This year, my husband almost voted.
Not big news, you say. But in its own way, it was.
When Gabe first told me that he had never voted in an election, I had the usual American good girl reaction: I was shocked. “But it’s your civic duty!” I remember saying.
Then I learned more about Kenyan politics.
As a kid growing up in the U.S., the dignified mien of Jomo Kenyatta was the face of Kenya. “That other guy” – Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi – well, not so good.
As it turns out, pretty much all the politicians in Kenya are not so good, including Jomo Kenyatta, who oversaw the adoption of a constitution that, in effect, gave him control of every piece of land not specifically deeded to someone else. Kenyatta seen his opportunities and he took ‘em, much like highly quotable Alexander Plunkett Greene of Tammany Hall. Kenyatta handed out prime parcels to his supporters, and incidentally, his family. It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that a hotel on one of Lamu’s more stunning beaches is part of the Heritage Hotels chain owned by the Kenyatta family. Uhuru Kenyatta, Jomo’s son, whose name means “Freedom” is currently Kenya’s finance minister. If I owned that primo piece of real estate (not to mention belonged to a family believed to own half a million acres and the Brookside Dairy) I’d feel pretty damn free myself.
On the Kenyan coast, this system has, of late, devolved into speculators paying off Ministry of Lands functionaries to rush through paperwork on sales before construction of the giganto new port drives prices up even further. They sell the land to hoteliers, or wealthy foreigners who want to build vacation homes. Even at today’s inflated prices, beachfront land in Kenya is a bargain, when you compare it to land in California, Florida, or the Cote d’Azur. And the waiters work cheap.
So it is perhaps not so surprising that many observers feel conflicts over land lay at the heart of the near-civil war sparked by the presidential election of 2008. The events of 2008 and their historical roots were best described by Richard Dowden in the Guardian and Binyavanga Wainaina in The New York Times. After things settled down, in addition to instituting a power-sharing agreement, the country embarked on constitutional reform. This included major reforms to the country’s land policy.
Kenya deserves credit for doing something considered politically impossible in the United States: changing its constitution to reflect the fact that history marches on. If the U.S. didn’t contain so many fundamentalists who consider our constitution the equivalent of the word of God, we might change the way senators are elected. Think about it! We could have a functional 21st century legislature, instead of a system that gives the same representation to 20 million people in New York and just over half a million in Alaska in the Senate – and the equivalent of veto power to every single senator.
We might learn something from Kenya, where the new constitution, which passed in August, evoked optimism that probably hasn’t been since independence.
One of major reforms instituted in tandem with the constitution is a new law that codifies the rights of indigenous people to land. The new National Land Act, at the very least, creates hurdles for questionable land deals.
It’s unlikely that the culture of crooked land speculation will disappear from Kenya’s Ministry of Lands overnight, but people have been running scared. Things are getting truly crazy on the coast – there is even buzz about degazetting the Dodori National Reserve to sell the land off to developers.
Dodori remains protected, for now, but there’s little doubt that corrupt land deals will continue. Even if indigenous people gain rights to their traditional lands, many will be unable to resist the temptation to sell to the same inbred British colonialist scions they decry, not to mention the vulgar Italians and arrogant French. (They hate the Americans for other reasons but not as many of us buy property in Kenya.)
And still. And still. The new constitution provides a platform for greater equality, and that is truly something. Now maybe the Kenyan government can stop treating its own people like dogs. Case in point: I spent my last day in Kenya in CID headquarters listening to a bureaucrat screaming at my husband in what appeared to be a deliberate effort to humiliate him in front of me.
My husband’s crime? Essentially, applying for his certificate of good conduct in Mombasa instead of Nairobi. This yellow, rectangular piece of paper, eight inches wide and about five inches from top to bottom, functions as proof that he has never been arrested. Kenyans need a certificate of good conduct to do many things: drive a taxi, work as a tour guide, and, in our case, apply for a visa to enter the United States.
Gabriel applied for his certificate of good conduct on Lamu in March. Usually it takes three to four months for the certificates to arrive on the island, so nobody bothers you if you work without one. In early June, we went to Mombasa with Gabe’s twin boys to get them passports and take a break from rainy season. He applied again for his certificate of good conduct. We naively thought that in Kenya’s second-largest city, things might move faster than if we waited for the certificates to arrive at our little backwater.
