Posted on November 27, 2010 by nairobi2010
On Saturday we went to Eastleigh, a neighborhood within Nairobi. To note, I thought the place was called ‘Isli’ until I saw it written correctly on the side of the bus and put the pieces together. Our target was the Eastleigh Market, which is over a square mile (if not two) of streets and buildings filled with all variety of shops. It’s Somali run (which means that 98% of the women we encountered had undergone FGM–type 3–per my last post) and is the greatest place to find what you need. When I told my host mom where we were going, her first comment was ‘oh, it’s going to be crowded,’ and while it wasn’t quite as bad as I had imagined, there certainly was a lot of hustle and bustle to it. We took bus number 6/9 (on which I learned the slang that ‘MauMau’ means 20 bob. Bob means shillings, which I already knew, but apparently there is also slang for each multiple of ten). I had never been in the direction that this bus goes in (knowingly, at least) and, as perhaps the slang lesson depicts, we were traveling into the unadulterated part of Nairobi. That is, we were certainly getting out of what is typically called European Nairobi (which generally consists of the eight or so square blocks bordering the University), and we were entering a market that many many Kenyans use for their daily functions, in a neighborhood where a substantial number of Kenyans live, beyond the well-polished and higher class city center. The streets were exceptionally dirty, narrow, and crowded, and some of the old buildings were beautiful. I plan on going back, probably more than once, and I’m hoping to bring my camera along on one of those returns. This time, though, I opted to only bring what I could fit in my pockets, for security purposes. I’m really struggling to describe the beauty and exhilaration that came with being in ‘Isli’. To just step back and see all of these people, many of them covered from head to toe in the black burqa going about their way, this seeming chaos in pure function, with an old c. 1900s four story red brick building in the background…
Actually, perhaps the best part of this market is that because it is so functional, we don’t get as ripped off as we do in the markets around the city center. We’re obviously white, so usually prices get jacked by 2 or 3 times what things are actually worth and it’s frustrating because we’d almost be willing to pay those prices but we know we’re being lied to and manipulated. You try to bargain and they act insulted for going so low, but you feel insulted because they’re clearly labeling you as a rich tourist. Some of us have agreed that we really wouldn’t mind paying more (since they need money more than we do), but it’s the principle of the matter, especially since we are residents, and even Swahili has its limits (although it helps). But in Isli! We had one person the whole time try to toy with us, and otherwise we got the best prices on things we had ever encountered. And the Muslim community is generally exceptionally welcoming, a claim to which even Christian Kenyans will attest.
Unfortunately I had forgotten to put on sunscreen (yeah…sorry to all you folks in the cloudy land of winter…), which I realized as soon as I left the house, and consequently my nose has become sunburned. Luckily only my nose, but I knew it was happening while we were standing on the edge of the road at a tshirt stand. (I got a cool old-fashioned Adidas shirt for about a dollar–I needed at least one new shirt because, well, lets just say some of my clothes have had a rough go at it). While we were standing there, getting jostled by passers-by in the busy bustle, getting honked at by busses trying to pass and trying to wiggle away from the oncoming tire-bumper-lined, two-wheeled, hand-pulled carts that weave in and out of cars, a poor elderly woman accidentally stepped off the curb into a mud-filled hole that was at one point a functional part of the storm drain. The grate was missing (like usual) and the hole was surrounded by debris and people of course, so it was hard to see. We all said sorry to her in typical Kenyan fashion (they always say sorry when someone else does something wrong, I don’t understand) but quickly realized that she was actually stuck, literally knee-deep in mud that wouldn’t release her. Eventually I slipped my arms under hers and with the help of another literally had to lift her out of its squelching grasp. We had been hovering around this hole for at least fifteen minutes and it’s amazing none of us landed in it ourselves, but you’d have never known the mud went that deep.
The markets of Kenya, like this one, are so far some of my favorite places to be. I’m not talking about the tourist markets, like City Market or Massai Market, but the ones that are purely functional, the ones that are daily Kenyan. (That’s not to say that there aren’t functional natures of the other ones, or that Kenyans don’t frequent them as well; rather, there are markets that aren’t typically touristed, and those are the ones that I like). They are different, in their style, in their purpose, in the very air that surrounds them, and it is quite an invigorating feeling. It‘s a way to meet Kenyans on a more equal level, around the common humanity of daily life.
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