EVER DREAM OF PACKING YOUR BAGS, MOVING TO AFRICA AND SAVING THE WORLD? WELL AUSTRALIAN DAVINIA COGAN DID JUST THAT, LIVING IN AFRICA FOR THREE YEARS, THE LAST 18 MONTHS OF WHICH SHE LIVED IN NAIROBI, KENYA. THERE SHE WORKED AS AN ADVISOR FOR THE NON-PROFIT GVEP INTERNATIONAL, WHICH WORKS WITH LOCAL BUSINESSES TO INCREASE ACCESS TO MODERN ENERGY. HERE, SHE SHARES HER INSPIRING TALE OF LIFE, LOVE AND ADVENTURING IN THIS WILD AFRICAN NATION.
Davinia hello! Can you please fill us in on what took you to Kenya?
I remember being captivated by Africa as a child. I grew up in a household where TV wasn’t encouraged, but I would get to watch the news. It was the 90s and Africa was getting a lot of coverage, obviously not about good things – the famines in Somalia and Ethiopia and genocide in Rwanda. But I remember being drawn to the scenes, the faces, the terrain, the clothing, everything. It was like nothing I’d ever seen and I just wanted to go, more than anywhere else in the world.
Of course my parents weren’t too excited about the idea, they thought it was too dangerous and just some silly 16-year-old’s idea. So instead I went to university and did a business degree, ending up in corporate finance – which I hated. But I stuck at it for four years, and at the same time did my masters in international relations. As luck would have it I was soon made redundant while doing a semester in Paris, so I moved to Uganda for six months to volunteer for an Australian charity called School for Life in Uganda.
I was really overwhelmed when I got there. I’d had this naive view of what it would be like, very green with savannah and acacia trees everywhere. In reality I got there during dry season and it felt like a red dust bowl with so much traffic and car fumes, it was super hot and really intense. I remember stepping off a 30-plus hour flight and being stuck in gridlock for hours while motorbikes weaved in and out of the traffic, carrying everything from live cows to a black leather coffin.
After that I moved to London, then Tajikistan. Eventually I decided I wanted to go back to Africa so I put in a job application and a few days later found out I was moving back to Uganda, which then landed me in Nairobi for the last 18 months. Since then I’ve been working with renewable energy start-ups in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. There’s a huge need for electrification there as up to 95 percent of populations have no energy access. So we work with off-grid electrification companies that do things like distributing solar lights, or building miniature energy grids that might just link up 20 households.
Do you have any especially strong memories of your first few weeks in Nairobi?
I’d been to Nairobi a few times while living in Uganda and I loved it. I thought it was amazing that I could stay in hotels with pools, and that I could buy quinoa, dark chocolate and wine in a bottle, not a box. Nairobi is also considered the Silicon Valley of Africa which made for a dynamic work environment. There are an incredible number of intelligent young people setting up companies that address social issues. One of my favourites is SOKO, an online marketplace for modern, ethical jewelry produced in Kenya that even ships to Australia.
Unfortunately Nairobi also has a darker side. Armed robberies and car-jackings are relatively common, which can restrict your movement and lifestyle to some degree. I’d never walk around on the street at night and tended to avoid walking in the CBD and other higher risk areas even during the day. The police can also be a menace and often ask for bribes. It’s important to remember Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked 145 out of 174, which means there’s a large degree of lawlessness.
But as long as you stay out of trouble, Nairobi is one of the best African cities to live in. People are friendly and laid back for the most part, they speak good English, plus they have Uber now so it’s really safe and easy to get around.
What was daily life like for you in Nairobi?
When I arrived I quite quickly started dating my partner Charlie. We moved in together and got a puppy and towards the end of our stay had our baby Olivia, so it was quite a homely life for us. We lived in a nice house with a big garden and went for walks with the dog every morning. We lived in Lavington, a really green and relatively safe area between the CBD and Karen, a suburb on the outskirts of the city that’s named after Karen Blixen from the film Out of Africa. It doesn’t feel as harsh as the “real” Nairobi so it’s a good place for travelers to stay. We lived on one of the secure private streets, so every morning we’d walk past beautiful old colonial buildings with lush bougainvillea and jacaranda, brilliant yellow acacia trees, palms and banana trees everywhere, while hearing the call to prayer from the mosque around the corner. Imagine monkeys jumping around but still only 15 minutes from the city! Then I’d go to Bikram yoga at Bikram Yoga Nairobi and get a fruit juice, a latte and an almond croissant on my way back home.
