On Kenya & Kenyans

May 17 to June 19, 2009 

We (Lalitha my wife and self) landed in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya on May 17, 2009. We spent next 4 weeks in Nairobi doing weekend excursions into game parks and to the coast. It was a rewarding and educating experience for me. Kenya, Kenyans, their matatus, their railway, each had something new.


We arrived in Nairobi after a week’s travel in Egypt. Cairo, Aswan, Edfu and Luxor taught us to instinctively avoid strangers. They attached to you with friendly offers of help. But they expected ‘tips’ and made that clear soon. You could not shake them off easily. Some of them were doing their paid jobs. They educated us on etiquette related to tipping, as they took good care of each other! “The service offered by him comes to you free. But a tip of xyz Egyptian pounds is normal”, they will tell you about the service another was rendering. Official guides were more interested in taking you to shops that gave them cuts, than showing you the monuments. That was Egypt.

We landed at Nairobi airport and speedily completed all formalities. A wide door slid open and we walked out. We were outside the secure confines of the terminal building. Suraj (our son) was nowhere in sight, but he called to say he was on his way. It was 03:00 am and the airport premises were virtually deserted but for a handful of people. We lingered near to the exit door. Minutes that passed seemed like an hour! That is when I saw a tall, tough guy approaching us. I must admit feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

Guy : “Good morning. Do you need help? Taxi to town?”

Me : “No. Thanks”

Guy : “Some one knows you are coming?”

Me : “Yes. My son lives here”

Guy : “Has he called?”

Me : “Yes he did”

Guy : “Oh! Then you will be fine. Have a good time”

He went back to where he was leaning against the railing. I began feeling ashamed at the discomfort I had felt a short while ago. His was genuine concern of a taxi driver, mixed as it was with commercial interest. Was there a deep prejudice in me? Or was it just back-lash of the Egypt experience? Suraj appeared and put an end to that agonizing introspection. That was my first contact with a Kenyan on Kenyan soil; oozing with concern and hardly any intent to inflict himself on me. I met many of them in Nairobi, smaller towns, deep interiors of Kenya during subsequent days. They were wonderful people. Though ‘bag snatching’ etc happen and you as a tourist are constantly warned of such things, I began feeling more secure in Kenya than I do in many parts of India.

Language is a concern when you travel. This grips you even while crossing state borders in India. Consider watchmen manning gates, attendants/servants, taxi drivers, bus drivers and conductors, people manning shop counters and other such service providers essential for a tourist to exist. In Kenya these people greet you with a polite smile “How are you?” They can sustain conversation in English on all aspects that concern them. And what is more, they ooze concern for you. Charo is my favorite example of one such person.

