Big Bad Nairobi

As I continued to make my way towards Nairobi I stopped again in a Nature Reserve and camped out by a lake where I hoped to see some hippopotamuses. But they were not close, just loafing in the water off in the distance. I did see a lot of birds though. Here I am at the lake in the evening.

Not to be denied, the next day I hired a ranger to hike with me in the bush to see some other big game. You are not allowed to walk unaccompanied in the reserves due to the danger of being attacked by a wild animal. Elephants and cape buffalo are particularly dangerous.

Well we did not see much. Only a few zebras and giraffes. They are all a bit shy so I could not get too close but here are few snaps.

Here is a shot of my ranger/guide, Patrick. He was describing some snakes there. Apparently some are 40 feet long and as large as a tree trunk. They can swallow an adult goat. You know I wanted to see one of those.

Out of the desert now, mosquitoes are becoming a problem. I have anti-malaria pills which I should take but so far I have not. Malaria is a big problem in Africa. It is estimated that one million children die every year in Africa as a result of malaria. Distribution of mosquito nets and new drugs are helping in some areas though. I saw this sign when I was in a clinic about my kidney problem.

I pass a lot of fruit sellers. The big fruit is mango. They grow millions of them and they are delicious and cheap (about 15 cents). Here is one such stand.

I chuckled when I saw this. How’s this for the name of a company?

Most Kenyans do speak English, but the quality and accent vary tremendously. Some are fluent but others are nearly unintelligible. I was walking down a street and a saw a guy sitting with a small plastic bucket. He said, “you want to buy some hacks?” Curious, I approached him. “What in the world is a hack?” I asked. He opened his bucket. Hard boiled eggs. “Oh, you mean eggs“. He said, “yes, haggs.”

In the nature reserve my guide said we are going to eepo point. I had to think a bit. Ah, he means hippo point. He also said we should see some hellephants and leo-pards (he rhymed this with leotards).

But many people still address me in Swahili, so I have picked up a few words. One common greeting is, “Habari, muzungu.” Which translates amusingly to, “Hello, white person.”

In another milestone, I crossed the equator again just north of Nairobi. Here is a shot of my bike at zero degrees latitude.



My Lonely Planet book says that Nairobi is considered the most dangerous city in Africa, edging out Johannesburg and Lagos. The central district is described as very dangerous, especially at night. Carjackings, muggings, and violent theft are a daily occurrence, even in broad daylight. “Don’t even think about walking around after dark, take a taxi, even for short distances,” they recommend. It is safer to stay in the more affluent suburbs rather than in the crowded center.

Well I must be getting less risk averse in my old age because the thought of staying in the white affluent part of town was not too exciting. I wanted to be in the gritty, rough, chaotic center. Damn the torpedoes.

Then I had a crazy idea. This might be a good opportunity to practice my Haganah training. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have studied the Israeli self defense system known as Haganah. The system teaches you defend yourself against armed and unarmed attackers. Here is a photo of a victim defending himself against an attacker with a gun. The victim, in the dark shirt, has trapped the attacker’s gun, rendering it ineffective, even if fired. With his other arm he is slamming his elbow into the attacker’s neck.

One critical aspect of the system is that it teaches you to be mentally prepared to inflict serious violence on another person. This is contrary to most people’s natural tendencies. Most of us are relatively non-violent (at least, most people I know, but I was never in the military). But when you are attacked you need to mentally be ready to first defend yourself, then immediately turn the attack around and become the aggressor. The techniques are not subtle. They include kicks to the groin, ear slaps, eye gouges, punches to the neck and throat, and breaking ankles. The idea is to contain your opponent, demolish him then spit him out within a matter of seconds.

An important technique is called overlapping, which is hitting your opponent at different levels in rapid succession. For example,you might first kick him in groin, this focuses his attention “downstairs”, then you elbow him in the face, which brings his attention upstairs. Then you punch him in the stomach. Doing this in succession will mentally and physically weaken your opponent so you can get him into what is known as a “point of reference” where you can incapacitate him by easily breaking his ankle or even terminating him by breaking his neck (this apparently is frighteningly easy to do, although understandably difficult to practice with a training partner.)

