Kenya 4: Nanyuki and the privilege guilt

You know all those times you see video footage from developing countries that show people living in ramshackle huts or seriously run down buildings, surrounded by rubbish and ill-looking animals? Well, there’s something about a screen and thousands of miles between you and what’s on that screen that desensitises you to it, I’ve found. Seeing it in person though at Nanyuki, a market town in central Kenya, caused a simmer of disquiet when viewing through a car window screen that bubbled into guilt once I got out and walked around.

Nanyuki sits on the equator and is a gateway of sorts for people looking to climb Mount Kenya or explore Mount Kenya national park. The buildings are a riot of brightly coloured ones with the paint chipping off and signs or adverts hand painted on interspersed by a lot of half-built structures and in some areas huts made of corrugated iron and wooden frames. These are the norm as you leave the towns of Kenya – on a hack through farming area I came across one family living in a hay field crouching below a slanting wooden shelter with hay ‘thatching’ the roof.

The roads are full of boda bodas – motorbikes often carrying three or four people, or massive bundles of firewood, or lots of old plastic bottles being reused despite their less than clean state. Whether driving or trying to cross the road, you take your life into your own hands as traffic lights or road markings and rules are near to non-existent. There is a lot of rubbish around, goats, cows, chicken and sheep wander along the roadsides too.

Unemployment is high, so there are lots of people standing around. And those with shacks displaying their wares of tourist items to buy – they clearly see so little custom that the minute an obvious looking tourist is in sight, they descend. The calls of “come into my store, no hassle no hassle” constantly chorus as you wander around. In between bartering on price in Kenyan Shilling, there are requests to barter their goods in exchange for items like pens because they are “much better made in England”.

The goods themselves tend to be exquisitely carved and painted homeware items or beautifully beaded belts and jewellery and key rings following the Masaai tradition for beaded ornaments. Within the dark, musty shacks they are displayed in (Kenya has really brought home to me the importance of good lighting to entice you into a space – sounds silly, but it really struck a chord) the experience is akin to hunting for long undiscovered treasures, which is fun (you can see some of the gorgeous things I’ve bought here and I urge you to shop shop shop if you visit).

A sort of guilty fun given your surroundings and the fact you realise you are bartering over amounts that are ultimately petty to you but mean a huge amount to the vendors.

Away from the tourist stalls is a second, or really third hand, marketplace called Matumba. This place is not nice. There are no treasures here, just piles of Western cast-off clothes, including underwear, piled up high on tables, some under corrugated iron roofs, some open to the elements with animals picking their way around the mud and rubbish that surrounds them. Some vendors don’t even bother to be hopeful for customers and sleep on top of their wares.

The guilt hit hard here. And harder as I saw more of other towns and those trying to get by on roadsides and in the countryside. Poor infrastructure, limited sanitation facilities and exposure to the elements are just some of the worries local Kenyans face – things I knew of in an academic sense before and obviously sympathised about, but now have a slightly better appreciation of from seeing it in person.

I don’t think anyone should be begrudged the right to whinge or moan about things that are going wrong in their lives whether they live in the first world or the developing world. But Nanyuki and Kenya has been a kick to remember to always take stock of the things that are going right in your life.

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