Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lessons from Kenya

I was outside the Kenyatta Building in Nairobi when he approached me.

"I am going to the USA as an exchange student and I am a little worried about race relations there. Would you be willing to sit and talk with me for a while?"

Alarms went off. They always do, unfortunately. What's this guy's angle? Is he going to ask for cash? Does he want my foreign address? Help with a VISA? Does he just want to hang out with a white girl? Later ask her to visit his mother with him...and then see if she'll spring for four bus tickets (because obviously he has to bring his two cousints along as well) to a remote village six hours away? Is he using the race card - and my guilt as a white American in an African country - against me? You know, me feeling pressured to take him up on his offer just to PROVE that I'm not racist, just to show how truly equal I believe we all are. (Except that I wouldn't pick up a strange WHITE man in England either!)

Fortunately my other alarm was louder. The one that reminded me that not everyone has an angle. That maybe, just maybe, this guy really WAS just an exchange student looking for some tips on life in my country. I'd been staying at a local youth hostel on the outskirts of Nairobi - one of only two non-Africans in the place - and I'd already met so many wonderful people just by sharing a communal sleeping room with the girls and sharing mealtimes together with everyone, cooking our rice together in the small kitchen and then spreading ourselves out over kitchen and living room to eat. True, I had had my passport taken from what I thought was a locked box, but then again I was the one holding the girls apart from one another as they quickly took sides on who was the culprit.

"I can replace the passport," I remember saying, "but I am not going to have our friendships here torn apart by hate and suspicion."

The passport was returned, quietly, a few days later.

And so I thought I should take a chance here too. I assessed the situation. He was well-dressed and well-spoken. (Although I am the first to admit that that means nothing, that I have personally received generosity from the poorest of the poor in Haiti, a free sip of water when I honestly didn't have any money to pay for a soda, the last coconut off a tree in the yard when I was suffering from heat exhaustion.)
But I was in front of the Kenyatta Center, a cultural and diplomatic, government and office complex, with one of the best Chinese restaurants I have ever eaten in, to boot.

I offered to sit for a cup of tea at the sidewalk cafe' a few meters down from the entrance to the Kenyatta Building.

He immediately started in with the whole white guilt thing. Boring. He was just going after the money. But, I felt good that I had given him a chance. I was disappointed, but no harm done. When he finally got around to asking me for the cash - after about half an hour of boring, stupid small-talk - I told him that I couldn't give him any money but that I would gladly pick up the tab for our tea.

It was towards the end of our conversation, when I was signalling to the waiter that I would like to pay, that the other customers at the surrounding tables started furtively trying to capture my attention. "Watch Out! It's the police." I couldn't figure out what they were so upset about. I wasn't doing anything wrong. Why were they warning me about the police?

The police, complete with three-piece suits and Italian shoes, swooped down upon our table. Four of them showed their badges (quickly, so who knew, but then again, did it matter?)and accused us of illegal drug dealings. They made a big show out of forcibly beating, hand-cuffing, and hauling my companion out of the restaurant, claiming he was the head of a Somalian drug ring, someone they had had their eyes on for some time. And I still thought, well, but, we weren't doing anything wrong.

The people around us, God bless them, were still trying to warn me to be careful. "It's the POLICE." they kept saying. Okay. But in my world, the police were still the good guys. And I STILL hadn't done anything wrong.

I realized a few things, as one of the officers was interrogating me, tableside and eyeing my laptop. One was that I was very very lucky that I hadn't handed that guy any money. (What an a'hole - trying to use that white guilt to set me up in a fake police sting!) The police were diligently trying to prove, in public since I was a foreigner, that I was somehow involved in passing money to a Somalian drug lord. The accusation was ridiculous, but it certainly helped that no money had changed hands.

I also realized that Kenyan citizens, in far more danger than I from their police, had risked themselves to warn me.

And that these jerks were looking for a bribe, preferably my laptop. The whole thing had been a set-up and my guess is that the Somalian guy was in on it. (I hoped he was, because the alternative was that a man I had spent over an hour, albeit a boring hour, with, was now being beaten and tortured in a Kenyan prison.)

