How dangerous is Nairobi?
Replies: 15 - Last Post: Jul 16, 2012 6:37 AM Last Post By: Kenyanchick
Jul 11, 2012 5:02 AM
How dangerous is Nairobi?Hi all,
I recently got offered a job in Nairobi and was trying to find out how safe it is for westerners. I've backpacked a lot, 27 countries on five continents, but my fiance is quite a bit greener when it comes to travel, especially in the developing world. Has anyone spent considerable time in Nairobi? What is it like? Is it safe enough for my fiance to come with me? She could probably pass for Kenyan, she's light skinned african american. Would that make it easier for her, or would she just get more hassle because people would think she is a local? Any advice on Nairobi, especially safety advice, would be greatly appreciated.
All the Best,
Jul 11, 2012 10:26 AM
Nairobi is as safe as any major capital city you just need to know where the hot spots are and have some basic common sense. Its safer than new york or los angeles thats for sure.
Jul 11, 2012 10:45 AM
2Nairobi requires common sense, but it's also something you'll only fully get a handle on once you're actually here. The most important thing is where to live. I'd suggest asking your company lots of questions and, if possible, personally checking out the neighbourhoods that they recommend.
As for your fiancee, most parts of Nairobi are very cosmopolitan, and her citizenship (light skinned or not!) won't be an issue. There are lots of Americans living here, and most people are used to foreigners who don't speak local languages. (As an aside, once you've lived here for a while, you'll realise that Kenyans have a "radar" for people who are Kenyan and those who aren't. Your fiancee might not look as Kenyan as you think :) Having said that, I will reiterate that it won't matter.)
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Nairobi is safer than New York or LA, and that's mainly because of issues like police response time, etc. (which is practically non existent in some areas). To get around that, those people who can afford it engage the services of private security guards for their homes. These will be fairly standard in certain neighbourhoods.
If you have other questions, you can PM me and I'll try to answer.
Jul 11, 2012 12:23 PM
3In any part of Nairobi outside the Central Business District, your fiance should be prepared for occasional stops by police who begin with the annoying question, "What is your name?" and then proceed to size you up for a possible bribe, based on minor and sometimes imaginary infractions such as being out late, being in a place with no valid reason, dropping a tiny bit of litter, smoking on the city streets (which is banned), etc. It has happened to me so it can certainly happen to her. It need not be a crisis if she carries her passport at all times and doesn't get confrontational (no need to scream "I'm an American!"). Remember that in African cultures, raising your voice has the same effect as throwing a punch. If the situation cannot be de-escalated on the spot, the best strategy is to demand to be taken to the nearest police station. That is the standard advice issued by embassies.
This problem seems to be getting worse, probably because the paycheck of an average policeman cannot stretch even to buy food these days. The economy is absolutely awful. I don't really hold it against the junior cops as long as they don't push their game too far.
NEVER buy or possess drugs in Kenya, and don't hang around people who do - that includes house parties. As long as you are straight with the law, you should not encounter more than the minor nuisances I have described here.
Jul 11, 2012 4:08 PM
Jul 11, 2012 5:27 PM
5@Kenyanchick: These incidents have all happened within a few km of city centre. Trust me, I don't go pub crawling in Kibera or Eastleigh! On the other hand, there are rich enclaves where the police are very respectful, but I don't go there either, though perhaps you are lucky enough to live in such a place.
I am sad to say that some foreigners I know have been hit up for bribes in Nairobi, though nothing terrible resulted. I have a growing suspicion that white foreigners are now the preferred targets for "kitu kidogo" as poverty gets worse. Many Kenyans don't even have money to give anymore! The increased number of police on the streets as a show of force against terrorism may also be a factor.
I did not mean to suggest that it will happen to everybody. I have spent 18 years touring Kenya and I try to promote the country's attractions to people far and wide. But people should be aware of the pitfalls too. Kenya is changing - it is not the country I first experienced in 1994.
I should also say that this petty annoyance can be found in many capitals in the developing world. I am not singling Kenya out.
Jul 11, 2012 5:48 PM
6I should probably have mentioned in my first post that traffic accidents are still the main cause of injury and death to foreigners no matter where they travel! Hopefully that will put the matter of travel risks in better perspective.
Do also bear in mind that smoking is banned in public areas in Nairobi (and attracts a "fine") and carry your passport all the time.
Savvy travelers are better travelers.
Jul 11, 2012 5:59 PM
7Thanks all for your advice. Sounds better than I had heard it made out to be. Quick question: I'd prefer not to have me or my fiance carry our passports everywhere. Usually when i travel i leave my passport in a hotel safe or hidden in my room and carry a photocopy. Is that good enough for Kenya? I've been stopped by police in a number of countries looking for bribes so it doesn't surprise me that it happens in Nairobi too. The photocopy has been good enough in the past to get me out of sticky situations. So Christopher, do you think the photocopy of our passports would be better to carry around than the real thing? Thanks again for all your help. Can't wait to see Kenya for myself.
Jul 11, 2012 6:05 PM
8I actually have a dual policy. In rural Kenya (where I prefer to be!) I don't bother to carry my passport if I'm out for a few hours. Police are very relaxed out there. But in Nairobi I do carry it. A friend of mine was taken back to his hotel room because he didn't have it on him. As far as I know he wasn't doing anything illegal. I honestly don't know if a photocopy would suffice. I am inclined to say no.
