Travel blog

Understanding Africa: Kenya

Kenya is a vast and varied country full of beautiful landscapes and unique blends of tribal life and modernisation. Unfortunately, it is the modernisation and social corruption that makes it one of my least favourite countries in Africa. Nairobi in particular is a sprawling pile of garbage and the coastline, though beautiful is stricken with poverty and malcontent.

Ex-pats

Traffic in Kenya is no joke. The road up to the escarpment from Suswa climbs the wall of the Great Rift Valley, which is aptly named as it looks like someone sliced a huge chunk of cake from Africa. Now I am one of a million tiny ants climbing the inside of said cake, trying to get to the frosty topping. It is a two lane road, but all the heavy vehicles have grid locked the climbing lane and now cars are three lanes deep in the bush.

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We reach a dead man’s embrace between a Coca-Cola truck in the right hand lane and 10 cars and a bus also in the right hand lane, but going in the opposite direction. Further up the road we saw that the obstruction was caused by a sixteen wheeler, which ejected its payload in the middle of the road and fucked off. Rage quit. Our driver – legend as his is – rolls his eyes, careers off into the dirt and overtakes the whole lot, shouting what I can only assume translate as “Noobs! This is how it’s done.” Cheers of applause.

Back in Nairobi I visit one of Mike’s friends, Alex. He is another British Ex-Pat who will never be returning to the UK. He works in international development and his girlfriend Ignes works in international aid services. I cannot fault them for their work. We briefly discuss the Kenyan coast and the situation with Al-Shabab, the local terrorist group.

“It’s kind of winding down now.” Alex tells me. “They are running out of steam.”

“I heard that pirates still own the coastline. I was talking to a guy this morning who works in Somalia and he told me that he had a lot of friends kidnapped or killed in the last few years.”

“Well.” Alex continues, “They have apparently just had a meeting with IS and might team up. That would mean them getting a lot more resources, but to be honest, it just shows how desperate they are. They’re losing the war.”

They explain the hardships of being Ex-Pats.

“The problem is: it’s hard to make friends because Ex-Pats don’t tend to stay for very long. That exact thing happened with Mike. We used to hang out all the time and then suddenly he told me “Right that’s it I have to go.” And that was that.”

“Mike tells me that it can be hard to make friends with locals,” I say “lasting friendships that is. I mean he has lots of Rwandan acquaintances, but most of his good friends are other Ex-Pats. Do you find it’s a cultural difference or language barrier?”

“Well it’s neither and it’s both.” he says, “Sometimes it’s just hard not being just another Muzungu. I suppose it works both ways as well.”

Watamu

When they open the door to my plane at Malindi, other people are actually queuing to get on. Evidently this plane is immediately going somewhere else. Fly540: the Megabus of East African airlines.

Lu with a view winner for today goes to: Malindi Matatu station. I am pissing in a hole in the ground, in a smelly box whose window overlooks a football field length of garbage. The sound of slushing as a woman throws a bucket of something brown and horrible rouses the birds, who descend upon it. There is no hope.

An African Rasta with the Bob Marley T-shirt greets me on the barren road at Watamu. He will lead me, inevitably, on a wild goose-chase in order to find me a place to stay, and then, after having been friendly and proud, will shamelessly ask me for a few shillings for his troubles. This man is different though. After a couple of attempts at soliciting money from me nicely, his whole expression slumps down into a self-destructive sigh. He looks down at the ground.

“Please, support me.” Now I feel sorry for him. This is the product of a false economy!

The beach looks like a tornado might clean it up a bit. It’s desolate. All the beachfront hotels are abandoned, seaweed and rubbish pile up on the beaches, and half built, or half torn down structures haunt them.

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The sound of a solitary mallet creeps through the shadows of a wooden shack. It has no echo. I take a picture. Beautiful white sandy beaches, full of foot parasites; idyllic little islands, harbouring deadly rocks; a soothing tide that punishes the shoreline with a never ending wall of seaweed: Paradise. It is raining. Apparently it’s nice in December.

Its one saving grace is that half the beach is a marine conservation area, though that means you can’t swim without paying $20 to the park authority. It gets better, (for the marine life) you can’t go on the beach at night without being harangued by the park authority for turtle poaching. I was accosted on the beach in the pitch black by an unknown Kenyan. I ran and nearly had a heart attack when I bump into two other black shapes in the dark. I am lonely. There are no white people here.

Kenyan Youth

The next day I met a handsome young Kenyan, Baraka on the beach.

“I like to write love letters.” he tells me in earnest. We have been sitting here talking for some time now. The tide slowly rolls away and dark clouds loom in the sky, threatening rain.

“You have a girlfriend?” I ask.

