Stranded In Kenya: 89 Days And Counting


Last updated 6/8/2020 at 5:13pm

Park Baker

The view from Ngong Hills, just southwest of Nairobi. The wind turbines generate quite a bit of energy, although the power does cut almost daily. Sometimes the whole city is out of power. Recently, the entire country was out of power, a result of overload, maintenance and sometimes vandalism. The cuts can last for hours and often a whole day. Kenya has a number of green initiatives, for example, the country outlawed plastic bags a few years ago.

It has been 89 days since I have been stuck in Kenya due to the international flight ban, although, sources say, that the Kenyan government is going to lift the ban on June 9.

We will see. It feels like I have been gone for years. I remember reading an article once in the New Yorker about time. The author wrote that when you are stuck doing the same thing for days, weeks, months and years, the mind loses elasticity and time seems to speed up and days begin to blur. That has happened here, and to most people, I think in the past six months.

Most people I know or interact with in Kenya don't believe the numbers of infected people that the Kenyan government is reporting.

As I write this, the Daily Nation reports that over 2,000 people have tested positive and about 75 people have died. That number seems pretty low given the density of Nairobi, but many different news agencies and governments are claiming different reasons for the low infection rate in Africa.

One reason is that Africans have stronger immune systems from battling many other viruses, while the other is that the hot weather has kept the virus at bay.

Although, as we move into winter here, there are more cases being reported.

"Winter" is a loose term. I think the record low in Nairobi is 44. My experience is that Kenya has actually been really proactive in fighting the spread. Since I have been here, no one has been allowed inside any building without first using the provided hand sanitizer and without wearing a mask.

They even wipe down the shopping carts at the grocery store.

And then, of course, there is the cynical sentiment that corruption is the number one reason for the low count.

Months before I arrived here, the mayor of Nairobi was arrested for trafficking drugs. Officials in Somalia recently banned two Kenyan airlines from doing business in the country for smuggling khat, a stimulating leaf that is chewed, similar to chewing tobacco.

The airlines claimed they were bringing in medical supplies.

Speaking of corruption, I was arrested the other day.

While driving downtown and trying to find a medical supply company to buy some physical therapy resistance bands, I apparently made a wrong turn.

I know that I actually did not make a wrong turn, because the person in front of me did the exact same thing and there was no sign, light, spray paint or anything that said, "no right turn."

While pulling into the building, where the supplier was located, I found a traffic cop on a motorcycle behind me.

He approached the window and said I made a wrong turn and that I was trying to run from the police. That was not the case in either instance, and I told him I did not know what he meant and that if I had made a wrong turn, it was a simple mistake.

I asked him why he did not pull the person over in front me who did the exact same thing, at which point he was interrupted by another traffic cop. Soon, there were five of them and they said I needed to go with them to the police station because I was being arrested.

Baffled and indignant, I refused to allow them in the car because of the pandemic and was pretty blunt when I said, "I am not going to the police station for making a wrong turn."

That, of course, irritated them, and there I sat while they conversed in Swahili. The thing to do in this situation is to, of course, bribe them, which is how it works here, and in many places, especially for a muzungu like me.

Policemen, and so many other professionals across the globe are underpaid, so they will do what they can to make a buck. I bet they make about $10 a day.

After about 20 minutes of sitting there and watching them and waiting for them to stop their haranguing of me I found myself speaking with the local district officer in charge, who had apparently come to give me a ticket, because the "police don't carry ticket books." Although I could see the ticket book clearly in his hand, he said I needed to follow him to the police station.

Tired of this, I agreed to follow him a couple of blocks away to the police station. I sat there, watched him eat his lunch as he asked me questions and filled out the ticket from the very book he was carrying when he approached the car.

He asked me when I would like to go to court and I said, "never."

I knew the courts were closed due to the pandemic and he was just testing me to see how far I would be pushed before I pulled out a handful of shillings.

I asked him how much the ticket would cost, and after hearing his reply, I offered him double the amount. He just said, "show me the money." I declined and said I would rather go to court.

He asked me my name. He asked me for my phone number. "1-828-867-5309, officer," I replied.

He wrote it down and said I had court on Monday, which was actually a national holiday. I knew that already and that the courts were closed anyway. I left the station and drove away.

That is the second time I have been stopped by traffic cops. The first time an officer on foot in the Central Business District asked me where I was going, what I was doing and who I worked for.

He said I was driving illegally and that I needed to pay him. He takes Mpesa, an online pay service similar to Venmo. I declined and said I had to go. So, I left.

The downtown area of Nairobi, also known as the CBD, is hard to describe. It is so densely populated, with so many people riding motorcycles through traffic and over barriers, riding their bikes on the interstate and pulling carts in every direction, that it's honestly disorienting while trying to drive.

If you don't keep up with the traffic, the driver of the Lil Wayne bus will run over you while trying to avoid the driver of the Bob Marley bus. If he doesn't, then you had better watch out for the guy driving the Jesus bus. That guy really doesn't care.

While trying to find a camera store downtown just today, some kids tried to get in my rental car while I was stuck in traffic. Luckily, I had kept the doors locked, as has been advised. I am from Richmond, Va., and I have been robbed before so I kept my cool and was able to get away from them in the dense traffic, however.

It wasn't long ago that Nairobi was internationally notorious for crime. That has changed a good bit, so I am told, but when you live hand-to-mouth, anything goes.

The ripple effects of British and Dutch colonialism are glaring to me and on top of that, affluent people from Mumbai and elsewhere have come to Nairobi and bought up everything. It is not too hard to buy Kenyan products here, and we do our best to support local.

Kenya imports very little, and there is so much fresh fruit and vegetables grown locally that there is really no reason to buy anything else unless you just want canned and boxed food, which we don't anyway.

Things are still shut down here for the most part.

Restaurants and bars and many shops are still closed.

Trying to get back to the states is proving to be difficult, aside from spending around $4,000 for an embassy evacuation flight.

The U.S. Embassy here is of little help and turns out they aren't in the office.

I have yet to encounter another American stuck here, except for a guy I went to high school with. He and his partner are actually stuck in the same coastal town where I spent the first part of my vacation.

We reconnected on social media, marveling at what a small world it really is.

We haven't spoken in almost 20 years but found that we still have a good bit in common.

Looking for street art in Nairobi has become one of my favorite things to do while stuck in a huge city. This photo was taken at a club called the Alchemist. I had been there during the day to get lunch. Some restaurants are open for take away and the delivery business is booming in Nairobi.

He does not intend to return to the U.S.


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