Uhuru means freedom – The long road from Cape Town to Nairobi

UhuruandKenyattaIn the KiSwahili language ‘uhuru’ means freedom. In Kenya, a man named Uhuru was recently elected president of the republic. Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn into office on Apr.9, 2013. He brings with him serious baggage after being accused of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in post-election violence in 2007 along with his running mate, newly-minted Vice President William Ruto. This time around it looks like Kenyatta is building bridges between his Jubilee Alliance and the opposition Raila Odinga’s CORD Coalition. Odinga thought he had this election locked after serving as prime minister in a power-sharing agreement with outgoing president Mwai Kibaki.

Kenyatta served as deputy prime minister from 2008-2013 and finance minister from 2009-2012. He resigned from his position in the government once charges were brought against him at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Now that he’s the president of Kenya, the international community will step back and watch the court’s proceedings against Kenyatta. If he’s vindicated then many world leaders will embrace him as leader of the east African economic juggernaut and want do business with Kenya.

In other news, I finished my trek from Cape Town to Nairobi by land a few weeks ago, and on Apr. 27, celebrated the six months since I left Montreal to travel Africa. Originally, I was only expecting to travel West Africa and work in Ghana for a few months, but once on the continent it’s hard to stop! After I finished my work in Accra, I wanted to make my way from Ghana to South Africa by land. I quickly realized this wouldn’t be feasible in a reasonable time frame.

Luckily, I found a cheap Ethiopian Airlines flight to Johannesburg, South Africa (with a night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) and was on my way to JoBurg. So, I actually started the second leg of my journey there, but for distance’s sake, I began in Cape Town. Besides, many great adventurers who trekked across this vast continent headed from Cape Town to Cairo, Egypt (or vice versa).

My original plan was to get from Cape Town back to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, because that one night there only wet my palate for more Ethiopian sights and its world famous coffee. A month of travel around South Africa made me realize I needed to get back on the hard road (backpacking there isn’t a challenge because it’s over developed). However, I was offered a media development job in Arusha, Tanzania, so I would have to, once again, change my travel plans and make it work (I tend to be very flexible and constantly change plans when travelling).

The next month was hectic. I squeezed Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya into a short time frame and visited as many sights I could pack into each day. I was relentless in my pursuit of the great African adventure. But this was a journalist’s journey. A rich cultural learning experience. When I arrived in Tanzania for the very first time I wasn’t sure how I could make this country my home for the next six months (my work contract is from April to October).

Mombasa Old City

When I arrived in Kenya it was a totally different story. I love the pace of life in Mombasa and Nairobi. Both are cities I could see myself living in for extended periods of time. Mombasa is home to a majority of Kenya’s Muslims, so the city has a Middle Eastern intensity not at all like Zanzibar, which sways to a Caribbean-like rhythm. The Old City of Mombasa is as much as a souk one will see in Africa. Tuk-tuk’s (golf carts) race through the narrow market streets, giving it an ambience unmatched anywhere else in the world.

The UNESCO World Heritage site Fort Jesus sits at the port of Mombasa. This military fort built by the Portuguese hundreds of years ago is a fine example of the strategic location of the city along the Indian Ocean. I spent a day wondering around the Old City before returning to Nyali, which is a newer, much wealthier part of the city. I could see the contrast all around me. The beggars and market stalls were replaced by people driving BMWs going to shopping malls.

From Mombasa I took my final overnight bus (on this leg of the journey, mind you) into Nairobi. I slept terribly. To cut costs I bought a ticket on the Modern Coast bus, but I chose the bus without air conditioning, because most bus drivers blast air conditioning at night to keep themselves awake and the passengers suffer. Unfortunately, in this instance I really did need it because the bus was so hot that nobody could see out of windows due to the condensation.

I was seated next to an older woman. She had the window seat, so I couldn’t keep the window open all night. I sweated profusely and when I finally fell asleep had horrible nightmares. It was a hellish scenario. In the middle of the night, I reached across and opened the window because I needed some fresh air. Just to piss me off she closed it, so I’d again re-open it. It was back-and-forth until the bus arrived in Nairobi early that morning.

Feeling like I had finally arrived at my penultimate destination, I knew I would love Nairobi. As I stepped off the bus a taxi driver asked me if I was going to  Milimani Backpackers. I confirmed and he agreed to take me for a decent price. Shocking when you’re a mzungu! Thanks to my Lonely Planet Africa guidebook, which I’ve carried with me for the duration of the trip (no mean feat if you consider it weighs a tonne!). I always review the map section of every city when I arrive, giving myself a decent idea of where I want to go. When you have confidence in where you’re going, then locals tend to leave you alone. Or so I find.

Peaceful elections in KenyaWhile we’re driving through Nairobi, the driver begins mentioning the political stalemate between recently-elected President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. In his view, Odinga should concede his defeat and not wait for the results of the Supreme Court of Kenya to decide if Kenyatta did, in fact, win a plurality (Kenyatta just barely got more than 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a run off ballot, or second round of voting).

We arrived at the gate to a hostel, which isn’t Milimani Backpackers, but its former location. I tell the driver this isn’t the place, but he inquires with the guard anyway (every residence has security in Nairobi). With confidence I say: “No. They’ve recently moved to another location on Denis Pritt Road [acting as if I knew where this was].” He jumps back into the driver seat and we find Denis Pritt Road. I tell him to keep driving to the end of the street. We stop. I get out and shout: “Milimani Backpackers!” Suddenly, a black gate swings open on my right-hand side. I found it.

At this point I pay the driver and he demands I give him more money. I reply: “I’m sorry sir, but you approached me saying you’d take me to Milimani Backpackers for this price. Just because you didn’t realize they’d moved doesn’t mean you can charge me more [I applaud his efforts though].” He hemmed and hawed until getting back into his car and driving away. Rule #1: Never let taxi drivers in Africa take advantage of you!

streets of Nai

The rest of the week went well. I enjoyed every minute in Nairobi. I visited the Maasai market and produced a radio story about a compelling young man, selling his artifacts in front of the Supreme Court of Kenya, while police shut off streets due to on-going political opposition protests around the market. This has seriously hurt his business, as Americans were instructed by their embassy to stay out of the city centre for the duration of the protests. As I walked around I felt like there were so many stories I could pursue, but knowing my time was limited, I knew I had to come again soon.

I visited the Nairobi National Museum for the art exhibits and natural history component, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to spend time with orphaned baby elephants, and the streets of Nairobi to watch the on-going political unrest as the announcement of Kenyatta’s election victory swept across the nation. It’s an exciting and, at times, dangerous city. But a city I’ll be returning to nonetheless.

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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