People are rectilinear

People are aliens.

People are rectilinear.

People are collapsible.

People are crabs.

People are instruments, devices, mechanisms.

People are hieroglyphs.

This is what I learned at Sadlers Wells last month, seeing Ballet Rambert's astonishing Tread Softly.

I don't know anything about dance, and very rarely go to see it. My companions - some of them quite serious dancers - were unimpressed. As a novice, I thought it was a complete revelation.

The revelation was seeing a human body moving all its parts in straight lines. To see how incredibly hard - and odd - it is to move with steady, pneumatic, geometric simplicity.

But what was really revelatory about this rectilinear, entirely alien movement, is that this is also how pop music dancing currently works. I think that's basically the argument of Tread Softly, if dance can have an argument. It overlaid Death and the Maiden with an incredibly proficient, dour MTV dance parody. I realise this sounds awful. In fact, it's oddly beautiful. But its main effect is to startle us into remembering that ever since Michael Jackson's Thriller, almost all mainstream pop music videos have had this kind of military choreography, with enslaved, coordinated ranks of dancing Britney puppets. And along the way, we forgot that the reason the dancers were dancing like that in Thriller was because they were supposed to be, er, zombies.

So now we think it's completely normal for pop singers to move like zombies. Or machines. That it's normal for pop music to turn human bodies into servomotors. And we've been so thoroughly inculcated with this aesthetic that when we see pop music videos, we don't realise how incredibly odd they are.

So what I learned at the ballet was that pop music dancing is one of the last bastions of a properly modernist aesthetic. Basically, because of Michael Jackson, the Vorticists colonised MTV, and we didn't notice.

Who knew?


The international system is an odd place

Found yesterday on the table of Conference Room 9 in the UN building in New York. We ducked in here for a meeting just as some kind of UN committee had finished. I've no idea what they were discussing - I'd like to imagine some baffled Iranian cleric-diplomat scribbling this down during some earnest human rights discussion; or perhaps the urbane Ambassador of Argentina, languidly speculating on his next cosmopolitan sexual adventure.

In any case, it seemed to sum up my mind-bending week camped out in a UN basement corridor - just another day in one of the strangest organisational forms of life in the world.

More soon.


Squatting the Zeitgeist

For the sheer scale of its ambition, I'm awestruck and excited by this - an attempt to mount what must be the biggest squat of all time. From my friend Dan in Berlin: beginning this afternoon Berlin social movements will try to take the abandoned Tempelhof Airport, once one of the largest buildings in the world. And not just the terminal buildings: they seem to be trying to occupy its entire compound, including its twin 2km runways (partly built by American engineers to accommodate the US Air Force's C-54 Skymaster cargo aircraft during the Berlin Airlift).

I suspect they probably won't get enough people to succeed, but I really hope they do. Not so much for political reasons: I'm not sure there's particularly powerful justification for taking such a huge space (although I think more manageable squats of under-used land are often good things).

But more because I'm excited by the spectacle. Just imagine what the mad, massed sects of the Berlin underground - the punks, the skaters, the activists, the hippies, the anarchists, the Trots, the ravers, the Fuckparaders - can think up to do with a whole airport.

And partly because of the gorgeous historical justice of democratising a space that is in some respects the origin of the modern 'machine building': the massive architecture of project urbanism that characterises European and American post-war cities, and makes it difficult for real people to live there.

Originally intended for Zeppelins in the 1920s, Tempelhof's terminal buildings were apparently commissioned by Albert Speer - Hitler's architect of the spectacular - as the intended gateway to the Reich's Europe. Norman Foster, who's designed airport terminals at Stansted and Beijing, called Tempelhof "the mother of all modern airports". Tautologous, obviously. There aren't any pre-modern airports. Airports are the archetypal modern non-place: spaces, unique to modernity, that are designed purely for movement and circulation; that lack community, identity, history; that are designed actively to prevent people from actually living there. That's why, I guess, if you sit in Heathrow's Terminal 4 for any period of time you feel like your central nervous system is dying: we're literally not supposed to be there. It's a space designed to make us be somewhere else. Although it's not ostensibly its primary function, lots of other urban architecture works like this too: the narrowed streets (for driving through/(barely) walking on, not for sitting by) and fortress office blocks of most post-war European cities, in fact.

But of course there's something extra going on with airports. They're not just spaces designed to circulate, regulate and exclude humans, but spaces where this is to be done by states. Modern neoclassical airports are both grandiose, empty monuments to states; and intricate machines for states to impose their power by processing people seeking access to their space. Modernity begins with keeping people in and out of places (fields, woods, cities, countries): and although all modern states do this, no regimes have done it as nakedly and rejoicingly as the disciples to modernity who ran Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. And the Nazis' monument to a modernity characterised by state power, human regulation, and ceaseless human circulation...is Tempelhof: the first modern airport, from which all its other hateful airportlet progeny have spawned.

I can't think of anything more joyous than to take it over for "low-cost living places, trailer parks, theatres, intercultural gardens, barbecues, cultural centres, skate parks, adventure playgrounds, museums, agricultural fields". If only we could mobilise the collective anomie, rage and despair of most air travellers, we could take Heathrow next.

Find out how they're doing here.


Nice desks

I spent much of last night sweating over the fine print of the Government of Southern Sudan's 2009 budget (characteristically, I had to go to three ministries yesterday before I could get hold of a copy of what is an entirely public document. The Ministry of Finance has apparently "run out").

Tedious though it sounds, the budget document is eloquent testimony to many aspects of Southern Sudan's current situation.

Projected 2009 revenue has been halved from 2008 levels: almost entirely a product of GoSS' extreme vulnerability to the plummeting price of oil (an incredible 93% of GoSS' $1.8bn-odd revenues comes from oil).

As in previous years, nearly 30% of all spending goes on the army (and that's not counting off-budget military spending, which is probably considerable). Spending on the SPLA is about the same as spending on education, health and infrastructure combined - in a country with near non-existent road, electricity and water supply networks; where only 16% of schools have permanent buildings; and where the last household survey found that maternal mortality rates were the highest in the world.[1] If the Southern Sudanese were hoping for a peace dividend after the 2005 peace agreement, they're clearly still waiting. Looking at the budget breakdown, this is probably not because of rapacious militarisation, but simply the massive burden of having to support a vast guerrilla army that's yet to be demobilised, and needs to be kept fed if southern Sudan is to avoid yet another civil war: 87% of declared SPLA spending in 2009 - nearly a quarter of the entire national budget - is going on soldiers' salaries (most of which, nonetheless, haven't been paid since mid-January). In fact, 48% of Southern Sudan's entire budget is spent on public or military salaries. In the absence of functioning social protection mechanisms, the entire government is acting as a massive social welfare machine.

The tiny details, though, are also eloquent. Take, for instance, this gem from page 340 (detailing capital spending estimates for the national Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration Commission):

"28.2805: Furniture & General Equipment

1 Executive desk, 1 basic desk (for headquarters): 31,240 [Sudanese Pounds]"

That's about $15,000 for two, er, office desks. Looks like the DDR Commission is getting some nice desks.


[1] Granted, this ignores the significant funding to these sectors outside government revenue streams, from what has become, along with the rest of Sudan, probably the largest aid operation in the world.


What feels like work?

So it's creeping towards the end of the month, and as usual I'm panicking about the report I'm supposed to be writing by the end of it.

Ordinarily when this happens (my working life tends, unfortunately, to constitute a series of lurches from essay crisis to essay crisis), my ex-Catholic moral sensibility whispers constantly in my ear that every minute I'm not spending mind-melded to my steaming laptop is the equivalent of a minute spent idly murdering babies.

But on this occasion, this is supposed to be a 'fieldwork'-based report - and the unruly 'field' hasn't been obediently offering up nuggests of informational gold as regularly as I need it to. So (via Nairobi and Mombasa) I'm back in Juba, desparately trying to cook up some material as the month of May trickles away. Which means speaking to as many people as possible. So now I'm feeling guilty sat at my laptop: I'm wasting precious minutes in the 'field', dammit, and the only time I feel really calm is on my way to another meeting.

So now that 'work' feeling is bumping around uncomfortably down a dirt road on the back of a 14-year-old's motorbike. Which I know is not something I should really be complaining about.

ALSO: I'm thinking of starting a scrapbook on the seductions of modern orientalism. Submissions welcome. My current favourite is a story an NGO trainer here told me about some young Southern Sudanese trainees, enrolled in an aid agency's training programme, who were all told to go away and do an activity for half an hour, and then return to the workshop classroom. Their NGO trainer made sure they all had watches, and knew what time it was when they left. About two hours later, everyone trickled back into the classroom. It turned out that everyone was wearing expensive-looking watches - but with no hands.

