How to talk down thugs in Nairobi
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Rob Chursinoff finds himself in an undesirable situation. His quick thinking saves his ass.
I’M WEAVING THROUGH the mass of downtown commuters, en route to a meeting, when a thin and destitute-looking man approaches me. He says hello and asks where I’m from.
“Canada,” I tell him abruptly without slowing my pace.
“Yes, Mr. Stephen Harper, can you spare some change for bread?” he asks.
The fact that a beggar in Kenya knows my country’s Prime Minister causes me to stop. I offer him my unopened soft drink. He takes it and repeats his request for money. I fish around in my pockets and hand him 150 Kenyan Shillings — about $1.60 US.
I wish him good luck and carry on. A few blocks later I stop to check a text message and feel a man slide up to the right of me. Without even looking at him the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and my sphincter contracts. I turn to him, a smiling man with crooked teeth, dressed in khaki trousers and a black dress shirt. He tells me that he is with City Council.
Yesterday I was warned about them. My colleagues at the NGO I am working with said to me, “Do not resist, do not talk back, do not get angry and, above all, do not flee, because they are everywhere downtown. Should you have the misfortune of a run-in with them, just be a nice Canadian.”
The warning continued: “And know that they can be ruthless and often not who they say they are.”
I was told by Kenyan friends that as a result of Al-Qaeda’s 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi, the City Council askaris (officers) were granted far-reaching powers. Initially their job was to look out for potential terrorists in the Central Business District (CBD). In 2012, they still have the authority to interrogate, humiliate, fine, and imprison anyone for as little as dropping a toothpick on the sidewalk.
The askari leans in closer. He informs me that I didn’t give money to a local beggar a few blocks prior. “No, no,” he says. “You gave money to a Zimbabwean terrorist!” His smile evaporates, he pulls out his badge and stares at me. My heart skips a beat, adrenaline begins to pump. Shit.
“Is that so?” I say, trying to keep my calm.
“Yes, yes, a very bad crime here in Nairobi,” he replies.
“How was I supposed to know he was a terrorist?” I ask. And what sort of terrorizing item can a man possibly buy with a buck sixty? I wonder.
The thought quickly vanishes, replaced instead by the realization that to my left another man has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. My slight shivers of fear are augmented by an annoyance that these men are fully inconveniencing me.
The new askari is short. His teeth are also crooked in a face that is unnaturally narrow, as if it was squished at birth. He wears an oversized purple dress coat and black trousers. In my state of annoyance I want to shove him and walk away. But he also flashes his City Council badge, then tells me that we’re going for a walk.
“I want to talk to you,” he says.
I look around. The streets are bustling. I can outrun these two, I think. But then I remember my friends’ recommendations from the day before and command myself to remain calm, to breathe. I cringe in anticipation of the short one grabbing the back of my pants, yanking them up my ass-crack, parading me through the streets like a foreign trophy for all to gawk at.
He motions forward and begins leading me into an alley instead. I feel a sense of relief that he chose not to humiliate me, yet an increased sense of fear that we are now walking into the shadow. The tall one walks close behind me. I spot a bench in the open just before the darkest part, near a man resting with his soft drink cart.
Perfect, I think, and suggest for us to sit there to have our talk. “No, no,” the short one says. “Come, just a little further.”
He points forward.
I am led half a block, then ushered into a small restaurant where I am told to sit at a table near the back. I do as I am told. I look around for an escape route but there is none. They’ve chosen this cafe well.
A City Council paddy wagon is parked outside; steel mesh covers every window on it. It’s a very recognizable fixture of Nairobi’s streets. I know that if I don’t cooperate I’ll be in for a long ride in this paddy wagon, a night in jail, and a hearing before a corrupt judge in which I’ll be forced to hemorrhage money, then be asked to leave the country. Or worse.
I scan the cafe for a soft drink fridge. There is none. There are no other customers that aren’t askaris. Not even a server. I’m intent on making these men like me, even just a little. I must get them to like me.
I start to tell the askaris a little about myself. I explain that I’ve been in Kenya for a month when I’m stopped mid-sentence by the entrance of more askaris. They take up seats at the tables around me. Their sudden appearance makes it urgent that I turn up the charm. Way up.
I start peppering my discussions with what little Swahili I know:
Naelewa, I understand
Sielewi, I don’t understand
I tell the truth, that I’m working in the slums for an NGO from Canada. Mimi si tajiri muzungu, I am not a rich white man, I say, patting my chest. They chuckle.
“An NGO?” the tall one asks.
“Yes, based in Canada.”
“Ah, Canada,” they nod their heads in unison. “Kenya has good relations with Canada,” he replies. They seem to deflate in their seats a little. I see an opportunity and take it. “Yes, yes, Canadians love Kenya,” I enthuse. “That’s why so many of us come here to help poor people in the slums of Mathare and Makadera and Kibera. I’m working with youth groups, helping them make money from recycling plastics. Making money this way gives them hope.”
I raise my eyebrows when I say “hope” and look directly in their eyes. “We help them to earn an…honest living,” I conclude with polite conviction. All of the men look away. Some of them snicker. Their hand-wringing stops.
I can’t blame them for wanting to steal my money, I remind myself.
I can’t blame them for wanting to steal my money, I remind myself. After all, I’m able to freely travel to Africa from Canada. They, on the other hand, will likely never have the opportunity to leave Kenya. They may never even leave Nairobi.
