OnSafari: New Nairobi

OnSafari: New Nairobi

Once I really liked Nairobi. But our two-day visit here was like walking back and through a time warp in an nondirectional universe. The pandemic did a number on a lot of things. I was here just before the pandemic and I swear some crazy aliens confiscated the city, goofed around with it and just now dropped it back down to earth!

There are highways, sometimes multistory, all over the place. The 27 km southern bypass is reported to have been built in two years, all of it elevated and on each of the four sides of the hundreds of concrete pillars on which the concrete sits three stories above the ground are at least 500 tiny holes each containing a live nasturtium plant kept alive by the rain drainage from the highway above!
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OnSafari: Nairobi Simmers

OnSafari: Nairobi Simmers

KenyaelectionUnusually, we chartered from Kenya’s best game park directly into the international airport rather than normally into a smaller airport across town to avoid having to make that transfer.

We’re hunkered down in a new hotel inside the secure international airport complex waiting for our evening departures to Europe. Violence so far is only in the west of the country, but even here the tension is palpable.

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Nairobi Cholera

Nairobi Cholera

slumtohotelWhen Kathleen and I first went to Africa in the early 1970s we were warned about mosquito-born diseases like malaria, but there were few other dreaded diseases. AIDS wasn’t yet known. Cholera seemed to be confined to the slums of Asia and South America.

Cholera has broken out in Nairobi. The first 30 or so cases were not found where you would expect to find a hard-to-transmit but deadly disease: in the slums. More than 400 cases have been confirmed and many in two of the most upscale areas of the city, Karen and Westlands. What’s going on?

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OnSafari: Price is the Driver

OnSafari: Price is the Driver

uberprotestnairobiIn Nairobi and New York consumers were mad, local government knew what it had to do but claimed not to have the money to do it, so private investors stepped in: Uber Alles.

Today the head of the Nairobi taxi association gave the government one week to “do away with” Uber or they will “grind the city to halt.”

That won’t be hard to do, since the city is more or less ground to a halt already. The 10-12 mile ride from the airport into the city normally takes two hours because of unbelievable traffic.

The government seems to be siding with Uber.

Tension is seriously building. Uber has been here for just over a year, and rates Nairobi as one of its biggest successes. In the beginning it was mostly expats (non Kenyans) who used the service, but very soon thereafter the idea swept the city.

Uber, in fact, was so impressed with the Nairobi response that it reversed the previously strict policy not to accept cash payments for a ride.

Here’s how it boils down in this city of too many cars and truly unimaginable traffic:

A ride from the airport into the city by a registered taxi is pegged at around $50. Few consumers pay that. Bargaining prevails and even the most inexperienced consumer can get $15 off right away. I normally get them down to $25. Uber’s formulaic calculations will render anything from $12-$18, and usually the higher because of traffic congestion.

Uber’s policy excludes tipping, but believe me, Nairobi Uber drivers let you know a tip is most welcome and I expect many users tip here.

Nairobi’s monopolistic taxi service is so similar to taxi services around the globe, and that’s one of the reasons Uber is seamlessly entering every corner of the globe. Traditional taxi service is supposed to be insured and licensed by the government. In Kenya the effective tax is about 3% (60 Ksh per available car seat per day of operation). Union “dues” take another 3%. And the union is in full control of car placement and driver hiring and eligibility.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. Taxes are rarely paid or massively miscalculated. A driver often splits his fare with others in his neighborhood and even more so, with touts that round up customers from the streets. This is gross speculation: but I imagine when all is said and done the driver takes home about 50% of the fare paid.

With Uber he takes home 80%, but the fare is a quarter to a third less. Bottom line: it’s a scratch for the cabbie.

But the consumer wins big. The technology of near instant service and easy payment – something the cities should have done long ago – is value itself, but the fare is less.

Here’s the problem: it’s a capitalistic race to the bottom.

Before the consumer even discovers that Uber cars are usually as good if not better than taxis, that they are more prompt, that tipping is no longer necessary, they are drawn by the lower price. Particularly in a developing country like Kenya with all the problems this city has, taxi users here would probably complain if the ride were free.

Price is the driver, the raison d’etre for Uber’s success and Uber geniuses have found a way to scrape the little bit of earnings that don’t actually pay for getting from here to there into their own pockets…

… out of the hands of the tout, the politician and who knows who else. Those folks are cut out by Uber to the benefit of the consumer AND …

… the benefit of Uber. Uber takes 20%.

Uber made about a quarter billion dollars last year and is valued around $65 billion, making it larger than America’s largest car companies.

The portion of Uber earnings that came from Kenya has impoverished many, contributed to more crime and now threatens to bust one of the few unions left in the country.

