|Roadside basket shop, Nairobi, Kenya.
Many thanks to my daughter Jennifer for her report on her family’s recent trip to Kenya. As Art and I followed their adventures, we were reminded of our trip to Africa in 1971, when Jennifer was a baby. Here is her report on the foods and crafts in Nairobi today.
We stepped out of the Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi on January 2, 2024, and were immediately hit by the warm humid air. The capital of Kenya, Nairobi sits just south of the equator, and has roughly equal days and nights year round. We were visiting our friends Lisa and Ashu, who assured us that January is supposed to be the dry season – and mostly it was, but with perhaps unsurprising climate chaos, January 2024 was unusually rainy. Lisa picked us up at the airport and drove us to their house on the new toll expressway. The toll booths had signs for different kinds of payment, including cash, Mpesa, and some other types I didn’t recognize.
|Ingenious umbrella used by the boda (motorcycle) drivers.
One of the biggest adjustments was learning how to use the Kenyan mpesa system. Mpesa is an electronic payment system, similar to Venmo or PayPal, but much more widespread – everyone has it, and it’s the default method of payment. Ashu loaned us a Kenyan phone that was already set up to use Mpesa, and we used it for everything from grocery store purchases to buying crafts from a street vendor to paying tips to our waiters. Some larger stores also accepted credit cards.
Grocery stores were more or less like what we see in the US, but we were excited to see the range of new foods. They had many fruits not widely available here (mango, papaya, passion fruit, custard apple – which is similar to the Chilean cherimoya), and there was a wide range of Indian foods. In the produce section there was an assistant who weighed and tagged the produce before you went up to the counter. Our friends introduced us to “Crackies”, a spiced sweet potato chip (delicious! And unfortunately not sold in the US).
|Roadside metal sculpture shop.
One of the first things we noticed is that some commercial activity takes place in extensive roadside shops. I can’t call them “stands”, because they sometimes go on for blocks.
|Roadside plant shop.
We saw both crafts and also the sale of regular household goods like beds or building materials. We learned from our friends that almost anything can be purchased for delivery by boda (motorcycle). Nairobi also has a thriving Uber industry, which we used several times.
|Street-side hand washing station outside a restaurant.
We saw consistent public messaging about hand washing, and one restaurant provided a station outside for you to use even before entering the building! We ate at numerous excellent restaurants, including Indian food, Swahili food, pizza, and salads, meats, and juices. My mom remembered that about 50 years ago in Nairobi [see https://theintrepidtourist.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-africa-trip-50th-anniversary.html] it wasn’t considered safe for travelers to eat raw vegetables in restaurants, but nowadays it is perfectly fine.
|Crafts sold at the Masai Market.
Kenya has a strong craft and art industry, a few examples of which are shown below. In addition we visited the Masai Market where people sell a wide variety of souvenirs and local goods, as well as a fabric shop where they sold traditional Kikoi, Kitenge, and Khanga fabrics.
One thing you won’t find in Kenyan stores is grocery bags. We were thrilled to learn that Kenya banned single-use plastic bags in 2017. This is one of the strictest bans
worldwide, which means you can’t even enter the country with such bags. This
forced us to examine our suitcases before leaving home to make sure we weren’t
wrapping our shoes in old grocery bags. Instead you can bring your own shopping
bags, or purchase a reusable shopping bag in grocery stores. In smaller stands
they sometimes offer small paper-fabric shopping bags.
Kitengela Glass Shop
|Kitengela glass shop.
The Kitengela factory is located about 50 minutes from the city of Nairobi, but you can visit their shop in the city at the Westgate shopping center.
Rugs and Weaving
|Marathon Weaver rug shop. (https://www.facebook.com/MarathonWeavers)
We visited two rug shops on Ngong road in the neighborhood of Karen (named after Karen Blixen who wrote “Out of Africa”). These shops were in the same area as multiple furniture stores, which were displaying their goods on the side of the busy road. The street was busy with many workers and shoppers (plus goats wandering around), not put off by the fact that it was raining on the day we were there.
|Loom and rug in progress in the Jireh workshop. (https://www.facebook.com/Jirehhandwovencraft/)
At the Jireh business we got to see their workshop and the amazing process of creating a large rug, which involves climbing the loom like Spiderman. The entire business is run by a family - a mother and her grown children. Getting to the workshop was an adventure that was solved in what seems to be a uniquely Kenyan way. We couldn’t find the shop, so we called them. One worker came out to the main road to meet us, got in our car with us and directed us to the workshop!
|Beads in the making.
This business (https://kazuri.com/) was founded in 1975 with the goal of employing single mothers in need of employment. We got a tour and saw how they make the beads, bake them in a kiln, glaze them, and again bake the glaze all on site.
|Beads in the making.