I've read enough E.P. Thompson to enjoy this condescending little parable. Best of all, I noticed that the old man who guards the camp/hotel where I'm staying wears a watch - with no hands! So now I'm truly charmed - practically a whole nation languishing seductively in pre-industrial time!

Except that our guard checks the time all the time - on his mobile phone, stupid, along with the latest Chelsea scores. My (faintly disappointed) guess is that those trainees just thought the workshop sucked.


Land Cruiser League Table

In Juba no-one (white) walks. But I'm in the minority that doesn't have a Land Cruiser – I'm here as a researcher on my own – so I have to get around dodging the hurtling Land Cruisers on foot, or on boda-boda motorbike taxis. (There's apparently an entire ward of Juba General Hospital nicknamed the 'Senke' ward, after the Chinese 'Senke' motorbikes that seem to be the essential accessory of every entrepreneurial Juba teenager).

Over the last week I've developed an objective NGO ranking based on Land Cruiser driver courtesy, which I hope will guide your charity Christmas-card buying. At the risk of multiple libel suits, here it is:

  • 10/10: Mines Advisory Group - impeccably courteous drivers at all times. And with a healthily robust attitude to handling unexploded bombs. And head-quartered in Manchester. Full marks.

  • 7/10: Vétérinaires Sans Frontières - weird charity, slightly weird driving. Particularly poor road positioning, but not often driving fast, so scores higher for general safety.

  • 5/10: UNICEF - very fast, quite erratic, bad at roundabouts (whichever 1930s British colonial civil servant planned the road system in Juba, they loved roundabouts)

  • 3/10: World Food Programme - WFP drivers scare me for all sorts of reasons – they're the logistics road kings, staffed by hard-bitten Kenyan ex-truckers who don't take any shit from anyone. But mainly because they NEED TO GO TO INDICATOR SCHOOL.

  • 0/10: Save the Children UK – arsehole roadhogs. SC-UK vehicles twice bore down on me while I was walking along the road - there are mostly no pavements - honking their horns and then drenching me in mud right before important meetings. Evidently model their driving style and attitude to pedestrians on that of their patron.

Time/Money = Change

I've spent the last week in and around Juba, the ramshackle capital of southern Sudan. Since 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) and the northern government in Khartoum, Juba has exploded as an army of NGO workers and East African businessmen of every stripe has arrived to make the town their base for the reconstruction of 'New Sudan'. The town's population has nearly doubled in three years. Juba's (still mainly unpaved) roads are clogged with a perpetual stream of NGO Land Cruisers; and the banks of the Nile are lined with accommodation camps, filled with overweight, Ray-Banned private military contractors and white 20-something 'development advisers' drinking and dancing to the camp sound systems that blare out across the town on Friday nights.

I know I'm a misanthropic bastard, but there's something very unsettling about seeing the development circus camped out here in full force. I've never been anywhere else where the development 'industry' has dominated the life and economy of a place so completely; and where both its logistical mastery at bringing conveniences to those it chooses, and its entrenched racial and social divides, are so blatantly on show. Before I arrived I'd been told many horror stories about the hardships of life in Juba: the $200-a-night swampy tents, the heat, the flies, the endless logistical breakdowns and complications, the boredom. None of these are true, at least not any more: it is very hot, and very expensive, but as an NGO worker with money I can live extremely comfortably. The wireless internet in my shipping container room is faster than anywhere in Kenya. Meanwhile the dozens of people living under sticks and plastic bags directly next to my container, most of whom likely fled to Juba during the civil war, have never had running water; and they're living under self-constructed plastic shelters because the SPLA bulldozed their huts last week to make way for new buildings (evidently that USAID-sponsored town planning project is going really well). But what does that matter when I can can sit under the mango trees by the Nile with my NGO colleagues, drinking Moonberg lager and browsing Facebook? Man, it sure feels good to be developing stuff.

Town Planning, Juba-Style

This snide sketch is, of course, unfair. The sheer resourcefulness of most of the development organisations here (and private business) is extraordinary – that's why I can drink ice-cold beer and watch Sky News. Many of the development workers I've met are likewise resourceful, committed, thoughtful and talented people (albeit almost entirely white, save for the secretarial staff and security guards). And much of their work takes place elsewhere in southern Sudan, in some of the most deprived and challenging conditions in the world.

But none of the development workers I met in Juba seemed really to have thought about the impact of turning a war-ravaged town into a Western NGO playground whose economy is entirely dominated by the organisations supposed to be 'rebuilding the economy'. (There's a nice short film about Juba, Time/Money = Change, which discusses this far better than I can. I've shamelessly stolen its title for this post).

The political truce on which this playground is built is also supremely fragile. More on this later: but sitting in Juba drinking cold beer it's very easy to believe, as southern Sudan's international donors seem to do, that what they are engaged in is post-conflict development. Speaking to officials from the SPLA and the (SPLA-dominated) Government of Southern Sudan, though, it becomes quite clear that southern Sudan isn't at all in a post-conflict situation. It's in a ceasefire phase, which elements within the Government and SPLA evidently regard as a lull: a period of regrouping and re-consolidation of forces, not of peacetime rebuilding.

The SPLA's new (Dyncorp-built) interim headquarters seems emblematic of southern Sudan's current situation. SPLA IGHQ is a grid of smart pre-fab buildings several kilometres out of town, dusty bedding plants standing between pimped-up, tinted-window SPLA Land Cruisers and broken military vehicles. For all the new ministry buildings in town, it's clear that this is the real political centre of the Government. A massive, half-completed statue of John Garang, the SPLA's iconic leader who was killed in a plane crash in 2005, stands in the centre of the compound, its raised arm sticking out of the top of wonky plywood scaffolding. The SPLA's been installed here for at least 18 months now, but in most of the offices I visited it seemed like they'd just moved in. Boxes of paperwork stood between smart new computers without any power, draped with velveteen soft furnishings and SPLA flags. The whole base, meanwhile, is surrounded by ramshackle encampments of soldiers in tents, tukuls and shipping containers. Soldiers with nowhere to go, and nothing to do.

It's very hard, though, not to like the SPLA. This is my first real encounter with a secular liberation movement - most of them were finished by the time I hit my teens, and we were left with impenetrable religious fundamentalism and dried-up European Trotskyism. Nearly four years after the Sudan ceasefire, the spirit of a government formed not from professional politicians, but from the eccentric, under-resourced leaders of a twenty year bush war, is still infectious. There's even something entrancing about the military mythologising on which Southern Sudan's official political culture is based. Everyone has an extraordinary story to tell from the war, and before long you're caught up in it too. I was told about how one year, at the end of months of brutal fighting against heavily armoured Government of Sudan forces, SPLA soldiers were called to attend the SPLM's national convention; how they walked for seventy days across the length of Sudan to attend their party's convention; spent sleepless days and nights debating fine points of constitutional law for the country they were yet to found; then walked thirty days back to take part in the siege of Juba. Like other liberation movements, commanding this vast, illiterate tribal army is a cadre of over-educated political dreamers that you don't encounter in more 'mature' governments. For twenty years they've lived simultaneously in two worlds: the bush bases of southern Sudan; and the universities and conference tables of Europe. One SPLA officer I met talked about leaving the front-line in the 1990s for the cloisters of Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford; and having submitted his Masters' thesis in a balmy Oxford June, flew straight back to Sudan to command an attack against a Government tank column.

For all its flaws - the brutality of its child-soldier-recruiting, landmine-sowing civil war; its tribal fractures; its failure to transform itself from a military organisation into a civilian government - I can entirely understand the magnetism of this movement on which the 'New Sudan' has been precariously founded: the intoxication of the ambition to remake a country with a rag-tag guerilla army fighting an impossible war against an immovable enemy. They country they got from the war though, with its air-conditioned Land Cruiser convoys, mine-infected roads, starving villages and bulldozed tukuls, can't be what they dreamed about.


Don't eat the matumbo

This is the sympathy-seeking illness post – if my bowel movements or self-obsession bore you, please look away now (although obviously I can't understand why you'd find either anything less than riveting).

Things come in twos and threes. I've been very lucky so far in Kenya – I haven't had the faintest bit of stomach trouble, despite travelling quite a lot, and eating more meat than I've ever eaten in my entire life. Until last week – which also happened to be my last week in Nakuru, trying to get everything finished up work-wise, and to get myself organised to move on to Nairobi.

