So it’s my second day in Nairobi, in Kenya, in Africa. I arrived on Sunday night, 2nd of August, and on Tuesday morning I’m going on a trip with my friend to help him shoot his film about the post-election violence one year and a half later. They pick me up at 7am and we go to my friend’s house in town, next to one of the University of Nairobi campuses. A beautiful and big house in a nice area – but they haven’t had running water for days. We have a quick breakfast and off we go.
Even though it’s very early –or more precisely because of that– Nairobi is very alive and already bustling with cars, matatus, buses and people, all of them fighting hurriedly their way in the streets. It’s cloudy and fresh, it’s winter now and these are supposed to be the coldest days of the year.
We head northwest, towards the Rift Valley, where the post-election violence was the worst. The road is ok most of the time and the landscape is just amazing, it too is alive, it changes so quickly – green, wet forest, dry, brownish savannah with just a few acacia trees, green hills both sides of the road.
We’re meeting a man called Isaac at the Kikopey Nyama Choma trading centre, on the Nairobi-Nakuru road near Gilgil. ‘Nyama choma’ means ‘grilled meat’ in Swahili and is one of the Kenyan favourite meals. Even in the most remote places in the country you can find a nyama choma shop with enormous pieces of beef, lamb, pork, hanging for you to pick one that will be grilled for you at once. Isaac lost his left hand during the clashes, it was chopped off. He also lost his house and job and now lives at a refugee camp near the Kikopey centre. But while we are on our way in the car my friend keeps saying ‘IDP camp’. I ask what ‘IDP’ means. It means Internally Displaced People. They are not refugees but people who have been displaced internally, as they didn’t have to flee their own country but remained in it. So it’s not a refugee camp where we are going but an IDP camp, I learn.
After a couple of calls to Isaac for guidance we find the Kikopey centre and promptly see him. He is the one in the road who seems to be expecting a car – and who besides doesn’t have a left hand. He’s wearing sunglasses and when we get out the car and introduce ourselves to him we see he has several, long scars on his face and back of the head and that he can barely see with his left eye. He is short and has a big belly. He is very polite and all smiles. My friend wants me to shoot him and Isaac staging their meeting, shaking hands and getting in the car, but Isaac tells us to wait and do it in the camp, as he doesn’t want to call other people’s attention there in the Kikopey centre – just in case. Even though we aren’t that far from Nairobi and it’s only 11 something in the morning, the weather is now dry and hot and there is a very bright light invading everything.
We get in the car and Isaac guides us to the camp, which is called Ebenezer camp. The road is very bad and it takes us quite a while to get there even if it’s not a long way. The camp is a dusty terrain with several dozens of white, worn-out tents. In sight there are only some children, a few grown-ups, some hens, goats and donkeys and three white volunteer workers.
Isaac takes us to his tent, where we meet his wife, and my friend starts the interview with him and Isaac sitting down in the tent entrance. In the meantime another man has approached us. Tall, thin and more or less old, he introduces himself as the ‘chairman’ of the camp and he and I start talking. It’s getting hotter and hotter and the dust and the light are everywhere and I want to sit in the shade but there’s no shade nor there is anything to sit on.
The chairman is telling me about figures: 14 camps in the area, 240 families in this very one, 1,050 people, 500 odd children. And at the same time he is scratching those same numbers on his dry hand with a little stick. He barely looks at me when he talks and he seems to be repeating something he’s said many times. He tells me every IDP family was given 10,000 shillings by the government to start over. That is about £77 to begin a new life after losing your house and job. The people in this camp put all that money together and bought this land. They spent all that money to buy this dry, arid and dusty land to set up some tents given by the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees. Why this very land? Well, it was the only one they could afford, he says. Who did they buy the land from? He won’t tell, just says “from some individual”. How did “this individual” get to own this land in the first place? Is this dusty terrain worth 2,400,000 shillings, near £18,500? No one knows.
“The problem, the problem”, the chairman repeats, “is these people have nothing they can call home”, he says looking around. “The problem is the politicians, the president [he won’t say “Kibaki”], who’s doing nothing for these people, the Kikuyu, who were beaten, killed, their houses destroyed – because of him. The problem is these people don’t have food, don’t have jobs, they have nothing they can call home.”
Well, I think, at least Isaac doesn’t look very hungry with that big belly of his. The chairman’s speech is from time to time disrupted by his mobile phone ringing and his answering the calls. I find it funny that they have no food, no water – but they all have mobile phones and there is a perfect reception here.