There’s a solution here. Government has to get its act together. Uber claims it would welcome regulation, so let’s regulate. Let Uber take over the taxi business, but let the unions represent all the workers, including Uber drivers. How’s that for a start?

Totally unexpected.

OnSafari: Nairobi

OnSafari: Nairobi

NairobiNightWhat strikes me about Nairobi – like the slashing ice pellets I just left at home – is that it’s safe here. The bitter reality is that Nairobi is a fortress.

Every shop of any size, every office building, even some petrol stations, are iron or steel fenced boxes. Guards with rather large weapons stand in control of massive gates. As for the hotels, there’s not a diplomat alive who could sneak his wallet or phone in without it being scanned.

Tourists are coming back to Kenya. New hotels planned for Nairobi include a Hilton Garden Inn, Four Points by Sheraton, Radisson Blu and several Best Westerns. These are all designed for the modest businessman or more importantly, the transiting tourist.

Nairobi’s problem is now not so much its security, as its new image.

Talking yesterday with several old friends who reside here I can’t help but share their optimism and excitement. High tech especially, but even a number of global service industry providers are swarming over themselves searching for the best talent to develop business in Nairobi.

The main obstacle? Believe it or not, traffic. Yes, there’s still a rare power outage, digital services are impeded by overuse (an opportunity of its own) and corruption remains serious. Yet as Lagos dwindles with the price of oil, many board rooms are shifting their plans for growth to Nairobi.

Except between 9-11 a.m. or on Sunday, though, it’s … well, hard to move. Yesterday at 7 a.m. it took me two hours to drive the 11½ miles from the airport to the Norfolk Hotel in the city. With a grand chuckle I just referenced Google Maps: the journey is pegged at 24 minutes (“without traffic”) and with traffic? 37, says the very far away Google.

I’m forced to radically rearrange my scheduled guiding of Nairobi attractions. Although the national museum (by Google Maps) is only 1¼ miles by road from The Norfolk, yesterday at 2:15p it took me 40 minutes by cab.

Hardly a decade ago I squeezed in 4 or 5 Nairobi attractions plus a leisurely lunch into a nice day. Now, it’s one attraction …at most.

All the planned new tourist hotels will be near the airport, but even the closest will seem like an arduous journey when there’s nothing else in the area except highways.

This is definitely a problem for tourists. Here are the current workarounds:

1) Arrive Nairobi Saturday night. Suffer a bit of congestion getting into the city or stay out by the airport, and then tour the city on Sunday. Leave your hotel Monday morning by 7:30a for a road journey or transfer to Wilson airport for a local flight somewhere.

2) Arrive any night and go to the suburb of Karen. Decent hotels here are limited and expensive, but you’ll then be able to enjoy a number of famous “Nairobi” attractions in the area virtually on any day of the week. Nairobi city itself would still be restricted to a Sunday schedule.

3) You can still enjoy Kenya’s unique wildlife attractions without starting in Nairobi. You can connect immediately out of Nairobi on one-hour flights to three other cities well positioned for safari travel: Mombasa, Kisumu or Kilimanjaro (in Tanzania).

Mombasa is the most efficient. The city is only 2-3 hours by road south of several excellent wildlife destinations including Tsavo. You can hit the road running after exiting your plane from Nairobi.

Thousands and thousands of mostly European tourists travel to Mombasa for its beaches and never intend to look for wild animals. But unlike my positive feelings about Nairobi’s security, I’d remain cautious about actually staying in Mombasa.

Kisumu might be too novel an idea, yet, because its hotels are just emerging and it’s at least 4 hours by road from the first good wildlife destination. But it has some alluring positives: it’s on Lake Victoria and the hotels are cheap.

Finally, everyone knows about Kilimanjaro, a quick and easy 50-minute flight from Nairobi’s international airport. This is, in fact, the way most East African tourism has run recently so what’s the drawback?

Simple. Once you get to Tanzania, why go to Kenya? There are many good answers to that, but for a first-timer, especially, they’re hard to put forward. Adding a whole new country to your itinerary in Africa, anywhere, is added expense and time, costs and vacation often better used just staying in that one country.

I’d disagree. But then, too, it’s going to be hard for me to realize that my clients won’t enjoy the Norfolk Hotel in downtown Nairobi as much as I do. Nostalgia is a powerful force!

(By the way, the beautiful photo above and below is part of a photo project by Nairobi’s innovative Jambi Forums. Click here to view a stunning range of photos from a great variety of new promising Kenyan artists!)


From Baltimore to Joburg

From Baltimore to Joburg

balt2joburgCivil violence in Baltimore, Beijing, Nairobi, Cairo and Johannesburg reflects societies coming apart.

