There are many Indians on the flight from Mumbai to Nairobi. Most are going for work or on a short assignment. Few are tourists—Indians would rather go to Europe and other mainstream destinations. I talk to a hairdresser from Mumbai. A freelancer, she says she makes good money as women in Kenya fuss a lot over their hair.
One would imagine that Nairobi would be hot and uncomfortable, but as it is 5,800 feet above sea level, it is pleasant throughout the year. That makes it a preferred stopover for those visiting Africa. Many non-resident Indians love the climate, greenery, quality of life and emerging opportunities that the fastest growing city in Africa promises.
Founded in 1899 as a rail depot on the Uganda Railway, Nairobi became the capital of Kenya after it gained independence in 1963. Workers from British India largely built the rail line. Many died due to the terrible conditions on site. During the building of a bridge across the Tsavo river, wild lions devoured many of the workers.
Nairobi reminds me of India, though it is significantly cleaner. Residents take pride in keeping their surroundings tidy. Despite rampant corruption, Nairobi is emerging as a commercial and financial hub. Numerous international companies and organisations have chosen to make Nairobi their regional headquarters. Real estate projects with their towering cranes pepper the skyline. In the last ten years, the city’s population has shot up from 2 to 3.5 million. In another decade, it is expected to almost double.
Most of the tourists in Nairobi are Chinese and Europeans. It is a stopover en route to wildlife habitats like Maasai Mara. The richer tourists go to private conservancies that have wildlife fenced in so you can watch them from your room. It is ideal for those who do not want to navigate the Maasai Mara reserve that can take days to explore.
Fancy crocodile meat, ox balls or ostrich? Nairobi has many innovative restaurants that serve all kinds of meat and vegetable dishes. There are places where you can spend an entire evening watching traditional dances and performances.
Visiting the Nairobi National Park is an awe-inspring experiece. At 117 sq km, it is one of the smallest parks in Africa, but one of the most accessible thanks to its unique location—it is the only park bordering a capital city, with the skyscrapers of Nairobi providing a jarring backdrop to the green canopy. The thick forest nurtures a host of wildlife and provides serenity and fresh air. You can spend a whole day relaxing, meditating or just walking. One can hire a bike to go around and see lions, giraffes, rhinos, hyenas, buffaloes, monkeys, butterflies and insects thriving in a unique ecosystem. There are waterfalls and wetlands too that host 400 species of birds—more than can be found in the entire United Kingdom.
Established in 1946, it became a crucible of biodiversity as it was left undisturbed. When the Kenyan government considered axing part of it to promote real estate projects, there was a public outcry led by a feisty local woman. Backing her were not other locals, but mostly Indians who had made Nairobi their home.
The Elephant Orphanage in the park shelters numerous babies orphaned by poachers as well as abandoned and lost calves. Every morning, as onlookers watch, the elephants run to their keepers who feed them with huge milk bottles. After the trauma they have gone through, they have become close to their keepers. When they get older, they are gently persuaded to go back into the wild, though sometimes, this may take months.
Poaching is a niggling worry in Kenya as the demand for ivory tusks and horns of rhinos is growing in China. As Chinese influence increases in Kenya—they are buying land and property all over Africa—ivory and rhino horn smuggling is also on the rise.
Have you ever had a giraffe eating out of your hand? Experience that at The Giraffe Centre in Nairobi. Run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, it is a breeding centre to preserve the Rothschild giraffe, an endangered subspecies. As soon as you enter, a guide gives you a packet of pellets to feed the giant creatures, which they effortlessly lick off. Some tourists get creative and place the pellet between their lips to get a kiss from the giraffe.Ramesh Menon is an author, journalist and educator