From Monday to Wednesday I was in Churo in East Pokot, further up the Rift Valley: an astonishingly barren place that seems to have been forgotten by the government, the NGOs, and modernity. My organisation's conflict management interventions here are also worse than useless: like holding a seminar for famine victims. It's a place full of cows, where a cup of milk costs more than in Nairobi (the drought has made the local cows dry up, and transport costs for packaged milk are enormous). It's the only place in Kenya I've seen some children go to school naked (not out of charming traditional practice, because their families can no longer afford clothes during the dry season).

Shamefully, this neglect is at least partly to do with the fact that everybody seems to hate the Pokots – and the community leaders of the Pokots, at least, seem to hate everybody. Hating the Pokots, in fact, seems to be the one thing that unites communities in the Rift Valley. Samburu and Turkana groups, for example, are engaged in intensifying fighting and cattle-rustling against each other, but in several places have been brought together in a kind of grim peace to fight Pokot raiders. More significantly, Pokot politicians are even less important than Samburu and Turkana MPs (themselves junior acolytes to the 'Rift Valley mafia' which, along with Kikuyu-dominated Central Province MPs form the two major power blocs in Kenya's parliament). So Pokot politicians don't get to 'eat' at all when the spoils are carved up in Nairobi.

Anyway, more about East Pokot, the land the do-gooders forgot, later on. This post is all about ME!

The only thing to (actually) eat in Churo on Tuesday was matumbo ya mbuzi – goat intestines, which, quite literally, tasted of shit. I only ate a small amount, with a lot of maize to compensate. And felt absolutely fine for the next two days, and the journey back to Nakuru. And then, at precisely 4.17pm on Thursday afternoon, my digestive system melted.

I just about managed to get home, perched on the back of a boda-boda bicycle taxi (the quickest way to get home, and conveniently affording rapid dismount facilities for tactical chundering on the way). I make it up the four flights of stairs to the flat to find W, the building's security guard, standing outside the door waiting for me, and talking very fast in Kiswahili. Through the bilious haze I think he's saying that my (heavily pregnant) landlady is having a baby (anazaa), and that she needs me to come with him to the hospital. But I can't be sure. W speaks no English, and my Kiswahili is worse. I also don't tend to need much gynaecological vocabulary, day-to-day. I end up rudely ignoring him, and pushing my way through the front door. The flat, uncharacteristically, is empty. My landlady is nowhere to be seen.

This is very bad news. So now I'm on the floor of the bathroom, evacuating, er, dually, and simultaneously grappling with my Kiswahili-English dictionary trying to look up anazaa. As I'm doing this, W returns and starts hammering on the front door again, just as getting to 'Z' in my dictionary to find out that '-zaa' does indeed mean 'give birth'.

Fuck. This is now very bad news.

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the words for “I'm being sick”, so am forced to just sit there idiotically shouting siwezi kuja (I can't come) and matumbo, matumbo (stomach, stomach) – which I now realise W the guard may have thought meant I was masturbating in the toilet while confirming my landlady's gravidity.

After about half an hour of hammering and evacuating, I'm ready to make the lunge to the front door. I open it, and W is still there heroically saying Esther anazaa, anazaa, kuja, kuja, asking me to come with him. So now my liquifying bowels are fighting my English 'rise-to-the-occasion' gynaecological chivalry. I want to ask where the fuck Esther's boyfriend is, but can't remember the vocab for 'boyfriend' or 'fuck' either.

What would Hugh Grant do? In the Hugh Grant film version there would be some hilarious schtick with Grant careering round the room flopping his hair about and apologising with his trousers round his ankles. In this version I don't have the energy for flopping or hilarity. There's just me, my bowels, and my useless Kiswahili.

Fortunately, I'm saved with cinematic good timing. Just as I'm about to improvise some kind of nappy/bib/plastic bag arrangement to use in a taxi, up the stairs comes...Esther. It turns out she's been to the hairdressers, which W the guard for some reason mistook as a dash to the obstetrics ward. So I'm released from my doorstep agony to retreat for the bathroom, where I stay for the next 24 hours.

Lesson 1

Englishmen: if you learn one foreign language phrase while travelling abroad, make sure it's “I can't come to the door, I'm shitting myself.” If necessary, tattoo it on a body part you can see while squatting.

Lesson 2

A loo-seat is the only essential accoutrement of civilisation. My Nakuru flat has one of only two real loo-seats I've seen outside of Nairobi. This single piece of technology improved my quality of life last week more than mobile phones, the internet and electrification put together.


How many councillors can you fit in a Land Rover?

The answer, it turns out, is twelve. Plus one mzungu, ten Samsonite luggage cases, and an AK-47.

(The AK barrel is just visible next to the driver in this picture)

Two weeks ago I was travelling with another staff member around Baragoi in northern Samburu District, south of Lake Turkana. Baragoi's a slightly odd place. On the one hand it's a typical small town in the arid northern grasslands. There's no electrification, guns and goats everywhere, and all the beers are warm and dusty, having been carried five hours on the roof of the bus (below) from Maralal, the nearest large-ish town (and, incidentally, the final, wind-stripped home of Wilfred Thesiger until his death in 1994). On the other hand, you can buy vodka alongside traditional busaa homebrew in almost all of Baragoi's seven or eight bars, and the main street is colloquially called Bosnia Street.

This is because Baragoi was the recruitment hub for the illiterate Samburu warriors plucked from the vast empty ranges of northern Kenya in the early 1990s, rapidly inducted into the Kenyan army, and sent as barely trained UN peacekeepers to patrol the Republic of Serbian Krajina, a self-proclaimed micro-state in eastern Croatia which existed for just four years before it was pummelled back under Croatian authority in 1995. These men came back, rich; bought cows, built bars and cheap lodging houses; and essentially melted back into Samburu society. Globalisation is strong. And weak.

Anyway, back to the Land Rover. Transport is a bit of a problem in northern Kenya. Amazingly, there's a bus which goes to Baragoi from Maralal. It doesn't go very often, but as you can see it's pretty bitching:

This bus bounces and inches its way over a 'road' which is mostly little more than a rocky track through the mountains. We got to sit in the cab. We listened to Lil' Wayne. It was awesome.

The journey back was a bit more complicated. Some local members of Samburu District Council, though, were on their way to Maralal at lunchtime on the day we wanted to leave, and offered to give us a lift. In theory, awesome. They had a Land Rover, and they were leaving right now, they said. Sasa sasa.

That's to say, after a few hours and a few more Tuskers. By 6pm, the driver had decided to go somewhere else, they said. But this was a good thing, they said: it's better to travel at night when it's cooler and the tyres don't puncture so easily.

(And the raiders like to hijack cars).

But the council chairman wants to sleep, they said. OK, so we leave at dawn. 6am. Sasa sasa. On the dot, they said.

That's to say, at 12 noon the next day. And there were now twelve people who they'd promised could go to Maralal. And they all had fancy, bulky, sharp-cornered Samsonite cases to put on top of us in the back. (They're local politicians. They have nice luggage). So only one of the two of us could go to Maralal, they said

Actually, we both went. We just took it in turns to make human-Samsonite-human sandwiches in the back of the Land Rover. I'm still not totally sure why we brought the Kalashnikov. Still, as I know from Manchester, council politics can be rough...


Grenade geekery update

I felt my professional [sic] reputation was somewhat at risk if I left that rifle grenade go unidentified. With regular access to the internet, I've checked it now, and am 99.9% certain it was a Yugoslav M60P1 30mm rifle grenade.

So, not very interesting, and could have come from almost anywhere. Still, it does underline the fact that Kenyan forces actually use a fair bit of Eastern European-spec weaponry, at least in terms of their SALW - in contrast to the assertions of a number of 'arms experts', who told the media around the time of the MV Faina "arms to Kenya/Sudan" episode that Kenyan forces didn't use any former Soviet bloc weaponry (and thus that the T-72 tanks, AKM rifles and multiple rocket launchers on the MV Faina were unlikely to be for Kenya). So much for that. Yugoslavia/Serbia's arms industry is, admittedly, something of a bridgehead between NATO-standard and former-Soviet specs and calibres. But I've also seen lots of Kenyan police with AK-47s and AKMs, including both former Soviet types and Type 56-2s.

I really need to get a new job.


In the queue with UNHCR

On Wednesday we went to visit a particular District Commissioner to clear some upcoming programme activities. He's the senior government representative in a pretty large area: if you want to do something in his district, then protocol demands that you get his blessing.

There's a lengthy queue of people waiting in the sun outside his office – petitioners ranging from tenant farmers who've been evicted from their land, to local hotel-owners wanting the DC to open their new bar. We join the queue.