Which brings up the problem with these systems. You need to continuously practice them or you will not be able to respond quickly when it is needed in real life. So back to my crazy idea. I figured I could walk the dangerous streets of Nairobi carrying nothing of value, and wait to be attacked. This would allow me to practice my haganah techniques. I would actually be at an advantage because I would be prepared and waiting for an attack which would allow me to respond appropriately. Even if I did not defend myself well, I would lose nothing since I would not be carrying anything of value. On the other hand, a demented thief might well shoot first and ask questions later. Is my idea reckless? Do I have a death wish? What would you do?

My other strategy which I do employ is to carry two wallets. One with just papers in it and one real one. If I get held up by a gang of thugs, obviously my self defense techniques will be of no use. I can defend myself against one or two but five guys with AK-47s? I don’t think so. In that case I will pull out my fake wallet, make sure they see it is bulging, then throw it on the ground and run like hell. I figure the would-be thieves will be distracted by the wallet and will stop to examine it rather than chase me or shoot at me. By the time they figure out it’s a fake I will be long gone. That’s the theory anyway.

Well in the end I chickened out. At 3:00 am one night I asked the hotel security guard to open the steel doors barricading the entrance. The guard let me out then closed the heavy door behind me and locked it from the inside. The streets were dark, deserted and sinister. All the shops were closed and protected by thick metal barriers. I felt very exposed. But with my dog repellent in hand I ventured out. I only got a block away before my senses kicked in and I thought, “this is crazy.” I ran back to the hotel and banged on the door. The guard let me in. So much for my experiment.

But the experience got me thinking about personal risk and the thought process that we go through when making decisions about risk. At what point do we decide an action is too risky? Why does this vary so much between people? Think about the Mt. Everest climbers, skydivers, or white water kayakers. They put themselves in very risky situations. Many die every year. Why are they inclined to take such risks?

As I am in Kenya, the cradle of humanity if you believe the theory, I think a lot about our ancient ancestors and how we evolved. It fascinates me to think all of us are related to a few hairy Australopithecines who wandered out of east Africa millions of years ago.

How did these early humans evaluate risk? How did this factor into our evolution as homo sapiens? Did people who risked “too much” die out and therefore fail to propagate? Does evolution favor conservatism? If so how do we explain the statement, “nothing ventured, nothing gained?” Does evolution favor some risk but not too much? Early hominids must have tried attacking large mammals. If they succeeded those risky genes would have propagated to future generations, but if they died the genes that influenced that behavior would have died with them. Their “bad decision” genes would not live to future generations.

As the saying goes, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” If I had ventured out and gotten attacked and survived, the experience would have been beneficial to me. I would have learned something valuable. My “good decision” genes could be passed on to future generations (assuming I ever have children, but that’s a different story.) If, on the other hand, I had been attacked and killed, my “bad decision” genes would not be able to propagate (and I probably would be a candidate for a Darwin award, but that’s another story too.)

If this theory is true then as humans evolve (assuming we are in fact still evolving, which if you read the news seems debatable) we should have within us more and more “good decision” genes and so we should be making better decisions about risk. But judging by the recent economic collapse, I have my doubts. I like to think humans are getting smarter as a species, and I suppose if you look back a couple thousand years you could argue we are smarter and more civilized. I hope so. The alternative is pretty depressing.

OK, enough psychobabble. Back to Nairobi.

What a great place. It may be violent but it is a modern, bustling place with great restaurants (Italian!), shopping malls and fantastic coffee shops that put Starbucks to shame. There is a nice museum and internet cafes on every corner. Am I in Africa?

Here are a few photos I took near the National Museum.

This is a group of school kids on a trip to the museum.

A small bird, I think it is called a sunbird.

Here is how many people get to and from work every day.

A woman and child begging from passing cars.

Everyone has a cell phone. It is crazy frustrating to try to make a call in Kenya. There are no public phones. People could not believe I did not own cell phone.