I look around the camp, so white, so bright, almost no people. I look back at the chairman. He is wearing a cap while my face and neck are getting sunburnt. What did he do before becoming an IDP? He was “a businessman, did businesses, yes”, but he won’t say what kind of businesses he did. How long have they been in the camp for? They’ve been there since March last year. Who is giving them food? “The government brings some food every two months or so”. Where do they get water from? “There is a draw well we are digging”. The conversation dies and the man steps away keeps answering and making phone calls.
My friend finishes the interview with Isaac, they come out of the tent and my friend meets the chairman. Then the chairman starts telling my friend the exact same things he’s been telling me using almost the very same words. Again without looking at him. Now it seems even more like a speech learnt by heart than a real conversation. But anyway it’s late and we have to go.
We go back to the entrance of the camp, where our car is parked. My friend is taking shots of the camp and I go and talk to the volunteers, who are sitting on the two only benches in the camp with a bunch of kids and a few young people. They are two friendly Canadian girls, Melissa and Charmaine, and a silent guy from New Zealand, Dheran. They tell me they’ve been here for a week. They wanted to come to Africa as volunteers and surfed the internet and found an NGO from New Zealand who brought them here. They are staying at a family’s house a few hundred metres away from the camp. What are they doing? They are taking pictures of the camp and accounts from the refugees – I mean, the IDP. They are teaching and playing with the children. They are overwhelmed by this misery, by the misfortune of these people. They plan to make a website to show the world how bad things are here, to raise awareness and also money to help these people.
Many children surround us, everybody is silent but for the white people who are talking – they show respect when the wazungu discuss their things in English. I look at the children, they all are skinny, dirty, covered in dust. Their clothes are either too big or too small for them, are completely worn-out and many are broken. Almost all of the children are barefoot. They are standing and looking at me with huge eyes – curiosity, fear, admiration? The ones who don’t look sick look beautiful. I go back to the car to pick my camera and take some pictures. My friend and Isaac have gone up on the hill to take some general shots of the camp.
When I’m going to the benches back from the car a kid who’s arriving in the camp passes by near me and greets me, “Hello, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” He says he too is fine and we walk together towards the others. His name is Josiah, he is tall and thin and is coming from school. I see one of the children has like a small football made out of papers and plastic bags tied together. “Do you like football”, I ask Josiah. He says he does. “Do you play football at school?” Yes, he does. I go and steal the football from the other child and pass it to Josiah and we start playing. He is very good, even more considering how difficult it is to kick this kind of football. He tells me he likes Manchester United and I tease him and say Arsenal are better. He smiles and makes complicated tricks with the ball and then passes it to me and I try to do some tricks but it’s very difficult. We play for a while. I think I would give anything to get Josiah a real football in that moment. Everybody is looking at us. He seems very nervous, like if this is a very important moment for him. My friend is back from the hill and is filming us. “What is your position?” He is a midfielder. “Do you score many goals?” Yes, he says. We play, it’s hot and the light is so bright here.
But it’s time for us to go, my friend tells me. I shake hands with Josiah, we say bye to everybody and get in the car. When we’re leaving I look back and see Josiah has returned the ball to the other child and is walking towards the tents.
In the car I think about the chairman’s speech, how it seemed he’d learnt it word by word, polished it up in many interviews and talks with people like me. How it had its dramatic lines, its pauses, its keywords and figures repeated again and again. How it wouldn’t say certain things. How he makes the situation look so dire, so terrible. But, isn’t the situation itself hard enough? Isn’t the reality of the camp strong enough? Why does he elaborate his speech that much, why does he frame it with those very words? Well, me too I’m framing the situation in a particular way, right now I’m using these very words instead of some different ones. The chairman was selling us his framing, his words – that’s his job when journalists show up in the camp. Then we’re gone and he and they forget about us and go back to their life in stand-by and hope (do they still hope?) something will happen out of our visit.
We’re driving towards Gilgil, my face and neck feel sunburnt, the road has been deformed by the weight of overloaded lorries and the heat.
I’m feeling outraged. Who did those people buy that land from? I ask aloud. Why anyway? What are they going to do? Why can’t they go back to their place, to their old jobs? Well, they just can’t, their houses were burnt, destroyed, their jobs lost, they can’t go back and live with the people who attacked them. Now we’re looking for a Hindu temple in Gilgil where, my friend has been told, we can have lunch for free, we don’t even have to make a donation if we don’t want to – although it’s just vegetarian food. Who pays for that food, for that temple? You know, the churches here have a lot of money, my friends tell me. I shake my head in awe, cross my arms, look through the window at the beautiful landscape, I’m upset, there are many things I don’t understand. Of course I knew about this, I had read, I had seen on TV – but one thing is reading a book or watching TV and another thing is actually being here. Did I actually know about this? Do I know now, after just a few hours? My friend looks at me and smiles and says, “I can see you’re going to have problems. You yourself will become a story”, and laughs. I take it as a compliment – but I don’t want to become a story myself and I don’t think I will. I just want to tell stories – although is that all I really want?
