Tuesday, January 22, 2013

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"


mbichi said...

Welcome back!! You owe us fans some kind of eplanation...Feared the worst!

Robyn said...

ahhh-such a worrying headline. thinking about everyone in kenya (and nairobi)-hoping things go as smoothly as possible.

gad you are ok...how is the house though???

Anonymous said...

Hurrah - you're back! When I glanced at the headlines in Nakumatt, I thought it said 'trial' not 'trail'!! Shows I assume the worst ;-)

Essay Writing Help said...

Peter here, from Nairobi; this article reminds me of the March 4 elections; are Kenyans going to vote in the right governor and senator to manage Nairobi effectively. Thank you for the article and God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back!

Emma said...

We missed you! Glad you are back.

Tony said...

passed by half expecting to be 'greeted' by the now infamous june 19 post. glad you're back, glad to hear the hiatus wasn't due to something grave, extended though it might have beed

Tony said...

passed by half expecting to be 'greeted' by the now infamous june 19 post. glad you're back, glad to hear the hiatus wasn't due to something grave, extended though it might have beed

Laura said...

I started reading a few months before your last post in June, in preparation for our own move to Nairobi. Glad you're back on the blog again!

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine being confronted with this moral dilemma every time you leave the house, and you don't really have time to think it through when you're put on the spot as it is a complete dilemma - no straight answer, and there's always the "what ifs" and "should haves". We obviously don't have widespread begging outside the cities of the UK, but we have frequent 'ex-offenders' coming door-to-door in the evenings selling poor quality goods for extortionate prices. It's very difficult to say no, although logic is screaming out "SLAM THE DOOR!"

estherstrasser said...

Glad to see you back! I am moving to Nairobi in April to join my husband who is on his way there. Your blog gives me an idea what I will expecting over there. Please keep it coming! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Just read this piece. Hilarious! Am Kenyan and it's sooo interesting and often quite funny to see my country through your eyes. Perspective/realities are somewhat quite different.

Now,about the 'moral crisis/convo' in your head...don't even bother. You see,the truth of the matter is,these 'beggars' have turned it into a very lucrative business venture (raking in almost 10,000ksh per day!). Shocking,I know. Sad that they drag kids along but it is what it is. They have even come together to form groups,where they set daily contribution targets of about 5,000ksh. It's so lucrative they now own plots of land and are building rental houses. Trust me,most are no genuine beggars.

I often feel sorry for 'wazungus' (white people) as they are such easy targets. These 'beggars' are not stupid. They know how to identify their targets; some crazy street psychology. They know how to play on that guilt you were struggling with and use kids to play on your emotions.
For those guys who offer to watch your car,I never give more than fifty shillings (which is too much if you ask me). Ok,it may be a bit hard for you do give the same as it may be viewed as being stingy because of your skin colour (wazungus are often assumed to be very wealthy). But I'd advise thay you just let them watch your car as it may be marked as a target should you not. Frustrating I know. All in all,try to avoid those 'doggy parking slots.'

Great blog!