Holding Onto Your Money In Nairobi, Kenya

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Nairobi, the capital and largest city of Kenya, in East Africa, is a fascinating city, whether you want to live there or just visit, and it is unlikely that you will regret your time spent there. There are certain dangers, however, and being forewarned can make your time in Nairobi much less perilous, both for you and for your pocketbook.


It is not for nothing that the city is affectionately known as 'Nairobbery'. Actually being violently robbed is not the chief danger, though. Most wezi (thieves - the singular is mwizi) are more subtle than that. This entry will cover various different ways in which some of the people of Nairobi will try to take your money, and how to avoid each of them1.


Keep in mind that, while anyone is susceptible to being victimized in any of these ways, you will be much more of a target if you are a Mzungu (a 'white' person). If you are fortunate enough to be a Mwafrica (a 'black' person), you will only become a major target when you let on that you're a foreigner, which you'll do by not understanding Swahili.


This leads to our first Rule of Thumb!


Rule of Thumb: Learn Swahili.


This might sound like a rather serious project. After all, everyone in Nairobi speaks English. If you're only visiting East Africa, then it probably only makes sense to learn a few phrases, but even then, don't underestimate the usefulness of Hakuna pesa (no money) for making beggars go away. They won't believe you, but they'll be surprised that you spoke their language, and they might leave you alone2.


If you're actually going to spend some significant time in East Africa, then of course you will want to learn Swahili, or Kiswahili, as you will learn to call it. Even if you don't become confident enough to speak it very much, being able to understand what is spoken around you (and about you) is very useful.


One of the first words you may learn in Swahili is Jambo. This word supposedly means 'Hello'. When it is spoken between two Kenyans, this is basically true. Spoken from a Mzungu tourist to a Kenyan, it means 'Hi, I'm new here - please take my money'. Spoken from a Kenyan to a Mzungu tourist (especially when followed by 'my friend') it means 'I'm about to take as much of your money as I can'.


Those in the know greet each other with, Habari (roughly, 'how are you?'), to which the response is Mzuri, ('I'm fine', even if you're not3). More informal, and not really proper Swahili, is Sasa, to which the answer is Fit (sounds like 'feet'), which mean the same as Habari and Mzuri, roughly.


Anyway, before this becomes a Social Linguistics Entry, let's get to the point, and look at some actual dangers.


Danger: Shopping


'Shopping isn't a danger, it's the chief pleasure in my life,' some of you may be saying. Well, this entry is about how to hold onto your money, and the most common way of losing money in Nairobi is by being ripped off while shopping.


As a general rule, prices aren't fixed in Nairobi. Everything is negotiable, and barter is always an option4.


Here is an example of the wrong way to bargain:


Tourist: How much is this [trinket]?

Kenyan: Five hundred bob5.

Tourist: [eyeing trinket with great desire] Hmmm... I'll give you three hundred

Kenyan: It costs three hundred fifty to make! I have to make some money...

Tourist: Ok... I'll give you four hundred.

Kenyan: Four fifty, and I'll wrap it up for you.

Tourist: All right... wrap it up... [pays, thinks he got a good deal]


Sad, isn't it? Here's the same deal, done properly:


H2G2 Reader: [looks disinterestedly at merchandise - face reads 'look at all this junk']

Kenyan: Jambo, my friend! Would you like to buy this [trinket]?

H2G2 Reader: [wrinkles nose] Hmm... it's... interesting. How much do you want for it?

Kenyan: Five hundred bob.

H2G2 Reader: [suppressing a laugh] Five hundred? For that? It's worth fifty! I've gotta go...

Kenyan: What do you mean fifty? This is authentic - it's used by the Maasai for [something]. It's worth five hundred!

H2G2 Reader: I know where I can get a [much nicer trinket] for two hundred bob.

Kenyan: Ok, look. I say five hundred, you say fifty. How much are you willing to pay?

H2G2 Reader: Seventy.

Kenyan: One hundred.

H2G2 Reader: [turning away] Goodbye.

Kenyan: Okay, seventy.


One thing that's very useful in carrying out a proper bargain is to have some idea of what things are actually worth. A similar item should cost far less in Kenya than it does in the developed world. One very good way to find out what you should pay for something is by asking a Kenyan whom you trust, which brings us to another Rule of Thumb!


Rule of Thumb: Find a Kenyan You Can Trust.


This can be problematic - how can you know whom to trust? This is, of course, a subset of the larger question of how you can know whom to trust in life. That question is far beyond the scope of this Entry, so we'll just move on to a couple of guidelines.


  • Someone who has a clearly identifiable job is more likely to be trustworthy than someone whose job seems to be hanging about on the street saying 'Jambo my friend!' to tourists.


  • Anyone is more likely to be trustworthy in a matter to which they're completely unrelated. For example, the desk clerk at your hotel will probably not lie to you if you ask him how much you can expect to pay for a t-shirt, and the person who sells t-shirts will probably tell you honestly whether your hotel really is the safest and least expensive in town.


  • Don't trust anyone except yourself. If you're asking about prices, ask several people, and shop around. If you get a gut feeling that you're being ripped off, walk away.


If, at long last, you get ripped off shopping, just remember that you're in very good company. Also, you're supporting the Kenyan economy. Asante sana6, Mzungu!


Danger: Pickpockets


Pickpockets are definitely in effect in Nairobi. They are also pretty easy to avoid. Stay away from large crowds, especially when boarding or alighting from public transport. If you want to get on a Matatu (a funny sort of ubiquitous minibus), and there are twenty people crowding to get on, then wait for the next one.


