Tag Archives: nairobi

Quirky Jews and corrupt cops

13 Mar

Some musings in my blog on Times of Israel on how the unfamiliar becomes familiar – including bribing policemen – now that I’ve spent six+ months in Nairobi:


Quirky Jews and corrupt cops

Times of Israel, February 26, 2014

Last night, RBS, my hubbie, and I were driving up Valley Road, a key thoroughfare in central Nairobi, and he did what seemed like a potentially dodgy turn. Before the words had even left my mouth for him to watch out as corrupt Kenyan cops are always on the prowl around those parts (this being the exact spot where I was hauled over on my very first day of driving on the crazy streets of Nairobi), guess what, a corrupt cop pulled us over.

 Without losing our cool, we entered into the now-sadly-familiar game of negotiation, flattery and sheer absurdity with Mr Corrupt Cop. We used all the tools in our haggling armoury – RBS was a ‘man of God’ (being a rabbi), he was not a regular ‘muzungu’ (Swahili for ‘white person’) who comes to Kenya to make money as he was here to minister to his flock, it was his birthday (it really was), and so on. We came away from the negotiation quite pleased with ourselves – this time, we were only down 1,000 shillings (around 10 US dollars) in bribery costs.And off we sailed to visit our friends as if nothing untoward had occurred.

It’s the same thing back at the vicarage. I’m slowly getting used to being wife of a rabbi with all that this entails. I certainly never could have imagined myself in such a role, but in spite of myself, my sociable ways are proving quite helpful in settling into this unfamiliar life. Nearly every Shabbat we end up with random and often fascinating guests who share with us their adventures and snapshots into the lives that they lead in all corners of the world.

And then there are the real characters who pass just briefly through the synagogue – and our lives – but who leave a lasting impression – like Mr Shofar So Great, who came into the synagogue one day and blew not just one, but TWO shofars simultaneously, harmonising one with the other, creating the most beautiful melodies you simply could never imagine a shofar could sound.

The Nairobi Jewish community is pretty quirky to begin with (guess that’s how such a quirky rabbi and spouse ended up here in the first place). It’s been around for over 100 years with some founding families (hailing from Europe) still here some four generations later. Now it’s a hodge-podge of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Orthodox, traditional, Conservative, Reform, old, young, English-speaking, Swahili-speaking, Hebrew-speaking characters, who all, in spite of themselves, continue to coexist in one unified community structure.

And here I am, in the midst of all this community life, somehow finding myself in a quasi-public position that I didn’t choose for myself. And in spite of it all, the unfamiliar is becoming familiar.

Ant invasion at the vicarage, as vuvuzelas trumpet outside

26 Feb

Here’s the second blog post I wrote on Times of Israel – all about feel ambushed with protesters roaring outside our house and ants invading on the inside. (These are the opening paragraphs to the post, click here to go to the full article):


Ant invasion at the vicarage, as vuvuzelas trumpet outside

Times of Israel, February 5th, 2014

As I recline on my couch balancing my laptop awkwardly against my raised knees, I experience a moment of horror. An ant meanders across my arm — as another one casually saunters up my leg — as a mosquito buzzes stentoriously in my ear. I wail to myself.

The ants are on the march and are steadily taking over my home. They first started peeping out from under the fridge, next they moved stealthily across the kitchen, now they are brazenly making themselves at home in our living room. Where next?

Outside, I hear the increasingly familiar sounds of an unruly crowd roaring and vuvuzelas being sounded. What is the reason behind the latest protest, I wonder?

Ants and protesters are closing in on me. I feel ambushed.

Never a dull moment living in our rabbinical residence smack bang in the heart of downtown Nairobi.

Indeed, since we arrived here in September 2013, when RBS (Rabbi B S, aka my husband) took up his position as rabbi for the Nairobi Hebrew Community, life has become very restive, to say the least.

