The Colors of Cairo
by Max Nepstad
Cairo. The City of a Thousand Minarets. A city of ...
A Tale of Two Cities
As I noted in my last post, my time abroad so far has been spent in a relatively 'un-African', African country. This past week was my school's spring break and I spent it in Kenya. First impressions? Wow, what a contrast to Egypt.
I landed at Nairobi airport at 4:15 in the morning on the Friday before Easter weekend. The taxi ride to our lodging for the night brought us along tree lined boulevards and deserted streets encased by what appeared to be lush dark rainforest; it was only the next morning that I discovered the residents and urban landscape of Kenya's capital.
It's fitting that Nairobi's nickname is "The Green City in the Sun" because my first thoughts on it were how green it is. That was the first and one of the most obvious differences with Cairo; the abundance of clean, breathable oxygen due to the presence of healthy plant life (and the fact that it's population is less than a third that of Cairo).
Most of the people in Nairobi trace their heritage to a native tribe of the region, whether it be Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, Kamba, Kisii, or Meru. Christianity is the overwhelming majority in Kenya while the majority of people in Egypt are Muslim. Mosques on every street corner in Cairo are replaced by wooden shack churches in the Kenyan countryside and larger congregations in Nairobi. Egypt and Kenya share a history of British occupation, therefore, English is widely spoken, however, where Egyptians speak Arabic, Kenyans speak Kiswahilli or a tribal language.
All of this information is obtainable through a little bit of research online, without even stepping foot in Kenya. Unfortunately this is largely due to another difference between Cairo and Nairobi; while tourists can walk through downtown Cairo at 4 in the morning without a problem, locals and tourists alike can be mugged in Nairobi and I was strongly advised not to walk anywhere after dark. Because of those warnings, much of my time in downtown Nairobi was spent behind a taxi window.
Two things come to mind when I think of 'authentic' Kenyan experiences I had.
After four days of 8 to 12 hour long hikes up and down Mount Kenya, I was thirsty and exhausted and my water bottle needed refilling. We hiked 32 km (19.88 miles) on the final day and our hike came to a close in the small town of Chogoria where we would catch a minibus back to Nairobi. Walking along the one main road leading through town was unlike anything I've experienced before. The street was lined with small businesses, selling everything from Safaricom (cell phone) credit to replacement tires, and each building brightly painted with the stores name in bold letters. The town was small but that was no indication of the number of people and activities going on around us. Two children in blue school uniforms walked with their mother. A man wearing a pristine, newly pressed white button down shirt strolled casually by as we made our way to a small grocery store. Men and women pushed carts of produce to and from market. Workers dug furiously at a trench in the middle of the dirt road. Sweat and dirt covered my face and my calves burned, but I found comfort in the life and energy of this small rural town in Kenya- the bottle of water I bought at the grocery store helped too.
We took a shared taxi, or matatu as they are known in Kenya, from Chogoria back to Nairobi; an experience noteworthy for being both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. The minibus was packed with a dozen people and miscellaneous pieces of luggage and our two backpacks were strapped to the roof. Two men operated the rig; one sat in the drivers seat wearing a black flat cap while the other dangled precariously by the sliding door, collecting money and ushering more people and belongings into the already packed vehicle. This "flying coffin", as they are called, sped through the Kenyan countryside, accelerating through every winding turn, the entire time blasting Kenyan hip-hop tracks which all seemed to praise President Barack Obama. The two operators executed the job with machine-like efficiency. The driver would slow, honking his horn at any gathering of people along the road, meanwhile the second man yelled out, asking if any of them were going to Nairobi. Most communication was done through banging on the vehicle; one whack to the roof or the side of the bus meant "floor it, I'm within jumping distance of the matatu"; rapid tapping, usually done with a coin, meant "slam on the brakes, someone in that last group is going to Nairobi". Other passengers got off and their empty seat was soon filled again, sometimes forcing the door-man to ride standing in the open sliding door or shoved uncomfortably into the passenger closest to the door. Five hours and a dozen bribed cops later and we were back in Nairobi.