Nairobi to Addis Ababa (1) Night-train to Mombasa

In March this year I escaped Hargeisa with the intention of flying to Nairobi and working my way back  via Northern Kenya and South and then Eastern Ethiopia. I was accompanied by my University of Hargeisa compatriot Mr Sean Connelly, A.K.A. Mr Shan Boqol (Mr ‘500 Shillin’): think Somaliland’s white Polish/American answer to 50 Cent , art collector, adventurer and all round gentleman-scholar.

The first leg of the trip involved flying from Hargeisa over the vastness of the Ogaden semi-desert region of far Eastern Ethiopia and Somalia. Though the flight was bound for Nairobi, immigration formalities were completed in dusty Wajir,  an international aviation buffer zone between  the Somali Horn and Kenya itself.

Arriving in Nairobi from a part of the world which (according to the foreign office of my government) is too dangerous to even be in was a strange experience in that we felt it was here we should start getting worried about our personal safety. Nairobi’s reputation (‘Nai-robbery’) preceded it and not completely without justification, as wandering around after dark as a foreigner is just not a good idea. The perceptions of risk are based on different things of course – in Nairobi the danger is being mugged, in Hargeisa, the (distant) spectre of terrorism or kidnapping – but I never to fail to see the irony in that whenever there’s a security alert in Somaliland the INGOs pull out their staff to the safety and stability (hmmm…) of Nairobi.

Of course, Nairobi is a highly segregated city. The poverty exists ‘out there’ beyond the city centre in slums like Kibera and only encroaches in after dark, when any sensible white person travels by taxi to avoid the robbers. Wandering around by foot and being aware of the setting sun and how long it’d take to get back to the safety of the hostel was unsettling. Nairobi is very unlike Addis Ababa in that in the Ethiopian capital all of the wealth is piled in with the poverty – you walk out of the Sheraton and cross the road and you’re in maze of alleys and rusting tin-roofed shacks, and the beggars sit outside the African Union as heads of state drive past. Not so in Nairobi, where slums are clearly demarcated from suburbs, gated communities and shopping malls. We visited the Mall, just out of morbid curiosity, being so accustomed to commercial life in Hargeisa characterised by hand-painted business signs, a place where it feels like the sum total of western multinational market penetration is flat Coca-Cola from Yemen. Malls are weird at the best of times and this was culture shock like no other. Global brand messaging is everywhere in Nairobi: all ‘identification’ and aspirations of western styled fashions, affluence and middle class values – Johnny Walker, dinner suits and Nivea for him and her. It’s a far cry from Hargeisa where the adverts for mobile phones have pictures of camels in them – brand aspirations and identifications of the 21st century pastoralist.

We left Nairobi by night train to Mombasa and the Swahili coast.


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