Gorillas on My Mind
On land grabs, lorry crashes, and lions in the night. (Africa pt. 3)
Anyway. It was a long flight. I was surrounded by the congregation of a small Presbyterian church. They were on their way to volunteer at a girls school outside Nairobi. Very nice people. I looked for something ominous in them but could find nothing.
We passed over seven countries in the dead of night. I didn’t see a one of them on account of the black sky but also the Ambien I took at 6pm Eastern, 1am East African Time. The drug had an interesting effect when paired with the antimalarials in my system. I drifted off into a hypnotic sleep.
We began to lose altitude. The congregants rose from their seats and convened at my row. They put their hands on me. The pilots emerged from the cockpit and joined them. Two large African men. One of them asked if I was ready to be saved. I asked who was flying the plane. It began to storm outside. The congregants began to hum and then pray. The flight attendant came by and placed a platter of bread and wine on my tray. Again I asked who was flying the plane. The congregant next to me tightened her grip on my shoulder. The plane abruptly dropped and several congregants fell to the floor. The pilot repeated his question: Are you ready to be saved? Yes, I said, I am ready. Save me. The flight attendant poured water into a cup and splashed it on my head. The second pilot smiled. He glided back to the cockpit and straightened us out.
A heavy patch of turbulence woke me up for good. Three hours to Kenya. My neighbor was staring at me, I must have been making noises in my sleep. The flight attendants were doing beverage service. I ordered one coffee, one orange juice and one ice water, drank all three before the cart had moved past my aisle, and ordered another round. I ate a spongy egg loaf and a dry biscuit with frozen butter. I finished Whites by Norman Rush, a short story collection about—you guessed it—whites in Africa. I continued my slog through Anna Karenina. I’d decided to read Tolstoy for the first time on this trip but I can’t remember why.
Akello picked me up from the airport. He’s part of the group of six East Africans that I would live and write with for (most of) my first week in Nairobi. We’d spoken over Zoom once before but this was our first time meeting in real life. He was taller and shyer than I expected him to be. We ordered an Uber which snaked around the protests to get us to our apartment in Kilimani, a residential neighborhood in southwest Nairobi that was ‘whites only’ until the 1960s.
A quick timeline to ground us: I landed on Wednesday, July 19th, spent three days with Akello and crew in Nairobi, split for the weekend, and then regrouped with the same crew on Monday for three days in Kajiado County. In this post I’m primarily going to discuss the weekend in between, because I can’t yet get into the work I did with the writing group. You’ll understand later.
On Saturday, I met up with Nora. Over breakfast she told me about the research she’s been conducting around the privatization of land, or ‘green grabbing,’ taking place in Northern Kenya under the guise of conservation. It goes something like this1: a wildlife conservation group builds a private army, ostensibly to protect endangered animals from the poachers trying to kill them for their tusks or skins or pelts or what have you. These groups have excellent PR—you may have seen pictures or read stories about the brave, benevolent soldiers putting their lives on the line for their love of elephants and rhinos.
The reality, I gathered, is more like this: a lion picks off a cow that belongs to a local herding tribe. The tribesmen go out and kill the lion. So it goes. The conservation group then deems the tribe a threat to the protected wildlife and forces them off of their native land by the barrel of a gun. More land for the conservation group.
As these groups (and their white European leaders) accumulate land on the Northern Kenya frontier, some believe that they have been effectively requisitioned by the state to take on security and even counter-terrorism functions. The groups rack up allegations of human rights violations, the state remains blameless, and they both share in the joys of land exploitation.2 The ‘conservation chief’ of the largest of these groups, a wealthy British Kenyan landowner named Ian Craig, recently won the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa. Nothing says “This is not neocolonialism” like being told by the British monarchy that you are doing very good things in Africa.
After breakfast we went to the Central Business District (CBD), a district that is truly teeming with business. Fast-talking men and women sell electronics, clothing and household products from blankets laid out on the sidewalk. Cars, boda bodas (motorbike taxis), tuk-tuks (rickshaws), matatus (buses), and pedestrians weave around one another in celestial patterns. The density is staggering. Nora advised me to watch my pockets, but to avoid making a scene if my phone or wallet is snatched. Thieves in Nairobi are often chased down by mobs and beaten to death. Not something I am interested in seeing.
