Officer, Slum-Dweller, Thug

Share on

Nairobi, muzungus, City Council, NGOs, askaris, Standard Street, Toyota trucks, paddy wagons, handlers, Kenya, Swahili, Mathare, Kibera & Cokes.

N  avigating the swarm of commuters in downtown Nairobi is never graceful. It requires the agile footwork of a boxer: toe-step, pivot, side-step, collide. You try not to knock shoulders, because you never know whose shoulder you’ll knock–pregnant lady, street hawker, thug.

I was in a hurry that day, on my way to a meeting, and the sidewalk shuffle was becoming a drag. Like others hoping to make headway I dropped down onto Moi Avenue, into the thick of Nairobi’s notoriously chaotic traffic. Risky, for there is little regard for pedestrians in that overcrowded city– “The Green City in the Sun” to the quixotic, “Nairobbery” to the cynics.

I dodged one speeding matatu (mini-bus) after another, most blasting gangster rap from crackling speakers. When I made it across the street I noticed a man wearing a ridiculously oversized suit jacket, sitting on a stoop, smiling at me. I nodded politely and turned a corner down a side road. The man sprang into action.

“Hello, where are you from?” He asked.

Unusual, I thought. Apart from the occasional, “Hey muzungu!” from packs of mischievous kids, I was rarely harassed here. I didn’t wear expensive clothes, nor was I swaddled in khaki, bound for safari. In fact, I usually made sure the tattoo that covered half my arm was visible when venturing downtown, a proven deterrent against those God-fearing Kenyans who associated tattoos with rock’n’roll, and by extension, the Devil.

The man was quickly at my side. I sized him up: taller than I expected, aquiline nose, worrisome eyes, sunken cheeks, emaciated even by Kenyan standards. To me he looked Somali. I told him I was from Canada and continued on my way.

“Yes, Mr. Stephen Harper, can you spare some change for bread?” he pleaded.

The absurdity of a Nairobi beggar knowing my country’s Prime Minister caused me, against my better judgement, to stop. I offered the man a soft drink I had with me. He took it, smiled and repeated his request for money. I fished around in my pockets and handed him 150 Kenyan Shillings — about $1.60. He asked for more. I told him that was all I had.

I wished him good luck and scurried on towards the Central Business District, a curious mix of 70s-era high rises and modern towers set among clean, palm-lined avenues with functioning traffic lights. It was a good place to momentarily forget the city’s slums.

A second later, I sensed someone approaching. My spine tingled and my ass puckered as the man snuck up beside me. He was a serious, sinewy man with crooked teeth. He was dressed in soiled chinos and a black dress shirt unbuttoned two buttons too many.

“I am with City Council,” he said.

Compass Rose

Iwas warned about City Council officers. A colleague from the NGO I volunteered for told me about them over dinner one night.

“Don’t resist,” he said. “Don’t talk back. Don’t get angry and above all, do not flee, because they are everywhere downtown. If you’re unfortunate enough to have a run-in with them… just be a nice Canadian. Or pretend you’re Italian and don’t understand English. And know this: they can be ruthless and often not who they say they are.”

City Council askaris are charged with maintaining order in Nairobi. But from what Kenyan friends told me, their interpretation of “order” was seriously twisted.

City Council askaris are charged with maintaining order in Nairobi. But from what Kenyan friends told me, their interpretation of “order” was seriously twisted. They have the authority to interrogate, humiliate, fine, and imprison anyone for as little as dropping a toothpick on the sidewalk. Infamous for their brutality—in one case hacking a street hawker to death—many in Nairobi say they’d rather face a shakedown by the cops than the askaris. City Council thugs are not only fearless, they lack any sense of shame.

The askari leaned closer. He informed me that I hadn’t given money to a local beggar a few blocks prior. “No, no,” he said. “You gave money to a Zimbabwean terrorist!” He pulled out his badge as he said this and stared at me. My knees went weak, adrenaline began pumping. I felt like I had to shit.

“Is that so?” I said, trying hard to sound calm.

“Yes, yes, a very bad crime here in Nairobi,” he replied.

“How was I supposed to know he was a terrorist?” I asked. And what sort of terrorizing item can a man possibly buy with $1.60? I wondered.


