Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Corruption, palm trees, ginger tea and Lady Jelly - a week in Nairobi and Mombasa

My week in Kenya for a conference on democracy and governance began in a way that can best be described as ironic.

Sam and I were collected by lovely Boniface from Nairobi Kenyatta airport to be dropped off at the apartment we were spending the night at. Driving in Nairobi has to be experienced to be believed, so it was odd to find ourselves in a column of slow-moving traffic, until we reached the obstruction – a police road block. Or so it seemed.

Every other vehicle was being flagged down, and we were one of the unlucky 50%. I was in the front, Sam in the back and – uh-oh – he wasn't waring a seatbelt. Delighted, they gave him a bollocking, scrutinised the rest of us closely, then for no reason, decided there was a problem with the car, and they were arresting Boniface. This was not looking good. Here we were, in a strange city, didn't know where we were or where we were going, and about to have to make our own way as night was falling.

Something was fishy. These cops didn't have any numbers visible, though they were plainly cops. Boniface remonstrated with them outside the car for ten minutes, they came back to ask if he was a colleague, why wasn't Sam wearing a seat belt, and they'd have to take Boniface in, when Sam asked “Is this problem solveable?” “If you want it to be,” came the cryptic reply.

OK.... we're getting the hang of this now. Boniface returned to the car to ask if we had any money. We'd only just arrived so didn't have any Kenyan shillings, so no. He fished around in his pockets, found a note, thrust it in the cop's hand and found himself mysteriously de-arrested. We were waved on and breathed a collective sigh of relief. And how much had Boniface's release cost him? 100 Kenyan shillings – a dollar and a half – yup, 75p!

Apparently this experience is all too common, specially when they see a white person in a car, as they think they'll get a wad of dollars. There was talk on the TV of Nairobi marketing itself as an international tourist destination – apart from installing street lighting, mending the pavements which are more like rocky mountain paths and educating virtually the entire male population that it's not a great idea to hassle women on the street, cleaning up the institutional corruption is a task for someone with a lot of time to spare.

Next day we hit Mombasa without incident, and installed ourselves at the White Sands hotel for the conference. This place will be many people's idea of a holiday paradise – palm trees, sandy beach, swimming pools, karaoke, cocktail bars, 80's “sax moods” CD on constant rotation.... you get the picture. OK, I'm an ungrateful wretch, but is was like being under house arrest in a shopping mall.

A conference on Democracy and Governance sounds dry on paper but it proved to be extremely interesting and informative. I was only a couple of weeks into my job, so I had a reasonable grasp on what many of the other groups working in Southern Sudan were doing, but this filled in many of the gaps and it was good to meet people face-to-face. Sessions included corruption (ha!), electoral violence (Sudan has all the factors for it to happen, but none of the answers for stopping it), and many other issues which affect the fragile peace between the north and south.

I hooked up with the gals conducting the census for the South, a highly impressive task as it's the first time a proper geographic mapping of the area has been done, and a very controversial subject as all hell could break loose if the results aren't liked either by the North or South. Understandably, quite a few Southerners are reluctant to take part in a census if information about them goes to Khartoum, which was orchestrating genocide against them for forty years and continues to threaten them even after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Abyei in the buffer area between North and South was virtually razed in May – see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7455537.stm)

So I have great admiration for the census gals, and coincidentally I'd already emailed Canadian Erica through Flickr as she's got pics of Rumbek on her site, so we'd previously bumped into each other in Rumbek. Erica was finding the hotel as sterile and mind-numbing as I, so we made good our escape on Friday afternoon after conference closed.

The hotel is a few miles out, further compounding our sense of imprisonment, so we flagged down a metatu, a crazy fleet of colourful camper vans which teem the streets, jostling for space and packed shoulder-to-shoulder with passengers, who hop on and hop off for pennies.

We emerged unscathed at the post office on the edge of the Old Town and popped over to Fort Jesus, a sixteenth-century fortress built by the Portuguese (at the time under Spanish rule), conquered by the Arabs, re-taken by the Portuguese, re-conquered by the Arabs, then eventually in the nineteenth century became a British fortress. It's carved from solid coral overlooking the sea with gun emplacements, turrets, the remnants of a chapel demolished by the Arabs and poo-holes where you sit in little windows on the side and do your business on the unfortunates below.

Our guide was charming if a little pushy, and when Erica said she was Canadian, he was off on one. “I have never seen such beautiful ladies! Beautiful Canadian ladies, under 16!” Oh how we laughed, and agreed through gritted teeth that we'd refuse his kind offer to take us round the Old Town too.

Having paid him off with considerably more that the cop got, we made our way to the Old Town. It was the perfect antidote to our hotel experience – dirty, smelly, noisy, crowded, hassly, and just what we needed. We camped down on the pavement to enjoy a glass of sweet ginger tea from a street vendor, dodged the shopkeepers enthusiastically trying to lure us toward their wares, and marvelled at the beautiful decaying colonial style architecture.

The only disappointment was that we were there for such a short space of time, as I'd love to spend a week there photographing, creeping round the stinky back passages, and rummaging through the endless tat at the market. Oh - and I might even be able to find out one day what Lady Jelly is!

Suggestions here please: http://www.flickr.com/photos/melita666/


loving reading this - made my recent holiday in remote hilly Dorset seem like the Heavenly pastures! Keep writing... (had a pint of Harvey's in Mrs Fitzherberts - which seems to have gone for the younger market now New Road has gone continental, employing goth bar staff who avoid eye contact - for a bargain £2.50!)
Agh, Harvey's! At least the Tusker Malt in Kenya is drinkable, but I'm sick of the chemical stuff we have in Sudan. I'm listening to Radio 4 online most of the day, so that almost makes up for it, but I'd kill for a decent pint!
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