Archive for December, 2007

The election turns ugly

December 30, 2007

Friday night I was out with an American couple who stay in my building. On the TV the election’s oversight body read off vote counts from across the country. Several high-ranking members of the ruling party had lost their seats in Parliament and the opposition candidate had a strong lead. Insightfully, the woman wondered why it was taking so long to count all the votes. I was less concerned. Things in Kenya sometimes take a bit longer than we’re used to, and counting millions of paper ballots is a chore for anyone. I was looking forward to writing a blog entry scolding myself for the ominous ending of my last post.

If you want to read about the mayhem that ensued the next morning and may be continuing now, pick up a newspaper. As I understand it, delays over vote counting and disappearing ballot boxes convinced the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party and their base in the Luo tribe that the ruling party had fixed the election. Pre-election polls giving Raila the lead, didn’t help. Rioting and looting ensued across the country as Luo gangs battled members of the president’s Kikuyu tribe. A few people died. Both sides have declared victory and the rhetoric isn’t helping. Reuters quoted a spokesman for the president’s party dismissing the ODM’s claim. “Kangaroo results given by any Tom, Dick or Harry deserve every contempt.”

I didn’t have a compelling reason to go watch the rioting and it would have been stupidly dangerous. So like most people in Kenya I stayed home. Inexplicably, the elections commission stopped announcing results early yesterday evening in a session lively with harassment and ejections. The indecision left open fears of violence continuing today.

Last I heard, opposition candidate Raila Odinga led by 38,000, a thin edge in a country with 14.2 million registered voters and lots more districts left to announce. I don’t know enough about Kenya’s Red state/Blue state split to analyze the remaining districts and make a prediction. Still, no matter who becomes president one candidate would have to enjoy a mighty surge for the election to be anything other than too close to call.


Election day in Kibera, part 2

December 28, 2007

Kibera isn’t a swing district. With the candidates running on platforms amounting to “stay the course” vs. “change is needed” Kiberans would naturally flock to the change candidate. Plus the opposition candidate Raila Odinga represents Kibera in Parliament and like much of Kibera is from the Luo tribe. However, since the constitution requires any president to be an elected member of parliament, rumors had spread through the slum that the president’s men would rig the election in Kibera beheading the opposition campaign.

My contact was a thirty-year-old man, a journalist, Raila partisan, community activist, 17-year Kibera resident and self-proclaimed scourge of ignorance. After voting early and with the purple ink on his finger to prove it, he assumed his duties as an official election observer. Wearing the official badge, he spent the day trooping around Kibera in search of problems. With our location and his preferences this inevitably meant irregularities damaging to Raila. We met up near the slum’s largest polling station where a line of men—the sexes had separate queues—stretched back hundreds of yards through Kibera’s twisty passages. At the rendezvous point, a bonfire still smoldered. The night before a few locals had stayed up to watch the building ensuring to their own satisfaction that there hadn’t been any ballot tampering, stuffing or rigging. It was overcast but not raining, perfect weather for waiting hours on line.

We returned to the edge road where press SUVs competed for space with army trucks carrying soldiers in tin hats and camouflage. Some of them had blade sunglasses and they all toted large rifles. As my contact told me about his start in activism we heard a noise up ahead and a small mob of a hundred or so young men chanted loudly as they chased an electoral commission car. They then crowded around a taxi holding a high-ranking police officer and began shaking the taxi just like mobs do in the movies. Their names apparently hadn’t appeared on the voting roles. Soon the taxi drove off and the mob quieted. We walked down to a polling station at a school named for Raila where the scene was calmer.

Several hundred people waited in glacial lines for their chance to vote. There were stylish young women in skinny jeans and Muslims in traditional dress. The deputy principal of the school, a soft-spoken man in khakis and sunglasses, stopped by and expressed pride at the calm at the school, about the importance of everyone voting. He showed me his voting card, a laminated thing with his thumbprint in purple. A confused woman approached Julius and said she had waited in line for hours but her name hadn’t been on the roles. (Even Raila’s name hadn’t been on the roles, it was said.) I only got fragments of the story but apparently her polling place had been transferred and she didn’t know where to vote and was too afraid to say where she lived. On the side of a building a poster read “Electoral violence produces bad leaders. Do not be used”

At the next polling booth, where the mob had originated, there was less control. The line for people whose names begin with O, common among Luos, hadn’t opened and a crush of men at the door occasionally raised shouts and started shaking in unison before the cops regained relative order. My friend also heard that the officials weren’t telling people to put their three ballots for local, parliamentary and presidential candidates into separate boxes, potentially grounds to discount them. He got on the phone to Raila’s party. Outside the polling station a Raila poobah told a crowd that the polling had been delayed deliberately to prevent them from voting.