One thing is certain: “We will bring order. We will bring calm. We will bring peace,” the (black) Baltimore mayor vowed last night as national guard troops entered her city.

Then, one of two things happens afterwards: a more democratic Tunisia, South Africa and Kenya; or a more autocratic China and Egypt.

Civil violence is quite distinct from war. It happens from within. Brothers are pitted against brothers. In the beginning new ideas link across disparate social communities. That’s the case today when we find Baltimore mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, saying things that her opponents consider collaborative with the protestors.

It’s the reason that the World Court indicted the current President of Kenya for fomenting crimes against humanity. It’s the reason Hosni Mubarak lingers in a jail guarded by the men he brought to power.

Civil violence reveals fissures and inconsistencies in social systems that are difficult to reconcile .. even by its leaders. It’s about human rights violations, not border disputes. Groups like ISIS will use civil violence to then start geopolitical warfare, but in the beginning it’s an internal conflict not an external one.

It often devolves into whether “the end justifies the means.” But it’s rarely so clear, much murkier: Is it fair that Uhuru Kenyatta paid youth under-the-table to fight a rival tribe in order to preserve his beneficence that now seems to be very positive in Kenya?

Peace at all costs?

Yes, so far anyway, eventually that’s human history. For the champions of human rights who fight in the streets, it’s a battle against the clock. They have limited time to bend society to their ideas until they’re crushed.

Civil violence is growing around the world, just as it did many times previously in human history. The hours on the clock are growing longer.

We’re entering a period of enlightened conflict, perhaps because of videos transmitted in nanoseconds by watches.

“Thank God for cell phone videos because the truth will come out,” the lawyer for the Freddie Gray family said last night.

Unlike in the past, more of us see and hear the same thing. The media can’t distort it as easily as in the past.

In this new and more volatile world, those of us in privileged situations should take stock:

“The infidels have so much to lose, they can be afraid of even losing their happiness! We,” he said, lifting his eyes to the sky as his mind’s eyes pulsated with a black sun, “We have nothing, so we fear no loss.”

That short excerpt is from my book, Chasm Gorge. It’s the world’s greatest terrorist explaining why he fights to the death.

The difference between those who have less and those who have more will not last in the new world. How much must be given away by us privileged is being determined by the battles being fought right now, from Baltimore to Johannesburg.

There’s no question a redistribution will occur. The question is how will it occur? Democratically or ruthlessly?

On Safari: Nairobi at Night

On Safari: Nairobi at Night

nairobiatnightNairobi is transforming faster than a teenage girl getting ready for the prom.

I arrived on time with Swiss from Zurich at 6 p.m. sharp. The airport is like a transformer being born, huge amounts of new terminal construction. As always airport staff was prompt, courteous and professional. The bus that took us to the temporary international arrivals hall was clean and swift.

I bought a visa, picked up my luggage in the new somewhat hiphop carousel area (with its popular music, many ads and neon red painted piping) walked out into the beautiful Nairobi air, picked up a 100,000 shillings in a snap from an ATM, ordered a cab, bumped into an old friend, and was in the car heading into town in 18 minutes and 14 seconds after we landed.

And I got to my hotel two hours later.

It’s “Members Night” — the local vernacular for Friday night party time. I was on the three-lane superhighway into town, designed for us to speed over the underpasses and under the overpasses, but the traffic in both directions was absolutely unbelievable.

First of all, it’s one giant industrial city from the airport to the city center. The new buildings are immense and many still in construction. The cars on the road all seem new, from BMWs to Hummers to the main city brand, Toyotas.

My fabulous cab driver new all the backroads, which were also clogged but at least were moving. When we did stop we had time to buy excellent CDs, all copied music and music videos pirated from major stars around Africa, for Ksh 100/ each. That’s about 90 cents. Each CD had the requisite 13 or 14 songs.

At least it gave us something to do when stopped in traffic. Because after all, you can’t trust a hawker with a pirated music CD. You’ve got to play it through!

When we finally got to the fabulously new and spectacular Villa Rosa Kempinski there was new delay, which I understand is true at every hotel. Every car is thoroughly patted down, with lights and metal detectors, before it’s let in to the normal cul-de-sac.

The security guys are friendly, excellently dressed as if coming from a ball, and spoke perfect English (to me) and German (to the clients in front of me).

Then at the entrance to the hotel several attendants took my luggage — no, I couldn’t take it myself, because it had to be carefully scanned and searched.

I had to walk through a metal detector that was more sensitive than the TSA one I walked through in O’Hare.

Then, finally, I checked in. And like so many hotels today in Nairobi, you aren’t just checking into a hotel. You’re checking into a huge walled complex of multiple restaurants, shops, fitness centers, pools and outdoor cafes.

