Wednesday, February 20, 2008

License to Kill

By the time I started writing this post, weeks ago now, the government issued a shoot to kill order against anyone causing any kind of trouble. People couldn't come to work, go downtown and we were one security phase short of evacuation. That's when I realized that this wasn't another Florida, these people would not quietly shuffle back home grumbling and wait for the next elections. The camel's back had been broken. Right around that time I started asking the locals their opinions on the matter, to form some kind of a general understanding why people were hacking each other to pieces with machetes. I talked to taxi drivers, students, local Kenyans, local muzungus, UN staff and so on. The following is my rough understanding of what went down and why. Obviously it is grossly simplified and generalized, partly to avoid writing a novel, partly because no one, myself included, knows all the details, and "truth" is a relative concept in Kenya.

By the time Kenya got its independence, it had been a colony for ages. The locals owned nothing and were all equally miserable. Then, once the country became independent, a huge amount of power and money was suddenly up for grabs. Unfortunately for everyone else, the Kikuyus and a few minor tribes got there first. They lived in the areas that had the most natural resources, the most international trade and so on, and claimed them theirs as the whiteys left the building. They got all the jobs, all the land that wasn't owned by white men with mustaches and safari hats, and the rest of the tribes were left to fight for the leftovers. As the notion of "African democracy" is largely an oxymoron, things weren't going to change very fast through politics, and they didn't either. After all, the world history isn't exactly packed with men (yes, just men) who were willing to give up any power once they got to taste it, and so Kikuyus (the the few other, much smaller tribes) remained largely as the "haves" and the rest were different varieties of "have-nots".

Fast forward 40 years. President Kibaki's administration hadn't delivered what it had promised, among which was a new constitution that was supposed to take power away from the president and give it to the people. People were already ticked off and longed for a change. They voted in record numbers, hoping the next guy would different, but knowing all the while that that was hardly going to happen. Well, no matter, there wasn't a next guy. Mr. Raila Odinga of the opposition, and of the Luo tribe, led the polls just before the elections, he lead by almost 500,000 votes when they were counting the votes, and then something inexplicable. Due to a "breakdown in communications" Kibaki went from down by 500,000 votes to winning the elections by a landslide, over a million votes. No wonder the people headed for the barricades. Now, I don't know about you, but I have never seen such blatant cheating, not even by the Finnish cross-country skiers or anyone at least remotely connected to cycling. It was the political equivalent of screaming "LOOK, IT'S DEMOCRACY, RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!" and whacking them over the head with a cricket bat when they turn to look. Moreover, one peculiar phenomenon that didn't exactly help the credibility was that Kibaki, who "won" the election got 44 seats in the parliament, while Odinga got 99. Wait a minute, so you're telling me that the majority of the people voted for Kibaki, but also voted for Odinga's party for the parliament? Hmmmm... Obviously every non-Kikuyu thought the elections were rigged, and the Kikuyus tried to stay quiet and hope no-one confronts them. No such luck. If there ever was an example of the shit hitting the fan, this was it. You probably caught at least some of the footage on the news so I don't have to recap the horrible things that the Kenyans did to their countrymen. Suffice it to say, to quote an African proverb, that "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."

Three quick tips for future reference:
1) IF you have to cheat in the elections, try to do it in a subtle fashion, than stating: "yes, I was behind when only 1,5 million of the votes had not been counted, but they all turned out to be for me.." I'm not exactly a math whiz, but in an election where there are 1500 candidates to begin with (true story), it is more likely for a person to spontaneously combust WHILE getting eating by a shark WHILE winning the lottery, than to get 1,5 million votes in a row. For god's sake people, haven't you watched West Wing?

2) IF for some reason you decide to play it fair, do everything you possibly can to be as transparent as possible about it. Hire people to call villages to tell them preliminary results every five minutes, make sure the international media is all over the elections, re-count the votes a few times and so on. Cause people who have been oppressed for a couple of centuries will most certainly not just shrug, say "well that was unlikely.." and go back to their shacks, if someone pulls a comeback of the century out of their ass, pardon my French.

3) IF you claim that you actually have played it by the book, do not announce election results where the voting percentage in several parts of the country is over 100%. It doesn't look good on paper.

