Kenya: Movin’ on up
Currently, I’m staying in Mbita, a small fishing community in western Nyanza province, located along Lake Victoria. Sometimes, we can see Uganda, and Tanzania is just a stone’s throw away.
I’ve been coming here for close to three years, and I’m struck at the rapidity of change here. There used to be only two ferry trips a day to Luanda Port, where you can catch a minibus to Kisumu, Nyanza’s largest city. Now, there’s not only multiple trips a day, but also two ferries, a small one and a large one.
You can also catch a ferry to neighboring Mfangano island, a small but heavily populated place which was formerly mostly isolated from the mainland.
The power still comes on and off, but blackouts are shorter and more infrequent. There are multiple places to see music now, a direct result of people having more money. Local and national acts are taking advantage of Mbita’s increased affluence.
Mirroring much of Kenya, though, construction of a few “high rise” buildings has been completed, but it’s kind of unclear as to who is going to move in. “Mbita Towers” is mostly empty.
People look better, the cars are in better shape, there are more buses going to Kisumu and Nairobi and there is a larger variety of foods and goods available at the local market. This is due in part to the semi-completion of a road connecting nearby Homa Bay to Mbita. There are still a few rough spots between, but it’s mostly passable now. Someone told me that just four years ago it took two days to get from Nairobi to here, despite there being only 400 km between them.
No doubt, this isn’t due to the good graces of any particular development project at all, but rather to the increased affluence of Kenya as a whole. Kenyatta’s government would inexplicably love to credit the Chinese, and they should be credited for constructing some of the road infrastructure, but the real credit has to be given to the development of the domestic economy and Kenya’s status as the most liberal economy in the region.
Kenyans are increasingly not only connected with the world, but also to each other. Cell phones, for example, have allowed Kenyans greater mobility so that they can take advantage of money-making opportunities elsewhere, and mobile banking allows money to flow out of Nairobi, where it was traditionally concentrated.
Kenya still ranks low on “ease of doing business” indicators, and continues to be excessively bureaucratic. New rules seem to appear each day, the goals of which are often unclear and seem to be aimed only at corrupt officials on every level of government. A recent ban on tinted windows, supposedly aimed at terrorism, and an onerous highway speed limit of 80 km/h for small trucks, billed as reducing traffic fatalities, are providing a steady source of cash for hungry highway policemen. It’s worth noting that the latter rule doesn’t apply to SUV’s, the vehicle of choice for Kenya’s elite.
Fortunately, many people simply ignore the government and carry on like it doesn’t exist. This is particularly true out here. My taxi driver completely ignored the speed rules and sped on at 120 km/h. Of course, there’s not a policeman to be seen anywhere out here outside of the the local bar at 3 p.m. The relative peace out here makes them mostly unnecessary, anyway.
Back to Mbita, Kenya
I’m kind of thrown off by what a relief it is to be out here again after being in Nairobi. I really like Nairobi and all it has to offer, but the stress of crowded roads, crime, terrorism, politics, bad air and the constant hemorrhaging of money wears at the soul in ways that aren’t all that obvious until you get away from it.
Just arriving in Kisumu alone allows you to breath a sigh of relief. The traffic moves slower, people don’t push you around and anything you buy is half or even a quarter what it costs in Nairobi. There’s probably not as much to do, but it’s a good getaway.
Plus, Luo-land, despite it’s odd politics, is just a great place to be. I ran into one of the security guards at the place I usually stay on Lake Vic on the ferry. It was great to talk to him outside of work.
I took this picture off the boat as I was breathing in non-polluted air for a while. The moment was kind of sad, though, when I started thinking about how fresh all this was back when I first started coming here. Now, it’s kind of a routine experience, a bit less exciting, maybe, but perhaps special nonetheless.
Now it’s time for bed, until the church bells start going off at 6 a.m.
Thomas Piketty in Nairobi
I just got back from Bookstop in the Yaya Centre shopping mall in Nairobi, one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It’s an Africanist’s paradise. My bank account is always a bit lighter and my suitcase a bit heavier after I visit.
