Gunfire and good sense break out in Nairobi…

So, today was an adventure. There were large political protests here in Nairobi, centered in a park across the street from the hotel where I live. Last week and two weeks ago about 80 people in two coastal villages were killed by armed gangs. Most people attribute this to El Shabab, the Islamic terrorist group responsible for the Westgate Mall attack last year, and many atrocities since then. And by most people, I include both the families of the villagers who were killed and El Shabab itself, who has claimed responsibility. But then the government, who has been embarrassed by their inability to do anything to stop these attacks, tried to claim that the Somalia-based El Shabab was not responsible, an instead pinned the blame on local Kenyan opposition parties trying to force the current ruling party from power.

This egregious claim is what triggered the protest. On the whole, President Kenyatta has been reasonably popular, but the patent absurdity of the government’s official interpretation has pissed a lot of people off, and the main aim of the protest was to let the country’s leadership know that people didn’t believe their story.

Both my office and my client are in very secure sites, but I was not comfortable driving past the site of this protest to get to or from there. So, acting on the advice that I just posted in this blog, I decided to be respectful and work from my room today. As result, I had the opportunity to observe this protest for most of the day.

I am not very good at counting large numbers of people, but I would estimate there were about 5,000 people gathered in the park across the street. The protest was noisy — many vuvuzelas were put to good use today — and I had a chance to observe a lot of it from my hotel room. It remained peaceful throughout the day; the police seemed wary but respectful.

A noisy, yet peaceful throng

A noisy, yet peaceful throng

But then, around 18:00 local time a large number of people started walking towards the Supreme Court building, and gunshots rang out. I counted a total of eight shots; they sounded like they came from a pistol rather than an automatic weapon. These shots were not followed by any screaming, panic, or other excitement. Just the contrary, everyone seemed to calm down and disperse, the police as well as the protesters. My surmise was that the police had fired shots into the air as a way of telling the crowd to disperse.

My hotel went immediately into lockdown; I continue to be impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of their security team. The hotel’s security manager phoned me and confirmed my interpretation that the gunshots were fired into the air to disperse the crowd, but said they did not want to take any chances. About an hour later, the crowd had fully dispersed, the police were gone, and the lockdown was lifted.

A large group of storks stood by, observing passively from the nearby trees, ready in case their services were called for,

A large group of storks stood by, observing passively from the nearby trees, ready in case their services were called for.

What was interesting to me about today was how smoothly it all came off. Everyone I observed or spoke with throughout the day: protesters, police, hotel staff, IBM colleagues, and clients, handled what could have been a very difficult day with grace and professionalism. All it would have taken is a single stupid act from just one person on any side of the confrontation, and things could have gotten very ugly very quickly. But nobody did anything stupid. Everyone behaved, and nobody got hurt. Score one for humanity today. I wish I could say that more often.

Is it safe?

This is probably the most frequent question I get when I tell people I am working in Kenya.  The string of terrible bombings and shootings in Kenya makes news all around the world.  I also travel to Nigeria on a regular basis, and the horrific abductions of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram are even worse.  So it is entirely reasonable to wonder what it’s like to actually work here, and whether it is as horrific as the media reports make it out to be.

Unlicensed taxi

Intended and actual destination may vary.

To start with, I can honestly say that at no point since I arrived here have I felt in physical danger.  I have been offered dubious taxi rides, shaken down for bribes by police, and received all manner of offers from attractive, unattached women to go places that would not be likely to benefit my long-term health.  But aside from being given the opportunity to decline some monumentally stupid ideas, I have at never actually had my safety threatened.

You might ask, “Isn’t it scary knowing that kind of danger could always be just around the corner?”  The best way I know to answer that is with a metaphor:  I once had a conversation with a guy who trains lions, tigers, and other big cats for a living.  I asked him if it was scary working every day with animals who could eviscerate him in the blink of an eye, simply because they happened to be in a bad mood that day.  He told me that the key to not living in fear was developing a strong sense of respect.  “Never forget what the cats are capable of, have that respect guide your interactions always, and just enjoy their amazing presence.”

So how does that respect manifest on a day-to-day basis?  It starts with learning some basic ground rules.  Don’t walk outside after dark.  Only book a taxi from your hotel or some other trusted source.  Never use an ATM that isn’t inside a secure building.  The first time you go someplace new, go with someone trustworthy who is familiar with the area.  It doesn’t take long for these kind of considerations to become second nature.  In many respects it is like being an American, going to the UK, and driving a car on the wrong side of the road for the first time.  Initially quite daunting, but over a surprisingly short period of time, you adapt and get on with your life.  We humans are astonishingly good at that.

Security barrier at my hotel

There is an important caveat to the perspective I just shared, which is that my professional life in Nairobi unfolds in a series of very secure locations.  My hotel, my office, and my client sites are protected by both hefty physical measures and professional, decently trained security teams.

Not to be trifled with.

Many people, both foreigners and locals live in communities that do not share the same level of security, and burglars in Kenya are no joke: they usually operate in heavily armed gangs of 8-12 people and violence is their first resort in the event of meeting any resistance.  For anyone thinking of living in Africa, I can’t stress enough that choosing a secure place to live is the single most important choice you will make in your time here.

A very common sight

On the other hand, dire warnings like that only throw in sharp relief how delightful Kenyan people are.  Kenya is far more unsafe for locals than it is for foreigners, yet despite all the troubles they endure, most Kenyans are resolutely happy, friendly, and delighted to engage.  Mind you, I’ve lived in the UK for the past decade, so saying that people are socially outgoing compared to Brits is damning with faint praise, but even compared to my native California, people here tend to be cheerful, social, and welcoming.

So to answer the original question, is it safe?  By any objective standard, the answer would have to be no, but that is no reason to shy away from the experience. The metaphor of training big cats is once again a very apt one.  Imagine having the opportunity to interact with a fully grown tiger.  Most of us would not turn down the chance, but we would also treat the situation with the caution and respect it deserved.  Thus it is with living and working in Kenya. Maintain a healthy respect, and savour what a delightful experience you are having.


Okay, maybe my metaphor wasn’t completely hypothetical



Picking up the pen again… an ongoing adventure in Africa

Hello everyone,

After a hiatus of about a year and a half, I have started feeling the urge to blog again.  As some of you know, I have been working in three African countries — Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, since the start of 2014.  I started learning and absorbing all manner of interesting ideas, concepts, and folklore from the very beginning, and I suppose I could have started blogging from the outset, but for some reason I held back.  Lots of people write about Africa and what goes on here, and I didn’t feel qualified or informed enough to do anything but add to the noise.   But after half a year of being here, I am starting to feel like I do have something to say.  The reality on the ground here is a lot more nuanced that reading international news sources would have you believe, and I’d like to give you all a view of

  • How things are on the ground here, as compared to how they are written about
  • How the same events you read about are perceived by people who live here, and finally 
  • How the context for what happens here is framed by a history that is far richer than the post-colonial vacuum that most international news analysts have trouble seeing past

As before, I’m not interested in creating another business/politics/history blog.  There lots of excellent examples of these out there already.  I just want to give a personal narrative of my adventures here and what I have discovered as a result. 

Talk to you all soon.