The vibe in Nairobi is amazing. This city will one day rule the world. But for the moment, for tonight anyway, it’s almost as if a war is going on.

“It is,” the bellman explained to me immediately.

“The War on Terror.”

Good Morning, Nairobi!

Good Morning, Nairobi!

NairobiGrouseThis morning Nairobi got good news: the yellow-throated sandgrouse was photographed drinking in Nairobi National Park.

Scratching your head? Let me bring a smile to your face.

Will Knocker’s photograph above is of the three sandgrouse this morning in Nairobi National Park. (The inset is from somebody’s phone this morning, and that somebody must have been on a crane or something at the roundabout starting the street.)

Nairobi is fast becoming the second most important city in Africa, after Johannesburg. With this emergence has come more problems than you can shake your stick at. The city’s growth is unimaginable and not well coordinated. So next week there might be a high-rise being constructed on a site where a railway station is also being built.

Traffic – well, forget about traffic. Recently I was sent a picture of a bicycle pile-up in between two rows of congested vehicles on Uhuru highway. There’s a reasonable chance the inability of vehicles to move will lead to new, alternate forms of transportation, like walking.

It is, by the way, leading to new forms of work days. More and more people are going to work at ridiculously odd hours and coming home similarly, just so that going and coming will “work.”

Carved on one little side – I’d say right now about a ninth of the city’s bulging perimeter – is … absolutely unbelievably … a national big-game park.

Nairobi National Park is a legacy park to be sure. It hasn’t grown in size since it was first proclaimed in 1945 making it the oldest national park in Kenya.

But neither has it shrunk, and that’s the point.

I incorrectly predicted that it would. A highway was announced and work begun that would have transected the park and I offered a sad lament but presumed it was inevitable.

It wasn’t, and I ate crow. (Not pied crow.) Local conservationists prevailed. Yes, they prevailed on a technicality to be sure, but isn’t that how Mohammed moved the mountain?

And with efforts very similar to our American local conservation societies first modeled by Nature Conservancy, tracts of land on the opposite side of the park to the city have been secured as wildlife corridors into some of what’s left of Kenya’s wild Amboseli ecosystem.

The yellow-throated sandgrouse doesn’t come to town. It’s a country bird. In fact, it’s a prairie, massive wilderness bird. It lays 2-3 eggs in a ridiculously unsecured nest made in a slight depression in the ground. It doesn’t like people.

I see it in the Serengeti and the Mara, and cousins of it in Kenya’s Northern Frontier. I don’t see it at the mall.

Well, there you have it, a wonderful Friday piece of unfinished news. If Pterocles gutturalis made it through the morning commute, I guess I won’t give up trying.

Remembrance of Things Past

Remembrance of Things Past

rouletteterrorismFifteen years to the day is a coincidence hard to accept. If yesterday’s massive fire in the Nairobi airport was not botched terrorism, it’s time to hit the roulette tables.

Fifteen years ago the nascent global al-Qaeda bombed the American embassy in Nairobi because it was an easy target. Kenya was one of the most open African countries at the time, moving towards an opportunity for real democracy.

“Unlike today, by the end of the 1990s human rights activism was the biggest thing and many African governments with dodgy records were finding themselves diplomatically isolated,” writes Kenyan analyst Charles Onyango-Obobo in today’s Daily Nation.

Obo – like many Africans – believes that changed abruptly and the War on Terror began not with 9/11 but with the American embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam on August 7, 1998.

In Nairobi 212 people killed and an estimated 4,000 wounded. In Dar es Salaam 11 people were killed and about 85 wounded.

I was leaving a late breakfast at the Norfolk Hotel. I had only a few chores left to prepare for a family safari I was guiding that was arriving the next evening from Europe.

Normally back then I was up before dawn swimming in the Norfolk’s pool, then hitting the buffet table as it opened at 630a. But preparations for the safari had gone unexpectedly well. There wasn’t a lot left to do but enjoy the lovely August day in Nairobi.

I had just gotten back into my room, one of the old (since removed) cottages at the edge of the Norfolk gardens when I heard a loud blast. It was 1030a. The sky had been completely clear as is the custom in August; the day fresh and breezes light.

Soon I found myself with many others who had also left their rooms as we gathered in the central garden of the hotel. There wasn’t any serious fear at that time. Likely a gas main exploded or something like that.

The Norfolk is about 2 miles from where the blast took down the American embassy. It was about ten minutes after the single blast, as we were all milling about in the garden speculating on some typical African lack of infrastructure, when the sky seemed to grow pregnant with debris.

