I came. I saw. I never left the hotel

Very few criminals in Nairobi own a gun, but you can hire a revolver for $20 a night," explained Dr Patel as he administered the hypodermic.

"Who from?" I asked, "Drug dealers?"

"No, off-duty policemen."

The Kenyan capital had seemed a far safer place the previous day when I noted the heavy police presence on the streets. Now that I remembered, the officer I had asked for directions had taken a long look at my camera and, more alarmingly, my shoes.

Nairobi's greatest dangers are faced on the city's roads. I witnessed a three-car pile-up within 10 minutes of my arrival. Driving from the airport, one enters the city through an avenue lined with purple-blossomed jacaranda trees. Although they stand in favourable comparison with wisteria, atop each and every one sits the menacing form of a marabou stork – the hideous birds that gave Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh nightmares. Rush-hour drivers do their best to entertain them, making no allowances for the advanced age of their vehicles. Stopping at red lights is treated as optional, except at a few intersections where brave traffic wardens jump into the road and thrust outstretched palms at the oncoming traffic.

Dr Patel drove a large four-wheel-drive with bull bars and outsized tyres and had more pressing worries: Nairobi's growing lawlessness had left him too afraid to make house calls after dark. He had resolved to migrate to England with his family, even though he expected to earn considerably less in the NHS than he did caring for sick tourists such as myself. A portion of red snapper in one of the city's best restaurants had left me confined to quarters for the remainder of my trip to Kenya. I was forced to cancel my safari in the Masai Mara game reserve and my table at Nairobi's biggest tourist draw, the Carnivore bush meat restaurant. I was warned to stay away from dishes such as crocodiles' tails and zebra steaks "until I was back home".

The Stanley, where I was forced to stay, is the oldest luxury hotel in Nairobi and celebrates its centenary this year. Where it once catered for colonial administrators, it now attracts their latter-day counterparts in the world of big business and high-end travel. Accordingly, the size of the bathrooms means a moving walkway would be handy for getting to the basin. Perhaps the architects were thinking ahead, for the longer you spend getting out of the room, the less time there is to be attacked on the capital's thoroughfares. Asking the staff for directions to another restaurant which turned out to be in the very next street, I was told to catch a taxi as it was not safe to walk even this distance after dark. For such reasons, the Stanley does its best to function independently of the chaotic city that surrounds it – baking its own bread, generating its own electricity and employing foreign management. Washing down anti-emetic pills in the hotel's Thorn Tree Café, I was reminded that this was where Ernest Hemingway once sat when he was recovering from his own bout of tropical sickness.

However, turning one's chair inwards gives an even better view. The guests helping themselves to the buffet included the usual American and Japanese tourists – the latter eating, as ever, with cameras still around their necks – local businessmen, the odd backpacker and finally a strange collection of men in various states of formal dress backed up by two pygmies in blue jeans. This group, I learnt, comprised the various warring factions of the Congo, who had assembled for a peace conference. Their Indian organiser was as cheerful as a tour guide, explaining to me that, due to a temporary ceasefire, his charges were no longer slaughtering each other. "Now they are only killing each other." One delegate had survived three murder attempts, only to find himself sitting at dinner opposite the man who had ordered them. "The people are so nice here," as one senior citizen from Florida put it.

The setting was appropriate for the event – the Stanley already feels like an embassy with its opulence, rich food and the liveried guards on every landing who sometimes deliver a salute as you walk out of the lift. In particular, it is like the one safe compound left in a nation that has just suffered a coup, where the remaining foreigners are determined to finish off the last of the tinned foie gras and Chateau Lafite before the stars and stripes are finally rolled up. One band of travellers formed the living cast of a game of Cluedo – among them a benevolent English baroness, a former British consul in Zimbabwe and a professor from University College London. They had arrived to present the 2001 Caine Prize for Literature – Africa's answer to the Booker. The guest of honour at the event, held in the hotel's ballroom, was the Kenyan Vice-President, George Saitoti, a taut, broad-chested man. Well dressed and well spoken, he fixed the small eyes of a tyrannosaur on his audience. One of his less imaginative minions had informed him that the prize had received only one Kenyan entry this year. "I can tell you that I am not very pleased about this," Saitoti boomed. "Next year, I guarantee that there will be far more entries from Kenya!" The politician's lackeys visibly shuddered and one could imagine the serried ranks of the Kenyan army sitting at desks, chewing their pencils on pain of death in the months ahead.

Someone remarked on how "naturally" the great man was acting. "He's walking around, talking and enjoying himself just like anyone else," a semi-hysterical local said as the Vice-President paced around the room, crushing the knuckles of those who shook his hand. He seemed to be pacified by meeting Helon Habila, the charismatic young Nigerian writer whose Love Poems secured the Caine Prize. As Habila had remarked earlier that day, all politicians are interested in literature, for "rulers are too paranoid not to read everything that is written about them".

With such entertainment on offer, I did not mind missing out on the Masai Mara or the delicacies of the Carnivore restaurant. In any case, on the day I had planned to eat there, it was robbed by eight men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Nicholas Fearn's 'Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher' is published by Atlantic Books, price £9.99.

Comments