Towards the end of last year the company I work for sent me to Kenya for two weeks. I had never been to Africa before and my duty was to report on the various luxury lodges and game reserves that are the bait which is used to attract wealthy visitors. Tourism is important to Kenya, representing its second greatest way of earning foreign exchange after agriculture, and any hint of trouble in that restive country has a knock-on effect that is felt keenly by those managing the tills.
Despite my duty to my employer I also wanted to get a glimpse of the real Kenya – the one that is never mentioned in the glossy brochures and tour websites – and get an idea of where the country is heading in the near future. The writer Paul Theroux once remarked that travel writing, if it is decent, should be predictive in that it should give the reader an idea of ‘what happens next’ after they have read the final page. I can’t promise to match Theroux in style but here, for what it’s worth, is my account of my Kenya visit.
Passing south from Italy over the Mediterranean I looked down from my window seat aboard the jumbo I was on. Snowy peaks gave way to the glittering sea, followed by the coastal cities of north Africa and then … nothing. The Sahara seems limitless, even from 35,000 feet, and I could detect no marks left by human beings in its sandy immensity. I counted five hours of flying before I saw any evidence of human life again, and by that stage night had fallen and we had flown over Libya, Sudan and a corner of Ethiopia. I was beginning to see what they called it the Dark Continent.
Nairobi, when I landed, didn’t seem half as bad as I had been led to believe. Everyone had warned me about the ‘insane’ traffic, but clearly they had never been to an Asian city. By contrast, Nairobi seemed to be a low-rise and spread out city and the main traffic danger would seem to be dying of boredom sitting in a traffic jam. I mentioned this to the driver and he told me that the problem would soon be sorted as a new network of roads was being built by the Chinese to ease the problem. They were also building a new airport terminal, he added, with the old one being considered dysfunctional and unbecoming of a country ‘whose time has come’.
I was taken to a swish colonial-style hotel set in lush gardens somewhere near the city centre, and it was here that I got my first taste of what it means to be an mzungu (‘white person’ or, literally translated ‘one who roams aimlessly’) in Kenya. At the entrance there was a metal detector portal which people entering the hotel were walking through. As I made to do the same my arm was gently grabbed and I was steered around it. “No sir, Europeans are VIPs in my country,” said my driver. “This is for non-VIPs,” he added, which I took to mean ‘Kenyans’.
Over the next few days I got to know a bit of Nairobi and visited the office of my company. My main impression was one of tight security. Practically every building that wasn’t a shack had a wall, a gate, a guard or two and a coil of barbed wire. I was shown Kenya’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, which was a matter of national pride, and even that was heavily guarded.
‘I will take you to The Village,” said my driver. A village in Nairobi? I imagined Maasai tribesmen and mud huts, but instead it turned out to be a giant newly-inaugurated shopping mall and entertainment complex with 150 different stores. This development and others like it, I was soon to learn, was where Kenya was setting its sights. It was a familiar story and one I had heard many times before. But if Kenya wanted to become ‘like Europe’ as someone put it, then where was the money coming from? I would find out later.
Instead of a shopping mall I asked to be taken to a slum. Not just any slum, mind you, but the biggest in Nairobi. Kibera, which means ‘the jungle’ in the Nubian language, is the second biggest slum in Africa. My guide looked somewhat horrified that I wanted to go there and tried to talk me out of it. When he could see that I really did want to go there rather than The Village he went into a bit of a huff. “Why you want to go there when it is full of bad people?” he asked plaintively.
The answer to that was that I wanted to see how people managed to live in such challenging conditions. With the slew of problems I consider are heading our way, I figured we in the industrialised world had better stop looking at people living in slums as deserving of our charity, and instead take a look at what they are actually doing to make life more bearable.
Official estimates of how many people were living there were 170,000, packed into an area of indeterminate size. This, however, was a lie according to the young man who took me around the maze of streets, and he said there were more than a million people there. “Do you know what NGO stands for?” he asked. I knew it was a trick question. “Nothing Gets Organised,” he said, laughing as a couple of young white people walked past with the name of their French aid organisation emblazoned on their crisp tee shirts.
I had been warned that it was dangerous to walk around Kibera, but I didn’t feel in any way threatened. On the contrary, young children, of which there were many, would run up and touch my hand and then run off again giggling. “They want to know what mzungu skin feels like,” explained my guide, who had grown up in the slum and still lived there. Adults, likewise, smiled and said ‘jambo‘ as we passed.
