The worst people on earth are those spoil movies. Hearing about how a movie ends before seeing it is the easiest way to ruin the movie. That’s why I don’t study a country before I arrive. Main languages spoken, currency conversion rate, and the rules for obtaining a visa seem to prepare a traveler just fine without ruining the surprises. My first day in Kenya featured plenty: dozens of people yelling mzungu at me, a police officer who commandeered our taxi, and a bedroom with no running water or furniture. Nobody ever said the surprises would be pleasant.
I stayed in Nairobi for one month and left. Then I read about Kenya. Online forums were full of previous visitors warning potential travelers about robberies and dangerous areas. Nairobi was one of them, the whole city apparently. The slums were to be avoided at all costs. I remembered a woman I met in Nairobi telling me that she had been robbed four times. “It happens to everybody. Just cooperate and it will be over quickly,” she said matter-of-factly. I remember a coworker telling me about violence between tribes after Kenya’s 2008 elections that forced her family to flee their homeland. I read Paul Theroux’s masterpiece travelogue Dark Star Safari, which focused its section in Nairobi mainly on the robbers and scammers. He mentioned the bus stop in the city center as an especially easy place to be robbed or pick-pocketed. Nairobi was a den of thieves, or so everybody told me.
I lived and worked in a slum while in Nairobi. And I often waited for buses at the same spot that Theroux so thoroughly hated. Conventional wisdom told me that I was always surrounded by danger. A moving target.
I once got lost at night in Mathare Slum. I wandered alone in an area made infamous by CNN reports of epidemic crime and epidemic AIDS. An area that is universally considered dangerous for travelers, especially fluorescent white ones with “tourist” written all over them like me. Instead of being robbed, an old man came and talked with me for 15 minutes as I called my roommate to get directions. The man introduced me to his friends as we waited. While that was the only time I got lost in the slum, I walked through it most nights. People smiled and waved and occasionally yelled mzungu. But nobody tried to rob me. Nobody even tried to pickpocket me. My boss and I could barely get to work in the morning because the 20 minute walk stretched to 45 minutes or an hour when we stopped to talk to everybody who wished us a good morning.
The area the buses came was full of the same people who are always waiting near where buses arrive: people lying about bus schedules to trick you into taking a taxi, people lying about bus routes to trick you into a different bus, and people on the right bus lying to you about the price. Obnoxious, but not dangerous. The muggers that everyone warned me about were nowhere to be found.
Of course there was violence in Nairobi. I witnessed a couple of fights get out of hand. I noticed bars on every window and armed guards at every large store. Violence and risk were clearly present. Present, but apparently avoidable. The promised armageddon of robbers never descended upon me.
So which is Nairobi, a den of thieves or just an exoticize and misunderstood city?
Come see for yourself. I don’t want to ruin the surprise.