A Traveler’s Tale: Jenga Nchi In The Midst of Corruption And Impunity.

An Aerial View of Traffic Jam in Nairobi's CBD.
An Aerial View of Traffic Jam in Nairobi’s CBD.

It is exactly 5pm and the last session of the Social Media Conference comes to an end at Fairmont Norfolk, and then it hits me that I cannot be in Nairobi and fail to visit with my few friends and family in Nairobi West and Langat’a. I walked past Nairobi University and my eyes behold this sign “This is a corruption free area.” Then I remembered the level of corruption in my country. Across the street I found a taxi driver, the African in me took control of the moment as my driver pronounced himself on the taxi fare to the places I wanted to go. Bargaining ensued naturally and we agreed on 700ksh down from 1,500ksh.

As we embarked on the journey to my destination, I noticed that the traffic flow was so bad that all key exits to Nairobi West were in a gridlock. It is at that juncture that I asked my driver how we would get out of the traffic congestion. He replied; “Bwana we will get there, I have other options, we will use Mbagathi Highway and we will be there.” I took in his response with deliberation wondering if Mbagathi highway would salvage the situation.

On our way as we bypassed several motorists, I spotted every “Matatu” or taxi labeled with the word “SACCO” for example NGUSO SACCO, LAKENYA SACCO etc. That reminded me about our SACCOs in Uganda and how they are used to settle political capital for politicians. My driver told me that the government of Kenya wanted to regulate the “Matatu” business and the only way advanced to achieve that was for taxi owners to form SACCOs so that with the SACCOs’ records, when a certain taxi misbehaves it can be easily traced to the owner.

A Young boy sits over a an opener sewer in the Kibera Sum Nairobi.
A Young boy sits over a an opener sewer in the Kibera Sum Nairobi.

While on Mbagathi Highway, I started seeing the High Rise flats and Kibera neighboring them. According to http://kiberalawcentre.org/facts/  there are approximately 2.5 million slum dwellers in about 200 “settlements” in the Nairobi area, representing 60% of the Nairobi population, but occupying only 6% of the land. The Kibera Slum houses almost 1 million of these people. It is a field and valley jammed with tin huts, 8 people per hut, with urine and feces running in ruts of the rambling walking paths. There are no streets, street lighting, police or medical facilities and the walking paths are filled with trash, garbage and human waste. Kibera is the biggest slum on the African Continent.

The houses of Kibera are built using old iron sheets called Mabati in Swahili. The average size of shack in this area is built with mud walls, screened with concrete, a corrugated tin roof, dirt or concrete floor. In 2010, when I last visited Kenya, I went through Langat’a Otiende using the then famous 34 bus service and then later I walked to Kibera. I recall jumping over trenches as I observed the level of poverty in this area, the very poor housing and sanitation conditions, the filth stinking all over the place.

No one seems to be bothered about the dirty running water surrounding this slum. According to http://www.kibera.org.uk/Facts until recently Kibera had no water and it had to be collected from the Nairobi dam. The dam water is not clean and causes typhoid and cholera. Now there are two mains water pipes into Kibera, one from the municipal council and one from the World Bank and residents collect water at Ksh 3 per 20 litres.

I do not know what the government of Kenya thinks about this place. I cannot help but wonder if the residents of Kibera are only useful during election time.  The young, innocent and tender run around freely in that dirty Kibera slum unbothered by the uninhabitable place they call home. I was amazed when I saw a bunch of children full of life and kicking around a ball made from empty milk plastic packets. When the ball fell in the dirty water, one of the kids, Otieno picked it out returned it to the play area and they continued to play with it. I thought that was not appropriate considering all the health risks these kids were subjected to, but every child has a right to play and it is unfortunate that these kids have Kibera as a place to live and play.

Since the slum houses no medical facilities, one has to find their way to St. Mary’s Hospital, Langat’a Otiende which is located at a considerably long distance, from Kibera. I shudder to think what the pregnant women in Kibera do to get health care services.  What happens to them when they feel labor pains? What about those situations when they have to seek the services of health care providers to attend to their loved ones? With all these questions running through my mind and no possible answers, my attention was drawn to groups of men and women crowding the pedestrian walk way.

I turned to my driver and asked: “Where are those women and men coming from?” Mr. Mutua answered with confidence; “Those people you see walking work in the Industrial Area and they earned between 9,000Ksh to 10,000Ksh. They cannot afford to use “Matatus” and pay rent or take care of their needs at the same time.” I asked another question; “Who owns the land on which these people are living on?” He replied while laughing; “That land is owned by Kikuyus, the same tribe that the President belongs to.” I do not know how accurate my new friend was, but I had no doubt that he was closer to the truth than I was.

