Street food of Nairobi

Nairobi is a great place for restaurants: a wide variety, extremely fresh ingredients, and imaginative chefs. But the biggest fun in eating when you are in a completely new place is street food. It always gives you a wonderful introduction to local ingredients, used in ways that attract local palates. For me the high point of discover was street side mogo chips. I’m sure every East African will groan at my predictability, but a paper bag of these fresh thin wafers of cassava (mogo), fried to a crispy gold, covered with flakes of chili, with a whole lime squeezed over the bagful, was a fabulous discovery. It is not an unfamiliar taste, but the flavour of cassava is very different from that of potato, and that touch of the exotic made my day. The young man in the featured photo was one of a line of vendors who had brought traffic to a standstill with this single item.

Not quite a single item. There were also vendors selling grilled corn (exactly like back home in Mumbai) with lime and chili to flavour it. I’d missed the fact that the stall that you see in the photo above also featured banana flowers. I’ll have to wait till my next trip to Nairobi to figure out how banana flowers are used in local fast food.


Through rural Kenya

I had dreams of a long restful sleep on my first night in Kenya, but the reality was quite different. We got up early to leave for Amboseli National Park. Since we would spend large parts of two days inside the car, I was happy to see that the interior was spacious enough for four. There was considerable traffic in Nairobi, and it was more than half an hour before we hit the Mombasa highway.

Highway travel in Kenya is completely different from that in India, as you can see in the video above. Almost everyone keeps to the speed limit of 80 Kilometers an hour (in fact tourist vehicles have a governor that enforces this limit), so there is almost no overtaking. No one honks. Lane discipline is strict. It is as boring as driving in Switzerland. One other interesting thing that you see in the video above, and in the featured photo, is that even out on the highway you can see people on foot. There are fairly frequent buses to ferry people between towns, and we could see many people walking to these stops.

The most common shops are those which deal in mobile phone services. These green and white shops of Safaricom are everywhere, quite outnumbering the shops for other service providers. Vodafone’s tremendously popular electronic payment portal, called m-Pesa, works over the Safaricom network. Very large numbers of people travel far from their villages to look for work, so the popularity of mobile services is quite understandable. With so many people living away from home, it is no surprise that bars come a close second in popularity.

Electricity clearly reached every village on the highway; not surprising since the Mombasa-Nairobi stretch is the biggest trade corridor inside the country. But the ubiquity of mobile services meant that electricity does indeed reach much further. What didn’t was drinking water. I would notice these yellow plastic jars of water in many places after I saw them being filled at a mobile water tank (photo above).

We sped past many small towns or villages. Along the highway one saw many of the services you might expect: hardware stores, general stores, car repairs. A century ago Winston Churchill had remarked on the enterprise of Indian merchants who had, according to him, “opened up the continent.” They were not in evidence any more. Native Kenyans have taken over this niche. Only the word duka, meaning shop, adapted from Hindi, remains of this vanished history.

Some of the towns along the route clearly housed larger markets. We barreled past a deserted marketplace (photo above). Our guide, Anthony, explained that this was a weekly market. The place must be something to see on a market day. Unfortunately, we never got to see the market.

In spite of the very large number of bars and restaurants on the way, Anthony brought us to a rest stop at a place which advertised itself on its gate as Bethel Global Art Gallery. This was something like the Masai market we had seen the previous evening, but larger. The Family and Mother of Niece Tatu were soon engrossed in looking at the works on display.

Father of Niece Tatu and I were meanwhile eyeing other shopping opportunities. A little stall in the corner of this complex served tea. It was mid-morning and a tea was exactly what was needed. Although the complex was full of tourists, we were the only people who stopped for tea. Most tourists left with little packets of handicrafts, we exited with a cup of Kericho Gold warming us.

The Family went off to take a photo of the duo which guarded the gate. One difference we’d noticed between India and Kenya was that in Kenya you when your tried to talk to a guard or a shopkeeper, they would talk and joke with you. In India most talk of this kind is extremely businesslike. A guard will seldom joke with you. The Family came back beaming; she’d had a nice and funny conversation with the two you see in the photo above.

