Posts Tagged ‘Anticlimax’

Surviving the Siege

January 22, 2008

It was the evening of December 28.  At the Lake Bogoria Hotel – a hot and dusty cinderblock edifice in such a barren stretch of desert that it is able to call itself a resort only because there is no nearby competition to claim otherwise – the guests were starting to feel the anxious disconnect that naturally comes from being too remote and too alone as traumatic events are unfolding in more consequential places.  Phones were dialed and answered, exclamations were made, and rumors were spread.

Mungiki gangs are wearing police uniforms and killing people at roadblocks!” said the large, angry man from Nairobi.

“The Luhya are fighting alongside the Kikuyu.  They are killing all the Luo!” said the Luo who drove the new, sporty, offroad Lexus.

“The Kalenjin are fighting alongside the Luo.  They are killing all the Kikuyu!” said the Kikuyu who was there with his wife but seemed to be flirting rather shamelessly with one or more of the young and pretty female hotel staff.

“Raila is crowning himself the President tomorrow at an illegal rally in Uhuru Park!” said a man who swore he got the news straight from the Pentagon, the name given by the opposition, without any sense of irony, to the six – not five – leaders of their party.

“Kibaki has arrested all the opposition!”  said another man who swore he got the news straight from the outgoing Vice President, who himself, like most of his party, was “trounced” and “floored,” in the words of the local media, in his bid to be reelected to Parliament.

“The police and the army are divided.  It’s war!” said the bartender.

It was the second night of tallying; only half the votes were counted; impatience was turning to anxiety throughout much of Kenya.  The countrywide reaction was similar to that caused by the occasional winter storm in midwest cities like Louisville, places that are hit by a debilitating snowfall every third or fourth year, often enough to expect inconveniences but not often enough, it would seem, to be prepared for those inconveniences.  People started to panic – supermarkets were emptied; gasoline and firewood were stockpiled; windows were shuttered.

At the Lake Bogoria Hotel, we started making our own plans for survival and, if necessary, escape.  We started with a car by car inventory of our supplies.  We had, between the four of us, approximately twenty litres of water.  Two of us had very little food left, having been on the road for almost a week, but the other two had enough to share, having just left home the day before.  We had staples like pasta and peanut butter, and we had luxuries like chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers.  We did not have bread, as twice we had been outsmarted by the local vervet monkeys.

Each car had about 500 kilometres worth of fuel, in the tank and in extra jerricans, more than enough to get us home, but in the meantime not enough to allow for any leisurely drives through the nearby national park, famous for its birds – like the lilac-breasted roller, the woodland kingfisher, the grey hornbill, and the hoopoe – and its greater kudu, a very large yet skittish antelope that is hard to see just about everywhere except Lake Bogoria National Park.

One by one, we took our phones and their chargers inside the hotel to recharge their batteries.  We asked the hotel staff to let us know whenever they had any new scratchcards – about the size and style of a lottery ticket, with a window that is scratched clean to reveal a code number which is then dialed into your phone to add minutes to your cellular account – which we then bought in bulk at every opportunity.  One day the hotel was without electricity so we were not able to keep our phones charged; otherwise, we managed to remain in constant communication with our families, and our informants, despite our remote and disconnected location.

On the first night and again on the second night, we asked the hotel staff to collect some firewood, ostensibly for our evening campfire but in reality for a stash we were building in case of any emergency need to drive for temporary safety or for permanent escape into the rocky desert which stretched from where we were camped all the way north into Sudan and Ethiopia.  The wood and other nonessential items too large to be carried on the run in an emergency, like camping equipment, were stored in the far backs of our cars.  In the midsections, we kept useful but dispensible items like clothes and toiletries that we needed or wanted to access regularly while camped at the hotel.  Also in this space were whatever items we had with us that could, if necessary, be used as weapons – a rungu, essentially a small club in the shape of a miniature golf driver, and a panga, or machete.  They were out of the way, but still accessible from the front seat, in an emergency.

