Nairobi B&E: Feelings of Security and Insecurity in the City

Posted on July 1, 2011

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Upon my arrival at the hostel the first night I came to Nairobi, I was frazzled—jet lagged and tired and hungry and a little worried about what the next ten weeks would hold. But I remember clearly looking at the keys they gave me, looking at the flaking paint and chipped wood of a thin door slipping in its hinges, looking at the simplistic lock. And I remember thinking, goddamnit, it would be so incredibly fucking easy to break into this room.

It really would be so easy to break in. Hostels are full of all manner of strange folk, coming and going. Those of us who stay for more than one night, they recognized. But those who came and went night to night, they could slip in and out provided they looked adequately at home. Oh, of course there was a gate to the hostel, and a guard, but never any real question save, are you coming to stay at the hostel? No incredulity or deeper questioning, especially for one on foot who could simply slip through the smaller door within the gate, no questions asked. Then a jaunt through the lobby, up the staircase—no guards, no alarms, no cameras, no locks—and down the hall into the rows and rows of locked doors. But locked would be a misnomer—more like severely jammed, but nothing a little elbow grease and a pin couldn’t fix.

The locks at the hostel were ancient and farcical. An old skeleton key with one notch inserted facing down into the lock cylinder. Within the cylinder, one pin, two on the better doors, but not pins on the bottom of the cylinder that can slide back down when you try to pick them, just pins on the bottom of the cylinder that will go down and stay down. It wouldn’t take a professional lock pick to crack that lock and release the bolt without any effort—it would just take a little jiggling with an unbent paper clip and enough force. Not even a rake pick, just a toggle here and there by an absolute amateur.

That’s only if you wanted to break into the room leaving behind no evidence of a forced entry. But even a clumsy drunken stumble into the door with all the dead weight of inebriated flesh could easily rattle that slab of wood right out of the hinges or snap the trembling bolt from out of its casing. No, breaking into that room would have been no problem at all. Yet my laptop staid safe and sound for days on end.

Still the experience of the thought at the door speaks to a strange impulse within me. I am slightly paranoid, it’s true, and I feed it by trying to become aware of my environment in its every security and its every danger. I notice the security of Kenya, the fences and the guards, not just because they are obvious, but because I like to run through just how secure every aspect of it really is.

Awareness of one’s surroundings at times requires one to think on terms of the darker element, and so I have attempted to learn as much as I can about breaking and entering to understand and analyze. That is a clumsy preface to say that the things I am about to type are not the signs of a criminal mind, but one worried about criminal minds. (My father and I have often discussed the arrests of criminals, drug dealers and thieves and the like, and noted how stupid they were … then continued to figure just how easy it would have been, with the proper planning, to skip the difficulties that landed the fellow in prison. We’re usually eerily specific.)

To illustrate, here is what goes through my head as I drive to work every morning, staring absently out of the window (note this is a composite and semi-fictional account, for security reasons):

Stone fence, but roughly mortared, approximately seven feet high. Good footholds. Topped with electric wire, rusty barbs at the top, possibly dull. One guardhouse by the entrance. Fence runs into a corner where traffic and visibility are lesser. Entire housing development beyond fence with only one guard along a perimeter that should be covered by perhaps three. Each unit looks to be of the type here that will use a one to three pin lock, simple skeleton keys.

Sneakers with good traction. Rubber gloves and either a rubber mat or short-handled bolt cutters with well insulated rubber handles. Wait until around seven in the evening, guards will be adjusting to the dark without a flashlight, possibly in a lull after having changed shift. Those who will not be returning home for some time will not be home anytime soon, those coming in for the night are already home. Scale wall, either roll mat over wire or cut wire—mat is safer, but much more clumsy. Wire cutters leave more of a trace. A rake pick is not elegant, but is the fastest and easiest way to open any of the locks I will find within. Nothing is safe. Nothing is safe.

And nothing was safe. Two weeks into my stay here, we had a break in attempt at the office. The office is well protected—deadbolt with top-of-cylinder pins, a good, strong lock. Security system, which no one will respond to, but the sound and threat of two burly and underpaid men rushing in with truncheons is enough to put a thief off of his spoils unless s/he’s well seasoned. And a metal grating over the door locked with a deadbolt that would not be easily reached by bolt cutters. Valuables are locked in a filing cabinet, not hard to pick, but time consuming once the alarm has gone off, and too heavy to remove. All windows have locks and are covered in metal grating.

The thief opened the deadbolt, but did not bother with the harder and more important task of the metal grating. As the alarm went off, he fled, with too little time to disarm the metal grate to slip in and disable the alarm, or take a quick haul of some trifle that isn’t locked down, and then flee. The only problem is that we suspect that it was one of the guards, looking for an easy buck with few repercussions, who decided to try to break into the room, knowing he could disable the system. It’s the metal grate that kept him out.

Not to boast, but I think I know how to bypass this office’s security … it actually wouldn’t be hard at all. I would never reveal that tidbit as that would just be foolish, but it makes we worry in part out of paranoia. But it gives me hope as well.

Nairobi is known as a city of thievery and for that very reason most tourists try to get out of the city and towards the safaris or the Massai Mara as quickly as possible. But if there are thieves, they are foolish and petty criminals, not well organized, and preying on the weak only. There are some strange and inventive attempts at security in this city—the best I’ve seen was a gate in which broken shards of glass had been embedded into the concrete at the top of the wall, a bar-fight in still life. But each and every one of them is more show and bluster than actual security. A strong criminal organization, a good mob or gang, could fairly easily commit a randomized and effective spree of robbery in the city, where police and private security are both so unreliable. So what strikes me is not the rate of crime here. It’s the lack of crime.

In part cultural, in part systematic and social, there’s just a series of incentives and organizational characteristics that make crime in this city rampant, but far too timid to attempt theft and trespass on the scale someone in New York or the rest of America might be used to. There’s safety in this city for those who know well enough how to manage themselves on a less-than-secure, but not gang-controlled street. Yes, parts of the city are rougher than others, but the limitations on the spread of that criminal activity speaks to the same trend. And that’s hopeful, despite all my paranoia.

Although I do think I’ll try to figure out a little bit more about criminal organization and practices in the city and security measures (public and private) to combat and counteract crime—I hear advances have been made. Again, paranoia and the analytic mind. I want to understand so I can know what to fear.

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