In the hub of East Africa, Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, today was a mild spring offering of the highest quality. The temperature was perfect: the ideal counterbalance between warm sun and refreshingly cool breeze. The sky was divided evenly between a pleasant, unassuming blue and docile white clouds. Fallen jacaranda leaves carpeted the sidewalks like confetti after a New Year’s party. Pedestrians played a high-stakes real-life version of Frogger, weaving in and out of traffic jams populated with rattletrap matatus and blindingly-white UN vehicles. Outside the Westgate shopping center – a glitzy establishment that far outclasses many American malls, wherein a pair of shoes can set you back more than an international flight ticket – cheerful hawkers offer tapestries, fresh flowers, and boxes of kittens to all passers-by.

On a morning such as this, it’s easy to forget you’re in one of the more dangerous cities in the world. Nairobi has unsettlingly high rates of armed robbery, carjacking, and property crime, although a sizable portion of that happens in and around the poorer neighborhood and not in the professional downtown areas. Still, the United Nations classifies it as one of the “least secure cities in the world.” Among expats and backpackers, it’s earned the nickname “Nairobbery,” a moniker delivered with varying degrees of fondness and/or revulsion. PC:HQ cautiously restricts non-essential travel in or through Nairobi, and it has earned a vile reputation among many of the volunteers. Bringing it up in conversation can elicit visible flinches, and confession of a liking for the city will get you many a suspicious stare.

It’s certainly not a city wherein your safety or security is to be taken for granted. Indeed, to navigate it with any degree of safety requires attention to your surroundings and a healthy awareness for what is and isn’t a good situation. You definitely don’t want to be caught alone at night. However, such precautions are useful in any major metropolitan area, and I’ll admit that I’ve developed a liking for the city. Its importance to the rest of East Africa can hardly be overstated: it is the political, economic, cultural, and artistic heart of the region. Restaurants and hotels are found to be of a distinctly international caliber. It is the staging zone for innumerable NGOs, the base of operations for most major relief efforts in Kenya and beyond, the home to countless embassies, and boasts civil society establishments that are arguably unrivaled anywhere else on the continent. Basically, with the possible exclusion of a few places in South Africa, it is the New York City of SSA. For all its challenges, it has much to offer.

However, like many cities of its type, Nairobi is a city of contrasts. Its many draws must be weighed against the equally numerous drawbacks of a major urban center in the developing world. As previously mentioned, there’s the crime. This takes on particular salience in light of a PCV who was mugged, beaten unconscious with a rock, and had to get facial reconstructive surgery some 18 months ago. There’s also the general drama of Kenyan politics, which is not necessary a topic appropriate for this blog, but read up on it. And, of course, there’s the poverty.

It’s a poverty of scope and scale largely unfamiliar to people who’ve never traveled outside the United States. Even in the shadows of glitzy boutique malls and museums, multigenerational families sleep on makeshift mattress of stacked cardboard. Its most famous slum is Kibera, which houses hundreds of thousands of residents and has long been billed as the largest in East Africa and one of the largest in the World (behind those in South Africa and India.) However, Kibera is certainly not the only slum – half of Nairobi’s residents live in slums, which cover 5-10% of the city’s land space – and the challenges faced by their residents remain a problem to which no one has yet proposed a feasible, acceptable, and readily adoptable solution. (For a video about what a former PCV is doing to help improve life poor Nairobi’s poorest residents, click HERE).

Despite all this, I like Nairobi. I enjoy the time I spend here. I’m a “city mouse” at heart and find it scratches an itch that’s far more complex than just access to hot showers and delivery pizza. I look forward to more of it during my service, even if most of what brings PCVs to or through Nairobi involves needles or cavities. I don’t care. Sign me up.

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