The Nitty Gritties

I recently realized that I haven’t shared much about the ins and outs of life here. I haven’t really addressed questions like: What is life in Nairobi like? What does the school look like? What do you do when you’re not at school?

Imagine a city like Tallahassee, FL. If you’ve been, you know it’s not a huge place. It’s a small-town infrastructure built for about 200,000 people – a couple of skyscrapers in a downtown area surrounded by residential suburbs. Now put 4.5 million people in that same city without changing anything. That’s Nairobi. The city grew faster than it’s planners could think, and now it’s getting hard to move or even breathe. There are more cars using the city roads now than ever before, yet the streets lack stop-signs. I only know of two roads with stoplights. Hundreds of thousands of people still walk everywhere – partly due to poverty and partly to the maxed-out public transportation system. Though it is significantly cleaner than many other African cities, the city still struggles with pollution issues. It is a place in which black/white/brown, rich/poor live side by side yet separate – swirled together like the different layers of a marble cake – divided, not by law but by economics, prejudice, and custom. Below is a picture of the front of my apartment building. Mine is the second story balcony.

Now here is a picture of one of the largest slums in Africa – Kibera. There are about 1 million people squeezed into about 3 square kilometers (1.8 square miles). Roughly 50% of those who live in Kibera are HIV positive. I took this picture when I visited an English friend of mine who works with a tiny NGO in the slum. We walked it one end to the other, visiting some of her friends along the way.

Nairobi is a well connected city – I can find almost anything I might want. Some things are ridiculously expensive and others crazy cheap, but it’s all available. I have regular, mostly consistent internet access at a fair price, and a cell phone that is relatively cheap. Electricity is also inexpensive by American standards; on the other hand you can’t count on it – with the current shortages, it goes out during the day three times a week. On the up side however, there are multiple amazing restaurants within minutes of my place, so if there’s no power, there’s always great curry or sushi down the road.

No I don’t have a bug problem. This is only the third significant insect I’ve found in my apartment since moving in over a year ago (flies don’t count), and what a cool one! It’s the strangest shaped moth I have seen in a very long time. It didn’t move much … not sure if it was dead or just really good at playing dead.

The School:
I teach in a corner of paradise, far removed from the diesel fumes and bustling streets of downtown. The school is perched on a hill on the northwest side of Nairobi. The grounds were a coffee plantation back in the day. When the property was purchased, the old stone farmhouse was converted into the administration building. The servant’s quarters became the technology department, and the carriage house became the staff lounge, nurse’s office, photocopy center and curriculum office. The rest of the grounds have been gradually taken over by all the other school buildings: elementary, middle school, high school, library/media center, arts center, soccer fields, track, gym, pool, tennis and basketball courts, canteen, and parking lots. Colorful foliage and stone pathways fill the spaces between all these buildings: royal palms and jacarandas, hibiscus and lantana, bougainvillea and gladiolas, avocado trees, guava trees and more varieties of succulents than I have seen since California.

Enrollment is the highest it has ever been, and it’s growing daily (a point which is in fact causing some interesting problems – more on that later). Last I checked we are at 800 kids, PreK-12th grade. Last Thursday and Friday I helped chaperon a tenth-grade, overnight class trip. We took 78 out of the 80 tenth graders to a campsite that runs team-building and kayaking activities. That’s a lot of 15 year-olds. Many of them were the same ones I went up Mount Kenya with last year, so it was kind of nice to see some of them in a trip setting again, albeit less intense.

In case you’re having trouble with this picture, it’s a metal man with a hat and shades, sitting on a chair with his leg crossed. The art department has a metal shop where the teacher has kids do projects with scrap metal. There’s cool stuff hiding all over campus. I’ll try to share more pics of them in other posts.

This is me working at home one evening. Notice the two computers? The one across from me is mine. The one in my lap? All teachers get a school computer … and school computers were recently upgraded to Mac laptops. If you only could have seen the whole living room. Behind the camera is my friend Jeannine (the one who moved in with me for three weeks while her floors were being replaced.) She also had her computers and books out. Rough life.

The rest of life:
What do I do when I’m not at school and I’m avoiding traffic? Chill at home, invite friends over, go over to friend’s places … there are two good malls only 5 minutes from my place, so sometimes I meet folks there for food and sometimes we go wandering around town. There is plenty of nightlife in Nairobi, but my exploration of it has been minimal – partly due to safety issues, and partly due to my being “old” … unless there is *amazing* live music, sitting in bars past midnight doesn’t do much for me. On the other hand, there IS sometimes amazing live music and I am slowly becoming more involved in the musical community. I sing in the Nairobi Chamber Chorus and that has opened doors to meet other musicians and music teachers. As for traveling, I’ve been too busy this year to do any non-school-related trips, but that should change next semester. I’ve also found a great international church on the other side of town – the people and activities there have gotten me out and about at various times.

So there you have it … the nitty gritties.
More questions? Ask away!

6 thoughts on “The Nitty Gritties

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  1. We want mire! Though I am not anxious to go back to the continent that held so many homes for me, your writing does make me want more. Of ypur stories, that is! Safely in my silent 2nd class train coupé after a busy hanging around online with Facebook on my iPhone…

    Ah, the contrast!

    We do have the same laptop though… The school one that is!


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