The CBD was home to the U.S. Embassy until 1998 when it was blown up by al-Qaeda suicide bombers, killing 225 people (over 90% of them Kenyan) and injuring over 5,000. Just last week, Kenyan survivors of the attack appeared before the (Kenyan) Senate to seek compensation after it emerged that American victims were compensated under the Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act nearly 25 years ago. The Kenyan victims had received nothing. In three weeks, the case will be heard by a special committee. Among those sitting on the committee will be U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman, the Republican politician and billionaire businesswoman of the infamous $1.7B Quibi explosion in 2020. I am told she swims at the most expensive country club in town.
From the CBD, we slipped into a hidden alley and walked up a flight of stairs to the open air West African market on the top two floors of a worn down doughnut-shaped building. It was empty of shoppers and very peaceful. The air smelled like honey and tobacco. Merchants from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo and more sold handmade goods out of tiny interconnected shops. I bought a wooden wine jug and two beaded necklaces. I am a necklace guy now.
We stopped by the Kuona Artists Collective where we met a sculptor building a life-size metal giraffe. A man producing ‘Kenya’s first horror film’ asked if he could cast me in a gruesome fight scene. “You want to kill me,” I said. “Don’t you?”
I told him I was in, but the writers strike had reached into Africa and they were on indefinite hold.
At the Toi Market I bought two secondhand hats—after our hard-fought negotiation, the hat seller switched on the radio and turned the dial to a bomba station. “Now we dance,” he said, and so we did.
That evening we went to a bar called Havana in the higher-end Westlands neighborhood. So that’s where all the money was. At least a dozen old white men dined with beautiful young African women. I asked a local how he felt about it. “There are no jobs in Nairobi,” he said. “Those women are doing better than most. Don’t feel too sorry for them.”
We walked to The Alchemist, Nairobi’s premier nightclub. I hadn’t been to a proper nightclub in many years. You could feel the drum beat in your temples from three blocks away. A fight broke out on the line outside the club. Not much of a fight, really. An older, larger man threw haymakers at a younger, smaller man who looked to be about 16. He covered his head and face with his arms. Security broke it up and the belligerent was thrown out of line.
Inside it was Afrobeats all night, the sanguine fusion of hip hop, reggae, dance hall, and house music that has exploded out of West Africa into the Western airwaves. In recent years, U.S. record labels have been plundering the continent of its top Afrobeats talent—Nigerian superstars Burna Boy and Wizkid were signed by Atlantic Records and Sony Music Group respectively, ensuring that the majority of the lush African export’s profits will go to the West. Imagine that.
Racial tension is ever-present in this town. Last year a video circulated showing what appeared to be lines separated by race outside The Alchemist. Blacks were denied entry while whites and Indians were allowed in. Allegations of racism poured in against the club and its owner Peng Chen, a Chinese-American expat and Wharton graduate.
I guess it blew over. It was all smiles inside. The crowd was colorful. The DJ skipped around the stage with his friends and played hit after hit as the crowd moved in waves beneath him. The Afrobeats sound is jubilant and propulsive. The vibes were undeniably good. The smell of sweat and cigarette smoke was thick. People made out. Innocent men were being ground to dust on the dance floor. In Africa, people know how to celebrate life.
We left the club after 3am. I saw the older punchy man lurking outside, glowering, waiting for another chance at the younger guy. I wanted to intervene, but I remembered, “Stay out of their affairs.”
From Nora’s, I headed to an Airbnb on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park that sits on the property of one of Kenya’s most prominent artists, Chelenge van Rampelberg. I was greeted by Patrick, part of the ‘house help,’ and three friendly dogs, Chui (pronounced Chewy), Simba and Sport. I asked Patrick, “Is it true that lions come around here?” My driver had told me this just before dropping me off.
“Yes,” he said. “They like the dogs.”
“That’s sweet,” I said, and then I realized I’d misinterpreted his words.
My cottage was dug out of a boulder by Chelenge, Patrick and the second member of the house staff, Wilson, during the first year of the pandemic. It’s a real cave. The whole lot is made of stone, even the couch. Chelenge’s sculptures and woodcut plates are placed throughout the space. A gorilla behind the headboard. A totem next to the toilet. An African mother and child in the corner by the kitchenware. The floors and the walls are uneven. The light inside is dim but the sun is blinding when it comes up in the morning. A small deck with wooden furniture looks out at the savanna. There is no wi-fi. Everything is perfect.
It just so happened that Chelenge’s family was in town. Her daughter Rosie, son-in-law Pepo, and grandson Pau. I was invited to join them for dinner of duck stew with chapati and a doughy maize meal called ugali which soaked up the duck juices. After my fourth or fifth serving Chelenge held the serving bowl out to me and said, “Please eat, your dinner is getting cold.” She must have noticed that I have the appetite of a small elephant.
