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Nairobi: A capital destination

City life, an elephant orphanage, and a giraffe center enrich the African experience

By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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NAIROBI - Every day around 11 a.m. a small group gathers by a watering hole in Nairobi National Park. Soon “oohs’’ and “aahs’’ are heard. Baby elephants come into view as their keepers lead them into a pen. All under a year old, the calves are immediately fed from a large plastic jug of baby formula. After gulping down their favorite beverage, they are free to swim, wrestle, kick a soccer ball, and, of course, be photographed.

Not long ago, travelers heading to Kenya would spend one night in Nairobi after their international flight and make their way the next morning to safari in the Masai Mara, or this time of year, the beaches of Lamu. Now Nairobi is becoming a destination in its own right, thanks to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage and a growing number of sites, restaurants, shops, and hotels in the capital.

“Nairobi is a diverse city of 4 million people with the scintillating sights, sounds, and tastes of any multicultural city,’’ says Jane Pinto, a Nairobi native and co-founder of Micato Safaris. “I’m proud to show her off to my clientele,’’ she adds. Pinto insists that her guests spend a minimum of two or three nights in Nairobi, and brings them into all neighborhoods of the city, including Mukuro, a slum of 800,000 people. It is here that Micato Safaris has worked diligently over the years to provide water, schools, a playground, and a video game center where HIV prevention is taught. Much of the complex was funded by Pinto’s affluent clientele, including the latest addition, a basketball court financed by a Los Angeles-based 13-year-old for his bar mitzvah project.

Driving into the city from the international airport and seeing thousands of people stream out of the slums in the morning on their way to nearby manufacturing jobs, a first-time visitor might think the whole city is impoverished. In fact, there are growing numbers of middle- and upper-class residents living in the neighborhoods of Langata, Karen, Lovington, and Gigiri, the latter home to the United Nations Environment Programme or UNEP, the largest UN complex outside of New York and Geneva.

Come to these well-manicured suburbs, where most of the city’s top sights are located, and you’ll find locals dining al fresco by a crackling fire (Africa’s mile-high city can get cool at night) at the hip restaurant Talisman; expats heading to the movies at the upscale mall, Village Market; and lounge lizards listening to the sounds of African jazz, a drink of passionfruit and vodka in hand, at the club Havana.

Another misconception, exacerbated by a rare spate of post-election violence in January 2007, is that Nairobi is unsafe. Yet I never feel the least bit uncomfortable walking on the city streets during the day. Venturing from my hotel, The Norfolk, a colonial outpost that once played host to luminaries such as Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, and heading around the local university and into the heart of downtown, I’m struck by the diversity of Kenyans who make Nairobi the cosmopolitan hub of East Africa. The blend of people that crowd the city sidewalks include many rural Kenyans, including the tall Masai dressed in colorful wardrobe, who have come to the city to find their fortune; fifth-generation Indians whose families helped lay the train tracks at the turn of last century; Sudanese who congregate around a mosque; and a mix of European and US businessmen who work in diplomacy, banking, or the travel industries.

Once someone hears my accent, as they did when I was purchasing a new Tusker Ale T-shirt at my favorite souvenir shop, the Collector’s Den, the conversation inevitably leads to President Obama. When I was here two years ago, Barack Obama was in the midst of his campaign and there was a surge of excitement pulsing throughout the city, with people asking about the results of his latest debate. Now there’s a feeling of disappointment, directed not so much at his politics as at the fact that he has yet to visit his ancestral home as president.

“He goes to Ghana. He goes to Egypt. Why doesn’t he visit us?’’ a man in the store says.

If the president does come here he might visit the elephant orphanage, a place of joy mixed with sadness: joy at seeing the animals frolicking in the mud, sadness at learning that their parents were killed by poachers. The orphanage was founded by Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the only person to be knighted in Kenya since its independence in 1963. Her husband, David Sheldrick, was the game warden at Tsavo National Park. When he transferred to Nairobi in 1977, they opened the orphanage.

“We came to learn how intelligent these animals are, with a familial instinct and an astounding memory,’’ Daphne Sheldrick says as we sit at an outdoor table on the back patio of her house. Her expression turns grave as she notes that “the elephant community is in a lot of trouble. Not only is poaching on the rise, but the intrusion of livestock into protected areas has led to a scarcity of water.’’

The subject of a soon-to-be-released IMAX film, “Born to be Wild,’’ Sheldrick is known by all the game wardens in Kenya. When they spot a baby elephant without its parents, it is shipped to Nairobi. The keepers become their family, sleeping in their dens at night, feeding them milk every day, and giving them a heavy dose of loving. When the elephants near the age of 2, they are reintroduced to the bush of Tsavo. There are currently 19 calves living in Nairobi and 63 elephants nurtured by Sheldrick back in the wild.