Seeing the smoke rising as four terrorists are busy mowing down innocent Kenyan shoppers at the Westgate shopping mall just down the road; student riots on our doorstep in which we hear Kenyan police fire repeatedly at the crowds, killing one student in the process; driving alongside maniacal matatu (think rickety Israeli sheruts circa 1980s belching out black exhaust fumes and roaring music) drivers on the pothole-ridden streets of the city; paying bribes to corrupt Kafkaesque policemen, and as a pedestrian, learning to wander casually à la Kenyan across immense ten-lane highways as trucks hurtle towards you because there’s no safe place to cross.

On sounds of rioting, public holidays that creep up on me unawares and 49 other things I don’t understand about Kenya

14 Dec

The students at the University of Nairobi are rioting near where we live. I don’t know why. I’m still in the dark about so many things in this strange new land. I can hear the roar of the crowd, the chants, the police firing shots. I do hope the gentle Kenyan cops are firing tear gas as opposed to bullets.

Two days ago, Thursday 12th December 2013, Kenyans celebrated Jamhuri Day, marking 50 years of independence. I didn’t even know there was this hugely significant public holiday until someone who works with us said she was taking the day off. This is the fifth country I can call home and I’m getting tired of not being in the know about public/bank holidays! (I finally almost got to grips with the American ones – even started feeling quite festive around Thanksgiving Day after the second or third year of living there. But I never could remember when Labor Day was or what the one at the end of May was all about.)

So here I am in Kenya, and as the rioting goes on outside, I realise that I’m feeling baffled as to all these national norms that local people take for granted, which I have to learn once again.

So, in honour of 50 years of Kenya’s independence, I am compiling a list of 50 things that surprise  – in a good or bad way, baffle, confuse, delight, amuse or irritate me about Nairobi/Kenya and Kenyans/Nairobians since we moved here under four months ago:

1) Lost in translation – When I say ‘Hi’ to a Kenyan in English (as opposed to ‘Jambo’ in Swahili), they often mistakenly answer back, ‘Fine, thank you’. I desperately want to giggle and reply, ‘I didn’t ask how you are, but thanks for telling me’, but I keep quiet knowing that my little joke would be met with blank looks. Turns out – now that I speak about ten words of Swahili – that there is just one word that encapsulates ‘Hi, how are you?’ in Swahili – ‘Habari aku’, so when someone greets you, you are meant to reply ‘Fine, thank you’. So that explains that peculariarity of Swahinglish (Swahili-infused English!)

2) Ugali – simply don’t understand it. It’s a Kenyan staple food – maize meal that is cooked into a large, utterly tasteless lump and eaten with kale, otherwise known as ‘sukuma’ here. Love the sukuma but don’t get ugali.


3) ‘Karibu, muzungu!’ – As if I didn’t feel enough like a newcomer…it certainly doesn’t help that every time I walk down the street, there are cries of ‘Karibu muzungu’ – crudely translated as ‘Welcome, white person!’ – directed at my person. How can I ever hope to melt into the crowd?

4) Bovine crossings – Entertaining to drive down a Nairobi street and randomly meet a herd of cattle idly meandering along the way blocking the traffic. Also bizarre to see Kenyan market vendors pulling along hand carts with impossibly heavy loads and seemingly totally oblivious to the crazy traffic around them.

5) ‘Pole pole’ – On the one hand, I appreciate the fact that Kenyans are laid-back. Makes a change from the crazy fast-paced life of New York. But why oh why do things take sooooooooooooooooo long to happen? Why do jobs only get half-done? Why are people so accepting of things happening so slowwwly and why is ‘pole pole’ – Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’ – the ubiquitous response to anything not progressing as it should?

6) Kenyan drivers – I have just two words to say to all you Kenyan drivers out there: Roundabout Etiquette. Why does no one in this country seem to understand that if they would only give way to the right, then everyone could get to where they are going much more quickly, and we’d all be much happier and less stressed out people? Instead, every time I reach a roundabout, I have to manoeuvre straight into a major survival-of-the-fittest meltdown going on with cars almost colliding in all directions and everyone getting jammed.

