Becoming a local

Prachy Mohan
Jan 3 · 10 min read
Nairobi City Centre

The weeks leading up to my move to Nairobi were filled with lots of advice and questions from everyone I knew. Most people told me that Nairobi is like any other city; be careful with your valuables and you’ll be fine. Little did some of these people know that in Toronto, I don’t worry about my valuables inside or outside my home. In fact, I don’t worry about my safety or possessions at all anywhere in the city. Walking in the dark? No problem. Taking public transit at 1 AM alone? No problem. Having my phone stick out of my back pocket on a crowded street? No problem.

Not that all parts of Toronto are exactly like this but having grown up in the heart of the city, I’ve had the privilege to live a pretty carefree life. Most times my only worry is how to get inside as fast as possible to avoid the biting cold. The “any other city” description didn’t exactly help me prepare for a country that I have never been to. When I expressed this to people, they gave me tons of advice and stories to take with me:

  • Don’t walk at night (But what did night mean? 6 PM when there is still light? Can I walk with a group of people?)
  • Don’t carry your phone in your hand as it can be snatched.
  • Don’t talk on the phone on the street. A girl once had her elbow struck while talking on the phone, the phone flew from her hands and before she knew it, another guy caught it and both ran away.
  • Wear your backpack in front of you.
  • Don’t go downtown. Don’t get on a matatu (public buses). Don’t get on a boda (public motorcycles).
  • Avoid the police.
  • The second name for Nairobi is Nairobbery.

My fellow Canadians and I on our way to our AirBnB from the airport

As the plane touched down on Kenyan soil at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in all consuming darkness, each piece of advice swam in my head one by one. My mind was on high alert, adrenaline pumping from realising the magnitude of this life change, and anxiety on overdrive because of the unexpected. In addition to all these feelings, I was worried about my bags (I didn’t want to have to buy clothes on my first day in the country!) and I was gripping onto my purse tightly. Constantly looking around me for any suspicious activity and mentally preparing for what to say if I was asked for money at the immigration counter.

To my surprise, the whole immigration process was one of the smoothest I’ve been through. No questions, no delays, just a straightforward entry into this wonderful country. And, just as smoothly, we made our way to our AirBnB and got a good night rest!

Herd of elephants create an impenetrable barrier

The next day, our local coordinator from Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Lydia, took us to a mall nearby to get our SIM cards and mobile money accounts setup. As soon as we stepped out of our Uber, I was on high alert. Phone safely tucked away from sight, hand on purse (though there were no valuables in it), and a close proximity to everybody else in the group. We walked in a pack, with Lydia as our leader.

The mall was like any regular mall that I’ve seen in Toronto, large ceilings, big branded retailers with their large floor space, lots of food spots, and every kind of merchandise available, from shoes to greeting cards. It was middle of the workday so there wasn’t much foot traffic and nothing looked out of the ordinary. But the Nairobi that I had in my mind advised me to be on high alert no matter what. So every now and then, I’d check my pockets to make sure my phone was there, I’d look around casually to make sure no one was coming up too close. But again, nothing out of the ordinary happened.

We then went apartment hunting, our second order of business in the country. During our 10 minute walk to an apartment, I didn’t let my guard down for even a second despite being with a group of people plus a local. I wasn’t the only one with the paranoia though, my fellow Canadians were just as alert. In fact, when I had to pull out my phone for directions, everyone immediately huddled around me like a herd of elephants protecting a newborn calf from prowling hyenas so that my phone doesn’t get snatched away on the street. It’s as if we had rehearsed this move several times before and we had become an expert in creating a barrier around our people. Not so much for my own safety, but for my phone instead.

Me on a Safe Boda ride

A few weeks passed by, we each found a place to live and started to get settled in. By this time, we realised that we do not need to form a huddle every time we want to use our phone in public. We became a bit more sensible and figured out the places where our phones would be safe. We started to get comfortable in our new city.

But one ordinary day changed our relaxed attitude back into one of being alert and cautious. My friend and I had just arrived home from work after our 20 minute walk when our other EWB friend called. I couldn’t hear the full conversation but I saw a shocked reaction and immediately a chill ran down my spine as I ran through the possible scenarios: mugging, phone stolen, or worse, the police! The last thought was that maybe she hurt herself…but that seemed less likely than getting robbed.

Hours later, I got the full tale: my friend had been walking home around 6 pm (when the sun is fully up) and all of a sudden a Safe Boda (Uber for motorcycles) driver wizzed past her and grabbed her purse trying to snatch it from her shoulder as he was still in motion which to be quite honest requires quite a bit of practice to perfect. She screamed and yelled but no one came to her rescue, so with quick reasoning she took matters in her own hands and pushed the driver away and ran home. What’s so special about this story? 1) Safe Boda, as the name implies, is a company that vets their boda (motorcycle) drivers to ensure passenger safety. 2) We were never told that safety was also concern in broad daylight. 3) This incident happened just minutes from my house on the road that I take everyday to work.