Jul 11, 2012 6:32 PM
I lived in Nairobi last year and never had any issues. There was a time when the police were targeting foreign registered vehicles and that's the only time I was worried that I would have a problem - not because I was doing anything wrong, but because (as Christopher suggested) they will make up things so you give them some money. But as long as you know you are doing the right thing, you can be confident that they can't sting you for too much ... it just depends how much time you want to spend battling bureaucracy to prove a point :)
I'm a white girl with blonde hair so I feared that I would stick out so badly in Kenya. But someone else mentioned how cosmopolitan Nairobi is and it's true. And even when I'm the only white person at the party, I still don't feel out of place, the Kenyans I've met have been so friendly and welcoming.
The most hassle I do get is of the sleazy kind, which is not peculiar to Nairobi, I might add. So if your fiance has had to deal with sleazes before she'll be OK - although Kenyans are much more charming than the average sleaze :)
Of course no where is the world is perfectly safe, and both you and your fiance should keep your wits about you and never be complacent... as with everywhere, including at home! But don't let fear govern your life, just be smart and aware. But do follow Kenyanchick's advice and find out where you will be accommodated and check out what security is in place there.
All the best!
Jul 12, 2012 2:05 PM
10My brother and I walked around alone in Nairobi for quite a while last summer and met lots of great people. I'm not saying it's totally safe, because you never know, but with a little travel experience and some street smarts, it's navigable. When you say she's a little green, how green do you mean? Here are some videos of my time in Nairobi, but my travels are rough, rugged, adventurous, and a bit risky. http://youtu.be/itRIQX4j3iU
Jul 13, 2012 5:01 AM
Jul 13, 2012 8:32 PM
12I am a British African and have lived in Nairobi for close to two years now. I don't know what the person was talking about above re Kenyans being able to distinguish a Kenyan from an outside African. I'd have to call that bullocks based on my own experience. I get mistaken for a Kenyan all the time, and Kenyans often think I am putting on my accent. It is usually just when I am with another white person that it's easier for them to accept me not being Kenyan. (Poor Kenyans are expert at dressing up and trying to look rich; just dressing up won't be enough for them to believe your fiance is necessarily American.)
Having said that, I have noticed that people in the wealthier suburbs, e.g. Karen, Westlands, etc., are better able to recognize me as being British than poorer Kenyans (with whom I mainly work). So, depending on the area you frequent, it may not be such a concern that your fiance will be mistaken. But she should definitely learn a bit of Kiswahili, because people (poorer Kenyans in particular) will invariably start speaking to her in it, assuming it is her first language. Police also have a habit of just speaking Swahili - not English - to Kenyans; so she should be prepared for that if stopped by the police.
I have spent time in Los Angeles and New York, and Nairobi is definitely NOT safer than both of those places. They call it "Nairobbery". Almost all middle to upper class Kenyans take taxis to travel at night due to fear of being mugged. It is not a very safe place at night, although during the day (depending on where you are), it can be reasonable.
Sorry for the depressing dose of reality. Just don't want you to have the wrong impression about the place, although like others have shared, it is a pretty nice country on the whole. (It could benefit from more volunteers, if you ask me.)
Jul 14, 2012 1:34 AM
13On the issue of carrying passports around:
I do remember an incident going a long way back (Maybe 12 years ago!)
I came out of my apartment - which fronted a busy street at about 7.30pm. I was just making a quick dash to a "kiosk" situated a couple of blocks away. Unfortunately, as I turned round after locking my door, there was a group of say, 10 people, walking past my doorstep - led by two policemen. One of the policemen stopped and asked me if I had any sort of identification. I explained, while pointing at the door, that it was in there - I lived there - but he wasn't having any of it. So I got herded into this group (who, as I gradually learned) were all people without any form of legitimate identification.
We progressed round the estate - people being picked up and added on to the group, and others having a "quiet word" with the policemen, and being let off (so the group size rarely went above 15...)
When I fumbled through my jeans pockets, I found my driving license (a Kenyan one), so I waited "my turn" and showed this to one of the cops. His curt response: "I am not interested if you are able to drive. I want to know if you are in this country legally. Don't you know there are many foreigners who have come in illegally across the Somalia border...?" (More Blah, Blah)
After getting nowhere with me - maybe it did not occur to him that I (literally!) only had milk money - he let me go.
I would say "All is well - that ends well", except that I was now two miles away from my apartment and it was 9.00pm........
Jul 16, 2012 5:56 AM
14First, you must be aware that Nairobi is NOT "as safe as most capitals in the world". Every month there are cases of people who were raped, injured or even killed in car jackings or breaks-in as thugs have guns.
Second, you must also know that dozens of thousands of Western expatriates and White Kenyans live in Nairobi and they LOVE it.
To sum up: you and your girlfriend will enjoy Nairobi very much as long as you're prepared to listen to your office's security advice. As weird as it may seem to foreigners, security rules in Kenya are easy to learn and you will soon get used to them. Basic rules include living in secure compounds (gate / walls / guards / alarm system / safe room), avoiding driving at night except in towns, always locking the doors of the car and never stopping at night, and knowing how to react in case of car jacking.
There are always simple ways of minimizing the risk further, such as not driving the latest model of 4X4 and choosing instead an old car (which will be of less interest to potential car jackers) or living in an apartment block rather than in an isolated house.
You will never be as safe in Kenya as in the British countryside, but it will be much more fun.
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