Finally, I met a fascinating individual, David Kinjah, a brilliant bike mechanic, racer, and all around great guy. He is undoubtedly the best cyclist in Kenya and probably the best in East Africa, if not the entire continent. He completely overhauled my bicycle, replacing my ailing headset and left hand shifter. He was explaining the corruption in the Kenyan cycling system. Most of the government grants from the Ministry of Sport end up in the chairman’s bank account rather than on developing cycling in Kenya. It’s a depressing story and a microcosm of the endemic corruption that exists in Africa (and indeed in most countries of the world.) David was banned for trying to expose the corruption in the media. Ironically they charged him with “disruptive behavior.”

Kinjah (he prefers to use just his surname) rides at least 100 km every morning. I rode part way with him one day and I can confirm he is fast. I about blew my lungs out trying to stay with him. We finally got to his shop where he has a least 40-50 bicycles and parts scattered around. He trains young riders, many from the slums, and supports their cycling financially out of his own pocket. He is an inspiration and a great role model for the young riders. I hope he manages to stamp out the corruption in the sport.

Here is Kinjah with some of his bicycles.

19 thoughts on “Big Bad Nairobi

  1. Katrina February 25, 2009 / 6:29 pm

    I will personally ‘haganah’ your back bone if you think about acting on another one of those wonderful ideas to venture out at nite and tempt muggers. ok? ok?

  2. DAD February 28, 2009 / 1:02 am

    I ventured out one night in good old civilized Florida and got mugged.

  3. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. February 28, 2009 / 2:08 pm

    Kevin, I don’t know what you’re eating there in Nairobi, but I would take that out of the diet.

  4. JoJo March 1, 2009 / 5:25 pm

    Hey kev,
    I’ve often wondered what it would be like to just walk around the south side of Chicago one night, all alone, just stroll the streets. What would happen to an innocent like me? would I be raped and killed? Would I be able to say to them that I was just lost and would they help me? and would they? I would never take the risk to find out, but I wonder how barbaric (if thats even the proper word) they would be to just kill or rape someone innocently lost….

    Just getting in to December in your blog but thought I’d jump ahead to say hi and see how you’re doing. It’s about 0 degrees here in the U.P. today and about -15 with the windchill. Believe it or not I’m getting ready to go for a snowshoe hike. When you bundle up, it ain’t so bad.

    I’ve often thought if God came down and said I could go to only one place in the world, I would choose Africa (that or Bora Bora). You see so many pictures and shows on the African plains and animals, it just seems so vast and beautiful and wild and untouched. That would be one of the top places I’d love to go. How do you like it so far?

    Take care. Where to after Africa?

  5. Kevin Koski March 3, 2009 / 7:11 am

    Jo, when I lived in Chicago I read about a family that drove around and got lost in the south side. They ended up on a small street where two gangs were consummating a drug deal. The family never made it back. How much of survival (or not) is just plain luck?

    Africa, and especially Kenya, has to be the highlight of my trip so far. If you go one place in your life, go to Africa. Everything is so different. You won’t be the same person when you get back. I will elaborate more in a future post.

  6. Martha/Maudie March 4, 2009 / 2:34 am

    enjoy the warm weather…40 degrees in Miami this morning and probably same tomorrow. No rain so everything is parched, even the palm trees are drooping. You missed the gay and lesbian party on the beach!!! also the food and wine festival. Lots of fun. I am so enjoying your blog. Be careful out there. Martha

  7. Ben Kilpela March 4, 2009 / 10:30 pm

    There’s nothing ethically wrong that I can see with wanting to test your skills, Kev, but probably the best way to do so would be to enlist the help of a friend, perhaps someone you meet on the road who has the same fears. You can help each other by practicing for a dangerous encounter. I like the idea of practice, though. There is very little chance that you would be able to use your skills without having regularly practiced them beforehand. Overcoming the inhibition to kill is very difficult even among people who have a pathological desire to kill, as I have read about in several books on serial killers, who spend a great deal of their time “practicing” to overcome those inhibitions. It is especially difficult among “normal” ordinary folks. It takes a good deal of training, and often fails. A favorite example are those many Civil War soldiers who were found dead on many-an American battlefield with rifles jammed with a dozen bullets that the soldiers never fired.

    Kippis, Ben

  8. JoJo March 7, 2009 / 2:48 am

    Kev, you’re so tough, you never even rode the “L” in Chicago….remember?….

