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City Streets - Nairobi

Yesterday, I was compelled to park in the dodgy car park because there was absolutely no room anywhere else. The ‘dodgy car park’ is a place where you are guaranteed to be inundated by a band of merry men who are either hawking small bags of fruit or bunches of flowers, or simply offering to ‘look after’ (or wash) your car while you are gone. Here, the line between begging and hawking gets blurred. Nairobi city hawkers sell anything from bags of nuts, to sugar cane; song-birds and fluffy puppies to jazzy hats and windscreen wipers.

Most Nairobi car-parks form part of a ‘gated’ shopping centres or apartment or office complex these days, so hawkers are beggars have fewer places to hang. Private parking areas are always policed by uniformed security guards. The ‘dodgy car park’ is an area that has somehow slipped through the net, where no one will take ownership – so it’s a no-man’s land. No wonder there are always parking spaces there, but driver’s enter at their peril.

In the no-man’s land parking area, I often wonder whether the volunteer proposing to ‘look after’ your car is issuing more of a veiled threat than an honest offer. After all, he would, ideally, like to be paid for the job. And if you don’t pay him, then what? Your tyres are let down? Paintwork scratched? How much payment is enough? How little is too little?

Before Christmas, there was city council representative who hung around ‘the dodgy car park’ – claiming it as council land. Wearing an official yellow jacket gave him/her remit to charge everyone who parked there a 170 shilling parking fee. This change to the status quo caused waves of shock amongst the local community I can tell you. You might expect to pay 170 bob when parking in the city centre, but certainly not whilst out in the ‘burbs.

Anyway, I digress. Yesterday, a chap/hawker/beggar approached my driver’s window before I even had a chance to get out of the car (not unusual). But this guy looked like he had been in a fight because he was sporting a black eye. In fact, one of his eyes was half closed. He pushed a piece of paper towards me. It looked like some sort of illegible prescription. He apparently wanted money for a visit to hospital, or perhaps he just wanted money for medicine. It wasn’t clear.

“you know me, you know me.” He said repeatedly.

And yes, after 10 years living in the same area, I admit, I did know him – by sight.

A bit sceptical about the black eye, I asked the beggar/hawker, if the city council parking attendant was around.

“No. Us, we chased them away.” He said. “We have to protect our customers.”

I raised an eyebrow but was at least reassured that I wasn’t going to get slapped with an official parking fine. Then I drifted off to shop for milk, bread, a replacement loo seat and to take my pictures to the framer’s shop.

“I’ll watch your car!” the hawker promised.

I made assurances to the hawker/beggar, that I would be back soon. Then I would look at his piece of paper.

On my return to the car, I couldn’t help noticing (with a fairly hefty sense of relief) that the coast was clear. My one eyed ‘friend’ was nowhere to be seen. I hopped into my car and quickly reversed out of my space. For a moment I imagined that I was home free. However, suddenly, the now slightly crazed chap with one eye closed was tapping furiously at my driver’s window, pressing his prescription up to the glass, pointing at it frantically.

I’m ashamed to say, at this point, I kept my window up and signalled to say ‘I’ll be back later, next time’.

Shaking his head he mouthed, “I won’t be here later, I’ll be in hospital” before falling away. And you know what happened next, I just drove off....all the time wondering what horrible fate would befall me in retaliation for the cloud of bad karma I left behind. I felt guilty, I felt awful, I felt sick. I should have given him something, I thought, but I didn’t.

Begging is as widespread in Nairobi, as it is in many other capitals around the world. Sometimes beggars in Nairobi are street kids, or blind men who often work alongside a seeing partner (sometimes a child) who holds out a plastic cup. Sometimes they are women with bands of kids hanging out on curbs, alternatively they might be guys in wheelchairs. Others are just guys who hang out at busy junctions and are good at sporting a soulful expression. Children or people with some form of obvious injury illness often approach shoppers with sponsorship forms for education or medical treatment. Some of the claims might well be bogus. Unfortunately there are no guidelines on who to give to, how much to give, when to give, or whether or not to give.

I have to go back and pick my pictures up from the framer’s soon. Then what will I do?

Sorry for the huge hiatus on the blog. Any many thanks to for your comments during my absence. Fortunately, absolutely nothing bad happened..

My favourite newspaper headline yesterday was undoubtedly The Daily Star: “I can run Kenya while on Trial, says Uhuru”.  Kenya's presidential election takes place on 4th March this year.

For a gritty and vivid depiction of 21st century Nairobi city street life, watch the excellent movie: Nairobi Half Life

A blogpost about nairobi's hawkers "who to slap and who to spare"

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