Friday, October 21, 2011

No 1 in Nairobi

I cannot say I saw a great deal of Nairobi on a short trip this week to seduce 'Development Finance Institutions' into the embrace of our new social investment fund but I did achieve a first: being granted room number one in the Nairobi Hilton (not a traditional Oxfam watering hole but the location of the conference and one I was attending for free as a speaker).

The room was pool side and I was upgraded as there were no non-smoking rooms left in my grade.

The Hilton in the middle of downtown Nairobi had seen better days - its utilitarian 70s lustre was showing its age - and its haphazard security arrangements were a wonder.

Every car is searched for bombs as it approaches the barrier but only if they have been implanted underneath and, in any case, you can drive around the barrier without imposing difficulty! Meanwhile, I wandered in with unsearched suitcase one day, and was scrutinised with great care the next. It was all rather endearingly haphazard as was the hospitality.

For instance, Daniel on the desk informed me that officially check out was 11am but could be extended until 2pm for no charge and until 6pm for half the room rate (but unofficially I happily bantered him into extending it to 6pm for free).

It was wonderful exchange where a simple human relationship (and a supporting culture) overcame any official obstacle. Discretion could, and was, exercised to the betterment of both people and business. Its warmth overcame any niggling criticism that I might have of the hotel - the incredibly chewy lamb for example - a dental workout of little apparent nutritional value!

The Nairobi I did see was familiar from earlier in the year (which was my first ever visit and now twice in one year).

It is a city, like so many, in haste to lose what mantling of beauty it had in the rushing crush that is development.

Here the wealthy retreat behinds walls and the poor crowd in search of the crumbs of wealth and promise of riches that they have failed to find in the country. Meanwhile, those in the middle build the strangely soulless realms of suburb and flats that point hopefully in the direction of wealth and firmly define you as not 'one of them': the poor. It is a trajectory that is wholly understandable but does not appear any more appealing for that nor ultimately sustainable.

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