The below is an email I wrote about three weeks ago but have only now gotten around to sending.
I am sitting in my hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, writing this at the moment, myself and two other people from JVA flew in this morning from Nairobi. We’re on our way to Shire (pronounced sheer-ay), a town in northern Ethiopia near Shimelba refugee camp, we should arrive there tomorrow after a short flight from Addis.
So, obviously I’ve been thrown right into the mix here as I was only in Nairobi for about a week and a half before this trip. I will be in Shire for three weeks before I go back to Kenya for a little while before heading out again. This is generally how the schedule goes for caseworkers, on average we spend close to three weeks out of each month traveling—hectic, but also a great opportunity to see a lot of interesting places.
I hope to write a little bit about Shimelba, which will be my first camp experience with JVA when I return, so in this email I’m going to make some random observations about Nairobi. It’s a huge city, much larger than Lusaka and better developed, but also much louder, crowded, and dirtier. The hurrying crowds and mobs of vehicles piloted by drivers I suspect to be slightly deranged gives the city an exciting, bustling feel to it—apparently the roads were not designed to handle the amount of traffic they now carry as there is almost a perpetual traffic jam throughout the city. My very first experience with this utter chaos that is driving in Nairobi came on my trip back from the airport. A friend had arranged for a taxi driver named George to pick me up. I walked out of the terminal to see a smiling Kenyan holding a sign with my name on it; I was a little strung out from more than 30 hours of traveling from the U.S. but was relieved to see him. He is a friendly, talkative guide who hustled my bags into the cab, hopped behind the wheel and gunned us out into traffic.
It only took me a few minutes to realize that this indeed was a far different place than Lusaka. Traffic isn’t all that bad and is fairly orderly there, but after only a few kilometers of driving in Nairobi I had already made the decision to pull my elbow that had been hanging out of the car back inside to keep it from getting clipped. There were no lines in the road, which meant it at times fluctuated from two to three lanes and then back again, depending on how many vehicles could possibly squeeze into the available space. It is a motley collection of automobiles ranging in size from large 18-wheelers (called lorries here--as a former British colony Kenya insists on using improper English) to small motorcycles, all blaring their horns and trying to cut one another off at every opportunity. There is a constant game of chicken being played out on the roads, with the driver with the most nerve usually winning a desired spot and a tongue-lashing from whichever other driver he had to almost run over to get there. I commented on the seeming anarchy of the situation to George who had been rattling on about Kenya and Nairobi, pointing out interesting features along the road, glancing over at me to see if I was properly engrossed, all while steering us through the swirls and eddies of the traffic while I stared resolutely ahead refusing to make eye contact with George, hoping thereby to encourage him to concentrate fully on the tangle of cars all around us. George nodded vigorously in agreement at my observation, and flapped his hand unconcernedly at the mess currently in front of us: “Like right now, I don’t even know where the lane is,” and then launched happily into another explication on the state of tribal relations in Kenya while I eyeballed a matatu (minibus) and lorry that were both converging on the spot we currently occupied.
Yet George is a bit of a magician as he managed to get us to our destination alive, which is all I was asking for at that point, while also providing a brief tutorial on Kenyan history and politics. That was my introduction to Nairobi traffic and my awe of it has only increased since then, especially as I’ve since been a pedestrian trying to navigate a road crossing. There doesn’t appear to be any standard procedure for pedestrians in the city; they don’t have the right of way, but I’m assuming it’s illegal to run them over as well. Usually what happens is a large group of walkers will gather on the edge of the road that needs to be crossed. Finally, at the slightest hint of a break in traffic, one intrepid soul will plunge into the gap followed hurriedly by the rest; my theory so far is that the larger the group, the less willing a driver will be to hit them all as it will mean more damage to his vehicle. Hence, in these situations I try to get on the edge of the group furthest away from oncoming traffic in order to provide as much of a human buffer between me and the vehicles as possible.
I was delighted to find that Nairobi has a lot of second clothing markets, like in Zambia. There are always gems to be found in these places as it is all cast-offs from the West; what makes it particularly interesting is that oftentimes the clothing will be quite old, from the 80’s and early 90’s, which means one can easily find a t-shirt with a slogan from those eras (I saw a t-shirt in Zambia that said “You’re beautiful…NOT”). On my first full day here I and some friends went to one of these markets, stall after stall stuffed with old clothing. The hawkers here are slightly more advanced in their attempt to cheat you than in Zambia; most of them have removed the size tags from the trousers, so when you tell them your size they randomly pick out a pair of trousers and declare them to be the right ones. In order to prove it, they will produce a plastic measuring tape and run it around the waist and down the inseam to prove their point. What is delightful about this entire process is that if the pants are indeed too long, they will position the tape right at the crotch and show you so you’re assured they are starting in the right place, then distract you with their other hand that is bringing the tape down the pant leg while sliding the tape back a few inches up at the crotch. So, when the tape reaches the cuff, they will have slid the tape on the other end far enough back that it shows the measurement you told them earlier. The merchant will then declare “exact,” while random other hawkers who have gathered around to watch the muzungu get fleeced will nod solemnly and, in chorus, declare “exact.” The merchants are slick enough about the bogus measuring that it took me a few seconds to figure out exactly what they were doing; if I didn’t have a preconceived opinion of merchants at these markets as hybrid con artists and entertainers, I probably wouldn’t have caught the fudging at all. Fortunately I did though, otherwise my feelings would have been hurt when one hawker told me I had a 38 inch waist and then “proved” it—he was able to chop off about 6 inches with some fraudulent measuring of the shorts’ waistband, then by measuring over the shorts and shirt I was wearing managed to add several inches to my waist despite me sucking it in. I could only laugh at the sheer brazenness of the display, and left with my self-esteem intact.
