TROUBLE AT JOMO KENYATTA AIRPORT
For some time I have been looking forward to visiting Kenya, one of the first African countries to see their liberation, as a tourist and not a media person who has to interview people and capture facts, sift through them and expose the fiction. I have heard all stories of how Kenya was an enriching experience for scores of the doyens of African literature like Prof Nguni wa Thiong'o and Taban Lo Liyongo.
No self-respecting scribe or wannabe writer would miss an opportunity to be one of the people who will drink from the well on wisdom and quench their thirst of knowledge deficiency. I must admit I have for some time been wondering what was the hype with United States Senator Barrack Obama and his Kenyan roots and why would Kenyans be happy about a man raised in Hawaai instead of being proud of their own people. What is it that Kofi Annan did for the people of Ghana for all the ten years when he was the United Nations Organisation Secretary General.
When I communicated to my rastafarian filmmaker friend that I am going to spend roughly eight days in Nairobi he felt envy. He was in Amsterdam recently but Kenya was the opus for him. He looked at me and said, "Joe, I wish I was there", the went on to muse about Serengeti and all these landmarks that form part of tourism making for any African company. He truly envied me even though I was going to attend the World Social Forum's first African excursion.
As a preparation I read a book The Freedom Fighters, profiling a long list of revolutionaries going back to before the famed Mau-Mau uprising. It explicitly explained the difficulties and squalor that ordinary Kenyans still find themselves living under, irrespective of billions of rands in aid from World Bank and other donors which continue to be poured into the country and plundered with inpunity.Recently I have been doing my own study of what is happening here and found that there were serious cases of human rights abuses relating to the treatment of the Masai community.
All I see on SABC Africa is funnily dressed police officers man-handling natives whose only crime is refusing to vacate their land to pave way for forced-not people driven industrial development.I have also to a larger degree heard of how the First Lady smacked a journalist and how it was becoming difficult to get her to account because of the all too bad patronage system in the Kenyan political landscape.
Well, I have heard stories of abuses, disregard for human rights, a culture of subservience, especially to a light skin, as wonderfully told to me by Simon Kimane who used to belong to the Freedom Of Expression Institute and who is now with WITS To cut a long boring story short, I'll say I heard a lot about Kenyans to last me four lifetimes and when we departed OR Tambo Airport for Nairobi I did not expect the best. Never Utopia, never. First of all like one of my colleagues in the media asked me, "Why is the World Social Forum conference held at Nairobi – or rather Kenya". His question was more like, "of all the countries in Africa, why Kenya?"In my own pseudo-rebel mind I thought it was a statement to the authorities that they can not comply with the neo-liberals in Washington DC and get away with it so easily. What with all these outlawed people who will descend at Jomo Kenyatta airport and who, for five days will be shouting all slogans about how 'Another World is possible' or something to that regard?I could imagine the Palestinians with their own stories to share, the Zapatistas (maybe the Tupamaros as well) and many other movements from all over the world who, in this age of universal human rights still had to live under squalor and degrading conditions.
For me that was going to be interesting and I thought maybe at some stage during the conference the delegates were going to fill buses and charge toward the Somalia-Kenya border, the one the Americans told surrogate Kenya to seal so that 'Al Qaeda' operatives fingered for annihilating Nairobi do not cross as they were scorching the earth in Somalia.
Yeah, that was one of my interests, Uncle Sam is eradicating villages of hundreds of people to stop three people he has not even brought before court and found guilty before sentencing to die by the shell of a gunship from crossing borders in their own continent. I liked that, I must admit and even thought that I would give my limb to be in Mogadishu in the event that the revolutionaries gathering here decide to 'hijack' a jet and fly there. That was then, this is now and here is my story.
We left OR at around 12h00 on the 20th, not 19th as earlier communicaed to us, got through the boring process of immigration and foreign exchange and found ourselves in the departure lounge on the ground floor. The week prior to the departure itself was characterised by stupid instructions for us to undergo Yellow Fever Vaccinations to minimise our chances of infecting Kenyans with it or the other way round, and here I was wondering, but South Africa is not known as a Yellow Fever country, what the hell am I going to infect the Kenyans with. I would have understood if they said something relating to HIV because well, the truth be told, we have lots of cases.
Okay, past the Yellow fever thing and the immigation stuff we are on our way to Kenya and the cabin attendants dressed in red whose names are Yvonne M and Miram K are so wow I'm thinking that I am going to end up with a Kenyan wife, probably a citizenship will be part of the package. I'm thinking 100 Shillings is equal to R10 and I might get a wife for 20 000 Shillings, work it out.
But then the worst happens when we arrive at JK Airport. One of our colleagues, Vonani Bila is detained by the Immigration officials 'because your passport looks suspiciously tampered with'. Funny enough they let him go through so that they can arrest him as an illegal immigrant, maybe hand him over to the Americans as a potential terrorist who managed to cross the border.