  9. Ira March 9, 2009 / 10:55 am

    Interesting questions about risk. I would think that early humans evaluated risk in much the same way we do now. Probably very few attacked woolly mammoths by themselves. They worked in groups and spread the risk. (For that matter, so do wolves and hyenas.) And they judged the very existence of the megafauna within close proximity to be a risk with which they could not live. You just can’t have giant lions and saber-tooth tigers roaming around near your house in large numbers. Where we live in Colorado there are mountain lions who feed off the deer and elk. We live with the unsettling risk that they will poach one of our kids or dogs. Last year for the first time a couple of dogs got dragged off. You can bet that if it continues there will be a hue and cry to get rid of these creatures who were living here long before we invaded. The risk of living near them will have become too great.

    If early humans didn’t take risks in hunting large, dangerous beasts or driving them off they might never have had the opportunity to evolve the way did, which ultimately led to domination of the planet. They might have been hemmed into smaller areas, maybe even in trees. So in that sense the risky genes were good. Here’s a more recent example – Ghengis Khan was an amazing risk taker – he had to be to climb to power in that violent society and then initiate conquests of seemingly more powerful empires. As a result of his successful risk taking, he fathered innumerable offspring. DNA analysis shows that millions of people are now directly descended from him. If the name of the game is to pass your genes down, he’s the ultimate champion.

    On a more serious note, your thoughts and contemplated actions concerning the upkeep of your haganah skills are pretty disturbing. I’m not sure what it says about you or the possibly insular nature of your travel style that you would go so far towards implementing such a plan. Think about it. You actually stepped out at 3am as willing bait, hoping to get into an altercation with one or two people in which you would do them serious physical harm. They would end up with broken bones, possibly unable to walk, all because you saw an opportunity to hone your skills and stay in shape. For some short period of time you were able to distance yourself completely from their humanity, to see them as objects to be used towards a selfish end. Hard to understand how you could reach this point. Perhaps it’s because you travel alone and lack a timely sounding board. I guess the rationale is that the victims would be the lowest scum and deserving of their fate. Kevin Koski as the Nairobi Charles Bronson. This strikes me as a very dangerous attitude. I won’t address the personal risk element – you’re obviously free to do with your body what you wish. But there’s a moral issue here that bears exploring. And is it really worth having such a skill if it promotes/enables you to have no compunction about maiming others, and even to want to do so? Sounds to me like the very definition of a violent person. You’ve never struck me as a violent person (check that punning out!) so hopefully this was an anomalous episode.

  10. joe March 10, 2009 / 5:29 pm

    it is exciting to walk around nairobi,its not dangerous but i would recommend you to walk with a local friend rather than going to walk alone.
    I think Kinja is a good cyclist,but Chris Froome won medals for Kenya and had good times in the Tour of France!

  11. Kevin Koski March 11, 2009 / 8:53 am

    It seems we have a couple ethical and legal issues emerging. One, is it ethical to practice martial arts or self defese skills in real life on unsuspecting attackers (setting them up, as it were)?

    Then, if you are attacked, to what extent are you morally and legally “allowed” to defend yourself?

    I see nothing wrong with practicing self defense skills in real life situations. It may not be the smartest idea or the most efficient way but it is simply self defense, which leads to the second issue. You could argue that it is some form of entrapment, but the police do that legally all the time.

    Personally I believe in “live and let live.” But if you attack me you have crossed the line. You have initiated a series of events that you now must live with. Everyone is responsible for their actions, so if you try to rob me or abduct me I am morally justified in doing whatever I feel is necessary to protect myself, including gouging eyes out and breaking necks.

    The Haganah people do advise, however, that you must be aware of the laws in your jurisdiction regarding self defense. You don’t want to maim some poor drunk who hassles you in a bar, but if your family is threatened with harm or abduction you may feel compelled to act more violently. The degree of violence is probably related to the degree of threat you feel. But as this is highly subjective, and difficult to assess during the stressful encounter, it is a tricky issue indeed.

