictory states. Certainly, in my case, my personal contradictory behavior has become all too evident. For instance, there are times when my Parkinson's tremor is something I want to hide so that I can fit in and avoid attracting the sidelong glances of people trying to define my particular malady. In other cases, I would not apply for a Handicap parking sticker, yet I have been quick to take advantage of my "disability" to gain advantages, such as proceeding to the front of long airport lines. People, generally, are guilty of judging the contradictory elements of both individual and cultural behavior. However, speaking for myself, there is little doubt that I have their some responsibility for my own hypocrisy.


  1. What made the Kisumu Bookstore so good?

  2. Great selection of good books on a variety of provcative non-fiction (mostly), not the usual airport tripe. Great stuff on the history and issues of Africa.

    But, alas, no more room in the bags and no time to read right now!


  3. I have spent I little time in Kenya working with some of the NGOs. I've had PD for 7 years, I'm 37, and I was surprised to find when people asked why I shook or walked funny on one person knew of Parkinson's. I wonder if it's occurs less, is diagnosed less, etc... Enjoyed the article.