At another stall, as per my normal bargaining routine, I pointed out various flaws I found in the clothes I was interested in purchasing. The particular gentleman I was dealing with at the time, named Boniface, would immediately dismiss my criticisms and declare that the item’s brand was “nice.” I pressed him about a stain on a particular set of trousers hard enough that he obviously felt the brush-off couldn’t work any longer, and so turned the trousers inside out and declared that the stain was “on the outside, not inside.” Unsure why this was supposed to reassure me I then made the observation that I would only be comforted by that knowledge if I planned on wearing the trousers inside-out. He stared at me for a second and I could see the wheels turning as he cycled through his list of selling tactics. Finally, he grasped the trousers by the waist, flipped the brand name up for me to see, and declared “Dockers, they are nice. Nice brand.” Well, touché, no way to argue with that, so I slapped him on the back and forked over the money.
I have had a lot of people asking me about the plane fire I mentioned on Facebook; it happened when we were trying to make it to Shire, the day after I wrote the above email. We had flown on a small, two-engine prop plane from Addis Ababa to Mekelle and landed there to allow some passengers to get off. I was mostly asleep when the plane started down the runway to take off, but still felt it abruptly start slowing down after it had gotten up to take-off speed. I thought this was strange but couldn't give it much thought in my sleep-addled state until I was hit in the head by a guy grabbing the back of my chair to jump up. I opened my eyes to see people sprinting down the aisle towards the front of the plane; I then turned around and saw smoke filling the cabin. Meanwhile a jam of people pushing forward was developing at the front of the plane; a man jumped into the aisle, spread his arms and yelled "Selam, selam" ("peace," in Amharic). The crowd of people seemed to ease back slightly at the man's commanding tone until a stewardess appeared yelling "Go, go" and flapping her arms wildly towards the exit. That was the end of Selam-ing and the mad rush began anew with increased fervor. I decided I should join at this point and moved down the aisle picking up the various baby accessories the woman in front of me with a child was scattering about in her haste to get off. I finally made it onto the runway and glanced down the length of it to see it a single firetruck with an anemic flashing red light trundling its way towards us, rather pathetically I thought.
I have mentioned more than once in these emails from Africa that I have moments of perspective when I can fully see the absurdity of my situation at the moment--this was one of those times. I was standing in the bright sunlight of northern Ethiopia with a small plane on fire behind me, surrounded by crowds of Ethiopians chattering excitedly in Amharic and Tigrinya, children wailing, the field next to the runway swarming with Ethiopian soldiers sprinting towards us while I stood dazedly holding a baby-blue bootie and pacifier. When I was younger and trying to picture what I would be doing at the ripe old age of 27, when I would be operating in that mysterious, hazy but momentous sphere of adulthood, this was not what I envisioned, not even close. I lacked the imagination for it and could as little picture the details of life in Africa as I could Mars; yet my young heart would have been thrilled though thoroughly perplexed to see me standing on that runway.
After watching for 15 minutes small groups of men battle in vain with fire extinguishers and water to put out the fire we were put in a Land Cruiser and taken back to the airport, though not before I had memorized the plane's tail number in case they had any ideas of putting us back on the same contraption. We waited for about five hours for another plane to be flown up from Addis; it was funny to board the new plane, the same type that had caught on fire, and see 95% of the passengers crammed into the front section with the back almost completely deserted. We eventually hurtled down the runway and lurched into the sky while the gentleman behind me chanted prayers in Amharic. Then we were out over the emptiness of northern Ethiopia; from the air it looks incredibly forbidding, all jagged rock and dustland gouged with ravines, sun-blasted and baked into hard edges, lonely roads twisting through on their way to small clusters of browned building with tin roofs flashing at you in the sunlight, little outposts seemingly huddled against the extremity of their surroundings. It's hard to believe people can survive out there; I spent the entire short plane ride to Shire with my forehead pressed against the window marveling at the landscape and wondering about the people who live there, hopeful that I'll some day get to meet a few of them.