We've been waiting about half an hour when a gleaming white UNHCR Land Cruiser pulls up, and four people get out: three ex-pat staff, and a Kenyan member of what NGOs universally refer to as their 'local staff' (why can't they just have 'staff'?) They're three UNHCR Protection Advisers, up from their office in Nairobi's leafy Westlands suburb and 'out in the field' to find out how the local government is providing for IDP's livelihoods. Jolly exciting.

I've heard various stories about the attitudes of international agencies here in Kenya. I'm pretty new to all this, and my experience of the international humanitarian sector is very limited. Maybe these were an unusually insensitive bunch: I've no doubt UNHCR has its fair share of sensitive, talented, community-embedded people, often working in infinitely more challenging circumstances than central Kenya. And I'm the same as them, of course: a white do-gooder, arrogantly joining the queue outside the DC's office. All the same, from an ill-experienced mzungu to some aid industry old hands, I humbly submit four tips for being 'out in the field':

  1. You find a group of people from a local NGO (us) waiting in the queue outside the DC's office. Don't walk up, ignore all the black staff members, introduce yourself to the only white one, hand your card only to him, and look only at him while you're talking. Then don't raise your eyebrows and look surprised when they white guy awkwardly introduces one of the black guys as actually being in charge.

  2. When the DC comes out to meet you and starts talking, don't irritably tell your only black colleague - a fully-fledged programme officer - that she should be taking notes for you.

  3. You have aid funds to disburse. As you well know, the DC wants them for his district. He will therefore suggest that you can jump the queue outside his office.

    That doesn't mean that you should jump the queue outside his office.

    If you are going to jump the queue, don't grin apologetically at all the people who have been waiting here since early that morning, and sit in the DC's office for the next hour.

  4. Just because you're 'in the field' (actually a pretty big, central town) doesn't mean you have to wear the aid industry field uniform (jeans and floaty Indian tops; or worse, in the case of the 40-something male Senior Protection Adviser, an Eminem T-shirt, a safari hat, and a pair of bright pink jeans). You're here to see a government official – you could pretend you think he's important. Everyone else in the queue, including the guys who've been evicted from their farm, have managed to wear a jacket, and most of them a tie. I can't see any lions and tigers around here. You could at least wear a fucking shirt.


Update: : Having taken the piss out of UNHCR's swanky Land Cruiser, on the way back from the DC's office our creaky Nissan Mistral gave up the ghost. Serves us right.

Tit for Tat

The big news in Kenya last week started with the supposed Mungiki demonstrations on Thursday: a day of protest called by the activist Oscar Foundation to protest the government's rejection of the recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings, Philip Alston. Alston reported that Kenyan police death squads had deliberately killed hundreds of suspected 'Mungiki' and Sabaot Land Defence Forces last year. Businesses, and especially matatu operators, are very fearful of the Mungiki – the secret Kikuyu militia, with powerful connections to some Kikuyu politicians, which extorts money from them in many parts of central and western Kenya. So whether or not the demonstrations were hijacked by Mungiki, transport across the southern Rift and central Kenya was disrupted for most of the day; matatus refused to operate; fires were lit by demonstrators to stop traffic; and trucks were used by protestors to block roads...

...And ended with the murder of two Oscar Foundation leaders who had supplied evidence to Alston's investigation, shot dead in broad daylight while stuck in traffic in central Nairobi, just half an hour after a government minister had accused their organisation of fundraising for the Mungiki.

It's interesting to see how this has been reported in Europe and Kenya. The two have been described neutrally in the European and North American media as "human rights investigators" or "human rights activists", killed for protesting against EJE's of suspected Mungiki by the Kenyan police. Both daily Kenyan papers and TV news have likewise stressed the impunity of the double murder, and widely reported the resulting international criticism. But the Daily Nation (the slightly more conservative of the two main Kenyan print dailies) described the Oscar Foundation bluntly as "an NGO with links to the Mungiki". And most people I've spoken to are broadly critical of both Philip Alston's report, and of the Oscar Foundation’s support for it. There is enormous fear and hatred of Mungiki and Sabaot Defence Forces amongst many Kenyans(as well as some loyalty amongst communities supposedly 'protected' by them). A common refrain from opposing communities, as in all situations of ethnic conflict (Sri Lanka?) seems to be to ask why the international community was silent while Mungiki were murdering and extorting their way through central Kenya, and Sabaot Defence Force members were killing people in Mount Elgon (although in fact they weren't silent at all).

Is the Oscar Foundation a Mungiki front? So far the government hasn't produced a shred of evidence to support this allegation. What is probably true is that they're not simply the non-partisan human rights organisation they've been portrayed in the Western media. Their leaflets, circulating in Nakuru earlier this week (translation below) were only in Kikuyu language, addressed at mobilising a single ethnic community. They weren't explicitly inciting violence, and their legal advocacy and human rights documentation work seems credible, according to other human rights organisations.

So they're more community rights activists than human rights activists - advocating for a community which already has powerful political patronage. That doesn't make their murder any less appalling, or any less indicative of the near-total impunity of the Kenyan government's security apparatus. But its causes and consequences are about ethnic politics, not simply a Manichean struggle between brutal state repression and the human rights community, as it's being depicted in the European media.


People of Njamba Njithi [a youth group], are you just going to sit and watch as we get wiped off? Let’s come together and protest against the government killings led by the illegitimate killer squad Kwekwe and Police Commissioner Ali.

Now we have said “enough is enough!” Michuki and those killers should tell the people in accordance to what he said that "we will only be hearing of burials of our children". This disease is with the other one and now we are tired of seeing orphans and widows.

We now are urging President Kibaki to fire Police Commissioner Ali, Ministers Michuki and Saitoti, Attorney General Wako and all murderers within his government as per the UN Special Rappoteur’s recommendation.

On 5th March 2009, Oscar Foundation, a human rights organization in conjunction with parents and friends of the missing children will demonstrate with the aim of demanding for 6542 bodies of missing people and 1721 that have been killed. The demonstrations will take place throughout the nation. You are urged to come out dressed in black as a sign of mourning.

The meat wars

Sunday afternoon, for many middle-class Kenyans, means music, Tusker beer and nyama choma: roast meat (nyama), usually beef or goat, ordered by the half-pound, and served with ugali (maize meal). But usually with more meat (nyama), in often epic quantities. Nyama choma is both national dish and recreational ritual. At the moment (the end of the dry season) meat is fairly cheap, grain at record prices. And while people in the north-east of the country are actually starving, throughout the Rift, choma joints in every town and village are still filled with boozy men gnawing on hunks of burnt cow.

Each choma joint has a glass cabinet at the front to keep the flies out, hung with bloodied carcasses, from which your bit of cow is carved as you order it.

If that doesn't put you off your Sunday barbecue, maybe this should: this carcass may well be a conflict good. It's not as seductive as a blood diamond destined for Amsterdam. And unlike West Africa's diamond wars, it's a conflict driven not so much by the consumption of the resource itself, as by climate, property and livelihood. But Kenya's cattle wars are brutal, transnational and remarkably under-discussed outside East Africa. Perhaps this is because they lack the cinematic international villains of other 'low-level' African insurgencies: Russian arms dealers, multinational mining companies, Islamic dictators. Or perhaps it's simply because they're not conducive to a dramatic political fix - a regime change or a glamorous peace deal. Instead, ending the meat wars probably means systematic changes to Kenya's internal security strategies, and more fundamentally to the political economy of Kenya's land.

Last week I was back in Samburu and East Pokot, travelling with two staff to see more of the areas where they work, and to trial the conflict monitoring tool we've been designing over the last few weeks. These two districts couldn't be more different to the rich soils of Kuresoi where I’ve also been working, and where in early 2008 thousands were forced from their burning farms following Kenya's disputed presidential election. Instead these are empty, semi-arid regions roamed by Samburu, Pokot and Turkana pastoralists who travel hundreds of miles with their cows and goats, through grazing lands blurring into northern Uganda and southern Sudan. This is where much of Kenya's nyama comes from.

Each year as the dry season progresses, reports trickle into regional centres about 'cattle rustling' incidents: a Deputy-Dan epithet which romanticises the real nature of a cattle raid in northern Kenya. Organised groups of dozens of men with guns attack homesteads and herders to take hundreds of cows, sheep and goats, leading them for days to strongholds like the impenetrable Suguta Valley, a furnace-hot region where temperatures can reach 60˚C and pursuing government helicopters, according to the District Commissioner, have been brought down by small arms fire from the raiders.

These raids - undeniably communal – have in the past been regarded as a symptom of tribal traditions and life-patterns. Young unmarried 'warriors' (morans) can't own cattle inherited from their families or that of their wives until they are married. Since systems of rigged endogamy amongst Samburu or Pokot give the best young wives to older men, this may not be until their thirties. Cattle they steal, however, is regarded as theirs. As a result morans, previously organised by groups of wazee (elders), pit themselves against their Pokot, Samburu or Turkana counterparts, simply to build up property denied by their own social structures.