We were walking past another voting line meandering through another area of closed shops, when I offered to buy my friend a Coke. Yes, thanks but not here. It would be hard to find a soda since rumors had spread through Kibera that the government would be drugging soft drinks and beer to prevent Kiberans from voting. This was nonsense, as my guy, the scourge of ignorance, said. But he also cautioned me not to underestimate the power of rumor and conspiracy. In a place like Kibera where they receive little help from anybody, there’s a wide belief that the one thing the power structure does effectively is keep itself in power.

As of Friday morning no winner has been announced. The scene in Kibera, and across the country, was generally inspiring. Would you wait four or more hours to vote? Millions of Kenyans did. One hopes that the irregularities across the country would balance each other out. But if the race is as close as expected it will be difficult to say whether one candidate wins by more than what has to be a substantial margin of error. And that’s when people get angry.

Election day in Kibera, part 1

December 27, 2007

As Kenyans waited to vote this morning, Nairobi was almost quiet. Most shops hadn’t bothered to open and the hawkers who normally line the sidewalks had stayed home. Traffic zipped around the roundabouts. It was possible to hear the crows and eagles screeching overhead. Dazed by the relative calm, I caught a minibus to Kibera.

Kibera is often called Africa’s largest slum. Is it? Does it matter? Let’s just say as far as slums go Kibera is world class. The AP today pegged the population at more than 700,000 people but it could be far more. Most of them live in mud and stick huts lining the steep walls of a valley. The paths between their houses, leading up from the floor, are too narrow and cragged for any vehicle. Rivers of sewage race down the streets and the garbage is so plentiful that it eventually just gets stamped into the earth or set on fire.

The area had a star turn recently in The Constant Gardener when Rachel Weisz, the beautiful heroine, walks along the train tracks playing with the kids. On a normal day the kids seem to outnumber adults five to one and they all chant at passing whites “How are you? How are you?” as they peer out from alleyways and from behind scraps of metal. On election day fewer kids were around, kept home for fear of violence.

No film can replicate Kibera, however, because it is experienced primarily through the nose. In the commercial area smoke rises from the stalls roasting corn and chicken over dirty charcoal fires as metal workers weld and cut bars of iron and men run knives over sharpeners powered by foot-pumps rigged to bicycle wheels. Smoke from the charcoal and trash fires swirls around with the fumes rising from the trash heaps and sewage. This toxic air burns the back of the throat and embeds itself in the sinuses as if one had snorted glass splinters. On my first visit, the air made me tear up and I became so congested that two days later I visited a doctor to see if my malaria had recurred. On election day, when most businesses were closed, the air was closer to breathable.

As I write this it looks as if the assassination of Benazir Bhutto will bounce the Kenyan election out of its tenuous spot on global front pages. Part two of this post will detail a walk around Kibera on election day.

Temple in Africa

December 23, 2007

Why is this continent different from all other continents? Usually I attend synagogue about every three years but in Africa I have averaged almost once a month.

The first time came in Cape Town. It was Rosh Hashanah and I was lonely. Aside from an El Al caliber interrogation from a security guard, it felt very familiar, a suburban synagogue, slightly less formal than the one I was dragged to as a child. No one was the least bit friendly, not even the rabbi.

The next visit was in Maputo. The longtime port, formerly called Lourenço Marques, had a Jewish community extending back to the eighteen hundreds, but it died out. During the country’s civil war, the Red Cross used the synagogue as a supply depot and it may have been controlled at one point by the communist government. Since then it has witnessed a small revival. The night when an American contact and longtime ex-pat invited me, about ten people were there, mostly Americans but also from Europe and South Africa. Praying in distant tropical climes gives American Jews an attractive confidence in their worship. They sing loudly and pay attention. It may just be that in such a small congregation if you start talking to your neighbor people will notice. I found it stirring that in a remote country in a Torahless shed, Jews were carrying on ancient traditions in Hebrew English and Portuguese. There was also a prayer for Mozambique, unique, I’d guess, to that little temple.

After Mozambique, the Nairobi synagogue surprised with its opulence. It’s in a well-guarded complex on the edge of the central business district. Amid beautifully landscaped gardens there’s a banquet hall and attractive sanctuary with room for two hundred or more. Nairobi has had a synagogue for more than a century and the community grew in the thirties as Jews fled from Nazi Germany to Kenya. With more than a hundred families, it remains Orthodox even as few of the members—Americans, Israelis, assorted other expats and a few Kenyans who identify themselves as descendents of the lost tribes— can follow the religious laws to the letter. Just try finding kosher meat in Nairobi. Without a rabbi congregants alternate leading services and the synagogue still struggles to put together a minyan for the average service. I didn’t like that the men and women sit separately but I don’t like it in New York either.

Since this is Africa the synagogue isn’t without its tales of bravado. My host, another longtime expat, told me how this year someone had ignored concerns over border controls and brought one of the synagogue’s several Torahs to Dar Es Salaam to celebrate the high holy days. According to the new lore, it was the first time a torah had set scroll in Tanzania in as long as anyone can remember.

