Thar She Goes: A Farewell to Luck

When people go abroad, they sometimes fail to realize they aren’t the stars of some invisible travel show. A fantastical world where risky endeavors go off without a hitch, save for a few kicky hijinks, imagined out in montage form. This, of course, guarantees that when a wrench is thrown into the works, the world must grind to a halt so the situation can be resolved immediately. For such travelers, I would suggest steering well clear of Africa, where luck exists only on a moment-to-moment basis.

Despite my distinct lack of trouble in Nairobi, walking around alone, haggling, striking up conversations and making small connections, the city persisted with it’s bad reputation. The US State Department issued a number of warnings after some grenade attacks late last year. Combine these issues with some fairly high-attention kidnappings near the Somali boarder and the international reaction has been considerable. Some governments have gone so far as to label Kenya at a threat level 4, on par with Afghanistan. When talking to the expat and NGO community in Kenya, while most assure you that killing a tourist is practically unfathomable in regards to one-on-one crime, you rarely hear of anybody who stays for more than a few months without getting mugged or robbed. “It’s practically a right of passage,” an English teacher named Angela told me. She was driving me to a pub quiz at a diplomatic compound just outside Nairobi proper.

To enter the compound involved passing through two steel gates, a mirror check of the undercarriage, a trunk and engine inspection, and then another steel gate. Inside, the complex parking lot was dotted with red license plates, indicating a high presence of diplomatic figures. In a club house set around a back lit pool and surround sound speakers. A man on a microphone read off questions as employees of various embassies took sips of Tusker Beer and scrambled for points.

Later that evening, Angela made the rounds, dropping off a few friends from the quiz. After saying our goodbyes to a French teacher, we pulled through his apartment’s security gate and back out into the night. It was only moments later that a car coming from the other direction swerved directly in front of us and rammed our car straight on. “This is a bloody hijacking,” Angela yelled as the car stopped directly in front of us. She slammed the dusty Subaru into reverse and sped backwards down the dark road. “Shit, there’s another car,” she yelled, as a small sedan with no lights on pulled up behind us. And then, her car died.

Angela tried desperately with the ignition as I unbuckled my seat belt, deciding that running into the nearest apartment complex (which are all monitored by private security guards) was probably a better bet than staying in the car and seeing what the hijackers wanted from me. Meanwhile Angela had managed to get the car started and pulled forward, only to have it jerk to a halt again. The car that had initially slammed into us began to open it’s door. I craned my neck to see if he was armed, and it was then that she finally managed to get the engine to turn over, got the car in drive, and swerved around him and down the street.

We sped around a corner, not looking for oncoming traffic as we hightailed it down one of the busier throughways in the area. I checked behind us and didn’t see either of the cars. As we started to calm down, she explained that this was not her first time being hijacked. Before, she had been pulled from her car with eight guns trained on her. “Mostly they don’t give a fuck about you and it’s fine,” she said, her voice shaky with adrenaline. “But they’ll take everything. Welcome to Nairobi.”

The next day I found myself in the back of a matatu headed downtown. A matatu is the East African answer to metro transit. Dilapidated vans, usually packed with at least 14 individuals, speed down the roads (or lurch down, depending on traffic), pulling in and out of their lanes, while the ticket man hops on and off, enticing those waiting at bus stops to hop on. In recent years, there has been work to control and legislate the matatu situation, with “Compliant” buses (which is both the company name, and their whole point) not accepting more passengers than there are seats for them. For 20-60 Kenyan shillings (about 30 cents), you are able to go almost anywhere in the city with very little hassle.

I headed toward the train station so I could take care of my ticket to Mombasa. As I booked my second class ticket, the woman at the station looked at me and declared, “You’re a lucky girl.” When I asked why, she responded that this was the last train that would be running to the coast in the foreseeable future. Nairobi-Mombasa, one of the oldest lines in all of Africa, was notorious for taking two or more days (despite being advertised as a 14-hour overnight sleeper) and was scheduled to undergo maintenance until who knows how when.

I walked back to Uhuru Park, a rolling green oasis tucked into the corner of Nairobi proper. Packed full of ice cream vendors, lakes, boats, and walking paths, I sat down in the shade of a tree. It was no time at all before a preacher walked up and started his sermon. At first to nobody, but soon men in suits began to gather around him. The preacher, his pitch soaring and falling as he swung between English and Swahili ranted about the issues facing the Kenyan people. “Everything is falling apart, and the center cannot hold. And where is the center? The center is your heart.” He cites how Solomon chased the wind and asks the crowd, “What are you chasing?” He demands that everyone with love in their heart stand. About 14 men, all dressed to the nines despite spending their afternoon sleeping in the park, get up out of the grass and raise their hands in the air. “I implore you to forgive,” says the preacher. “If there is love in your heart, you must forgive.”