Like all anthropological Just-So stories, this account doesn't really explain the dynamics of the current violence. For a start, it seems that unmarried young men can, in effect, own cattle. J, one of our Samburu fieldworkers, isn't married, but tells me he has a herd of forty cows, effectively held in trust for him by his family and herded by them. It also can't explain why wazees are reporting to local peace committees that morans are now raiding in smaller groups outside their control, and beginning to raid cattle from their own communities as well as from other tribes; nor why the frequency and lethality of cattle raiding appears to be increasing, particularly in Pokot and Turkana in Kenya, and in Equatoria in Sudan. James Bevan, who has undertaken several years of research in this region, claims that "[i]f you add up death and injury tolls, a lot of research institutions would call this a war."

The lethality is at least partly the product of this region having being flooded with small arms since the 1990s. Assault rifles have overflowed into Kenya from warring governments and rebel groups blithely arming communities in southern Sudan, northern Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia: a halo of civil wars and counter-insurgencies that has surrounded this region for nearly 20 years. Even the smallest raid now typically involves gunshot fatalities which might not have occurred with pangas and clubs in the past.

Guns, of course, last a long time, but are useless without fresh bullets. And with a calibre mix of AK-47s, M-16s and G-3s you need - as Tom Waits perceptively sang - just the right bullets. B, from Churo in East Pokot, names a man who visits the nearby village of Amaiya every so often. In a quiet corner on market day he takes orders for bullets for different calibre weapons; B says he then travels several hundred miles westwards into Uganda to obtain them.

This small arms epidemic may also help explain the new pattern of 'freelancing' raiders. Guns dramatically increase the ability of small groups to project power – and of small, armed communities to respond in kind. The Divisional Officer in Churo ascribes this privatisation of raiding, though, more to a kind of 'teenage angst' phenomenon, a fundamental collapse of authority structures. There may be something in this. J, one of the Samburu fieldworkers, is an educated guy in Hushpuppies.* In Maralal he introduced me to his younger brother A, dressed in Samburu beads and skirt, with his hair dyed with red dust, carrying a Samburu sword, and incongruously wearing an old North Face anorak over the top. A is a softly-spoken teenager who, to his brother's despair, has decided to leave school and rejoin the carefree morans, a decision which seems to be as much about rebellion as economic choice (although that too is undoubtedly limited).

It's a facile comparison, but I'm reminded of the boys who hang about with sovereign rings on BMX bikes at the end of my street in Moss Side. But this isn't just a Melanie Philips-style 'Broken Kenya', brought on by the ready availability of hip hop and condoms.** The Divisional Officer says that the ability of communities to regulate morans' activities has been dramatically diminished by a string of recent drought years, which have compelled morans to travel much further and longer to find pasture. They often leave their homes for over a year, he says, forming their own young-male solidarity groups away from the social constraints of family and village, and may not come back. And as the well-armed herders travel further, they rub up more and more against the diminished grazing grounds of other groups. This is in many ways an archetypal climate change conflict, with well-armed, hungry communities caught in the shrivelling grasslands of northern Kenya.

Oddly, though, as we drove I did see grass here in East Pokot and west Samburu. Quite a lot of it. People just can't get at it any more.

On the left of this photo, behind the fence, you can see long, plentiful grass stretching into the distance.

The land on the right – used in common by the communities here – has been stripped bare.

The fence marks the boundary of the Mugie Ranch, a private cattle ranch and game reserve fencing off a 49,000 acre stretch of land straddling Pokot, Laikipia and Samburu districts. Owned by a pair of Californian vinyard owners, most of the land is used for the Ranch's enormous private cattle herd. Another 20,000 acres of grassland is fenced off with electric fences for black rhinos, to be viewed by the wealthy white tourists flown into the ranch by private plane.

In this vast landscape, land access doesn't seem as immediate an issue as in the cramped, lush highlands of central Kenya. But there are still haves and have-nots, and the economic consequences for local communities of enclosing this great grassy tract on their doorsteps is fairly obvious. Herders intruding into the Ranch with their cows and sheep are met, B tells us, with armed police (not private security), alerted by the ranch's own patrols and scrambled there in their police Land Rovers (although on these roads I can't believe they ever get there in time). Yet when villagers in nearby Amaiya, just 10km from the Divisional Officer's station, were caught in-between an outbreak of fighting last week between over three hundred armed Pokot and Samburu herders, police and administration officials said they couldn't go to intervene because they didn't have any fuel for their vehicles...

The Mugie Ranch has an enlightening website which explains their economic model more clearly. The ranch, it explains, also engages in development work: building schools (that’s to say, a (primary) school, for the children of the ranch's employees), and helping local communities by, er, buying up their livestock:

Through buying livestock from the communities, Mugie contributes to the local micro economy. Since the communities no longer have large herds of cattle they have increased their numbers of small stock, sheep and goats, which contribute to over stocking and erosion.

Each family is able to sell one or two sheep a month which contributes to their household budget

It seems to me that in any other circumstances, privatising a previously common resource, thereby making it impossible for your competitors to continue operating, and then buying out their remaining stock, would surely be called something else. Certainly not 'development work'.

(On the other hand the Guardian’s travel section, although it gestures at the unfortunate problem of the people who actually live here, thinks the Mugie Ranch is a model of conservation tourism: "whatever humans think, the wildlife benefits" - ignoring the fact that the ranch's principal if carefully occluded business is making money by growing cows.)

And where does the raided nyama go? Communities mark their livestock with distinctive notches specific to their tribe. If Pokots decide to sell animals they've raided from a Samburu community, cattle brokers in regional markets will likely know that they're buying stolen livestock. It seems, then, that there's a certain amount of blind-eye-turning amongst larger economic players further down the supply chain, although provenance is likely to be blurred, B explains, because stolen cows will be sold in small local markets, possibly to traders from a different community; and then taken to (slightly) larger markets further south in places like Sipili or Nyaharuru, to which major brokers and big Nairobi butcheries will bring their trucks to buy in bulk. In some cases they may even be taken over the border to Uganda, cows flowing back in the opposite direction to the bullets used to raid them.

The government's principal response is a series of police and/or army operations, moving periodically, and with great force, through different districts to forcibly disarm communities and to recover cattle they believe have been stolen. We were in Samburu as one was sweeping through Samburu East (don't worry, Mum, nowhere near us). These operations somewhat stretch the European understanding of policing. In Suguta Marmar we met regular police officers coming from Samburu East, drinking soda at a roadside shop. Poorly trained bobbies on the beat – but dressed in combat fatigues with M-16s and G-3s slung across their shoulders, and Eastern European rifle grenades tucked under their epaulettes.***

These operations are periodic, and Sisyphean. Their result - aside from the rapes and dispossession that one Divisional Officer candidly told me generally results - tends to be that one community is disarmed; and tension is ratcheted up as that community feels the government's picking on them over the others, and in many cases that the police are confiscating their own cows (and thus their entire livelihood) rather than finding ones that have actually been stolen. Then, feeling vulnerable against their still-armed neighbours, communities scramble to acquire more guns.

This rotating injustice seems to have taken on a wider political resonance following recent international indictments of the Kenyan government and its law enforcement. We arrived in the district capital, Maralal town, about an hour after a large demonstration protesting against the ongoing Samburu operation had been broken up by administration police.

As well as calling on the police to return their cows and to "Stop Applying Double Standards" to the Samburu community, the demonstrators carried new banners demanding that "[Major General Hussein] Ali [the head of the Kenyan police] and Hassan Noor [the Provincial Commissioner of the whole Rift Valley] should be prosecuted at the ICC". This is powerful testimony to the desperate appeal of international justice in a community where local judicial mechanisms are completely broken. Last week the report of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston on extra-judicial killings by the police in western Kenya, several hundred miles away, demanded that Police Chief Ali be prosecuted; and the Kenyan media is full of debates about whether the 'secret envelope' of the Waki Report, listing the suspected high-level organisers of political violence following Kenya's disputed 2007-8 election, should be passed to the ICC. These processes are addressing political violence which has nothing to do with the fighting in Samburu – whose conflicts and human rights abuses generally fall far outside the competence of international courts. Yet we heard people demanding "To the Hague!" in every soda shop and bar-room conversation in Samburu District.