7) Power cuts – The most recent one we experienced lasted four days. Kind of frustrating would be an understatement. Usually the long power cuts only last 24 hours or so – without even mentioning the short ones.

8) Vestimentary colour choices – Enjoying all the garish and wildly clashing colours of clothes that Kenyan women don. Not so sure about the mid-calf skirt length that seems to be the norm (probably still haunted by attending semi-ultra-orthodox Jewish schools in the past where this length skirt was required due to it’s adhering to modesty standards).

9) Even does this make sense? – Another quirk of Swahinglish: wild over-use and misuse (if you’ll pardon my Anglo-English snobbery) of the word ‘even’. Don’t know why but the word ‘even’ pops up in all kinds of weird contexts in spoken Kenyan English. Even I’ve found myself even adding it into my own spoken English even in weirder ways.

10) The police – Soon after arriving here, when we asked what the number for emergency services is, we were told that whatever we do, the police are the absolute last people you should contact in an emergency. Severe case of endemic corruption and so on (See my previous story on the subject of my own run-in with the men in uniform).

11) Dogs and buggies/strollers – missing? Took me a while to realise a couple of things that I take for granted as the norm on the streets of New York, London or Paris are missing as you walk down the street here in Nairobi. There’s not a dog in sight and all Nairobian babies seem to be carried snugly on their mums’ backs rather than in buggies. (Certainly no Kenyan, therefore, would ever dream of pushing a dog along in a stroller, unlike those funny Manhattanites I once blogged about).

12) Monkeys in the trees – Very happy about the fact that at one of the parks near where we live, it is the norm to see monkeys jumping from tree to tree, and especially gratifying to see baby monkeys clinging on underneath to their mums’ bellies as they gallivant through the tree tops.

Well, apparently this list is taking too long to compile. I’ve been at it for hours. I’m stopping at Number 12 for now. But hopefully to be continued in later posts.

Postscript: Since beginning this post earlier this evening, I discovered the reason the students are rioting. Apparently a University of Nairobi engineering student died in police custody and the students are rioting against police brutality. I refer you back to Number 10 on the list above.

Shots are still ringing out.

“Do you have a licence to carry livestock?”

24 Oct

A cautionary tale from my very first day of driving alone here in Nairobi:

Doing an illegal – I discovered – right-hand turn onto Valley Road, I was stopped by Legoman A.

Legoman A, who, incidentally, had a gargantuan and rather bulbous protusion sticking out of the middle of his face, aka his nose, declared my turn to have been illegal, and insisted that I accompany him to the Legomen’s Station to face the wrath of the law.

I pleaded innocent – it was my first day driving in this new country, I didn’t realise it was an illegal turn, a Kenyan had told me it was ok to turn right there, my husband was a man of God, I was a woman of God, I had an impeccable driving record to date…It all fell on dead ears. Big-Nose told me I must follow him in my car as he drove on his Beee-Bah Lego motorbike down to the Legomen’s Station. He insisted that if I came with him to the station, I would be ‘pardoned’.

Now bear in mind that since the first day we arrived in Nairobi, everyone had told us that the Kenyan Legomen were the summum of corruption, and that in an emergency, and I quote, Legomen are ‘the last people you should call’. But here it appears I was faced with little choice – I was compelled to be sucked into the dastardly den of corruption.

So off I sheepishly, gingerly and apprehensively drove, following Legoman A on his bee-bah bee-bah motorbike.

On arrival at K- Legomen’s Station – a pile of random shacks, assorted vehicles and all manner of dubious characters (the Legomen, that is, not the people they were hauling in) – I was taken straight to Shack A.

Corporal Legoman B was sat at a desk in Shack A waiting to receive me. Unctuous, charming and dripping with the oil of all those accumulated years of bribery and corruption, he sat there with a sleazy smile on his face while I did everything in my powers to convince him I was but an innocent, nice, sweet ‘girl’ who had made a harmless mistake, and could he, in his endless bounty, ‘pardon’ me.

As I warmed to my task, he casually mentioned how I would need to hand over a pile of filthy lucre (5000 Kenyan shillings) so as to receive my pardon. I flaggled* sycophantically like I had never flaggled sycophantically before (putting aside, of course, the urge to laugh or cry at the sheer Kafkaesque bizarreness of this scenario – I mean, imagine haggling with a law-enforcement Legoman over the price of  a driving offence down at Hendon Police Station?)

My flaggling prowess apparently reaped some rewards – Corporal Legoman B agreed to lower my penalty by 2000 bob to 3000 shillings. I was getting somewhere.

(*’flaggle’ – a neologism combining the words ‘flatter’ and ‘haggle’.)

With a little more than a soupçon of bitterness and resentment, I handed over the dosh, thinking that this would be the end of the sorry affair.

With more than a glint of malice in his beady eye, Corporal Legoman B handed me back my receipt and casually mentioned how this sum was ‘bail’ for my release and how, on the morrow, as this ‘receipt’ stated, I was to appear in court at 8 am prompt for my offence.

In a state of utter shock, this abject heroine, hailing as she does from the quiet vale of Golders Green, burst into floods of loud, undignified tears. With her nose a’streaming and her eyes a’gushing, she spluttered how he had hoodwinked her, that she was a good person, not a criminal, that she was scaaaaared to go to court, how she was new to this strange new land and how she just wanted to go home to her family and put this whole mess behind her.

Corporal Legoman B, said, as all awkward males say when faced with the awkward scene of a female in floods of tears in front of them: ‘Pull yourself together’.

I was whisked off to Shack C, where Grand High Comptroller (GHC) Legoman C was sat, attired, rather uncomfortably to my mind for a large man inhabiting such a small shack, head to foot in full military regalia. As my loud undignified sobs continued unabated, GHC Legoman C berated me and also told me to ‘pull myself together’.

Apparently my histrionics had the desired effect. GHC Legoman C instructed Corporal Legoman B to downgrade my 3000 shillings from the bail/court combo  back to the fine/warning combo.

I was a free woman! Albeit an abject, snivelling, snotty poor excuse of a woman.

I shuffled off to my offending four-wheeled vehicle – and drove home with no further incident.

The End

By Rebecca

PS If you are wondering about the title of this piece, I was told by a friend who has been living here for many years that the Kenyan Legomen will stop you for just about any half-baked reason. She has been stopped and asked, apparently in all seriousness: ‘Do you have a licence for your car radio?’ And driving with her dog one day, she was stopped and asked: ‘Do you have a licence to carry livestock?’

Kafka would have had a field day in this country.

Bananas growing in my back garden or the Lincoln Center?

6 Oct

bananas in nairobi back garden

Seeing as Nairobi is the fifth city – and Kenya the fifth country – I am now residing in, I may as well put all that accumulated hard-earned urban knowledge to good use and start an entirely subjective city-comparison guide.

(Plus, this will be my attempt to boost my morale about having moved to Nairobi just in time to be greeted by a large-scale terrorist attack.)

So here it is: a light-hearted comparison test between Nairobi and New York City – whence we moved six weeks ago – to decide, based on purely non-scientific terms, which is the better place to inhabit:

(I’m hoping Nairobi wins the test – although, continuing the non-scientific approach, I might just arrange things to make sure it does, just to give myself a bit of much-needed reassurance 🙂 )

