Nathan and my first surprise upon landing in Kenya was discovering that the hostel we planned to stay at was owned by Kairi Tours & Safaris, a guiding outfit located in downtown Nairobi. The hostel, named Downtown Backpackers-Nairobi, was less a backpacker’s hostel and more a stop-over for clients Kairi was wooing. At first, I was very skeptical of this set-up—it seemed like a scam. However, we went ahead and met with Kairi before going to the hostel, and found them to be respectful, reputable businesspeople offering a good price for a safari to Masai Mara. We ended up negotiating Kairi’s opening offer down by $60, and then accepting to safari with them, to leave in two days.
The hostel itself was very basic, but a great staging zone for exploring Nairobi. Its regular staffer, Monica, was super kind and helped us get our phones set up, and find the cyber café and restaurants—all the basics we would have gladly done alone, but with her help, did much more quickly.
Nathan and I spent most of the day before we left for Masai Mara walking around central Nairobi. The city is remarkably modern, with several sky-scrapers, some elegantly designed public buildings, and a smooth-flowing traffic system. (I have found a state’s transportation infrastructure a useful proxy for evaluating how developed it is.) In Kenya, drivers and pedestrians alike abide traffic laws which are enforced by police officers with no-nonsense faces posted at regular intervals.
A brief comparison between Kenya and Ethiopia so far…
I would describe Kenya as Ethiopia’s more mature cousin. In Ethiopia, development has not yet arrived, and so moving about the country is very difficult. Moreover, there is no institutionalized machine to interface between visitors and the state—there is no state “brand” and organized effort to protect and promote that brand. As a result, frequently, the only face of Ethiopia that visitors get to know is the multitude of drivers, restaurateurs, and guides hawking glaringly obvious rip-offs and scams.
Kenya stands as a marked contrast. Well-developed communication and transportation infrastructure makes it generally possible to get where you have to go and access good internet once you’re there. Moreover, as Kenya’s brand is rooted in its outdoor tourism sector, that sector has been well-developed and regulated—such as by KATO, a vendor cooperative seeking to uphold high standards of conduct and product value in the safari sector—so visitors can easily access information and make decisions about purchasing tours with a minimum of hassle or scamming. (Though significant hassles and scamming abound.)
Kenya’s position ahead of Ethiopia is a result are far more factors than I really know or understand. One idea, however, that I find very interesting for explaining Kenya’s progress is that Kenya is benefiting today from the institutions—traffic laws and a functioning judicial system, for instance—first established by the British. Perhaps this is an instance of a positive colonial legacy? If that’s the case, then I’d love to read about why the Brits’ legacy institutions in Kenya have been upheld whereas those elsewhere—like in Egypt, for instance—never really survived the transfer of power to nationals.