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Familiar to us from the film 'Out of Africa' which won seven Oscars and carved a place in our memories with sterling performances by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Nairobi conceals uniquely African surprises behind the 'western' skyscrapers that rise from its heart.
It's early morning and I'm sitting in one of the cafes on an avenue parallel to the city's main thoroughfare, Jomo Kenyatta Avenue, sipping my special Kenyan coffee when my eyes alight on three Maasai men passing by the window. Draped in thin red blankets with sandals made of old car tires on their feet, carrying the thin sticks they are never without, and sporting the elongated, pierced earlobes the government is currently attempting to ban, their appearance is quite extraordinary compared with that of other, more modernly dressed Native Africans. Strolling slowly behind them, two Maasai women stand out as well for their costumes and necklaces made of brightly colored beads. Instantly my entire being is permeated by a sense that I am on another planet. Extraordinary to us Westerners, such a scene can be a common, everyday occurrence in Nairobi, the heart of East Africa.
PLACE OF COLD WATER
Nairobi is Africa's fourth largest city with a population in excess of four million. A new and modern city founded at the beginning of the 1900's,
its name comes from the words 'uaso nyrobi' (cold water) or 'enkara nyrobi (place where there is cold water) in the language of the Maasai, one of a handful of Kenya's more than seventy local tribes that have rejected modern life and are striving to sustain their traditional ways.
At the end of the 1800's, the British colonial regime in Africa chose the marshy wetland where today's Nairobi is located as a depot point and station on the rail line it had built from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to the African interior. Reaching as high as 1600 meters, the altitude is inhospitable to the malaria-transmitting anopheles mosquito. That, together with the British colonial regime's eagerness to escape the stultifying heat on the coast, resulted in the new administrative capital being transfered to Nairobi in 1901, instantaneously transforming the fate of the marsh and giving birth to a modern city.
CITY OF CONTRASTS
The city center is the area bounded on the north by the Nairobi River and on the south by Uhuru Park and bisected by Kenyatta Avenue, named for the founder and first president of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta. The vibrant crowds that fill the city center thin out at nightfall, when the River Road district just a hundred meters away makes a sharp contrast with the skyscrapers here in a palpable gulf between rich and poor and an African reality unique to Nairobi. Sidewalk merchants trying to market their wares from the small stands the line the avenues, a constant bustle of activity, the din of traffic congestion and the tumult created by the ubiquitous matatu's, or local minibuses, is a very different kind of chaos from the order only a hundred meters away.
To the west of the city are the districts of Westlands and Karen where the whites and the East African Indians live. The vast majority of Indians brought here from India by the British for the building of the railroad never returned but rather preferred to stay on. In their third and fourth generations now, they occupy an important place in sectors such as trade and tourism, and you should not be surprised to see that the majority of the shops at the city center are in their hands.
Simmers meanwhile on Kenyatta Avenue in the city center is one of the rare venues where you can hear live traditional music more or less 24/7.
THE KAREN BLIEXEN MUSEUM
Nairobi for me is synonymous with the memorable film 'Out of Africa', which garnered a total of seven Oscars. In the book on which this most outstanding film of 1985 was based, the Danish woman writer Karen Bliexen describes the seven difficult years, fraught with struggle, that she spent in Nairobi from 1914 to 1931. As her failed marriage and tragic affair with her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, intensify in the foreground, in the background are the sad demise of her own efforts at coffee production as well life in the British colonial period, the Maasai and Kikuyu tribes and cross-sections of the natural beauty of Kenya. While her African adventure, which began with a dream of high earnings from cattle raising, met with a tragic end both emotionally and commercially, it left Nairobi with the honor of having hosted and been a source of inspiration to a world-class writer whose books have been translated into countless languages. In a letter she wrote to her mother, Bliexen says that a big piece of her heart will always belong to this land and that wherever she goes she will always be wondering if it's raining in Ngong. (The Ngong Hills south of Nairobi are visible from the Karen Blixen Museum.)
At the start of the 1980's, a group of Danes living in Kenya got together to turn the house where Karen Bliexen lived, and where she had entertained such prominent figures as the Swedish Prince and the Prince of Wales, into a museum to preserve its historic past. The museum opened in 1985, the 100th anniversary of Bliexen's birth and the year 'Out of Africa' was released, and soon became a new touristic destination for those interested in colonial life and Nairobi in the early 20th century.
Just a day's journey from Nairobi, the Maasai offer the most compelling evidence of the tribal life that still survives in East Africa. They continue to raise cattle all along the border with Tanzania on the lands reserved for them in the southwest of the country. Their traditional opposition to digging and working the land, which takes the form of a near-taboo, has spelled the failure of policies by both the colonial British and by successive Kenyan governments to steer them towards agriculture.
GOING ON SAFARI
Another must-do activity while you're in Nairobi is to go on a safari. Although Nairobi National Park can provide time-pressed travelers with a fake safari against the panorama of the city's skyscrapers as a backdrop, my recommendation is that you go to Masai Mara, Kenya's best known game reserve. In August and September especially, the migration of thousands of wildebeest and zebra in search of fresh grass is a spectacular example of natural instinct unmatched in the world. If you happen to be at Masai Mara at the right time during this annual migration, which overflows into the Serengeti National Park, Masai Mara's continuation in Tanzania, you'll be in for an incomparable visual feast as thousands of animals graze around you, forming endless queues that stretch back for kilometers on the return migration and struggling to avoid becoming crocodile feed as they cross the River Mara.
THE 'BIG FIVE'
The Big Five is the common name given to the five largest animals in the African bush by white hunters in the British colonial period. Although hunting of these animals is strictly prohibited today since their numbers are approaching danger levels, the expression 'Big Five' continues to be used in wildlife and tourist guidebooks. The 'Big Five' include the lion, king of the beasts, the African elephant, the solitary leopard, the black rhino, which fetches high sums, and the powerful African buffalo.
Nairobi is an excellent choice for experiencing the spirit of Africa.