In Nairobi… In New York City… Winner?
…bananas and avocados grow in my back garden (see real-life pic above). …I lived in a fifth-floor apartment and didn’t even have a garden.  NBO 1 NYC 0
…I live right in the city centre.  …it took me nearly an hour to get into the city centre.  NBO 1 NYC 0
…the clothes stores sell strange, shiny-satin dresses or clothing that gives more than a nod to the Eighties. …I shopped till I dropped in my fave Old Navy, H&M and co.  NBO 0 NYC 1
…the traffic really doesn’t move and the cars belch out thick black exhaust fumes. …the traffic does eventually move, and exhaust pollution feels a bit more controlled.  NBO 0 NYC 1
…but, drivers don’t seem stricken with road-rage, and don’t honk. …Manhattan drivers – (especially those evil taxi drivers) – are consumed with la rage, and will honk and/or tailgate you to death if you dare get in their way.  NBO 1 NYC 0
…oooooh, the tomatoes have FLAVOUR! Oh, the mangos! Oh the passion fruits! Oh the oranges! Fruit and veg tastes so good – and is cheeeeap… …the tomatoes taste of…hmmm…water – and cost a lot. Fruit and veg decidedly expensive and lacking flavour.  NBO 1 NYC 0
…public transport = rickety ‘matatu’, minivans pumping deafening music, whose drivers change the fare depending on the weather or time of day, or equally bedraggled-looking buses also blaring music….worst of all, you’re stuck in the immobilizing traffic not going anywhere. …New York subway – crowded, sometimes smelly, you’ll be accosted by preachers preaching the word of Jesus, but it works well, goes underground and whizzes you from A to B. Oh, and the fares only go up once a year, not several times in the course of an average day.  NBO 0 NYC 1
…hubby’s employer is paying for a housekeeper and nanny for us. Felt extremely weird at first about people working for us – still do some of the time – but how pleasurable not to have to do the housework. …never even had a weekly cleaner so all domestic tasks had to be done by us (or more likely, ignored by us until crisis-point). NBO 1 NYC 0
…no MacDonald’s? no Starbuck’s? no American fast-food chains? No globalization – could it be? …Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King,  the list goes on… NBO 1 NYC 0
…arts and culture – it is here but you have to hunt it out. …oooh those nice museums, those quirky little art galleries, the Lincoln Plaza cinema – my fave cinema showing all those lovely, dark French films…. NBO 0 NYC 1
…even paving stones – what’s that? Pavement altogether? Watch where you’re going or you might just fall into a pothole. …yes, there are potholes after the snowy season, but walking on the street isn’t an assault course. NBO 0 NYC 1
…combo of high altitude and location just south of the Equator means a temperate, hot but not humid climate nearly the whole year round. …freeze or fry. Yuck. NBO 1 NYC 0
…for a reasonable price, have joined a classy gym in a posh hotel, with access to a gorgeous rooftop pool. …Was a member of ‘Planet Fatness’ (where they give free bagels every Monday, and free pizza on the first Tuesday of the month) in the Bronx, the cattle class of all gyms. NBO 1 NYC 0
…no kosher food (except, that is, for a few packets of egregiously out-of-date Bissli imported some time in the last century from Israel). …kosher food galore – oy! the chicken soup mit lockshen and matza balls…….plaintive Yiddish sigh… NBO 0 NYC 1

And the winner is………drum roll……no surprises here…NAIROBI, with a score of 8 to New York City’s 6!

Woe unto you, poor bedraggled Manhattan; who would’ve thought a far-flung city in East Africa would trump you so badly?

Too close for comfort in Nairobi

1 Oct

Here’s an extract from an op-ed I wrote in The New York Jewish Week recently discussing the same theme as Baptism by Fire in Nairobi, my last post on this blog:


Too Close For Comfort In Nairobi

Tight-knit, eclectic Jewish community on edge.

Mon, 09/23/2013

Nairobi, Kenya — As the terrorist attack enters its third endless day at Westgate, an upscale mall in the center of the city, with the death toll reaching 70, and the terrorists still holed up with an unknown number of hostages, I sit in my new home glued to the television and wondering just how on earth I ended up here.

It all started innocently enough. My husband, Brachyahu, and I were eating out in Manhattan with friends. One was a Kenyan Jew, Mark, born and raised in Nairobi, now living in New York City. In the course of the conversation, Brachyahu mentioned that he had almost completed his four-year rabbinical training at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, and was looking for a community rabbi position.