A small, child’s size pair of broken glasses fell on my right shoe, then came the bits of torn clothing, and lastly, paper and other lightweight things like flowers or grass. Everyone stood motionless. It was hard immediately to put it all together. The falling debris ended almost as soon as it began.

A few minutes later my trusted Nairobi manager walked unusually fast up to me in the garden. Without any of the normal and very polite morning introductions about how you slept and did you enjoy your breakfast, etc., etc., Peter immediately insisted that a bank building had been blown up by the government that was trying to divert attention from a strike by bankers and teachers that was quickly going national.

It seemed plausible but everyone including us returned to our rooms to turn on CNN. It was hardly 11 a.m. CNN had live pictures from Nairobi, and was reporting that the Dar-es-Salaam embassy had just been blown up as well.

Peter left immediately without saying a word. We had another safari out in the bush. He didn’t need to explain what he had to do. I went to the phone and tried calling home, but the lines were jammed.

My personal driver showed up shortly thereafter. Our lives were now defined by sitting around the TV watching CNN. In those days I had a Grundig short wave, and not even the BBC was reporting as quickly and completely as television’s CNN. Local Nairobi radio stations were doing little more than reporting CNN.

As the extent of the blast was becoming understood, a palpable fear developed among foreigners. It struck me then as now how irrational that is. The event was over, and yet the effective terrorism is so surprising that what people are really reacting to is the immediacy of surprise, and the sense of having to flee to avoid another surprise is overwhelming.

In the lobby my driver, James, and I literally pushed ourselves through guests that were simultaneously trying to checkout, get cabs, contact home and airlines, and get the hell out of dodge.

I thought we were going to James’ rover, but he explained that was pointless since the city was being shut down, so we switched direction and headed down University Avenue directly towards the center city.

Remember that it was still a brilliant, crisp and cool August morning. This is the middle of the long dry season and everything sort of cracks under your feet. Suddenly, I realized that the normal buzz of Nairobi traffic was missing. There were sirens, not many, but the loud chocking diesel trucks and horns of the impatient were dead silent.

University Avenue goes right down the middle of Nairobi University, but most of the students were gone on holiday. Those who remained and many staff were outside milling about aimlessly, looking at James and me I thought suspiciously as we walked faster and faster towards the center city.

And that’s when I finally started to get control of my thoughts, again. What was I doing? Was this just ambulance chasing? Then, of course, I realized James wasn’t at all like that. Older, much wiser than me, he knew we had a responsibility to figure out for ourselves what was happening. We had two families with children scheduled to arrive tomorrow and another 12 people somewhere in Samburu.

But the university students eyed us as weirdos, though I noticed more fear than sarcasm in their staring at us. And then as we reached the end of University Avenue, the smells that had replaced the typical morning noise confirmed that something horrible had happened.

We crossed the normally very busy University Way Avenue as if it were a Sunday morning and continued right onto Muindi-Mbingu street. Normally I would do a little fearful dance from pothole to pothole to skip across this very busy street. Now, only a single tiny car sped just in front of us, then the street was empty.

I looked up and saw the black mushroom cloud. I looked down Muindi-Mbingu street where we were headed and it was empty. How did so many people and cars leave so quickly? We walked right past our office at the corner of University Way and Muindi-Mbingu then down towards the market. There were some people, like the students, lining the street as we passed, standing sort of aimlessly not even looking at the black mushroom cloud.

Outside the normally congested market there was much more activity, but it was also remarkably calm. I realized the people who hadn’t fled the city were now simply waiting for news.

We got as far as Kenyatta Avenue before we were stopped. Here along Nairobi’s main street and promenade were lots of people, certainly not the tens of thousands that would normally be in Nairobi working on a Friday morning, but enough to create several lines of spectators obediently standing quietly behind police lines.

I remember one big policeman facing us, looking incredibly dire but forceful, his eyes locking with mine long enough to make some judgment then moving on to the next person who interested him, his expression never changing.

Unable to move across Kenyatta Avenue, we started to walk down the police lines towards Kimathi Street. Kenyatta had been cleared for emergency vehicles, but of course there weren’t many, so the street was basically empty. It was as if people were waiting for a parade.

At Kimathi the entire street was blocked by official vehicles. We started to cross but a policeman stopped us, and grabbing James’ arm and pulling him out of the crowds around us towards me, I shouted to the policeman, “I’m staying at the Hilton! I need to get to my room!”

The Hilton was hardly five blocks from the embassy and in the dead center of the city. The poor policeman looked worried then let us go. In fact, many people at this juncture were managing “to go.” Non official people seemed to be moving in every which direction. We were inside the police lines and headed to the Hilton and suddenly the streets were crowded.

