18.05.2009 - 18.05.2009
In a previous warbling, I noted just how much I was looking forward to Nairobi, and my expectations of the city. I am happy to report that Nairobi has exceeded that. After 2.5weeks of pretty much been stuck between the confines of a heavily fortified hostel toilet and a hospital, I finally felt able to risk a trip into the city. Sick or not, i had chores to attend to and medicine's to collect. The day went pretty smoothly, though I was utterly shattered by the end, the product of barely having done any exercise for some time. But I was never quite caught out on comfort break requirements, achieved pretty much everything i needed to and finally got to see some of the city. By day, at least, Nairobi is fine. To me it felt more European than African, at least in the central core, (though I couldn't explain why) and was pleasant enough.
But it was when I risked a trip to the Ethiopian embassy – more out of future curiosity and a desire to actually get some exercise for the first time in ages than any pressing need – that i started to think that perhaps the Nairobi that I have long heard of was not in fact a myth. Maybe 500m before the embassy i was walking along a suburban road, when a man comes staggering towards me. I assume he is drunk. But when he is maybe 20metres away, he just collapses in a heap on the floor with foam coming from the mouth. My first thought was a horribly cynical and paranoid one: perhaps this is just a ruse for an unsuspecting pick-pocket to go for me whilst I try and help. But I quickly get past that. The foaming is just too realistic.
I stand for maybe a second, whilst looking around and seeing that the other 15 or so pedestrians – and 3 security guards at gates, who are all closer to the man than I - within sight are all ignoring the event. I don't have a Kenyan phone to hand so I start to approach to see if I can help. Barely 2 steps later, a smartly dressed woman in her 50's grabs my arm and says strictly “No. stay well clear.” And drags me across the road. As we start to cross to the other side of the road, two men calmly walk up to the prone body, frisk him, take his wallet and shoes and walk off. Still nobody is batting an eyelid, except that one of the security guards looks strongly at me until he catches my eye, and makes a swift gesture indicating that I should just keep going and ignore the man. I can't quite believe what is going on, but with people making it obvious they don't think I should even try and help, I don't really see what I can achieve so simply carry on my way, slightly perturbed.
When I return from the embassy maybe a half hour later, the scene is the same as before – nobody stopping or paying any attention – but for one obvious change: the man now has a blanket over his body and as I approach, is lifted into the back of a van which suddenly appears. Death is not unusual in Africa and people deal with it more frequently than many Westerners, but even so, I couldn't believe the lack of anything resembling curiosity (if you collapse on a pavement in Western Europe, China or much of the rest of the world, you would at least have a crowd of people looking over you in curiosity, even if none are actively trying to help) or even vague attempt to help. I don't know if I am frustrate or saddened more. But the really horrible thing was that I was in no way surprised. Welcome to Africa.