A Guide to Urban Wildlife

A Guide to Urban Wildlife


High up in the Ministry of Transport & Infrastructure, reaching for the gods above the aromas of the breakfast café and hidden from the worker bees toing and froing on the lower floors, lies the office of the Principal Secretary.  Down the corridor, round the bend, under the falling plaster, and behind the faux plywood walls, we sat sipping milky tea and watching the sun set over Nairobi, waiting for Danish.  Not a nation of free-minded continentals, nor even a tasty pastry swirl, but the PS’ chief diary man.  One hour turns into two, until the tea is long gone, and each fold of the Kenyan flag and each polished turn of the mahogany grain is filed in the part of the memory that pushes the useful stuff out.

After a month of pre-confirmation, confirmation, and confirmation of the confirmations, the attendance of the Principal Secretary at tomorrow’s major workshop on urban transport in Nairobi is not confirmed.  Whilst the worker bees file out of the iron gates, we survive a long interrogation that could only come from a Kenyan version of ‘Yes Minister’ (“Was your request for the Principal Secretary’s presence signed by the Principal Secretary?”), and the charming Danish turns his attentions to negotiations with his university friend.   As day turns to night, the word is out that the PS has returned from the opening of Nairobi’s newest railway station, and the champagne cork of awaiting delegates explodes through the door to his ante-room.   Inside the main office, where padded leather walls are supposedly indicative of status and not madness, the Principal Secretary, with his warm Cheshire Cat grin, effused support for our little enterprise – before registering a no show at the workshop the next day.

One of the issues up for discussion was the Kenyan Police, the elephant in the transport room.  The police stand on the new signalised junctions on the Kenyan equivalent of the M1, where signal timings have been carefully calculated to optimise traffic flows, and direct traffic to disobey the lights as they wait for their political puppetmasters to speed through to their meetings, whilst Nairobi’s congestion is estimated to reduce Kenya’s GDP by 2%.  On the way home from the workshop, we were stopped by two policemen on a side road.  There is a ritual, an established etiquette where dignity dictates that bribery is not mentioned up front.  We stepped out of the car (taking care to hold onto the keys), and responded to the offence in question.

“Did you know this is a one-way street?”

“No, the signing is not clear, but sorry, we are just in Kenya for one week”. Most definitely not a car load of long term transportation experts advising the Ministry of Transport on road safety issues.

“You need to come to the local police station” No chance my friend, you’d get less money that way.

More dancing. “You are English?  From where? My brother is in Manchester”.  I suspect there are brothers in Mombasa, Kampala, Paris, Beijing, New York and Stockholm when the occasion demands.

“Really, I’m a great supporter of Manchester United.  Tough season this year.  Your brother a footballer? Fantastic, I’m sure he would do better than David Moyes”.

“Maybe, my friend, we can help you out”

“That’s very kind, what sort of proposition do you have”

“We are policemen, we don’t earn much” (Kenyan police salaries have tripled in recent years). “Perhaps you can help us with dinner?”

“How much do you need for dinner?”

“100,000” (about £800)

“We’ll give you 1,000” (about £8).

“Thank you, enjoy your dinner”

“You too”.  And off we went against the flow up the one-way street.

The weekend, as is so opportune of Kenya’s central geography, offers a move from the urbane to the rural.  Today’s journey starts with taxi driver Moses ‘four-jags’ Mwangi, who is lamentably unable to part a causeway through the Red Sea of Nairobi’s traffic, but who sources a different car every day, certain that the newest is ‘the one’ he will settle down with.  This morning, even a man of my short stature is forced into contortions to access the passenger seat of a low slung sports model, glassless wing mirror awry, and that vibrates with the force of a propeller-driven aircraft engine as it climbs through the pine forests towards Mount Longonot.

Moses had been carjacked seven times, which he regards as somewhat average in Nairobi, and neither better nor worse than 10 or 20 years ago.  On three of those occasions, he was forced into boot whilst the gang drove around committing robberies. On the remaining four, his car was taken and left somewhere else in town.  There seems to be a code among pirates here: on all seven occasions, Moses was able to recover his car, and has never been subjected to more than a slap.

There is an underworld in Nairobi, like Engels’ Manchester, that is little seen or heard, and perhaps heeded even less.  Every day, with the crowd of suits heading to the Central Business District, I walk past a group of street children playing in the drainage ditches of the new Japanese Western Link Road.  In Nairobi, you fend for yourself. One night, on a late drive home, I passed a corpse lying in the road, cars wavering past him, not stopping and slowing little.  I had no number for an ambulance, and drove around in vain hunting for police to inform.  This was no down-and-out, but a well-dressed man, probably hit by a drunk driver, but whom Nairobians presumably judge to have taken the ultimate responsibility for his moment of mistaken judgement.

From the summit of Mount Longonot, we looked down to a Lost World, where the steep sides of a perfect volcanic crater protects a forest unsullied by even the most determined of Nairobi’s social descenders.  The 2700m peak stands alone, pimple on the Rift Valley, beautiful arse of Mother Earth, shared with the geo-thermal vents spewing life-giving excretions from her inner machines. Lungs full of dust and life after chasing schoolchildren through the twisting ridge-top gullies, we found a church service under a tin shack on the crater edge paying homage to this creational vista.

The ride northward continues to attack the senses: through the lurching dust devils, past the bicycles stacked to the sky with wickerwork chairs; patiently held up by Africa’s real zebra crossings, and arrested by the birds of prey stealing away the rodents running through a roadside refugee camp.  Our arrival in Mogotio is signalled by the military rank and file of the sisal plantations, which thrive in semi-arid environments, and whose cactus-like lower leaves, woven into baskets in Kenya, are exported by the Chinese for their fibrous qualities.

In Mogotio, the children of the plantation workers are educated at the village primary school, a courtyard of dirty stone classrooms bearing the motto ‘Better your Best’.  The issues faced by the school are common in rural East Africa: poor parents, infrequent government payments, lack of teacher training, and an inability to save sufficient funds for improvement and upkeep of infrastructure.  However, a low starting point often means that such rural schools can develop fast and become sustainable, given some financial kick-starts, and the right factors of leadership and continuity.

On the way back to Nairobi, we flew in with the pelicans and flamingos to the shoreline of Lake Nakuru, where the cormorants perches on the inundated roadsigns of a newly submerged road.   In front of a sleeping rhino, CEO of the Nakuru plains, I had my first encounter with a secretary bird, naively assuming that it was tall bird’s attire and proud nature that had given rise to an obvious name, learning instead that the viscous nature with which it stamps on its prey is likened to a taloned secretary punching bile into the keyboard.  And oddly reminded me of some of the most preening of our mahogany-polishing civil servants from the upper echelons of the Ministry.

Indeed, the character of the animals is as varied as Kenya’s people: the old buffaloes looking knowingly on under their judges wig; the vain zebra, Nairobi’s fashion-conscious man-about-town, who stood, one metre from the lens, angling his neck for twenty minutes for the best light on his pretty face; the thieving baboons, cunning and self-appointed policemen of the plains; or the angry safari ants, the disenchanted gang of the city, who attacked us as the stars blazed across the night sky.  As she has treated curiosity from Joseph Conrad to Karen Blixen and beyond, Africa continues to take the pillion adventurer on a bouncy boda ride from the ridiculous to the sublime.