I have always tried my hardest to blend in when I’m in Kibera – which can be difficult sometimes as the only mzungu (white person) – but mostly I manage to avoid being the centre of attention.
However, this week I was waiting for S (mentioned in my last post) who had promised to give me a lift – and right on time he pulls up in his pimped-out car, which is pumping out some Swahili dancehall. I jump in the front and this time notice that there are also giant speakers installed on the dashboard (though not as big as the ones on the back seat!). I assume we are leaving straight away, but S switches off the engine and turns to face me, suddenly looking very serious.
“Do you know the term ‘YOLO’?”
“You only live once?”
“Kabisa (exactly). Well Bex you only live once, and today you and me are going to leave Kibera ghetto style”
And before I can protest, S turns the volume to full (and I mean full – the bass was vibrating the entire car!) and we cruise through Kibera at 5mph with the windows down – so that S can fistbump people as we go past. So much for keeping my head down…
S is shouting to me over the music, and eventually I manage to convince him to turn it down so that I can hear him. He starts telling me how he taught himself to drive by borrowing his friend’s car. I ask him how he did in his driving test and he starts laughing.
“Bex, why would I pay KSH5,000 for someone to tell me what I already know (that I can drive), when I can pay the same amount to a broker to go into the Ministry of Transport and get me a license – no problems.”
“So you’ve never taken a driving test?”
“Of course not, don’t be silly.”
Aah – corruption.
However, I have a confession… I may have inadvertently engaged in corrupt practices myself this week (and I’ll go even further and say I couldn’t have been gladder about it!)
The perks of corruption
A friend and I managed to get stranded in Mombasa because the government imposed a two day ban on all coaches back to Nairobi (until they complied with the law of installing a speed camera). Going against all the advice we were given we decided that we couldn’t wait it out and instead we would get the train.
Never get the train.
As our budgets were stretched we decided to travel third class (second class was over five times the price), however as the train drew up we were both seriously regretting this decision (as it was a 15 hour journey – and third class tickets don’t get a bed). I was looking at the train remorsefully, when the train guard approached me and asked where I was sitting. I replied that I was sitting in third class, but said that I would be very happy if he would like to give us an upgrade (worth a try?). He looked at me intently and then replied,
“OK, we will talk”, and then walked off down the platform.
I wasn’t sure what had just happened, but my friend looked at me admiringly and told me I clearly understood how Kenya works (I did not clearly understand how Kenya works).
Five minutes later the train man returned and asked how serious we were about wanting an upgrade. Still not entirely sure what was happening I said we would love one – and before I knew it my friend and the guard were haggling in Swahili. Soon enough, the figure of 500 shillings was agreed upon and so I casually started getting out my money, until my friend hissed in my ear,
‘What are you doing Bex?! You know this is illegal! We’ll make the exchange later’
Only then did I realise what was actually happening (#dimwitmzungu).
To cut a very long story short - our “15 hour” journey back to Nairobi took a total of 38 hours – which amounts to over 100 mosquito bites and more than 80 train breakdowns. So I could not have been more grateful for our dodgy deal and getting an actual bed.
The problem of corruption
However, although I may have benefited from a system in which corruption is institutionalised, in practice this is a very serious problem. It’s also a problem which my Kenyan friends can’t envisage changing because it is so embedded into daily life.
There is an area of Kibera nearby where violent crime is ever increasing – I am not allowed there without a large escort and I am banned from taking anything with me (except some change for the matatu in my shoe). Gang culture is very apparent here and there are growing numbers of kids with guns, who are out to make a quick buck at any cost. When I asked my friends about the police presence around I was laughed at – there is no presence as many of them are paid off to turn a blind eye. I was told that if the gangs become a problem, the police will organise a shootout and make sure that any threats are ‘taken care of’. Unfortunately, this is just one of many examples I’ve been given about how corruption affects daily life.
There is no quick fix to a corrupt system and change will take time (and will need to be led from the top). I think one of the scariest things about it though is that generations of young people are growing up in the urban slum areas with little or no faith in the police or the justice system…