Charo is the attendant care-taker at ‘Malindi Cottages’ where we spent one night. He manages the whole place single handedly from 6 pm to 8 am. When we called on arrival at Malindi he attended the phone. “Cottage available for 2500 Ksh. No restaurant. If you bring food I cook for you”, he managed to tell us. He made us comfortable and cooked a tasty ‘kichdi’ style meal by mixing all items that we brought along. He made a dash by bicycle to get oil that we forgot. He made us feel we were in caring hands. Next day he was at the door by 05:30 am. “Coffee?” he wanted to know. We got into conversation sitting in the veranda overlooking the pool. He was curious to know what brought us to Malindi. I said beach and history. What history he asked. He had not heard of Vasco da Gama the person, he thought it was a structure that stood in the city. I drew a rough map of the world and he got intensely interested; got up from where he was seated and sat closer. He had some idea of the land masses on the globe. He demonstrated a feel for distances. Started wondering how Vasco da Gama made it all the way to Malindi. He was even more surprised to know that Vasco da Gama proceeded to India and visited Cochin where I was born. A bond had developed between us. I knew he will make a keen student. He knew I was interested in him and his life. We sat there during the twilight hours and chatted. He studied up to 8th. It was easy to send kids to school up to 8th during late 80s he told me. 9th was to cost couple of 1000s Ksh each term and his dad decided that Charo should work. His parents make charcoal and sell by the roadside for a living. His younger brother also completed 8th and works he informed me. His mother bore 6 children and 4 did not survive, all dying before reaching 2 years of age. He had said ‘my mother’ not ‘my parents’. That became clear soon. His father had 3 wives. Did his father tell him about life during his younger days? His father also does not know about Vasco da Gama he felt. He planned to tell all at home about Vasco da Gama when he returned home that day. He remembered his father telling about 5 Ksh coins during his days coming in doughnut shape with a hole in the middle. If someone had a 5 Ksh coin he would proudly wear it on his neck on a string. That was a statement of richness. His grand father was prosperous. He owned 52 cows, Charo informed me with great pride. Less fortunate men from nearby villages who had beautiful daughters will approach his grandfather offering their daughter’s hand in marriage. Charo’s Grandfather ‘collected’ 9 wives and had several children. Dowry in Kenya happens in reverse. Charo thinks his Grandfather must have given away a cow & calf to the father of each of his brides. His grandfather died suddenly one day. Children fought and divided the wealth and hit poverty pretty soon. I could sense the sadness in Charo’s voice. (All of mankind must have a common ancestry that has handed down this gene that has survived without mutation. A gene that makes us deal with ancestral wealth in specific ways. ‘Divide and squander as against share and multiply’.) Charo sees no way of improving his lot. He is concerned about getting a wife. A girl who has passed 8th class will cost me 25000 Ksh he informs me. He could also do it in kind with one cow (20000 Ksh) and a calf (5000 Ksh) he elaborates. Bride’s father if he owns cows and/or knows how tend for them may take away the gift in exchange for the girl. Or he may leave the gifts with me to be sold whenever he needs cash. Charo went into all the details. Things are better now he says. It is possible to send our children beyond 8th standard if he/she is good in studies. After 12th one may have to shift base to Nairobi to study more; he thinks but is not sure. I loved this conversation that I was having with Charo on that cool morning in the veranda of the cottage. The sun was rising and other cottages were coming alive and I knew Charo will have to move on to attend to his chores. He served us breakfast with sincere concern to feed us well. There was no suggestion that he expected tips. When the time came to say bye, we requested for a photograph and he was too happy to pose.

When Charo bid goodbye we asked for a picture

Though I have no basis, Charo I believe stands for the struggling and deprived Kenyan generation of today; hard working, honest and more importantly ‘educated enough’ and not just ‘literate’.

I met many during my subsequent days in Kenya. Caro (Caroline) is a sales girl at one of the general stores of Timau. Plump, dimpled and cheerful she is a born leader. She displayed remarkable sensitivity in ensuring that tourists go back with sweet memories while helping her fellow Timauans earn well.

Lilian is a hair dresser at Nanyuki and styled Lalitha’s hair into many tiny plaits as seen on many Kenyan crowns. She was more than a hairstylist and made us feel as if we all had known each other for years. Of course the intensity of her friendship would have been a shade less if Suraj was not with us.

Jeddy is a waitress at ‘Equator Chalet’, Nanyuki. We were thanking the staff as we checked out and Jeddy started inquiring about where we came from etc. We fished out a visiting card for her. Her equivalents in India might have wondered what such a card meant. But Jeddy opened her tiny purse and exchanged her own visiting card (color laser printed with her picture).

Jeddy’s Visiting Card

Monica does the dishes and linen at A-2, Samra Court. When Monica reported on June 21st we informed her that we will return to Mumbai that night. “East or west home is the best” she quipped, with a look on her face that said, ‘if you need more wisdom see me after I am done with the dishes’.

It was wonderful meeting all these Kenyan’s who painted a beautiful picture of Kenya for me.

I have already mentioned that ‘bag snatching’ happens, and tourists are constantly warned of such things. When you embark on a journey you are warned of strangers who may offer food items that are drugged to knock you off for the valuables you may have (not an unfamiliar tactic to an Indian). You are told of worse things that can happen. Slowly you almost anticipate crime to happen. I must narrate one such incidence.

