This is Africa.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007.

It’s election season in Kenya, with the usual crooks and cronies preparing their battle plans in the run-up to the December balloting. Downtown there are packs of men gathered around smooth, smiling guys in well-pressed suits. A local explains how presidential hopefuls send out their yes-men to offer the usual empty promises; in the small towns and villages, they’ll arrive bearing money and gifts. Food, blankets, new pairs of shoes: a brief spending spree in the weeks leading up to the election is typically all it takes to secure another five-year term – about the only thrift these guys are bound to exercise before the next campaign season rolls around.

The papers are frothing daily with the latest news: the president making urgent pleas for a peaceful election, the opposition candidates jockeying for position. In Mombasa, a hopeful for the Opposition Democratic Movement – addressing a rally of thousands – is greeted with jeers and chants of “Nyundo! Nyundo!” The cries – “Hammer! Hammer!” – are a derisive reference to the swank new Hummer that chauffeurs the candidate around the country. Meanwhile, leading Assistant Ministers have waged a small-scale strike on the floor of Parliament, protesting what they describe as a lack of work. One man I meet downtown snuffs and shakes his head: it’s less the work that’s bugging them than the associated perks – slush funds and trips abroad – that they’re missing out on.

It’s no wonder that elections should be so heated, given what’s at stake. In the world of African democracy, everyone’s trying to get their hand closer to the till. Ministers don’t only manage to secure themselves Ksh1.5M – about $22,000 – a month, explains a local, but they gain access to all the lucrative benefits that go along with membership in the ruling clique. Most have a hand in the profitable matatu racket, or use their position to secure business contracts for themselves and their families. It’s the same old patronage system that’s been propped up for years, with the flimsy veneer of democracy hiding the shady dealings that made past leaders like Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi – national icons in spite of it all – notorious. Five years ago, after president Mwai Kibaki swept into office on a tide of anti-corruption rhetoric, the British High Commissioner observed not long after that you could fit the names of honest Kenyan politicians on the back of a postage stamp.

A disgruntled local – a DJ named Norsh – tells me there are two roads to fast fortune in Kenya: politics and the church. Sometimes, he explains, ambitious pastors will even go so far as to run for office – a creative bit of hustling, if ever there was one.

“There are guys who call themselves ‘Bishop,’” he says, “when they never seen the inside of a church!”

He adds with a laugh, “This is Africa, man.”

Norsh has kept more of a moral high road in Kenya, scrambling for work at parties, or as a guest DJ at local clubs. It’s not long, though, before he admits to his own hustles in the past. For more than six years he lived illegally in Germany, working the clubs in Cologne and picking up the odd job that paid under the table. It was a precarious life. “In Kenya, we say you’re living by one hair,” he says, tugging at a short, silver thread on his head. “You’re afraid to do anything, you’re afraid of problems with the police. They ask to see your papers, and that’s it. One hair.”

He tells me about his wife and young son in Germany, pulling a stack of yellowed Polaroids from his jacket pocket. There’s a shot of his wife – a tall, willowy blonde – rolling around in bed, and a shot of the two of them dressed to the nines at their courthouse wedding. There’s a shot of their son running mid-stride in the yard, his long braids dangling to his shoulders.

“When you come back from America, from Europe,” he says, “you’re not the same man. People look at you different. They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that guy. He came back from America.’ People respect you.”

When I ask how he was finally collared by the police, he shakes his head sadly but won’t give details. The deportation process took six months, with Norsh stubbornly refusing to tell the authorities where he came from. For six months they hustled him around to different African embassies. They asked the Ugandan embassy if he looked Ugandan, and the Tanzanian embassy if he looked Tanzanian. The officials tried different languages, while he furrowed his brow and shook his head. Finally he was spotted by a receptionist at the Kenyan embassy – a native Kikuyu, just a few clans removed from his own.

“I should’ve said I was Somalian,” he says bitterly. “Many Africans will go to Europe, they’ll make their hair kinky and carry a Koran and say their name is Hamid Hassam.” The spoils of the Somalian refugee racket, he notes, include a free house and living stipend. “You live very well if you tell them you’re Somalian.”

He takes me on a circuit of downtown, past the hotel towers and the chaotic intersections, past the book shops with their windows stocked with self-help guides to fewer pounds and faster money. There are men selling newspapers and magazines from blankets on the sidewalk, and street-side casinos with the windows blacked out. In front of the mausoleum for ex-president Kenyatta, where a few Kenyan flags are flapping in the wind, I stop to take a picture. A tall, lanky soldier approaches, wagging his finger.