Why not make a family vacation of it? Or so I thought. I insisted on staying at one of the tacky “resort” hotels on the beach. Having missed out on motherhood during the usual time frame, I am determined to embrace every Disney cliché. To wit: I bought Gabriel’s boys, Jamil and Jamal, sippy cups when I arrived on Lamu in February. Shopping on Lamu is limited, to put it mildly, so when I found the purple plastic cups in the store I couldn’t resist. The boys are five-and-a-half, and, as I had uneasily suspected, too old for sippy cups. The Montessori method is very much in play on Lamu, and children are quickly taught to take care of themselves. The boys are accustomed to carefully but efficiently drinking from normal glasses. They found the sippy cups ingenious and liked the pictures of little boys wearing nerdy spectacles that were on their sides, but rather quickly abandoned them in favor of more rapid methods of liquid delivery.
Gabriel wanted to stay in the city. We compromised, and stayed in the city for three hellish days during which the boys insisted on accompanying Gabriel to various government offices because they were afraid to miss anything in the big city. As the days wore on, Gabriel grew increasingly cranky, while I took care of extending my visa in relative peace, even managing to avoid an attempt by a laconic male official to soak me for 2,000 shillings, about $26.50, for a fee that was almost certainly imaginary since the woman official I bonded with later accepted the stamp the officials on Lamu had given me for a mere 200 shillings, with no mention of an additional charge.
I am happy to report, with I told you so smugness, that the beach hotel was a roaring success, as far as the boys were concern. (Even better than the sippy cups.) The hotel had a multitude of pools, which the boys could push each other into repeatedly, and a day care center with two attendants who did a great job of entertaining them when they had exhausted me. (The day care girls were called “the animation team,” indicating that I may not be the only one whose idea of responsible child rearing is a liberal dose of Bambi and Pinocchio. Both of which the boys love, btw. Almost as much as they love Kiss Me Kate, which makes sense if you’ve seen that 1957 musical — it looks like a cartoon and the dancing is great.)
Gabriel expressed amazement that the hotel 1) had a day care center, and 2) that the boys liked it so much. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he kept asking. “I did,” I would reply. Then he would point out that I didn’t mention the day care center specifically.
Whatever. The trip ended up costing about a thousand dollars, a high price, as it turned out, since apparently the authorities in Mombasa paid no attention whatsoever to Gabe’s application. Someone in the office, however, did evince interest in a bribe. Gabe missed most of the tacky but fun hotel experience because he was in the city having discussions with this alleged fixer, which infuriated me, since we were supposed to be having our pricey “family vacation.” Every conversation turned out to be fruitless, since Gabe refused to give the employee any money until he produced the certificate.
Perhaps it was this fellow’s doing, but when Gabe returned to Mombasa three weeks later, there was still no police certificate. A few days before I was scheduled to fly back to the U.S., Gabe took yet another bumpy, interminable bus ride to Mombasa. He arrived on a Sunday night, optimistic that the certificate would greet him the following day. Monday was the day the certificates arrive from CID headquarters in Nairobi, where they are printed and issued before filtering out to the provinces.
It had been approximately four months since Gabe applied for the certificate. Our visa application had been delayed two months while we waited for it, since the visa for a husband requires the certificate at an earlier stage than the fiancé visa, and I hadn’t realized this. I suppose it would be too easy for the U.S. to streamline visa applications, and institute some semblance of consistency and coherence. But that’s another whinge.
On Monday, the “big boss” as Gabriel called him, was not in the Mombasa CID office. Nobody else could open the packet.
I was reminded of the film Mountains of the Moon, by Bob Rafelson, which contained a rather unflattering portrait of a tribal chief whose power was so absolute it verged on the kinky. Rafelson’s goal in making the film was to provide an accurate picture of the practices in the region at the time of Sir Richard Burton’s exploration of the Nile. Somehow this came out looking even more racist that bwana movies of an earlier era, although Patrick Bergin rocked as Sir Richard Burton.
I also was reminded of one of my students, an actual princess from Benin (albeit one who watches MTV) who wrote an essay about feeling somewhat uncomfortable as her subjects prostrated themselves before her in a village of huts made of mud and blood.
Africa, they say, is more hierarchical than the U.S. In-fucking-deed.
