Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When the Sun Sets

I’ve kind of gotten the hang of the main areas I would need to go here in Nairobi – the bank, the pharmacy, the photo place, the Nakumat (kind of like a Wal-Mart), YaYa centre (a local mall), the Toi market (a market for used clothes), and a few other places. I’ve been walking most places, but also getting to know a few of the matatu routes and am able to at least say a few sentences in Kiswahili – it at least distinguishes me a little bit from being a tourist and people are much more friendly (even more so than usual) when you’re able to at least make an effort in their own language. As I make my way around my corner of the city, I’ve been feeling relatively secure… at least during the day.

But Nairobi is a very different place at night.

Mostly, I have not been out after dark, and never on foot. In fact, the guard at Mayfield won’t let anyone out of the gate after about 6pm unless they have a specific plan to be picked up, as there have even been a string of muggings at dusk or a little later not more than 500m from the gate.

I did go out one night to take advantage of a cheap movie night with some friends. We got picked up by people who lived in Nairobi on the way to the theatre, and for the trip home, my friend Jenny and I called for a taxi. Mayfield has numbers of a few reliable taxi drivers, so we made use of one for the ride home. Turns out we were glad to have it.

Part of the way home, our driver turned down a side street instead of carrying on the normal road, perhaps to avoid traffic or even the police, who often stop cars to hassle them for bribes. If his aim was to avoid a police check, he was not in luck.

A few blocks down the road, there were three or four police with big flashlights and even bigger guns who had stopped the car ahead of us. Our driver pulled around and slowed down beside the stopped car, but as the police approached us, maglights blazing in our eye,s and signaled to roll down the window, the driver hit the gas and began to drive off. The police began shouting, running after us, and banging on the car yelling in Kiswahili, “YOU! Hey! STOP! YOU!!!” but the driver just sped away.

A few blocks down, once we knew that they weren’t going to chase us, we asked about the police and about night time road blocks. The driver explained that, particularly on a side street at night like that, they were just after bribes, particularly if they saw two mzungus (white people) in the back of the car. Clearly we’re rich because we’re white! We asked if there would be any repercussions for him for blowing through a police check, and he said that all they could do was write down his number and hassle him the next day, but he could just say that, on a dark street, how could he even know if they were real police and not thugs who were impersonating police and just trying to rob us.

Though to a westerner, blowing the police check seemed kind of sketchy, but it turned out that we were glad to have a trustworthy driver who was looking out for us and knew what he was doing!

Of course, that was until we related our story of relief to a missionary who had lived in Nairobi for many years…

“He blew through a police check???” he asked incredulously. “You don’t do that. The only reason he would have done that is if he was doing something illegal. Maybe his licence or insurance has expired.”

My friends and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. “But he said that he couldn’t know if they had just acquired uniforms and were impersonating police?” we asked.

“That might happen upcountry, maybe, but that never happens here in Nairobi. Surely they were police…. Man, you do NOT run through a police check. Usually what happens when you do that is that they start shooting at you.”


Sooooo, let’s scratch that guy’s name off the list of taxi drivers to call then, shall we? Yikes!

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