Anne has been insisting that I write my weekend experiences before I forget the little details because she thinks it would be a good read. I’ve been reluctant because 1. I’m still recovering, 2. It will be challenging to write it out in an appropriate way for all audiences, and 3. I have to be cautious about what I say since it involved our local armed authority and I don’t want to raise any red flags as we’ve been warned that communications can be monitored here in Kenya. So, with that in mind here’s the g-rated version. The real experience was one of the scariest, most stressful things I’ve ever experienced.
Friday I leave in the centre van with a full agenda for the day: Drop the kids at school, stop by the Criminal Investigations Department to pick up background checks on our new staff, rush to Nairobi to meet with an internal affairs officer for the final interview on some centre registration issues I’ve been working on for months, go across town to headquarters to pick up some checks for contractors, then hopefully make it back out to Thika by early afternoon if all goes well. All does not go well. The first stop is great, no problems, check it off the list. Next stop, I park and walk about 20 min to the meeting place. Meet with the guy, and spend 1/2 an hour in cagey dialogue that is headed in a direction I don’t want to go. I manage to get out of there with all my money in my pocket (minus the cup of tea I bought him) and the process complete. I’m feeling great; it went better than I thought. Walking back to the car I met a man from Zimbabwe who has just come from immigration and been refused refugee status. He and his family of 7 fled to Kenya to escape Robert Mugabe’s government and they are all sick and haven’t eaten for 2 days.
Now people come up and ask for help all the time here when they see a white guy in a suit but I usually answer them in Swahili and they leave me alone realizing I’m not fresh off the plane. This guy did not understand Swahili, obviously not from around here, and I got a sense that he really was telling the truth and that I should help out a little. I sometimes get a clear strong feeling that I should do something and have learned to listen to it and trust it (that’s how I ended up in Kenya actually). I love these rare interactions with people where I almost immediately see something more. More in their eyes, something very deep, something bigger than me and the other person standing there, something eternal, something important, something well worth my time and effort. So we’re walking and talking and I swing into a store and buy him some basic food and medicines. It cost me a whole $10 but it will sustain the seven of them for a week at least. When we parted ways I followed the guy on the opposite side of the road for a while just to see what he did (I know that’s a little weird, I can be impulsive). I left feeling grateful for the interaction and honestly, it was the best part of my day. I’ll never know what impact this small gesture had, but I know I was supposed to do it.
Next stop, headquarters, everything goes well and I’m set to head home. I’m hungry and thirsty but I buy a piece of corn from a guy on the side of the road and decide to try and get home quick and call it a good day. The centre needs cooking charcoal, I take another way home where I think I might find some. I do, it’s cheap and good quality. Sweet, I buy as much as can fit in the van and head for Thika road feeling great about the day so far, it’s around 2:30pm.
I’m approaching the roundabout where I’ll turn towards home, its crazy busy but traffic’s moving. There are thousands of people everywhere… I could reach out and touch the matatu next to me, but this is all normal. Then, out of nowhere a man literally dives into the road and slams into the car. The side mirror snaps off and flies in the window hitting my leg. I’m thinking what was that? Is this a scam to carjack me? Why do I have to be dressed so nice, and why do I have to have all these checks and important documents with me? I pull over and immediately the guy starts screaming “hit and run” and trying to get the crowd which is now over a hundred to rally against me. I calmly get out, take all the important stuff with me, lock the van, and use a life line… phone a friend.
He advises the proper procedure is to take the guy to the hospital then to the police. The guy is acting crazy, he has a bloody swollen lip, and is fighting mad. Well, I am usually nice and calm, but I can also turn on a pretty fierce side when needed (this aggression is usually saved for bike races). I fought back in a very loud and effective manner. I convinced the crowd, to convince the guy to go along with the process and stop trying to scam me. Great I win, but the next 4 1/2 hours that day, and all day Saturday felt like I lost, bad. I take the dude and his cousin to a hospital, he finally calms down, they release him after minor first aid. Then I head to the police whom I had hoped never to have to have any type of official contact with, but since this is a company car we have to follow the proper process. These guys (the “victim” & his cousin) do not want to go; they want me to pay them money and threaten that they will change the story and make all kinds of problems if we go. I’m starting to have strong suspicions that these guys are doing a common scam here, stand in the road and wait for a mzungu then act like you’re hit and dig, dig, dig for money. I become convinced that the minor injury this guy has to his lip was more likely caused by his cousin boxing him up a little rather than by the side mirror hitting him. I go to the police, there is a lot a talk in local dialect so I can’t understand, the car gets impounded for investigation. Great, by now it’s 5:30pm and I am stranded in a terrible station about a 45 min from home. Still haven’t eaten or had a drink in a long time. Lifeline # 2, phone another friend…..cell battery dies. Now the stress starts to build.
There are very few real phones in Kenya, none of them happen to be in this police station and no one is willing to loan me theirs (that would cost $) and the only number I know by heart is Anne’s, and her phone does not have the contacts she would need to call someone with a big enough vehicle to collect me and all the charcoal. No problem, I can figure this out… can’t I? I do, I take my sim card out, borrow a phone from the guy I “hit” (he’s in front of the cops and still trying to play victim so he goes along with it) and call Anne. She says she’ll figure it out and she’ll send Tito and a contractor who just happened to be there (with a truck) to collect me. I go outside to wait.
As it starts to get dark, every vehicle that looks like it might turn in lifts my spirits a little but then dashes my hopes as I realize it is not coming for me. The cops beat up a guy standing next to me. A drunk matatu driver harasses me and I, well, I can’t say what I said to him in this blog. Then another cop comes out and asks why I’m still here. Then he says, “Lets go in and deal with this so you can leave. Do you have some water in the van? My throat is a little dusty.” No, I don’t have water, in fact I can barely swallow since I haven’t had a drink myself in 5 hours. Did anyone get what was really going on here????
Let me explain the game. It goes something like this: if they have any opportunity to get to you the MO is: stall, stall, stall, then frustrate you to the breaking point, then maybe swing the gun around a bit, make veiled threats of incarceration, and then get you to pay for the solution. I’m not ready to break yet so I don’t play along. The guy wanting the water says, “OK, bye then, I’m going to control the Jam” and walks off with a smile and his machine gun. He knows he has more patience when waiting for my money than I have watching my life clock tick away for no reason.
The guy who has the van keys comes out and says “Oh you’re still here? I don’t live here I want to go home.” “Well” I say, “My ride is on the way so you’ll have to wait, I have to get this stuff back to the program and I will not leave it here, it doesn’t seem safe”. Finally my rescue team arrives and they get me home at around 8pm. I was happier than ever to be back at the centre, everyone came out to see how I was because they know how bad things can be with the local authority.
Next morning (Saturday), I have to go back and try to figure out how to get the centre van home. I spent another 4-5 hours there playing the game of veiled threat, stalling, frustrating, I got the full meal deal and was thoroughly exhausted by the end. All the time watching the families of these public servants roll in and out in fancy cars and expensive clothes (mind you they officially make a very small salary, on the books). It is amazing how one can feel happy and relieved once the game is done, even though you just got totally worked over. So effective is their method of extortion that I really felt relieved for it just to be finished, like I just accomplished something important. I suppose I did in getting my life back. I left with the van, a much lighter wallet, and a first class education on why corruption sucks. Now all I have to do is go buy their form from another dept and bring it in on Monday to get it filled out for the insurance. They promise that will only take 20 minutes. Wish me luck.