On our arrival in Nairobi Suraj showed up at the airport in a hired cab. The cab belonged to a taxi service run by Peter. Suraj has never met Peter. Peter is just a voice on the other end of the phone when a cab is required. Calls to Peter to ‘send a car to Samra Court’ became familiar to us within days. On 30th morning it was Peter’s car that came to rush us to railway station to book tickets for Mombasa. Suraj called Peter again the same day at 16:00 hrs to book a car for 17:00 hrs to drop us at the railway station to catch the train to Mombasa (In my write up on “Nairobi to Momabasa” I have explained how we almost missed the train to Mombasa when the cab did not report by 17:00 hrs). When the car did not show up by 17:05 hrs desperate calls to Peter started. Peter failed to pick up the calls. Peter was cursed (note: the time must have been 17:00 to 17:30 hrs). Another cab was located by 17:45 hrs. Suraj kept trying Peter to vent his anger, as it became clear that we will not reach the station even by 19:00 hrs. Peter took the brunt of our frustration in absentia. Though we reached station 20 minutes late we could board the train. We had a great time at Mombasa & Malindi and returned 2 days later. Two more days passed. Over dinner we were narrating all this to Biju (Suraj’s friend from Acumen Fund). Biju froze! That was the time when something happened to Peter he said. Peter had taken a group for a safari trip and was driving himself. Peter had called his mother by 16:00 hrs to tell her that he is nearing Nairobi and will be home soon. Suraj’s call for a cab must have happened within minutes of that. Peter never arranged a cab, he never reached his home either. He became victim of ‘Car-jacking’. Police stopped and recovered the car somewhere on the highway. Everyone hoped Peter to be left all tied up somewhere (as is usual in car-jacking). But that was not to be. They found Peter’s body 2 days later! We were drowned in sorrow. Something sinister happened to Peter after Suraj’s call making a car booking. He never could arrange a cab. He was perhaps already dead or being brutally killed when subsequent calls were being made by Suraj, and we were cursing him! I had another fear gripping

me now. Here is a day-light murder and during the final moments victim’s mobile gets incessant calls from one mobile, Suraj’s! I write this piece 5 days after the event. That is crime in Nairobi for you! It could have equally happened in Mumbai or any other city of India. But the way we were linked to it made it different. Did that change the way I felt about people of Kenya? No. I continue to feel secure. May be I am wrong.

Suraj has a wide range of friends. We met many of them here and there. We met many of them together at dinners arranged at Suraj’s place. Lalitha cooked a memorable meal for all of them. We sat and talked; heard Kenyan songs, had a taste of dance steps of Kenya. No one noticed the diversity that existed within those 15 people who were present; diversity in terms of nationalities, race, religion and backgrounds. Two of them turned out to be people who made it in life by starting from Kibera the largest slum in Africa (often compared to Dharavi).

14 people in the camera frame 1 behind the Camera. 15 in all. Diversity in every sense.

Boston was one we met at that dinner. It was as if we had known him all along. Next day he called, “I noticed much left over food last night. Can I come for lunch?” Suraj was not around, but that did not matter. He showed up. Not alone. His friend Virginia came along too. In her twenties and doing her B.Com, she gave us a glimpse into Kenyan youth who love Kenchick (KFC of Kenya), English movies, hanging out with friends, etc.

Boston & Virginia come visiting

Roads & Traffic

Traffic in Nairobi has discipline that is not seen in India. Lane jumping is rare. Overtaking is rare. I have been on 2 lane roads with traffic jam only in one direction. Vehicles move unhindered in one direction, while vehicles in the other direction patiently pile up in single file, never crossing over to the free lane. When the traffic moves slowly they leave gaps where there are lateral entry points into the road; to avoid blocking entry of cars that come from there. Sounding of horn is rare. We were once stuck in traffic as the scheduled departure time of the train we were to catch went past. The cab driver who was very much concerned at our plight showed no sign to maneuver through the traffic. Rare in India.

Cars make a neat line; never crossing over to empty lane

Main roads in Kenya present an unending stream of public transport vehicles; mini-buses and matatus. Mini-bus is a 20 to 30 seater and very much like a mini-bus in Indian city. Matatu is a 11 to 15 seater; a slightly stretched version of Sumo and has a sliding side door on one side as in Maruti Omni. These vehicles always have one row of seats more than what they can actually take. It is tough for a tall chap like me to sit in one of these. Everyone in a row has a horrible time if the person at the window seat wants to get to the aisle. Aisle itself is not a straight path; but a narrow zig-zag path. Matatu’s in addition have a low ceiling, as they are not intended as vehicles that support constant in/out movements. It is fun to travel in these jalopies. We did some short hops by matatus. We also did weekend long trips like Mombasa to Malindi (120 km) and Nairobi-Nanyuji-Timau by matatus.

