In a country renowned for housing the earliest known settlements of humanity’s ancestors you’d be justified in assuming that, by sheer millennia alone, Kenya’s capital would be a treasure trove of historic and cultural traditions. But as with just about every other once-colonial African nation, the story here is not so simple. Existing outside the sphere of well recognized European and American benchmarks like the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, a relatively new rush towards modernization (think 1970s) has seen infrastructure and tourism develop at a much faster rate than that of well-funded cultural institutions. On top of that, much of 21st century Nairobi still bears witness to its British controlled past, from the Kibera slums (Africa’s largest) sprawled out along the rail line to Mombasa to the fact that English is recognized (along with Swahili) as one of the country’s two official languages. Still, in the face of all this, cultural gems do exist in Nairobi that point not only to its proud history but to its strong contemporary standing in Africa as well; it just pays to know where to find them.
Though museums here may lack the star power found throughout fine-arts halls in other parts of the world, the 2006 parliamentary National Museums and Heritage Act helped galvanize a modern day push to highlight the cornucopia of art and history Kenya has at its disposal. Just pay a visit to the natural history displays at the Nairobi National Museum, or check out the Murumbi exhibits at the Nairobi Gallery, to see what we’re talking about. If you’re more interested in a hands-on experience of Kenya’s vibrant tribal heritage, the city has you covered there too. Bustling bazaars like the Maasai and Toi Markets (the latter located close to the Kibera slums), though now filled with curious travelers, still offer handmade African wares and textiles as they have for generations, and one can interact with the semi-nomadic Maasai tribes that continue to thrive along the hills and plains surrounding the Kenyan capital.
But to get the whole story, it’s important to understand that Nairobi is a city in which modernization and culture are inextricably linked. People here are proud of their city, a testament to 21st century globalization. Indians and Pakistanis and Somalis and Africans from many nations call it home, and while the relationships between some ethnic groups may still be tense (sometimes violent), it is by and large a tolerant community. Religious residents can attend services at the Basilica of the Holy Family as easily as they can the Jamia Mosque. Hollywood films show in Nairobi movie theaters, business lunches are held in chic Central District restaurants and the Westlands neighborhood is alive almost nightly with jam packed clubs, lounges and bars. So embrace it: the traffic, the heat, the museums and parks and clean hotels and dirty slums and cold Tuskers. This one of a kind cultural amalgam is a uniquely Kenyan experience any way you look at it.