Robbery Attempt

First of all, let me say this: I love Kenya and I feel very safe here with my host family and local friends. The last thing I want to do is paint a negative picture of the beautiful place that I call home. But to be completely honest, there is a major problem with crime in Kenya. Nairobi has been nicknamed “Nairobbery” because of how common theft and robbery have become. Even the police are often involved in crime due to high levels of corruption.

Since I arrived in Nairobi five months ago, I have come in contact with crime in a few forms. Today I was pick-pocketed and my phone was stolen. A friend of mine was held at gunpoint and her laptop was taken by thieves as she walked in her neighborhood. Another friend was captured by police after he refused to give them money, held for three days with no food or water, accused of being a terrorist and then drugged (yes, drugged by police). Every Kenyan has stories about their wallet being stolen or their home or car broken into. Personally, I have been the victim of a few robbery attempts, one that I will share about in detail here (don’t worry, it’s actually kinda funny).

Abby (my fellow student) and I were taking a matatu from home to church last Sunday morning. As soon as we got in and sat down, a man entered and settled into the vacant seat next to me. I was instantly suspicious because he sat next to me when the rest of the matatu was empty – something that people rarely do. He also had a large backpack that was flat and empty, which is a typical tool for robbery (you’ll see why in a moment).

A few moments later, a girl got on the matatu that was lost, so I explained to her how to get where she wanted to go (and stopped clutching my bag momentarily). When she was getting out of the matatu I suddenly became aware of the guy next to me again and realized he had his large bag covering part of my arm and the corner of my bag, and his hand was partially into it! He was trying to rob me! I pulled my bag away suddenly and looked at him, and he got spooked. The poor guy caught me on the wrong day…I said in a loud voice for the whole (now full) matatu to hear: “I am a visitor in your country, and this is how you welcome me? By trying to steal from me?” Then I turned around to address all the people in the matatu and pointed to the man, saying: “This man is a thief!”

The guy motioned for the conductor to let him out of the matatu immediately – he was nervous and embarrassed. As he stepped out I said, again loud enough for everyone to hear, “I hope you are going to church so you can repent for your sins.” The whole matatu was in shock, in disbelief that this Mzungu girl confronted the thief. I was a bit worried about how people might react, until an older Mama looked a me, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up! I was satisfied in my small piece of justice.

Check out my previous post on matatu culture here:


Swahili Language School

As a new resident of Kenya, my first task is to learn the local language: Swahili. In Swahili, the prefix “Ki” is added to the beginning of language names, so it is actually called Kiswahili. Most people I have encountered are trilingual, speaking English and Kiswahili (the two official national languages), as well as the mother tongue of their tribe. In fact, most people mix English and Kiswahili, and one sentence can go back and forth between the two several times. After learning “proper” Kiswahili in school, my next task will be to learn Sheng, the local slang – a combination of Kiswahili, English and several African dialects.

18 hours per week I attend Kiswahili classes at one of the oldest and most well-regarded language schools in the region. There I have met students of all ages and religious affiliations from across Africa (the Congo, Tanzania, Madagascar, Somalia and Sudan to name a few) and from all corners of the world including Korea, the Philippines, Germany and the United States. The school provides classes for English, Kiswahili, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish – and everything in between.

Each morning, Abby and I catch a matatu to language school through rush hour traffic which takes about an hour (see previous blog post). The school is located in a business district. The streets nearby are bustling with business people and vendors selling fresh mangoes, samosas, candies and soda. The small campus is full of lush green plants, trees and grass. Our teacher, Mwalimu (teacher) Evelyne, is a patient and lively teacher. Abby and I meet with her two-on-one in a small classroom. We spend hours learning grammar, verbs, possessives and noun classes, stopping to practice what we’ve learned and construct sentences. Just when we start feeling tired, the entire school breaks for tea like clockwork at 10:30 a.m. each morning, which is provided by the school.  During tea breaks, Abby and I spend time with our new friends from around the world at the outdoor canteen, helping them to practice conversational English and somehow sharing stories and laughter through the language barriers.

While learning a new language is not a simple task, I am starting to get the hang of Kiswahili thanks to my teacher, new friends and my host family, who are always eager to help me practice – and who laugh with me when I accidently call someone’s grandmother a toilet!

Getting Around: A Lesson in Matatus

Life is busy! I have mastered the art of a bucket shower, Swahili language classes are in full swing at four days per week as well as a class at Carlile College, two online classes through Azusa Pacific University, and a microfinance internship to start next week. That doesn’t include spending time with my friends and host family, studying, trying out new churches, and exploring Nairobi. Therefore, much of my time is spent transporting myself from one place to another via the world’s most exciting form of transportation: the matatu.

Matatus are privately-owned 15-passenger vans and Nairobi’s most widely used mode of transport. Many of them are moving works of art, adorned with decals and themed graphics ranging from political figures to musical artists to Biblical references. Some have names painted across them like “Black Reign” or “God’s Chosen One” or “Mystikal.”  My host mom will pass up several matatus before selecting the quietest one, but I prefer those with bass thumping and music blaring – usually Kenyan hip-hop, dancehall, gospel or reggae. A few matatus are even equipped with television screens that entertain passengers with music videos during their commutes to and from work. (Abby and I like to think that the louder the music is, the faster we’ll get to our destination, and generally it has proven to be true).

At each stop, matatus cram into a tiny space and a conductor hangs out the door yelling the route and price at the top of his lungs (which at first sounded like incoherent rhythmic shouting). The only way to know which route goes where is to ask a local, or figure it out by trial and error. Bodies cram into every seat and the conductor collects the fare along the way, tapping each person on the shoulder to pay up. The price of a ride varies depending on the time of day and route, but generally costs between 10 and 40 Kenyan Schillings (approximately 12 to 60 U.S. cents). Experiencing Nairobi traffic in a matatu is half the fun. Traffic jams are inevitable at most times of the day, but matatu drivers are experts at flying over medians and squeezing through impossibly small spaces, occasionally side-swiping a car, though stopping only if a necessary part of the vehicle has fallen off.

Matatus are also notorious for being the most likely place to get pick-pocketed. My local friends have taught me some of the most common tricks of matatu thieves. For example, someone may cover part of your bag with a newspaper that they are “reading,” while pick-pocketing or even cutting your bag open with a knife to steal its contents. Or the rider next to you may “accidently” drop coins on the floor by your feet so that when you kindly bend down to pick them up your bag will be snatched. But as unsettling as it may sound to some, matatu rides are just one of the many things that keep life interesting in Nairobi – and they will get you just about anywhere you need to go!