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March 6, 2013 / Dan Whipple

Peace reigns in Kenya election, so far

Voters waiting their turn in Kibera. Photo by Peter Ombedha, courtesy Ghetto Mirror.

Voters waiting their turn in Kibera. Photo by Peter Ombedha, courtesy Ghetto Mirror.

Kenya is holding an historic election this week, the first under its new constitution, so the wazungu are in a swivet about it. After the last election, in 2007 and 2008, 1,200 people were killed and 600,000 internally displaced. No one wants a repeat of this. Several of our friends have written from the United States to ask if we’re okay. The short answer is: Yes, we’re fine. As fine as we can be, that is, with me sitting at home staring at the computer, and Kathy at work at the Daily Nation from 8 am to midnight.

Kenyans are most exercised about the race for president, between Uhuru Kenyatta—who currently holds the lead with 53.4 percent of the vote, according to the tally in the Daily Nation—and Raila Odinga, with 42 percent. Only about 30 percent of the ballots had been counted by the end of the day Tuesday.

But while this race is getting most of the attention, under the new constitution, the president should be a less important figure than he’s been during Kenya’s first 50 years. The new laws are explicitly intended to devolve power from the central government to the counties and local officials.

This is a great experiment. The former style of government was essentially the British colonial structure with Kenyans as officeholders instead of British. The new constitution should provide a more culturally compatible government structure.

But first, the nation, which has been riven with sometimes murderous tribalism, must get through the election without excessive violence.

So far, things have been peaceful, though occasionally tense. On the coast on Monday, several police officers were killed. But this is the result of continuing separatist unrest in that part of the country, and can’t be called election violence, per se.

Voters stood calmly and patiently in long lines to vote, and have waited with equal patience for the results. I went to Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi, on Monday, election day, to help with some editing at the Ghetto Mirror. The area was very busy, with long lines at the polling places. But there was no trouble. Kibera was flashpoint for the 2007-08 post election violence, so the calm is a good sign.

Young men in Kibera will ask passersby if they have voted. If they haven’t, the non-voter may be escorted to their polling place. One young man even asked me—probably the only mzungu for five kilometers in any direction—whether I had voted. I told him, mimi si Mkenya (I’m not a Kenyan). So he moved on to the next victim. People who have voted get indelible ink painted on their pinky fingers.

As we were walking out, one young man who had maybe a little too much to drink took exception to this have-you-voted inquisition. He asked the vote enforcer what he’d do if he (the non-voter) went to get 20 of his friends who hadn’t voted. Fists were raised, but no punches thrown. The would-be combatants moved on to other pursuits. It was tense. But it was handled on the spot.

But it’s still early, and rumors fly, as they will. There was a rumor of rioting in Kibera on Wednesday (untrue, apparently), and of ballots in one of the counties being thrown into a lake (apparently true).
Most Kenyans I talk to are proud of the way the citizenry has responded so far, and are optimistic that peace will continue to prevail.

The voting and procedures have been transparent. Two foreign election observer groups gave high marks to the election process, according to a report in the Daily Nation. The real test will come when a winner is declared, and we see whether the losing side accepts the result gracefully. So far, however, Kenya has shown a tremendous advance in democracy and maturity since its trials five years ago.

Schools have closed for this week, many stores and shops are closed. There is almost no traffic—a very unusual situation in Nairobi—and the streets are virtually deserted, which is very unusual and a little creepy. But it makes it easy to get to the gym.

The U.S. Embassy has taken a personal interest in me, though, which is flattering. Usually they just tell me to stay out of crowded places, but now they want to know where I live. “Dear American citizens,”—that would be us—“If you have not already done so, please provide your physical address and # of adults, including yourself, and # of children residing with you as soon as you can.” Isn’t that sweet?

October 11, 2012 / Dan Whipple

The secret of my success

One of my most endearing personal characteristics is that I’m always right. My friends speak admiringly of this trait, often employing a word of one syllable followed by the pronoun “you!”

There have been occasional skeptics among my admirers, but I’m pleased to report that my always-rightness has now been scientifically confirmed in a rigidly structured test, the Good Judgment Project forecasting tournament.

We’re in the second year of this tournament, in which we amateur forecasters are asked to predict the outcome of obscure potential international events or the fate of obscure dictators from small underwater nations or the price of Euros on the open market by a date certain. Will the Nigerian government and Boko Haram commence official talks before 31 December 2012? Will the Vice President of Iraq Tariq al-Hashimi’s death sentence be overturned before 1 November 2012? Will the sentence of any of the three members of the band Pussy Riot who were convicted of hooliganism be reduced, nullified, or suspended before 1 December 2012? Will Moody’s issue a new downgrade on the long-term ratings for any of the eight major French banks between 30 July 2012 and 31 December 2012? Stuff like that.

