Mungiki, matatus, and why Nairobi is nothing at all like Mogadishu.

Saturday, July 7, 2007.

When even the locals have come to affectionately call their home “Nairobbery,” you can’t help but arrive in town with your guard up. For weeks I’ve been girding myself against what my guidebook cheerily describes as “the most dangerous city in Africa, beating stiff competition from Johannesburg and Lagos” – a statement that’s probably ruffled a few feathers in Mogadishu, and has certainly done little to calm my nerves. In recent weeks there’s been a thwarted suicide bombing downtown, while a rash of brutal murders have been traced to the mysterious Mungiki sect – a clan whose members are rumored to drink the blood of their victims. Arriving in the cool blue pre-dawn hours, with ominous packs of men shuffling along the airport road and dozens of matatus – Kenya’s famous minibuses – careening left and right, I’m already wondering what it will take to get settled, book a safari, and get out of town in one piece.

So I’ve checked into a hostel on the outskirts of town, at precisely the point where the infrastructure goes from slightly suspect to downright shoddy. In the morning, bringing my coffee onto the rocky, muddy road out front, I watch a group of young guys in plastic sandals and frayed t-shirts washing cars with filthy rags. They’re sloshing their towels into soapy buckets and assaulting the hubcaps with vigor, though I suspect their work will be undone before these spiffy, sparkling cars make it to the corner. A young kid with a black baseball cap and moth-eaten t-shirt comes up to me with a wide, yellow grin.

Jambo,” I say.

Jambo,” he says.

“How are you?” I say.

He looks at me, slightly puzzled, and grins again. We watch the men stooping and wiping at the panels of a late-model SUV. The boy turns to me and says, “I want to work,” with a sad sort of urgency. It’s at exactly this moment – perhaps the first time I’ve thought this thought – that I desperately wish I had a car for him to clean. I clap him on the back and squeeze his shoulder and nod. Across from us, in an overgrown field, a man in a smart black suit is sitting on a tree stump, reading the paper. A few matatus kick up clouds of dirt, punctured by shafts of sunlight. Chickens are clucking everywhere. Well-dressed men and women in thick, practical heels keep clopping by, emerging from fields or dusty roads, swinging briefcases and handbags. There’s a slow migration toward the skyscrapers downtown, a procession that’s given a particular pathos by the fact that there’s not a single proper sidewalk in sight. They shuffle down the street or in gravelly furrows on the side of the road, as if some bureaucratic carnage had created masses of white-collar refugees.

Having steeled myself with the gravest reports about this city, I spend a couple of afternoons in downtown Nairobi and wonder if I’m in the right place. Prepared for a dire town on the brink of calamity – a grim collection of vagrants, hustlers, panhandlers and travel writers – I’m surprised by just how many people are going about their normal lives. There are office workers walking briskly down the street and church women chatting on a park bench; there are businessmen sharing a laugh outside a restaurant, their well-fed bellies straining against their shirts. The streets are clean, the sidewalks are paved, there are broad, leafy parks straddling the main avenue. Men and women patiently queue for buses or window-shop in front of clothing stores, and about the only difference I can spot between Nairobi and any other city I’ve visited is that – imagine the odds! – everyone around me is black.

Back at the hostel, the white folk are keen to make themselves useful. Just about anyone who comes to East Africa has to pass through Nairobi, and just about anyone who comes to Nairobi Backpackers seems to be gearing up for volunteer work: building schools in the bush, reading to orphans, mopping up pools of urine in some remote village clinic. The good intentions around this place are enough to make you kick a kitten, though you get the sense that the most these people will manage to accomplish here in Africa is to leave the place feeling awfully swell about themselves.

Africa’s NGO racket is notorious, with hundreds of programs seemingly designed to achieve the least amount of good for the most amount of people. Adele, a wry Brit with long, plaited hair, who spent three months volunteering in Ghana, has little good to say about the program she signed up for. Though her and dozens of others were paying a whopping £1,000 a month to volunteer at an orphanage in Accra, the place was still in shambles, the mattresses were filthy, and the organization’s staff – accounting for its massive overhead – seemed to amount to no more than the guy who drove her to the orphanage and the guy who graciously accepted her check. Others gripe about the complacency in the Africans they’ve worked with: the light bulbs left unchanged, the floors unswept, the general sense that another white volunteer will be along sooner or later to tidy things up. One girl talks about a project to build a school in a small village a few hours from Nairobi: the locals admitted that a school had been built just a few years ago, but it was harder to maintain the place than to wait a few years for another batch of volunteers to show up and build a new one.