The slum was like any other town in that it had main roads with cars driving through, and a maze of side streets leading off them. Where it differed from a ‘normal’ town was in the fact that the ground everywhere was composed of mud saturated with plastic bags and detritus, and all the buildings were composed of scrap wood and metal. Fetid open sewers ran here and there and children swarmed around, playing with anything that it was possible to play with. Nevertheless, there were shops and stores, hairdressers, nyama choma (‘roast meat’) stalls and jewellery makers. We went into one of the latter and met the owner, who made jewellery and other artefacts out of discarded cow bones. These he sawed into manageable pieces with a jigsaw and then carved into exquisite objets d’art by hand. It was amazing what he could achieve with just a few resources and a bag of discarded bones.
We also visited a woman who helped others with AIDS, of which there were many, to make soap and other useful things. She gave me a rehearsed speech about self-sufficiency and dignity and afterwards I bought some of the things they had made, handing over a few US dollars, which is the de facto currency in Kenya for foreigners. We then went on to see a medium sized concrete building which had been constructed as a communal toilet block. The idea was simple and ingenious. One squatted down over a hole to do one’s business, which went down into a huge vat where it bubbled away and produced methane. This gas then came out of a pipe in the centre of the building and could be used for heating water and cooking. Okay, so it probably wouldn’t pass the strict hygiene standards of, say, Europe, but it did give the residents a form of energy and collected disease-spreading waste at the same time.
The slum is well known in that it was the setting for some of the scenes in the film adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener. In that story, sinister pharmacological firms used the powerless and poor slum-dwellers for experiments. My guide seemed proud of the fact (that the film was made there) but said the premise wasn’t true. Instead, he said, the big business here was in adoption, with many families from the US and Europe coming here to adopt. “Last year there were so many we arranged them into football teams and had a tournament,” he said without irony.
We stood on a bluff overlooking the slum, which spread organically like a pattern of tightly fitted metal shapes, and across the valley we could see a brand new development of high rise flats. These were, according to my host, new apartments that the slum dwellers were supposed to be moving into. They were constructed with Chinese money (yes, there they were again) at the behest of the government, which regarded Kibera as an eyesore and an embarrassment.
The flats were, however, unoccupied and when I asked why I was told that the monthly rent of 10 dollars was ‘too high’ for anyone to be able to afford. And so they stand there, empty, as the numbers in the slums steadily grow.
Over the next couple of weeks I bore this in mind as I travelled around the country, stopping off at places that in most cases cost hundreds of dollars a night, and even a thousand in some places. My driver began to realise that I was more interested in finding out about his country than I was in singing the praises of luxury hotels, and relaxed accordingly. He told me about the tribal strife that was at the root of all politics and therefore most of the problems of Kenya. The country, as it was inherited from the British 50 years ago this year, comprises some 43 million people divided between 40 tribes. Two rival but similar tribal groups control most of the government and business, and politics is a ramshackle affair of stitched-together allegiances, ideological loyalties and nationalistic bombast, all lubricated by money and bribes. In other words, it’s a bit like the UK.
The thing that everyone I spoke to feared the most was the upcoming election, scheduled for March 4. The last time the country held a national election 1,500 people (at least) were killed in violence and 600,000 driven from their homes, many of which were burned to the ground. Already, the election process was in full swing when I visited, with voter registration booths set up in even the most out-of-the-way areas. Rumour had it that voters, many of whom are illiterate, would receive a two pound bag of sugar or flour if they put their X in the right box Large hoardings stood beside highways with pictures of be-suited politicians proclaiming their election promises: ‘Let’s get Kenya working’ and ‘School for every child’. So fearful was the government of a repeat of the widespread anarchy that they were driving around the handing out (Chinese gifted) motorbikes to local tribal chiefs as long as they promised to use them to ‘spread the message of peace’ to their clan members.
But violence, as I was frequently reminded by the Daily Nation, goes on all the time in Kenya. During my visit the big news was that dozens of policemen had been massacred in an ambush while trying to capture a group of cattle raiders in the northern Samburu province. Yes, cattle rustling, it seems, is big business in Kenya, although to the pastoral and nomadic Samburu it might seem more akin to genocide. At the same time, the tribe is having its ancestral lands confiscated by the government to make way for more safari reserves and a couple of American ‘wildlife NGOs’ are implicated in this. The suspicion is that, as elsewhere, ‘backwards’ tribal people can be got rid of, stuffed into cheaply-erected buildings and bullied off their land with impunity if it interferes with the affairs of business or government – or an unholy alliance between the two.