So first everyone blamed the Kikuyus, then things calmed down for a while, until the Kikuyus (and everyone else who had been harassed) decided it was payback time. By this time Kofi Annan was packing his suits to whip these jackasses into shape. There were peace messages everywhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE. Radio stations, tv-channels, newspapers, internet, fliers on the streets, banners inside the UN compound.. I even got a text message that urged me to be peaceful and love my fellow Kenyans. Now, this is all fine and dandy, but I honestly doubt that half of the poor Kenyans living in the slums and the tiny villages could understand the messages, all written in almost poetically elaborate English OR that they had access to most or any of the above media. Without a political, long-term solution this would be like trying to stop global warming by throwing ice cubes in the sea. Luckily Mr Annan is kind of a big deal in Africa, deservedly (his office smells of rich mahogany and he has many leather-bound books), and results seemed to be around the corner.

It still is, but we can already see a slice of it. There is hope, the violence has ceased for the most part, and there is talk of a new constitution, again. Perhaps Kenya can pull through after all.

However, as I understood from talking to the locals, the problem is far deeper than who is the president. There is a huge amount of young, poor, unemployed people, mostly men, whose patience has grown thin over the decades, and if the people in power don't soon start looking at the big picture, creating jobs, and dividing power and land, we're looking at a civil war. In case you didn't know, the members of the parliament in Kenya are among the best paid in the WORLD (e.g. more than in the U.S.), while the country's GDP isn't even in the top 100.

One person who I have to mention in this context is a young man by the name of Felix Oduor. I met him through some German interns who had worked with him in the colossal slum of Kibera. He was well-spoken, smart, politically very aware, and poorer than any of us. He had a surprisingly clear picture of the situation and he was willing to discuss and debate the problem and its possible solutions.
But at the end of the day he told me, without blinking an eye: "If a firing squad (that roamed the country then) came here right now and asked who supported Odinga, to kill them, I would stand up and look into their eyes as they would pull the trigger." How many of us would do that for any of the politicians in our respective countries? This just goes to show that the time for beating around the bushes, bending over backwards and accepting the harsh reality is coming to a close.

The license to "shoot to kill" hasn't been used in a couple of weeks now by the authorities, but mark my words, if something is not done about the situation in the very near future, the people of Kenya won't be asking for a license. Hell, they won't even need guns to take what they think is theirs. And that, my friends, is when whoever is in the ivory tower needs to go out and buy a bigger fan, because the other ingredient hitting it will be provided in abundance.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Color of Money

So there I was, sitting on my bed, chuckling for the umpteenth time at Eddie Izzard's witty remarks about Jeff, the god of biscuits, when my phone started vibrating.

- Hey man, you up for a few beers?
- Always
- Meet me at Gypsie's in 30 mins, k?
- Got it

I wasn't actually feeling like beer at the moment, but he was the guy who was supposed to hook me up with job in investment banking, so I wanted to know if he had some news. I took a cab to Westlands, the part of Nairobi "where it's all happening", and I don't mean the violence, but the nightlife. I hadn't been at Gypsie's before, but I had heard that it's one of the nice local places, where all kinds of people were able to enjoy each other's company in peace. That turned out to be both right and wrong, depending how you look at it.

It was still early, but the place was already filling up quickly and the DJ was setting up his huge PA on the terrace. I looked around for Vince, the guy I was supposed to meet, and soon found him hanging by the bar with a frosty Tusker, the official beer of my visit to Kenya. He was wearing cargo shorts, a print t-shirt and baseball cap with the acronym of his college in the US.

- 'Sup, bro?
- I'm good, I'm good, how 'bout yourself
- All good.. You wanna Tusker?
- Do I have a choice? (grin)
- Hell, no!! (laugh)

We sit down and he starts explaining the situation regarding me possibly working for his dad's company. I pay close attention for the few minutes, until I gather that I've heard all the important parts and the rest is just details that will change completely even IF I end up getting the job. It would include me basically being the human resources manager of a small investment bank, in other words, boss for all the local employees. I have no experience from an investment bank, or any other kind of bank for that matter, nor do I have any education on the subject under my belt. BUT, I'm theoretically a marine, which is a huge help when dealing with anything American, AND I can tell (borderline) offensive jokes in four languages (learned a few new ones from the bush babies in Zanzibar), which counts for several university degrees and years of experience in any field. So I'm not worried about the details, and instead concentrate on the people in the bar. It really is a colorful lot, locals, tourists, KC's (Kenyan Colonials: old money whiteys, who think they're royals), Europeans working in Nairobi etc. I smile at a German guy's severely short shorts, that reveal his blindingly white hamstrings, as he orders a beer with an accent that he has stolen from a B-class WWII-movie. I shake my head and simultaneously catch a glimpse of a girl whose looking my way. I look behind me to avoid the classic "I'm so money I don't even know it"-mistake, only to find a wall. She keeps looking at, I am convinced, me. Don't get me wrong, women have looked at me before, but this time there are several things that don't add up:
1) I haven't shaved my beard in a couple of days
2) I'm sporting an overgrown buzz-cut
3) I'm sporting my Top Gun t-shirt, compliments of the Amsterdam-connection
4) There is a South American-looking beef cake with his hand on her hip
5) She looks like the girl from..well..any of Nelly's music videos

