Even if you only occasionally tune into CNN or BBC, you'll have seen the harrowing images that almost destroyed Kenya's tourism industry in early 2008. Weeks of violent post-election rioting plagued Nairobi and other corners of the country, and burning buildings, street battles, and haphazard violence made headline news and stirred the global media into a frenzy. The pictures of looting, rioting, billowing smoke, and charging policemen in full anti-riot gear were enough to stop people from coming to Kenya; such images are hardly helped by memories of the American embassy bombing in 1998, pre-election violence in 1997, and street clashes during pro-democracy protests back in 1990. While the impression left in the minds of Westerners was of a country in tatters, Kenyans seem to agree that the flair-up was generally limited to certain quarters and had almost zero impact on areas of tourist interest. Still, the images linger and the death toll serves as a bleak reminder of the fury that exists under the surface of a nation of people who will stop you in the street to remind you, "Kenyans are very peaceful." Peace-loving Kenyans may be, but that doesn't undercut Nairobi's overwhelming reputation for crime -- it's so notorious, in fact, that it's often called "Nai-robbery," while it seems almost ironic that the city headquarters a government even more notorious for its endless corruption.
Like Johannesburg, with which it draws obvious comparisons, Nairobi is a teeming city where countless destitute people rub shoulders daily with the privileged, and somewhere in that stew there's a huge propensity for all manner of crime. Don't assume for one instant that tourists are especially targeted. In 2009, during a citywide public art exhibition in which 50 artist-decorated, life-size fiberglass lions were on display in shopping centers and sidewalks, it wasn't long before at least one of the lions was stolen. Ironically, the exhibition was called Pride of Kenya and aimed to raise awareness about the threat facing Kenya's wildlife. But for many Nairobians, carjackings and armed home invasions (now greatly diminished) have been a far more tangible threat for many years, and you'll be astounded by the sheer extent of private security employed to protect businesses and private homes -- one company protects more than 4,000 households. In the suburbs, there are electric fences and manned security posts, while askaris line the city streets protecting shops, banks, and offices through the night. Yet while the streets of middle-class and wealthy suburbs -- such as Karen and Langata -- may be deserted at night, save for a few askari manning the gates to vast estates, there's a totally different feeling in some of the slums. In Mathare, one the poorest areas of the city, for example, one youth leader is proud to claim that if you lose your mobile phone in his neighborhood, it'll be returned by whomever finds it. It's a proud boast, perhaps, but one that certainly serves as a yardstick against which to measure perceptions of how crime and poverty really relate.
The latest panic-inducing threat is kidnapping, and several recent attacks have been on children and Western women. Security is being stepped up at schools in response to the abduction of more than 100 Nairobi residents in the first part of 2009; some "experts" have even referred to an emerging "kidnapping industry," possibly inspired by Somali pirate activity. Foreigners are not unaffected, and while single women may be especially vulnerable, there have been incidents of entire busloads of passengers being robbed, while in 2009 carjackers kidnapped a member of Parliament as well as a senior police commander; in a separate incident, the prime minister's private office was looted.
The moral of the story is that crime is a reality in Nairobi -- and in Africa -- and it is not bound by geographic borders or social contexts. It may take the form of a customs official trying to press you for a bribe or a taxi driver overcharging you. Such incidents don't even register against the hardships faced by many of the people living here. Vigilance and common sense are your most powerful allies. And the sooner you learn to adapt to a wholly different environment, the better. Do not wear expensive or even ostentatious-looking jewelry, and don't carry bags through the city with you, especially if they're loose fitting or easily snatched away. In fact, try to limit the valuables that you carry on your person. There are reports of unsuspecting tourists climbing into fake taxi cabs and being stripped naked, so it doesn't matter how well you hide your money -- but obviously, concealing your wallet (which is actually best left in a hotel safe) is better than flaunting it in a bulging pocket. Exercise the same caution with cameras, often difficult to keep an eye on when in use. Be wary of whom you speak to in the street or in bars; a simple conversation may, in fact, be a planned distraction -- more often than not, it's the start of a lengthy con in which you'll eventually be asked for some kind of monetary donation. Do not accept lifts with strangers or rides with unmarked, unidentifiable taxis. Be careful about sitting next to open windows in vehicles -- snatch-and-grabs are common, and you're most vulnerable when sitting in a car. And don't leave valuables in any vehicle, unless your driver (and I'm not talking about taxi drivers here) has assured you that it's safe or that he'll be keeping an eye on the car. Don't walk around at night, and be sure not to step onto deserted streets. And, at all times, keep your wits about you.
Policing the Cowboys
In October 2009, as part of a bizarre attempt to make Nairobi appear better policed, the city council introduced a number of bylaws banning a number of "unacceptable" behaviors. Suddenly (and this is against a background of poverty, unchecked sewage disasters, power shortages, slums without running water, and embarrassing crime statistics), it's become an offence to spit in the street, blow your nose without a tissue, walk across the road while talking on your mobile phone, and even make loud noises. Each of the Singaporean-style laws can be enforced with either a spot fine or a pretty stiff jail sentence. Spitting in public can attract a fine of Ksh2,000 or 3 months in prison. They're probably the most controversial and slightly surreal bits of legislation to be foisted on the city, and while they might sound like an attempt to clean up Nairobi's tarnished image, most people assume this is yet another opportunity for bribery, with the city likely to employ a squadron of enforcement agents keen to have their palms greased. As a foreigner, your misdemeanor is likely to attract a lot of attention, so remember to cover up when you sneeze and think twice before using your mobile phone while walking.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.