The next day I boarded the train to Mombasa. I was the only one in my compartment so I shut off the lights and watched as the train rolled out of the city. We lazily passed through the more industrial areas of Nairobi, rounded a way point, and then picked up considerable speed as we headed through the slums. Shanty houses, stacked mere inches away from the tracks, had no electric light coming from them. Rather, fires, either burning trash or roasting food, illuminated alleyways filled with puddles of waste. I watched as children flung rocks at the train filled with rich white tourists headed for the coast. We roared through and out into the star lit evening. Once the glow of the city was out of sight, it slowed down and maintained a leisurely pace through the countryside.

I stared out the window for what felt like an indefinite period of time. The constellations grew brighter and the milky way came into full view. The train occasionally honked its horn as animals no doubt wandered onto the tracks. In the morning, we rolled past tiny villages filled with children waving to the train. Some asked for handouts, no doubt given by a few passengers hanging out the windows. Women washing clothes in buckets and standing outside of earthen homes stared indifferently as we rolled by.

Village near Tsavo
On the way from Nairobi to Mombasa

At noon, the train finally arrived at it’s destination: Mombasa – an old trading post town that serviced most of the Arab and Indian world, and spun its own lively mix of African, Arab, and Indian cultures. The mosques here call out to pray five times a day, and the streets are mixed with clothing from East Africa to Asia. While Mombasa is safer than Nairobi when it comes to violent crime, and far more open to tourists in a general sense, there is no lack trouble one can get themselves into here. I fully intend to search out every bit of it I can find.

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Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

8 thoughts on “Thar She Goes: A Farewell to Luck”

  1. This sounds like a fantastic trip! My sister just came back from a 3-year posting in Senegal, I went to visit her three times and it was phenomenal.  She’s travelled all over Africa for work, and she’s been mugged (one bad one in Morocco…) and had her hotel rooms broken into a few times, but overall she’s loved her experiences there – the worst I experienced was a bit of street harassment and a couple of gastro incidences (this after cockily stating that I wouldn’t get sick since I survived Thailand and Vietnam without incident).  I can’t wait to go back someday and see a bit more of the continent – have no idea how I’d handle myself in a hijacking though, yikes!

  2. I’m flying to Dar es Salaam tomorrow.  This is my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, and I don’t know quite what to expect.  I’ll be staying in Tanzania for the entire time, bouncing around between country and cities.   I’m sure all sorts of shenanigans will ensue. Good luck on the rest of your trip!

  3. Minus the trains, this could have been an article on Venezuela, the capital city, Caracas, which last year earned the dubious honor of becoming the most violent city in the world.  I’m Venezuelan, but haven’t gone back to visit since Chavez took power, over 15 years ago.  At first it was because of money, later because of the increasing violence. Finally, when I got married I decided I had way too much to lose to risk a visit. They track who comes in and out of airports, and the police and military are very corrupt.

    This year, I sort of started thinking about going, since, after all, so many of my friends and family go back and forth and nothing ever happens to them. Three days after deciding I’d look into it, I found out that my uncle and his wife were in a restaurant in the small town they live in, when 6 armed and masked men came in and robbed everyone. They then asked who owned the SUV outside-it was my uncle’s. One of the men put a gun to his head and demanded the keys.  They drove the car about 2 hours away and dumped it for a few days, to see if it was armed with GPS.  It was.  My uncle found his car through his Iphone app and went to go get it. He drove it for about 20k when the engine blew out. They’d put sugar in the gas tank. It was as if they were trying to say “if we can’t have your car, then you’re not getting it either”.

    This is just one of the dozens of things that have happened to my friends and family.  Muggings, car-jackings, plane-jackings, even kidnapping.  It never ends. Meanwhile, the poor get poorer, the middle class gets the brunt of the poor’s hate, and the rich stay safe in their gated complexes and armored cars.

  4. Wow, great read. It even suppressed the little voice in my brain that goes ONLY IN KENYA, THEY HAVE LIONS every time I hear the word Kenya. (Damn you Weebles!)

    I’m off to South Africa next year with my family, and I have to admit the idea of violent crime being so prevalent terrifies me. I live in a place in New Zealand that isn’t notorious for being the safest place around (gang troubles and the like), but it would have nothing on the every day violence that can occur in Africa. We are fortunate that we’re mostly staying with South African friends, so at least we’ll be with people who are safety conscious 24/7.


        Thanks Veruna, I’m really looking forward to it. Dad is taking us there because it is his most favourite place in existence, so it must be pretty special for my father to risk an entire family holiday on a different continent!

    1. Where are you staying in South Africa? Because yes, even fellow South Africans warned me not to go into Jo’burg by myself, but Capetown for example never felt unsafe to me (this time, because the World Cup definitely made a change in that, I feel).

      I really like you for this, Olivia. I have touched little over 1 percent of the African continent and I’m glad you don’t take the easy way out, writing about all the safaris you did and cute little black kids you encountered.

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