Nairobi, Kenya — More than sixteen million Kenyans live on less than one dollar a day, according to NTV quoting a UN report. Kenyan members of parliament earn an average of 850 000 shillings a month (more than $13 000) during their five year mandate making them among the best paid parliamentarians in world says KTN. This certainly keeps them close to the people and focused on reducing poverty. The average salary for those in employment is under $300 a month. Many Kenyans have told me Nairobi is home to Africa’s biggest slum as if this would put the capital on the map.
Kenyans will be going to the polls in general elections sometime soon. President Kibaki is dragging his feet on dissolving parliament. Given the salaries, those sitting in parliament are in no hurry to leave but one can easily understand why so many people will want to run for election.
Insecurity is a major concern among Kenyans. There was another bomb in Nairobi this year attributed to Islamic fundamentalists. (In 1998 hundreds were killed and injured in the bombing of the US embassy here and missiles have been fired at tourist planes in Mombassa); the fighting in Somalia has spilled over the border; tribal violence is still rife and there is a shooting war between the police and armed gangs, especially one called Mungiki. The gang is estimated to number 200 000 members in the country. It apparently began as some sort of sect. The gangsters reside in the poor shanty towns and the police have shoot-to-kill orders and they do. There is shooting and killing every day. Innocent by-standers who get in the way of a bullet are listed as gangsters. Apparently, the poor fear the police more than they do Mungiki.
Jonathan Ndalo once covered a police attack on Mungiki in one of the slums of Nairobi. “It was the first time I ever saw someone shot dead.” Jonathan says there was shooting everywhere. “But when one of the gangsters threw a grenade right in front of us, we all scattered, including the police!” He says the weapons are coming in from Somalia.
Tourists expressed horror last week as they watched … 5000 Wildebeests drown in one day crossing the Mara River (Metro Daily). The crocodiles had a field day. (The tourists put the number of dead at 10 000). Tourism in the country is suffering. The attacks by Islamic fundamentalists had led to more than a 50% drop in the number of tourists visiting Kenya to watch the Wildebeests drown and be devoured by crocs.
Park officials assure us there are over a million Wildebeests. Estimates put the number of Kenyans at 35 million.
Nairobi is a beautiful city in the wealthier parts (I have not yet seen the poor quarters). It seems every tree in town is in blossom with yellow, purple, red and pink flowers. Modern high rise buildings dwarf what is left of the stone colonial buildings, some with large all round porches above the ground floor. One of those buildings is the cream-colored 27 floor Social Security building with its façade of windows and verandas with parasols and tables to relax over a drink. The sign in front reads “Corruption Free Zone”.
You can actually get a good sense of the Kenyan mind-set by the signs. Along the fence of the parks are signs which read “Urinating Here Is Unethical And Prohibited”.
At the end of the small street I am staying on which they call an avenue is the Israeli embassy. It has a twelve foot wall with a five foot electrified fence. There are heavily armed soldiers (mostly with Kalashnikovs) on guard. In the street at either end of the embassy are black-and-white painted large concrete cylinders which force you to stop, get checked by the guards and then slowly make the tight ‘S’ turn through the chicane before negotiating the speed bumps. At the stops is a sign which reads “Road Open. Proceed Through Friendly Check Point.” and under that are two smilies painted on a pink background. It is so cute.
Nobody is going to drive a car bomb through the front of that embassy which is also protected by a line of giant concrete cylinders. However, flush against the North side wall of the embassy complex is a parking lot! (Do you take my meaning?) “Bishop Road is the safest street in the city,” one Kenyan journalist told me while expressing his disgust that they have to pay for it. Yes, but the embassy is vulnerable.
Kenya has suffered a lot for conflicts which do not concern them: Israeli-Arab, Somali, Islamic-American, Ehtiopian. Despite the fact that you have a 200 000 member Mungkiki gang going around cutting people in little pieces and fighitng police with automatic weapons and grenades; that the press every day reports deaths from disagrements between tribes or those between herders and pasturers, Kenya really is a peaceful place.
Wherever you go in Nairobi, starting at the Air Port, there are heavily armed police and soldiers and check points. In fact the police carry the same arms as the Army. They just don’t have the same training.
I had to get my cell phone unblocked so that I could use the Sim card I bought here so I could call around town. Don’t you hate your provider who makes it so you can’t use other providers? The people I bought the Sim card from sent me to the second floor of an office building downtown. It was a small and dark shop with nothing really for sale although there were two glass cases. At the counter two rather poorly dressed men were showing ‘their’ rather expensive cell phone to the clerk.
“Were you sent by CelTel?” the man behind the counter asked. “It will cost 800 shillings.” (about $10). My phone disappeared in the back. A few minutes later I was invited to follow the phone. One man behind standing behind a desk in a windowless small office had my phone in his hand. He had two lap-top computers wired to unblock cell phones. On the desk were about fifty cell phones, some equipped with cameras, Sim cards spread around and various pieces of phones. It took him a minute and I left with my French phone capable of using a Kenyan Sim card. Thank you Phone Care for Professionals.
The nice thing about CelTel is you can use it clear across the continent to Gabon through seven countries and the calls cost the same as one here in Nairobi. Why can’t the Europeans do that?