BBC correspondent remembers Kenyan encounter ahead of leaving post

Karen Allen
BBC Foreign Correspondent covering Africa and Afghanistan, Karen Allen. Photos: Twitter/BBCKarenAllen

The BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent has recounted an encounter in Kenya as part of her Reflections on Africa article in which she looks back on nearly 12 years of reporting from the continent before she embarks on some study leave.

Early on in her piece, she remembers meeting a Kibera resident who had fallen on hard times.

One of the first lessons I learnt in Kenya was survival. There is no safety net here when times get tough.

In the early days on a visit to the slum known as Kibera, an elderly lady called me over as she stirred her supper in a thick black cast iron pot. “Hey sister, where are you from?” she asked. “London,” I replied. “Yes, but where in London?” I was rather puzzled as she pressed me further. “I know London,” she nodded, sagely. “In fact, I know Paris and Berlin, too.”

It emerged that this friendly stranger had once been a glamorous stewardess for a international airline. She had drunk the best champagne and visited the fanciest European hotels but when times got hard in the 1980s and the airline folded, she lost her job.

She was now selling samosas in the slum to survive. From that day onwards I learnt never to make any assumptions about Africa: a jet-setter one day, a slum dweller the next. It the drumbeat of so many who take the knocks, but reclaim their dignity and survive.

During her time in Africa, she has covered the reopening of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi following a terrorist attack and the visit of American President Barack Obama.

You can read Karen’s full account of her time reporting on Africa on the BBC website.