Today, a customer was coming in to pick up Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a 700 page economics tome which has been topping the best seller lists everywhere and probably one the best economics books to appear in the past 50 years. The gentleman looked a bit intimidated by its size.
A bit later, a younger Kenyan woman came in with a bag full of books that she was hoping to trade for her copy. The book costs the equivalent of about $70 in Kenya.
The owner apparently ordered 100 copies, but was only able to get 25. He says he has orders for all 100 copies, many from Kenyan college students which he sees as an encouraging sign. I have to agree.
Kenya Day 9
We visited another rehabilitation facility in Nairobi. We found out that the guy we are looking for has been telling his counselors about his employers, but they thought he was just making it all up. His story was so implausible that his employers were a figment of his troubled imagination.
They are surprised to find these fictional characters standing in the sitting room of their facility. One of them has the same name as a good friend of mine, Justin Farrar. I’m somewhat taken aback by his business card.
Capitalism is the cause of drug problems in Kenya, apparently. The market economy has robbed Kenyans of their culture and they are now turning to drugs for comfort and solace. I’m interested in this. I ask where most of the patients of this $500 a month facility come from. They are mostly children of the wealthy Kenyans, half of which probably have real problems, and the other half of which are sent here to get them out of their parents’ hair.
I’m wondering if all those with brains pickled (or eyes blinded) from changaa (an awful homebrewed alcoholic beverage common in the villages) are the victims of capitalism as well. While it’s important to discuss the causes and roots of social problems, it was an odd aside.
We stop by a new Ethiopian restaurant. The owner is excited because we are the first foreigners at his place, which opened up three days ago. He takes numerous pictures.
I’m told that much of the real estate boom in Nairobi has been funded through proceeds from Somali piracy. I look and find that it’s probably true.
In fact, I reflecting on how Nairobi is in the middle of a real estate bubble. Rents are absurdly high in Nairobi, but then one will pay a premium for security, particularly after Westgate. I keep thinking about what an awful strategy this is. Investors are looking to make a quick buck, building and turning over real estate prices for ever higher prices. I remark that Kenyans are wholly uninterested in developing their country, preferring risky, short term assets like real estate to investment in new manufacturing sectors.
The Kenyan government, of course, is uninterested in encouraging growth through enterprises which create jobs, preferring to skim off the top of real estate in the form of bribes and taxation for imported supplies. It’s all sad, really. I’m wondering when the bubble is going to finally burst.
It turns out the Nairobi Java House that got bombed was the one outside, not the one inside the terminal. I’m looking at it and noticing how dangerous the location is. Anyone could drive by, lob a bomb here and kill five or ten foreigners in a split second.
It’s time to go, though I’m sad. Nairobi is an exciting place, far more exciting than my own boring, though pleasant, Ann Arbor.
Nairobi for a day (I think I will spend more time on a plane)
I’m back in Nairobi for a day. I think that I will have spent more time on airplanes that in Nairobi on this trip. It’s a pretty silly way to do business, but I wanted to be back home in time for Thanksgiving so I couldn’t extend it.
My friend Tirus picked me up from the airport. I mean, I pay him, but he’s still my friend. (Things are always quite gray in Africa.)
After the fire, the Kenyatta airport is still being run like patchwork, but it was the fastest that I’ve ever gotten through customs. Departures are routed through a giant tent. Arrivals have to go to a different part of the airport. It used to be that the two mixed, which created awful congestion throughout the airport. I think the fire actually did Kenya a favor. It’s still unclear when construction on the new terminal will begin.
It was interesting hearing Tirus recount his close call with the Westgate Mall attack. Apparently he was at Westgate relaxing and looking trough his phone not but an hour before the guns started to fire. Turns out it only took four guys to kill more than 70 people and wound nearly 200. Awful.