The road is a jungle. Old lorries, old buses, old colourful matatus, old cars, new cars, motorbikes, people walking, people riding bicycles, people pulling carts, donkeys pulling carts, cattle and dogs on the roadside, cattle and dogs crossing the road, stopped in the middle of the road. Everyone is competing for a place and for getting on their way as fast as the potholes and the unpaved stretches allow them. There are no traffic signals, there are no traffic lights – yet there is a rule, a logical and simple one: The bigger one has preference over the smaller. And so walkers stop before bicycles and bicycles before carts and carts before motorbikes and motorbikes before cars and cars before matatus and matatus before buses and buses before lorries. And if someone doesn’t notice there is a bigger vehicle coming, then a sound of the horn will put him in place. However, cars and mainly matatus are the kings of this jungle even if not the biggest in size. It seems there is no matatu driver who is not a daredevil, they drive as fast as they can, they play music as loud as they can, they overtake each other as riskily as they can. And only some cars –and among them ours– dare to confront them and drive as crazy as the matatus. Although in case of doubt or lack of space, the bigger vehicles will always have preference over cars and matatus.
We get to the temple, it’s nice and quiet with beautiful gardens. There is nobody around, just a half-asleep guard. We are dirty, dusty, tired, hungry, we go to the toilet and then to one of the dining rooms, it’s big, there are several very long tables and many chairs. And there is nobody, not even the cooks are in sight, just the free food for us to eat as much as we like. We are a 20-minute ride from the IDP camp. We eat and drink and the food is good and spicy and we repeat, we’re very hungry. The cooks show up, the food is great, we tell them, they smile and thank us and disappear again.
I ask the guard where I can make a donation before we leave and then off we go on the road again and head towards Eldoret, where we are going to spend the night.
Here and there there are tiny towns along the road, you can see just some precarious houses, hotels and shops and people and maybe a few cows or a couple of donkeys wandering around. Many houses are painted in pink with a lettering saying Zain, or in green and it saying Safaricom, or –fewer– in orange and it saying Orange, and I even see some painted in yellow with the Bic logo. Are those real hotels? They look tiny and shack-like. Yes, my friend tells me. But who stays at them? I wonder. Many people, you’d be surprised, my friend tells me, mainly lorry drivers who have to stay overnight somewhere, anywhere. This road is part of the Mombasa-Kampala route, Mombasa being one of the main ports of East Africa and through which many staple goods make their way not only to Kenya but also farther to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi.
In the proximity and along these little towns there are many bumps that cross the road for the vehicles to have to speed down. Next to them there are street vendors offering you anything, from socks and watches to potatoes and live hens. When we pass by these places and have to drive more slowly I notice how people look at me, how their eyes are always fixed on me. Some look upset, some look curious, but there’s nothing like that in most of them – they simply stare at me blankly and just follow me with their eyes while we pass by.
We get to Eldoret and ask for directions to the Eldoret Sports Club, which my friend has been advised to stay at. Finally we find it, a bit far from the main road. It’s a nice, green, fresh place, clean and well taken care of – it looks like an oasis in the middle of dirty, brown Eldoret. And actually it’s a Golf Club, although they also have a gym, a swimming pool and other sports fields. When we’re parking the car my friend asks a white old man who happens to be passing by if he knows whether we can stay overnight even though we are not members of the club. The man happens to be Paul, the vice-chairman of the club, and he tells us that of course we can stay. We introduce ourselves as journalists and he comes with us to the registration desk, where an over polite staff welcomes us, and Paul tells them to give us some of the best rooms, for which besides we’ll pay some less than the official fare – I guess these are some of the differences between journalists and IDP: we have lunch for free at a temple and are charged less than the normal price at a posh golf club, while they are hungry and wouldn’t even be allowed through the main entrance of the club.
We go to our rooms in cute, little bungalows, we use the toilets and wash and refresh ourselves, as we are dirty and dusty, and then we meet at the bar garden to have some beers before dinner. The club is beautiful, the golf field is beautiful, the bar garden is beautiful. The beers are so cold and so good.
After a couple of drinks we go into the restaurant to have dinner. The food is good and, actually, inexpensive. I can’t stop thinking of the people at the IDP camp, of Josiah, of the children – but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying my dinner as we chat about the day and the journey and make jokes and have a good time at the restaurant.
It’s not very late when we decide to go to bed and say we’ll meet the next morning at 7am to have breakfast.
(Want to see more pictures from this trip? Check them out on my Flickr set)