It’s been my observation over the last two years that you don’t go to a restaurant if you want to eat a tasty chapati. Much like the most delicious burritos in Southern California are found in “hole in the wall” Mexican food joints, the tastiest chapatis are found in vibanda (makeshift restaurants made from aluminum panels) all over Kenya. It’s a well-established fact: if you want a nice, hot, fresh chapati like you’ve never tasted before, it has to be cooked over a wood fire on a pan of questionable cleanliness by a lady on the side of the road.
I live in Westlands, an uppity suburb of Nairobi where there is a lot of work being done to make new housing and business complexes for upperclass Kenyans and expatriates. These shacks pop up to meet the demand of the day laborers who do work on the construction projects around the neighborhood. There was no food in the house this morning (and today was a public holiday, Kenyatta Day), so I walked over to the junction up the road and had a chapati and a cup of chai. People driving by must think I’m crazy, but everyone there knows me already — I buy milk every day from one dude, four chapati on Saturday mornings from one laday, and sometimes I even go there for lunch (greens, beans, etc, all for twenty shillings or so). The guys even shout Niaje?! (what’s up) when I walk by.
Another aspect of this whole thing is that there are no grocery stores around, and I live like half a mile from the matatu (minibus for public transportation) stop. After that it’s a ten minute ride and another five minute walk to the grocery store at the Sarit Center in Westlands. Then I have to do it all in reverse, but carrying groceries. On the other hand, I can conveniently get most of my important groceries from the guys on the street corner: bread, eggs, vegetables, milk, credit for my cellphone, etc, are all just a five minute walk from my house. Even better, I can just pick those things up on the way home from work with no extra effort!
All is not good though, because their being there is illegal. They don’t have permits, so the city council comes through every once in awhile to sweep their shacks away and intimidate them. Unfortunately I get the feeling they’re fighting an uphill battle, because the rich people probably think the shacks are an eye sore to their ritzy neighborhood (not to mention, they have cars, so they can just drive to the super market whenever they want something). To make matters worse, one day I was chatting with the milk guy and it was pretty late at night so I was surprised they were still at the kiosk. I asked him, “Unaishi wapi?” (where do you live?). He just shrugged and said, “Huku” (here). After further interrogation he pointed a few feet away to a five-story apartment complex which is still under construction. Maisha ni ngumu (life is hard).