We’d been driving for a couple of hours already, and I’d spent the time sitting next to Anthony in the front. Now I changed seats and joined the rest of the group at the back. Instantly MONT unpacked some food and began passing it around. I had my share and dozed off. As a result, I never saw the interesting things that The Family clicked, like the little market place that you see in the photo above.

The per capita GDP of Kenya is about three quarters that of India, so Kenya cannot be considered to be a very poor country. It is perhaps the most successful economy of East Africa, in spite of the current slow down. The income distribution is not terribly skewed either (currently, going by the Gini coefficient, Canada, India, and Kenya have roughly similar levels of inequality). So it is common to see a three story bungalow, and ramshackle shops close to each other.

I was completely asleep when we turned away from the Mombasa highway on to the southward road which would take us to Amboseli. The surroundings turned more pastoral. The Family told me of an increasing number of herders. Could this person whom she clicked be a Masai? Perhaps. There are Masai settlements around Amboseli, and the Masai are herders.

The landscape also changed about then. The photos that the family took show that the flat land of the Nairobi plateau had given way to the hills that would lead on to Mount Kilimanjaro. We were near our destination.

Masai Market

Late in the afternoon Mother of Niece Tatu asked The Family whether we needed to take anything with us on the trip we planned the next day. We’d had very little sleep the previous night, and I was forcing myself to stay awake until the night to adjust to the local time. Walking about would be the perfect way to keep awake, so I hoped that the question would result in a long expedition to which I could tag along.

A large part of the expedition was a visit to a Masai market. We were to find later that it is a Nairobi staple. There are several of these markets; a large one travels to a different mall every day. We spent part of the evening in the Diamond Plaza shopping complex where a smaller one sits a few days a week. The sight of a large variety of semi-precious stones ensured that I wouldn’t feel drowsy for a while. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized that the interesting and violent geology of the rift valley would be the source of a large variety of such stones.

I thought I would look for a kikoi or shuka. The kikoi is an extremely versatile tectangle of hand woven cloth which can be used as a lungi or a shawl, or folded over into a backpack or a turban. If you have seen photos of Masai wearing a red blanket, then you’ve seen a shuka. The Family instantly realized what a wonderful thing a kikoi could be, and supplanted me as the main customer.

I wandered off to look at the other handicrafts. These are all produced in little workshops at home, something that we would call a cottage industry in India. This very Gandhian model of economy now produces a huge variety of objects for the large tourist trade that Kenya has. I loved the polished wooden kitchenware with the beautiful zebra themed highlights. The prices that they go for are so small that you wonder about the cost of living in Kenya.

I’m sold on giraffes. When I looked at the painted wooden giraffes on display here I knew they could not be Rothschild’s giraffes, since they did not have the white socks characteristic of the species. Were they Masai giraffes then? I looked at the long ears and resolved to keep this feature in mind when I got to see them in the wild. Of course all these are stylized representations of the animals, so it was possible that certain features are exaggerated or removed.

The stalls were just a piece of cloth laid on the ground with the wares displayed on top of them, just as in street markets across Asia. The tourist trade is often drawn off into shops inside malls where exactly the same things are sold at a premium. We saw more tourists in those places than in these Masai markets. Economic theory fails to explain this. The result is that the primary producer, the people who make and sell these things at Masai markets, earns much less than the middleman who sells them in bigger shops at malls.

I wandered over to a vendor who was selling etched glass. The baobab and acacia trees, the lions, zebras, and buffaloes, were beautifully rendered. I asked the lady selling it whether she did it herself. “No,” she said, “this is done by a mzee.” MONT explained that mzee literally means an old man, but can be used as a respectful term for anyone. I promised the lady that I would be back later to buy something from her. This first expedition was just scouting the market. The Family had also decided to postpone the buying of kikoi. We moved on.

Two birds in the bush

Kenya has about 1300 species of birds, probably slight in excess of the number of species of birds in India. I’d known about this for a while. During my preparation for the trip I tried to order a field guide but found it would be delivered long after our scheduled departure. As a result, we landed in Nairobi without any preparation, fearing that most birds we saw would be new and unidentifiable.

