A Mzungu in Nairobi

Mambo and hello from Nairobi! This summer I have the amazing opportunity to do something I have not stopped talking about for months. I am interning with the United Nations Environment Programme with their Global Programme of Action for the protection of the Marine Environment from Land Based Activities (GPA). The offices of the GPA are located in Nairobi, Kenya and are the UN headquarters in Africa.

Nairobi is like no city I have ever been to and despite my in depth research, is not like anything I ever expected. This morning my colleague said to me on the way to work “Nairobi is a place of hope”. This is apparent as the city is a cultural hodgepodge, with people from all over Kenya and the world congregating in search of something, whether it be enough money to put food on the table or a change of scenery. Every day here I have been lucky enough to meet someone from a different country. This city is crammed with people from all different backgrounds that live in the poorest slums, to the most decadent houses.

On my first day in Nairobi, I exited the plane directly onto the tarmac into heavy, wet air that was not quite rain and not quite fog. After a long grueling trip from Detroit, I shuffled with the rest of the crowd in the terminal through the Ebola check point and stood in line for a visa, in what looked more like a warehouse than an airport (I later learned the real airport has been under construction for several years and this was in fact a warehouse). Once I paid for my visa, my fingerprints on both hands and eyes were scanned by airport security and I waited in line for a couple of hours to claim my baggage.

The lines for baggage claim and reporting missing baggage are where I experienced my first bit of culture shock. It was here that I realized that I was not truly in a line. Instead, a crowd of sweaty and tired people from all over the world pushed, shoved, and cut their way toward the carousel and desks. I was not confident or awake enough to fight this mob. Instead, I let the crowd toss me around a little until I reached the front, worried the whole time that the taxi I had booked would leave without me. In the end I made it through and there were no tears, just a considerable amount of sweat in the thick air. Nearly three hours after my flight landed, I shakily climbed into my taxi where I was handed an envelope with my keys.

IMG_20150702_082240My apartment is where I received my next bit of culture shock. My building is called Brookside Breeze and is located in Westlands, a relatively nice neighborhood. Here my apartment stands wedged between houses and a small food stand. The building has 8 foot walls, electric fencing, 2 night guards, and bars on the doors and windows. I quickly learned that these kind of precautions come standard on all buildings and businesses that can afford them.

Despite all of these precautions, Westlands is a very interesting and lively place to live. It is speckled with casinos and bars, along with malls, restaurants, and grocery chains. There are hawkers in the middle of the street that try to sell passers by anything from bananas, to flowers and children’s toys, and there is always one person holding a puppy or a box of kittens. From the skeleton of Westgate even some life can be found as the shops rush to reopen in July for the first time since 67 people were killed there and over one hundred injured in 2013.

Until sometime during July, the empty shops of Westgate will serve as a reminder that security in Nairobi is no joke. It is common to see police officers and the military walking around with large AK-47s. When you walk into most buildings purses and bags must be opened and checked and you are scanned with a metal detector. If you take a cab, the doors and trunk must be opened while the security guards use a mirror to check the underside of the vehicle. In addition to this it is important to be aware of your belongings at all times as quick hands are likely to snatch them up, as has happened to me on occasion.

Although it is a great hazard, traffic in Nairobi is the danger that can be properly called a joke. Being late to events and work is entirely expected as cars fight to avoid giant potholes on the rugged and wrecked roads. Hooting and bass can be heard from all directions as the colorfully decorated matatus (12 seater vans) and busses shove their way through traffic, all sporting words painted large and colorful in English like “BEYONCE” and quotes from scripture. Weaving between all of this chaos there are people, hawkers, boda bodas (motorbikes), and sometimes animals. It is not uncommon in Nairobi to see taxi and matatu drivers yelling at each other out the window as someone rides a camel or herds their cattle past the casinos. This is the real Nairobi. Everything pole pole (slow), covered in bright red soil and the chaos can be maddening, but absolutely wonderful. Wandering in the middle of this chaos, I can safely be called a Mzungu by anyone (a kiswahili term meaning someone who is lost or spinning, but also used to describe a white person).

This is why when I step into the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) campus every morning, it is like I am transported into a different world. The campus is located in Gigiri, an upper class neighborhood of Nairobi that is set within the Karura forest. As you enter the campus, flags from every country party to the United Nations lines the walkway up to the main conference building. Here there is a large circle of grass with the letters KaribUNi on them in white and blue. This is a Kiswahili greeting that means welcome, which is further played upon with the UN portion being capitalized and in blue and the remaining letters lowercase and in white. I do not exaggerate when I say the campus is huge. Surrounded by large cement buildings with little to no distinguishing factors, it is easy to get lost. When I was finally introduced to my building I was amazed by its design, which is new and very different from the others. Outside there is a water feature next to a large sign that reads UNEP with its symbol filled with some green plant. The entrance has a two story glass window that allows you to see into the first block. The roof is covered with solar panels and the offices are mostly lit by the glass flooring that filters light through from the roof to save on energy costs. Inside the building is truly beautiful as the main walkway consists of four atriums filled with plant life. Each atrium represents a different Kenyan ecosystem with birds and sometimes monkeys bouncing around the offices. Although cute, these monkeys can be a hazard and “monkey-proof” garbage cans were installed on my first day there.

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Thus far, my actual work with the GPA has been a fantastic experience. It took a lot of trudging through bureaucracy for two weeks to get a desk and computer, but I have had the chance to get involved with the Global Partnership on Marine Litter. The Secretariat for the partnership is smaller than I ever expected, but is made up of some fantastic people. I have had the chance to contribute to the GPML in the small ways that I can as an intern, writing articles for the website and a promotion for a course, helping with presentations, and sitting in on the webinar that was held for the partnership. My main task this summer will be to compile case studies on best environmental practices for marine litter. This is a task that suits me perfectly as I am trying to absorb as much information as is possible about what the world is doing to prevent, recover, reuse, and raise awareness for marine litter.

Specifically I have been looking into ways that people in Africa have been making money by using the waste around them. Seeing the creativity that some people have put in to make bags, sculptures, and roadways all out of waste is truly amazing to behold. This ingenuity can be seen in Kenya as women sell bags made from plastic waste on the side of the road, while others make sculptures from flip flops they find washed up on Kenyan beaches.

Outside of work I have been lucky enough to visit many sites around Nairobi. These include the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage and the Nairobi National Park. In these places I have seen everything from elephants, to zebras, wildebeest, giraffe, water buck, impala, jackals, bustards, storks, baboons, warthogs, and so many more animals! I have always been that kid that wouldn’t stop yammering on at the zoo about the animal facts that I know, so seeing these animals in person has been a dream come true!

For now I will leave you with the pictures of my travels within Nairobi, but soon to come are stories about places outside of the city!

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