Africa as a continent is a Pandora’s box, you never know what to expect next. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Kenya in 2007 to attend World Social Forum 2007 with the theme “Another world is possible”. For me it was my first experience of the continent. I had mostly read about Africa in the novel Chander Pahar (Mountain of the Moon) by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay where it was described more like a dark continent with wild animals roaming all around. To me I always imagined Africa with these in mind thus was awestruck with the stark contrast in the living standards. Basically in Kenya or rather whole of Africa you have two class of people, rich and poor. Middle class is non-existent thus you see people in the streets sniffing glue to stop the hunger and also find people in their convertible Merc’s.
This blog will be about a particular incident which changed my whole attitude about Kenya and Africa as a whole. My whole trip around Kenya went very well and especially the trip to Masai Mara which I will write in details later. This particular incident took place on the last day of my trip.
Return Tickets Cancelled
The day started just like any other day in Kenya, bright sunshine, good breakfast with sumptuous servings of mashed potatoes, bread and bacon. This particular day I had kept it free for shopping as I had a huge list from all my cousins. This was also the day that I take my flight back to India via Doha. My room partner Rafael Uzcategui from Venezuela also agreed to come along as he had similar shopping list with him. We both decided to take Matatu (Local Taxi Minivan) to Kenyatta Avenue from where we intended to walk around the city centre. All of a sudden I get a call from the guest house attendant that there was a call for me from Qatar Airways. I was informed over phone that there were some issues in my reservation and they had tried to call me up earlier and for some reason my name was not in the reservation list for the next day flight out of Nairobi to Doha.
For a few second I was completely numb as I did not know what to do next. I was informed by the guest house attendant that Qatar Airways office is new Kenyatta Avenue so we can stick to our original plan. So I quickly took my shower and got ready to catch Matatu.
Taxi stand was just a minutes’ walk from guest house and since we have been using Matatu service for quite some time so we were aware of the rates and routes. This time however for some reason I and Rafael were the only passengers at the taxi stop. Within a minute a Matatu came to the stand and we got up.
The Fake Bus And Fake Passengers
For some reason everyone on the taxi were sitting seriously, some reading newspaper, some with huge posters and some looking absolutely straight out of the window. I sat in the front row whereas Rafael took the back seat. It was spooky but we got up anyways. The taxi driver was driving the Matatu at an unusual high speed and often breaking without any reason. The turnings were equally sharp and most of the occupants were falling over each other. However the guy reading the newspaper was unaffected he kept holding the newspaper open covering almost entirely the back seat.
I had some feeling in the back of my head that this ride isn’t a usual one and all seems to be a show of sort. Its then I realized that this is a one big scam.
The guys reading the newspaper was covering up the other guys trying to pickpocket my friend Rafael. Unfortunately I could not speak to him since I knew we were trapped. The guy sitting next to me carrying large posters were of no good either, he was trying to cover up my backpack so that his friend could cut the outer layer with something.
I lifted the bag from the floor and put it on my lap and sat the rest of the journey hugging it tightly. Kenyatta Avenue taxi stand came and we both got down, I was relieved that I was safe but Rafael was not. He just realized that his back pocket had been cut and nearly 1000 US Dollars had been stolen. He did realize that something was wrong in the taxi but thought I was the victim and did not pay attention to himself.
However we were relieved that the journey had come to an end with our lives being spared. We had heard stories about tourist being robbed of everything in Matatu.
Rafael had backup cash so he decided to go for shopping but I decided to head to Qatar Airways office to sort out the reservation issue. We decided to meet up at a particular point after two hours. On reaching the Qatar Airways I was told about the booking issue and was recommended to head to the airport to get it resolved.
I met up with Rafael after two hours and this time we decided to take a hired taxi and not shared Matatu. On my way back I had negotiated with the Taxi driver to drop me back to the Airport. On reaching the guest house I quickly packed up my bags and headed straight to the airport.
Held At Gun Point
I requested the taxi driver to drive fast since I wanted to reach the Airport as soon as possible to get some hope of securing a reservation in the evening flight to Doha. The driver took a short cut and that was the biggest mistake of the entire trip.
After a while I could not see any traffic on the road and it was only me and the Taxi. With the morning experience I was apprehensive about another scam coming my way. With a minute or so I spot a road block, the taxi comes to a screeching halt and from all around men in military fatigue turn up around the Taxi.
One of the men in uniform holding an AK47 come to my window and asks me something in Swahili. I nodded my head and told him “hawezi kuelewa Swahili” which I had picked up earlier that it means “I cannot understand Swahili”. Then another guy in uniform comes to my window and tells me to handover the passport. Since I had no option I obliged and handed him over my passport.
They spoke something between them and then one of them asked me to give them 10,000 Kenyan Shillings. At that time the conversion rate was almost half but I had no intention of giving them money for no apparent reason. All this while the taxi driver just sat still in his seat with no movements at all. I knew that this was another trick to extract money from travellers so I decided not to give in this time.
I told them upfront and straight that I was not paying moreover I was a student and did not have that much of a cash. This argument continued for nearly ten minutes and then finally their chief (boss) came out of the bushes. He looked up straight into my eyes and asked me in typical African English pronunciation “You work for Red Cross”.
At first I did not understand his accent and he repeated gain “You work for Red Cross”. Its then I realized that I was wearing a Switcher Tshirt which had a big red plus (+) sign on it which the chief had thought was a Red Cross symbol. I immediately improvised and told him that I was a student volunteer for Red Cross. The chief immediately told something to his subordinates in Swahili and then he told me “You can go”.
It took some time to settle in the gravity of the situation and finally realized that a tshirt had saved my life. It’s another thing that I missed my flight as my reservation could not be finalized and had to wait another day to leave Kenya. But that’s another story which I shall tell in my next blog. In the meantime Asante kwa kusoma blog yangu (Thank you for reading my blog).
Illustration of gunman by D Madison (http://dm404.deviantart.com/art/At-gunpoint-10840888). Illustration of Matatu from (imgarcade)