Danger Walk: Some Good Conversation, Some Sad Facts

Posted on June 6, 2011

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First note: Still having trouble getting more regular access to the Internet. To those I’ve promised to speak to soon, I’m sorry for the delay. Doing the best I can! Now to the meat of the matter.

On Saturday I was out running errands with one of my co-workers, Valerie. It grew late and dark—two things notoriously dangerous for a white guy walking around Nairobi. Valerie supports me becoming independent and comfortable in the city, though, and we were in the Westlands, a part of the city with steady traffic and less unsavory elements. So we decided we would walk back to my hostel.

That turned out to not be such a great idea.

Nothing happened; all is well. But I know I was a bit worried on the way home. Valerie later revealed to me that she was doing her best to stay calm so as not to panic me (I was doing the same so as not to seem a target). And when a native is worried, that is not a good sign. The streets we walked down were narrow, shady, far from the bulk of the city … but farther and farther from the Westlands, and beset by rather ragged types. Men who eyed me hungrily, bands of young men, a slight hint of booze on them, shadows that moved a little too methodically. In the end we decided that we would never make that walk again, that whenever I come home from the Westlands, I should just take a taxi. Had I been carrying my bag or been dressed in my work clothes, Valerie is convinced, I would have been robbed, if not far worse.

But to keep ourselves calm and to pass ourselves off as people comfortable on this road, as if we make the trek often, we engaged in a rather spirited discussion of politics and culture. I appear to occupy a strange place for most Kenyans here. It’s impossible to know how much is empty sentiment and flattery, but they seem to honestly see me as odd for an American: self-critical, easy to engage, willing to talk to them as equals. It’s mind boggling, but apparently that’s still not common, especially among aid workers, who tend to be incredibly paternalistic, and tourists, who are … well, tourists.

Also, they’re shocked that I know how to cook with yams and maize flour, how to cross streets here, that I was willing to wander around the city alone on my first week here. They don’t understand why I’m not as thirsty as other Americans (everyone of them carries a water bottle everywhere here), think it’s strange that I came here drinking as much tea as they do, and find my fascination with sailing a dhow, with learning about the history of tea and visiting a few tea farms—they find it all odd (at least those I’ve spoken to in depth thus far).

I may soon write more on the subject of being an odd American and the culture of NGO workers, tourists, and expats in Nairobi as I’ve seen it thus far. But for now, back to the matter at hand.

I’ll not write out the conversation in depth, but a few things:

Valerie found my cultural railings against Texas most amusing. But she was more interested to hear my thoughts on Obama and seemed shocked to hear that I’d worked on his campaign (even briefly and in a minor capacity). She asked me to clear up just what sinister relationships there are between the U.S., the IMF, and the World Bank, whether they have diabolical plans for Africa, and how they feed into the U.S. economy. On that subject, she (and almost everyone abroad) was shocked to hear a cursory explanation of the economic situation of the U.S. When I mentioned China, something clicked in her head and she suddenly shifted to a very American fear that China would rise and soon become the power lording over Kenya (already the Chinese are here, building roads and infrastructure, etc.).

On my end, I wasn’t too surprised to hear how tired she and her family and friends were of Kenyan politics, how hopeless they felt, as if they were mired in the tribal struggles of a kleptocratic elite they felt no loyalty to or affection for. But I was surprised when she confirmed a dark rumor I’d heard a while back.

My father sent me an e-mail today telling me that in America there’s been news of inflation and labor unrest in Kenya, that the pundits who discuss this fear for the nation. None of that comes through here. They’re acutely aware of the inflation, but it’s always been a slight problem. No, what they fear is this: in the last election, violence broke out over the results, and in the process of reaching a shaky resolution (much heralded by the West, though), 600,000 were displaced. (1000 were killed.)

I’d heard rumors a while back that the displaced and disenfranchised in that process were arming themselves. Apparently it’s worse than all that. I’m told that the displaced are actually still in camps, and they watch bitterly as Kenya gives millions in aid to Japan, while ignoring the crippling corruption and displacement and enduring chaos within its own borders. Those in the camps are fed up, and the public apathetic, but verging on sympathetic to the camp folks. Someone has been bringing guns and ammunition into the camps. What faction, we do not know, and how it plays out, we do not know. But every conversation I’ve had here on the subject seems to point towards bloodshed in 2012.

More germane to this audience, though, Valerie expressed a great discontent in Kenya over the way U.S. diplomacy here works. She deals with the embassy on behalf of the NGO and has already complained about the fear, the caution, and the lack of continuity here. I have great sympathy with that.

But I was a little more surprised when she told me how hypocritical she felt the U.S. was on matters of corruption. Yes, I told her, we have corruption and scandals, but it’s rarely ever so open. Apparently not so. While the ambassador here stands and points fingers, wagging American standards and values at the corrupt Kenyan government, apparently corruption reigns within his own office.

Go to the American embassy as a Kenyan and it’s hard to get a visa. But talk to the right American in the embassy, slip the right shilling into the right hand, and you’re guaranteed a visa, no matter the lies that are told or the merit of the case. I’m not too surprised, but I never thought it would have been so blatant and common a form of corruption that someone like Valerie, who has never had occasion until recently to seek a visa, would be well aware of it.

Low-level corruption is something I feel I must accept. The ethics of the nation does have a way of grafting itself onto those who live within its borders, even within the walls of an embassy or for such a short time. But when we engage with the world, and as we think about our immigration policy, it’s worth thinking about not just our lofty ideas, but the way our agents move on the ground, the picture foreigners gain of America through interactions with the representatives of our land. It’s a grim thought when you consider all that Valerie and others have told me of their interactions, of the behavior of Americans here—tourist, ambassador, NGO worker, and all alike.

I had a rather detailed conversation with Valerie about the history of American abuses (slavery and the fate of the Native Americans are not really common knowledge here). She was shocked. And I was shocked at how matter-of-fact I took the knowledge to be. I do not doubt that we will have more of these conversations in the future. But it saddens me to know that, despite the large white presence here, these conversations do not happen more often. There’s still a large barrier here between the two, and a certain colonial edge to many interactions. Again, I think it has much to do with the poor conduct of NGO workers, diplomats, tourists, expats, and so on. But I will have to write more on that later. I’ve rambled on for far too long as of now.

No more shady walks for me. But certainly more conversations like this.

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