There seems little prospect of repairing trust between government forces and these communities any time soon. We spent the afternoon in Maralal town interviewing witnesses after the demonstration. The police's standard response was to deny any use of force at all, and to add (incongruously) that the crowd itself turned violent. Video of the demonstration taken by a bystander showed no evidence of any violence from the protestors. At Maralal District Hospital we were shown admission records for people admitted following the demonstration: all women, all Samburu - the community against which the current operation is proceeding - although the demonstrators were predominantly men, and a mixture of Samburu, Kisii and Kikuyu residents. A journalist for the Daily Standard, who covered a second demonstration in Maralal several days later, confirmed this apparent pattern of Samburu women being targets of police violence. One girl we interviewed, badly bruised all over and with a fractured arm, said she was beaten by the riot police while walking down a side-street several streets away from the demonstration itself. Her clothing was visibly identifiable as Samburu. She told us she was just 14 years old.

Conversely, (justifiable) suspicion of the police arguably generates spiralling accusations from community members too. We were told by several witnesses, for instance, that the police had fired live ammunition directly into the crowd: not at all implausible given the Kenyan police's past form. But no gunshot wounds had been admitted to the district hospital that day. Video footage we obtained showed the police only firing into the air, and close-up footage of cartridge cases left at the scene showed only blank cartridges, not live rounds.****

And so we're back at the earlier question: who has just the right bullets? At the moment everyone in Samburu seems to have just the right bullets: the Kenyan police, who may sometimes use blanks, but aren't shy to shoot people in the head with live rounds (or military rifle grenades); the Amaiya bullet-peddler with his good friends in Uganda; cattle-raiding morans who can get the right calibre ammunition for their weapons, whether they're SPLA Kalashnikovs, captured (or quietly donated) Kenyan police G-3s, or ancient M-16s from Somalia.

We can try to disrupt this halo of conflicts, local and transnational; its ingrained practices of violence and its spider-web of weapons flows. But those guns and bullets will probably keep flowing until they're not wanted any more. Until police and local administration can provide genuine security for rural Kenyan communities as well as white ranchers; until they can stop humiliating ethnic communities by beating their women; until those communities can find a grassy place for their cattle or an irrigated place to farm; and until those places themselves stop shrinking as the temperature rises. Until then, everyone's next door neighbours are looking increasingly, hungrily dangerous; and their lands and cows looking more and more attractive.

And sitting eating my beef chops on a Sunday afternoon, who am I to argue?

* That notorious hallmark of civilisation.

**As far as I can see, hip hop is a lot more readily available in Samburu than condoms. Marie Stopes International has a lot to learn from 50 Cent about distribution.

***For the weapons geeks who read this blog: no, unfortunately I couldn't get a photograph; and although I saw that the markings around the fuzes were a long string of numbers and Cyrillic letters, I couldn't read them properly because the police officer got very touchy when I tried to look at them more closely. I'd say they were about 200mm long, maybe 20mm wide, cylindrical (not bulging or tapering) with an olive drab metallic body separated into sections by circular notches along their length, about 10-15mm apart; a copper-coloured fuze; and small, white, plastic-looking fins (four, I think) at the rear. I'd guess they were to fit 7.62mm G-3s, which might also take rifle-fired grenades designed for 7.62x39 calibre weapons? They didn't seem to have adaptor muzzle attachments to fire them, but I think G-3s have a screw-threaded muzzle brake that is already designed to fit rifle grenades? Any ideas?

****Likewise - sorry, weapons geeks: the person who took the footage filmed the cartridges and canisters up close, but sadly didn't look at the cartridge headstamps or capture the markings on the other side of the canisters. The tear gas was French-type (you know the ones), but we obviously couldn't confirm the manufacturer or production date. The filmer promised they'll film them for us next time.


Mangoes update

I'm gutted.

Having blithely believed that Nakuru's fruit-sellers are operating some kind of glorious E.P. Thompson-cum-Robert Putnam collaborative moral economy, it turns out that, er, they're not. One of the other fruit-sellers, Theresa, finally told me today that none of them work together, they all compete with each other, and would I like some especially sweet bananas from Kampala these ones are much nicer than Naomi's? When I asked the others, they confirmed this was true. Like everywhere else, selling mangoes is every woman for herself.

So I'm gradually learning the hard way that the first methodological principle of arms trade research (everybody is always lying) should also apply to sociological inquiry (everybody is always already lying). Still, it's a pretty astute hustle, and one that could only emerge in a country besieged by bleeding-heart white do-gooders: rather than undercut your competitor directly, tell the white do-gooder that you're in a cooperative, and hike your prices accordingly.


Cillit Bang

I'm afraid this is the obligatory schoolboy "humourous foreign product name" blog post. This is the Kenyan brand of washing powder I've been using while I'm here.

It does indeed make my whites whiter than white. Etc.

Why I am not a real man

I spent a peculiar three days this week in and around Nyeri: a verdant corner of the Central Highlands, formerly a white-settler paradise, at the foot of Mount Kenya. It's not like being in Kenya at all. Friesian cows chomp away between thrush-filled hedgerows, growing from rich red soil with the hills and mountains of the Aberdares beyond. Everything except the colour of the soil would make you think you were in Scotland, or Alsace.

Wandering through the dusk taking these pictures made me think harder about the wave of colonial settlement here after the First World War - an agrarian re-population, deliberately generated by Colonial Office development policy and a soldier settlement scheme that brought upper-class officers from the mud of Verdun to this African Shropshire. This was an imperial mode quite unlike the minimal white settlement of colonies like India, and with a colonial aesthetic that was as much georgic as imperious (or, putting it less generously, more baronial than sultanate).*

Nyeri makes me realise that that particular moment of empire - arrogant and dispossessive though it might have been - was far more poignant than the gin-soaked White Mischief into which it ultimately developed in the 1930s (the largest landowner here, Lord Delamere, famously once rode his horse into the dining room of Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel). In 1919, though, this place was where they were going to start again after the panoramic, mechanised carnage of northern Europe, to retreat and build a new tiny world - some of them as idealistic, in their way, as the young independence activists who at that time were also gazing across at Mount Kenya.** Places, of course, are never empty, and utopias always breed violence.

While we're here we've been staying at the major Catholic seminary just outside Nyeri (it's a long story). I don't like Catholic institutions very much, and this one was no exception. The place is a vast tract of productive land filled with sour, politicked old men. Sitting in the refectory eating cold cabbage when we arrive (it's Lent, to make things worse) are a taciturn, pipe-smoking monk in a hoodie reading a John Connolly thriller; a couple of wizened 80-something American missionaries who missed the boat home; and a burly 40-something priest with a smoker's cough who seems to enjoy shouting at a deaf, hunch-backed Indian Jesuit and hitting him with a fly-swat for comic effect.

Typical conversations with priests:

- discussing the disputed candidature of a proposed member of the new Kenyan Electoral Commission, accused of being a wife-beater: "Perhaps the wife is comfortable when she is being beaten. We cannot go into the home like that" (this from a member of a church which has insisted on expanding its purview into the home, the bed and the uterus).

- over breakfast: do I know how many devil worshippers there are in the Kenyan government? Did I know that the matatus are run by Freemasons?

Actually, I came to strangely enjoy the company of these sour old men; mainly because the remarkably self-possessed and joyous young seminarians, from all over Kenya, take no notice of them, and the ageing faculty don't seem to mind that they're the object of continual ridicule. Also, there are glow-in-the-dark crucifixes in every room, which takes Catholic kitch to a whole new level.

One thing I didn't enjoy, though, was my room. I'm no Bear Grylls, but I like to think that I'm fairly resilient about physical hardships. But there's one thing I'm ashamed to say I don't deal well with: the room's actually pretty comfortable for a seminary, but clearly hasn't been swept in a while, and I'm only in there for five minutes on the first night before I realise that it's filled with large, flat, swift-moving spiders. Spiders with smooth, fat, carapace-covered articulated legs, more like crabs than spiders. Like all photographs of spiders, this photo of one on the ceiling makes it look tiny: I swear to God (and I did, volubly, at that point), it was actually about 10cm across.

The minute I got in there I saw a huge one above the toilet, and another above the desk. Smaller ones start crawling from behind the bed and on the ceiling. I squash one that's sitting on the door handle - it oozes pale-green goo over the door - and no sooner have I done that than another one, twice as big, crawls out from within the door frame.

Fortunately, I have a mosquito net, which I eventually hang up, tuck around the bed, and climb in, fully clothed. My skin crawls all night, but this spider-filled chamber seems somehow appropriate in an odd, ossified community nestled in such an incongruous, beautiful setting. In the morning I get up exhausted at half-past six, and wander out into a shining morning, Mount Kenya looming out of the mist behind the church - inside which black-robed seminarians are already sitting, silent, with their eyes closed.