I must admit when he told me that before they detained him I requested to see his passport and inspect it myself, which while it looked kinda dodgy, it is something Immigration at OR should have picked and refused him entry. But hey, the guys at OR were so fine I thought of coming up with Department of HOme Affairs Immigration Awards and just hook them up with holidays to Nairobi.
Well, Bila is detained at around four and we are thinking, this thing will be sorted because we have a High Commissioner in Nairobi who will call them and sort the ugly little mess. After much waiting for the relevant authorities to to sort Bila's situation we realise that the Kenyan authorities are in no mood to sort his situation and we decide to do things the South African way, which is to protest in huge numbers.
We march into the airport terminus and the panicking security guards in the office refer us to their boss whose office we invade in numbers because at this point in time we don't give a fuck. We invade his office, he sends his police to evict some of us saying he wants to speak to one person, we delegate Kimane to talk to these natives whose country has produced academics and Obama, and from which South Africa's Umsobomvu Youth Fund is modelled and from whom we gather even the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme is adopted.
We fill his office and all he does is to order his juniors to drive us out and we are enraged while some comrades are nervous or lack the drive to pledge solidarity, while some have their own agendas and don't want to be associated with insurrection in a foreign country. Kimane, who we delegated to talk to the officials probably by virtue of his Kenyan roots and his ability to speak fluent Kiswahili comes out and reports that the sonsofbitches have no intention of releasing Bila and that their language has turned into that of deportation.
We march out in full force and decide to take over the airport the way Afrikaaner Weerstand Beweging (AWB) took over the World Trade Centre in the '90s. A very senior immigration official, flanked by two equally senior ones smiles like a crocodile and actually says to us in muted tones, 'you South African Bantus think you can push everyone around', which is exactly what we were doing. We are now attracting the attention of everyone at the arrivals terminal and it looks like it is going to get messy when scores of funnily dressed police officers arrive.
We decide to spell it out clear and simple to the officials, a sister attached to a human rights organisation is explicit, 'you people should be ashamed of yourselves because you arrested Bila not because of his passport but because he is too dark and you think he might be a Nigerian with a faked passport'. I tell them, 'you guys are dark as well and Bila's crime is that he is darker than you and you are a shame because we thought xenophobia was a South African disgrace but you people do it so subtle it actually sucks'. The official who must have been fifty eight years old, the same age as my father is supposed to be looks at me with a smirk and I tell him I saw Bila's passport and there's nothing wrong with it and that if they are going to deport Bila they should arrange 40 more seats because we are taking our US dollars back to South Africa. I say to him.
The way the man smiles shows he's got so much power he is actually the Mwai Kibaki of JK Airport. The police flood the area now and we are ordered out which we refuse and instruct them to arrest us because we have been to prison before and there's nothing worse than Polsmoor and Modderbee.
They are in no mood to arrest us maybe because they don't have a huge vehicle fleet like our useless SAPS or maybe the prisons are full with Somalian refugees or Al Qaeda operatives in transit to Guantanamo.
Okay, we go outside to strategise and come up with rhetoric that we are going to demand to be deported in the event that Bila is deported. Some members of the group are not having that I can see. They want to stay in Kenya an shout that they identify with the struggle of the Palestinians and all oher oppressed groups all over the world.
I challenge them during the strategy meeting and say, 'comrades, we need to move beyond the rhetoric here. We can not stay here and pledge solidarity with all oppressed nations all over the world while we can not stand up for one person. We will be fooling ourselves because it says to us, we shout, at the end we go back to South Africa and continue supporting Shell, McDonald and jewelry stores selling blood diamonds'. I can see they don't like what I'm saying because I am not really one of them but a jounalist and shouldn't say stuff like that to seasoned revolutionaries because I was not with them in the 'trenches'.
To cut a long diary entry short we call The South African High Commissioner where the response is that they can't do anything to help him because he's not yet in Kenya and not in South Africa but NO MAN'S LAND. Reminds me of a film I saw starring Tom Hanks.
We decide to call the High Commissioner, given that the arrogant bastards told us that Bila will be put on the next flight out of Nairobi to OR. We can't find the HC and I suggest that we go to the High Commission and picket the property or stage a sit-in. The cynical comrades with selfish agendas are silent and actually want to veto my suggestion. I ask them where the mission is and surprisingly no one seems to know even though as seasoned revolutionaries they've been here many times before.
