Exploring Nairobi With Nai Ni Who

Nairobi is quite the interesting city. From the only national park within a capital city to interesting urbanscapes, there’s so much to see. My preference is for nature but I don’t mind exploring other sights that Nairobi has to offer. So when I came across the Nai Ni Who poster, I was excited to see which tours I could attend.

Nai Ni Who newspaper ad.
Nai Ni Who newspaper ad.

Nai Ni Who is an initiative by the GoDown Arts Centre aimed at creating awareness about various Nairobi neighbourhoods through walking tours, games, exhibitions and more. The first time I heard of it I was in university but didn’t go for a single tour, despite the GoDown being so close to school. So this time I decided to do better. It was challenging though because of my daily writing and the waterfowl census trips on Wednesdays and weekends. But I managed to work around that.

Mural at the GoDown Arts Centre, Nairobi.
Dope mural at the GoDown Arts Centre.

The first tour I went for covered Bomas of Kenya and Kazuri Arts. I had never been to the latter location and the last time I visited Bomas was ages ago. I arrived at the GoDown to find other local tourists eagerly waiting for the bus. When everyone had arrived we boarded the bus and set off. We got to Bomas a few minutes after 11 am. Management had made special arrangements for us to watch traditional dances before proceeding to see the bomas (traditional African homesteads). Normally the dances are done in the afternoon.

Tourists in a traditional African homestead.
Exploring the bomas.

We proceeded to the performance hall. The morning was cold, and the metal seats colder. I had to sit on my scarf because wah! Immediately after we settled the dancers began their performances. The dances were vigorous and got me thinking about the rich culture Africa had before colonizers came here. Luhya, Luo, Meru, Maasai, Kikuyu and Coastal beats filled the air and took away some of the cold. At the end of the last dance, they invited us to join them. It was a jig from my community- the Luhya. Need I say more about how I enjoyed it? 🙂

Dancers at Bomas of Kenya.
Dancers doing their thing at Bomas.

Next was a tour of the bomas. Again I was impressed by the level of organisation Africans had in their architecture. Every structure was well designed, and it’s position in the homestead was deliberate. For instance in some communities the young men’s huts were located at the homestead entrance to offer protection for other family members. This is in contrast to the colonizers’ views of us as ‘backward’. Anyway, we had fun exploring the huts and taking pictures.

Author at a traditional hut.
Going back in time…

After this some people bought snacks then we boarded the bus to the next location. Kazuri Crafts is located in Karen. I know about their jewellery, but had no idea it was founded in 1975! :-O I thought it was a recent venture. By this time it was at least a bit warm. Our guide for the day began by narrating the history of Kazuri, their mission and the products made there. Then he showed us the massive clay processing machine, explaining the steps that clay goes through before it’s usable.

Signage at Kazuri.
Now you know!

Next was visiting the workshops where rows and rows of beautiful beaded jewellery were displayed. One of us even had a run at crafting a small pot at the potter’s wheel. Apparently it’s much harder than it looks! We ended the tour at the shop. The sandals, soapstone carvings and jewellery were so beautiful but so expensive! (As is the case with handmade pieces). Most of us just admired and left. 🙂

Kazuri Arts Centre shop.
Admiring goodies at the shop.

The next neighbourhood tour I joined was the Huruma- Mathare- Kiamaiko one. This time we left late because the driver delayed. Then a few minutes after departure we were stopped by a policeman and diverted to Pangani Police Station, where we stayed for a good half hour. Making us even more late. Eventually we were released to continue with the journey. After 40 or so minutes we arrived at Redeemed Gospel Church Huruma. Here the Mathare North Road separates Mathare on one side from Huruma on the other.

Second- hand clothes market in Mathare.
Second- hand clothes market in Mathare.

Our guide Slim led the way, educating us about various aspects of the ‘hood. When going to the ghetto you need a resident to take you round or else you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Slim informed us that the area is known as Mathare Valley because of the inclines, declines and valleys of the landscape. From a certain vantage point we could see the roofs of the tightly packed dwellings. There’s hardly any space from one to another.

People in Mathare Slum, Nairobi.
Slim, our guide for the day (in green hat).

As we walked along, the residents were going about their business as usual: vendors selling wares, children playing, boda boda riders ferrying passengers and guys brewing alcohol. I remember thinking to myself “People actually live here!” This is in sharp contrast to what the media portrays about such neighbourhoods- that they’re unsafe and everyone there is suffering. In fact, Slim told us it’s very hard to sleep hungry in Mathare since food is in abundance and cheap. Imagine that!

Vantage point view of Mathare.
Vantage point view of Mathare.

One thing I can’t deny though is the sorry state of sanitation. There’s garbage strewn among the houses. A lot of it. Mathare River is heavily polluted with plastic bags and sewage to the point of turning black. Being a germophobe, that filth gave me the shivers. I wonder what can be done to improve the situation?

Filth choking Mathare River, Nairobi.
Filth choking Mathare River. 😦

Being done with Mathare, we crossed over to Huruma. We began by listening to the history of furniture vending business that has dominated Juja Road for years. The whole street from Kwa Chief stage up to Jonsaga stage is lined with furniture vendors. It was amazing to see such quality items in the ghetto. We came to an old lady’s coffin shop- the first one to be set up in Huruma. She’s been in that business since 1982! She gave us a little history about Huruma and how the area has changed since then.

The oldest coffin shop in Huruma, Nairobi.
The oldest coffin shop in Huruma, founded by the lady on the extreme right.

From there we went to the ‘stadium’ which is really an open, dusty ground. Apparently a lot of dirty politics stands in the way of it being upgraded into a decent facility for the youth to use. How sad. Once a politician takes office they don’t keep their promises to improve the situation. The youth end up fending for themselves through self-help groups.

Mathare- Huruma intersection.
Scenes from Mathare- Huruma intersection.

By the time we were through with Huruma, we were exhausted and hungry. The sun had showed us no mercy either. I didn’t expect to be that tired since I’m used to long walks when bird watching. Anyway, the guide who was to take us through Kiamaiko wasn’t available. That is one of the most dangerous hoods to walk through without a resident- you can be robbed in broad daylight. All sorts of weapons are sold here as well. We decided not to risk it and instead organise to return another day. Apart from safety issues, Kiamaiko is one of Nairobi’s largest suppliers of meat.

Stadium in Mathare.
Stadium in Mathare.

We walked back to Jonsaga stage, thanked our hosts/ guides and headed to our respective homes. The Nai Ni Who tours were some of the most eye-opening for me. Especially for the ghetto. It was amazing to see such vibrant scenes. I only wish I had managed to go for more tours. Well, maybe next year. (Nai Ni Who is an annual event).

People in Huruma, Nairobi.
Heading home…
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