Our Man Around Nairobi today is John Fox. John Fox is the Managing Director of Intermedia Development Consultants (iDC). John is a development communication and M&E specialist – doing consultancy work mainly for development agencies, the UN, EU, and bilateral agencies. For the first half of his career, back in the UK, he taught adult education, first at Nottingham University and then at Southampton University. John is also a journalist, and he has written the Going Places column in the Sunday Nation for 26 years.
Did you grow up in Nairobi?
No. I grew up in Boston, UK. It’s a market town on the east coast, it’s called the Wash, it was once the second most important port in Britain, but the harbour got silted up. It has the tallest parish church in England. It’s now become famous again because it’s got the highest proportion of immigrants, mainly from Poland, Eastern Europe. When I went back I hardly recognized the place, but yes, I grew up in Boston, in the flatlands of East Anglia.
I remember I was quite passionate about sport. My dad had that influence. He once played goalkeeper for Boston Town. We used to play football and cricket, but my main sport was running, I was built for it I suppose. I was a distance runner from my teenage years and we had set up a rough pitch in the field opposite our house. My memories are related to sport. We lived in the rural areas but apart from sports I was into wildlife, very different wildlife from what is in Kenya. Most of the birds were small brown ones. But we had a pig farm, we had chickens, we had dogs, cats so yeah from very early on I had this interest in wildlife. One of my sons inherited this interest.
I was a kid during the Second World War and my memories were going off to sleep with bomber aircrafts flying over for bomber raids. There was a fleet of aircrafts, British and American flying over all the time. It was a war time experience. I had no fear at all, I mean I was too young for there to be fear I remember. Then one evening, we heard the sirens go off and my father said That’s not one of ours. Then when the bomb landed it landed in a field next to ours/ But luckily it didn’t explode. So yes that was that growing up, but I later joined the air force. I spend two years there, I was lucky, I learned to fly and it was right at the end of the National Service time.
The first time I came to Nairobi was in 1967. I was teaching and I was in the Adult Education Department of Nottingham University. A professor had been sent to Kenya to set up what was then called the College of Social Studies (which later became Kikuyu campus). He asked “Would any of you young guys like to go to Kenya for two years?” I put my hand up, I’m not sure why but I did. I was the acting principal; I was this arrogant very young guy, principal of the adult studies centre before my great friend David Macharia took over.
I came by boat, which put me off cruising for life. The boat should have gone through the Suez Canal but it was the time of the Israeli-Egyptian war so the boat had to go around the Cape. We stopped for a few hours at the Canary Islands then docked in Cape Town. If ever I needed a lesson on how bad apartheid was, I got it. I’d made a friend from Seychelles on the boat and when it docked he said “No John I don’t think I can go with you!”
I said “Why not?”
He said “I don’t think it’s a good idea!”
So I went to see the ships officers and asked what if my friend Max and I could go out shortly. They said we would be arrested because he was of Chinese origin and I was white. The office said that we would get into trouble with the South African police. But one of the officers said. But if I was a policeman I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. So you will be OK. At the time in South Africa, Chinese were classified as black and Japanese as white, because they wanted to trade with Japan. It was so outrageous.
I remember when I did go into a shop in Cape Town (which was supposed to be one of the most liberal places) in a bookshop, I bought a copy of the evening edition of the Observer. I asked if they have got a copy of a book called the Geography of African Affairs written by a colleague of mine, one of the lecturers at Nottingham University, and they looked at me as if I was a criminal. I discovered it was on the banned list of books. When I got back on the ship and started looking at the Observer, two articles had been neatly cut out like with a razorblade and I discovered afterwards they were both related to some UN debate about South Africa, which was the kind of ham fisted censorship that was going on. But the voyage was long; it probably took me three or four weeks. But there is one good thing about it I mean if you compare it, these days’ people come to Africa on 7-8-hour flight, but on boat you see the gradual changes in landscape, weather and wildlife.
I came with my wife so we bought our car. When we got to Nairobi, the most memorable thing was the road. I got to see my first elephant, it must have been around Tsavo. The other thing was stopping at Mtito Andei and having a buffet lunch. Then the road from Mtito Andei to Hunters Lodge was murram, it wasn’t tarmacked.
At first we drove straight to Kikuyu and the Professor had said Carry blankets, I thought not to. I mean we were going to Africa, so for the first night, we were very cold. That was a surprise. Kikuyu is a forest, and it’s really not the Africa we’d imagined or read in the books. The images people have of Africa is very much savannah land. I just wish my father would had seen it. When you drive from Nairobi to Naivasha, going down you get the kind of vegetables we grew on our shamba in Lincolnshire, carrots and potatoes…and traveling on you also get tropical fruits. So within a space of half an hour you are in two very different climates and that’s quite a shock. And that view across the Rift Valley is one of the early memories I have. I think it’s a pity there’s such a clutter now at the viewpoint. You know Kenya is a tourist country really, I mean that viewpoint is unrivalled and it’s been messed up.
