01 July 2010

Familiar Sights, Sounds, Smells, Hassles, and Quirks of Kenya


“I felt that I was at home, that I was where I had been meant to be for a long time.”

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This recent furlough (time back in the States) was my longest ever - almost 13 months. This is part of a very appropriate text message I received from my friend, Kim, on the day of my arrival -

“Hope that the old familiar sights, smells, and hassles can help welcome you back.”

I’ve now been back in Kenya for five weeks. After a brief period of adjustment, I feel like I am getting into a normal rhythm. My house is mostly in order and I’ve met with many of my friends.

Indeed… the sights, sounds, smells, hassles, irritations, and even - shall I say - the funny quirks of Kenya have welcomed me back. I hope you’ll enjoy this brief list.


Sunbirds, Robin Chat, Superb Starling, Firebird, African Pied Wagtail, and so many more beautiful and familiar birds.

So much new construction! Large office/shops buildings; apartment buildings; double-decker parking garage.

Broken piece of a mirror, glued and/or taped to the windshield of a bus.

Police and military guys with their ever-present AK-47’s.

Maasai guys, dressed in their typical red plaid shukas, carrying a walking stick, and wearing sandals made from old car tires.

The red soil of Kenya.

Beautiful flowers, like the Bird-of-Paradise above.

Beautiful butterflies, fluttering in front of me as I walk.

Trees: Acacia, Flame, Blue Gum, Jacaranda, Guivillea, Bougainvillea.

Lovely white billowing clouds that are so common in the blue skies of Kenya.

Women carrying firewood.

Extremely chaotic Railway bus park in downtown Nairobi.

Roadside nurseries.  


Hollering conductors, soliciting passengers.

Hooting matatus, soliciting passengers.

Croaking “lullaby” of one or two hyrax every evening.

Joyful cries of “Mzungu, mzungu!” from children (and sometimes adults).



Wonderful aroma of roasted maize by the side of the road. It’s one of my favorite smells in Kenya.

Nauseating stench of raw sewage wafting through the window during the service at Carol and Jeremiah’s church (see photo above).

Take-away-your-breath black clouds of diesel exhaust from lorries and buses. Gag!

Funny quirks

Oh, yeah… I must remember that pedestrians do not have the right-of-way!

Men unabashedly relieving themselves by side of road.

People staring at me (even after all these years, it grows wearisome)!

Street preachers. They’re loud and obnoxious and no one even listens to them.

Guy carrying a drive shaft as he walked down the side of the road.

Windows closed on bus, even though it’s warm outside.

Plot where Horseman once stood STILL has nothing new built on it after over a year! Very prime piece of real-estate! Hawker friends told me that the owner, Franz, and the new buyer are in court over the issue. Franz claims he only sold the building and not the plot! Hahaha, only in Kenya.

Hardly any cheese OR sauce on pizza. Rather boring.

In downtown Nairobi, there’s an increase of functioning traffic signals AND an increase in motorists actually honoring them. I’m amazed.

What I call “squeeze and weave” through the crowds in town. It’s difficult to maneuver the throngs of people!

Matatu drivers using the unimproved shoulders to drive on - instead of the actual road - in an attempt to avoid the potholes and or to “jump the queue” of the “jam”.

Charming pleasantries

Fruit vender remembers not only me, but that I often ride a bike (I used to on a rare occasion pass by his kiosk).

Conductors on various matatus still remember not only me, but what stage I use near my house.

Taxi guys I don’t even know welcoming me back, with - “long time!”

A bicycle fundi I’ve used only twice remembered me and asked, “Baiskeli wapi?” (Where is your bike?).

Running to catch a bus I nearly missed, I banged on the side of it with my fist; the driver stopped J

Fun responses wearing my “My name is not mzungu” shirt.

John (a flower-vendor friend, who I mentioned briefly in the “Rubbing Shoulders” story of my new book) gave me a free bouquet of stem roses!

Clare’s reaction (she’s quoted on the back cover of my new book) when I gave her a copy: “Deb, your stories really challenge me! The ones from your first book are still in my head. God bless you for what you’re doing in Kenya!”

Meeting David again (I didn’t remember him, but he did me). We last met in 2002 when he interpreted for me as I taught at a home cell meeting of Bishop’s church. He even remembers that I taught on Spiritual Gifts and that I gave a test afterward J

Being called “Njeri” by complete strangers. It’s a Kikuyu name meaning “traveler”.

Chai, at long last with Kenya tea leaves again. When I attempt to make chai in the States, it just doesn’t taste right. (Photo below was taken in Naivasha)

Mild hassles and irritations

Muddy shoes. It was still raining in the early days of my arrival (the tail-end of the “long rains”). It seemed proper and fitting to be jumping mud puddles and coming home with muddy shoes once again!

Typical to not find “tissue” in public restrooms, even in relatively fancy places.

No power at the cyber café.

Power outages and no water and/or no water pressure at my house.

Beggars. They range anywhere from almost drunk and staggering adult men (with hand outreached), to annoying “parking boys”, to people I’ve barely met asking me to sponsor their child at school, to one guy I’ve known for a while but only casually asking me to buy him a camera!

Gaping holes in downtown sidewalks.

Sidewalk hustlers, in downtown Nairobi, attempting to sell safaris into the game parks by waving brocures in the faces of any whites passing by.

Classic example of being back in Kenya

On my first day in Nairobi, I needed to do a few errands. After taking care of them, I hired a taxi (since I had several bags of groceries). After he “dropped” me, I got his name - Moses - and phone number. That way, I can call him in the future and won’t have to tell new guys how to get to my house.

On a subsequent day (after again getting several bags of groceries), I called Moses. He said he was at the Nakumatt gate and would come immediately to where I was. After I waited a bit, another gentleman eagerly approached, saying “Come, we go.”

I informed him I’d already called someone. “Ah, but Moses has run out of petrol. You can see him there, in the road. His car stopped. Come. I’ll take you.”

Sure enough, I saw Moses’ car sitting just off to the side of the road. I asked this guy if Moses knew he was taking me. “Yeah, yeah, just come.” So… I agreed to go with him and pushed my “trolley” (cart) through the busy parking lot. As I got into the guy’s car, I saw Moses frantically running back to his car with a small container of petrol. His haste indicated that he was still hoping to get to me without much delay, not knowing I was now in a different taxi.

Just as the substitute guy got me to my compound, sure enough… Moses called. “I’m not seeing you anywhere.” Alas, I had to tell him that his so-called “friend” had taken advantage of the opportunity and that we were just arriving at my house. I felt bad for Moses, but told him there would be another time.



Ryan Y said...

I can relate to so much. Loved every single word of this one! I'm posting it on facebook. Thank you so much for taking the time to share.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, Kenya! So far from Shelbyville, yet so close.

Anonymous said...

So much in there to read, glean and absorb! Love that you included both the good and the bad! (poor Moses!)