Before leaving for Africa, a few people joked that I’d take my generous fellowship and live like a pasha. They were wrong, for interesting reasons. I live comfortably, don’t get me wrong, but no one is fanning me with palm fronds or dropping grapes into my mouth.
In Nairobi, foreigners from the rich world, including me, typically live in an economy unrecognizable to most residents of the city. In my experience, the least expensive places to visit are those countries where foreigners and locals buy the same things. Bangkok or Mexico City, for examples, have mass-transit systems and tasty street food. Conversely, in a small Kenyan village, which doesn’t cater to foreigners at all, life would be extraordinarily inexpensive if you tripled normal prices. In Nairobi where ex-pats from Europe and North America don’t want to eat Kenyan food for every meal (I’ve yet to meet the one who does) or who wants Internet access in their apartment, they are consuming like a foreigner and they pay like foreigners too. For me, life was cheaper in middle income South Africa than Kenya. A few examples:
— I wanted to live in a secure, furnished apartment with Internet access and a short-term lease. Anyplace that meets those specifications runs almost as much as rent on an unfurnished one bedroom in Prospect Heights, though it will be roomier and have maid service. In Nairobi there’s very little middle-ground, say a secure half-furnished studio with no maid.
–Most middle class Kenyans eat ugali every day. To prepare it they can buy vats of vegetable oil and cooking fat big enough to bathe in. Call me a lousy traveler but it’s important to my disposition and comfort not to eat ugali every day. Nairobi’s not a big street food town. Instead it has an endless number of cheap takeaway joints, a few salt shakes up from the Kibera shack of the last post, selling fried chicken, fried fish, sausages, samosas and meat and cheese pies. Again, not so great for the disposition. The nicer places serve immense portions of roast meat, (nyama choma, the national dish) with kale, ugali or fries. But quick lunch of Chinese or Indian can run twice what it would in New York. Nairobi’s suburbs have some fancy restaurants for wealthy Kenyans and foreigners. They are expensive.
–Nairobi is not a walking town. Without a car the options are buses, matatus (minivans) and taxis. Buses and matatus cost about 50 cents a ride and stop frequently. The main difference is aesthetic. The buses are more comfortable and conductors walk down the aisle selling tickets from a neat metal gizmo that operates with a crank. The brakes resemble what I’d imagine the cries of a stuck pig to sound like. Matatus pack in fifteen people and drivers customize them with decals and liver-shaking sound systems. I was in one recently that showed videos on a flat-screen three times as wide as the seats. While the van rolls, the sliding passenger door is usually open with a teenager hanging off the frame shouting the destination.
Matatus and buses run on a hub and spoke system. They’re convenient if you’re going to or coming from down town but are pretty useless otherwise. Unmetered taxis have to put up with the same miserable traffic but not the fixed routes. Very roughly speaking they’re three times faster and fifteen to thirty times more expensive.
What this is all trying to say is that developing countries are cheaper to visit the less rich visitors, for reasons of safety and comfort, recuse themselves from local standards of living. A recent poll found Luanda, the capital of Angola, to be the world’s most expensive city for ex-pats. The average Angolan will almost reach their 38th birthday. There’s also no real tourism industry. And many of the ex-pats are oil executives spending company money.