I attended on a big night. This week one of the community leader’s sons will be Bar Mitzvahed and some of his relatives had flown over from the States. The service was almost entirely in Hebrew and followed by a very pleasant dinner. There I sat next to an Italian Jew who was born in Somalia but hasn’t returned for decades. We chatted over a squash soup and gefilte fish, which is always welcome.

Outrage and indignation

December 21, 2007

I spent the morning at an editorial meeting for a fancy journal of academia and the arts. The Kenyan elite don’t villainize “the elite,” as a device for promoting a political agenda. They are refreshingly comfortable in their privileged position. Since this was an academic crowd the meeting featured quite a bit of dusty jargon like “subvert the patriarchal structure” and talk of using the media to do so.

I’m not qualified to assess the relationships, grievances and anguish stretching the chasm between wealthy, educated and well-traveled Kenyans and their countrymen but I will mention one recurring phenomenon. During the coffee break, even six days before a national election, an endlessly rich vein of conversation was the refusal of foreigners to believe the existence of a class of Kenyan cosmopolitans. Once these chats get started, and they heat up often, it becomes a ritual. The story, the appalling pettiness of people confronting Africans, fuels the outrage of the listeners’. And then the next person shares a similar incident. The offenders are condescending European customs agents, well-meaning but ignorant Americans and, worst of all, the South Africans who ask in all innocence “So when did you arrive from Africa?” Since everyone there (except me) has felt something similar, it’s a quick way for two people to bond. And as someone known to bristle on occasion, I sympathize.

These stories are all the same but I’ve heard them from professors and journalists, novelists and bankers. Privileged Kenyans are right to be angry at the world’s refusal to acknowledge Africa’s diversity and wealth. They should get pissed when the South African shopkeeper, white or black, automatically steers them towards the cheap champagne. But they know perfectly well why the world thinks they should be starving and living in squalor. They know it so well, in fact, that it doesn’t need to be mentioned during these insular conversations.

Election time

December 18, 2007

In case you haven’t heard, Kenya’s in the throes of a presidential election. The voting is set for December 27 when Nairobi will be comparably empty for the holiday. Even so the mood is tense amid scattered reports of violence. A friend of mine, a badass Kiwi who coordinates security for an NGO in places like Somalia and the DRC, says she might be holing up for a few days, which I take as a sign that I might have to as well.

Kenya’s a democracy, but a new one. Since independence in 1963, it has only had three presidents and the current one, Mwai Kibaki, was elected in 2002. He’s the status quo candidate, a position with leverage for all the obvious reasons and a few others as well.

Without expressing much love for Kibaki, many people I’ve met seem to prefer keeping things as they are instead of risking change. Kibaki’s slogan “You Know Him” plays into the desire for stability. In classic journalistic tradition, I polled some cabbies. One who prefers Kibaki illustrated his point by asking me who I’d choose the next time I needed a lift from the Prestige shopping center, him or another of the
guys who hangs out there. This guy, of course. Exactly, he said, I know him.

A few scandals have rocked the country during the last few years during which vast sums of money have just disappeared, but Kibaki has also presided over a hot stock market and something like a real estate bubble. Still standard economic indicators only go so far. In Kenya most people have no formal economic life. They don’t own their homes and certainly can’t play the market. An opposition poster points out that seven out of ten Kenyans can’t afford two meals a day.

Thanks to a very generous and cool American filmmaker named Amie Williams, I was able to meet some of the  opposition. The candidate, Raila Odinga, is a Luo, the same tribe as Barack Obama’s father. The last time I checked, he had a slight lead in the polls. Among other things he’s running against tribalism, roughly the equivalent of Obama running against partisanship. It’s sort of like nature vs. nurture. Amie and I interviewed a group of pro-Odinga yuppies utterly convinced that their man could drain this country’s tribal swamp but they were Luos to a man. Odinga has his enemies as well. One headline wondered, in immense type, “Raila and Hitler: Are They Alike?” (I quote from memory.)

So the illiterate know who they’re voting for, each party has its own picture on the ballot. Odinga’s party is the Orange Democratic Movement represented, simply enough, by a picture of an orange. The party formed after a failed 2005 constitutional referendum. During that vote, those favoring the constitution ticked the banana box and those opposed went with the orange. After the vote the oranges created the party. The campaign headquarters is a modest house painted orange. Since 2005 the oranges have halved into Odinga’s ODM and another party called Orange Democratic Movement—Kenya. ODM—K’s ballot symbol is an orange superimposed over a map of Kenya. Their candidate trails Odinga and Kibaki in the polls. Got all that? Another of Odinga’s symbols is a hammer. He once received a Hummer as a gift but since he can’t cruise
around Kenya in a Hummer – I bet it couldn’t handle the roads—his supporters wave big hammers as onomatopoeic talismans.