Patrick built a fire and we stayed up late talking. It was Election Day in Spain, and Pepo, a Spanish national, was anxiously awaiting news on the far-right People’s Party’s gambit to win a majority. (They did not, he was glad.) The group was remarkably well-informed on American politics. They wanted to know who else we had besides Biden to beat Trump (or DeSantis, who they knew all about). I told them not to worry as we have no one, no plan, and no national party that has shown an ability to think beyond The Capital Grille’s lunch special on any given day. We talked about the political turmoil in Kenya. The group took no sides but shared a grave worry about a collapse into violence. Chelenge told us about her childhood in a small Kenyan village. Every night they sat around the fire and listened to their grandparents’ stories.
We were really out there in the bush. Three years earlier a drunk man was eaten by lions while walking home from a party. That was right nearby. Chelenge had lost a spaniel to a python and a collie to a leopard. Chui too was nearly taken by a python two weeks prior. He followed some guests out for a walk and picked a fight he couldn’t win. The serpent wrapped itself around the poor dog and was squeezing the life out of him. It opened up its evil jaws and began to swallow the dog’s head when a local Maasai (tribesman) showed up with a stick. He beat the giant snake and pulled Chui back to daylight. Chui was fine save for a bite mark on his back. I didn’t believe it either until I saw the video taken by one of the guests. I spent a lot of time with this dog.
Around eleven the dogs started barking and ran out into the dark. I had a flashback to my grizzly encounter from last summer, but this time I was not alone. Patrick followed the dogs with nothing but a flood lamp to have a look around. He didn’t find anything, but later in the evening we heard hyenas cackling. “They follow the lions,” Rosie said. “They must be nearby.” She wasn’t kidding. I heard their guttural purring in the night.
In the morning, Chelenge gave me a tour of her art studio. She is entirely self-taught and all of her tools are handmade. Eight-foot tall tree trunks line the floor at different stages of carving. Stacks of paintings lean against the walls. She pointed to an astonishing collection of gorilla-themed sculptures and paintings. “I spent a whole year with them,” she said. I asked if she’d lived in the forest. “No,” she said. “I’ve never seen a gorilla. They were on my mind.”
We ate breakfast and said goodbye. I was sad to leave their little desert paradise, but I had to meet my writing group in Kajiado.
Three days later I boarded a taxi van for the two hour trip to Kibera. Ninety minutes into the ride I had dozed off in the backseat when everything turned to chaos for a brief moment. A tremendous force launched me into the back of the seat in front of me. I felt like a giant had thrown me. I heard crunching metal and shattering glass. I heard myself shout. Our van careened towards oncoming traffic. A car stopped just short of hitting us. Then everything was still.
A 30-foot truck carrying a full load of boulders had smashed into us from behind. According to the truck’s driver, the brakes had failed, though my driver, Davu, was convinced that he’d been looking at his phone. There were no skid marks on the ground, so one way or another, he’d driven straight into us without any brakes. Fortunately our van had a rear running board—a steel grate that extends a few inches past the bumper—which must have absorbed quite a bit of the shock. There were no real injuries. Maybe some minor whiplash, but that’s it. We were all wearing seatbelts. Both parties were entirely civil while exchanging information and waiting for the police. A small crowd gathered around us. I was offered water.
The van was wrecked, and Davu said that he had no way of making a living for the foreseeable future. We drove with the police to the Ongata Rongai station where I provided a statement. The van was towed behind us. I paid Davu for the full ride and called an Uber. Before I left, he asked me, “What are you doing in Kibera, by the way?”
“I’m hosting a few writing workshops,” I told him.
“I see,” he said. “You are going to save the children.”
“No,” I said. “I am going to write.”
“You are going to the slums,” he said. “To write?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I hope it is what you need.”
My Uber arrived. I waved goodbye to Davu. He was looking at his van, shaking his head.
Nora’s explanation was far more nuanced than the vulgarized version of it I have reproduced here.
To be clear, this argument suggests neither that private conservancies are unnecessary, nor that they are all corrupt. There have undoubtedly been massive success stories of private conservation efforts, and these groups certainly play a critical role filling in the state’s resource gaps with regard to the protection and conservation of wildlife. Nora’s research specifically pertains to select cases of abuse and exploitation by conservancies.