Before he could answer, another man appeared. He was short. His teeth were also crooked and his face was very narrow. He wore an oversized purple dress coat and black trousers. I wanted to shove him and make a run for it, but he also had a City Council badge. He told me we were going for a walk.

I looked around. Standard Street was busy. I can outrun these two, I thought. But my friend’s warnings resurfaced. Do not fleethey are everywhere…ruthless… I took a deep breath and winced in anticipation of the short one grabbing the back of my pants, yanking them up and parading me through the streets—like I heard the askaris often do—a foreign trophy for all to gawk at.

He motioned forward and led me into an alley instead. The tall one walked close behind me. I spotted a bench and suggested we sit there and talk. “No, no,” the short one said. Again he motioned forward. “Come, just a little further.”

He led me half a block, then ushered me to a table near the back of a small, nameless café. A large man dressed in all black and an old man clutching a cane sat together at a shabby table near the entrance. There were no other patrons. Beige walls, no art, saloon doors to the kitchen. Parked outside was an unmistakable fixture of Nairobi’s streets: a battered white Toyota truck with a canopy and windows covered in steel mesh. The City Council paddy wagon. With the askaris on either side of me there was little chance for escape.

I knew that if I didn’t cooperate I’d be in for a long ride in the wagon, a night in jail, and a hearing before a corrupt judge, during which I’d be forced to haemorrhage money. Then I’d be asked to leave the country. Or worse.

I scanned the cafe for a soft-drink fridge. Nothing. There wasn’t even a server. I was intent on making the men like me, even just a little. I began by telling my askari “handlers” a little about myself, that I’d been in Kenya for a month, was on my way to a meeting, that… But I was stopped mid-sentence by the arrival of more askaris. They settled into seats at tables around me.

I used what little Swahili I knew: Ndiyo, yes. Hapana, no. Naelewa, I understand. Sielewi, I don’t understand. I told the truth, that I was working in the slums for an NGO. “Mimi si tajiri muzungu, I am not a rich white man,” I said, rubbing my thumb and forefingers together. That garnered a chuckle.

“An NGO?” the tall one asked.

“Yes, from Canada.”

“Ah, Canada,” they nodded their heads in unison. “Kenya has good relations with Canada,” the tall one said, a truth which caused them to deflate a little in their seats. It was a crack of light, an opportunity I could run with.

“Yes, yes, Canadians love Kenya,” I said. “That’s why so many of us come here to help poor people in the slums of Mathare and Makadera and Kibera. I’m working with youth groups, helping them make money from recycling plastics. Making money this way gives them hope.”

They nodded slowly. “Hope” is a loaded word here. Sometimes hope is all that someone living in a slum has. It makes a dire situation manageable, creates a sense of community, inspires ingenuity. Hope makes it possible to emancipate one’s self from poverty. The men looked away. Some of them snickered. Their handwringing stopped.

The askaris spoke quietly amongst themselves in Swahili. I got the impression that they didn’t know what to do with me. I watched a few of them fidget in their seats. I wondered if my NGO work made them feel uneasy about their intentions. I could only hope.

He reminded me of some of the men that I’d shared drinks with after a day of work in Kibera or Mathare—street smart, tough, opportunistic, sometimes ruthless, generous to those they cared about.

I turned my attention to the short one sitting across from me. He stares at me, smiling wryly as though he enjoyed what was coming next. He reminded me of some of the men that I’d shared drinks with after a day of work in Kibera or Mathare—street smart, tough, opportunistic, sometimes ruthless, generous to those they cared about. I wanted the short askari to see me for who I was. I wanted him to know that I’d spent long days working in the open sewage stink and crumbling buildings of impoverished neighbourhoods. That I was warmly welcomed into every community I spent time in. I wanted to ask him which slum he called home.

Behind him stood the tall one, his arms crossed. He tapped his fingers on his bicep as he talked with his comrades. I took note of his limp and frayed shirt collar, and the cheap, plastic watch he wore. Around him were the others. The oldest I’d seen earlier, now standing, slightly stooped over, resting on a makeshift cane made of metal piping. The youngest askari looked to be in his 20s, the only one wearing a tie. Most appeared to be in only slightly better shape than the thin Somali beggar I encountered initially.

I looked around again for a server. My mouth was dry, I was desperate for a drink. As the men continued to talk amongst themselves, I regained a slight calm, even feeling like the situation might possibly be under control. Perhaps they sensed this too, and why the short one sitting across from me motioned for the largest askari to have a crack at me.

