masai market nairobi

Random Thoughts on East Africa

Three weeks ago I went on a journey to East Africa to share my knowledge and experiences around urban farming. Over that time, I learned a lot, saw a number of great farming examples, and met lots of great people. Another blog post will focus on the official part of the exchange; this post will feature some of my random thoughts and notes on the culture, food, and other interesting aspects.

One of the first things I noticed was the traffic. Driving in both Kenya and Uganda would be considered chaotic by North American standards, with traffic lights (if there are any) routinely ignored, jaywalking as the only way to cross the street, and cars driving literally bumper to bumper. Add to that the many diesel fumes, dusty roads, large pot holes and large speed bumps, and you’ve got a recipe for chaotic traffic.

Matatus were another interesting part of my Nairobi and East Africa experience. Here, there are central bus stops and loading areas, but it is much more flexible and adaptive than I originally thought. For example, it seems like you can flag down a Matatu if you are walking along one of their routes, and the cost of your ride is partially determined by a tout at the main loading area, the current traffic conditions, and the supply and demand of the passengers and vehicles. When you’re inside, space is very limited, many vehicles feature disco style lights as well as music I can only describe as gaudy.

Food was another interesting part of the experience. For the most part, we ate local Kenyan food, with the staples consisting of rice, chapatti, ugali, beans, and potatoes. Kale is the most popular green and it is usually stir fried, with corn also very popular and mixed with the other staple foods. For meat, the most common meat is chicken. Beef and pork are less common, but can be found. Interestingly, you can also find rabbit meat (we had a whole workshop and a few experts on raising rabbits as part of our exchange), and zebra meat can also be found at a specialty restaurant aptly called Carnivore.

Speaking of food, my favourite meal of my Kenyan trip was to a hole in the wall pork shop. The front of the store served as a butchery, where you can go and order raw cuts of pork. In the middle, there are only a few basic wooden tables and benches, and the only things they serve are pork, ugali, and fries. The pork you can get dry fried or deep fried and despite being only a really small storefront with probably the worst name ever, the locals know that this is the place to get your pork.

Another interesting observation was that people rely heavily on their mobile phones – with most people having “regular” phones and only a few people having smart phones. Despite the limited functionality of the phones, many Kenyans still do a lot with their phone. If you are in a meeting, it will be rare for a few minutes to go by without hearing one or several phones ring. To them, having their phone ring during a meeting is not a rude act, and even interrupting a conversation they are having with someone else to check their phone or answer a ringing phone is not considered rude (that’s what one expat told me). Another interesting note is that Kenyan’s can pay and send money through their phone. They can even send phone credit to someone else as well.

Bargaining is another activity I quite enjoy. While many people find it to be a stressful or a necessary evil of shopping, I find the process quite fun and entertaining. A couple of interesting things I thought they do quite well are the use of anchoring and the technique of commitment and consistency. As part of the Kenyan bargaining style, the vendors use the back of a newspaper or other scrap piece of paper and write down their initial price. Many times, this price is 3x the actual price they will settle on, and sometimes it is even more than that (like 5x-10x the price they are willing to accept). They then get you to write down your opening price (gaining your commitment) and the negotiations continue from there. It is expected that there will be a back and forth exchange (with you expected to be consistent in slowly raising your price), and when I tried one time to stick For my original price, it didn’t seem to work too well (even though my original price was the most I was willing to pay). By treating this whole process as a game, and being willing to walk away from the deal (though interestingly, many vendors I found did not respond in my favor when I used the walk away technique), While many of the crafts and curios are the same across markets, the availability and variety did vary somewhat (based on my two visits to two different markets).

The last thing I’ll comment on is about security. As a result of recent terrorist activities, security has been increased across the country. For cars/vehicles, it is common for a security guard to check not only your trunk and contents inside your vehicle, but also to use a convex mirror to look and do a sweep underneath your car as well. At malls, each person is checked by a security guard of the same sex typically using both a metal detector wand and a quick pat down. They also look inside your bag, though most of the time I found the bag searches to be more of a cursory search rather than a comprehensive search. If you thought that was bad, airport security takes this to a whole new level. Before you even drive into arrive at the airport, your car is searched and you have to walk through a metal detector. You then need to present your passport and ticket to be allowed into the building, at which time you need to go through yet another set of metal detectors and pass your bag through an x-ray scanner. The next step is pretty normal with you receiving your boarding pass (if you haven’t printed it out or checked in online yet) and then having to go through the security screening to get to the departure area of the airport. If those 3 security checks and metal detectors weren’t enough, before you board the plane, you have to go through one, or if you are lucky, two consecutive x-ray machines/metal detectors.  Don’t ask me why you need to go through 4 different security checks to get onto an airplane for your flight. We’ll just call it TIA, or “This Is Africa” to explain the differences in how things work.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading and please share any comments you have below.