Let’s have an honest conversation about Kenya

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

After the robbery incident in Dar es Salaam, I had promised myself that, for the rest of the trip, I would never arrive in a town or a city after dark, especially now that I was alone. So, when I arrived in Mombasa on the east coast of Kenya at around 9pm, I quickly worked myself into a frenzy. Plainly put, I was shit scared.

I had no map and no phone. The night air was stifling, the traffic heavy, the bright lights imposing. The bus dumped us on the side of the road as opposed to any recognisable bus station, and the rest of the passengers disappeared into the darkness without so much as a second glance my way. I knew the name of the backpackers I wanted to go to, but did not know their phone number nor which part of the city it was situated. Perhaps most depressingly, I also needed the type of piss that disables your ability to think clearly.

That morning, I had had to begrudgingly wrestle myself away from Moshi in Northern Tanzania. Small African towns such as the popular Kilimanjaro base are always preferable to busy, noisy, dirty, intimidating African cities. However, I knew that I had to keep moving: the weekly train from Mombasa to Nairobi leaves on a Tuesday evening and, given that it was a Monday, I thought I had better spend at least one night in Kenya’s second city.

The bus trip from Moshi to Mombasa was long, uncomfortable, and perpetually interrupted by punctures and confusing staff changes. My attempts at reaching out to those around me were plainly ignored, though I garnered the attentions of an extremely flirtatious African girl called Maria who was quickly pulled to the back of the bus by what looked like her father, after which I was at the receiving end of many dirty looks. I longed for the quiet buzz of Moshi as we trundled through the border, without much trouble, before a 3-hour delay at the dusty border town of Taveta. It was at this point that I realised that we would only reach Mombasa after dark. Dread quickly crept into my cramped body.

The road on which we had been dropped in Mombasa was packed with the deafening hoots of the overwhelming Monday evening traffic. I felt like a lost little boy on the pavement, dwarfed not only by my backpack but also by sights and sounds around me. As I perhaps should have expected, however, my loneliness did not last long, as 3 tuk-tuks quickly caught sight of my ragged beard and exhaustingly dirty features, immediately screeching to a halt by the pavement.

“Where to my friend?” The first to speak was the first to deserve a response.

“Backpackers Nirvana?” My voice squeaked upwards in the hope that he’d know the place I was talking of. He didn’t miss a beat.

“Yes, yes, I know, I know, hop in.”

I was quite happy to get into a tuk-tuk as opposed to a taxi. Tuk-tuk’s are three-wheeled vehicles, like a rickshaw, looking like a modern-day carriage of sorts. They didn’t have doors to speak of, and were very open such that I couldn’t possibly be trapped in the taxi as in Dar es Salaam. The night was hot enough to enjoy the air rushing through the tuk-tuk as it picked up speed on the well-lit streets. I introduced myself confidently, which quickly turned into despair when Anthony, my driver, violently pulled over two minutes later.

“I just need to get directions.”

He clearly had no idea where Backpackers Nirvana was.

On the plus side, I thought, he was clearly a legitimate taxi. Whilst clueless, at least he wasn’t taking me down dark alleyways under false pretentions so as to introduce me to his mafia friends. My experience in Dar es Salaam clearly still had me on edge. I took the opportunity to go and relieve my tortured bladder, before convincing Anthony to give me his phone so I could Google the backpackers and get a phone number. He spoke to the lady on the other end of the line, and soon enough we were back underway. Newly comfortable and no longer intimidated now that I was safe and in transit, I settled back into the tuk-tuk and proceeded to do what I do best: make arbitrary conversation with a stranger.

“I have been driving this tuk-tuk for nearly two years,” Anthony nearly had to shout to make himself heard over the traffic. “My uncle owns the company. I used to live in Nairobi but I couldn’t find work there. But that is where most of the business is. Mombasa has the beach.”

“Hey, that’s like South Africa!” I exclaimed. “Johannesburg has the business, but Cape Town has the beaches. And the mountains. And all the fun.”

“Yes!” Anthony laughed. “But it would be better for me if I was there. Better business.”

“Is the pay not good, driving tuk-tuks?” It probably wasn’t the cleverest question.

“Well you make your own business. Me, I work seven days a week. Six days is 7am-10pm, then on Sunday’s I work a half-day because I have church in the morning. I want to save up enough to open a business,” Anthony expertly jumped between packed lanes.