Indeed, as I type these words, news has just come of another massacre, with between 150-200 people dead, hacked by machetes and shot with bullets, in the country’s southern Tana River Delta area. What with the ethnic violence, the incursion of Al Qaeda into the northern regions (and Zanzibar) and China’s slowly tightening grip on the country, it’s a wonder that the standard rhetoric regarding the country is the incantation-like ‘moving towards prosperity’ meme. A few weeks before I left, John Michael Greer on his Archdruid Report blog published a fictional story about America losing its hegemonic grip entitled How it could Happen. The opening chapters focused on a proxy war between China and the US in east Africa over oil rights following a discovery in Tanzania. With this story in my mind I was on the lookout for evidence of its feasibility when I visited Kenya. I didn’t have to look far.
China, it seems, is getting Kenya into a slowly-suffocating strangle hold. Huge infrastructure projects are taking place around the country, with new trunk roads, highways, airports and port facilities springing up wherever one looks. The projects have brought money and jobs to Kenya, and everyone I spoke to said they were extremely grateful for them. When I asked what China wanted in return most just shrugged and said that the Chinese simply wanted to help them out. One ventured that Kenya would be sending some fish back to China as thanks.
Only one person I met showed unease at China’s presence. She said that oil had been discovered around Lake Turkana in the north. The arid region is home to many nomadic tribes and is near the border of Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, and it can hardly be a coincidence that the Chinese have built roads leading into that area. I drove along that road one day, noting the endless stream of container trucks heading north. The containers came up from Mombasa on the coast, Kenya’s main port. Soon, however, they won’t have to go so far as China has picked the beautiful Swahili island of Lamu – a UNESCO site – to build one of its String of Pearls megaports.
My driver said the containers, many of which had Chinese writing on them, contained equipment for exploration and drilling. Someone else said that many of them were bound for South Sudan, which is experiencing a sonic boom of an economic explosion. It’s also a lawless place, he said having just spent two years working there, where a driving offence is likely to lead to an on-the-spot execution by the traffic police. People go there, he said, and come back as millionaires after only a year or two, if they make it out alive. Almost limitless wealth can be had from extracting minerals and oil and the attendant building boom, which is why he was there. “The government won’t let you take cash out from there, so people buy gold bars and smuggle them out,” he added. Much of the wealth has ended up in Kenya, hence the boom and the property bubble in Nairobi.
But there was also a human price to pay for this boom. All along the route of the new road, new-born babies have been found, many still alive, in rubbish dumps and garbage containers. Their ethnicity is a mix of Asian and African, and as such they are considered abominations and abandoned at birth to die. You don’t have to be especially sleuth-like to link the dire poverty of the average African to the oil wealth of the Chinese workers to figure out what is happening. Orphanages are appearing along the route, hastily constructed from breezeblocks, to meet the supply.
Which brings me onto the subject of aid and NGOs. If there’s one thing that seemed to unite the people I met in Kenya – both black and white – it was their distaste for, bordering on disgust of, western aid agencies. They were haughty. They drove huge SUVs and ran over villagers. They earned a fortune and do nothing. They were puppets of state governments. Interferers. Racists. Neo-colonialists. You name it, nobody I met who expressed an opinion had much positive to say about the likes of all those aid agencies whose names we know so well.
But the main charge levelled at them was that they had allowed marginal populations living on arid land to bloom into millions of hungry mouths that were reliant on aid. Which is worse, they asked, allowing a million people to starve in the short term, or creating the conditions for tens of millions to starve in the long term?
The accusation was that the agencies had created a dependency and thus held power over regional governments. Somalia, which shares a long border with Kenya, was a case in point. It was colonialism by proxy, they said: Do what we say and give us your oil and minerals or else we will turn off the food and you will starve. But what happens when millions of disaffected people get angry with western ‘meddling’? Does it make a difference that these are Islamic nations? The situation, from what I was told, was ugly and getting uglier with every extra mouth that was born.
