Saturday, June 26, 2010


After a warm welcome at the airport by Wossen and Zach, I'm here in Mombasa, and this city is for sure the most chaotic, lively, and bewildering of my trip so far. Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya, and the center of Muslim and Swahili cuture on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast. Like the KiSwahili language that people here speak, the place features an eclectic mix of influences from the African, Arab, Portuguese, Indian, and British migrants, traders, and rulers that have wrestled for control of the magnificent double-harbor here. With millions of people packed in decidedly third world conditions onto a small island lying immediately off the coast, the city is confusing and fascinating.

I'm staying with my good friend Wossen at the apartment of the cousin of a Yale grad student who will be arriving in town tomorrow to help Wossen and Zach on their research project. Our gracious and hilarious host, Arfan, is a native Kenyan of Afghan-Pashtun origin, around 35 years old. Like nearly all the people I've encountered on my travels here, he is quite a character. His white collar job at one of Mombasa's many dazzling beach resorts allows him to provide for his new Pakistani bride, who I think is younger than me and speaks virtually no English or KiSwahili, and several other sisters, uncles, nephews, and nieces who keep popping in from time to time. An African maid comes every day and does all the housework and shopping.

Arfan is an exuberant guy and quite happy, it seems, to have some male company at home. Already the khat-chewing patriarch treats me and Wossen like old buddies, regaling us with wild stories of his often incarcerated friends and acquaintances, and keeping us informed on his various experiences in Islamic sharia divorce court with his myriad ex-wives. He and his family are sometimes strict Muslims, as evinced today when we got a ride into town with his uncle: I sat next to Arfan's wife, who was dressed in full all-black ninja-costume gear with only her heavily make-upped eyes showing through a little slit. Other times, however, she goes out without so much as a head covering, and Arfan certainly has no problem with us seeing her in normal indoor clothes (Pashtun tribal dress) in his own home. Some of Arfan's more tawdry stories, his conspicuous absence from mosque on Friday, and his constant complaints about the violence of Muslim jihadis--the Somali extremists who kill their countrymen for watching "un-Islamic" World Cup games are a particular source of ire--further reveal he is not a Wahhabi. He is, however--like most Muslims around these parts, I suspect--very vocal about certain conspiracy theories about America, Israel, and the Jews, including the real reason for the invasion of Afghanistan and who ultimately directs the US economy. Still, living with Arfan has mostly been great, as we get most of our meals there and often are able to hitch rides around town (though we did have to go shopping ourselves to buy some toilet paper, which is apparently not popular among Mombasans).

Thursday night I hung out with some members of the Yale KiSwahili class here. While the Yale professor in charge of the program stays in what my guidebook calls "hands down the most sumptuously luxurious hotel in Mombasa," the students I visited were living in nice but small apartments with no internet and, for the several early evening hours I was there, no electricity either. On Friday, while Zach and his fellow students headed north for a field trip to the seaside town of Malindi, Wossen and I made our own beach trip, taking a ferry and four mutatus south to Diani, an incredibly beautiful resort town. Mutatus are the funky privately run minibus-taxis that clog the streets here and offer you rides on set routes for the equivalent of about 25 cents. They are operated by two-man teams of a driver and "conductor" who yells the destination to passersby, lets the driver know when to stop to pick up or drop off someone, and collects the fare from passengers. Mutatus all look more or less exactly the same, differentiated only by the type of Reggae and Hip hop blaring from the speakers and the wacky phrases painted on the windows and sides (often the names of American movies, songs, or pro-wrestlers, or sometimes English Premier League soccer clubs or Oakland Raiders decals). Built to seat about 14, mutatus invariably have more than 20 people in them and are driven erratically at high speeds with a maximum of unnecessary horn honking. But they are so cheap, especially when compared to the three-wheeled "tuk-tuk" motor taxis, that it's worth it. Plus if you sit up front you can pick the music. The ferry ride back to reach Mombasa old town, which requires a fee for the several dozen cars and trucks and is free for the several thousand passengers on foot, was a cool experience; on the way back we saw the evening rush hour ferry leaving downtown Mombasa with every inch of surface--two storeys--packed with people returning home to the suburbs.

Diani beach, 12 miles south of the city, was spectacularly beautiful, featuring coconut trees, white powder sand, turquoise water, and a pleasantly hot tropical sun. I can't believe I forgot my camera; I'll have to go back Sunday or Monday to get some pictures. Wossen and I enjoyed lunch by the beach and a nice walk on the surf as we planned an offshore fishing trip, which may remain a pipe dream as Somali pirates command the seas not too far away. The only nuisances were the thought of painful sea urchins lurking beneath the waves, which kept us out of the water, and "beach boys," the local con-artists lurking around every turn.

Friday night, Wossen and I went into town to check out the nightlife, watching soccer, doing karaoke, and having a good time at a couple nightclubs before getting a little grossed out by the increasingly seedy nature of some of the establishments as the night went on. Today, Saturday, I've been helping Wossen out as we go around town to a variety of health clinics and open air events to get footage for his research project and film. We're being careful to avoid political rallies, such as the one in Nairobi last week where over a hundred people were injured by an unexplained bombing. Fortunately Mombasa seems pretty distant from most of the political debate surrounding the upcoming referendum on a new Constitution-- part of the power-sharing plan pushed by Kofi Annan and Condoleezza Rice in 2008 to alleviate the tribal resentments that led to murderous violence in the aftermath of that year's contested elections. The newly proposed constitution is almost universally recognized by Kenyans as generally a good one, but a heated debate revolves around several clauses, including one legalizing abortion in some limited cases and another enshrining sharia family courts for Muslims at the national level. Currently both these laws are already in place by statute, but like Americans fanatic about constitutional protections, most Kenyans are quite earnest about the implications of having stuff specifically outlined in the Constitution. However, I have heard whispers that some of the opposition to the proposed Constitution, led mostly by Christian churches (in a country that is 70% Christian, 30% Muslim), is being manipulated by the powerful families of former rulers and kleptocrats like Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, who fear that their vast acquisitions of land and property will be stripped from them. I don't really know all the dynamics here, and the Kenyans I've talked to about it probably don't know any better than I do.

One thing that all Kenyans I've talked to ARE united about is disgust at the rampant corruption that occurs from the national government down to the local police. I've already had two experiences driving, in Nairobi and Mombasa, where police have stopped us for no apparent reason other than to extract a bribe because of some insignificant technicality. My taxi was stopped on the way from the Bishop's compound to the Nairobi airport, and my driver instructed me to say in case I was asked that we were in a big corporation's company car--otherwise, according to the driver (later backed up by my guidebook), they would have confiscated the keys and I would have been unable to get my bags out of the trunk until I paid a hefty bribe ($50-$300). Apparently prostitutes here run a brisk business in collusion with the cops, whereby one will seduce a tipsy bar patron into indecent acts in a secluded but technically public place, and then immediately alert a policeman, who slams the unsuspecting rube with a massive bribe demand, which if unpaid results in a couple weeks in the inhuman pits that serve as African jails; marijuana peddlers practice a similar scheme on the beaches. This endemic corruption problem is dispiriting and embarrassing for Kenyans, each of whom is quick to describe a recent personal incident.

The rest of the day Wossen and I will probably see some tourist attractions in Mombasa old town or maybe try another beach. More soon!

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