In year one, I answered 80 (out of a possible 99) of this kind of question, and achieved a Brier score of 0.28. (What, you may ask, is a Brier score? I don’t know. But some people do and they calculate them. In the Brier scoring world, as in golf, a lower score is better.) This 0.28 placed me fifth out of 212 fellow prognosticators on the Good Judgement team. Our Good Judgement group of 212 competed against four other groups, presumably of the same size. We reportedly cleaned their clocks, outperforming by a wide margin not only our human competitors, but also doing better than computer algorithms answering the same questions.

My math may be a little off here, but this puts me fifth in a field of, let’s see, 1,060 competitors, or the top 0.47 percent (plus or minus 0.40 percent) of Boko Haram and Pussy Riot predictors in the whole wide world. Yo. Dude.

Thanks to my performance in year one, for year two I’ve been placed with a newly created Gang of Twelve “superforecasters” who all did well the first year. Every one of these folks appears to be smarter than I am, based on the clearly articulated, rationally composed forecasts they are making in the tournament so far. I had hoped Good Judgment Project was going to have me star in my own comic book and give me a cape and a colorful muscle-emphasizing costume in honor of my elevation to superstatus, but no such luck. Brad Pitt has agreed to play me in the movie, however. There are five superforecaster pods. Our beloved superforecaster group—5b1, if you’re keeping Brier score at home—is currently second among the five groups. And I, gentle reader, am numero uno in 5b1, with a Brier score of 0.22. Boo yah.

I’m doing way better at this than I am at Words With Friends on Facebook.

So, I submit that my always being right is now a fact, established with statistical rigor in the rough-and-tumble give-and-take of scientific inquiry. Argue if you want. Then check the Brier Scoreboard.

The real question—the one that the Good Judgment Project and the tournament sponsor, the vaguely sinister sounding IARPA [U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity] are really trying to answer—is, why am I always right? Let’s face it. I didn’t even know Iraq had a vice-president, never mind that he’d been condemned to death, before they asked me to predict this question. The researchers believe that there is wisdom in the predictions of the crowd. Personally I think if this were true, bookies would be out of business.

Prior to the second year of forecasting, I confidently predicted that I would regress to the mean of the rest of the predictors. That is, I’d do no better—and probably worse—than average. This hasn’t been true so far. So I’m not always right. (Hey! Wait a minute!)

Why am I still doing well? The answer is … I have no idea. With most of the questions, you can predict with some certainty that things will stay the same in the future as they are today. That’s the default position. But everybody in tournament knows that. It’s no advantage. A lot of my teammates assign numerical probabilities to the events we’re asked to predict, then calculate conditional probabilities to come up with their answers. I love statistics. I follow these lines of inquiry with deep admiration.

But—at the risk of introducing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy—in order to assign a probability to a forthcoming event, you have to have some information about it. Virtually all of the information available for these questions comes from news stories written by journalists. I’ve been a journalist myself for more than 35 years. And one thing I’ve learned in that time is that journalists on the scene always know more about a topic than they can put in their story. So maybe—and I emphasize maybe—my journalism experience has enabled me to read between the lines of fact in a news story, to grasp the tone and atmosphere, to discern what the people closest to the event think will happen, or are planning to implement.

I think this is very unlikely to really be an explanation for my success (so far) in this tournament. I offer it only as a hypothesis. But I don’t have any other. There’s no rational reason for the dumbest guy in our Gang of Twelve to be leading the pack (other than, god forbid, luck). I still think that I’ll probably regress to the mean in the long run. Meantime, please Br’er Fox, don’t throw me in that Brier patch.

May 8, 2012 / Dan Whipple

Cheney for Congress?

I’m distressed to learn that Liz Cheney, daughter of former veep Dick, is considering running for Congress—either Senate or House—in Wyoming . Not because she isn’t a nice person. I’m sure she is, unlike her father, who is not a nice person. But my own experience as a parent tells me that children want to be as little like their parents as possible.

And it’s not because the Republic would miss the legislative contributions of any of Wyoming’s current delegation. I understand that Mike Enzi, John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis are vying for parts in Dumb and Dumber and Dumbest (not necessarily in that order. As L. Cheney might have said her capacity as a Fox News talking head, “We report, you decide”).

But don’t these people ever leave us alone? How many generations of dynasties are we going to admire? The founders argued America shouldn’t have a king or a hereditary aristocracy. But we’ve had Bushes, Kennedys, Simpsons, Adamses, Johnson-Robbs, Clintons, Romneys, Fishes, Rockefellers and now, god help us, Cheneys. Have you noticed that we’ve achieved a higher level of political consciousness under their guidance? Neither have I. Well, maybe the Adamses.