Another precaution to take regarding pickpockets is to avoid carrying things that they can take. Definite no-no's include wallets in hip pockets, handbags that don't have a long enough strap to put securely over the shoulder on the other side, loose and/or expensive looking writstwatches or jewelry, and travel documents, like passports and visas. If fact, the travel documents deserve their own rule of thumb and explanatory paragraph.


Rule of Thumb: Don't Carry Your Travel Documents.


Now, you ought to carry some kind of identification, and your passport is the obvious thing to use. Carrying your actual passport isn't safe, so carry a photocopy. This is acceptable as identification in most situations. For the rare situations where you will need your actual passport, plan ahead and bring it along, but not in a pocket which is accessible from the outside.


When you photocopy your passport, copy the page with the passport number, the page with your photo, the page with the expiration date (these may all be the same page), the page with your visa stamp, and any proofs of immunization that you may be carrying. Make three copies each of these. Carry one copy to use, keep one somewhere else as a back up, and leave the third with your people back at home, if there exist such people.


If, despite your preparations, you get your pocket picked, what should you do? Well, it depends what you lose. If it's just money, console yourself that you've fed someone's children for however many nights, or at least bought someone some beer. If it's some kind of important identification papers, then your photocopies will be invaluable in helping to get them replaced. Also useful will be an abstract from the Police Station detailing the incident. Make your police report as soon as possible when you realize you've lost something.


The Central Police Station in Nairobi is at the east end of University Way, at the northeast corner of the city centre. Inside you can answer a few questions about the incident, and they'll prepare and stamp an official abstract saying what you claim happened. Don't let them charge you for this abstract, because it's free, and you shouldn't support corruption. Bring the abstract along when you go to have your documents replaced. If it was your passport that was stolen, then you will need this to carry the abstract around until you get a new one, so you can explain why you are unable to provide proper papers.


Danger: Violent Robbery


It happens. This is the most unpleasant danger covered in this Entry, but it is also the easiest to avoid. You almost have to ask for it to happen. Don't. Specifically:


Rule of Thumb: Don't Walk Around, Alone, at Night, in the Wrong Part of Town.


Let's break that down, shall we?


  • Walking: There's nothing wrong with walking, in itself. If you're going very far, and you're not familiar with the areas you'll be walking through, it wouldn't hurt to take some other kind of transportation until you are a bit more familiar with the route.


  • Alone: Moving around alone is not necessarily dangerous, in itself. It is not advisable for a Mzungu to explore downtown (the area East and South of the City Centre) alone at any time of day. It is not advisable to explore a new area alone, if it is possible to go with a trustworthy guide.


  • At Night: There is nothing wrong with being out in Nairobi at night, in itself. You should just be especially alert7.


  • In the Wrong Part of Town: The only two safe areas of Naitobi at night are Westlands (North and West of City Centre), and a narrow corridor along the West of the City Centre, along Loita Street. During the day, there are a lot more, but ask around before you go somewhere. It is very common, if you're about to walk into a neighborhood where you really shouldn't be, for someone to warn you. Avoid parks after the vendors leave, and when you can't see anyone who doesn't obviously not live there.


Stay alert. Learn the Ultimate Martial Art. If worst comes to worst, and you're attacked, give them what they want. They probably have you outnumbered, even if you can't see them all. Nothing you're carrying or wearing is more valuable than your life, and staying in one piece.


Danger: Con Men (And Women)


If you spend enough time in Nairobi, you'll actually get to know the regular con-men. There are not that many.


The basic scam is this: someone sees you walking down the street and is suddenly walking beside you, asking a question like, 'how do you like Nairobi?' When this happens, you can know immediately that they're about to con you. Nobody just walks up to strangers and asks them how they like Nairobi unless they want to con them.


Suppose you start talking to this person. They'll lead the conversation, asking you questions that are just prompts for simple answers, like, 'where are you from?' Eventually, the conversation progresses, and they tell you their story. They have it rough. Maybe they come from another country, where things are really bad, and they are only in Kenya on a short Visa which is about to expire - they need money to get to Dar-es-Salaam and meet with their Christian Group. Maybe they just have dead parents and a sick sibling up-country, and again, they need money for transport. These sad-luck stories will usually fit stereotypes of what problems an African might have, and they will tend to not be true.


If you're really unlucky, it'll progress beyond the simple one-man con. You'll give some money to the first person, maybe just enough to buy a cup of tea. Then you'll be approached by two gentlemen, flashing badges and yelling at you that if you're going to visit Kenya you'd better follow the laws here. They'll explain that the man you just gave money to (whom they've dragged away), is a drug-dealing terrorist of some kind, and that you've just committed a crime by supporting him. They'll give you a choice - do you want to settle this quietly, or do you want trouble? Basically, this means do you want to give them about US$200, or do you want to be taken to the station, where you'll be booked and probably have to pay US$5000 and serve time, breaking your poor mother's heart back at home.


The trick to dealing with con-men is to not believe a word they say. It's good to know a few basic facts, like that transport to any part of Kenya costs a good deal less than US$20. If someone tells you they need something like US$100 to get out to the lake, they're lying.


Also, if someone claims to be a policeman asking for a bribe, don't pay them. If they say that they'll take you to the station, they're bluffing. Ask them to take you to the station, and say you want to talk to the OCS (The Officer in charge). They'll yell at you a bit more, and then they'll evaporate.


Even if you find it impossible to disbelieve what people tell you, try to remember that it's not your responsibility to help someone who needs cash. There are billions of people in the world who need cash, and you can't help all of them.

1Each of the ways, not each of the people.2The word 'no' is, of course, universally understood.3Some things never change.4This is not generally true in hotels, restaurants, or supermarkets. It is, however, definitely true with cab fare.5The currency in Kenya is the Kenyan Schilling, which they call 'bob' for short.6Thanks very much!7ie, not blind drunk

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