If you are a British citizen,and you need a new passport in Africa, you’re not in luck. Under the guise of “increased security”, but reeking of our government’s new-found love of austerity, there is only one place in Africa that now issues passports: Pretoria, South Africa. The already extortionate fee for a new passport is now compounded by courier fees and a prolonged wait.
Mine had three months left in it, half of what is usually required to enter countries. This is what scuppered my plans of overland travel from Khartoum to Kenya via Ethiopia - the Ethiopians wouldn’t issue me a visa. Here I stood in the British High Commission in Nairobi’s Upper Hill district, having my passport photograph signed, and leaving with a form and an envelope. I would have to DHL my passport to South Africa, leaving me without any travel documents in Kenya for a month - the expected turn-around time.
The over-cast sky of Nairobi threw a grey light over an already relatively grey city. Nairobi felt strange after Khartoum, and Kenya, with its visible British influence, felt strange after ten months in Muslim countries.
I was staying in the “dodgy” part of an already dodgy town; Kenya’s capital is reputed for its muggings, car-jackings and other violent crime. Walking back to my hotel at night, I felt strangely intimidated by the streets, having to put back up my guard. But it was refreshingly liberal, too. Music blared from bars and beer was available freely. A new-found friend in the hostel asked if he could smoke; the proprietor replied with “Bob Marley or normal?”.
Since I have been away, friends have asked me what drove me to go to “dangerous” countries, the ones with such a bad reputation, internationally. Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, Sudan. The idea of Kenya, a massive tourist destination, seems a safe-haven afterwards, in their eyes.
But these impressions of countries are born of misunderstanding, misnomers of the Middle East. I don’t feel that I have been to “dangerous” places. Walking through Damascus at 2am in the morning, down narrow, winding, unlit dark alleyways, I have never felt so safe in a city. Groups of youths on a corner, which in London or Paris could be expected to cause grief, give nothing more than a sala’am alikoum, “peace be upon you”. Similarly, in Khartoum, I knew the greatest danger I faced walking the streets were insistent offers of tea.
Here in Nairobi it seems like “every man for himself”, and I can’t say I felt that enamoured by the city. I’ll have a month sans-passport to see if I change my mind and adjust to a whole new culture. Whizzing along the night roads on the back of a friend’s motorbike are helping things. Although at three in the morning, trying to sleep in a bed hollowed out by the passage of many travelers, the thumping African ragga blaring through the thin glass made me yearn the muezzin call. Right now, I still feel more at home in the Arab world.