Friday, April 24, 2009

Nairobi: The more it changes, the more it stays the same





Some things and places never change, I thought as I stood in the immigration line at the old Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. The curved shop-lined corridors leading from the arrival gates to immigration were just like in the early-1980s when I first strode along them. So were the simple desks behind which sat the friendly Kenyan immigration officials sweating in their uniforms in this un-air-conditioned space. Despite—or maybe because of—the absence of fancy scanners and other surveillance equipment, the line moved smoothly and I soon found myself on ground level waiting for my luggage to appear on the carousel. This gave me time to reflect on Kenya. This was a country I had visited many times at odd intervals over a period of 25 years.

Once in a taxi, the riding was smooth. The savannah on both sides of the road between the airport and the city looked extraordinarily dry. There had not been any rains this rainy season, confirmed the driver. We breezed towards the city, across the railway bridge. It was a Sunday afternoon and the traffic was tolerable, even at the notorious roundabout where Uhuru Highway meets Kenyatta Avenue. The cityscape had definitely changed but the old landmarks were still recognizable, although they now were dwarfed by the new high-rises. In the 1980s, the round tower of the Kenyatta Conference Centre fashioned after an African hut was by far the tallest building in town. The view from the rotating restaurant over the city to the surrounding plains all the way to Ngong Hills was worth the premium one had to pay for a cold Tusker lager there. Another tower, albeit a much lower one—the Hilton Hotel—used to stand out similarly. Now it blended into the enhanced skyline. The Parliament, with its prominent clock tower across the road from Uhuru Park, was a particularly beautiful and important building. One could still see it, but it now looked distinctly small and modest amidst the much taller and flashier buildings.

After a while, we passed the university on the right. In a cul-de-sac at the end of the same street where the main entrance opened to the university, there was the Boulevard Hotel. I stayed there during my first time in Kenya as a student, when the Departments of Geography at Nairobi and Helsinki universities had an exchange agreement. Later, doing research for my doctorate, I continued patronizing the Boulevard. It used to be so convenient. It was a walking distance to the university and the good book stores on Harry Thuku Road. It had comfortable and clean rooms where one could read and write. There was a pool and nice people—Kenyan and foreign alike, many of whom were fellow researchers—used to gather there, moving to the small bar for a few after hour Tuskers when the sun went down. Nairobi River ran—as it still does, albeit with significantly less water—in the gully just behind the hotel so that the sounds of water and the birds flocking in the gallery forest lining it seeped pleasantly into the rooms.

While I was sinking deeper into my memories through the fog of jetlag, the taxi turned up the hill and continued past the Casino, the National Museum, the snake park (I had only visited the latter once; the signs in the terrariums that at the same time declared each of the slithering things to be deadly poisonous and highly common had been too discouraging). At the next roundabout—these traffic traps were a distinct legacy of the British colonial rule—the taxi took the second exit to continue down on Limuru Road towards Gigiri. Once we left the city centre behind, the landscape turned lush green with thick vegetation separating the increasingly luxurious houses on both sides of the road. As you leave Nairobi this way you enter the local embassy row. Then not far one reaches Gigiri where the UN has its leafy compound. The American embassy lies next to it. Following the terrorist attack by Islamic jihadists on the downtown embassy in 1998, the Americans decided to move their representation out of town to a newly constructed bunker. Photography is prohibited anywhere near the perimeter of its grey concrete walls, except of course for the numerous security cameras that monitor anything that moves in the vicinity. The American diplomats spend their sunny African days hiding inside the enclosure.

We soon arrived at the Village Market, an open-air shopping mall nearby the UN. Next to it stood the brand new South African owned hotel, Tribe, which had just opened in September of 2008. Now, this hotel was very much different from the Boulevard—indeed anything in Nairobi I had seen earlier. The establishment looked like it had been lifted from SoHo (New York or London) and implanted on the East African upper plateau with little thought about a fit. The reception was a sleek affair of black stone. The corridor leading to my room was lined with flowing silky cloth hung on the walls to give a mysterious cave-like impression. The cool room with its fresh bed and old-fashioned white stand-alone bathtub in the clean bathroom tempted me to spend the rest of my tired Sunday there. I almost did, but overcome by hunger I walked out of the gate and across the street a short distance to the Village Market. The place was not exactly hopping, but there were numerous people browsing the shops, having meals with their families, or simply sipping beer at one of the tall tables around the food court. I felt for more peaceful surroundings and climbed to the Tapas bar on the second level of the complex. Spanish tapas in Nairobi? We’ve certainly come a long way from the olden times when a leg of goat, purchased directly from a butcher and grilled on the backyard to be simply enjoyed with a dip of coarse salt, was de rigueur. Still not fully convinced of the new state of affairs, I ordered a burger and a glass of South African Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kenya has gone through many phases since its independence in 1963 when the British educated intellectual Jomo Kenyatta, who had spent years in prison for his part in the Mau Mau rebellion, took the helm leading the new nation into a seemingly bright future. The future remained bright for a long while, as Kenya developed peacefully and prospered thanks to its successful agriculture and wonderful nature. Its amazing game parks attracted increasing numbers of tourists as foreigners realized that the place was safe to visit and just the right combination of wild and civilized. After a dusty day observing charismatic big fauna in the parks, one could relax over sundowners in rustic sophistication. At the elevation of the central highlands evenings would get pleasantly cool once the sun went down.