Some suggest that we go to our places of residence and we'll sort everything there but they forget that Nairobi does not have the sophisticated communication gadgets enjoyed in South Africa. That it has two cellular phone companies Celtel and Safaricom and we need to buy local starter packs and know what we are going to do in the event that the media fails to pick the story. Someone comes with suggestion to get a human rights lawyer to represent Bila but it seems the Kenyans are not going to give him a hearing. I suggest to someone to call the Media Centre at the WSF and marshall foreign journalist to the airport to embarass the Kenyans but he's not interested.
But given that for some people this is where they are going to meet old flames and concubines during the conference very few people are interested in the Saving Poet Bila Campaign and just want him to be deported and forget about it.
Okay, a sister we are with decides we should call Ronnie Mamoepa from Foreign Affairs and sensitise him so that he can call the High Commissioner wherever he's playing golf to intervene. A call is made to South Africa to retrieve Ronnie's number but it seems the mission is doomed from the start.
Comrades are dejected when suddenly we get word that even though Bila can not be issued with a new passport since the authorities refused to look at his ID as proof of identification, they however, due to pressure agreed that someone from the High Commission can be listened to. The option they are given by the High Commission is to fax the first page of Bila's passport so that it can be verified by staff from SAHC. But they are not in that mood. They are out to prove that this is Kenya and not South Africa.
And while we expect them to follow that process, at around 20h04 we get word from them that Bila is on a KQ plane to South Africa – deported. For being too dark for their liking.
Now we leave because the majority of the comrades say we lost the battle, which is exactly what they wanted to happen so that they can be sure they'll see their girlfriends during the conference. We catch a bus to our places of residence.
THE JOURNEY OUT OF NAIROBI AND BACK TO KASARANI
Something I must have forgotten of omitted to tell you is that at Jozi we used this other red bus arranged by Khanya College to rally us to a spot outside of town called Shaft 17, an old hostel (skomplass) to spend the night before our departure. The place is reportedly owned by some trade union now which is making small money renting it out to organisations and other formations.
Now, back at JK Airport where after our sad beginning we headed to Kiambu for our first night in Kenya. Some people in the 65 seater bus from the airport are so excited that they have been booked to stay in hotels while some of the comrades are going to spend the night in some houses. The excitement can not be hidden until after what I'll call a bumpy ride, which included a dark drive out of central Nairobi (one wonders whether it is due to power rationing or Eskom is running the show here - you know how efficient Eskom can be when it comes to managing outages) the road is full of potholes like the ones you find in corrupt municipalities in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Eastern Cape and Kwazulu Natal. You'll be forgiven for thinking you were in Bushbuckridge the way the roads are so bumpy and potholed here. To make matters worse as a detterent against whatever, alongside some of the roads out of the capital there are spikes similar to those in movies like The Italian Job and all these big heist movies. The spikes here can provide South African cash in transit hijackers available props.
For what reason would a government put sharpened spikes on the sides (not really on the sides but on the spot we call the yellow line there) beats me.
We go through these treacherous routes. Point of caution, Nairobi is not known for traffic lights, so the traffic is either controlled by the police or the army.
Then at one of the tens of slums out of the city we see an interesting sight. A police officer is chasing a man along the road. The man is outrunning the cop who is only brandishing a portable wooden baton. The man outruns him and we laugh - see the cops here don't have the luxury of BMWs and cellphones and Dog Units and nice pleated uniforms so for the cop if he can't run, hard luck. I wonder if SAPS would be effective if they were put under the same conditions because quite franky, as I'm writing this in my new country Kenya - your cops in South Africa suck.
We then get to a filling station which when we leave the bus driver has to connect the freeway leading to Kiambu and in the rush of things he decides to drive three hundred metres facing oncoming traffic, more like you driving on the left left side of Ben Schoeman while going to Pretoria. There is a fracas as cars have to swerve and hoot to avoid a head on collision. The guys in the bus find it funny and laugh, shouting "ah wena o skhokho". At some distance he joins the correct lane.
Now we get to Southern Blue Hotel and it's a complete anti-climax for the comrades. The hotel looks like one of those run down Hillbrow buildings where people squat for free, but it's a hotel and they are sad as we stop to offload their bags. We are now thinking, 'if this is a hotel, what is our houses going to look like?'.
Next stop is Kiambu Farmers Hotel, now this looks like your Mariston Hotel with lots of patrons outside and visible security guards. The truth be told, nightlife in Nairobi and its surrounding slums would make Polokwane green with envy. The people here know how to rock and party.
We stop to drop some comrades there who are not impressed with the hotel as well. The area looks like those eating houses down Polly street in Jozi or Marabastad in Pretoria. We decide to pledge solidarity by walking them into the lobby where strong music comes from the basement. Surprise, surprise, it's Yvonne Chaka Chaka still thanking Mister DJ for playing her song - after all these years she's still thanking him. We walk in, Simon who I'm keeping close tells me when he realises my awe. 'Yvonne is a god here' to which our Kenyan host responds, 'No there's only one god', for which a small argument ensues and next... We walk into the basement as Brenda Fassie's Weekend Special starts blurring. I peep in and the natives are having a good time - more like a prelude to a shag. Women and men are dancing one of those suggestive moves that says, 'careful woman, I'm taking you home tonight', or what do the Americans call it. 'if I buy you a drink I take you home with me'.
