February 22, 2013 7:31 pm

Expat lives: the London of Africa

The FT’s east Africa correspondent finds Nairobi a city that has it all – full of extremes and contradictions
Katrina Manson chats with bus conductors in downtown Nairobi©Pete Muller

Katrina Manson chats with bus conductors in downtown Nairobi

I’ve always instinctively felt out a place by the way it dances. The jerking knees and elbows of Kinshasa embody the confusion of the country; the shoulder-shaking eskista of Ethiopia makes physical a nation’s pride, while the slow pelvic grind of Sierra Leone’s dancers says something of its hedonistic spirit.

But two years in and I’ve yet to figure out Nairobi’s dance-style, and so I’ve yet to figure out the city at all. There’s just too much to figure. It is a city of extremes and contradictions, of gardens and slums, picnics and panic buttons, bougainvillea and storm drains.

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Created on swamplands as a railway staging post in 1899, Nairobi has left the colonial hunting grounds of the 1920s far behind to become the region’s economic powerhouse and a continental hub for business, yet it is among the most unequal cities in the world.

An anthropologist tells me there’s no social glue; a consultant tells me it’s just a place to find a job; a small-time stock market player says he’s going to make it big and an expat says the best thing about Nairobi is leaving it – flying or fleeing to the beaches of the coast or the gracious green homes of the landed.

Determined to seek out its true character through dance, I have put many hours into my research. I’ve found Congolese showcase and electronic all-nighters, gospel and salsa. In the end, its dance style, like its capitalism, takes on elements of the imported.

Nairobi’s osmotic cosmopolitan ways stretch from bankers cloning western excess to poets throwing off their yokes. The city makes its way by taking on the habits of others, grasping towards growth and the material. Long channelled by colonial authorities to develop a consumer class keen to spend money on markers of success and stability, whether bicycles or gramophones, Nairobi is also a city of class segmentation and aspiration: lunchtime Botox sessions, Imax cinemas and city spas contrast with streetsellers who hawk roast corn and sugar cane. The well-off live in isolated compounds – sometimes entire streets or suburbs gated with guards, dogs and plantations. The poor live in shacks they rent from the well-off.

But rich or poor, you need money to live here. This economy thrives and dies by consumption. And it is a city that finds solutions. Slums have electricity; their residents emerge in suits; come 5.30am almost an entire city walks to work. You can buy everything from fish and flights to power and insurance with your mobile phone.

There is pride and humour here too. One evening I discovered the latest ever-changing uniform at one of my favourite Nairobi haunts, where bar-staff wore micro-dresses of army camouflage. Days after Kenya’s untested army deployed for the first time into neighbouring Somalia in October of 2011 – an attempt to uproot some of the hardiest jihadists going – the home front donned its sexy support.

Nairobi is also, like all big cities, a place that rewards endeavour. When I first arrived, everything was wrong. I was off reporting throughout the region – in South Sudan and Somaliland – before I’d found a permanent spot to live. My introduction to the city was an easy short-term bet, a regimented apartment block, set around a pool, with sliding balcony door, Chinese restaurant and aerobics lessons on tap. Meetings took place in plasticated cafés and restaurants in shopping malls, the likes of which I have spent my life avoiding. It was all too good, the most functional existence I’d had in years: I was stultified.

So I went in search of some crumpled edges. I wanted some urban intoxification, to live alongside the absorbing pace of commerce. But the city centre offers only hotels, offices and the red-light district. Brought up a diehard fan of cobbles, at last I discovered my little spot – a city wilderness filled with them, around 20 minutes’ drive from the centre.

Beyond the traffic and the crime, there is much about Nairobi that’s fascinating. Red Cross volunteers arrive the moment something goes wrong – whether a fallen tree or grenade attack. They tweet the best routes against traffic. Politicians discuss strategy and women over nyama choma – the national diet of grilled goat. They tear into meat in restaurants squeezed between car parks and casinos, or overlooking the misty green hills that fall into the Great Rift Valley on the edge of town.

Families explore the city park, where giraffes contend with high-rises to fill the skyline. And where, once, our exit was blocked by a pair of rutting lions on the tarmac. At the city sanctuary, I wrapped my arm in an orphan baby elephant’s trunk.

My favourite day of the month is a Sunday music festival, Blankets & Wine, where couples in flouncy outfits and beads pose on red-chequered Maasai picnic blankets and swig booze in the blazing post-rainfall sunshine.

Between pirate-hunters and fashionistas, balls and hard-bitten racecourse bets, community yoga and slum acrobats, daily life straddles extremes. I meet government officials over teriyaki, foreign spies over cheesecake and bankers over skewered meat.

Like all big African cities, Nairobi creaks under the weight of its own growth – unable to accommodate its people in electricity, water, roads and homes. In the end it is a confusion and chaos of communities, from the “Kenyan Cowboy” white settlers of Karen to the Somali traders of Eastleigh. Sometimes they brush up against each other and, just every so often, reach out to each other. But usually they don’t overcome these divides – something that may be tested come the country’s elections on March 4.

The city has it all. And at last I realised – Nairobi is the London of Africa. I was home all along.

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Buying guide

Pros

● Average year-round temperatures range from 10 to 28 degrees Celsius

● Property prices rose nearly 18 per cent last year, making it one of the world’s top performing capitals

● Stunning beaches and wild life reserves on your doorstep

Cons

● Terrible traffic

● High level of theft and robbery

● Power cuts

What you can buy for ...

$100,000 One-bedroom off-plan apartment with access to roof garden in Kileleshwa

$1m Four-bedroom villa in Karen with guest house in gardens

Contacts

HassConsult Real Estate (+254 722204765, www.hassconsult.co.ke)

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