There is nothing like a little trip into Africa to shatter some old stereotypes and confirm a few others.
Back in Nairobi last week after an absence of four years I found that things are exactly the same and completely different. I was previously a regular visitor to the Kenyan capital, which can seem like a very traditional, old-fashioned place. But I have learned it is best to consider one’s self a total greenhorn in Africa, which can look a bit slow on the surface but is fast as hell on the inside.
As ever, this trip was illuminated by a cast of interesting characters, some of them appearing to be made in a familiar mould, and many of the one-and-only type. The Character of the Week award goes to Nancy (which may or may not be her real name) [No-Surname-Required], a woman from Zambia. She strikes me as a good example of the new generation of African women – international, educated, urbane and hungry for new experiences and opportunities (and for freedom from the tyranny and the dullness of the patriarchal society).
Imagine you are at a conference with 1,500 people from every corner of the world. You can safely walk up to any one of them (and experience allows me to include the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo here) and say: “Have you seen Nancy?” They will know who you mean, you know like, say, Madonna, Winnie, or Donatella.
Part of Nairobi’s ever changing landscape is a large foreign contingent. A number of international organisations have regional offices there, and the UN’s Africa headquarters occupies its own large compound. Also, many more African business people and tradespeople are setting up shop in “Africa’s Green City in the Sun”.
Twitter wars aside, the rivalry between East and West Africa seems to be giving way to a fledgling partnership. There was a time not so long ago when Nigerians, for example, thought of Nairobi as not much more than a dusty cattle station.
A number of Nigerians I met this week said they now saw Kenya’s capital as a key springboard into different markets, and they were getting used to the fact that things were a little slower than in Lagos.
Admittedly, there was an extra large and extra loud contingent of foreigners in Nairobi this week since it was hosting the the African Green Revolution Forum. What was surprising was that many of the delegates from Africa, particularly West Africa, were very familiar with the place and knowledgeable about it, more than one of them telling me they thought of Nairobi as their second home.
Early morning and late night bus trips between events and hotels were very lively with discussions about what was wrong and what was right with each others’ countries and the regional blocks they belonged to. The verdict here seemed to be that South African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States had a way to go to catch up with the East African Community (EAC). There was a 100 percent consensus that opening of borders and integration cannot happen soon enough.
My companions might be interested to know that the Economist magazine recently published an article saying that the EAC, a regional club of six countries who have been part of a customs union since 2005 and a common market since 2010, was the most integrated trading bloc on the continent. The magazine referred to a new paper from the International Growth Centre, a research organisation.
“The researchers use some fancy modelling to pick out the effect of the EAC,” the Economist said. “They find that bilateral trade between member countries was a whopping 213 percent higher in 2011 than it would otherwise have been.”
The article said that gains from integration in Africa’s other regional blocs were significantly lower, at around 110 percent in the Southern African Development Community and 80 percent for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.
That just goes to show that Africans are increasingly well-informed about the continent beyond the borders of their own countries. The African Union dream of Africans collaborating as a market and trading block of more than a billion people is starting to develop legs outside of global meetings as people on the street start to walk the talk.
As for life on the street in Nairobi, locals never disappoint with their style and their warmth. It is no wonder the UN chose Nairobi to base its African HQ. (If you can excuse a little shameless stereotyping…) this is a country of delightful, friendly people, largely a very well educated-yet-humble bunch. The country is rich with lively colours, with a varied local culture (from 42 distinct tribes) abundantly infused with influences from Arabia and India, as well as the West. It is at once exotic and familiar.
Talking about old ideas confirmed, my week here has proved that Kenyans remain steadfast in their determination to avoid saying anything that they think you might not want to hear. This trait extends beyond the obvious arenas of politics and religion, and can be experienced in minute and sometimes maddening ways, such as when one asks a local for directions.
My experience is that no Kenyan will ever say, “I don’t know”, fearing that this might suggest a scandalous lack of care, rudeness even. Expect any request for directions to be met with a firm yes and elaborate instructions. The rule here is that unless you have a lot of time on your hands and like walking in circles, don’t ask strangers for directions.
The traffic is still as bad as ever, although my first uber trip has made me a little suspicious that the many expensive and horribly long trips I have taken in the past in battered old wrecks going as taxis might simply have been part of a plot against the taxi-hailing middle classes.
The car that collected me from the UN complex was in good shape, a small and ample car that was clean. The route we took was totally unfamiliar, which made me realise that all the taxi drivers I have used in the past (and we are talking quite a few dozen at least) had stuck to jammed and fume-filled main arteries through the city (like everyone else), while the side roads seem to be a much better option. Could it be a conspiracy? Clearly more research must be done. With that I am off in my next uber.
– African News Agency (ANA)