Thursday, August 15, 2013

Back in Kenya

I arrived in Kenya as Zambia’s winter was dissipating, only to find Nairobi engulfed in an unseasonal gloom.  On the long ride into town from the airport the taxi driver complained about the awful traffic.  I don’t blame him.  Supposedly there are bypasses and even a two-level highway under construction, but cynics—and Kenya’s leaders ensure that there are a lot of these around—suppose that it will be decades before Nairobi manages to tame its traffic jams.

Nairobi
Amidst the personal vehicles and long-distance freight lorries are the matatus (which are death-traps bearing a misleading resemblance to minivans).  In Lusaka, most matatus are painted cheery colours (which I hear they’re going to have to change because the ruling party doesn’t like that they match the opposition) and generally look to be in reasonably good shape.  Not so in Nairobi.  The taxi driver joked that some matatus are so ugly they’re ashamed to come out until after dark. 

In Nairobi, I stay at the YMCA, a hospitable institution near the city centre.  The staff are really nice, they do hearty meals of fish or chicken with rice or ugali, and they now offer free wifi (the catch being that it works intermittently at best).  Normally it would be busy on the week-ends since the weather should be improving, but the massive pool—where they offer lessons and where various swim teams practise—is empty.  They also have a gym on site.  Having a debilitating exercise allergy, however, I restrict myself to more sedate forms of movement, and take an evening stroll around the arboretum most days.   

Democracy under construction
It was a holiday last Friday, and so I worked from the YMCA, where I stay whilst in town.  It began raining lightly, and the staff clustered on the terrace for their morning meeting around a table, looking despondent at the weather, wrapped in sweaters and shawls and scarves.  Earlier this week, it looked as though the weather might be improving, although when the sun comes out in Nairobi this time of year, it’s like when some people show their teeth: you can’t tell whether it’s a smile or a grimace; if they really mean it, or if it’s just a nervous tic.  The collective optimism was washed away when a massive rainstorm rolled in Wednesday afternoon, complete with lightning and thunder that had everyone jumping out of their seats on the terrace at dinnertime. 

There are not too many things that I like about big cities.  But one of them is that in such large urban areas, people tend to move with a sense of purpose.  Whether or not they really do have to be somewhere urgently, urbanites tend to go about their business expeditiously (although the northern side of Kenyatta Avenue is notorious for pedestrian jams).  You might think that this is a small thing, but slow, aimless, chaotic movement preys on my mind.  For some disquisitions on the trials of life as a pedestrian, see here and here.  Also here.  And yes, you might as well look at this too, and this while you’re at it.  [Some people might call this preoccupation a deranged obsession.  I prefer to think of myself as an eminently-reasonable individual looking out for the rights of the much put-upon pedestrian classes.] 

Dedan Kimathi scowls...
There is a new peril in Nairobi which threatens pedestrians these days.  On the way from the airport, the taxi driver pointed out new traffic lights on the Uhuru Highway (they are also scattered throughout town), which count down in red and green to regulate traffic and let drivers and pedestrians know how much time they have before they must stop.  Nobody seemed to be paying them the slightest heed, so I wasn’t worried.

The next day, however, when I was walking to work, they were working like a dream.  In addition to creating massive backlogs, they actually make it much slower getting around on foot because the moving traffic gets a lot faster, meaning that it’s harder to cross safely through moving traffic.  The next day, however, they were no longer working, and cheerfully functional chaos was restored.  However, they have since begun operating once again.  They sound like a nice idea, but they give the illusion of order where none might exist.  A pedestrian crossing on a green might suppose that they will be safe, but then some car will come zooming through the intersection irrespective of the red light they face.  Because they only work intermittently, and because even when they are working they are only respected intermittently, I reckon they’ll create a certain kind of complacency.  There is actually a lot more consideration and care taken in the slow-moving chaos. 


I’ve only been doing minimal work in the archives, perhaps because I have various looming deadlines regarding matters of life and death.  But also because I was reminded of how much work in the archives can get to you when, a couple of nights ago I had a dream featuring Sandiford Njovu.  Understand, I’ve never met Sandiford Njovu, and the man presumably no longer inhabits the land of the living.  He was a game guard in Zambia in the 1950s, and he appears periodically in the archival record.  And now, my dreams too, it seems. 

