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.