We leave Kiambu Farmers Hotel to the mercy of the comrades and I could imagine them calling for Sis Bertinah to be played.
We drive roughly five kilometres and arrive at our houses. Now this are spacious houses owned by what I'll jump the gun and call the Kenyan elite. 18 room manors surrounded by security walls and patrolled by dogs. This people here have huge kitchens and cottages and six bathrooms and snooker tables and inhouse bars I am tempted to ask how?
'Karibu, this place is actually a creche', says the owner. Creche?? I wish we had the same creches in South Africa, with two living rooms, dining halls with two large tables, bars serving anything alcoholic, snooker tables that kindergarten kids can not see the table and three garages for the minibus taxis. Actually I must admit this is my ideal place and seeing it here makes me envious. A huge garden with green lawns and flowers. Actually excuse me I think I'm full of shit.
They give us dinner at 00:23 and we chow because we are hungry. We go to sleep and wake up in the morning to good breakfast. I must confess their tea beats anything you've drank in South Africa produced from Ceylone (sic). This natives here produce it locally and it tastes like, like, like nothing in your country.
DAY TWO FOR REAL
After that we move to the venue, Jomo Kenyatta International Conference Centre, a huge facility that should make the organisers of FIFA 2010 green with envy. We do our group registrations, I go get my media accredition and we part ways as everyone attends to activities related to my brief. Well my brief is to write this letter to you everyday as I promised you and I move to the Media Centre to write yesterday's update.
As I told you that I suspect Eskom is running things here fifteen minutes into my first draft of DAY ONE the power goes off and you could hear the international media shouting 'oh shit!'. Ah, it seems nobody has saved their works yet, and I'm one of them. Me I type very fast and when I talk about 15 minutes work I'm talking about 1000 words, all swallowed by inconvenience. You might say I shouldn't stress because I was still going to recover them when the power was restored but I don't know what's up with the Open Source software they are using because when power is restored ten minutes later there's nothing. It does compel me to click 'recover' then 'finish' but it's just an empty document.
Well you can say we should expect these things in countries like Kenya but I'm told such talk is called Afrophobia. So, I'm not complaining but thinking, 'shit like this happens in Cape Town as well, why stress?'. That's until I start afresh, this time making sure I save after every letter, like 'k' - 'save' - 'e' - 'save' - 'n' - 'save' - 'y' - 'save' - 'a' - 'save'. Picture that, to write Kenya I need to save five times. To make matters worse the keyboard they are using in Kenya is not the same as those used in South Africa. The letter are not arranged the same and so if you can't type from memory but rely on looking at the keys, hard luck, you are not getting anywhere. You just can not type which was the frustration of many journalists in the centre, especially those from Europe, Latin America, Asia and the US.
Okay, just as I'm approaching 500 words, barely 40 minutes after the first blackout it happens again. The all too familiar 'oh shit!' comes again but this time I smile because I only lost a letter, 'a' which I couldn't save when I was writing 'Kenyatta'.
The internet is also a nightmare. I can't go into my very own blog and once I do so I can't post my story, which explains why I'm running this diary from a side bar. How I would've loved to post it as a feature if the situation wasn't as trying. But here's what I will do, once I get back to Mzantsi I will post a feature with all the pictures of the Masai and the children of Kenya who provided good entertainment.
The afternoon after I briefed you if filled with attendance of meetings and taking of pictures. I meet a Masai couple, another one refuses to be photographed. I go to a meeting on microlending and financing hosted by a delegation from Colombia, then I move to another one hosted by a socialist group from Britain which is about health justice and affordability. I love it here. I'm becoming politicized with every meeting I attend. I walk around, the soldiers are patrolling the venue with their kalashnikovs.
I go to a tent to fix myself some chow, brown rice and fish, fresh fish people not Lucky Star. They rip me off and charge me 550 shillings which I pay in $20 and get massive change. They fix me tea for fifty shillings and I leave, time to be an observer and forget what my duties are.
At some stage I go back into the media centre to check my blog http://kasiekulture.blogspot.com and it comes alive. I get to see what you saw this morning. And I remember that I promised you an update on DAY TWO. At 20h30 we leave for Kiambu and get there after 21h00. There is food sold for 200 shillings, I want nothing and get a free cup of tea, go watch Kenya TV, play pool with the boys and disappear into my manor. I love it here. See you later.