Jomo Kenyatta broods...
One week-end afternoon I took advantage of some sunny weather to ride the elevator to the helipad atop the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, one of Nairobi’s tallest buildings.  The weather was beautiful that particular day, and the views across the city (as far as the Ngong Hills in one direction) were amazing.  The city centre is dominated by skyscrapers, with a handful of older, colonial-era edifices buried down around their trunks.  But there is plenty of greenery in Nairobi, from the Uhuru Park to the Arboretum and the land surrounding State House.

From that vantage point you get a bird’s eye view of the city, but miss some of the historical monuments which are scattered around its lower reaches.  On Kenyatta Avenue, a Cenotaph commemorating the war dead stands near the monument to the Askaris who served as colonial levies during Britain’s imperial wars.

...and Tom Mboya beams.
Dedan Kimathi scowls in central Nairobi—and I don’t blame him...he’s been stuck in front of the Hilton Hotel, perhaps the perfect symbol of everything he fought against and died for in the course of the independence struggle against British capital and colonialism.

Stunningly tacky in gold, surrounded by pink flamingos that look like they were pilfered from someone’s front garden, Tom Mboya looks cheerful as he appears to instruct young Kenyans of the value of responsible drinking. 

Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president, broods in front of the Supreme Court as befits the authoritarian character of his rule, which casts a shadow over recent Kenyan history and for many tarnishes the reputation of his son, the current president, because of the family’s incredible, and allegedly ill-gotten wealth.  Uhuru Kenyatta doesn’t need this filial assist, being a grown-up who's got himself indicted for crimes against humanity at the Hague entirely on his own account.    

The country is undertaking some political reconstruction these days, with new levels of government having been added by the new constitution passed to much fanfare in 2010.  Some of this reconfiguration requires actual construction, and work on a new Senate chamber which will stand alongside the existing parliament building is underway.  While doing these renovations, they might as well add some padded walls.

[It is a testament to the open political atmosphere and media freedom in Kenya that I feel (rightfully, I hope!) confident that writing that last sentence will not get me into trouble... I would never, for example, write anything of the sort about the Zambian government, at least not whilst in Zambia!]

Nairobi
Kenyan politicians, with their knack for getting to the heart of the matter, have been debating who gets to fly flags on their official vehicles.  Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, with his razor-sharp focus on the national good, has spent his post-premiership so far accusing the government of keeping him out of the VIP lounge at the airport, and has this week been complaining that he doesn’t have enough official vehicles for his security retinue.

An endangered white rhino was shot in the Nairobi National Park this week, literally under the nose of the state apparatus.  Businessmen, an MP, and a governor have already been linked to an international poaching ring.  The involvement of the latter is a considerable achievement, given that the political position has only existed since the election in March and some of its holders have already managed to get involved with illegal rackets.  The Nation’s tireless cartoonist, Gado, sardonically suggested that the President take the accused with him when he visits China (assumed rightly or wrongly to have a hand in the poaching, the professions of its diplomats aside).

Parliament, with Uhuru Park behind
For many Kenyans, official incompetence was summed up last week when a fair-sized chunk of the international airport went up in flames (literally).  Rumours abounded...  Disgruntled duty-free merchants had started the blaze.  No, it was the work of a smuggling ring, trying to dispose of immigration records.  Others, noting that the fire started in the small hours of the fifteenth anniversary of the U.S. embassy bombing, were determined to sniff out a terrorist link (and the FBI and Mossad were called in).  For all we know, it could have been an accident, but the fact that a small, localised fire got out of control because the fire department was out of engines and water is understandably seen as an outrage by the long-suffering public. 

But in spite of the traffic and official malaise, I reflected this morning as I headed into town deploying all of the street-crossing techniques I’ve honed over several years of visiting Nairobi—ducking, dodging, rolling (not really!), shamelessly using my fellow pedestrians as cover—that I’m much luckier than the people shuttled ‘round in the bazillion safari cars, who see Nairobi as a blur and never set foot in the city that defines life for its millions of inhabitants.

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