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How I Went to Kenya, and Had to Re-Learn How to Be an Environmentalist

Adapting to life in Kenya means adapting to an environment where it is harder to be a good environmentalist.

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In the meantime, ad-hoc recycling is a regular part of life; many people pick through neighborhood trash collections looking for metals and other materials they can use or sell. “I accumulate quantities of plastic water bottles, plastic egg containers, and plastic bags that would be shameful at home,” said Joanna Goldberg, a Canadian living in Nairobi with her young daughter. “I noticed a woman collecting plastic everything from our apartment's rubbish area. Now I bag it all up and leave it out for her when I know she'll be coming by.”

I am reminded of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” refrain that was drilled into my mind in grade school. Among the three R’s, recycling is by far the most prominent one in the US, widely accepted as the civilized person’s responsibility. My suspicion is that recycling won the public relations campaign over reducing and reusing because it is a way to continue our habits of high-level consumption without feeling so guilty about it.

Here in Kenya, confronted far more directly with my piles of trash and without recycle bins conveniently placed around town to provide me with an easy out, I’m left to take reducing and reusing more seriously. And so, I buy less. I eat less. I exercise my creativity muscles in thinking about how I might give new life to a plastic bag or an empty bottle of shampoo. And you know what? It’s actually kind of fun – like a game. I don’t mean to stop playing once I return to the US.

Goldberg, too, has adapted: “Dollhouse and furniture for my daughter made of cardboard boxes. I even made tables for my daughter out of the styrofoam packaging from our small fridge. All our holiday decorations—from Halloween to Hanukkah—were made from newspapers, plastic bags and string. I didn't know how to get rid of it, so figured I'd use it for something.“


Like Detroit, where I come from, Nairobi is a car-dependent city with traffic that runs thick. Unlike Detroit, Nairobi is alarmingly unfriendly to walkers. There are few sidewalks or walkways; there’s no such thing as right-of-way; trenches suddenly appear overnight; traffic, for all intents and purposes, is lawless; and vehicles – especially the infamous matatus – have been known to abruptly wheel off the road in an attempt to escape traffic snarls. Meanwhile, walking is simply not a wise idea after dark – not just for foreign women like me, but for Kenyan women and men too. The sun sets at 7pm; I have to plan accordingly. Oh, and for good measure: bicycles are actually banned from Nairobi’s downtown district.

While there are a great many people walking and biking through Nairobi every day, most of whom arrive safely at their destinations, the lack of infrastructure means there are more unnecessary fatalities and injuries than in a developed city, even when the traffic flow is at an equal rate. British researchers, in a 1991 study, compared the pedestrian risk in Nairobi and Surabaya (Indonesia’s second-largest city) with that in British cities, using a constant rate of 1,500 vehicles per hour. They found that pedestrians in Nairobi were at an 86 percent greater risk than in the UK; in Surabaya, the risk was 172 percent greater.

So, while I have been pleased to cease driving while I’m abroad, I’m finding that the most sustainable form of transportation—walking—is, simply, harder. My habit of daydreaming while ambling about is checked: I need to be careful, watch where I’m going. This isn’t always a tense experience; it can be a beautiful one, nudging me to be attentive to this extraordinary city, traffic and all.

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