Corruption was always there but it initially wasn’t at a scale that would really much bother anyone. The aging Mzee (respected old man) Kenyatta was amassing wealth and demonstratedly owned large tracts of the best land in the central parts of the country, his Kikuyu people’s homeland. The people blamed it on the beloved old leader’s wife. She was a greedy woman, they said. Despite its forty some ethnic groups, the country was a paragon of peace and order. True, one of the largest tribes, the Luo from the west in the Lake Victoria basin, was in permanent opposition and their political leader, the charismatic Oginga Odinga, the original vice-president at independence, was frequently harassed. But the Luo were troublesome intellectuals anyway. All the professors at the Geography Department—Ominde, Ojany, Obudho—were Luo. Always when there was trouble in Nairobi, the government would close the university and send the students packing home. Their relegation to the opposition was so permanent that last year during Barack Obama’s campaign, the people in Kisumu and other cities in the west used to joke that America would sooner have a Luo president than Kenya would!

Following Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Daniel arap Moi rose to power. The new president belonged to a minor ethnic group, the Kalenjin, and was supposed to be a uniter, not a divider. In practice, during his 24 years of rule, the economic advances of Kenya were largely reversed and corruption got out of hand. The country was run by a clique of men close to the president and political opponents were routinely pestered.

To Mr. Moi’s credit, he eventually allowed opposition openly to exist, although it was unlikely that he did so wholeheartedly. The opposition was highly fractured and posed scarce risk to the power of the well-organized and established Kenya African National Union (KANU) that had ruled the country since independence. But history was running its course and the end of the old era was in sight. Finally in 2002, Mr. Moi lost a multiparty election. He was replaced by another Kikuyu, Mwai Kibaki. The new president promised to tackle corruption head-on and even appointed a special official, John Githongo, to expose graft in the government. However, it did not take long before evidence of massive corruption involving Mr. Kibaki and his cronies surfaced. After just a couple of short years in office, Mr. Githongo had to flee the country into exile in London.

Dissatisfaction was mounting and by now the Kenyans had gotten used to more democracy. The opposition had also learned a lesson and was becoming more competent. In the run-up to the elections in 2007, it was getting obvious that the opposition leader Raila Odinga (the son of old Oginga Odinga) was heading for a certain victory against Mr. Kibaki and his old guard. Mr. Odinga can hardly be called an angel, either, and his campaign did not hide well its anti-Kikuyu message. When Mr. Kibaki’s establishment started tweaking the election results, the country exploded into conflict with battle lines drawn along ethnic lines. Some 1,500 people were killed and the Luo living in the highlands were sacked from their homes and sent as refugees back to their overpopulated heartland by Lake Victoria. United Nations investigators have found clear evidence of extrajudicial executions of at least 500 people by death squads probably linked to the police and ruling politicians. The violence had devastating results on Kenya’s reputation and economy, as the tourists stayed away.

Today life has returned to normal and peace prevails, at least on the surface. A compromise solution mediated by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, retained Mr. Kibaki as president while Mr. Odinga now sits in the prime minister’s seat. Mr. Moi is still active as an elderly statesman. During my visit I saw him on the national TV pontificating against tribalism and how it is a thing of the past. Better late than never. Corruption still runs rampant and, as The Economist reported on March 14th this year, the mismanagement combined with the global recession has devastated the country’s economy, with some 4 million people now relying on food aid. Poverty and unemployment have risen to previously unseen levels, leading to rising criminality and increasing the risk of renewed civil unrest.