Most people combine a visit to the orphanage with a stop at the nearby Giraffe Center, founded in 1979 to save the endangered Rothschild giraffe. If you’ve ever been to a petting zoo, you know what’s it’s like to have a slimy lick of your hand. Here, 17-foot-tall giraffes lean over and scoop up food with a long flip of the tongue. Put the food between your lips as I do and you’ll get a sandpaper-textured kiss.

We wisely book lunch at Giraffe Manor, adjacent to Giraffe Center, and watch those same giraffes poke their heads into the living room of this 1930s-era Scottish estate. The red brick home covered in ivy has been converted into a six-bedroom inn, where lunch on the outdoor patio is open to the public. Dine on red snapper as you watch the giraffes gracefully walk in front of the rolling Ngong Hills. The snarling traffic downtown feels hours away, though you’re less than a dozen miles from city center.

In the serene neighborhood of Roslyn Park, overlooking the Karura Forest, we stroll past horses on the way to One Off Contemporary Art Gallery. For the past decade, Carol Lees worked as a curator at RaMoMa Art Gallery, where she displayed works of Kenya’s top contemporary artists. She has since branched off with her husband, Dominic Amatin, to create One Off in a modern wing of her home. Call for an appointment to see the Basquiat-like paintings of Ehoodi Kichapi, politically-charged landscapes by Timothy Brooke, and the naïve figurative works of Richard Kimbathi.

Much of the exquisite jewelry seen at nearby Gemini was created by homeless women or unwed mothers. Purchase a necklace or bracelet consisting of amber, turquoise, or black coral and it will be packaged in a box made by street children, so they too can profit. As manager Genny Sarkar says, “We need to take care of our own.’’

A 25-minute drive west of town brings you to Karen, where the large houses and plots of land are hidden behind tall rows of hedges. Here is the estate of Karen Blixen, the “Out of Africa’’ author who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Blixen came to Kenya to farm coffee and built this rambling one-story abode in 1912. At the height of her success, she had more than 100 employees. In 1931, a prolonged drought left her bankrupt. This hardship coupled with the loss of her lover, pilot and big game safari leader Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the acclaimed film, opposite Meryl Streep) forced Blixen to return home to Denmark.

Blixen was an accomplished artist, too, evidenced by her paintings of her servants hanging on the walls. Also inside is the original mahogany wood found in her study, a lion skin rug from one of her hunts, and an oil lamp that was supposedly used by Blixen as a way to communicate with Finch Hatton. When she was in a good mood, the lamp would shine green. In a bad mood, it shone red.

Entering her backyard, I admire the orange-colored flowers that bloom from a 100-year-old African Flame tree. Then I notice a furry critter, a tree hyrax I’m told, scrambling on the upper branches. Whether you’re deep in the bush or near the country’s largest city, wildlife insists on catching your eye.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Fairmont The Norfolk
Harry Thuku Road
888-451-7070
www.fairmont.com/norfolkhotel
Originally opened on Christmas Day 1904, the Norfolk is now run by Fairmont Hotels. The company recently refurbished all rooms and introduced an American-born chef, Hubert Des Marais, who already knows his way around Lamu lobster and Masai farm-raised ostrich. Double rooms start at $228 a night in January.
Where to eat
Talisman
011-254-20-388-3213
www.talismanrestaurant.com
Located in Karen, sit outside and try the Thai-influenced fare like prawn and calamari stir-fry. Entrees from $9.
What to do
One Off Contemporary Art Gallery
E-mail Carol Lees at oneoff@africaonline.co.ke for an appointment.
Giraffe Manor
011-254-20-892-234
www.giraffemanor.com
Families should inquire about the two-bedroom family suite. Rates start at $498, including all meals.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
011-254-20-2301-396
www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
Adopt an elephant for $50 and you’ll be sent e-mails with the animal’s name and update. Donations can be sent to www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/help_USA.html.
Fine Handcrafted Jewelry by Gemini Desai
011-254-20-374-8455
E-mail Gemini Desai at jdesai@wananchi.com to set up an appointment. Prices are very reasonable.
Karen Blixen Museum
011-254-20-800-2139
www.museums.or.ke/content/blogcategory/13/19/
Daily 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Collectors Den
Simba Street
011-254-20-226-990
www.collectorsdenkenya.com
A great souvenir shop in city center, selling everything from contemporary Kenyan art, African bead jewelry, baskets, batiks, and yes, Tusker Ale T-shirts.