Indecent Proposal: A Disheartening Encounter in Gigiri

Posted on July 14, 2011

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Two soldiers from the Kenyan army stand outside of the American Embassy. It seems a little much, considering just behind them is a small swarm of Foreign Service Nationals with handguns and nightsticks, and beyond them a maze of checkpoints and large, intimidating men with various instruments of grievous bodily harm. But in light of the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, with the further glare of 9/11 and shifting popular consciousness, one can understand why Kenya would see fit to station guards outside a fortress, while other embassies receive unequal treatment: it’s the Never Again sentiment born of shame, pride, and the stern, pressuring gaze of America.

But as I stood, two days past, next to Gabriel, one of the two soldiers guarding the embassy, I did not feel safe at all. Gabriel stands a head higher than me, wears forest fatigues (which make little sense in Nairobi), a red beret with the Kenyan flag on the front, and carries an AK-47 that has seen little to no upkeep in recent years. Gabriel does not stand to attention. He and his fellow guard pass a copy of a local newspaper back and forth, slouching against the fence or sauntering up to chat with white folk. While they stop and grill anyone with skin darker than olive, treat them with suspicion and harshness, they let anyone of European extraction pass by them freely. No questions, save for a few friendly ones to those who approach them.

Gabriel and I had started talking as I waited for my friend to come and pick me up. Usually I am wary of locals approaching me with a big smile and a lot of questions because, not to seem to mistrustful, but, they usually want something. Most of my conversations that start out innocently devolve quickly into can you get me a job with an NGO? NGOs pay the big money, yes? I deserve the big money and you should give it to me. Will you marry my sister? Give me Ksh 1,000, I know you have it on you. It’s not that they are opportunist or twisted. It’s just that white tourists flash their cash, give it easily, and there’s little interaction with or perception of us in the lower rungs of Kenyan society beyond the flaunting, the wealth, the word-of-mouth concepts, the ideal of America that goes back to the days of Irish immigration. But they don’t find the sad disappointment to that dream so easily or so powerfully as did the Irish when they arrived on American shores.

I expected Gabriel to be different for no other reason than this: he was a government soldier. Though I know the darker sides of armies, some of the strange things that can happen within them, I still respect military men and women, still tend to think of them as disciplined. Even if they rebel against discipline in the barracks at times, I still tend to believe in my gut that when push comes to shove, they are strong and admirable people. Even when in my head I know that’s not necessarily the case.

Two girls walk by.

“Do you like our Kenyan girls?” asks Gabriel.

It’s best just to give a pro forma response here. I am a guest in your country, I will appreciate your culture and try not to challenge you or make my odd opinions too clear until I know you better. So I say, “Yes, they’re quite nice women, indeed.”

“You know, my friend, if you want I can get you a Kenyan girl.”

I don’t want to react too quickly to this. Sometimes people will offer to set you up with a cousin or a sister, mainly because they see no ring on my finger and think I’m older than I am. Some of my friends, at first thinking me a marriageable age (they first ask how my wife is) have made similar offers. But I don’t know Gabriel well enough for him to think about setting me up with a nice girl.

“Who are these girls?”

“Women I know. You are here for some time, but will leave, is it? You know, it is very important to mix the colors while you are in Africa.”

My suspicions grow.

“Gabriel, my friend, there is nothing wrong with mixing colors. I support it. But I do not think I am interested while I am here.”

“Sa sa? Are you sure? We have many types of girls, very nice girls.”

“I am sure.”

There is silence as we both stare ahead, far too conscious of the failed transaction that has played out between us. He turns away for a moment, aware that there is little to be done here, little to be made. Then he turns back slowly.

“You say you are working with an NGO?”

“Yes, but a small one.”

“NGOs, you need men to take care of you. You need security.” He motions to the Kenyan guards inside the US Embassy and across the street at the UN compound. “I am a big, strong man. I have many trainings. Survival training, weapons training, even the big weapons, the big guns. Driving training. Yes, so I have abilities. In this country it is hard to make a living. They pay us so little! But we are skilled, and the NGOs, they have the big money. You can help me find a job with an NGO?”

It’s too difficult to communicate all of this across the culture gap, that no we do not have the big money, not to throw around. That no, they do not want to hire a guard from out of nowhere, that there are rules and procedures and all manner of obstacles. That they probably would not be keen, for many reasons, about plucking a soldier out of the army. That they are not all connected and I do not know what other NGOs might want. It’s too difficult with someone who wants the dream more than the facts to explain what NGOs actually do, that they are not piggy banks, just broken jars of ideas mixed in with ill-managed money-as-fuel. I don’t think he’d really want to hear it.

“We do not need security right now, and I do not work with these sorts of things. I am sorry, but good luck.”

“But if you do find anything, come here and tell us? We are good people and good for security. You can come here, because you know we are the right people. So come when you find the jobs.”

Not if, when.

“If I am able to hire,” I say, “I will let you know.”

He walks away, and I, having taken the easy way out, sit down to wait in silence atop a pile of scattered bricks and stones.

This morning, I thought of Gabriel again and that is when the fear hit me. Fuel prices are set to increase in Kenya, they said on the news, and the demonstrations against higher food prices are growing. We saw it in the Arab world, and more recently in Uganda just across the border: once you have a good degree of popular unrest, it’s only a hope, a skip, and a jump down the way towards channeling starved intellect, body, and rage towards a political ends.

Kenya has a contentious election approaching. Folks here want to be optimistic, but displaced persons are stockpiling guns, the tribalism of the government has become so apparent it’s laughable, and the new constitution has given an aura of empowerment, suspicion, and activism to the popular audience. Most of my friends predict that the government, ever-savvy at saving their own skins, will lower food prices artificially in the months running up to the elections. But will that be enough?

Kenya’s a stable African nation, relatively developed. But everywhere I see the cracks. I see the lack of national loyalty in Gabriel, the hunger in him, the need for a living the nation cannot provide to his standards. I see Gabriel searching out white visitors for private security work. I see an army with weak elements, I see well trained fighters who may at the flip of a switch pour across the lines in the right backer should call to them. I see a population emboldened, but facing rapidly increasing prices, clear evidence of governmental corruption (MPs flat-out refuse to pay their taxes and the aid money from the government to drought-stricken Turkana has not arrived, not one red cent—they would rather see Kenyans die than fork over their bit). I see unstable markets and environmental risks. I cannot help but see in Gabriel’s eyes a powder keg.

It’s not gloom and doom for the nation. But I wish I saw politicians and diplomats here stepping more carefully than they do. The reputation of peace and development, the history of a few calm decades, is no reason for complacency. To me, it’s cause for fear. Life likes change, regardless of the lives it wrecks that change upon.

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