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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Secure or Insecure? That is the Question...

Kenyans are very “security” sensitized so when you live here you automatically are required to think about the topic perhaps more than you are used to or want to. Of course, it is somewhat normal in this day and age to be aware of real and  imagined “security issues” and what I've concluded is that everyone feels differently about what makes them feel insecure.  It is a curious topic, I find, and intriguing because everyone’s view is different. Some of the “issues” in Kenya are fairly normal everywhere, like robbery, especially in big cities or urban areas where there is a large disparity in incomes. It doesn’t seem that surprising that there is crime in urban areas worldwide, considering that acquiring more things is everyone’s goal, yet  for a lot of people, just getting by, feeding one’s family, is a struggle. If you travel anywhere, you must be aware of the possibility of robbery, and take normal precautions. That does not mean that you should be paranoid, but being alert is always wise.

 To us, the culture of  security  in Kenya, for normal everyday folks, seem like a potential overreaction. Of course, we haven’t been here very long nor have we lived through much of what the Kenyans have, so we  have to assume that there are reasons for what seem to us rather over zealous precautions.
The  aspect of the security efforts made here in Kenya which we find most difficult to get used to, is the absolute baldness about Keeping People Out. The endless use of gates, fences, hedges, guards, guard dogs, barbed wire, electric wire, giant walls of concrete, broken glass and concertina wire on the tops of walls, is a bit off putting. It could be that since, historically, Kenya has been a victim of “land grabbing” i.e. people stealing property that was not theirs, a culture of suspicion arose. The British took a lot of the Africans’ land when they came to Kenya, then when they finally left in the early 60’s, they gave a lot of that same stolen property—much of which had been in families for generations---not back to the people it belonged to, but to others—mostly people who had been “loyal” to the British throughout the fight for independence. The repercussions from land grabbing are ongoing and have not yet been settled! During the fight for independence, there was a lot of trespassing and  violence, and perhaps that is when the cultural phenomenon of guarding one’s property became so prevalent. In fact, there are many pieces of property here which have signs saying “This land is not for sale” rather than the other way around! There have been historical occurrences of various tribes taking over other tribes' regions as well, and of course long ago there were lots of wild animals around so fences became prevalent in areas where there is farming. So, there are perhaps many logical reasons for this heightened security. As an outsider, they are sometimes difficult to understand.
Frankly, at first, we found it both disconcerting and unwelcoming in general, but that does seem to be the  point. After 17 months, we have grown habituated and would probably be surprised to come across a property without a giant gate and a guard even though we personally have never had a negative experience with trespassing or intrusion. Although we laugh about it and find some settings and situations outright absurd, it has become “normal” now.
In other parts of the world, people also live in “compounds”, where their “yard” is surrounded by a wall of some sort, but it’s not so common, even in other African countries, to have the guards, gates, etc. actually “guarding” the place. This phenomenon of gates around compounds is not just for the well to do either, which is what immediately occurs to someone from the States. Pretty much everyone who has a “house” i.e., isn’t living in the slum right on top of one’s neighbors, or out in a field in a hut, has a gate and fence,  if not a guard. Also, all windows, in all buildings, except perhaps the most basic hut, which often don’t have windows at all, have metal grills on them. So between the gates and guards and hedges and walls and the metal grills on all the windows, one has an unusual awareness, which feels borderline obsessive to me, of the potential intruder lurking outside.  In the construction of new buildings, they are an automatic accessory, like a door or something, so the business of “protection” and “security” is quite broad here.
There are at least a million security companies in Kenya. We have come to view them as “employers” which seems like a good thing since there is so much unemployment here. However it can be disturbing to walk into almost any setting, a restaurant, bar, grocery store, bank, hospital, or school, and find armed guards. Usually these folks are in some sort of uniform, often in camouflage, which makes their role a little ambiguous (are they military? Police? Security guards?) . They are often carrying, rather loosely over the shoulder or across their laps, large weapons. I am not a gun person but I’m told they are automatic rifles. Their age seems indeterminate and you have to wonder if these people have been trained, if the guns are loaded, if the carriers are stable, etc. It  just gives you pause, or at least, it does me.