Hundreds of people flooded into the streets that would normally be congested with cars. As we wove among groups of people standing calmly and silently on the street towards the Hilton I saw how big the black fire cloud was. It looked like something out of a movie. It didn’t seem to move, to blow away or reconfigure. It just hung there.

And the smells were changing. It wasn’t diesel becoming charcoal becoming burnt wood. It was worse. It was petrochemicals like acrid plastic burning, and even worse than that, and I wiped my eyes.

We pushed our way down Kimathi Street, past the New Stanley and across Mama Ngina street purposefully towards the Hilton. We couldn’t get further. The streets were jammed with people, with officials trying to open corridors for emergency vehicles. Outside the front of the Hilton, where many of its own residents had emptied into the street, I heard my first real wailing.

I saw a woman weaving back and forth holding her profusely bleeding head. A bystander perhaps was trying to navigate her out of the crowds, and the crowd opened wide as she and her tender walked towards the hotel. I remember she was wearing a long red dress and had coiffed black hair and I remember particularly that nothing seemed burned or ripped on her.

James had stopped walking and was staring hopelessly at the ground at his feet. People were bumping us helter-skelter. I realized we couldn’t go on. We turned around and tried pushing our way through the hordes towards the Hilton’s front entrance.

With each second the smells got worse. It seemed that something sudden, like a new siren or a child’s scream or someone shouting would always be followed by an interval of silence filled by some awful smell. It was probably mostly rubber and plastic, but it was terrifying to realize it was something much worse, too.

“It is therefore … time to examine how the fight against ‘international terrorism’, which broke out in earnest after those August 7, 1998 bombings, has impacted our societies and politics,” Obo writes 15 years later to the day.

We couldn’t get into the Hilton. There were too many people, and the Headman was Crixus incarnate keeping anyone without a hotel key from getting past him. We slowly maneuvered back Kimathi Street, back up Kenyatta Avenue, back finally to our office where we pow-wowed with Peter.

There were four of us, and we were each entrusted with a certain important message … to the folks on safari, to the folks coming, to my home office in Chicago, and charged with finding some phone somewhere that would work. We all left hurriedly.

Two hours later having each completed our task, we were to meet back at the office, but we couldn’t. We were blocked by Israelis with dogs as they extended the perimeter around the now locked-down city.

But wise James knew an alley the Israelis didn’t, and he motioned me to quickly follow him. We had a brief few minutes inside the perimeter just as night was falling.

I had become more and more worried that the Kenyans would start to blame Americans; that Islamic terrorists, now claiming responsibility for the bombing, would have the support of the local population. I’d said as much to my staff.

But James took me only a few blocks and we peaked out of the alley onto Kigali Road. I stood, speechless, watching the city’s main mosque burn to the ground.

The response from the local population was just the opposite that I had feared: At least for those few hours of August 7, 1998, the prosecution and jury weren’t needed. Kenyans were burning the temple of the Islamists.

As night fell and I was now sequestered inside the Norfolk, which was just outside the perimeter of the city, a bunch of British soldiers marched down University Avenue in front of the hotel. Everyone raced to the bar to watch them in silence.

The sirens ebbed. Night covered the black cloud. The FBI arrived the next morning in stereotypical black suits and narrow black ties and for the life of me I was not going to give up my cottage to one of them: they were late. The Israelis, their dogs and British had it all under control. The men in black suits were tardy, again.

And that night of the day after the bombing I greeted my family safari arriving at the airport. We had of course contacted them in Europe and given them the option of not coming. But they were rational about the whole thing. Lightning rarely strikes in the same place twice.

Or something like that. That was when our phrases about terrorism began. When our tolerance of such massive evil was forced on us. And when we would begin to make many mistakes trying to figure out how to respond.

Obo is right. It wasn’t 9/11 in New York where the War on Terror began. It was August 7, 1998, in Nairobi.

Yesterday was no coincidence.

Nairobi Fire – Is It Terrorism?

Nairobi Fire – Is It Terrorism?

IsNBOfireterrorismIs this terrorism? What should stranded passengers do?

An incredibly massive and fast moving fire destroyed Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta’s international arrivals area early this morning.

Stranded passengers should contact their airline; there’s no alternative. If you’re on the ground in East Africa your ground operator will assist you.

Passengers planning to travel soon to East Africa via Nairobi might consider quickly rebooking to another airport. My best guess is that near normal international traffic into Nairobi will begin in about a week.

Then, from a week to two weeks out, it’s likely some flights will be canceled to reduce the load, it’s likely that some flights will be diverted as they were last night to (first) Mombasa, (second) Kilimanjaro and (third) Entebbe. Nevertheless, your ground operator will easily work around this alteration of arrival.

After 15 days or so, normal traffic will resume, although the airport arrival and departure procedures in Nairobi will likely be delayed. For this reason if you hold a short connecting time connection in Nairobi, consider rebooking now for at least the next several months.


