None of that stopped me from appreciating the rush of stepping into Africa for the first time in my life. After reading, hearing, and seeing so much about the continent over the years I finally had a chance to experience a small part of it for myself. In the customs line at the airport I couldn’t seem to wipe the stupid grin off my face.
I didn’t have to wait long for my first encounter with Kenyan corruption. Johnstone, the taxi driver who took me from the airport to the city center, hadn’t gone more than ten kilometers before he was stopped by a traffic cop. “What does she want?” I asked Johnstone. He grimaced and didn’t answer. The cop continued to direct traffic while occasionally yelling at Johnstone in Kiswahili. Eventually she ordered him out of the car and the two of them disappeared.
“She wanted a bribe,” Johnstone told me when he returned. “Now we can go.” Bribes are a fact of life in Kenya. A study conducted by an anti-corruption organization called Transparency International-Kenya concluded that the average urban Kenyan pays 16 bribes a month.
“How much?” I asked Johnstone.
“500 schillings,” he said. About $6.50. In Kiswahili they call it kitu kidogo – “a little something.” How frustrating it must be to have to deal with that so often.
As soon as I found a decent hotel I went into hermit mode – not out of fear of being Nai-robbed but because I was over a month behind on photos and the blog. It takes me a long time to pick and process photos, and I’m a slow writer, so I needed a few days of heads-down work to catch up. And then, thanks to sluggish Internet connections (the fastest I found was a cyber café in the upscale Sarit Centre shopping complex in the Westlands, and even that was slow), it took me two full days just to upload everything.
Despite being in hermit mode I met interesting people. One of my taxi drivers had been standing near the American embassy in Nairobi when it was attacked in 1998. He wasn’t hurt, but he felt the explosions and saw the carnage first-hand. “That is the one thing George W. Bush did well,” the driver said. “He was strong in fighting terrorists.”
I asked the same driver what he thought of Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki, whose administration started out promising dramatic change but quickly showed itself to be just as corrupt as the previous regime. “Kibaki is a good man,” the driver told me. “The problems are caused by the people around him.” Just that morning I’d read a passage in It’s Our Turn to Eat about the surprising power of that particular delusion: “Reporting Africa, I’ve always been puzzled by the readiness otherwise intelligent diplomats, businessmen and technocrats show in embracing the ‘Blame the Entourage’ line of argument. ‘The Old Man himself is OK,’ runs the refrain… ‘It’s his aides/wife/sons who are the problem.’” The driver, like Kibaki, was a member of the Kikuyu tribe, and tribal identity is still an immensely powerful force in Kenya. Non-Kikuyus tend to be more critical of Kibaki, who was widely accused of rigging the 2007 election to secure a second term in office.
Locals surprised me with their awareness of the U.S. political scene. A man in his 50s struck up a conversation on the street one afternoon. “What impact do you think the Tea Party had on the midterm elections?” he asked. Less surprisingly, everyone I met seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of President Obama, whose father was born in a Kenyan village near Lake Victoria.
With my photo work behind me I finally felt ready to look around the city, but I’d been warned against doing too much too fast. My friend Zannah, who I met last year while hiking the Inca Trail, was scheduled to arrive in Nairobi the next day, and one of her recent e-mails contained a sweeping edict that dramatically limited my potential activities: “Don’t do any really cool stuff without me!”
I decided it would be safe to visit the Karen Blixen museum, something very few people would describe as really cool. I’d read Out of Africa recently and didn’t want to miss a chance to walk around the house that served as the primary setting for such an interesting memoir (written by Karen Blixen under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen).
The next day Zannah and I hired a taxi driver to take us to three of Nairobi’s most popular attractions: Nairobi National Park, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and the Giraffe Centre. Nairobi National Park, our first stop, is a 29,000-acre wildlife reserve bordering the city. The park is too small to support elephants, but all the rest of the famous African “Big Five” are there – lions, leopards, rhinos, and African buffalo, along with zebras, giraffe, impala, hyena, and a long list others. We didn’t see lions or leopards, but we did spot a group of Black Rhinoceros, so endangered that only a few thousand are thought to be left in the world.