The askari (guards) who work guarding places of residence (including our little neighborhood) don’t tend to be armed, and we have pondered whether they are even trained. It is sometimes difficult to take their ability to protect us, too seriously. They do have their uniforms and hats which make them look very official.  They are nice enough people and probably not paid well, considering what we pay the company, and word has it that being a guard is a pretty low level job. We have debated initiating a change in the company, hiring our own, etc., but no one else in the neighborhood seems terribly inclined to change the status quo. Since we are the newcomers, renters , and nonnatives, we have not pushed the topic too hard.
It was interesting talking to our recent guest, Jackson, about the guards and guns as he was pretty surprised about how many of them were walking around in town and in certain shops with their large guns out in view. He was noting it at one point while grocery shopping,  and I remarked  that the big difference is that in the US lots of people are carrying weapons, but they are concealed, so we don’t really know about them. He asked me, wisely, “so which makes you feel less safe?” I do think that knowing that lots of people are carrying concealed weapons makes me feel unsafe but at the same time, having a lot of young potentially untrained men and women carrying weapons doesn't make me feel very  safe either. That could just be me, though. I don’t exactly walk on eggs around them, but I do try not to cross their paths either.
I have met many  people from different  countries who come through here and are pretty nervous about “security” issues . My personal take is that the violence that happens in Nairobi mostly is targeted at certain people in certain areas so it is wise to avoid those places. Of course there is always the possibility of random violence that will strike when you are there or someone you love is there, but that is true in the US also. I feel more nervous about the random gun violence in the US than I do about the infrequent and semi-focused acts of violence here in Kenya. Sadly, those acts that do occur are highlighted in the western press, making Kenya sound like a pretty unsafe place. It isn’t really. 
 When people come  to Eldoret with AMPATH, they are advised not to wander the streets at night, but after being here for a while we have definitely gone out at night, to hear music, mostly, or to check out a new bar or restaurant  that has been recommended. We stick together and we don’t wander. I wouldn’t wander here at night anyway mostly because what makes me feel most insecure is the possibility of stepping in a hole or getting hung up on a random piece of metal sticking out of the ground! With no streetlights, sidewalks in bad shape, and open drainage ditches, that is where the biggest risk may be. Otherwise, I don’t feel any more threatened than I do in any big city at night at home.
One night during the rainy season last year, we were trying to get to dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant with the rest of the IU group and there was an enormous traffic jam so we were definitely going to be late.  Suddenly a downpour started and the streets were running with dirty water, people were dodging the rivers of water and traffic was becoming more aggressive and intense.  We decided to park and walk, which I was a little nervous about because I was not dressed for the rain, did not have an umbrella,  and it was getting dark. Somehow it seemed like a better option than sitting in traffic in the rain, so we found a parking spot, amazingly, and jumped out.  We started our walk on a very  muddy path where traffic was coming up behind us in the dark. We were  in single file, getting sucked into the mud, with very low visibility, as cars, motorcycles and matatus without headlights, drove by us, spraying us with muddy water. Yes, we wanted that meal! My main concern became  turning an ankle or getting stuck in these mud holes so I was completely focused on the path ahead. Liam was marching forward like a soldier and Michael was behind me trying to encourage me and keeping an eye out for my well-being. All of a sudden we heard a  low ‘puttputtputt” of a motorcycle approaching us from behind very slowly.  My wet hair began to stand up on my neck…. “Greven”  a man’s Kenyan voice called as he approached very nearby. We turned to see our friend Samuel on his motorbike, driving slowly next to us, “Hey Samuel!” we greeted him without looking away from our path too long.  I’m sure we looked  like soaked rats. “Are you alright?” he asked with a grin beneath his helmet. “well, yea, we are getting a bath, but we are ok!. Thanks!” Michael responded. I’m sure if we had said “no”, he would have come and picked us each up individually and delivered us to the restaurant, but riding on a motorcycle is considered VERBOTEN here for us so we just kept trudging through the mud. We made it to the restaurant soaking wet and mud covered,  but unscathed, and we were not the last ones to arrive.

So yes, we have taken some risks, when circumstances have called for it (a good free Indian meal) but we have also avoided certain situations. As time goes by, we get more input about places that seem insecure or where the security is improving, we pay attention to the news and we try not to take risks. However,  what has become clear on this adventure is that what could be perceived as  perilous, is certainly relative.  

guards in front of mall/checking cars upon entry

a church (note the crosses on the fence)

our windows/hedges 

our front door with an intruder trying to get in

a gate in front of a church


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