There are frightening signs that this is terrorism. First, today is the 15th anniversary of the Nairobi embassy bombing. Second, had the suddenly erupting fire been 2 hours later, the terminals would have been full of arriving passengers.

Jomo Kenyatta Airport is one of the least secure airports in the world. Passengers often notice multiple secure checks, because the individual airlines don’t trust the government personnel, so they follow the normal airport security with their own.

Monday’s short airport closure, we were told, was because of a sudden loss of jet fuel. That’s incredibly suspicious. Major airports do not run out of gas.

If – and this is a very big IF – this is the reason the western world went into lockdown this last week, then we have another example of botched terrorism. That doesn’t mean it’s not scarey, just that if this is the best they can do, thank goodness.

Nice Nairobi

Nice Nairobi

There is no more simple example of the battle between development and wilderness than a highway. Friday the wilderness won in Nairobi.

Following the successful world-wide opposition to the Serengeti Highway project several years ago, last week’s remarkable effort by local conservationists in Kenya to stop the proposed highway through Nairobi National Park seems particularly exceptional.

This because it was almost entirely local. A combined effort from a number of local wildlife organizations and a few prominent conservation crusaders like Dr. Paula Kahumbu successfully battled several Kenyan agencies that had approved the start of the highway.

Nairobi National Park is an incredibly tiny wilderness that borders one of Africa’s largest and most sprawling cities. The battle to save it over the years has been one of those you think of as lost causes.

Birders never deserted the 40-square miles of grasslands bordered by the Athi River but many big animal enthusiasts did, particularly during droughts.

It just seemed ridiculously pointless to try to preserve a wilderness literally bordering a city that was growing so fast you can hardly move inside it, anymore. A few weeks ago I blogged about the lions that were disrupting traffic!

But I guess that should have been our glimpse into how things were going. Lions? At the edge of a city? Blocking traffic?

Before we get too ecstatic and believe that the natural order of things will always prevail, it’s important to note the judges’ decision to void the Kenyan Highway Authorities plan was also heavily based on the fact it appeared the highway was going to built too close to Nairobi’s second airport, Wilson, violating other agency regulations.

Nevertheless, the wording of the judgment and the invitation by the tribunal that the numerous wildlife authorities bringing the complaint can petition for legal cost reimbursement, suggests it might have been stopped even without this infringement on Wilson airport.

Another remarkable facet to this story is that the judge tribunal was not one in the main judicial arena, but from “NET,” the National Environmental Tribunal. Think of this as Kenya’s EPA, but it has wider judicial powers. While its ruling could be appealed to a higher court, it can’t be sued like the EPA can.

The problem is that Nairobi’s become too big. No one dare suggest a population count, despite a recent census, because the seven slums that surround the city (parts of one which actually abut the national park) make such counts so inaccurate. But many city planners are using something around 5 million.

That makes it seem tiny when compared to Shanghai or Mexico City, but given the fact it has doubled its size in less than a decade gives city planners serious concern.

And no more obvious concern than driving to work. Or for that matter, a tourist driving from the airport. Please note: Do Not Arrive Nairobi on a weekday morning, unless you don’t mind a two-hour commute over about eight miles.

One wonders what type of people can tolerate such nerve-wracking oppression? But that’s been the wonder about Africa for centuries. Once slavery. Now traffic congestion.

But above all this tale should remind us that the most powerful advocates for preserving Africa … are Africans.

Terrifying Nairobi Commute

Terrifying Nairobi Commute

The picture of lions disrupting traffic on the Ngong side of Nairobi is all over the internet, and it’s one of the best examples to date of the terrible predicament big game has in modern Africa.

I must have received the photo above a dozen times from my loyal readers, so thank you! You can easily find a whole gallery of these blokes by simply choosing “images” on your Google search bar, and typing in “Lions Nairobi Road.”

The Nairobi National Park has always been a misplaced natural wonder. The very first thing you see even today when driving out of the Nairobi airport is the national park, pitifully divided from your highway access by a fence that would have a hard time keeping my lab at bay.

It’s always laid beside the city, even in the old days. It’s always touched the airport. Today one of its seven gates is 4½ miles from the center of the giant megalopolis of Nairobi. This is about as far as the main Broadway Theaters are from Central Park.

In the old days, of course, Nairobi was a cow town with lots of grass and trees and not too many people or buildings. The first thing Kathleen and I did after we first arrived Nairobi in the early 1970s was to rent a car and drive into the park.

We paid our fees, drove about 45 or 46 seconds, and stopped in front of a rhino that was not pleased to have been found.