Perhaps—gasp!—the founders were wrong. Maybe America should initiate a hereditary aristocracy. We could bestow a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Teton, sub. Torturer in Mask on Dick Cheney. His daughter could be Lady Cheney when she came of age. Then she could do those satisfying things that dissipated aristocracy does the world over, trifling away the family fortune, making merry with the domestic staff, and petitioning the government to keep up their Medieval pile as a national historic site.

April 16, 2012 / Dan Whipple

Baseball in Kenya

The Saturday before Easter Sunday was the most important day of the adult year, the fantasy baseball auction draft for the Wyoming Rotisserie Baseball League (WRBL), proudly launching it’s 23rd season. Draft day is bigger than birthdays, bigger that Christmas, bigger than the Second Coming, bigger than the singularity at the beginning of the universe. It’s h-u-g-e. The auction starts promptly at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain Daylight Time, so I had to be on Skype at a little before 7 p.m. Nairobi time.

But first, I volunteered to take my brother-in-law Tom Gates up to Webuye, about a six hour drive from Nairobi. Tom is a doctor who in the mid-1990s ran the Friends mission hospital in Lugulu, about three miles from Webuye. He was going back for a visit at the hospital and with friends. I thought it would be nice to see some different country, so I offered to take him there, rather than consign him to the EasyCoach. We’re gonna go up Friday, I’ll drop him, I go back to Nairobi Saturday morning in plenty of time for the WRBL fantasy auction draft. (Did I mention that it’s huge?) What can go wrong?

I don’t know if you’ve ever driven around Kenya, but the police set up these “police checks” at which they pull vehicles over. I’d like to say that they pull vehicles over at random, but there seems to be very little random about it. The vast majority of the time, they stop matatus, buses, trucks and such. Very seldom do they stop private passenger vehicles. I’ve never really understood what these checkpoints are supposed to accomplish. Everyone assures me that they are simply a method for the police to extort kitu kidogo—a little something—to supplement their income. I’ve heard some matatu drivers have a little pocket attached to the driver’s door in which they place fifty shillings so the police officer can simply reach in and take it. I have no idea whether this is true, but everyone—everyone—believes it.

About twenty kilometers outside of Nakuru, a policeman at one of these checkpoints points his baton at me, waves me to the side of the road. I’m so shocked by this that I simply ignore him, keep driving. I gulp. They don’t have many police cars to chase me with, so there’s really not much they can do.

But still.

Then about five km later, another cop at a checkpoint points his baton at me and waves me to the side of the road. Okay, they don’t have cop cars, but they do have cell phones. I figure, I’ve done nothing wrong—unless you count driving like a maniac, but that is the Kenyan custom and culture, not a crime. I pull over.

The cop is a beefy but baby-faced guy, not too tall but sturdily built.

License, please.

I give him my Colorado license, which he studies.

Where is insurance?

Hah. Right here, I say, pointing to the little sticker on the windshield that acknowledges me as a faithful customer of Jubilee Insurance.

He reaches in through the passenger side window, peels the sticker off its perch, shows it to me.
It’s expired.

I look at it. Sonofabitch. Expires December 31, 2011. I cover manfully.

I have insurance.

Where is it?

I rummage through the glove box, which has nothing in it but a first aid kit and a tourist map of Kenya.
I have insurance, I repeat. I just don’t have the insurance sticker.

The polisi informs me that we have to go to the police station, where he will write me a summons for both my crimes: driving without insurance, and failing to display that I have insurance. Also, he says, he will have to impound the car until I get insurance.

I have insurance, I say. Really.

Tom says, I’m a doctor. I have to be in Webuye today.

Nice try.

Can I have my license?

I will be in car with you.


The cop shop is only a little ways away. I ask, Isn’t there some other way we can settle this?
Tom whispers to me, Don’t offer him a bribe We’ll be in worse trouble than we already are.
What did you have in mind, polisi asks.

Can’t I pay a fine?

That’s up to the judge.

Can we see the judge?

It’s a holiday.

Right. It’s Easter Weekend, a four day weekend for Kenya. It’s also WRBL fantasy auction draft weekend—have I said that?—which it will be hard to get back to Nairobi for with my car in the Salgaa impound lot. We argue about the car. The fine is 5,000 shillings. In the police officers’ station, the official photo of Kenya President Mwai Kibaki looks down at me reproachfully.

For 5,000 shillings, I say, tunaweza kuendesha gari. We can drive the car. I figure I’ll dazzle him with my command of Swahili.

Polisi considers this. I’m thinking he doesn’t really want to impound my car, because it will just mean more work for him.

He says I have to call my lieutenant. He steps outside with his cell phone.

Comes back. The lieutenant says we must keep the car.

He paces a while, considers. Sawa, he says. Okay. You can take the car if you promise me that you have insurance.

Well, of course I’ve got insurance. Mzungu driving around Kenya without insurance? Mjinga kabisa.