“Do you have permission to take photos here?” he asks sternly. “Who gave you permission to take photos?”

It’s an odd question, and I give him an odd look. I explain that in my country, public spaces are more or less considered public, and that had I realized my folly, I would’ve kindly asked. Besides, I add, noting the two long rows of flags flanking the walkway: I thought the place was a hotel.

He sees Norsh hovering behind me and asks, “Is that man with you?” I wonder if some elaborate ruse is taking shape, making a mental note of how much cash I’ve stashed in my pockets. There’s a tense exchange in Swahili, with the soldier adding, in English, “We have cameras here. The government will hold this man responsible.” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder, to where a CCTV camera seems to be trained on the opposite side of the gate. I flash a bright smile in its direction and suggest that the government can just as easily hold me responsible for the rogue photo. There are a few more exchanges between them, and a round of apologies both earnest (Norsh’s) and less so (my own). The soldier gives me one last, forlorn look before we go, a potential gravy train gathering steam as it pulls away from the station.

After a few days around downtown Nairobi, I make plans to hook up with a local CouchSurfer – an American ex-pat who, thanks to a father in the diplomatic corps, has spent most of her young life in East Africa. Katheryne arrives at my scruffy backpacker’s hideaway in a gleaming white SUV; behind the wheel, Patrick – the family’s driver – flashes a gleaming white smile. We pull onto the rocky road out front, drawing a few stares from the ragged guys washing cars on the muddy shoulder. With Katheryne sitting beside me in the backseat, and Patrick marshaling us through traffic, I sense a growing unease in the pit of my stomach – a feeling perhaps best described as the profound awareness of my unbearable whiteness.

Before long we’re barreling through the city’s swank suburbs, past the gated compounds of the ex-pats and diplomats who’ve probably seen less of downtown in the past five years than I’ve seen in the past five days. There’s a genteel air to these leafy roads, flanked by flowery yards and handsome villas, and it’s not hard to suspect that the world inhabited by the Katherynes of Kenya is as close to the rest of Nairobi as old Joe Stalin is to the gates of St. Peter.

She takes me to the Langata Giraffe Center, where packs of schoolkids are lining up to feed the animals by hand. The giraffes – bending their slender necks, calmly batting their eyes – nuzzle up close, showing all the domesticated tranquility of housecats. They unfurl their long, slobbery tongues like red carpets, lapping up the pellets in our palms; Katheryne positions a few between her teeth for a “giraffe kiss” – a carnal feeding frenzy that ought to come with an R rating. Afterwards she takes me to a Lebanese restaurant nearby, hidden from the road by a high wall of shrubbery. The waiters whirl around us with a manic attentiveness: their shirts neatly tucked, their red vests buttoned, their ingratiating air like some sort of post-colonial hangover. When the bill comes Katheryne hardly bats an eye, though the Ksh2,000 I shell out for my share is as much as four nights in my hostel.

The next afternoon I meet Norsh again downtown: he’d spotted me buying a newspaper from across Kenyatta Avenue, a six-lane highway crowded with cars, buses and mad-cap matatus. We shake hands warmly, though something about his lean smile and hungry eyes suggests an imminent shakedown. For the next hour he keeps close to my shoulder, steering me through the crowds toward River Road. This is Nairobi’s most notorious stretch, a place that even by the light of day is cast in browns and grays. Car parts and cheap electronics are being hawked from every storefront; matatus – swerving to avoid the craters in the road – muscle their way onto the sidewalks. There are men in ragged sportsjackets and women stooped beneath massive bundles and everyone bumping and elbowing everyone else. Music is booming from the stores and matatus – the sort of bass-heavy, crotch-grabbing anthems familiar to any New York dancefloor. We pass a few greasy restaurants full of smoke and animal smells. There are young guys leaning against the walls, their eyes moving quickly, their hands thrust in their pockets.

We circle back toward the business district: tidy and well-policed and looking very much like the Dr. Jekyll to River Road’s Mr. Hyde. On a quiet street Norsh stalls for time until the sidewalk’s cleared; then he asks for “a little something, anything.” His eyes are yellow as egg yolks; there’s an uneven patch of stubble on his chin. I hand him a few hundred shilling and pat him on the shoulder, almost apologetic: as if he shouldn’t have to ask, and I shouldn’t have to offer, and we should have nothing to feel sorry for.

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