The rest, as they say, is history. Half in jest, Mark said that his parents’ community back home, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation (NHC), the city’s only synagogue, was on the lookout for a new rabbi. I replied, half in jest, “Oh, how about Brachyahu becoming your new rabbi?” One thing led to another — Skype calls, meetings in New York, a trial visit in June — then a job offer.

And now here we are, less than one month into our new life in Nairobi, and to say that we’ve been thrown in at the deep end would be an understatement. Settling into a new city, country, and continent is not easy at the best of times. But combine that with the synagogue’s High Holy Days “peak-season” and its heavy load of concomitant rabbinical duties, and now, the pastoral responsibilities for the entire Jewish community suffering the aftershocks of the Westgate attack, as well as having to deal with our own fears.

Luckily, all community members have been accounted for since the attack. This is in no small part thanks to the bar mitzvah of an Israeli diplomat’s son taking place at the synagogue at the time of the attack on Shabbat. Many secular Israelis, who rarely come to synagogue, attended the celebration; very likely, some of them would have been at Westgate otherwise, the mall with its classy cafés and boutiques being a favored hangout for Israelis and other expat communities on the weekend.


Click here to read the full piece on The Jewish Week website:

Baptism by fire in Nairobi

23 Sep

Once again the eponymous protagonist of ‘rebeccainspace’ – the ‘me’  of this saga – has upped and moved to a faraway land.

So from England, to Israel, to England, to France, back to the UK, then back to France, and then over the Atlantic for a four-year stint in New York City, here I am landed, as if by a random roll of the dice, in the heart of East Africa – in Nairobi, Kenya, to be precise.

Nairobi, capital of Kenya, a traffic-clogged city lying just below the Equator – and all I wanted to do was muddle along in my new surroundings, allowing myself to feel all the usual sensations of disorientation as a stranger in yet another strange land.

I hadn’t even been here a month yet – I didn’t even know my way from A to B yet in this smoggy, sprawling city – I could only speak about five words of Swahili – I hadn’t managed to even begin to pick my way through any of the confused babble of narratives I’ve been fed about Nairobi, the crime, the traffic, the lay of the land – But Nairobi clearly wasn’t going to give me the chance to settle in gently.

Three and a half weeks into our new life in Nairobi, and a band of masked terrorists wielding guns and grenades have stormed the heart of this city, spreading terror in a shopping mall, spraying their bullets at families, shoppers, diners, people chatting over a cup of coffee, all enjoying a leisurely Saturday afternoon in a Western-style retail paradise.

Westgate: the very first place I was taken to on the day we arrived in Nairobi three and a half weeks ago by a local friend who wanted to show us a pleasant place to sit and have a coffee, go shopping, enjoy a leisurely moment, a place where ‘expats’ (what I’ve become once again) hang out. Westgate: where I bought the first provisions for our new apartment in Nakumatt, the sprawling flagship supermarket occupying three floors in the mall.

Westgate today: nearly 70 ordinary people slain while shopping in the upmarket stores, slain while eating lunch with their families in the food court, slain while having a coffee with friends, slain while running down escalators to escape – men, women and children, Kenyans and expats; 175 injured; Nairobi hospitals fit to bursting with casualties; Nakumatt still occupied by murderous gunmen holed up with tortured hostages over two days after the attack first began.

As I write this, I can hear helicopters roaring overhead, and I see a huge cloud of billowing black smoke which has formed over the shopping mall in the distance – signs, according to the Kenyan TV which we’ve been watching non-stop, that the Kenyan special forces may have stormed the terrorists’ stronghold so as to bring the seige to an end.

In just this short time in Nairobi, I’m horrified by the number of people I know who have been personally affected: One Kenyan friend has lost her uncle who was shot while having a coffee at Artcafe, our Indian plumber lost his mother and seventeen-year-old son in the attack, American friends of ours are close friends of a fellow American who lost his wife who was seven months’ pregnant with their first child. The degrees of separation between me and the dead are far too few.

Nairobi needs healing, and me, the newly arrived outsider, has been forced to get to grips with this new city much more speedily than I ever would have imagined. A baptism, indeed, by fire.

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