Vince soon notices that my attention has been distracted and looks over his shoulder. Instantly he finds what I'm looking at and turns back around laughing, just in time to catch my best impression of Human Question Mark.

- You wanna hit that?
- .....WHAT?
- I said do you wanna go talk to her?

My brain quickly runs through all the information that it has on situations like this (no matches), and the through all the euphemisms and subtexts in the English language (plenty, but none fit).

-, thanks
- Really, she's hot, though, don't you think?
- Well, sure (also, most water is somewhat wet and the sky is occasionally blue..)

I walk him through steps 1 to 5 and place some emphasis on additional, and perhaps the most important step number 6 - the reason I'm in this logic-forsaken, post-election mayhem in the first place - Tsuuls.

He shrugs, admits that it might be a bad idea and takes a big gulp from his Tusker.

- But seriously, IF you'd want to, any girl in here, man..ANY girl.

We engage in a lengthy conversation about inter-racial relationships in Kenya, and I feel like I should be taking notes, just to avoid getting unwanted girlfriends while asking for directions during my time in Nairobi.

- Hey, you mind if we go for a ride, I'd like to change clothes and I could show you something
- Sure man, you're the host

We hop into his SUV and head east. After about 20 minutes of driving I have no idea where we are, since none of the roads have visible signs and none of them are straight for more that 40 meters at a time. Suddenly Vince makes a hard left and a uniformed Kenyan jumps out of nowhere to open a gate in front of us. We pull up at the parking lot of a huge mansion-like building as the guard salutes us, as if we were somehow very important.

- We're here, at The Muthaiga Club

I find out that I'm suddenly a guest at the most prestigious and cash-money country club in East Africa, whose members include the "president" Mwai Kibaki, for example. We strut in the door of the "men's bar", a bar where women have never been allowed. I feel I should have a gray mustache and monocle, maybe even a pipe. This problem is soon fixed, as Vince exchanges a few friendly lines in Swahili with the bartender, who whips out the cigar box. We help ourselves to a pair of nice Cubans and proceed to pick a whiskey, or actually a whisky, since I pick the Scottish Jameson, fearing that I might have to pay for this fun. Politely I reach for my wallet, but Vince will not have any of that and casually signs a notebook and ushers me forward. The library has the "who's who" of Kenyan history on its walls and a collection of business publications on its tables. Vince walks me through a few important (white) dudes and cheerily tells the tale of the president bringing his mistress to this library through the back door while his wife had to wait outside the front door of the "men's bar". Growing fearful that I will O.D. of chauvinism I ask him to show me the rest of the place.

Vince kicks open doors and gives me the tour of the impressive facilities that the members have at their disposal: the dining halls, the terraces, the hotel rooms upstairs (seemingly exclusively designed for extramarital activities), the tennis courts, and shows me where the golf course begins. Not too shabby for the J-Man.. Not that I'll ever be a member, but still.. Moments later our cigars are butts in an ashtray, our glasses are empty on the bar, and we have hopped back into the SUV to continue my shock therapy.

Vince's house is huge. This didn't exactly come as a surprise, but the size of the house is nonetheless compelling. Vince's amiable huskey comes to greet us and I scratch it while Vince disables the security. We step in and he shows me the bar, while he goes to change into something a little more executive than shorts and sandals. I whip up a round of Grant's, again consciously avoiding the expensive stuff, and making sure that Vince's drink is mostly rocks, after all, he is the driver. We hang out at the gargantuan balcony for a while and I explain the concept of Sauna to him, as well as the importance of wearing everything one owns when it's -66 C with the wind-chill factor.