Tourism and Shopping

Tourism in Egypt and Kenya has different things to offer (I have written separately on my experiences of touristy things). I intend to give a cost comparison of tourism in Egypt and in Kenya. For a 7 day 3 nights package in Egypt I paid US$ 480 per person. This included 4D/3N in a good hotel (Bed & Breakfast) in Cairo and 4D/3N onboard a luxury cruise-liner (Full Board); it also included entry fee to 8 tourist sites that charged average entry fee of US$ 10, 6 airport pickup/drop. Compare this to a 3D/2N trip to Masaai Mara quoted at US$ 380 in Kenya. Add to this the poor quality of vehicles and many other things that get used in Kenya. While in Egypt we found each tourist spot overcrowded with people, in Kenya all safaris appeared deserted.

Shopping in Kenya is tough. There is no MRP marked on any item. Not even brands that flood Indian shops all marked with MRP do that in Kenya. Shops indicate prices through stickers on racks. Wrongly placed items or un-updated stickers can cause surprises at the payment counters. Other than typical local curios for which there is no comparison, I am yet to find something that is cheaper in Kenya. Prices are 2 to 2.5 times higher than in India when compared using standard currency conversion rates.

Kenyan Railways

Kenyan railway took shape during the period 1896 to 1905. It was meant to provide access to Kampala from the port town of Mombasa. Tracks were laid starting from Mombasa. Large number of Indians, who had by then become proficient in railway construction, participated in the works. When the track laying reached Tsavo jungles 2 lions wreaked havoc. Several Indians and locals were killed, bringing the construction work to a halt. This has become a legend and the movie “The Ghost & The Darkness” documents the heroics of Major Patterson who shot the lions — played by Val Kilmar and costarring Michael Douglas and Amrish Puri in a minor role. Large Indian population in Mumbasa today is attributed to those who came for railway construction and stayed back.

Typical Kenyan railway station is a look alike to ones in India, The railway fencing; platform stalls all have such likeness. Comparisons end here. While India is so widely connected by railway lines, Kenya is not. Original Mombasa-Kampala (a good part of that stretch is today in Uganda) is still the main run of the track. There are only 2 or 3 off shoots. A comparison between Kenya and India is tabulated below:

Nairobi Railway Station is at the edge of city centre, adjacent to their parliament and commercial hub. You turn into the railway premises and you can sense that Railways are perhaps a neglected segment. Nairobi station is modest place and the volume of traffic that it handles is very small. Nairobi-Mombasa train runs only thrice a week. It has 3 classes, numbered as in India of yester-years as 1st, 2nd and 3rd class. 1st class gives you a coupe with 2 berths and 2nd class with 4 berths. We never saw how the 3rd class looked like. Railways have a rule not to mix people of different sexes from different groups in a coupe. When 3 of us wanted to book 2nd class we were warned that the lone lady will be in a separate coupe. But they allow booking of 4 tickets for 3 people to get one full coupe. That is how we traveled to Mombasa.

Lalitha & Suraj in front of Nairobi Station

If you plan to take a train in Kenya, be prepared to travel without water and/or electricity in coaches (a wash basin stands in each coupe though). Pantry car does not serve food in the compartments. Instead they have restaurant type seating in the pantry car and you are served in style. A meal costs 700 Ksh (1 INR = 1.6 Ksh) and breakfast 400 Ksh. Train invariably runs late, which is a blessing in disguise, if you are headed to Mombasa. This gives you couple of hours of run during daytime and you get to see wild life.


In conclusion I must admit severe bias that is likely to influence writing like this, coming as it does from someone who has spent only weeks here, met only handful of people and does not claim to have read into history or life in Kenya in detail. But this is not written to inform anyone about Kenya or Kenyans or permanently tag things as this or that. These are just the memories that I carry back to India with me. I will update my impressions about the people and the place as and when I learn more about them. And I hope it will only improve my impressions. I had intended to write more. But my stay at Samra Court, Nairobi has come to an end. It is unlikely that hectic life that awaits me at Mumbai will let me add to this.

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