We spent the entire next week getting Ubers to work.

House help ladies sitting by the roadside, waiting for work to come.

It had been a couple of weeks since that incident and my guard had lowered a bit again. Other than some stares and occasional “are you okays” and “hi’s”, nothing too crazy had happened so far on my walk to work. Some of the house help ladies had even gotten used to seeing me as they wait by the roadside for work to come by. I’ve become old news — taking the same route to the work everyday at approximately the same time and adjusting into the daily grind.

They say that just when you start to get comfortable and your guard lowers is when misfortune strikes in Nairobi. Thanks to my luck though, so far only stories keep renewing my alertness. This new story was by a local Kenyan man in his 30s. If you saw him, you couldn’t tell that he plays ice hockey at the national level as he’s got the Kenyan lean gene with just a little bit of meat on him, very unlike the Canadian or American hockey players. When he heard about where I lived, his first reaction was to warn me to be careful: Kibera, Africa’s largest slum is just past the main Ngong road near my home. I hadn’t exactly considered this when I chose my home for the next 11 months so I listened intently to what he had to say.

On a hot summery night, Rob and his wife were walking on Ngong road, near Ole Dume road. For context, it would take me about 9 minutes to walk to this intersection from my apartment which is a major intersection in Nairobi and full of life. On this leisurely stroll, Rob and his wife were suddenly surrounded by five or six men while one pulled out a gun and pointed it at Rob. Their intention wasn’t to kill, whether the gun was even loaded, no one knows. But they took everything: phones, wallets, jewellery, everything. They probably weren’t even left with enough money to go back home. 10 minutes from where I live!

Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of In My Father’s House Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, put it well when describing an incident in Takoradi, Ghana: it’s not about race but about class. And this incident challenged my assumption that only foreigners got robbed. “Rangi ya Thao” is what we’re called by the street kids — the colour of a 1000 Shillings note ($20).

Nairobi suburbs, where expats mostly live

In the expat life, one of the most common things to do is go meet other expats from around the world. Getting invited to someone’s house is as common as eating dengu (lentils) and chapatti (bread) for lunch as a Kenyan. On one ordinary evening, I was at my friend’s house for movie night along with about 10 others doing their thing in Nairobi. People from all walks of life: an entrepreneur who started his own coffee exporting business, a woman working in terrorism at the UN, a head of HR at a startup, a co-founder of a co-working space, a university student, and many more. It seems that in any other city, such a diverse group of people wouldn’t naturally hang out together but when you’re in an unknown city where friendships are temporary, you have no choice but to befriend everybody. Expats become your family.

In the midst of this family affair, in walked a girl with nothing on her — no bag, no phone, no nothing. She had been walking on the street in the dark talking to someone on the phone. Based on all the stories I had heard, I already knew this was a recipe for disaster: 1) walking alone in the dark and 2) talking on the phone on the street. I couldn’t ever imagine myself doing either of those things in this city and if I did, I would be extremely conscious of my surroundings and of who is in front and behind me. I guess this wasn’t the case with her because it resulted in her phone getting snatched away. She then had to take a boda off the street instead of using one of the transportation apps to catch a ride to the party.

When she got to this house, she called her phone several times but no one picked up. She even messaged to say that she’ll pay for her phone but of course, nothing then as well. Eventually, the phone even stopped connecting and we suspected that it had been shut off, SIM card taken out and crushed. What happened to all her money on her mobile money account? No idea.

I finally asked her, where was this?

Riara road. Literally two minutes from my apartment.

Somewhere in Nairobi

My uneventful two months have been filled with stories like these and it has made me realise that this is the norm in many parts of the world, not just Africa. These stories leave many of the locals unaffected but for me it’s been a journey to get to that state. In fact, what does surprise them is my experience in Toronto. They can’t even imagine living a life where being cautious isn’t the norm. A life where if you lost your wallet, someone would find you and return it to you with cash intact. Or one where you can leave your laptop in the university computer lab while you hangout with your friends outside. It’s made me question whether I am the one who has been living an abnormal life. Should I not be surprised by these moments of adversity?

Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m getting there. I’m learning to not feel dejected by the realities of life in this city. Instead, I look up to these people who pick themselves up as if nothing major has happened and continue on with their lives. They don’t let fear get in the way of living, visiting those same spots where maybe a gun was pointed at them. I have even stopped taking Ubers to work and instead enjoy the 20 minute walk in the crisp morning air. I wear my backpack the normal way, I’ve learned to store my phone safely at all times, and even go downtown without fear.

I am starting to live like a local.

Kenya’s 48th Tribe

An expat’s experiences in Kenya for a year.

Prachy Mohan

Written by

Kenya’s 48th Tribe

An expat’s experiences in Kenya for a year.

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