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Highlights of Nairobi

Nairobi is the capital and largest city in Kenya, and one-time capital of British East Africa. It is a vibrant, friendly city with some great attractions for travellers, but sadly it has its security concerns. At the time of writing the FCO warns that there is a high risk of terrorist activity in Kenya and warns against travelling to certain areas of the country, including low income areas of Nairobi. There is a higher risk than normal in the run up to the elections in March 2013.

I have visited a couple of times and it is undoubtedly concerning to face airport type security as you enter some city centre hotels, and to have your car checked for bombs as you enter others. Despite that, I am very fond of the city and it makes a great start or end point to a safari, with a good choice of internal flights from Wilson Airport.

The highlight of each of my trips to Nairobi has been a visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage, close to Nairobi National Park. Rescued orphan elephants are brought here for specialised and devoted care, both physical and psychological. The Wildlife Trust was created in memory of David Sheldrick, founder Warden of Tsavo National Park and lifelong wildlife welfare practitioner. He was the first person to rescue and hand-rear young elephants, but only those over 2 years of age ever survived. It was his wife, Daphne, who worked alongside her husband until his death in 1977, who finally perfected the milk formula required for successful rearing of baby elephants, and rhino too. She still lives and works in Nairobi National Park, and you may well see her if you visit the Orphanage.

The Nairobi orphanage was made famous by the BBC Elephant Diaries TV series which followed the orphans from rescue, through to eventual release in Tsavo National Park. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch some before your visit as it depicts the breadth and quality of the work the Trust carries out day in, day out. They have successfully hand-reared over 130 elephants, some of whom now have their own young that have been born in the wild.

The orphanage is open to the public for an hour each morning, when you can see the keepers feed and play with the babies. There is a good information centre and small shop. For those who foster an orphan, the visiting hours are more relaxed. It is hugely rewarding to see the keepers’ close relationship with the elephants, and the trust that the youngsters have in these men. The interaction between the elephants themselves is fascinating to watch; the older elephants look after the younger ones and the new arrivals, even rebuking them if they are over boistrous. Personally, I could watch them for hours and a trip to Nairobi would not be complete without spending some time here at the orphanage.

Kenya is ranked 144 out of 177 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) human development index and a shocking 52% of its population lives below the poverty line. Kibera in Nairobi, is often touted as being the largest or second largest urban slum in the world. Not a great claim to fame when you realise the extreme level of poverty that exists there. Just how many people live there? There is no definitive figure; estimates vary between 270,000 and 1,500,000.

Whatever the real population number, it is a hectic, crowded place. Ramshackle huts cling tightly onto the slopes, raw sewage runs in gullies between tightly wedged houses and shops, a thick layer of litter covers the ground. Despite the poverty it is not an unerringly depressing place. Hope raises its head in each active business, and they are plenty: shops, tailors, hairdressers, communal washrooms, cafes, communal kitchens, music downloads, electrical repairs, … The Economist says “Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet” (click here for full article).

I visited Kibera with Kibera Tours. The tour starts at Adams Arcade, a small unassuming shopping centre in Kilimani, not far from Kibera. the group assembled here and then Frederick led the five us on a short walk to Kibera. We spent the next 3 hours or so visiting a selection of local enterprises, including a school, bead factory and biogas centre. We clambered the slopes of Kibera, desperately trying to avoid sliding into the sewage-filled gullies. The ground is a strange mix of mud, sewage and plastic bags and this is not the place to venture in open-toed sandals. At the biogas centre, the sewage was at least put to good use. Downstairs were toilets, bathrooms and communal kitchens, upstairs a community centre. Human waste is converted to gas which powers the ovens: a wonderful example of sustainable energy, and one that Prince Charles is now deploying on his estate in Dorset, but the smell from the toilets was unbearable.

In total contrast to Kibera, is the Westgate Mall in upmarket Westlands. It is a heavily secured, seemingly safe shopping area – a good place to use ATMs without feeling at risk – with a good selection of shops and eating places. My favourites include:
Kazuri Beads – a vast range of beautifully displayed hand crafted beads;
Artcaffe – decent coffee and cakes, plus light snacks;
Savani’s Book Centre – books in English and Swahili.

Slightly less upmarket, older and with a more local feel, is the Sarit Centre, also in affluent Westlands. My favourites here include:
The Text Book Centre;
Banana Box Company – good quality, local handicrafts.  This and Kazuri beads above are, in my view, teh best places for souvenirs and gifts to take home.

For accommodation, I recommend:
Safari Park and Casino – out of town; landscaped gardens; large well appointed rooms; excellent Japanese restaurant.
Karen Blixen Coffee Garden and Cottages – situated in the district of Karen, close to restaurants and the Giraffe Centre; spacious, comfortable cottages; pleasant gardens with pool; good restaurant.
Karen Blixen Coffe Garden and Cottages
Fairmont the Norfolk – excellent service; recently renovated rooms; good swimming pool; well located in centre of Nairobi.

Recommended reading:

West of the Night by Beryl Markham (Virago, 1984) – first published in 1942, the autobiography of a woman living in Kenya, and her passion for wild animals, racehorses and planes.

The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson (Harper Collins, 2009) – something of a love story, featuring an elephant in England in the eighteenth century. I’ll admit it is an Indian elephant, but it gives a great insight into the character of the elephant.

African Violet and other stories (New Internationalist, 2012) – a collection of shorts stories contending for the Caine Prize for African Writing 2012.  Five of the stories in this collection are set in Kenya and are well worth reading before or during your stay in Kenya. The themes and styles are varied but they all give a great feel  of the country.

An African Love Story: love, life and elephants by Daphne Sheldrick (Penguin, 2012).  Compulsive, inspirational reading.  An absolute must if you’re going on safari or visiting the elephant orphanage.

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