When the big man returned on Tuesday, he gave Gabe the depressing news that the certificate had not arrived. Gabe was surprised. He has loyalty to the coast and feels that these are his people. I was not.
Gabriel, who hates traveling to Nairobi, got on the bus to meet me there. He arrived around midnight, smoked a cigarette and collapsed. The next day, we went to the CID headquarters. This is the Kenya Police Criminal Investigation Division.
Helen Mirren, or her Kenyan equivalent, was not in evidence.
As soon as we arrived, both Gabe and our friendly cab driver David, insisted that I make myself scarce. They told me that if anyone saw a white person, they’d insist on a bribe. Or, rather, a bigger bribe. I trotted over to the police canteen and attempted to drink a cup of tea made mostly of hot, rancid-smelling milk. Before the tea had cooled sufficiently to drink, my phone rang. It was Gabriel telling me to come to the parking lot.
It was too soon for good news.
An ex-boyfriend once called me the Little Stevedore because I walked so fast and purposefully, one of several questionable tics one acquires growing up in New York. This habit gets more pronounced when I am hysterical. Gabe must have seen indignation in my stride, because he put up his hand.
“Calm down,” he said.
“Calm down? You promise?”
I nodded mutely. He wouldn’t tell me anything until I proved to him that I wasn’t going to get myself arrested for marching into police headquarters like a pissed off shopper on the Upper East Side. He watched while I took a few breaths, smiled as if I actually did yoga instead of just wearing the cool Prana pants, and, once again, promised to behave myself.
Then he and David asked if I would go to talk to the police official. I’m still not sure why they asked me. They said it was because I was a woman, but I think they were being polite. I think it was because I was a woman, an American, and, yes, white.
That was my take on it when the official growled a bit, but relented when I told him that I was leaving for the U.S. first thing in the morning and desperately needed this certificate to complete our application so I could send it to the U.S. authorities as soon as I arrived.
He told us to come back in the afternoon. Giving it to us on the spot no doubt would have diminished his authority. Perish the thought.
This wasn’t bad news for David, who earned yet another fare, taking us to do some errands, and then returning us to the CID headquarters at the appointed hour of 3 in the afternoon.
Upon our return, the official, a middle-aged man with a large head and a dignified mien (like Jomo!) acted like he’d never seen us before and told us to come back the next day.
But, but….I reminded him of our situation, and he once again relented. He sent us to wait in another room, in front of a high desk. Soon others joined us. Apparently we were on line to see the man inside the adjoining office. He was wiry and bald, with a chiseled face and dark-rimmed eyes. Gabe’s paperwork was in his “In” box. He took it out, scanned it, then waved it in the air.
“This says you applied on June 29. Not June 3! You’re lying! Why are you lying? Don’t lie to me!” he shouted.
I looked over at Gabe. He wasn’t quite cowering. Not quite.
I started talking. Gabe gave me a look. I shut up.
The guy berated us for a few more minutes, shouting, “It takes four days to get the certificate. Four days! That is the law. That is the regulation. We follow the regulation!”
Yeah, right. If you apply in Nairobi instead of the provinces and kick some major bureaucrat ass.
Then he told us to get out of there, because the certificate was ready and we shouldn’t have been in his office, anyway.
We staggered out, picked up the certificate at the high desk where we probably should have been in the first place, and counted ourselves lucky.
And that story, kids, is why I don’t give my husband shit for failing to vote. Gabriel’s grandmother, who died a little over a year ago, was head of the Lamu Women’s Political Caucus in the 1970s. She had eight children by six different men, owned her own house, and ran a thriving business.
I respect her for all of that.
Since her heyday, Kenya has become perceived as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked closely with Zimbabwe and Russia. Transparency International has declared the Kenya Police the most corrupt institution in East Africa.
Just as an example, the Minister of Education recently published an editorial promoting 1) nuclear power and 2) training for medical technicians in cancer treatment (the connection apparently eluding him), and proposed dropping funding for the humanities and “soft” sciences.
A few weeks later, he was accused of being involved in a major land grab.
If it had been me, I would have voted for the new constitution. But I understand why Gabe didn’t. He’s waiting for a Kenyan politician to earn his respect.
That doesn’t mean lying and posturing for the benefit of a white woman from America in some unholy combination of chiefly bullying and colonial servility.
It does mean treating your own people with dignity.
And that hasn’t happened yet.
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