*Richard Drayton would argue that agriculture has always been about dominion.

**It also made me wonder whether there were any explicitly utopian schemes here in the White Highlands? Were there any Rolf Gardiners of Nyeri and the Aberdares?

Ghanaian Kung-Fu update

Someone emailed to remind me that black power kung-fu has a distinguished pedigree. In brief: my friend Dan Matlin's ground-breaking article on the writer and organiser Amiri Baraka, leading light of the 1960s Black Arts movement and intellectual inspiration for a raft of Black Power figures, describes the Committee for a Unified Newark (CFUN), a self-help organisation established by Baraka in New Jersey in 1968. As I understand it, CFUN drew on an idiosyncratic post-colonial mix of Marxist ideology and a collection of bastardised Bantu and Zulu traditions called Kawaida, espoused by a former associate of Malcolm X. True to its black power connections, CFUN had a disciplined martial wing, Black Community Defense and Development, whose boy members received fortnightly training with handguns and rifles, and were instructed in tabura, "a form of African drills", and yangumi..."a form of karate".

So there you go. Although I'm not sure that Baraka - author of such widely performed works as Black Dada Nihilismus and Junkies are Full of (SHHH...) - has ever got as much popular exposure as Africa Magic TV.


Print culture

Except perhaps in Nairobi, it seems to be very difficult to buy any books in Kenyan 'bookshops' other than

  1. Christian literature

  2. school textbooks

  3. crappy 'How to Succeed in Business' self-help books

Very occasionally there's the odd second-hand Robert Ludlum thriller, and there are some street vendors who have small, eclectic selections of very old, dirty torn novels which I think were probably donated to some 'charity collection' somewhere in Europe or the US (so far I've found Tuck Everlasting and a 1968 edition of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). But there's clearly no real demand for fiction or serious non-fiction, and no adequate distribution.

This is a major contrast to other Majority World countries like India, which seems to have an incredibly diverse and demotic print culture. On every street corner in Delhi you can buy anything from Mein Kampf to old copies of Subaltern Studies (actually, Mein Kampf seems to be particularly prevalent – maybe India gets sent all the copies confiscated from schoolkids and neo-Nazis in Germany).

The few attempts I've seen to compensate for this here - like this community library in Sipili, funded by Bakewell Rotary Club - are basically rubbish. (I'm sorry if any outraged Derbyshire Rotarians are reading this, but you should know).

Sipili's community library consists of a few shelves with a rag-bag of old charity-shop-style 'collected' books from Europe, basically consisting of dog-eared John Connolly thrillers and 1960s geography GCSE textbooks, rather than any systematic selection of decent books. I assume that the cost of shipping books is also very high. In India the majority of commercially available books are printed by India's massive publishing industry. In Kenya there seems to be fairly little major commercial printing or publishing industry anywhere. Maybe there's a larger publishing industry in other East African countries which distribute books across the region – I'm not sure.

On the demand side, though, I don't think the difference is to do with differential literacy rates: adult literacy is currently running at about 74% in Kenya (compared to around 61% in India), and both the 'How to Bring God into your Life and Grow Your Business' books and the two main newspapers seem to go down a storm everywhere. I genuinely think Kenya has an impoverished literary culture which isn't simply to do with economic poverty – India's the counter-factual. Maybe it's something to do with a hollowed-out middle class? Or a lack of an established pre-colonial print culture (unlike India)?

Any thoughts that are a bit less implicitly racist than these?

Men and women

At the 'Masaai Market' in front of the building where I'm staying, there are a row of massively competitive stall-holders (male), all trying to sell the same carvings, postcards and (sometimes) dog-eared copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the khaki safari 'trucks' that periodically arrive from safari parks in the southern Rift to disgorge pink tourists for half an hour with the locals. (Don't get me wrong, I'm as pink a tourist as anyone; but I try not to wear paramilitary rancher hats and hiking boots to go to the bank, and you'll be pleased to know I'm yet to use the 'Bear Grylls-endorsed' craghopper trousers I bought in a shameful moment of paranoid weakness in Debenhams last month).

Since everyone's selling the same thing, and I have to pass by them every day, I don't want to buy from any of the stalls (especially as one of them is run by my landlady's boyfriend, so choosing another one could be social death).

Several women also sell bags of mangoes and oranges in the market. When I finally plucked up the courage to speak to them, I learned that although they stand in different places, Josephine, Naomi, Lilian and Dorothy all work together, sharing profits. As a result, I often buy mangoes (more mangoes, in fact, than I, my landlady or her niece can possibly eat. It's becoming a bit awkward).*

Lesson: in a market where everyone knows each other, so favouritism carries a real social cost, collaboration may be a better strategy than competition. Or at least, the marginal cost of profit-sharing over competing may be smaller than the marginal social capital cost of competing over profit-sharing.**

*Obviously the comparison isn't 100% accurate – I am always going to buy mangoes more often than postcards – but I also go a long way outside the market to buy books.

**Would anyone like to correct this cod-economic-speak?

Kenyan business plan I

I couldn't post on this blog last weekend because there was a power-cut all day in Nakuru. A chronic lack of capacity in Kenya's power system means that this is a pretty regular (that's to say, frequent but totally irregular) occurrence.* Lists of pre-planned blackouts are published in the ad sections of the Daily Nation, one of Kenya's two main daily newspapers, but often only a day or so in advance, and by the time you buy the paper it may already have started.

Given the ubiquity of mobile phones, I reckon you could make a packet of money by getting these lists early from the power board (as the papers presumably do), and getting people to sign up to receive cheap text messages when there's going to be a power cut in the area in which their phone is currently receiving signals.

If each text came with a Crazy Frog ringtone alert, we'd probably be millionaires. Anyone fancy becoming East Africa's next mobile service entrepreneurs?

*One interesting solution to this is being constructed in the southern Rift near Naivasha, to the south of here – an Israeli-built geothermal plant, Olkaria III, intended to extend Kenya’s existing geothermal power generation there to around 25% of all Kenya’s power needs. It seems like a good project. Although as a World Bank guaranteed project, part-financed by the German government, it seems a shame that the donor funding and the guarantee is being paid to a Cayman-Islands registered holding shell for the Israeli/US company, presumably tax-free.

In an ironic 'guns and butter' twist, heavy equipment for this plant was shipped into Mombasa last year on the same ship carrying an expensive load of weapons from Eastern Europe.


On Saturday I had to leave Sipili early to get back to Nakuru, so couldn't get a lift with my colleagues. Instead, I got my first ever matatus. Like lots of other countries without adequately functioning public transport systems, Kenyan towns are connected by lots of private minibuses that pick up passengers along the way. The matatu, with their sound systems blaring hip-hop and their painted pictures of Jesus and Lil' [sic] Wayne, are a bit of a staple of westerners' blogging about East Africa. So I won't bore you with the description of my journey, except to say that matatus seem a lot calmer and more comfortable than the hysterical descriptions by guidebook writers and travel journalists would suggest. Maybe I just got on some really boring ones. These were my two travelling companions on the front seat for the second leg of the journey. The little girl was called Esmerelda. I'm not sure what the chicken's called.

The matatus, almost all imported second-hand Japanese minibuses, bump along untarmacked roads that were often better in the fifties than they are today; they operate pretty efficiently, but they're necessarily slow. They also replace a decrepit state postal system – for a small fee you can send a letter or package on a matatu, and then call the recipient with the matatu's numberplate, so that they can go and pick up the package at the other end.

Amid this neglected state infrastructure, though, in even the tiniest village there seems to be a stall selling cellphone top-up cards. Apparently sidestepping sclerotic government and donors, mobile phone companies (the biggest being South African – Safaricom, Telkom/Zain – Orange has only recently arrived) have established a dense, well-functioning mobile phone network used by about 35% of the population (a high penetration for a country with Kenya's GDP). From where I'm sitting I can count 26 mobile phone masts. Mobile phone networks are filling gaps in other ways too: terrestrial dial-up internet, and even nominal broadband, crawls at a snail's pace; but mobile broadband internet is available almost all over the country now – 'dongle' modems for your laptop cost about £50, and unlimited broadband internet is then about £15 a month. Out of the reach of most Kenyans, of course, but pretty cheap for middle classes, businesses and organisations. Much more important for most Kenyans is the M-Pesa and similar systems: mobile phone credit systems where, for a small fee, you can send up to 35,000 shillings (about £300) to any other mobile phone, which can be cashed at any of the M-Pesa booths dotted around every tiny town and village. Vastly cheaper and more widespread than, say, Western Union, the state post office is just starting to catch up, developing its own mobile phone credit system for larger sums. In Laikipia I met an immaculately be-suited Safaricom salesman travelling around setting up new M-Pesa distribution points in the countryside. He said he said he thinks that all Kenyan banking itself, except for the super-rich, will soon be done entirely through the mobile phone networks. It's salesman bravado, but I think he may be right.

