“Kigali In Kenya?” On Foot in Nairobi.
My sense of African geography isn’t great, but I didn’t need to phone a friend to know that something looked a tad odd.
It wasn’t just the traffic – a lot of it, colourful, snorting, wheezing diesel fumes in every direction.
And cops adding to the confusion with baleful glares at harmless tourists…
It wasn’t the fact that there were actually street signs, with street names on them, not just on the major arteries but even on the downtown side streets.
It wasn’t even the fact that I had not had to say ‘bonjour’ in a couple of hours of walking about cheerfully aimlessly.
It was the fact that I was staring at a sign for Kigali, and there wasn’t a hill in sight. Flat as a cheap pizza. Not a one-thousandth of a hill to be seen. Or even tripped over.
My sense of African history isn’t great either. But despite Rwanda proudly being the most recent addition to that bastion of annual party-going, the British Commonwealth, I don’t think there was a lot of Brit colonisation going on in Rwanda a century or two ago. So the cricket ground, anglo-style heraldic shields bedecked with prancing lions and prevalence of well-spoken English were a bit of a giveaway that this was indeed Kenya and no, apart from Kenyan goods in Kigali supermarkets and Kenyan managers in some Kigali companies, there wasn’t that much of a shared history.
So Kigali in Kenya? Diligently I asked why, a few times (usually in ordering a beer) over the following few days, but no-one could (or would – the bar was pretty busy after all) tell me where the name came from.
So all I know is that, close to the heart of this mile-high, thriving, thrumming, thirst-inducing thoroughfare for throbbing throatily thunderous diesels, home to around 3.5 million people living in a sprawling city around half the land area of that familiar sprawl called Sydney, is….Kigali.
Kigali Road, to be sure, but still: Kigali? And no poky little side-street either, no snooty put-down by a big bullying John Bull neighbour to a small inoffensive pince-nezed gallic one.
Kigali Road bustles. At one end is an eye-catching twin towered building that, from a distance, looks like a giant advert for ‘Zebra Beer’ but turns out to be twin towers adorned by horizontal black and white stripes…with a blazing red crane assembly centre-piece for no apparent reason…
(I looked: no external elevator, to give the well-heeled penthouse crew a glimpse of their real estate, or give tourists an expensive ride to the top; and no bungy jumping either, most likely because it was, after all, completely vertical which would somewhat cramp jumpers’ styles…).
This is the Nation Centre, a whole 17 storeys high or approx. 70 metres, I guess times two.
Along Kigali Road, opposite a scrabble of shops and arcades, is the Jaima Mosque.
It is big, occupying a city block it seemed.
According to at least one Islamic website in Nairobi, the mosque can hold up to 12,000 worshippers at once.
There are a number of other lovely buildings in and around Nairobi downtown. It struck me that there were some similarities to cities like KL and Bangkok in Asia, and sure enough, the wisdom of the crowds that comprise the Wikipedia writers and editors agreed.
According to Wikipedia: “A feature of the central business district that strikes foreign tourists the most is the Skyline. Nairobi’s skyline has been compared to many Asian and American cities. This is due to a construction boom after independence, and another construction boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
[From what I saw, more recently all this construction energy now seems to be concentrated instead in the 'burbs, where elegant older houses are torn down to build blocks of luxury flats with 'imported' money...much of it allegedly from Somalis coming recently into 'windfalls'...]
Wiki continues: The United States Embassy bombing took place in this district, prompting a new embassy building to be built in the suburbs. Most of the skyscrapers in this region are the headquarters of businesses and corporations, such as I&M and the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
In 2006, a large beautification project took place in the CBD, as the city prepared to host the 2006 Afri-Cities summit. Iconic buildings such as the Kenyatta International Conference Centre had their exteriors cleaned and repainted.
Well certainly, the biggest buildings looked well-scrubbed. No complaints, in fact eye-candy…
The I&M Tower stands a dazzlingly blue 99 metres high.
The big green building whose name I didn’t spot sits there smugly knowing it is greener than green…
The glass curtained View Park & Hazina Towers glow in the late afternoon sun, facing out over a great park serenely in the direction of the Serena Hotel which nestles in amongst a lovely set of mature trees.
…And the 1974 Kenyatta International Conference Centre, all 105 metre cigar of it, is just…big !
And when the day is over, and down-town has done all it can to extract shillings from your pocket in eateries and drinkeries, there is the rest of Nairobi to explore. Nairobi is not a major tourist destination, but it does have some additional attractions to keep you amused for a couple of days. The most emblematic is the Nairobi National Park, the only game-reserve of real size to have a city-scape as its photo-opp backdrop.
Real animals live here in their natural domain – zebra, lions, giraffes, and hundreds of bird species – and there are both drive-around and walking safari visits available. Nearby to the Nairobi National Park are a couple of related attractions: the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage is inside the Park itself, while just a short ride by taxi away is the Giraffe Centre, about which I have written a blog note previously.
All this is a welcome break from the down-town only a few kilometres away.