Over the years Nairobi—for long the undisputed primate city in East Africa—has transformed from a pleasant medium sized town to a “muggers’ paradise,” as one of the main newspapers in the country, Daily Nation, called it on its front page on March 24, 2009. The police identified ten trouble spots where it was particularly risky to venture for fear of getting robbed and where, according to the good paper, the assailants do not hesitate to kill their prey. Naturally, these included several spots in the secluded Uhuru Park whose trees and bushes provide protective cover to the criminals. But also other parts of the city, including a number of downtown street corners even on Moi Avenue, were on the list. As it happened, a photographer wielding a telefocus lens had managed to capture a mugging in action on Kirinyaga Road in the centre of the city. This became the main news item to follow during my week in town. The police raided the Nairobi slums in search of the muggers caught on camera, but despite promises that their days were numbered the brutes remained elusive.

During my earliest visits to Nairobi the city was perfectly safe to explore on foot and Uhuru Park used to be a pleasant spot to take a small rest from midday heat. The biggest risk probably was being cheated of pocket change by “Ugandan students” who told heartrending stories of their hardship in this foreign city. Some 7-8 years ago my colleague Dick Hosier, a former Kenya resident, and I came to town on business and had booked ourselves to the Norfolk Hotel close to the university. Our choice had been influenced by the fact that the Norfolk bar used to be a lively hub where people used to gather after work and especially on Friday nights. We found the hotel and its bar nearly deserted. On our first Saturday, we wanted to walk over a few blocks to a familiar bistro for lunch, but the hotel doorman insisted we take a taxi for security reasons.

The urban geography of Nairobi changed and the action moved to the west of the city. Westlands, formerly a suburb, became the hub of good residential buildings, restaurants, hotels, nightlife. Gigiri and Village Market even further out now thrive.

Therefore, also I found myself cocooned in the postmodern splendour of the Tribe. On a dark and cool Tuesday night I sat on the terrace overlooking the dimly lit and stylish pool area with my colleagues Belen and Oscar. We had ordered a plate of shrimp and vegetable tempura that we washed down with a velvety Cabernet. The only indication that we were in Africa was the black star-studded equatorial sky that appeared infinite above us. After a while, the air at 1,800 metres above sea level turned chilly and we decided to relocate to the comfortable sofas in the lobby. Here inside we became aware of the incessant background music, which streamed from the hotel’s sound system. Thinking that the electronica beat was not the most appropriate accompaniment to our African existence, Oscar suggested to the staff that perhaps a change of channel would be in place. This would not do, he was told, as the music was piped in from a central source in Canada. One cannot escape globalization.

On my last night in Nairobi a large group of us who had been attending the meetings on the lovely UN campus had decided to close the week at Carnivore. This legendary establishment has solidified its reputation as a Mecca for meat lovers over decades of its existence and is now counted amongst the best restaurants in the world (for those who do not fit the bill, like my neighbour Yun Chae on that particular night, the place also serves a superb herbivorous menu). Sitting at the long wooden table in the back of the garden I had no intention of foregoing the Churrasco that is the specialty: a large variety of meats ranging from the familiar (beef, pork, lamb…) to the exotic (ostrich, warthog, crocodile…) served on huge skewers fresh from the wooden grill. I only draw the line at eating anything coming from endangered species. It also happened to be my birthday—a fact I had tried to forget, but that someone somehow had discovered—and at desert time the waiters gathered at the side of our table to sing a Swahili celebration song: ”Jambo, Jambo Bwana, Habari gani, Mzuri sana…”

As we left Carnivore heading back to Gigiri on the other side of town, we drove through the city dropping off some people at the hotels there. There were only a few caf├ęs and bars that seemed to be open although it was barely midnight. The streets were dark and deserted apart from a few unsavoury looking characters lurking in the doorways.

The following day it was time to leave town and I grabbed a taxi from the hotel to the airport. It was Friday afternoon and the traffic was heavy. I asked the friendly and talkative driver whether there was no way to avoid driving through the congested city centre. He said there was and that he’d take another route coming back from the airport. But with a white Mzungu on the backseat, it would not be safe. On the empty roads we’d risk being stopped by gangsters who would relieve us of all our possessions. This had actually happened to a friend of mine, a Swedish woman who used to work at the UN in Nairobi, a few years ago. She had been driving her car when she was stopped at gunpoint. Luckily the ruffians had let her out of the car unharmed after a few kilometres. I thus resigned to the urban route and sat back to enjoy the Christian country & western songs my driver played on the CD for our entertainment. As we approached the airport, he awakened me from my revelry. “Sir, could you kindly pay me before we get to the airport, please? If the police there see you give me money, they’ll stop me and take most of it. The officials are so corrupt in this country.” I handed him the agreed amount outside of the peripheral fence and he dropped me off at the terminal without incidence. I hope he made it back safely.

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