Reporter Podcast 'Sometimes I Miss a Sunny, Ice-Cold Day in the Snow'
Journalist Kirsten Milhahn has lived in Nairobi for five years. In an interview, she explains why Kenya is a paradise for adventure sports and the things she sometimes misses from home.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Kirsten, where exactly do you live in Nairobi?
Kirsten Milhahn: I live in a green compound in the center of the city. We have a big backyard that has monkeys, bats and a lot of birds. The monkeys are there because of the many fruit trees. So, it's an apartment with a garden and nice neighbors. Nairobi is a green city, but not as big as Berlin or Hamburg.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That means you don't live in a gated community like those found in South Africa. I can imagine many Europeans consider Nairobi to be unsafe. Is that not the case?
Kirsten Milhahn: Those types of gated communities do exist here in droves, but I decided against them. We of course have our security precautions. We have a day guard and night guard and a dog. We live in the center of the city, surrounded by the campus of the University of Nairobi. We are a bit of a green oasis.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where do you do your daily shopping in Nairobi? The mall, the supermarket or the food markets? Is it similar to how we do things in Germany?
Kirsten Milhahn: Nairobi is a modern city: There are shopping malls sprouting up everywhere. There are supermarkets where you can buy pretty much everything -- except perhaps Dutch cheese. (Pauses to reflect.) No, you can buy Dutch cheese, but at double the price. Everything is there. You just have to have the means. That's the point. The middle class Kenyans also go to shopping malls, but the ordinary people have their own markets. And expats can, of course, also go to the local markets and buy fruit and vegetables there.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you do that sometimes?
Kirsten Milhahn: Yes, I do sometimes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And is there anything that you can't get at the supermarket? Something typically Kenyan, that you can only buy there?
Kirsten Milhahn: Rice, beans and cornmeal can, of course, be bought at the markets. But you can get those at supermarkets too. You can buy pretty much everything at the supermarket, and the supermarkets in Nairobi look like supermarkets in Hamburg or Berlin or Munich or any other city.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have already mentioned the differences between the expats and the local population, that there are also social differences. Do you have many Kenyan friends? Or do expats tend to stick together?
Kirsten Milhahn: That really depends on the person and how much they want to integrate into society. Of course, you can live in your compound behind an electric fence and only socialize with expats. Then the only Kenyans you have any contact with are probably the driver and the domestic help staff. That was never an option for me. Otherwise, I would have never volunteered to go to Kenya. I didn't want to live that way. And the young middle classes are just discovering outdoor activities. So, I could make contacts that way. I met my friends through common interests and common hobbies. My friends are expats, my friends are Kenyans -- it's a mix. We go hiking, camping and mountain biking during the weekends and in our spare time. Four years ago, I dragged my mountain bike with me to Kenya and I spend almost all my free time on the bike. Kenya is perfect for mountain biking. You are guaranteed wonderful scenery, challenging trails -- for both hiking and biking.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have any tips for our readers on where they definitely have to go if they are on a trip to Kenya?
Kirsten Milhahn: If you really like outdoor activities, hiking, biking and camping, then you can do that everywhere in Kenya outside of Nairobi. In Nairobi itself its not advised to travel by bike due to the terrible traffic situation. But everything outside the city is perfect. We have Mount Kenya, we have the Aberdare Range, with mountains reaching 4,000 or even above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). If you want to do proper mountain climbing, you can do it here.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You just mentioned the precarious traffic situation in Nairobi. What's the best way then to get around there?
Kirsten Milhahn: There is, of course, public transport. That includes the Matatus, or mini vans and the motor-taxis. But often the vehicles aren't road-worthy and the infrastructure is not really designed properly for the volume of traffic. That means we are regularly sitting in traffic jams. Besides, the style of driving in Kenya really takes some getting used to. You can also walk everywhere in the city. As long as it's not dark, that is really no problem in many parts of Nairobi.
Central Nairobi: "Nairobi is a green city, but it is not as big as Berlin or Hamburg."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was the biggest adjustment for you when you moved to Kenya?
Kirsten Milhahn: My friends always ask me: "So, what do you miss?" And, honestly, I don't miss anything. I don't really miss anything apart from cheese and little things like that. It is a privilege to have sunshine every day and not just get through the seasons. What I sometimes miss now, I must admit, is a sunny, ice-cold day in the snow. The biggest adjustment has been the way time works differently in Africa -- slowly or sometimes not at all. I'm still not used to that. My working rhythm is a German one. I work for German media and my schedule has to suit my clients. Sometimes you can hit a wall. Everything simply takes longer and you have to have a bit of patience.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is often criticism of the Western media for presenting a very negative view of Africa. At the same time there are, naturally, very real problems -- in Kenya, for example, corruption and youth unemployment are two such problems. How do you experience that in your day-to-day life? Are these problems very predominant? Or is it just our Western view of the country?
Kirsten Milhahn: I would say that the Western view of Africa is, unfortunately, still extremely conservative. Africa is often dismissed as one country. Yet this is a continent with over 50 different countries and thousands of different ethnic groups, which could not be more different. The reporting is still very polarized, even though it rarely represents the modern progressive Africa. You still read that the things people most associate with Africa are crises, wars and conflicts. Of course, these things exist too, as do extreme poverty, social injustice, unemployment and corruption. Corruption is terrible, particularly in Kenya. And you have to say that and report about it. But there's also an Africa that is on the upswing. There's a tremendous surge of change sweeping through many countries. There's a new middle class growing in the big cities like Nairobi, Kampala or Luanda. These are well-educated young people with good jobs. They don't have much in common with the traditional lives people live in the countryside. The young people are moving to the cities and the old people are staying behind in the villages on the savannah. This isn't just leading to a generational divide but a whole cultural one as well. There's the pull of the new in the cities, where the painters, the musicians, the writers, the intellectuals and their work are creating an entire new image of Africa, and many are reflecting on the question: Who are we Africans and where do we want to go? Do we want to become a copy of the West or do we want our own African version of a life in a modern society? I don't read about these things in the newspapers.