It’s the old donor paradox that doesn’t just plague these bright-eyed young do-gooders, but the international aid organizations and foreign governments who have been pouring money into Africa for decades. Aid always seems to end up in the wrong hands, where there’s virtually no transparency and absolutely no accountability. Projects move forward at a glacial pace, terribly mis-managed and with funds getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle; at times, some good might actually be accomplished. But in the end, the prevailing attitude is that if Africa has a problem, the white man will eventually come along with his checkbook to fix it.

And at Nairobi Backpackers, the volunteers keep arriving by the dozens. A group of feverish young Brits talk about their ambitious plans to spend a month “playing with schoolchildren” in Uganda; a pack of Canadians have arrived with four duffel bags crammed with books: they’re building a library in Kampala. The group’s leader – an athletic fifty-something with a bushy beard and muscular calves – tells us about their ordeal at Charles de Gaulle, where overzealous airport officials wanted to charge them a fortune in overweight fees. In the end the problem was resolved without a single euro changing hands; there’s a look of immense self-satisfaction on his face. “If you don’t believe I’ve got a heart of gold,” his sparkling eyes suggest, “you can just suck it.”

One evening a group of young English girls arrive in a giggly swarm. They’re wearing matching blue sweatshirts with nicknames on the back: “The Short One” and “The Tall One” and, oddly, “The Sporty One,” a handle that seems to ignore the rather obvious fact that the combined body fat of the lot of them could hardly stop a drain. They’ve quickly overrun the all-girls dorm, piling up backpacks and hanging mosquito nets from the ceiling, though the odds of catching malaria in Nairobi are exactly the same as the odds of catching it in Oxfordshire. Rumors begin to swirl about the program they’re working with. There’s talk of a mysterious remote control held by one of the team leaders: a device with a red button that, when pushed, will summon a helicopter to whisk the girls to safety.

Intrigues abound around the hostel. In just my first few hours at Nairobi Backpackers, I’ve watched the owner, Ken – a libidinous old Brit whose face is to gin blossoms what Alpine valleys are to wildflowers – make no less than a dozen girls feel profoundly uncomfortable with his innuendos. Showing off an odd flair for referring to himself in the third person, he’ll ask nervous 19-year-olds to “give Papa Ken a hug” – a comment that makes the skin crawl, no matter how much context you try to give it. He’s talked about the ten women around the world who pine for his love – eager to note not only that they’re younger, but that they’re “much, much younger” – and generally worked so hard to assure us he’s not some sad, lonely old man, that he can’t help but come across as awfully sad and terribly lonely.

He’s been planning to go back to Sheffield all week – a dramatic homecoming some 35 years in the making. Yet for three days running he’s missed his flight, with one improbable circumstance after another – a missing passport, a lost ticket – getting in the way. Sloshing a glass of whiskey by the fire pit, he flings a few tender insults at the staff, who – he’s convinced – are conspiring to keep him in Nairobi.

“They won’t let me leave,” he complains with great affection. “These people are my family!”

But as more and more details about his life back home emerge – the divorced wife, the estranged son, the parents dead and buried – it’s grown increasingly clear that this imaginary family is there to fill the void left by his real one. And added to the man’s great pathos is the sense that he is – as a literary figure, at least – something of a giant cliché.

Still, there are tearful rounds of goodbyes every afternoon, outpourings of immense feeling toward young backpackers who – still rubbing the sleep from their eyes – only arrived in the morning. We follow his taxi to the gate and wave goodbye to “the Wild Rover,” heading back to Sheffield “because it’s where my mother’s ashes are.” Then we sit around the fire and share a few beers until his car pulls back into the driveway an hour later.

“These bloody bastards!” he says, eyes dancing. “They won’t let me leave! They love Papa Ken too much!”

He asks Morgan, the bar-man, to fix him another whiskey, and he stands by the fire with his hands on his hips, staring into the embers. Later he’ll make a crude comment about his prowess with his fingers that practically clears the room, and by the end of the night he’s dozing off in front of the dying flames, while Morgan wraps a blanket around his shoulders.

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