Twenty-something tourist Neil arrives in Kenya and Edwin, his Nairobi guide for the day, picks him up from a mid-range hotel in town.
“Karibu Kenya,” says Edwin, reaching out for a handshake. He is smartly dressed in wellfitted chinos, collared shirt and fancy watch, whereas Neil, who glances down at his own unsavoury-looking toes poking from Velcro sandals, is wearing well-worn hiking trousers and a scruffy Led Zeppelin T-Shirt. He’d planned his outfit in an attempt at blending in but it’s becoming clear that he may have misread the situation.
“Ready to go?” asks Edwin. “Yeah,” Says Neil, “But if it’s okay, first I’d like to go to a Forex?”
“No problem,” Edwin says, pulling out his smart phone and getting straight onto his Uber app while Neil plunges his hands into his pockets and wonders what is in store for the day. Minutes later they are in a taxi, speeding towards a Nairobi mall. Neil spots a Maasai herding cattle alongside a four-lane highway and tries to take a photo. But when they get closer, he notices that the herder is on his mobile phone. In fact, everywhere he looks, people seem to be on their mobile phones.“So phones are pretty big here like they are back home?” says Neil.
“Yeah, most people have one,” replies Edwin. “Think it’s up to about 90% of the Kenya population now.”
Neil raises an eyebrow. On arrival at the shiny shopping centre, Edwin pays for the cab without exchanging any cash.
“How d’you do that?” asks Neil. “How did you just pay for the cab?”
“Oh – with MPesa, mobile money, we invented it here,” replies Edwin. “Kenya’s kind of a tech hub and there are tech incubators popping up all over the country now. They call this place the Silicon Savannah. We’re pretty big into developing low cost solutions for solar energy, the medical industry, internet access and all that stuff. ”
“Oh,” Neil says lamely.
Once inside the mall, they stop off at an expensive coffee chain for chai latte and a Danish.
“So I was thinking of exchanging about $50 for the week?” Neil says, having read somewhere that people in Sub-Saharan Africa exist on less than a dollar a day. However, looking around him, it seems that he might have got this badly wrong.
“Better make that $500,” says Edwin. Neil looks up, startled, before Edwin adds, “just to be safe.”
Edwin is busy refreshing his Facebook feed. “There’s free wifi here by the way. May as well make the most of it.”
“Oh right,” says Neil, updating his Instagram page with the caption, “This place is blowing my mind!”
Around the café, edgily-dressed young professionals tap on their laptops, are engaged in meetings or chat on their mobile phones. A young, female waitress approaches wearing tight jeans, statement earrings and bright purple eye shadow. As she hands over the bill, she gives Neil an up and down look. After briefly stopping at the Forex, the pair walk out of the mall past international brand name fashion stores, makeup, jewellery and food outlets.
“So there’s this street style event going on around the corner,” Edwin says. “Not sure if you are interested?” Neil nods, wondering to himself when he’ll get to see the national museum, giraffes or baby elephants that he’d read about in Lonely Planet.
At the pop-up event, a DJ wearing futuristic sunglasses is throwing out tunes while statuesque men and women chat and browse fashion stands. After Neil winds up dropping $300 on a pair of limited edition, vintage trainers, he chats to Edwin over a craft beer as they wait in line at the gourmet burger truck.
“So when did Nairobi get so cool?” Neil asks, rocking to the music and enjoying the vibe.
“It’s always been cool, Neil. It’s just that the rest of the world never knew it.”
Frances Woodhams is author of the blog: www.africaexpatwivesclub.com