Standing in the kitchen of the Mother of Niece Tatu, I heard a chirping and twittering. I looked out and a nearby tree seemed to be full of motion. MONT said, “That tree is full of nests.” The Family went off to unpack her binoculars while I picked up my camera. The kitchen looked out on an open green space bounded by trees below several apartments, with a low house set in the middle of a clearing. Perfect terrain for urban bird-watching. One of the first birds I saw was a small sparrow sized bird on the roof of the house below us (featured photo). I’d never seen anything like this before.

We saw it in close association with a red bird of similar size. “Male and female”, was The Family’s guess. We saw a little brown on the back of the bird, and the noticeably white eyes. Later we would find that the two were indeed the male and female of the Red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala), also called the Somali firefinch. It is a rather common bird, whose habitat stretches east-west across sub-Saharan Africa and in a very wide band down the east coast of Africa all the way to South Africa. Although it is so common across Africa, and its call is part of the soundscape of the continent, this was a lifer for us, since it is not found outside of Africa.

The tree had a very large number of a noisy brown long-tailed bird with a very stylish brown crest. We could see them flitting through the leaves without settling into an exposed branch. I managed to take a few shots which could together give me a picture of the whole bird. Later I would find that it was another very common bird of Africa, the Speckled mousebird (Colius striatus). We were excited by these two lifers although they happen to be among the commonest birds of East Africa, and in larger parts of the continent.

But Father of Niece Tatu had broken out a pack of Tusker’s Malt, and we left the birding to go on to another lifer.

Matbronze gallery and cafe

I’d heard about Nairobi’s cafes from Niece Tatu, “Fabulous.” Reviews I’d seen on the web gave me a similar impression. The Mother of Niece Tatu and the Father of Niece Tatu (I adopt the respectful Swahili way of referring to them) had our day chalked out for us when they picked us up from the airport. After a stop to see giraffes we were whisked off to the nearby Matbronze Gallery.

The bronze pieces are cast in a foundry in the grounds of the gallery by local artists. I’d read that the gallery and foundry were started in 1987 by artist Denis Mathews, but the work has been carried on by younger Kenyan artists after his death in 1997. The huge bronze head of an elephant, balanced on its trunk, which you see at the edge of the parking area is probably one of the pieces by Mathews. The only human bronze I saw was the bust of the conservationist Mervyn Cowie holding a pair of binoculars under a stylized bronze acacia. We walked through the gallery admiring the beautiful pieces. Some of the ones which I liked best were the delicate ones of birds perched on stalks of bronze grass, or pecking at de3lciate bronze flowers. The beautiful texturing of the bronze and the subtle colours imparted by mild oxidizing were wonderful devices. I wish I’d not put off visiting the foundry, because our tight schedule meant that we never went back. One result is that I’ve fallen, inadvertently, into the colonial trap of mentioning only the founder of the gallery and not the artists who sustain it now.

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It was well past our lunch time in Mumbai, but the odd breakfasts (yes, in plural) that we had eaten had left us feeling full. So we agreed with FONT that coffee and cake would be good. The Family’s cappuccino (featured photo) came with the signature lion’s pawprint of the gallery done in cocoa; you can always recognize the lion by its claw. The chocolate brownie was dense and moist, but the cake was taken, so to say, by the oatmeal cookies. I’m afraid I forgot to take a photo of these until I’d polished off half a plate.

The beautifully preserved skull of an immense tusker had caught my eye as we sipped our coffees. When we got up to leave, I threaded my way through the tables on to the lawn where it was placed. That’s the photo you see above. Kenya was the first country to destroy seized stocks of illegal ivory in 1989. It is not illegal to own ivory which was obtained before the 1973 ban on elephant hunting. So I guess this skull predates the ban. We were to hear more about elephant conservation and the ivory ban in the coming days, but for now, we were in the hands of MONT and FONT, who had planned a wonderful day for us.