I know people write endlessly about the miracle of mobile-phone telephony in Africa – Somalia, for instance, hasn't had a functioning government since 1991 but has two relatively widespread mobile phone networks. It is amazing, though, that although I can't get drinkable water (or often any water) out of a tap, in the middle of nowhere in Kenya I can get better, cheaper mobile internet, and send money faster, than I can anywhere in the UK.

Three tales from the Kenyan media

(I) 6th February

There's no internet access in Sipili, no paved roads, no public transport, the electricity goes on and off, and water comes from a wind-powered borehole. But in a tiny bar I can watch Man United vs. Everton on satellite TV beamed from South Africa.

Almost no-one shows any interest in Kenyan football, whose major teams, like Harambee, everyone insists are irrevocably corrupt. Instead, almost all the Kenyans I've met so far are fanatical British football fans (mainly Arsenal and Chelsea, a smattering of Man U supporters, and, bizarrely, an enormous national following for Leeds United). The Premiership seems to be followed in forensic detail in all the daily newspapers, and dissected in every bar and pub. Everyone in Sipili has an opinion about Scolari's replacement at Chelsea. Except me.

(II) 10th February

In the bar next door to where I'm staying, they like to show Africa Magic TV channel, which seems to broadcast mainly Ghanaian TV programmes. The evening feature film yesterday was a kind of African kung-fu genre, with Jackie Chan and Shaolin monks replaced by absurdly orientalist African 'warriors' dressed in feathers and Tupac wife-beaters. It's like the RUF meets Benny Hill. Almost every other feature of the original kung-fu genre is replicated: there's impenetrably sub-titled dialogue, the characters run at all times rather than walking, and all the fighting is accompanied by ridiculous 'kazaam' punch sound-effects. It's the US hip-hop vests that all the 'warriors' wear, though, that brings the whole thing queasily close to glorifying some of the more brutal militias of recent West African bloodbaths. Still, I suppose Rambo did that for Vietnam.

When they're not showing African kung-fu, the next best thing seems to be 1980s wildlife documentaries about African mega-fauna. These go down an absolute storm (people especially like it when the wildebeest get away). I find this a little bizarre when we're sat in the middle of Laikipia District, with one of the biggest concentrations of actual elephants, giraffes and other mega-fauna anywhere in East Africa.

(III) 11th February

There's a stall on Sipili's main street that sells mobile phones and old TVs. They've set up some massive speakers which were playing evangelical gospel music all day on Sunday, at full volume. This afternoon,though, it was playing Kenyan parliamentary questions, live on the radio, at full volume. Not even Prime Minister's questions – this seemed to be Ministry of Transport questions. Lots of people were sitting listening intently to it.

Habermas eat your heart out.

On the other hand, in some respects Kenya (like Northern Ireland?) seems to be a place where politics matters a little too much. And if I lived somewhere with no sealed roads and no public transport, I think I'd have an opinion about Ministry of Transport parliamentary questions too.

Law and Order

Yet another delayed post, I'm afraid.

So the Saturday before last I travelled up the Rift to Laikipia, the transitional region between Kenya's lush Central Highlands, home before independence to white ranchers and timber barons, and the semi-desert grazing lands of northern Kenya. My organisation has an office in Sipili, a small market town just north of the equator, serving as a the jumping-off point for travelling north to Samburu, Pokot and Turkana. The organisation's (shamefully under-resourced) Samburu and Pokot staff live and work up north, using Sipili as an occasional southern base. Sipili is much better equipped than many places further north, with electricity, packed dirt roads and even hot showers.

This is Sipili's main street. Also an excellent piece of signage for a Board & Lodging place, the Arrivals Lodge, where I didn't stay.

It was cattle market day when I arrived, with the street full of Samburu and Pokot pastoralists, carrying their ceremonial clubs, bringing their goats and cattle to sell. That picturesque bit of pre-packaged timelessness is nicely debunked when I'm introduced to S, a major herder in the area, sitting in his Pokot 'skirt' in a bar working his way through six or seven Tusker beers. Like any economic system, there's higher-ups and lower-downs. S is a round, cheery guy with a slightly hard look in his eye who tells me, not unkindly, that he's a much wealthier man than me, the mzungu. I can well believe this: the end-of-dry-season price of a cow in this area might be the equivalent of two to three hundred pounds, and major herders may have 400 or 500 cows.* Then I'm taken up the hill to a tiny nyama choma joint to eat with the local police chief - this kind of administration contact is really important for the kind of community conflict monitoring system we're hoping to set up. The police chief tells me that last night there was a cattle raid near the neighbouring town in which Mr N was killed and at least 150 cattle stolen (don't worry, Mum, I'm staying in town, they don't raid any cattle there!); and that S is the local 'warlord' (his word) who was probably responsible. I've no idea whether this is true, but certainly this kind of cattle rustling isn't simply a piece of picturesque tribal martialism – it's a well-organised (and comparatively well-armed) communal business, feeding cattle over the border to Sudan and Uganda, and to businessmen who buy the stolen cattle. I want to ask more about it, but the police officers around the table seem rather more concerned about my sexual well-being, and how I'm going to last for several months without my wife “or castration”, which forms the general topic of conversation amongst the assembled company for the next hour.

These kind of weird non-sequiturs have characterised my experience of law and order in Kenya so far – jolting from the social and familial, to cheerfully discussed or delivered force. This is, I suppose, a feature of any country where security forces aren't as rigidly separated from society as they are in the UK, and don't have the kind of reserve from their communities typical of British police forces. A, a female sergeant (and champion G3 rifle marksman) joins us while we're eating, and as she's going on patrol she offers to show me around the local police post. First she introduces me to her daughter, a gorgeous six year old. She carries her daughter into the police post, sits her on the front desk, and then, still chatting sprightly to the kid and me, rams the door open into the cells, slamming it without very much concern against the head of someone sitting on the floor in a dark, piss-smelling corridor beyond. There's no furniture at all, even in the (empty) 'women' and 'children' cells, just fetid, dark concrete rooms. The door from the corridor into into the 'dangerous persons' cell is wedged open, and the cell is stuffed full to standing room with wide-eyed men, some of whom have dirty bandages on their hands and legs. When I ask what these people have been arrested for, A says that they're mainly “thieves and robbers”, and that they can be in the police post cells for weeks “until the investigation is finished” (quite what that kind of investigation consists of isn't really clear). I have no idea what I'm supposed to say.

That evening, at the bar, another local police officer cheerfully discusses their shoot-to-kill policy with me. Propping up the other end of the bar is a Divisional Officer from an administrative division further north, the main government representative in his area. He's only in his mid-twenties, flanked by two Masaai security men, and almost crying into his cups as he tells me how 'primitive' his division is, having come from Nairobi. But there's a more serious context – he's clearly extremely worried about a joint army-police 'operation' currently on-going in his division to disarm pastoralists, many of whom keep ageing AK-47s for security against rustlers, or for rustling. He tells me quite frankly, with the police officer sitting next to him, that the 'operation' will only bring hardship and rape to the communities in his division. Similar forcible disarmament operations near the Tanzanian border have brought similar allegations.

Sipili itself, though, is awesome. Although I spent time that week travelling further north (about which I'll bore you another time – don't worry Mum, not too far north!), killing time in a dusty farming town with the nearest internet point an hour's drive down the road was exactly what I needed after Manchester and Omega. Sipili life is remarkably like The Archers - not a programme I'd previous thought of as having a resonating universality. But Sipili has a stock of characters you'd find any evening on Radio 4: there's Mr M, the stout, bookish former adult education officer who runs the school textbook and stationery shop with his wife (in the Radio 4 version he'd have a Yorkshire accent and be a cricket umpire); T, the school teacher who goes home to his farm each night and writes poetry inspired by Heraclites; S, the 'Matt Crawford' herder king and alleged cattle-rustler. This was my view from the Olivia Motel, where I was staying. I think I need more views like this in my life.

* The famous reluctance of Samburu, Pokot and Turkana pastoralists to sell cattle even in times of real economic hardship, when prices are very high, is often explained as 'irrational' cultural prestige overcoming economic need: considerable wealth may only ever be realised in social rather than economic terms, and 'wealthy' herders may starve rather than sell. Some recent work, though, suggests that this 'irrational' herd maximisation is 'rational' in the very long term, given the difficulties of building up herds for inheritance in such an aleatory, semi-arid environment.