Odinga has a broad reaching platform. Among other pledges he has said he will boost job training programs for the Masaai tribes people and stop female circumcision. He’ll also end corruption and use the proceeds to build new infrastructure. After he sprayed out some promises to a few journalists, I asked him how Kenyans would notice the difference after the first 100 days of an Odinga administration. Well, he said, on day one “Kenyans will be celebrating, enjoying the victory.” This got a laugh. Then he took another question.


December 16, 2007

Last night before going out I was chatting with one of the security guards. He wondered if I was cold. I was wearing a dress shirt and the temperature had dropped to sixty-five or so. It was a rare chance to boast about hardship to a Kenyan so I told him that where I come from it gets cold. Having been on the receiving end of it, I played Canadian. As I left he asked if we could talk later and I said sure.
When I returned after a steak dinner he hailed me down and starting talking about his family in eastern Kenya. They’re spending Christmas starving. Could I give him the bus fare? It would be $15, slightly less than the price of my meal. He kept talking about his family as I stammered and fingered the bill in my pocket. Eventually I managed to say sorry, no and good night. He turned silently and retreated to the guard shack.

Aaaargh! Like most people, I don’t give $15 to everyone who asks for it. I was annoyed. As someone responsible for my safety, I’d prefer it if he wasn’t sore with me. He knew he was setting himself for disappointment, but desperation always trumps decorum. I walked back to the apartment. By then it had gotten rather chilly.

Is Nairobi dangerous?

December 13, 2007

It’s certainly supposed to be. Many friends and acquaintances have been robbed here and for all I know I will be too. As in Jo’Burg the security is full on. Instead of panic buttons in the bedrooms, my apartment complex has two consecutive gates, twenty yards apart. Each has a curly head of razor wire and 24-hour security guards. Still, it’s a relief not to have a button to panic over every time the floor creaks.

During the day, downtown is too bustling to feel threatening, but it empties after dark. Walking around the unlit city is just not done. The other day I had dinner in town with two friends, one of whom lives in Baghdad. After the meal we waited fifteen minutes in the threshold for a driver to arrive and drive us four blocks. For my friend it was sweet freedom. In Baghdad he can’t go to restaurants and if he attends a meeting outside the Green Zone it has to last less than 30 minutes since that’s how long it takes to organize a kidnapping. Nairobi, by contrast, feels less tense than Jo’Burg, probably because people here don’t constantly talk about how dangerous the city is. Instead they ask about the crime in Jo’Burg. Down there they said don’t go to Nairobi. In both cities the people agree on one thing: Lagos is really scary.

Why pipes matter

December 11, 2007

I gripe too much about Internet speed, but there’s a lesson in my fist-shaking frustration. Jouncing around Nairobi in a minibus is a constant reminder of how much easier it is to build and maintain a mansion than a decent paved road. My not at all cheap apartment has a beautiful wood floor but the electricity labors to power the refrigerator; an RV with my shower’s drizzly water pressure would be recalled. Even with generators and water tanks, basics like power and water depend on a societal capacity that no one person can afford. I find it moving that the infrastructure under Manhattan reaches underground, in places, as far as the Chrysler building is tall. Once a Brit visiting me from London looked up at Midtown and marveled, “the pipes must be massive.” Those pipes, for power and water and telecommunications, don’t exist in Nairobi. Much more than in the rich world, people in Africa depend on what they alone can pay for. That’s one reason they don’t have much.

Even the wealthiest can’t buy everything they need. Go to a mall here and pick up a laptop. It’ll be only as useful as someone else’s ability to provide decent access speed. Are the hotshots pushing the $100, oops I mean $200, laptop aware of this? Have they ever tried to just check their email in Nairobi? What about in one of those villages where they say the Internet will be oh so useful?

On the other hand, technology can be wonderful when it’s unburdened by regulation. Take the lack of enforced copyright law. On the street you can buy a DVD of eight Stallone movies for less than $2. It might even work. I could live without the minibus drivers who mount TVs to their ceilings and blast music videos at incredible volume. Still it must be a matter of pride to annoy their passengers as efficiently as bus drivers anywhere in the world.

A new home

December 9, 2007

Apologies for the break in blogging.

After a month on the road I’ll be hanging my spurs in Nairobi. The city resembles a dilapidated Jo’Burg, a Satan’s sprawl of luxury villas, gas stations and truly memorable squalor, unblemished by street or traffic lights. The people here are eager to shake off the city’s reputation—Nairobbery—and so far have been almost absurdly friendly and decent. Through Christmas everyone’s buzzing about the national elections and the climate two degrees south of the equator and a mile high is almost perfect. Nairobi is the capital of east Africa, a city with a lot going on.