“I had a girlfriend, my first love. One day she tells me “I have become an actress.” And I say “How can you become this without telling me?”” His expression is taxed and he makes knuckle marks in the sand. “She was very beautiful. She had a figure eight body, like an African. You know what I mean.”

He draws this in the sand and smiles, but it quickly fades. “So she says to me “Baraka, I want to be in another movie. Will you give me permission?” and I say “You have done this without telling me, so continue to do this without telling me. Just go.” So she makes more movies and more music.”

“I do some investigation.” He continues “and I find out that the director of these movies, she has made her boyfriend. When I confront her she says “I am sorry, he means nothing to me. I want you.” I said “No.”” He shakes his head.

“That’s a sad story.” I say.

“Sometimes she still calls me and complains that she is bored with these men, saying “Baraka, I don’t want them, I want you.” But I tell her “You cannot come back until I have money.””

“You see, you cannot have a girl without money.” he says with conviction, “I might say “Hey why don’t you come and we can relax somewhere.” But you cannot do things, you cannot have things. I cannot bring her home if I live with my mother. You see my hair? Shaggy. It was not always like this. I cannot even go in front of my parents without neat hair. No. I know that first I must have money and then I can have a girlfriend.”

Baraka’s story is sad, but it is sad because he is convinced that he cannot enjoy life without money and that he will never be happy living in poverty.

“Do you want to know my dream Dean?” he continues, “My father…” he pauses here and starts to dig a hole in the sand. “My father had a friend. His name was Mr Phillip. He was English like you and my father would say “I want to do business with this man.” My dream is to one day come to England, like you are come here.”

He looks up at me, elbow deep in sand and smiles and my heart melts a little. I know that what he is really saying is that one day he wants to be free.

“Look here. You can see the water.” He removes his arm, I peer into the hole and see the water filtering through the sand from underground. “If it is draining away you know the tide is going away too.”

Baraka and I are now friends and this is the longest conversation I have had in Kenya without someone trying to sell me something.

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We had fun making lunch the next day. He helped me make guacamole and tuna, a strange combination for anyone, especially an African. We talk about family and school life. He managed to make it through most of his life with only a few gaps due to lack of money to pay for school fees, but after his father’s accident, his younger brothers were not so lucky.

“He used to be so talkative.” he tells me, “you would have loved him. But now sometimes he just sits and stares, or will change his mood and say “I just want to be left alone.” He still remembers the accident. He was one of the only ones to survive from the bus. Afterwards, he could not work and so we moved to Gede. I am here because I know he worries about his kids. He worries about when they are not doing anything. So I would rather stay away so I don’t bother him. Then he doesn’t see me with no job.”

As the day goes by, the conversation stagnates. I think we have reached the point at which our cultural and situational differences make it hard to progress with our friendship. It is a sad thing, but now I think I understand what Mike was saying. It’s just hard sometimes to relate without feeling like the empathy is very one sided.

This isn’t such a bad place, it’s just the product of bad times. The sea has a lovely pale crystal colour between beds of seaweed. The beaches are whiter than my feet, smooth and sweeping. The intermittent weather plays dramatically across the sky, giving the day a varied canvas. The sound of the sea through my windows is actually rather soothing.

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Current affairs

So…Larium. Dr Manis listed the possible side effects, including but not limited to: psychosis, depression, suicidal tendencies and hallucinations; but I was sure it had to be better than Doxycycline on the prophylaxis spectrum (Anti-Malarial). So…last night I had a dream. I was freaking out and ran out of my room to get help, when the balcony stretched a hundred feet. A strange dark figure (that my mind told me was a giant teddy bear) approached.

When it got closer it turned into a man with a roast chicken for a head, who then started head-butting another man with a tinfoil tray for a head. I thought how the two belonged together and was happy that they had found each other. Intermittently while this was happening, I would relapse into another nightmare where my head became a screaming jackhammer, trying to beat something out of the wall. I once read the side effects on a pack of prophylactics. The last side effect was listed as “Death.” Maybe I should just get malaria.

Some news articles in today’s local paper: “Millions spent beautifying Nairobi for Barak Obama’s visit.” “Kids burn down schools to not take their exams.” “Lethal vaccines administered to children.” “Muslims break fast of Ramadan at Fort Jesus.” What’s wrong with this country?

While I sit here at Malindi airport sipping coffee and reading the paper, I realise that there is a Kenyan barista right in front of me who will likely be a far better source of local information. I ask him what’s going on.

He tells me that in this part of the coast, local people clump together to buy stretches of beach and then sell them on to Italian developers, who build villas and hotels. The proportion of Muslims to Christians in this region is about 50-50 and relations are good.