I marveled at the beautiful women lining by the road side on Mbagathi Highway selling merchandise ranging from crafts to agricultural produce. In my mind there was a flashback to women doing similar business at home in Kampala. Unlike the women on Mbagathi Highway, the women selling merchandise on Kampala streets would most likely face the wrath of Kampala Capital City Authority Law enforcement officers who would ruthlessly arrest them, confiscate their merchandise and possibly have them arraigned before a court of law for trying to earn a living. While street vending in some countries can bring some kind of disorder and untidiness, on Mbagathi Highway it was not the case. The place looked so tidy and clean. This is proof that with rules everyone can be accommodated. My driver said; “President Uhuru Kenyatta calls it Jenga Inchi.” Meaning Build the Nation!

On the 9th October 2014, the Republic of Uganda was celebrating 52 years of Independence. On the same day, President Uhuru Kenyatta, the head of state of Kenya was returning home from the Hague, where he had gone to attend a status conference for his charges in the International Criminal Court.  Kenyans of all age groups thronged the streets with excitement to welcome back their President who some thought was not coming back to the country having relinquished power to the deputy President before his departure. While many were celebrating his return, others did not find a moment worth celebrating because the celebration would not put food on their tables. Listening to one of the radio stations, I heard a seemingly young lady saying; “It is the same President who says Tu Jenge nchi, lakini how can we Jenga nchi when we are stuck in traffic the whole day?” A number of Kenyans were chastised by their bosses on that day for reaching their work places late. This was owed to the terrible traffic flow that day.

After the 7 O’clock news I reached my first stop to say hello to friends in Wilson Airport and within 20 minutes I moved to Langat’a Southlands to say hello to my Aunt Maria. Although Aunt Maria, as we refer to her was sickly, that did could not stop her from warmly welcoming me into her home and cracking her famous jokes. Even as she has a rich history on the EAC which I hoped to listen to, I could not spend enough time with Aunt Maria. I had to go back to my hotel to meet with the rest of the participants. I also had to let go of my taxi driver seeing as I had got to my destination.

Then the idea of using a 15 struck me. A 15 is also known as a “matatu” or taxi used for public transport to carry about 14 passengers. It was unbelievable that I would be in Nairobi and fail to use a 15. There was a 15 with a big picture of an artist and with the name Two Chains, inside it heavy beats and loud music blasted as we flew back to Nairobi Central Business District.  In the CBD, I had to get a taxi to take me to my hotel near Nairobi University. It was a few minutes after 9pm and whether you know your way around or not being in Nairobi at such a time is tricky. The 15 was driven by John who seemed well informed, intelligent and eloquent in the queen’s language. As we were stuck in traffic he started on the topic of Museveni; “how is he? Will he still be the president come 2016?” I retorted, “He is old, emotional and stuck on the chair but does not want to let go. In Uganda our presidents do not retire, they are retired to exile.”

John went on; “so you mean he is being like Arap Moi?” I replied; “He is more than Moi, he is in the class of Ghadaffi the King of Kings! Hope you have a good picture of him?”

Soon our conversation shifted to the stream of traffic. My driver told me that although many Kenyans own cars, the impunity and corruption on the roads is the root cause of all the traffic congestion in Nairobi. According to John, a “matatu” driver is not bothered about other road users as long as he can get his passengers in his “matatu” whether in the middle of road or on the sides. Once caught on the wrong side of the law, he knows that he can settle it out with “Kitu Kidogo” or bribe by giving that man in the sky blue shirt and navy blue pants some legal tender. With such an attitude the rest of the road users can wait.

Wanting to get the most out of my conversation with John, our chat shifted to the political climate in Kenya. With the new Kenyan constitution in place, John thinks that the framers had good intentions for Kenya, however the governors who have the power to do business in counties are siphoning tax payer’s monies with impunity since they can decide not to be accountable to anyone. I thought to myself, at least in Kenya the new roads are visible unlike in Uganda where those in power decide when a road can be visible. Uganda’s leaders do not eat food; they eat road funds, medicines from hospitals etc.

It was about time for me to say “Kwaheri” Nairobi! I left my hotel for Jomo Kenyatta International Airport early enough to avoid the disappointment of getting stuck in traffic. I noted that Kenya Airways seems to have reached its limits of performance when our flight was delayed without communication. I asked myself whether the common assertion that “Africa is raising” is true. At the new Kenya Airways terminal there was a small revolt at Gate 16 where we basically forced the Kenya Airways staff to explain to us why our flight was being delayed.

Thank God we arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda safe and sound. We were welcomed by dark and dull looking Airport coupled with the ENHAS staff long faces that ushered us in the arrivals lounge. It was here that I met the hard working medical staff, working tooth and nail to ensure that no one with traces or symptoms of Ebola was left to mingle with the entire population. Amidst the greed, the corruption, the filth and gluttony in this country, there is still reason to love my country. These ladies operating the medical desk should have been at home with their loved ones but they were bravely out here to provide the first line of defense to our country against the deadly scourge that Ebola is. That act of service to all makes me feel proud to be Ugandan; nevertheless the dull look of Entebbe Airport makes me hate my government.


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