An hour later we're back at Gypsie's, talking to some KC girls that Vince finds attractive. To me they look like your average skinny British chippies, but he must have his reasons. Perhaps a fetish in bad teeth or general ignorance.. Still, the guy's been more than generous to me so I play the wing-man, a role that I have played more times than Hugh Grant has played a goofy romantic. Because of my vast experience in this kind of activity it only takes a slice of my attention and I can resume my people-watching. Highlights include an old fart who has deliberately forgotten to button the last 6 buttons of his linen shirt for that "wild lover"-look. He's hanging out with four prostitutes, of which one is pregnant and the other keep competing in who has the best "I hate my life"-expression. There is some commotion on the dance floor as its average height suddenly rises by a foot, when a young Dutch couple decide to show everyone else how it's done to the beat of Darude's Sandstorm. Again I shake my head in amused disbelief and again I catch a glimpse of the music video girl..

She's still there, still glued to the Latin dude, and still staring at me, but this time on the dance floor. Vince's girls suddenly feel like dancing to some techno-crap and naturally I have to follow. About two minutes later Vince and the girls start arguing about something in front of the DJ-booth. The music is blaring into my ear, so I can't hear what they saying, so I do the "awkward white man" 2-step and look like an idiot. (vast experience there, too) Then I see the music video girl approaching, the Latin guy in tow. She's coming right towards me and my head spins like that of a baby owl, hoping to fold pre-flop, thus avoiding a fight with the Latin dude. Behind me is a speaker, on my left Vince is putting on the vibe, so the only way to go is right. It turns out that even right is sometimes wrong, because I practically run into a drunken English-looking woman, who is having an epileptic seizure...or's hard to tell. She screams in my ear that she's Lucy's mom. I have no idea who Lucy is, or why the hell her mom wants to dance/seize with me. However, terrified to turn around, I rely on the "awkward white man" 2-step, until Lucy's mom starts to compliment "my awesome moves". I feel nauseous. Quickly excusing myself I beeline for the bathroom to get away from it all. Vince soon enters the bathroom, together with an extremely tanned Caucasian with a funny accent.

- what it's all about!!, the Caucasian emphasizes
- What is?, I ask
- Africa. It's where it's all happenin'. I've been an international journalist for 25 years and I can tell you: where it's all happenin'.
- So you from S.A., right?, Vince asks
- Yup, Johannesburg. The only place that beats Kenya.

They compare a handful of African countries while taking a leak, and I decide to go for the 80's hang by the hand dryer.

- So J-Man, why did you run away from the hottie?, Vince inquires
- She was a bit too intense, the guy wanted to kick my ass, and I think she was a prostitute
- Well, sure, but you wouldn't have to pay, the South African interjects
- ...WHAT?
- Yeah. Young, sporty guys like you, you're a jackpot for them. It's kinda like a long-term investment for them. They may not get money right NOW, but if they're your "girlfriend", you'll end up buying them stuff. Besides, hanging out with a muzungu raises a local girl's status like nothing else..TRUST ME, I've been there.
Vince nods at me, smiling.
- True story, bro.
- What about the Latin guy then?, I ask, thoroughly puzzled
- Survival of the fittest. She thinks you're hotter, richer, or Latin guy is old news. Either way, she's yours, if you want, the South African breaks it down.
I proceed to explain my reason for being in Africa and the guys back down.
- All right, man. Good talk, though. See you guys later.

The South African guy exits and we soon follow him back to the bar. Vince goes back to his girls and I sit at the bar, in desperate need of a large Tusker. As I'm sipping away I feel someone graze my back and turn to see the behind of the music video girl going to the bathroom. Phew.

Finally Vince is done with the ladies and we can go home. The whole ride home I try to process everything I have heard and seen during this somewhat hectic night as Vince explains how things went with the Brits. As we pull up in front of our gate I thank him for everything and start wrestling with the lock.

Just as I'm coming to the front door and I think I can finally relax I see Kiki, the host family's adult daughter, and Russo, the old and angry German Shepherd with it's teeth exposed. Not cool. Kiki tells me to head for the door slowly, which I do with ninja-like smoothness. Too late. Russo jumps at me and I pivot to avoid receiving it in my lap. However, the few Tuskers have slowed my reflexes down to not-so-ninja-like and Russo bites down on my knuckles. I manage to shake myself free and walk to the door swearing like a pirate.
- Did he get you?
- Nono, sometimes I just bleed for the hell of it..

As I take my bloody pants off to go to bed I empty my pockets and what do I find in my back pocket...

It turns out that Paul Newman and Tom Cruise were wrong. Even though the green dollar may be the universal currency, even in Tanzania, in Africa the color of money is white. And it comes with blood..