There is a strange beauty to any city at five in the morning. Almost everyone has gone to bed; almost everyone is yet to wake. Nairobi is no different. We race through the night, down wide boulevards free of traffic save for the handful of dilapidated trucks beginning the final stretch back to Mombasa having delivered their goods to Uganda, Rwanda or Congo.
The roads may be empty but the pavements – or, to be more accurate, the side of the road where the Tarmac stops – are busier. People, mainly young men, are walking into town. They are coming from Kangemi, from Kibera, from Mathare – an army of men who moved to the city to find work and now start their day – every day – with a long, long walk. They are the security guards, the cleaners, the cooks, the odd job men who keep the city moving. These are the men you sometimes seem sleeping under a tree in Uhuru Park at lunchtime. When night begins to fall they will start their long, long walk home.
We’re heading to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) for an early morning flight. It’s a terrible airport, particularly given how important it is. The queues are endless, the bureau de change frequently runs out of dollars, and the policemen on the road towards the airport make little attempt to hide their corruption.
Then there is the bizarre boarding process which involves a single attendant leading a long line of passengers across the airport’s apron, walking past rows of other planes and piles of luggage. (I’ve always wondered, what would happen if you broke off and decided to get on a different plane? Does anyone ever do this by accident and end up in Monrovia instead of Mombasa?)
But there is something about JKIA that I love. It’s the feeling I get when I arrive back in the country. As the plane descends it reveals a snapshot of Kenya. The eponymous mountain rising above the clouds to the left. We get lower and the vast expanse of Nairobi national park appears underneath. Lower still and we pass over Kibera, a hundred thousand corrugated iron roofs stacked tightly together. And then the central business district, a mini metropolis of towers and office blocks.
The feeling lasts about as long as it takes to get through immigration and out of the airport. Because by now the roads are jammed and you know it’s going to take two hours to crawl back home.