I chatted to my friend, Mahlatsi Maredi (aka Mel), one of the biggest African travellers I know, about his travels in Kenya. Mel has travelled to 19 African countries and has visited Kenya at least 15 times.
Mel and I met on Twitter a few years back, and met in real life in Zanzibar at Sauti Zu Busara festival, and we’ve been buddies ever since.
MG: You’ve been to Kenya six times this past year…. what are your top tips for travellers to Kenya?
Mel: If you’re in Nairobi it’s worth your while to walk about in the city. The city centre has so much history. From Uhuru Park – which was saved by environmentalist and Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai’s efforts – to seeing the city from the top of Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
If wildlife is your thing then Nairobi National Park would be a great stop for a quick safari just on the outskirts of the city. I also like the Giraffe Centre in Karen. The Kenyan coast is also a great place to go… Coastal towns like Mombasa, Lamu, Malindi, Diani, Kilifi and Watamu have pristine beaches that are perfect for relaxation.
MG: I adore the Kenyan coast. What are your top picks?
Mel: My two favourite spots on the Kenyan coast are Lamu and Watamu. I’ve been to Lamu island twice this year and each time I leave I’m teary-eyed. I think it’s the simplicity of life there that is attractive to me. Apart from the mayor’s car and the ambulance, there are no cars (or need for Car Insurance) on the island, so people move around and move goods with donkeys. Boats are also used to move from one island to another. The people are so friendly and warm.
I wrote a chapter of my Master’s dissertation in Watamu, a fishing village between Mombasa and Malindi. I loved the beach. I’d go for strolls in between my writing and meet locals. The village inspired me so much.
MG: I know you’re a huge fan of Nairobi nightlife. Any tips on where to party?
Mel: The nightlife in Nairobi is amazing. One can party up in the streets of Westlands. There are bars and clubs that suit almost everyone’s taste and budget.
The rooftop bar at Sankara is a must-see for tourists. It has an amazing view of Nairobi and there is normally a live band on weekends. For a party with an eclectic mix of patrons, that shows how diverse and cosmopolitan Nairobi is, head to Brew Bistro. If you’re looking for a bar filled with more local people, J’s Bar and Kitchen on Muthangari Drive will be a good spot.
For a more mature and expat crowd head to Gypsies. And if you want to party until the sun comes up you will need to make sure that one of your stops is Mercury Lounge at ABC Place on Waiyaki Way. If you venture out of Westlands, one of the clubs that is very popular with Nairobi’s young people is Kiza on Galana Road in Kilimani.
MG: I loved the food in Kenya. What’s your favourite Kenyan food? What should travellers not miss out on?
Mel: I’m really a simple person. When I’m in Nairobi I just want to go to a nyama choma (a braai place) and have mbuzi choma (braaied goat) accompanied by ugali (pap), kachumbari (salsa) and sukuma wiki (collard greens). We don’t get goat meat a lot here at home and it’s always special to have that. This meal is not very different from what we’d have at home and it’s a great reminder of how similar we are.
When I’m on the Kenyan coast, I become a foodie of note. There’s a lot to choose from. Swahili cooking is very tasty and fragrant. All my meals must have pilau rice. You have to try prawn curry and all the seafood there. On my last trip to the coast we had a barbeque on the beach and had these amazing lobsters that I still cannot get over.
MG: Kenya has a great music culture. What are your top Kenyan songs to jam to?
Mel: I have a Kenyan playlist that I update after each trip. There is one song that is on high rotation at the moment: Sauti Sol’s ‘Live and Die in Afrika’ – the clubs go wild when this song plays!
I also love ‘Mungu Pekee’ (Only God) by Nyashinski. This one is an odd one. It’s a Gospel song and, yes, they play it in clubs too. Also, a special mention to anything by H_art The Band.
MG: I hear you’ve picked up some Swahili on your Kenyan travels. Do you have a favourite Swahili word?
Mel: Pole pole. It’s less a word than it is a phrase. It’s also more a lifestyle on the coast. Pole pole means “slowly slowly”. For me it’s the perfect phrase to explain everything that is the Swahili coast. There’s no need to rush anything. It will be done, inshallah.
MG: What is your favourite Kenyan drink?
Mel: I’m not a big beer drinker but I love a Tusker Lager; nothing says Kenya more than that. Kenyan people are probably going to laugh really hard when they read this: I actually like Kenyan Cane, coconut flavour. I blame it on the FOMO I had during the elections rerun; Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) were posting pictures of them drinking KC Coconut. I made sure to try it when I went back to Kenya and I fully get why they like it.
MG: Travelling is about learning. What have you learnt from your Kenyan travel experiences?
Mel: I keep going back to Kenya because I’m inspired by her people. Kenyan young people are hustlers. I see it from the way they do business and innovate. There’s a large number of young entrepreneurs in Kenya and their approach to business centres around understanding the communities that they serve. I find that in South Africa we assimilate the Western world so much and don’t really take time to understand our people before we do business with them.
Mahlatsi Maredi is an accountant by trade, an academic by day, and a cultural wanderer in between. He has travelled to over 40 countries in six of the seven continents, mostly solo. He has a soft spot for the African continent and the diaspora, and has travelled to 19 African countries to date.
Follow his travel adventures on Twitter @Me_17 or Instragram or his blog.