The laptop belonged to the Parasitology Department of the Veterinary School at the University of Pennsylvania. And it had all my data on tapeworm - how many women and children were affected through sheep, canine transmission- on it. I wasn't giving that up. (Honestly, I should be on a TV show sometimes! Right up there with the time, at a Haitian voudou ceremony, when they showed me a sword from the Napoleonic era and I kept thinking, Indiana Jones style, my goodness, this should be in a museum!)

Plus, it pissed me off. I hadn't done anything wrong. I saw the movie "Midnight Express" on movie night in a resort in Antigua as a fourteen year old, and have never ever ever....well, okay, but less than a handful of time in two years in Haiti...done something illegal in a foreign country. Watch the movie, about a young man (British maybe? I don't know - I only saw it that one time and it was enough.) who is put into a Turkish prison. A movie to show ALL of your children before they head off anywhere abroad.

I saw the movie, and had seen the inside of a Kenyan prison as well when I went there to report my stolen passport, and knew I was in trouble regardless of the fact that I had done nothing wrong.

And still....I wouldn't give them the laptop. (A friend and I a few years earlier had spent an entire day in the Nairobi post office trying to pick up an Easter package from my Oma in Germany. We went in circles from post to post, getting little pieces of papter stamped an punched, only realizing at closing time that they had been waiting for a bribe to speed things along! Years later, in Haiti, Damon let the post office worker have his pick of gifts from the package before even TRYING to pay and get out of there. Worked in seconds flat and everyone was happy.)

I still don't like corruption.

I knew I had one advantage. I was white. I was in a public place. And if I made enough of a fuss, and stayed visible, then I would be able to make enough of a scene to attract attention at the Kenyatta Center.

The police finally insisted that they would have to take me to the station. And I knew that if I got in that van with those four men I was at their mercy. And at that point they might be pissed off enough to want more than my laptop. There was one man to each side of me, one running ahead to the police van parked on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, and one behind.

I just kept walking, ignoring the tugs on my arms, kept walking right out of the restaurant, quickly past the van, and into the sight of the Kenyatta Building. They hadn't expected resistance - I'd been meek so far - and I'd taken them by surprise. Try as they might to convince me to turn around and get into the van, we were now in the open square outside of the Kenyatta Building, four Kenyan police officers and one young white girl. Four police officers who couldn't afford to have their actions questioned by the politicians in the building. The element of secrecy was gone and I felt my breath coming easier as I walked straight up the ramp to the Kenyatta Center, showed my passport to the armed guard in front, and kept going.

The police stayed outside.

I was safe. Safe in the Kenyatta Center because of my whiteness and my foreign citizenship.

Nice story. Over 15 years ago. In a foreign country. With a corrupt African foreign government as the bad guy.

But we are kidding ourselves if we don't think the same thing can't happen today, to us, in the white country we live in, or are citizens of.

Homeschooling is illegal in Germany (and Sweden and China and North Korea) and my children can be taken away from me for wanting to teach them my values, my way. Same-sex marriage is still illegal in most of the USA. Like interracial marriage was only a few short decades ago. And there are other causes all over the world still worth fighting for. (Do you want the RIGHT to own a gun? The RIGHT to an abortion? Not even the gun itself, or the abortion, but the right to determine your own future. I'm willing to fight for the RIGHT alone.)

Racial segregation was GOVERNMENT POLICY in South Africa and in the USA. Forced removal of mixed-race Aboriginal children from their parents was GOVERNMENT POLICY in Australia. For their own good. Like public schooling.

And we can't ever forget that the forced concentration and slaughter of Jews was also GOVERNMENT POLICY not that long ago.

We are lucky. We live in free, open and democratic societies.

But we are damn stupid if we give up fighting for our human liberties within these societies.


  1. Holy cow, that was a fantastic read. You really should go on Oprah, or better yet, write a book ;) I envy your ability to connect your own personal experiences with current issues in order to say something meaningful...maybe I need to get myself arrested?

  2. I think the point would be NOT to get arrested. Watch MIDNIGHT EXPRESS! Thanks though - my Mommy liked it too. I felt bad about posting such a rough first draft. I know there are a lot of rambling rough spots. But it is good to know it captured attention. Means it is worth a rewrite. Funny, I honestly never know which pieces are going to work for folks! Thanks.