So after these delicate and tortuous negotiations, I give him 5,000 Ksh, get a receipt and court date for Wednesday if I want to contest the charges. I would, but it will cost me more than 5,000 shillings to drive back up to Molo for the appearance. Polisi knows this, of course. As we leave he tells me, “I don’t want you to beat me in court,” which makes me think he doesn’t want me to show up.

So I take Tom to Webuye, spend the night and head back to Nairobi in the morning, dreading all the way another stop from a police check. But they have returned to the routine of stopping only matatus, buses and such. Polisi don’t give me a second glance. It’s clear sailing for the WRBL auction draft now. What can go wrong?

As I’m driving up the street to our Nairobi house, I notice that Kenya Power and Light is replacing a transformer on the lines in the neighborhood. This usually means the power will be out at our house. Which means I won’t be able to get internet service. Which means I won’t be on Skype when the WRBL fantasy baseball draft day auction starts. Did I mention I’ve been doing this for 23 years without missing even once?

Kathy suggests I could go one of the coffee houses that offers wifi. This seems impractical. Many a normally patient coffee purveyor will bristle at a single customer monopolizing their wifi for the eight hours of the WRBL draft. Oh, yeah, just let me finish this cup of coffee. I’ll be right out of your way.

Still. I’ve got a few hours. KPLC should be able to replace a transformer in a day. I mean, what can go wrong?

November 3, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Don’t feed the monkeys

vervet monkey

A vervet monkey. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

There are signs at the hotels around Kenya saying, “Monkey Menace!” and “Don’t feed the monkeys!” and such like.

I finally got a good explanation about why you don’t feed the monkeys the other day at the Know Kenya More course of the Kenya Museum Society.

Like medieval Europe or the Catholic Church, monkey society is rigidly hierarchical. If a lower-ranking monkey has food, the higher ranking monkey can take it from him, no questions asked. Does the viscount feed the baron? Does the bishop dip into the cardinal’s communion wine? They do not.

If the lower ranking monkey refuses to concede the food, the higher status monkey takes steps to enforce the hierarchy. Monkey A, bites monkey B, much like the viscount will bite the baron and consider that he is only doing his feudal duty.

So if a tourist gives a monkey food from his traditional English meal, he is signaling to the monkey that he, the tourist, is the lower ranking monkey. When the tourist returns to his bangers and mash, refusing to offer further generosity, the monkey feels that his alpha monkey status is being challenged. Then the monkey does the feudal thing and bites the tourist. This causes hard feeling on both sides.

So. Don’t feed the monkeys.

November 2, 2011 / Dan Whipple

This may not be the killer app they had in mind

The Kenyan army is using Twitter to warn residents of ten Somali towns that they will be attacked “fiercely and continuously.”

Kenya invaded Somalia last month to try to stop kidnapping and violence along their shared border. Kenya says the kidnappings have been carried out by the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, a charge that al-Shabaab denies. Al Shabaab controls most of southern Somalia.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Twitter has launched a new service, “Twitter Stories,” to “share a handful of stunning ways that the micro-blogging service has made a positive impact on people’s lives.” I’ll be surprised if this one is included.

October 25, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Grenades in Nairobi, oh my

We’ve had two grenade attacks in Nairobi in the last two days. The total damages have been one killed and about 25 injured.

In the first one, which was early Monday morning, someone tossed grenade into a nightclub, a place which seems to be more like a local pub than anything else. Thirteen people were reported injured, one seriously.

Then during the day Monday, a grenade was thrown at a matatu at a crowded stop. Matatus are fourteen-seat vans which provide most of Kenya’s mass transit service. They are nearly always crowded. The grenade bounced off the window of the matatu it was tossed at. When it exploded in street, it killed one person and injured 12 others, all of whom were outside running to catch other matatus.

The police have not officially attributed these attacks to al Shabaab. Neither one of them seems especially sophisticated, and it isn’t the first time that a grenade has gone off since we’ve lived here. The last time, maybe six or eight months ago, a grenade exploded in a car in the Eastleigh district, but it was the result of ineptitude, not terrorism.

If al Shabaab is behind these explosions, they seem singularly amateurish. It is also hard to see what they hope to achieve. A few grenade blasts in Nairobi is not going to alter the Kenyan army’s path in Somalia. Nor has the government of Kenya been particularly solicitous of its citizens’ safety in any other venue—witness the carnage of the traffic, or the extra-judicial killings in the streets. And this is the kind of thing that caused them to launch the Somali offensive in the first place. It seems more likely to strengthen resolve than the reverse.

In any case, no one seems particularly terrorized by any of this. The streets are as crowded as usual. There is increased security at most buildings, where the guards now check under every car with a mirror. But it has been pretty much business as usual.