  12. ira March 12, 2009 / 5:56 am

    What you were setting out to do was not defending yourself – you were deliberately looking to create a violent encounter. Whatever your “good” intentions (making sure your skills will be there to protect you and loved ones when you really need them), this would be the act of a violent person who it could be argued might someday have to be separated from non-violent citizens. If this idea came to you while drunk you probably shouldn’t drink; if it came to you while sober then you’re a regular guy who goes out looking for fights. Have you ever done that before? Probably not, n which case it would be interesting to understand what made this situation different from the previous part of your life? Why haven’t you come up with this idea before – say, in Miami?

    Another aspect – what if you were successful and beat the crap out of one or two hoodlum attackers? You’d feel good about that, wouldn’t you? Is that the kind of good feeling you really want? And maybe it’s even good enough to try it again someday, or at least not go out of your way to avoid a confrontation. Hopefully you don’t misjudge the next situation and find yourself on the losing end because you thought you were hot shit. Then your “risky genes” would have betrayed you.

    Don’t get me wrong – I think the haganah is a cool thing to have learned and be ready to use – but I just know that I don’t want to be consoling Katrina the rest of her life because her brother did something stupid. Please stick to drinking wine in the safer parts of town thank you.

  13. Kevin Koski March 16, 2009 / 7:31 am

    Ira, you are incorrect. I was not “looking to create a violent encounter.” If that were true I would initiate an attack on someone. Easy. I was merely walking around, minding my own business. A completely nonviolent activity. I don’t go out looking for fights; I only want to be prepared if I am attacked by someone who wants to harm me. That is self defense and does not reflect any kind of violent nature in my opinion.

    As far as Miami, no one wallks around there, they only drive. Plus I have training partners there, a more sensible way to practice these skills. Also, I am just not in Miami that much. Fourthly, I did not think of it. Fifth, I am in a foreign country with limited resources. I need to stay sharp because if I get robbed here I am SOL, unlike being at home in Miami.

    If I did in fact beat the crap out of a couple hoodlums I don’t know how I would feel. Probably satisfied that my skills were still sharp. I don’t think I would feel good or happy about it. I am not a vigilante. This is strictly a pragmatic logical approach to survival and self preservation.

    I have an idea: next time I am in Colorado I will show you some of the techniques. I will let you attack me and we will see what happens.

  14. Katrina March 22, 2009 / 4:09 pm

    Guess I misinterpreted your post. I connected the following passages as meaning you were looking to create a situation in which you could practice your self defense skills:

    “So back to my crazy idea. I figured I could walk the dangerous streets of Nairobi carrying nothing of value, and wait to be attacked. This would allow me to practice my haganah techniques.” And two paragraphs later, “Well in the end I chickened out. At 3:00 am one night I asked the hotel security guard to open the steel doors barricading the entrance.”

    Venturing out at 3am sounded like an implementation of your “crazy idea,” and the chickening out implied a backing off from a dangerous intention. Yes, there’s definitely a difference between attacking and setting up a situation in which it’s very likely you’ll have the opportunity to kick some ass. However, the latter still seems a bit reprehensible.

  15. Laura March 30, 2009 / 1:25 am

    Did I miss something? Kev, we love you and we all want you to come back in one piece. I was attacked once when leaving work at night in Detroit and I sure never want to experience that fear and terror again. I think most women have a heightened sense of their personal surroundings and (hopefully) take precautions accordingly. I do avoid situations that I consider dangerous (like walking alone at night) and therefore limit many interesting experiences BUT I plan on waking up in the morning. Don’t think I’ll ever make it to Nairobi…oxox Laura

  16. feng shui May 20, 2010 / 7:08 pm


    I would like to contact David kinja if you have his contacts.


  17. Kevin Koski May 20, 2010 / 10:15 pm

    Sorry, I lost his contact info but you can probably search some cycling organizations in Africa and find him.

  18. purity ngugi January 6, 2013 / 1:41 pm

    hi Kevin,
    Mangoes are in season in Meru. When are you coming to Kenya?

  19. Kevin Koski September 8, 2015 / 4:31 am

    Hi Purity,

    I love the Meru mangoes. No plans to return to Kenya soon but one day I hope to visit again.

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