I had noticed him sitting at a table with the old man when I was first led into the café. He wore a fitted black suit, and no expression. The entire time I avoided eye contact with him, in case he was more than a bit player. But he wasn’t. He was sitting next to me now, leaning down into my face, playing his role effectively. If I turned to him I would’ve touched his thin, scruffy moustache with my nose. I caught him sniffing me, trying to get a whiff of my fear. I leaned away from him then turned and faced him. His teeth were in a bad way, like dirty, rotting fence posts stuck haphazardly in the ground. His pupils were dilated and dark. His heavily bloodshot eyes brought to mind a madman, a deposed guerrilla commander from some forgotten African conflict. I started to panic again.

And just when I thought it was possible that this large, menacing askari was about to get physical…a glimmer of hope. A waitress appeared.

I’ve travelled enough to know that small offerings can go a long way in poor countries. A cigarette, a soft drink, a beer. I asked the bored looking server for a round of Cokes. The five bottles came to 150 shillings, the same amount I gave to the beggar. As soon as the waitress passed around the frosty drinks, the intimidation ended. All but the large askari beside me thanked me. He continued to stare me down, ignoring his drink. If there was any kindness in him, it was going to cost more than a Coke.

“Stop lying to us,” he seethed. His breath was dank and fetid. “How much money did you give the terrorist?”

I put my drink down onto the table. “Like I said, 150 shillings.”

“Impossible!” He yelled, wagging his finger. “We found 12,000 counterfeit shillings on him!”

“I gave a beggar 150 Shillings,” I said again, raising my voice. “We do this all the time in Canada. We give the less fortunate money. Had I known it was an offense I would not have done it. Mimi ni pole, I am sorry. It will not happen again.”

“Give me your bank card,” he demanded.

I brought out my wallet and showed him that I only had ID and five hundred shillings, which was true. I told him that I didn’t have a bank card at all, which was a lie. I explained that I only ever came to town with a maximum of one thousand shillings. Also true. “In case of incidents just like this,” I said.

He forced a quick, disingenuous smile then stared at me deadpan, long enough for me to imagine him throwing me in the paddy wagon and forcing me to take him to my gated apartment where my bank card was waiting. After a long while, he got up and huddled with his comrades. They talked hurriedly in Swahili for a few moments. I continued sipping my drink. Then, to my disbelief, they rose in unison and without a word scattered.

I took a breath. Just like that, it appeared to be over. The only askari that remained was the short one. He sat across from me, motioning for my five hundred shillings. I hesitated, then gave it to him.

“How do I get back home now?” I asked. “You have all my money.”

He sucked down the last of his Coke and thought for a moment. “Well, Mr. NGO from Canada,” he said, “we can’t leave you stranded, can we?”

He returned fifty shillings, walked me outside, and pointed me toward the Hilton Hotel. “Take the number 46,” he said. “That will get you home. What’s your name Mr. NGO?”

“Robert,” I told him. He took my hand, shook it. “Now we are friends, Mr. Robert.”

I walked with purpose toward the Hilton, looking over my shoulder every few steps for any signs of a tail. I stopped only to buy a couple of cigarettes and a soft drink from a street hawker.

As I hopped onto the number 46 bus I considered the Kenyan capital and the word “hope.” Never would Nairobi be the “Green City in the Sun” to me, but neither would it be “Nairobbery.” Mugging or no mugging.

I sat beside an old man wearing an over-sized suit jacket. He smiled at me. I forced a smile in return.

“Where are you from, musungu?” he asked.

“Canada,” I said. He nodded and smiled wider. “Ah yes, Canada is good.”

I pulled out the soft drink from my plastic bag and handed it over.

Rob Chursinoff has traveled to over four hundred cities in twenty-eight countries, both on personal adventures and as a professional touring drummer. He’s toughed it out on the musical road in varying degrees of comfort with Canadian bands The Belle Game, Tegan and Sara, The Be Good Tanyas and Kinnie Starr, as well as with Aussie pop star, Ben Lee. Rob lives in Vancouver, B.C., where he works as a freelance musician, travel writer and as a TV and documentary script writer/editor for Red Bull Media House.


Photo: Stephan Geyer

Share on