“We all believe in the same god.” he smiles.

His name is Francis. Baraka first introduced himself to me as Francis. He then went on to tell me later that he preferred to be called Baraka.

“Because people will baptize you and try and give you other names. This is my name.”

This happens a lot.

Nairobi

Getting from Nairobi airport to Wangige is a nightmare. A two hour bus ride followed by a two hour Matatu ride, though each were only 70KSE. I’m standing at the bus stop on a filthy road, two hours late with my earplugs in because there is a religious concert on that’s so loud I can’t even be near it. A man throws a banana skin over his shoulder into the road without even looking. It joins others and immediately blends in with all the other filth. I hate Nairobi.

My friend Charlotte is overwhelmed to see me. She has been having a horrible time in Nairobi so far, topped off by the fact that she just got assaulted on the way over. She has been volunteering for an NGO, but the rules and restrictions placed on them are ridiculous. She has an 8pm curfew, has to get permission to meet other people and has to do compulsory community service on the weekends.

“I’m so happy to see you I could cry!” she laughs hysterically, “This crazy guy just came out of nowhere, got me in a headlock and punched me in the head so hard. I think I’m concussed.”

“What the fuck!?” I say. “Didn’t anyone help you?”

“Yea the touts came over and pulled him off me and started beating him. No one asked me if I was ok though, they didn’t even acknowledge me.”

This is not the first time she has been assaulted either. She nearly got raped in a Matatu by three guys. They shut her in and started touching her up. When she tried to escape, a tout held the door closed. Luckily she was able to kick it open and get away, but not without significant psychological damage I suspect.

“So what is your NGO doing about all this?” I ask.

“Nothing. They just said “Oh we’re so sorry.” And then that was it.”

“Fuck’s sake Charlotte! If you see the guy, point him out to me and I’ll kick him in the face. You should get an Askari.”

“They won’t even pay for taxis, I doubt I’ll be getting a body guard any time soon.”

Charlotte lives in a little gated estate just out of town, in a tiny room with two sets of bunk-beds. She shares this room with 3 other girls, two Kenyans and one English girl.

Community programs

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“And the bible says that money will pave the way to the future.” This is a direct quote from a female pastor giving an empowered speech about creativity and entrepreneurship in Kenya. We are in a local church where members of Charlotte’s NGO are putting on an action day for the community. Charlotte and her Muzungu friends are giggling at her enthusiasm, whilst the Kenyan members of the group are rapt with concentration and are busy scrawling down notes.

“This lady could be anyone. They don’t know.” Charlotte comments. “They just lap it up.”

“You should only sleep two hours a night.” I’m paraphrasing, “Laziness is a disease.”

She is not all fire and brimstone. She talks about opportunities for young entrepreneurs, giving examples like: group funding to buy real estate, small loan options and volunteering to gain work experience.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” JFK.

Her husband has great teeth. He is also a pastor and I begin to see a theme. He is lecturing about leadership.

“Your privacy is your most valuable asset. Most people look good when they know someone is watching them, but inside they are just skeletal…I will go anywhere to upgrade the living conditions of god’s people.”

I imagine missionaries like him invading Masai homes and converting them to god’s work. Are they really happier now? Will they be happier with a thermo-power plant in their back garden?

“Your dignity comes from your work. Amen, praise the lord!” It is turning very quickly into a religious spiel. Apparently all the most successful people are spiritual, like Moses, or Joseph. “We are meant to rule, we are meant to govern, we are meant to master.”

I speak with the pastor after the session. His name is Joseph too. He is actually a really nice man and, like Daniel, has big plans to help the community. I ask him what this area was like 10 years ago and his eyes and nostrils flare.

“This was all a farm.” he says. “It was Kukiu land. The army would harass you or molest you. It was very dangerous.” It is still very dangerous. In fact, several of Charlotte’s friends have been robbed by the police or military.

I am curious about whether or not he is a Kukiu. I tell him I was just in Suswa with the Masai.

“You would get a warmer welcome there than me.” he says.

Daniel’s father fought in the wars against the Kukiu.

Later that night, all the brits from the NGO are out drinking. Friday is the day they get their weekly allowance and it’s party time. The bars we go to are in the nicer part of town and are all gated with security guards. No strips or people drinking outside. Now that they are all more relaxed they admit that they actually quite like Nairobi.

“Despite all its faults, it’s actually quite ok.” Charlotte says.

 

In actuality, she is still not ok.

The thing I’m going to miss the most about Nairobi is…sorry but this place could implode for all I care. Kenya in a word: Rift.

Had any interesting experiences in Kenya? Every worked for a non-governmental organisation? share your stories in the comments and don’t forget to like and subscribe below.

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