“What will your business be?” I asked – too many times I had heard ‘I want to be an entrepreneur,’ before the person admitted that they had no idea what sort of business they wanted to run.

“An electronics shop. Selling phones, chargers, radio’s and TV’s,” Anthony turned and smiled proudly at me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that electronic shops in Africa are about as common as Starbucks in America. Here, they are outnumbered only by fruit stalls. At least he had a dream.

“But so you’re a Christian, then?” I asked, referring back to his earlier comment about church.

“Yes,” he said. “And you?”

“Er, yes,” I said, for the sake of simplicity. I didn’t want to complicate things by delving into my views on religion. I wasn’t here to talk about me. “But so, doesn’t Mombasa have quite a large Muslim community?”

“Yes,” Anthony replied carefully, seeming to wonder where I was going with this. “There are a lot of Muslims here. More than Christians.”

“So is there any trouble between the two groups here?” Just the week before, up the East coast near the Somali border in a place called Mandera, Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab had hijacked a bus and brutally executed 28 non-Muslims, mostly teachers, after they had been singled out from the Muslim passengers. This was followed by the massacre of 36 quarry workers in the same region. The consecutive atrocities highlighted the rising threat of religious-based conflict in Kenya.

“No, there are no problems here,” Anthony dismissed my question nonchalantly. “This is not Nigeria. In Nigeria…”

“With Boko Haram,” I interjected quickly, eager to show off my general knowledge.

“Yes, with Boko Haram,” Anthony continued. “The government acted too slow there. Now Boko Haram have taken over. Here, the government acted quickly, so we have defeated the terrorists.” I wasn’t sure if Anthony chose to ignore the twin attacks by the Islamist Al-Shabaab, or was simply unaware of it.

“So then you’re happy with this government?” I pressed on.

“Yes. I think so…” He sounded unsure, trailing off. “The last elections were good.”

“You mean they weren’t rigged?”

“Oh yes, they were definitely rigged,” Anthony stated very matter-of-factly. “But there was no violence, like in the previous elections.” He was referring to the 07/08 elections, where politically motivated ethnic violence resulted in the deaths of over 1000 people and the internal displacement of around 600,000 more.

It is a sad day for the democratic status of a country when their elections are considered a success on the basis of peace rather than the basis of authenticity.

I let it slide.

“And so Kenyatta? And Ruto? Are they good men?” Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are the current President and Deputy President of Kenya; at the time of this conversation, they were both under investigation from the International Criminal Court in the Hague for crimes against humanity. Specifically, they were charged with inciting the violence after the 07/08 elections. In 2013, their party, The National Alliance, won the elections, despite the ongoing investigations.

“Yes. They are good men,” Anthony stated stubbornly, though he could see where I was going this time. “Listen, if they are guilty, then they must pay. It is good that the ICC are doing the investigation. If they were being done in Kenya, then the charges would be dropped immediately. There is too much corruption here. The ICC will be fair.”

It was a remarkably mature observation, one that I had admittedly not expected, including an idealistic view on an ICC that has faced much scorn throughout the rest of Africa. With that, we arrived at Backpackers Nirvana. It had been a genuinely interesting and refreshingly honest conversation, and I thanked Anthony by giving him a small tip on top of the fee.

Kenya is a country at a crossroads. The ICC has dropped the charges against Kenyatta and Ruto. As stubbornly stated by Anthony, Kenya is not yet Nigeria: indeed, the Kenyan government have been (controversially) active in their fight against terrorism. In December 2014, an ‘anti-terror’ bill was signed into law by Kenyatta that essentially mocks basic human rights (though, in a rare example of an independent judicial ruling in Africa, certain key clauses of the bill have since been deemed unconstitutional by the Kenyan High Court), and reports have recently surfaced that claim Kenya is planning to build a wall along it’s border with Somalia.

For Anthony, however, life goes on. He will continue to grind out 15-hour shifts and seven-day working weeks, breaking only for church, hurtling inside his tuk-tuk towards the good life that he imagines an electronic store will bring him. He cannot afford to be overly concerned by suspicious political behaviour, only worrying for peace as that provides an environment in which money can be made. He is the profile of the African that the West never sees, the mid-point of extremes: not dying of disease or wasting away through starvation; not showboating in the pits of wasted public money and corruption.

He is, simply, chipping away at a life that doesn’t promise to give anything back.