IMGP3752In the front of our cars, always accessible, we kept what we called our “grab and go” bags.  These were light, and always ready, containing only our most essential items, those supplies and, crucially, documents we absolutely had to have on our person should we need, for instance at a violent roadblock, to abandon our cars and run for safety.  In these bags we each packed our passports and our money.  We made four copies, one for each of us, of a list that included our names, passport numbers, and telephone numbers in Kenya and in the United States.  We each packed a small one-litre bottle of water and some small snackfood, such as peanuts.  We carried, between us, pocket knives and tools, lighters and matches, iodine pills, headlamps, maps, compasses, a handheld gps unit, and spare batteries.  At all times, we wore light and flexible clothes of the sort you can live and move in for days, fully protected from the sun and wind and rain, yet fully mobile as well.  We were ready to run, if need be.

After provisioning and arranging ourselves, we convened around the camp fire, maps in hand, to discuss likely, and several unlikely, escape routes.

“If there’s a war, it’ll be coming from the south.  Nakuru is already burning.”

“We can’t go west.  They’re killing each other in Eldoret, and it’ll only get worse if Raila loses.”

“And we can’t go east.  Nyeri will explode if Kibaki doesn’t win.”

This left only north, deeper into the lawless desert sahel which Kenya shares with its unruly neighbors: Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.  These borders are so uncharted and theoretical that on many maps they are marked by dashed lines.  Indeed, along some of the more rugged and inaccessible frontiers, the administrative boundary and the geographic boundary do not coincide.  Many of the people who live in this empty hardscrabble land – the Turkana, the Molo, the Omo – have nothing to do with the governments which ostensibly rule them, if they know of these governments at all.  We decided this was a good thing – “if they don’t even know Kenya exists, they probably don’t give a shit who the president is.”

Our emergency plan, then, was to aim for Moyale, on the overland trucking route between Nairobi and Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia.  The planning done, we staked in and hunkered down to wait out the war.

In the end, and despite our melodramatic paranoia, the Lake Bogoria Hotel was not a bad place to outlast a siege.  We were lucky, as we had not planned to be there; angry roadblocks had diverted us turn by turn until late afternoon, at which point we simply aimed for the nearest safe, comfortable, and at least slightly vacationlike destination.  We had been planning to camp deep inside the national park, entirely removed from people and their politics, but, having stopped at the hotel to watch the news, we were swayed by the receptionist, who said, “Just camp here.  We have a pool.”

It was easy to get into a routine; wake with sun, swim, shower in the poolside changing rooms, then go inside for the buffet breakfast and the local and international news, by way of satellite television.  Kenya was the world’s top story, which, we quickly learned, meant that all the major news channels – CNN, BBC, Skynews, Al Jazeera – would be returning to the story at the top of every hour.  We became skilled, like lazy American children with their Nintendo and Playstation consoles, at rapidly surfing the complex remote control interface as we chased any mention of Kenya from one channel to the next.  Our days became a numbing and metronomic back and forth from the pool, for about 45 minutes every hour, to the television, for about 15 minutes.  Very occasionally, the local newschannels had something worthwhile to say, and then we would spend hours at a time immobile in front of the television, only to realize much later that we had not learned anything new at all.  Thankfully, the hotel had a deepfreezer full of ice cream, which we steadily consumed, despite our self-issued directive to save our money in case of an emergency.

On the morning of the fifth day, we decided it was time to try to drive back to Nairobi.  We left early, before sunrise, hoping to put as much road behind us as possible before drunken village mobs emerged to reignite the smoldering tires of yesterday’s roadblocks.  On the long drive out of the hotel’s fenced compound, we picked up the receptionist who had convinced us to camp there.  She was on her way to the nearest town, about 20 kilometres away, where she was planning to take a seat in a police convoy back to Nairobi.  She explained why:

“I am Kikuyu.  I cannot live here anymore.  I cannot work with these people.  The way they look at me, the way they speak to me – I can tell they hate me now.”

We gave her a ride to the junction.  It was our contribution to the ethnic cleansing of Kenya.