2. What do you love about Nairobi then and now?
It’s cosmopolitan nature. In the mid 80s after two years I went back to the UK. I went back to my old University where I used to lecture. I went to the office of a friend. We went to the common room and within a few minutes I was sitting in the same old familiar place with the same people I had sat with for years and the conversations were the same, nothing had changed. They were having the same conversations about who is doing what. It’s about the circle of friends, the focus is on relationships
I used to teach a Master’s programme for adult education, and we had African students there. We had one girl from ANC and we were talking about our own experiences, and where we were from. She was teaching at an ANC school in Tanzania. She was talking about it and one of the guys who was a lecturer in a College of Education said “Oh so Tanzania isn’t in South Africa then!” The lack of knowledge about the world is amazing. So I think if you are living in Nairobi, you are much more aware of what’s going on around the world. The mix of urban living. You know the restaurants around Nairobi are as good as you get anywhere around the world…so you have this juxtaposition of city life and Kenya’s wildlife which is unrivaled.
I love the cosmopolitan nature of Nairobi. The mix of the city and the rural including the National Park and nature. I also love that drive, the drive from Nairobi to the coast. I have written about it many times. My son laughs at me and says Dad you can’t write it anymore. Apart from rainforests you see just about every landscape you could get in Africa, you’ve got the forest, the savannah, the nyika, the thorn bush in Tsavo and the semi desert and then the coastal strip. I mean it’s incredible, just in that one drive the scenery is kaleidoscopic Now of course its dreadful because of the traffic. The last time I went I drove, I left home at 5 in the morning, I got to Diani Beach at 7:30. I was in Voi having coffee at 11 and then I hit the traffic, the lorries because I missed to take a left turn over the causeway so I followed the trucks up to the docks and it took me a while to turn back. It’s a pity because that is such a wonderful trip driving down. I would always choose to drive rather than fly but now I’ve changed my mind.
3. What would you change about Nairobi?
I would have a better transport plan. I mean obviously, the transport system is pretty chaotic and is getting worse; it’s getting as bad as Kampala. I don’t know how to change that as I’m not a city planner. I was at a party and I joined a group of some Kenyans. They were talking about planning in the city, and I said there is no planning in the city. Then one of them told me, “Oh John, meet the city planner.” That was a few years ago.
When I came to Nairobi for the first time it still had some of the colonial features. It’s the only place I’ve ever been turned from a restaurant for not wearing a tie. That was in 68’ or so. The clubs intrigue me. I belong to Nairobi Club and I’ve visited Muthaiga Club a few times. I’m just still surprised at the way those clubs have retained the kind of dress code and the kind of mannerisms and rituals that were there in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Twice recently I have been invited to Muthaiga Club and on both occasions, one of the other people they’d invited to dinner wasn’t invited to the dining room because they weren’t properly dressed. To me they were smart, but you know they didn’t fit in, so that amuses me the way those traditions are being kept alive.
There’s this nice story of Michael Blundell. I helped Michael Blundell with his memoirs. He was Leader of the Legislative Assembly. He’d formed the New Kenya Party, he joined KADU and he became chairman of Kenya Breweries. He told a story of sitting out at the Thorn Tree just before independence and there was a kind of apartheid operating in some of these hotels apart from the dress code. They were sitting there just before independence. Paul Ngei marched past them straight into the hotel. He was wearing a floral shirt and he had his carved walking stick. A farmer, obviously of these right wing types, said “See Blundell, see what we are in for!” Blundell when he told me the story, I laughed because he said these days you see it’s the Europeans who are casually dressed. It’s the Kenyans who keep up these suit and tie traditions.
4. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
For me it’s an ideal centre. I’m in consultancy with development agencies. Most of our work is the evaluation of design, monitoring and evaluating development programs for UN, DFID and so on. Nairobi is just a great centre and an ideal place for that kind of work. As it turned out we were very early working in Somalia in the 1990s. A lot of our work these days is also in Somalia but yes Nairobi is the most ideal place.
I think there are two kinds of expats broadly, there are some who spend a lot of time complaining about efficiency, too much bureaucracy, giving bribes and then there are others who say hey man there are opportunities here. I think in a way there are more opportunities than challenges.
5. If you had friends coming to visit Kenya what three things would you tell them to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting?
The people. I don’t want to use such cliché words as the people are so warm and friendly. I came from a rural area in Britain where people didn’t talk to each other; this small story will help you understand. I had a research team, Kenyan, Tanzanian, Ghanaian and a Sierra Leonean. Just before I came to Kenya we were in a pub in Edinburgh, and a Scotsman came up to our group and started chatting to us. Joseph the Tanzanian who is still a great friend, when the Scotsman had gone he said “John what’s wrong with you? I said “What is he after?” Joseph said “What do you mean? He was just being friendly?” It’s taken me a long time to realize that, to adjust from this rather reserved and private lifestyle that I grew up in rural England.
Well of course, there’s the city life, the clubs, the restaurants and the museum. It’s a great city and then of course, easy access to the wildlife and you can experience all that in one day which you can’t do anywhere else in the world. There’s also one thing I would change, the revolving restaurant at the top of KICC, I would get it back to revolving. It had an incredible view of the city, a great perspective. There is one now in Kampala.
They should definitely visit the Nairobi National Park. But I don’t know how long it will remain open with all the developments going on now around it.