I realise that, thus far, I haven’t painted a particularly rosy picture of Kenya’s immediate future. Could it be that Britain left behind a flawed design for the nation? It wouldn’t be the first case. After all, the British managed to keep the country pacified with the liberal use of machine guns and torture chambers. But, strong as Kenya’s image is of itself as a nation, its geographical position remains a major source of weakness. Given the extreme levels of corruption that hobble the country, the Chinese interest in its resources, the ongoing militarization and spread of radical Islam around its periphery, the base tribal prejudices of the voters and the fading ability of its protector states – the US and the UK – to project power – where now for Kenya?
Speaking of the US, who would have guessed that America was building a huge web of bases across east Africa? The strategy makers at the Pentagon seem to know exactly where the focus is shifting to in geopolitical terms, as this Mother Jones article points out. But what of America’s ability to project that power in an era of unprecedented debt and political paralysis? A few years ago would the Chinese have been able to make inroads into such a vital strategic area unchallenged just as they are doing now? Again, How it could Happen looks prescient.
And what of its natural assets? Think of Kenya and think of wildlife. On my trip I was lucky enough to go on a number of game drives, and I’ll not soon forget hearing a hippo, seemingly right beside my head, outside my tent in the middle of the night. Indeed, when it comes to wildlife and safaris you can believe all the hype: Kenya is an extraordinary destination if you want to see Africa’s wild animals.
But the situation there appears no less grim. Surging population growth (almost 3% a year), widespread land development and endemic poaching are taking their toll. Not all of those Chinese shipping containers are heading back home empty, some of them are full of ivory and rhino horns. The Kenyan government can’t afford to lose its charismatic mega fauna – how else could it justify 1,000 dollar a night hotel beds? – and so it is stepping up the battle against poachers.
Some rhinos now have 24 hour armed guards, and surveillance drones and internet snooping are now being employed to catch the perpetrators. The Masai Mara, much to conservationists’ horror, is being ‘encroached upon’ by the Maasai people themselves, who happen to be canny business people and have used their new found tourism money to get more of the one thing that they equate with wealth: cows. But more cows, over time, leads to less lions and elephants. This is great for the Maasai, who now watch Manchester United on their television screens and are very big on Facebook, but bad news for the natural world in general.
I was in the Masai Mara for a few days and happened to visit an eco camp near a Maasai village. It was here that Barack Obama had stayed in 2006, when he was a presidential candidate and was presumably getting in touch with his Kenyan roots. I was shown the luxury tent he stayed in and I couldn’t help but snap a picture of the impressive compost toilet that the future president of the free world must have sat upon and contemplated the lovely scenery.
As a matter of fact, some of these lodges, isolated as they are in remote locations, are models of self-sufficiency, with solar panels, organic vegetable gardens, energy-free cooling methods and construction based on using local natural materials. It is a pity, however, that they charge so much to stay there as the logical conclusion that the average Kenyan has already reached is that a safari is only for the wealthy foreigner and not the average Kenyan; something that hungry and armed local people will not forget when the tourists stop arriving in their chartered planes. Today’s lions and hippos and impalas must seem like the playthings of the rich and powerful. Edible playthings, that is.
So where does this leave the average Kenyan? My fear is that they won’t be in for a pleasant ride. Everyone I met in Kenya was pleasant and friendly, and it was in most cases a genuine warmth and not just because I was a walking dollar sign. I’d love to believe that Kenyans could all have comfortable lives and be free of war and disease and poverty and all the other things that Oxfam says it is unfair to label Africa with, but to do so would be to turn a blind eye to reality.
But for the time being, remember the date: March 4 2013. That’s the date we will get to see whether Kenya can put aside its tribal divisions and work at keeping itself as a fully functional nation state in the 21st century.
Epilogue: Theroux revisited
When it was time to leave Kenya I found myself stranded for some hours in Nairobi Airport due to a technical problem with the plane. I wandered around, trying to escape the incessant American TV evangelists which seem to drone endlessly from every TV set in Kenya, and found a bookshop. In it I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s latest novel The Lower River, which concerns an American man who returns to the Africa he thought he knew from his time with the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War era.
It descends into a nightmare tale and, without giving too much away, Theroux’s opinion of rural Africa is that it has degenerated along with us. And one of the main causes of that degeneracy, he seems to be saying, is the way we have abused and exploited it in the name of religion, development, charity and all the rest of it. It was a powerful read and a fitting end to my trip unstinting in its honesty. Read it and squirm.