I’m sitting at a dining table in a large, airy room on the fifth floor of a comfortable apartment block. Through the window I can see a gang of builders attaching tiles to the roof of the new apartments opposite. A pale brown dirt track runs up one side of the half-finished building, and the whole scene is framed by rich green trees under a lightly clouded sky. The whole thing seems like a perfectly ordinary morning on any day of my life except that half of the scaffolding on the new apartments opposite is not built from metal poles, but is instead constructed from long, slim, freshly hewn tree branches - and a lot of those plants look rather more exotic than I’m used to - and there’s a woman walking down the track with an enormous box balanced casually on her head – and I remember that I’m actually IN KENYA and it’s REALLY EXCITING.
It’s all been a bit like that so far. Between sleeping, travelling, and dashing frantically about like a loon I haven’t had much time to take in the full reality of where I am and what’s going on. The fun began on Thursday afternoon. I was at the bus stop on St Clements, Oxford, waiting for the direct coach to Heathrow, when Jess arrived in a taxi. She informed me that apparently the traffic out of Oxford was hideous, and that the taxi driver reckoned we’d have a much better chance of getting to the airport if he took us, and he wouldn’t charge much more than the coach. But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he…? There was a moment of dithering (taxi or coach?) that seemed minor at the time but which I now look back on wryly - little did we know that our entire trip was hanging in the balance. Because, yes, some wind had been blowing somewhere near the M40 and so most of the lanes were closed and we sat in the back of the taxi in hideous traffic, chattering away with a cheerfulness that was gradually growing more brittle as the clock ticked closer to the 6pm deadline when the check-in desk would close, and I found myself dreaming blissfully of what a proper, affordable, reliable national public transport system would look like…
We tumbled into the airport with five minutes to spare. If we’d waited for the coach instead of taking Mr Taxi up on his offer we’d have missed the plane. Luckily, we still got on the plane in time to persuade someone to swap seats so we could sit together and peer out of the window as we swept through the darkness and I lamented the fact that aeroplanes are far too exciting and incredible to ride in when they do so much damage to the climate. I wish I could say that I hated the actual experience of flying, but there’s just something so awe-inspiring about taking a huge metal thing and chucking it into the sky in such a way that it actually stays there and moves along at incredible speeds without suddenly falling into the sea (usually). You can see clouds from above! The lights of cities! The stars! Dawn breaking over Kilimanjaro! Pirates of the Caribbean II on the back of someone else's seat!
I’m still going to stop doing it though. Knowing what we know about the climate, the majority of flights just can’t be justified any more. I’m sure I’d get bored of it anyway if I kept doing it (this is the 6th trip I’ve taken by plane) and the more I think about taking serious time off one day to do proper slow travel, the more I like the sound of it.
Anyway. We landed in Nairobi airport (most of which seemed to be a building site) at 6.30am on Friday morning after a night of overexcited star-gazing and small amounts of sleep during the boring bits of the in-flight movies (i.e. through nearly all of “The Devil Wears Prada”). I decided to try to annoy Jess by bouncing up and down going “Where are the lions I want to see a giraffe is that a hippo?” whilst pointing at baggage trolleys, landing lights etc. in a state of sleep-deprived deliria. Half an hour later, zooming into the city in the care of our new taxi-driving friend Peter, we saw some giraffes wandering around at the side of the road. That shut me up.
The Mombasa road from JKI airport into Nairobi is long, straight, and an eye-opening introduction to the city. Unlike the UK, space is not at a premium and so the buildings are spaced far apart from each other, set back from the road and surrounded by trees and scrubland. We saw gleaming luxury hotels interspersed with dilapidated apartment blocks, and enormous billboards filled with all the usual leering advertising images (but featuring African people) loomed over us from either side of the road. We crawled through the traffic into the industrial part of the city. It was rush hour, and the road was full of brightly and individually-painted matatus (the minibus taxis that are one of the main forms of transport here), whilst hundreds of people made their way on foot along the dry verges either side of the road, heading for the factories that now surrounded us. Many of these workers had walked from the Kibera slums, which we got a brief glimpse of as we went past and which I know I’ll write about more in a later post. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth side-by-side is something I have to admit that I’m still not used to seeing. As we drove past a huge variety of ramshackle market stalls and headed into a different section of the city, characterised by leafy avenues, pristine blocks of flats, high walls topped with friendly-looking razorwire and smiling guards, some with large guns, I couldn’t help reflecting on how screwed up so much of the world is, and how the things that screw it up the most are usually the things that allow us in the North to be comfortable and wealthy and to hide behind various types of wall and pretend that all the bad things in the world are somehow nothing to do with us and not our fault.
This week, for me, is a chance to better understand some of these links and connections and realities, not in the academic, look-at-me-and-my-shiny-Masters-degree kind of way that I’m used to, but through meeting real people who live utterly different lives to my own and who have achieved amazing and inspiring things. A chance to make links with campaigners from around the world who are actually feeling the impacts of all of the issues that my friends and I spend our time going on about. A chance to learn and feel inspired and get a radically different perspective on things. Plus, I’m going to see LIONS.
So we got to where we were staying – Jess’s friend Jenny is kindly putting us up – and found ourselves in a lovely three-bed apartment that filled me with equal amounts of middle-class guilt and relief at having a flushing toilet. I then had a massive internal battle between a desperate desire to go out and explore Nairobi, and my total and utter exhaustion, which I managed to resolve by passing out for four hours. We spent the evening drinking Tusker beer (it tastes even better when it’s local) in a nearby bar, watching Kenyan TV and drowning ourselves in angst over our privileged positions in the world. The only sensible way to look at it seems to be that our good fortune in being born into middle-class families in the UK gives us a serious responsibility to do all we can to tackle the enormous social and environmental injustices in the world that we’ve ended up benefitting from. This was all a bit too much for me and so I decided to pass out from exhaustion again.
So now it’s Saturday, a.k.a. Day One of the WSF and no-one seems to know what’s going on, so we’re going to head over to the Kenyata Conference Centre to register and hopefully get a programme and a clue.
Next time I post I should actually have some useful/interesting things to report rather than all of this pointless rambling. Maybe some pictures too.
Hope you’re all well, wherever you are,