Until four or five years ago the park suffered some serious setbacks, and many of us were pretty sure it wouldn’t last. The city was exploding and today is one of the most congested megalopolis on earth.

City planning lagged building construction, and today’s highways and skyscrapers are turning Nairobi into an architectural nightmare. It reflects the unstoppable growth of Kenya, and this daunting “progress” concerned a lot of local citizens who love Nairobi National Park.

Motivated by a government decision to lay another highway, but this time right through the middle of the park, the concerned citizens formed a foundation.

The Friends of Nairobi National Park has become one of the most proactive local conservation groups. I think we should take pause from time to time and realize that the celebrity foundations that make it onto our TV, like Daphne Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage and the like, are sometimes disconnected from local needs and aspirations.

FONNAP is just the reverse. Its membership, funding and power are all local, and it’s simply because Nairobi citizens want to save the park, the same way New Yorkers want to save Central Park.

Of course there’s a few bigger things in Nairobi than Central Park, and that’s the problem. Like when lions disrupt the morning commute.

That may have been comic relief to some of the mid level executives who missed their breakfast brief that morning because of it, but it is a harbinger of things to come. And in good ways it represents in real, local time the dilemma we understand better from abroad:

People or Animals?

FONNAP is taking a lot of its direction from American conservation organizations. In association with government agencies like the Kenya Wildlife Service as well as supporting NGOs, land on the outskirts of the park on the opposite side of the city is slowly being bought up or leased by the foundation to keep that southeast side unfenced.

This has allowed a good and renewed migration of many animals that continue across wilderness to places like Amboseli National Park.

Local farmers and land owners receive about $4 per hectare per year to keep their land adjacent the park unfenced. For many ranchers this is a no brainer, for they’ve been successfully raising stock among wild animals for generations.

The successful program spearheaded by the African Wildlife Foundation has been a real success story. And together with a great range of other private endeavors, nearly 16,000 hectares of private land has been attached to the park essentially more than doubling its protected size.

So for the time being, anyway, Nairobi National Park survives, and frankly, I’m rather impressed at what the future may hold.

Leaping out of The Wild

Leaping out of The Wild

Yesterday eland was photographed in Nairobi National Park. It’s enough to make you believe the wilderness will be preserved!

There is hardly anything as anomalous in the wild as Nairobi National Park. Three of its four sides abut some of the highest low-rise human population densities on earth, including some of its most truculent slums. Its main water source, the Athi River, is fickle and destructive and often terribly polluted.

Yet this biggest of Nairobi’s parks still manages to sustain big game like lion, zebra, hartebeest, impala and eland, the biggest antelope on earth.

Imagine taking the narrowest side of New York’s Central Park and extending it over the Hudson, over (or under) I-90 and eventually into the Jersey forests. That’s what Nairobi National Park is like, a narrow southwest side gingerly extending towards the wilderness near Amboseli past concrete factories, giant warehouses and manicured ranches.

I think of eland as a real indicator species, but not in the traditional sense. Normally an indicator species is a fragile one, an animal or bird that is endangered by shifts in its ecosystem. The eland is different. It’s one of the most adaptable on the big game.

In the wild and seemingly endless plains of the southeast Serengeti, somewhere west of the big Lemuta Kopjes, hundreds of eland in family groups that size roam with the greatest timidity. Though each animal approaches 1600 pounds, they are extraordinary shy.

As we approach within a mile, they start running away, and they’re amazing runners. Almost without moving the rest of their bodies an inch, the legs start trotting as if the rest of the body is resting on a railway car. The feet go quicker and quicker moving the giant animal upwards of 30-35 kph.

Then, one – often the leader – leaps! This giant animal can leap 8-10′ into the air, creating this graceful arch over the plains. Soon they’re all leaping that from a distance looks like a line of boiling and popping cooking oil.

Rarely in the wild do we get within a mile or two.

Yet eland can be domesticated easier than any other antelope! In fact there was a period when Kenyans tried to farm them. The problem was that the meat wasn’t very tasty. But like a wild horse, once captured and fenced the eland becomes nearly a pet.

The eland in Nairobi National Park are very tame and according to one observer, now confined to the park, too weary to leave through the narrow corridor southwest. Technically, they haven’t been captured or fenced since the park is fenced on three sides only. But for all practical purposes they have been fenced by a rapidly growing human society.

So instead of leaping away, they are posing for pictures!

The Nairobi National Park is no San Diego Wild Animal Park. It’s much bigger; it has a much greater diversity of wildlife that benefits or suffers from the radical changes in climate, today; and it actually has far fewer visitors.

But it is absolutely the best, and surprisingly so, of the earlier wild. And the fact that we might have lost the eland’s leap for its presence might just not be so bad.