The drive to the office, however, could make for an interesting start to the day, depending on what I’d meet on the way. Herds of cattle or goats crossing the road were a common sight. I’d always be astounded at the courtesy drivers give these animals and their owners in comparison to the typically absurd behavior on Kenyan roads. Mutatu (local bus) drivers can be the worst! As are Kenyan politicians, who form ad-hoc motorcades by speeding down the middle of two-lane streets. During the rainy season, some roads can also become a bit perilous, as I recently found out when I narrowly missed bogging my car (on a dark road, while my two month-old baby screamed in the back) and ended up having to reverse down a muddy incline while sliding backwards from one side of the road to the other.
With so many foreigners living in Nairobi, the quality and choice of food is impressive and there’s barely anything you can’t get. We’d often go to the only Japanese restaurant in Nairobi, Cheka, where a second-hand car importer turned head chef runs the kitchen. Rather than going through your run-of-the-mill suppliers he employs someone full-time in Mombasa to source fresh produce from local fishermen each day. Our local Italian La Salumeria, owned by a Venetian, served fresh pasta with crab and homemade ravioli. And a former chef at Chez Panisse in San Francisco recently opened Marula Mercantile which was our absolute favourite.
Having lived there for almost two years, what do you think people’s biggest misconceptions are about Kenya?
While you do need to be careful as a tourist in Nairobi, a lot of the news regarding terrorism has been blown out of proportion. There were tourism bans across the entire coastal region of Kenya while I was living there which obviously disabled their economy. Journalists often label these attacks as terrorism related which is sometimes questionable. There’s a lot of tribalism in Kenya and it’s believed a number of attacks are actually land disputes.
I had a lot of people asking me, “are you worried about Ebola?”. It’s infuriating how little people research these things. I was further from it than someone in Berlin, Paris or Rio, but a lot of people had that misconception that it was over the entire continent. Tourism in Kenya makes up a staggering proportion of the GDP, so the people in Nairobi and the coastal regions have just been shattered by these events which is so sad.
Where did your travels around the country take you? Which places did you feel the strongest connection to?
My favourite place in the world is a beautiful little island called Lamu in northern Kenya near Somalia that has a really chill vibe. A lot of people are too scared to go there because of its positioning, but visiting the place it’s hard to imagine it being described as unsafe.
We stayed at Peponi, an incredible rustic hotel in an area called Sheila on the tip of the island. The food is amazing; the English owner’s nephew came over from the UK to makeover the kitchen so they have, really, the best sashimi and sushi, and crab dishes for $10 – $15 a pop! The hotel also does a lot of conservation work and works with the local community to bring back sea turtle populations, so we recently saw hundreds of sea turtles hatch and make their way into the ocean.
Lamu town is about a ten-minute boat ride away and is a world heritage site dating back to the 1400s. There are lots of incredible old houses that have been purchased by wealthy people or foreigners and done up to their original state which are just stunning. The walls are all made of coral bricks, and there are great museums and art stores selling items made out of reclaimed wood and recycled flip flops.
There’s another lovely place on the coast called Watamu. It has really been impacted by the lack of tourism so a couple of places have closed, but it’s gorgeous and you can rent the most amazing houses for $170 a night for a six-bedroom mansion with a chef. You get all the local fishermen coming on their bicycles at end of day and you choose what you want for the chef to cook up that evening.
The Maasai Mara is pretty special, especially if you want to tick off the big five, but depending on the time of year can be pretty full of tourists. Some of the smaller private reserves actually have so much more wildlife than the larger reserves where there’s so much traffic the animals move elsewhere. When we go, we usually drive the 4 hours from Nairobi and stay in this gorgeous white house right on the river with bougainvillea all over it called Jaqueline’s House right outside the park. It’s owned by a French anthropologist who married an illiterate Masai warrior. She was his first wife and he ended up having ten or 11 wives, but she was given this land on the Maasai River right outside the park. It was also really affordable – $200 a night, whereas safari lodges can be $1500 per person per night.
Laikipia was just magical. There’s a rhino sanctuary and they have the most black and white rhinos I’ve ever seen. We would sit with our gin and tonics and watch the sun set with the rhinos right there, not feeling threatened at all. To be so close to nature without it feeling contrived is a very special experience. Plus we felt like we had the entire place to ourselves.
For travellers making the journey to Kenya who have a bit more time, which neighbouring countries would you suggest they journey to?
I really loved Rwanda. It’s a bit more difficult to get to than places like Tanzania, but it’s one of my favourites and it’s so safe. You can walk around there at 2am and nothing will happen to you, and the mountains are just incredible. I went there initially for work and discovered Lake Kivu, it’s bordered by DRC and is this unbelievable crystal clear, pristine volcanic lake.
But my favourite trip there was a weekend with Charlie when we stayed at Nyungwe Forest Lodge. You could go gorilla trekking first thing in the morning (which I didn’t do because I was 35 weeks pregnant!) and at the hotel there are just ten rooms all overlooking the forest with an infinity pool going off into the vines with all these monkeys jumping around. Pure magic.