For the last 9 months or so I have been discovering and exploring London. I was born in the south London district of Tooting and I spent the first 18 years, give or take the odd holiday, ensconced in a suburb tucked about as far south and west as you can go and still be in the city. From birth to age 18 I lived in four different houses with my family. As the youngest I saw the number of necessary beds drop as we made each move, my siblings going off to University or moving out entirely, off ‘on their travels’.
I grew up doing all the usual things – watching television, bike rides, cinema trips, going to school, playing football in the street, watching more television, playing computer games endlessly. I knew my suburb very well. The best places to mess around on bikes and skateboards, where to play football, the best shops and cafes, the pubs that served us all just a little before they should have. But ask me to take you around ‘London’ and I would have stared blankly. The inner city, the place with the monuments and famous streets – that was no more familiar to me than any other visitor.
Part of what I have discovered during my placement, then, has been my home city. I know nice pubs and restaurants all over town. If I run out of money on my Oyster card, I can probably walk it. I’m not stranded in the immediate environs of tube or bus stops that I got out of – a very common complaint for us suburban kids. I can actually back up claims like “come down, I can show you around” or “there’s this terrific pierogi place down south, I’ll take you”.
After I left school I moved to Kampala, Uganda, more or less on a whim – more on that here. I spent about a year there and can definitely say that I still know it and my way around it better than the place of my birth. Likewise, the fair city of Bath, where I have spent two happy years, is somewhere I feel, at least geographically, infinitely more confident with. It saddens me that next year will likely be the last I spend amongst all that sandstone and Georgian architecture (although I will not miss the dank, subterranean clubs). Development can take you to work in a multitude of exciting and beautiful places all over the world; I rather suspect that this particular corner of southwest England is not one of them.
The final three months of my placement are to be spent in a new city, Nairobi, capital of Kenya. I have never been, aside from a brief layover, although I have read and heard a lot about it – it’s one of those cities that, at least in the development sector, people end up working in. I’m intrigued to see the bigger, badder, elder sibling of my beloved Kampala. Could it be more exciting? More varied? Even more relentlessly energetic? It is, in all probability, a city I might well end up spending several years in. In East Africa, my region of interest, Nairobi is the biggest hub of international NGOs and, as such, represents the brights lights and the big city; the best place for me to get a job I’d love.
As far as I understand it, Nairobi is new not just to me. It’s a city of roughly 3 million souls and has the highest growth rate of any urban area in Africa according to UN Habitat. In 2010, it had the highest growth rate for luxury housing in the world, 25%, beating out Miami, Singapore and London. A recent article by Basharat Peer – a terrific long read that takes you on the modern and modernising hajj – saw the writer speak to the Saudi novelist Raja Alem on her hometown of Mecca, another city in the midst of a huge building boom,
“I used to know Mecca like the back of my hand,” Alem, who now lives in Paris, told me, “I returned after a five-year absence and didn’t know how to reach the [focal centre of the hajj and the city] Holy Mosque.”
Perhaps my little three months taster session won’t end up being that useful, at least not for my personal geographic knowledge. But it will be an escape from the hell that is commuting. It will be a step closer to my dream career. And, most of all, it will be a chance to get myself some new stories to tell you all when I come back next year and start to corner people in Plug again. Kwaheri until then.