Just over a week ago, I moved to Nairobi from Toronto, Canada. The contrasts between the bustling metropolises have both delighted and surprised me.
Here are the top 10 differences I’ve noticed between the largest city in Canada and the capital city of Kenya:
1. Matatus are a lot more fun… but a lot less predictable than Toronto transit
“Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down…” A video of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit greets me on two TV screens as I board my first matatu. The minibus – with dim lighting, colourful decor and quality speakers – feels more like a nightclub than a form of public transportation.
This is a welcome change from transit in Toronto, where it is taboo to listen to music without headphones, and where I’ve been shushed by fellow passengers for “laughing too loud.”
Another noticeable difference lies in departure times. In Nairobi, drivers don’t leave until the matatus are full. In Toronto, transit vehicles, such as subways and streetcars, follow a strict schedule.
I suspect that this is because matatus are privately-owned, whereas Toronto Transit Commission vehicles are owned by the City of Toronto and must abide by its scheduling guidelines.
2. Mobile money is everywhere
Nairobi is far ahead of Toronto in its use of mobile money. In Canada, it’s difficult to predict what forms of payment different businesses will accept; some prefer cash, while others insist on the use of debit or credit cards.
And while there are some mobile applications which allow you to pay directly from your phone, they are not as common or as accessible as M-Pesa.
I set up my M-Pesa account on my third day in Nairobi, and am already loving the flexibility and convenience of the application. Toronto: get with the times!
3. People casually switch between languages
“Hello, karibu,” an attendant greets me at the checkout counter at Tusky’s supermarket. “Asante sana, see you soon,” I respond shyly, in an attempt to practice the few Swahili words I know. One of the first things I noticed about Nairobi is how people effortlessly switch between English, Swahili, and their regional languages – and I love it.
In Toronto, it’s rare to hear people switching languages in the same way – most people simply stick to English when they are chatting with someone they have never met before.
Don’t get me wrong – English is far from the only language Torontonians speak; many also speak French, Canada’s other official language.
But that’s not all: according to the City of Toronto, more than 140 languages and dialects are spoken in the bustling metropolis, and over 30 per cent of residents speak a language other than English or French at home.
But given the vast number of languages spoken in a city of 2.79 million people, most people in Toronto communicate in English by default. Then, when they get to know one another and their cultural background, they may start communicating in other languages that they may have in common.
4. Nairobi does Uber better
Uber is a popular transportation app in both Nairobi and Toronto, but in my opinion, Nairobi does it better. So far, my wait times for Uber in Nairobi have been a lot shorter than in Toronto. I also like that Uber here provides the option of paying with cash; in Toronto, you can only pay with credit card.
5. Giraffes, elephants and monkeys versus…raccoons
Toronto is overrun with raccoons – medium-sized mammals with extremely nimble hands (they often break open our garbage bins at night and feast on our leftovers). I’ll admit that raccoons are quite cute, but aside from these strange creatures, and the occasional squirrel, Toronto’s wildlife pales in comparison to that of Nairobi.
On my second day in Nairobi, I went to City Park and was promptly greeted by a monkey, who made himself at home on my shoulders. Next on my list of places to visit are the Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, the Giraffe Centre, and Nairobi National Park.
6. Let’s talk politics
In Toronto, many people have the luxury of not engaging with citywide and nationwide political developments. What I’ve found so far in Nairobi, however, is that most people I speak with are well-versed on current events and political developments. It’s refreshing.
7. Forbidden plastic
One of the things I love about Toronto is that it has city-wide recycling and composting programs – lessening the amount of trash that ends up in the landfill. But Toronto has yet to ban the plastic bag, and could learn a thing or two from Kenya’s recently implemented law.
8. A change of season
“In Nairobi, there are only two seasons. It’s either raining or it’s sunny,” a friend told me the other day, after I naively asked him if it was currently winter in Kenya.
Toronto’s seasons are far more demarcated. Summertime temperatures can reach up to around 35°C, while the dead of winter can drop down to -40°C.
Autumn makes its presence known by the dramatic changing colours of the leaves, and spring – while sometimes interrupted by an impromptu snowstorm – announces its presence with longer days, and the sweet scent of cherry blossoms in the air. I’m not a big fan of -40°C, so I’m very happy to have moved to a city with no winter.
9) The caffeine connection
Torontonians are collectively addicted to coffee. In the downtown core, there are coffee shops on almost every block, and most people I know don’t show up to work without having had their morning java. Kenya produces some of the best coffee in the world, but in my limited time here, I have found that Nairobians are more likely to drink tea in the morning and on their afternoon breaks.
10) The beat goes on (and on, and on…)
During my first week in Nairobi, I stayed in the popular clubbing district of Westlands, where I rapidly learned that Nairobians don’t just like to party – they really like to party.
On a Thursday night, I went to bed at 10pm to the sounds of house music and woke up at 5:30am to the inescapable world hit, “Despacito.” Torontonians also love to go out, but bars and clubs in my home city close at 2:00am.
Caro Rolando is a media fellow at The Nation Media Group with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada.