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October 23, 2011 / Dan Whipple

The tourism war

Somalia mapAbout a week ago, the Kenyan army entered Somalia to confront the Al Shabaab militia which has caused everyone so much trouble over the years. This invasion—though that word is not used to describe the action here—came after several kidnappings along the Kenya-Somali border, of a tourist (whose husband died in the incident), a part-time resident who died during her captivity, and, finally, two aid workers from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

The kidnapping of the two Spanish aid workers was the final straw. Kenya has been remarkably patient over the years with Al Shabaab’s incursions and provocations. But when—on top of the two earlier tourist kidnappings—MSF said they would be forced to curtail aid efforts in the region, Kenya moved in with troops.

Al Shabaab is a fundamentalist terrorist militia whose support, even in Somalia, seems thin. The organization reacted with some predictable bluster. Al Shabaab spokesman Ali Dheere issued a statement saying they were prepared to fight. “We are telling the government of Kenya and its people that they have declared war. They don’t know what war is.” He said that Al Shabaab will destroy Kenya’s economy, specifically focusing on damage the group can cause to nation’s tourist industry. Kenya relies very heavily on international tourism. Terrorist threats are usually bad for it.

The opinion on the street in Nairobi, though, seems to be that Al Shabaab is overextended already, in no position to cause serious damage. The group is fighting in Somalia, is fighting a sluggish war with Ethiopia, has declared its hostility to Uganda (which has peacekeeping troops in Somalia under the African Union banner) and now has to deal with the Kenyan army. On Saturday, U.S. drones joined the fighting, killing 44 people*, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) endorsed the Kenyan actions.

It’s not clear how ambitious Kenya’s military objectives are. The intention at present seems to be to capture the port of Kismayu, controlled by Al Shabaab, which generates “billions of shillings … in port fees and illegal sale of contraband goods,” according to Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. IGAD has urged the United Nations to impose a blockade on Kismayu. Whether this new coalition of combatants can offer any hope to war-weary Somalia is unknown—but the history of the country doesn’t make one optimistic.

Here in Nairobi, the U.S. embassy has issued a strongly worded warning for us wazungu “of an imminent threat of terrorist attacks directed at prominent Kenyan facilities and areas where foreigners are known to congregate.” We get about one of these a month, and if you worried about all of them, you’d stay in the middle of a room with a blanket over your head. But now there is in fact a war under way. The question is whether the enemy is too distracted by the actual combatants to try to terrorize the noncombatants.

*The information about U.S. involvement was apparently incorrect, according to a later report from the Daily Nation.

October 13, 2011 / Dan Whipple


Uhuru Highway traffic at midday

I was sitting in traffic, stopped on one of the busiest streets in Nairobi, Uhuru Highway just above University Roundabout on my way home from the gym, having buffed my body in the diaphoresian ecstasies of exertion and sauna. It was about 1:30 pm, the sun was shining, and I was catching maybe every fourth word on the Swahili radio station.

There was an loud bang against the passenger door of the car (not that you care, but it’s a 2004 Toyota RAV4). I looked over to see the head of a young African male disappearing from view below the passenger window. He was in the middle of the road, but this is not unusual. Many young men sell newspapers, maps of Kenya, posters of the ten commandments, sunglasses, jumper cables, posters of the parts of a diapered child’s body (shoulder, forehead, elbow, stomach, knee), all-purpose knifelike tools, bananas, hammers, paintings of elephants, machetes, Kenya flags, neckerchiefs in a Kenya flag motif, tomatoes, tiny motorcycles made out of wire, flowers, surge protectors, onions, windshield sun shades—you know, stuff—many young men walk down the dotted white lines during traffic jams selling stuff. I mean, who can say when the urge will strike to bone up on the ten commandments while you’re stuck in traffic?

My god, I thought, a vendor’s had a heart attack against my car door!

But no, he popped right back up, keeping his head turned away all the time. He’s stolen my rearview mirror. The bang was him torqueing his whole body weight against the mirror to dislodge it from its customary position on the car’s frame.

I watched him walk away, slowly at first then running when he’d put a couple of cars between us. What can I do? I wonder. I’m by myself. I want to chase him, but I can’t abandon the car. I don’t have a gun, so I can’t shoot him. There are dozens of people around, so if I shout, Stop! Thief! who’s gonna know which one is which? And then he’s gone. Just like that.

The tragic flaw in my character is that I can always see the other guy’s point of view. Somebody who’s stealing a rearview mirror in broad daylight must really, really need a Toyota RAV4 mirror.

But there are hazards in his chosen occupation. My Swahili teacher and friend Oloo says a friend of one of his students had his mirror stolen in a situation very similar to mine. But in this case, the robbery victim gave chase. Several bystanders joined him in pursuit. They caught the thief. The crowd wanted to kill him. The thief—mwizi in Swahili—pled that okay, he was guilty, but he had only stolen a rearview mirror. Hardly an offense calling for the death penalty. The crowd didn’t kill him, but they did give him a severe beating.

When I went to get my mirror replaced, I found out why people steal them. A new mirror costs $180, plus installation. In a nation where unemployment reaches 40 percent and the monthly wage can be as little as $80 when you do have a job, it’s well worth it to refurbish a stolen mirror and resell it, even if considerable damage is done to it in the yanking off.

The irony does not escape me that I bought a used mirror for about $100, probably one stolen from someone else’s RAV4. I am thereby encouraging the trade in stolen auto parts. Next time, if the guy will just tell me that he’s going to steal my mirror, I can give him, say, $40. He can avoid the risk of being beaten to death, and I’ll save $60. Everybody’s a winner.

Our new rearview mirror

September 29, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Kenya’s virtual internet

Zuku screen shotWhat we have here in Kenya is a sort of virtual internet. It looks like the regular internet—you can click on links and new web pages appear and so forth—but it does not have some of the characteristics that users of western world have become accustomed to.

For instance.

Last December I attended a climate change conference in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. The hotel hosting the conference offered online reservations, so I filled out the form and clicked the “register” button at the bottom. After a couple of weeks, though, I hadn’t heard anything. Fearing that my room would not be awaiting me, I called.

No, he said, they had no reservation. Who had I spoken with?

I didn’t speak with anybody, I said. I registered online.

Oh, he said, that doesn’t work. We’ll take your reservation over the phone.

So we made my reservation over the phone and when I got to Kisumu I had room waiting for Dan Weepo—but that’s another issue.

Then about February, our bank’s website proudly announced that we could order new checkbooks electronically. So we did, asking that our checkbooks be delivered to the branch in the central business district. Leave a week’s space before collecting the checks, said the website. Sure, no problem.

So a week later, in the bank we asked for the checks. What checks? they asked.

The ones we ordered online, we said.

Oh, she said, that doesn’t work. You have to come here and ask for the checks.

Okay. We asked for the checks. Another week later we got them.

Then just these past two months, I’ve been trying to solve a continuing problem — finding reliable internet service. One of the providers, Zuku, offered a very high speed broadband setup which they said you could order online. I filled out the online form, made a credit card payment to an online payment system known as Pesa Pal, then waiting for something do happen.

Nothing did. So I called Zuku. They had never heard of me. Who did I talk to when I ordered the connection?

I didn’t talk to anyone I said, I did it online.

Oh, she said, that doesn’t work. That’s only for existing customers.

That’s not what it says on your web site, I said. It clearly states, “Sign up for new internet service.”

So we walked through their web site while still on the phone, each of us clicking the links to see what they brought up and reading the resulting instructions. My interlocutor eventually agreed that in fact they did say that they offered this service online, it’s just that they didn’t. You have to call. Furthermore, they had no way to collect my payment from Pesa Pal.

This, mind you, is from a company that provides broadband internet service.

The Kenya internet does provide a great deal of social networking, however. Since you can’t really order anything online, you have to be social and either show up in person or make a phone call to speak to a live human being.

I’ve long held the Homer Simpson theory of evolution: people do not learn from experience. It’s always nice to have your pet theories proven. The unfortunate part is that it proves it about me. Despite ample evidence that if you want anything done you have deal directly with a human being, I have clung to the illusion that I can do it on Kenya’s (virtual) internet.

September 16, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Impractical cats

There’s this cat makes its way 2,000 miles from the backwoods of Colorado to the bright lights of New York, walking, hitchhiking, riding the rails, fending off amorous toms, sleeping in cardboard crates, and under bridge abutments. Chasing the American dream, Frank Sinatra ringing in her head, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” She wanders up and down Broadway, going to casting calls, contacting agents, rejection after rejection, living on crumbs, working as pest control at a Lebanese restaurant. She finally gets a callback for the lead in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. So she stops in for a celebratory drink at the Water Club and what happens? Some guy snatches her, sends her back to Colorado! “There are tons of coyotes around here, and owls,” is the last thing she hears them say about Boulder, Colo., when they load her on the plane. Swell.

August 20, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Warembo wengi

I have been learning to speak Swahili here, under the tutelage of my teacher and friend Oloo. Lesson nine in one of my books concerns dealing with “matatu touts and street children [and] with bothersome prostitutes and pickups.”

When our hypothetical WanJa, whom we’ve hypothetically met in a bar, says, “Ninakupenda sana,” (I love you very much), I’m instructed to reply, “Hapana. Nimeoa na sitaki mke mwingine.” (No. I am married and don’t want another wife.)

And this is after just eight lessons. I took German for seven years in high school and college, and I can’t recall a single lesson in which these useful phrases came up.

Tuesday night, Oloo and I went out to Klubhouse One to hear some jazz. The music was excellent — Mwai and The Usual Suspects if you ever have the opportunity. One thing I like about K1 is that is a hangout for actual Kenyans. Only a few wazungu come in on any given night, most of those with Kenyan friends.

As the evening progressed, K1 began to fill up with a large number of stunningly gorgeous women, few of whom would have been out of place on the cover of Vogue. Kathy—mke wangu—and I have often commented that you could recruit an army of supermodels, male and female, just from people on the streets of Nairobi.

Mrembo in Swahili means “a beautiful woman.” The plural is warembo. K1 was warembo central. Warembo wengi (Many beautiful women). They were slender, raven-haired, flawless complexions, high gleaming cheekbones, perfect white teeth, periodically springing to their dancing feet to dance, shooting enticing glances toward our table. Had the author of Chapter Nine known of these warembo, he might have included a few alternative phrases—Sioi. Vipi! (I’m not married. What’s up!)

Now you may find this hard to credit, but almost all of these women were casting their come-hither looks at me, mwanamume mzee mzungu, a bald, white, sixty-two-year-old with glasses and empty beer bottles, instead of the handsome, healthy 30-year-old Oloo who was with me, or indeed any of the fine specimens of Kenyan manhood that surrounded us. I asked him why this was the case. He said, “Wazungu is more likely to have plenty of money than Wakenya.

Aha. Sure enough, mrembo came over to our table, leant her head close to mine and said something I didn’t catch over the noise of the music. It’s not recommended in Swahili Lesson Nine, but I didn’t say, “Sitaki mke mwingine,” even though I don’t want another wife. Instead I asked her to dance.

I warned her that I only knew how to dance one way, western swing. She considered this suspiciously, but agreed to try. It didn’t go well. When she went north, I went south, and so on. We gave up and resumed our places at our respective tables. This dancing strategy is apparently just as good a method as the Lesson Nine approach because no other mrembo came round after that. Oloo and I did get up and dance some with no one in particular. Not western swing, though.

August 14, 2011 / Dan Whipple

We adopt an African orphan

Having honed our parenting skills on raising two boys to manhood, we decided to adopt a girl. Adopting African orphans is all the rage among the luminaria. This places us in the company of Angelina Jolie and Madonna. But as our friends can attest, we’ve always been quick to latch onto a trend.

First, though, she had to be retrieved from the well into which she had fallen. I think allowing your child to fall into a well displays an over-casual attitude toward parenting. Her birth mother couldn’t get her out, so she was forced to leave her there for some passersby to retrieve.

Finding childcare in Kenya is surprisingly easy and affordable. Naipoki, as she came to be known, has round-the clock care from a large staff of attendants. She was sent to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust when she was only three months old. We adopted her for about $50 American, and we go there to visit her once a month. So we are the proud adoptive parents of a healthy, one-year-old, bouncing baby elephant.



May 3, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Don’t make me come back there!

I’ve only been gone eight months and already you’ve forgotten how to behave.

When dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu to cheering crowds, Americans were enraged, disgusted, appalled. Now Osama bin Laden is killed and gleeful Americans take to the streets waving flags and chanting, “U … S … A…” like it’s a football game.
Guess what the rest of the world thinks of that?

Even the end of World War II didn’t inspire this sort of thing. The proper response would be more understated—hoist a cold one, pump out a “Yeah, we got him,” then consider the future without a bogeyman. But all this jumping up and down is tacky. Maybe some of those brave patriots waving flags at Ground Zero can now find the gumption to allow trials of the Guantanamo detainees in their towns. But probably not. Too scary.

I’ll admit some self-interest here. The State Department has sent out notices telling us furriners to stay home, avoid crowds, be careful. In Kenya, the terrorist threat is more than hypothetical. Al Shabaab, a Somali fringe group, periodically threatens to set off explosives in Kenya in retaliation for one perceived affront or another. Their latest threat was two weeks ago. One of bin Laden’s first successes—if that’s the word we want—was the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy here in Nairobi, killing 212 people, wounding 4,000. Remembrance of this event doesn’t inspire the same teary patriotism as the World Trade Center attack because most of the victims were, well, Kenyans.

It would be nice for the rest of us out here in the real world if some good came out of this sordid and tasteless celebration of a single man’s death. Say … declare victory in the “war on terror.” End the Patriot Act. Restore the integrity of legal system. Close Guantanamo.

But probably not. Too scary.