The askaris begin talking quietly amongst themselves. I get the impression that they don’t know what to do with me. Are they contemplating that I’m volunteering my time to help people in the impoverished communities, the slums that they likely call home? Where they have families to feed?
I watch a few of them fidget in their seats. Does my NGO work, coupled with whatever their intentions may be, make them feel uneasy and dishonest?
I turn my attention to the short one sitting across from me. He turns from the others, stares at me, and smiles wryly. My impression is that he is the runt of the litter, and that he somehow commands respect from his fellow askaris. Is it because he can be ruthless? I wonder. I assume that he perceives me as a foreigner with money to spare. It’s likely why they approached me in the first place.
He reminds me of some of the men that I’ve shared drinks with after a day of work in Kibera or Mathare — street smart, wiry, and tough. Opportunistic. Generous to those they like. I want to connect with him. I want him to see me. I want to tell him that I’ve spent long days working amongst the open sewage stink, and the crumbling buildings of the impoverished neighbourhoods. I want to ask him which slum he calls home.
Behind him stands the tall one. His arms are crossed. He taps his fingers on his bicep as he talks with his comrades. His shirt collar is limp and frayed. He wears a cheap, plastic watch.
To him I want to say that I’ve waded through mountains of garbage in order to help find recyclable plastics for my friends that call the slums home.
Around them are the others. The oldest one, slightly stooped over, holding a cane — another with a stained white t-shirt underneath his oversized dress coat. They all appear to be in only slightly better shape than the beggar that I encountered earlier. I want to say to all of them that on more than one occasion in Kibera I’ve eaten stew made from meat that earlier in the day was covered in flies. That I’ve shared this stew and rounds of awful Kenya King gin with friends and strangers. I want to tell them that I can’t imagine having to spend my life living under those conditions. I want to tell them that I understand why they want my money.
But in that moment I am also angry that they want it. I am angry that I am inconvenienced and afraid. I look around again for a server, desperate for a Coke or a Pepsi. Any soda at all. As the men continue to talk amongst themselves, I regain calmness, even feeling like the situation may be under control. But then they motion for the largest and toughest-looking askari to have a crack at me. The chief.
I had seen him the second I stepped into the cafe. I’d immediately noticed that he was a little better dressed than the rest. I’d ignored him, hoping he wasn’t part of the plan. But he is, and now he sits next to me, leaning into my face.
If I were to turn to him I would touch his sparse facial scruff with my nose. I catch him sniffing me as if trying to smell the fear that I’m surely emanating. I lean to the side a little, then turn and face him. His pupils are wide, dark as obsidian, the whites heavily blood-shot. His teeth are stained dark-roast-coffee brown.
I start to panic again. And when I think his invasion of my personal space is going to deepen my saviour appears: a server. I’ve travelled in developing countries enough to know that, even if you’re a non-smoker like myself, one of the simplest, least expensive ways to make friends or get out of a sticky situation is to carry a pack of cigarettes with you at all times.
In this situation, however, I have broken my cardinal rule; a round of Cokes will have to do. The five bottles comes to an auspicious 150 Shillings, the same amount I gave to the beggar. The gesture immediately pays dividends. The askaris’ attempts at intimidation all but halt.
“Stop lying to us. How much money did you give the terrorist?”
The server passes around the frosty Cokes. With the exception of the chief, they all thank me. Habari. I glance at the chief staring me down, sipping his soft drink through a straw. He knows what I’m up to, I think. He leans back into me. “Stop lying to us,” he says with hot, fetid breath. “How much money did you give the terrorist?” I put my Coke down onto the table.
“Like I said, 150 Shillings.”
“Impossible!” He wags his finger. “We found 12,000 counterfeit Shillings on him.”
“Look, I gave a beggar 150 Shillings,” I say, now raising my voice. “We do this all the time in Canada. We give the less fortunate money. Had I known it was an offence I would not have done it. Mimi ni pole, I am sorry. It will not happen again.”
“Let me see your bank card,” he demands.
I bring out my wallet and show him that I only have ID and 500 shillings. I tell him that I don’t have a bank card and that I only ever come to town with a maximum of 1000 Shillings. “In case of incidents just like this,” I say.
He cracks a smile and discusses with the others. They talk hurriedly in Swahili for a few moments. I continue sipping my drink. Then, to my surprise, they get up and quickly leave, including the chief. I unpucker my anus and breathe a sigh of relief. Just like that, it appears to be over. The only one that remains is the short askari. He still sits across from me; he motions for the 500 Shillings. I hesitate for a moment, then give it to him.
“How do I get back home now?” I ask him. “You have all my money.” He sucks down the last of his Coke then thinks for a moment.
“Well Mr. NGO from Canada,” he says, “we can’t leave you stranded, can we?” He returns 50 shillings, walks me outside, and points me towards the Hilton Hotel.
“Take the number 46,” he says. “That will get you home. What’s your name Mr. NGO?”
“Robert,” I tell him. He takes my hand, shakes it, and says, “now we are friends, Mr. Robert.”
No, City Council askari, government thug, we certainly are not friends.
As I hop onto the number 46 bus, I take a seat beside an old man wearing an over-sized suit jacket. The old man smiles at me. “Where are you from, musungu, white man?” he asks.
“Canada.” He nods and smiles wider. “Ah yes, Canada is good.” I pull out a soft drink from my plastic bag and hand it over.