The first thing we did in Nairobi was to go off to the Giraffe Center in the suburb of Langata. I’d read about this effort to breed the critically endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and reintroduce it into the wild. We didn’t have the time to visit Lake Nakuru or other places where there is an established population of this giraffe species, so visiting the center was the only way we were going to be able to see this rare animal. For a wildlife enthusiast like The Family, this counts as a failure. We drove through a suburb full of sprawling colonial era bungalows, hidden behind tall walls surrounding immense gardens. The colonial era ranches were as large as some cities. That era’s greed for land is at the root of the crisis which the Giraffe Center tries to mitigate.

The Giraffe Center is open from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. A busload of school children was getting down in a disciplined queue as we entered. You can buy a paper bag full of chips of acacia branches to feed to the giraffes if you wish. I decided to keep my hands on the camera, as The Family gingerly fed the beasts. A tall animal dipped its head down to pick up the pieces of branches from her hand with its prehensile lips. I had expected its shoulders to be higher than her head, but I hadn’t realized that a giraffe’s lip is a grasping organ! Their really long tongues are their main organ for grasping and manipulation, but the lip also seems to be able to grasp quite delicately.

I’d been primed by my reading to look closely at the pattern on these giraffes. The irregular dark patches could be roughly six, or five, or four sided. But the colour was darker towards the center than at the edge. The background was lighter, but quite a dark shade of beige at places. But most distinctive, I thought, were the “white socks”. The pattern on its hide did not continue all the way down the legs, so the giraffes looked like they were wearing socks. We climbed up to a feeding balcony which was about two meters up. The necks of the giraffes easily came up here, but not much higher. So I guess Rothschild’s giraffes are between 2.5 and 3 meters tall.

The giraffe has its heart in the right place, protected by its rib cage. This must be a huge and muscular organ, since it needs to pump blood up a couple of meters to the animal’s head. I watched all the interesting motions that a giraffe makes: it walks with both front and back legs on the same side of its body moving forward together. This is quite unlike a cow’s gait, for example. A cow moves front and back legs on opposite sides of its body forward together. I watched with interest how a giraffe sits and gets up. This did not look very different from the way a cow gets up from a sitting position. The most interesting thing is the way it dips its head to eat or drink. You would think that excess blood pressure needed to pump its blood up to the maximum height of its stretched head would be enough to burst its arteries when it lowers its head. But there must be something special about its circulatory system that prevents this pressure overload. Such an amazing creature!

Instant winter

When I booked tickets to Nairobi on a flight which left Mumbai before 6 in the morning, I was looking forward to arriving at 10 AM, with a whole exciting day in front of us. I’d forgotten that, this being an international flight, we would have to be awake half the night. As it was, we finished the formalities quickly and had a very early breakfast in the lounge before boarding. My first priority was to catch up on sleep. When I woke up we were halfway through the flight. The map told me that we were flying over the Carlsberg ridge. This is one of the more active zones on the earth’s crust, the border where the Indian and Somali continental plates are pulling apart. This geological feature is named after the brewery which financed the expedition which discovered the ridge. What a lovely and positive piece of advertisement; I promised to raise a glass of their brew to cheer their commitment to science. I peered across the still sleeping figure of The Family. The sea looked pretty calm.

A little later we were over Africa. A whole new continent! We’d sighted land a little south of Mogadishu. I gazed down at the parallel rows of clouds which you see in the photo above. I’d never seen this kind of weather before. I was to find later that these so-called cloud streets are parallel to the direction of the wind. So the cloud street showed me that a cool wind was blowing in from the sea as Somaliland heated up. The land below us remained brown as we passed over the equator. Another lifetime achievement for us; this was our first time in the southern hemisphere. In an instant we’d passed from summer to winter!

Everything would be new and different (even the style of artwork on the sachets of salt and pepper given by the airline). We peered out of windows eagerly as we landed in Nairobi. The landscape was brown and dry, as it had been as we flew over Somalia and inland to Kenya. “Karibu”, one of security men said in welcome as he showed us which way to go. The Family and I looked at the windows near the immigration queue; zebras and acacia trees, lions and elephants were painted on them. We would see them soon enough. I pulled a jacket over my t-shirt. It was colder than a winter’s day in Mumbai.