The ICC trials of the President and Vice President of Kenya are still news here. Actually, they are still news everywhere. Thinking about it, Kenya is in the American news on a daily basis. I think it might be the only African country that is.
I don’t know how the trials can proceed. Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s actions during the 2007 post-election violence were despicable, but it’s going to be rather difficult to successfully prosecute and sitting head of state, and maintain credibility for a struggling African country and a fledgling government. The ICC could actually cause more damage in the long term by pursuing the case, at least while Kenyatta is in power.
More later….. time for breakfast at the Seventh Day Adventist house. The claim to encourage “health living” by eschewing meat, spices and caffeine but the large amounts of salt in the food at this hotel are borderline dangerous!
More Reflections on the Nairobi Massacre
A second attack is likely. I can’t imagine that Al Shabab or any other terror organization is going to let this success lie. This was probably merely a test. And as Jeffrey Gettleman pointed out in the NYT this morning, a second attack will devastate the Kenyan economy.
If there is another major terror attack here, it will be devastating. Kenya will be branded as insecure and expatriates will leave in droves. The billion-dollar tourism industry will crash, and everyone from pilots to safari guides to the maids at the wildlife lodges will be jobless. Tourists eager to see spectacular game and life-changing vistas will go to other African countries, and thousands of Kenyans will go hungry.
I am also thinking of all the research projects that will shutter and move to safer Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. Though those countries desperately need those projects, it will be a great loss of livelihood to all the capable and dedicated Kenyan researchers, survey workers, staff, drivers and security guards.. and their families. People sometimes become quite cynical about development and research dollars, but even the most uninteresting of projects means food for a family or education for their kids.
As awful as it is to say, I can’t help but reflecting on the political controversies surrounding the use of drone attacks to combat terror groups. Though drone attacks aren’t without their own civilian costs, I can’t help but wishing one of them might have killed the 10-15 individuals who stormed Westgate Mall before they had the chance to shoot toddlers gathered on the roof to make a childrens’ movie.
Al Shabab is a real threat to the world, to Kenyans, and particularly to Somalis. It’s hard to argue that letting them simply do what they like in Somalia in the name of isolationism and vague notions of anti-imperialism would have ever been a good plan, given that this massacre is precisely what they wanted to do. I don’t think there are any easy answers or solutions here, but to do nothing is an entirely misguided solution. Actually, it’s not a solution at all.If a recent Economist article is to be believed, the Westgate attack is merely part of a worldwide trend of increased terror activity in 2013. After reflecting for a while, I realized that terrorists in 2013 are of a completely different generation than those of 2001. The complexities of global terror are well outside my field of expertise, however, so I will refrain from commenting further.
The upside of all this, is that the event may draw Kenyans together as they never have been before. The long lines to donate blood and outpouring of support from everywhere across the country are nothing short of inspiring in a nation as fractured and divided as Kenya. My friend Karim posted some great photographs of Kenyans queuing to give blood and voicing support.
Kenya Submits Film to Oscars
Kenya has made its first entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the 85th Academy Awards. “Nairobi Half Life,” directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga, is the story of the criminal underworld of Nairobi.
Nairobi is famous for suffering from a deep seated problem of petty and organized crime. Carjackings, pickpockets and cel-phone grabs are common. Gitonga set out to make a film about these criminals, who often come from the villages, seeking opportunities in the city.
The addition of a Kenyan film to the Oscar rolls is momentous. To date, few countries have ever submitted. Most of the submissions come either from northern Africa or South Africa, though there have been submissions from Cameroon and Senegal.
Nigeria’s film industry is massive, but the low quality and disposable nature of production doesn’t produce Oscar material. Kenya has struggled to carve out a cinematic space for itself. Notable is the Kenyan International Film Festival, which has been bringing films to Kenya and showcasing Kenyan made films since 2006.
From the trailer, “Nairobi Half Life” looks great. I can’t wait to see the whole thing. Josephy Warimu, the star, has already won the award for best actor at the 33rd Durban International Film Festival.