Two Opposite Encounters with Kenya Police and Coming Home Conmanship: Lessons Learned

01 May

Someone recently made a comment about positive experience they had with Kenya Police in Upper Hill which after reading it, reminded me of an experience my friends and I had in Nairobi a few years ago in 1996 when I was interning at UNEP Gigiri that summer. Nairobi annually hosts study-abroad law students from the US through a program at the Widener School of Law and that year, one of the students happened to be a friend and since I was in Nairobi for the summer myself, we arranged that I pick my friend and her two friends to bring them to my sister’s house where I was staying for a taste of obokima nechingeni (ugali and traditional Kisii vegetables).

On the agreed date and time, I picked my friends from the hostel where they were staying and headed to my sister’s home. Unbeknownst to me, however, my sister’s car I was driving, although fairly new, had a problem where it would stall and not move or start unless, as I found out later, it was manipulated a certain way which I was not familiar with at all.  As we stood there stranded  while I tried to figure what to do, a Police car pulled up with three policemen inside. By this time, it was starting to get dark so we were glad to see the police.  One of the officers came out of the car, approached me and wanted to know what the problem was, to which I told him the car just stalled and would not start.

“No problem!” The policeman assured me, “we’ll call our mechanic and he will find out what’s wrong with it” he added and without a brake in pace inquired, while checking out the obviously non-Kenyan looking ladies in the car, “Where are you from?” I told him I was from Kisii.” He did not believe me one bit as he shenged something to the other 2 cops that I nonetheless could not understand even though born and raised Kenyan from Kisii.

The cops then went on to be very nice to us, especially to the ladies who now were out of the car answering all kinds of questions about their experience in Kenya, etc while we were waiting for the mechanic who soon arrived. As the mechanic opened the hood to do his thing, I remember my friend telling the cops how impressed they were with the service the police were providing and I added to this saying to them in Swahili how this was much needed PR for the force, having heard horror stories about them.

I particularly made the point how impressed we all were that the police will take the time to make sure we were alright and that our car needs were met. The mechanic had the car literally started as I was giving praise to the cops and as I extended my hand say thank you to the one I was talking to, he led me by hand to the side away from the rest and I am sure you have already figured what he quietly asked for: yes, TKK!

The relatively young policeman was very apologetic, though, “Sasa ndugu, hii si kitu yetu, Boss ndiye anataka tusipomupatia, itakua shida.” Needless to say, I coughed up something for what my friends and I initially thought was an act of kindness or at least a service in the true spirit of “Utumishi Kwa Wote.”

Once inside the car and heading to my sister’s, my friends could not stop gushing how nice that was for the cops to stay with us until our car was fixed and even followed us in the direction we were going to make sure we were okay. “This could not happen even back home,” I remember one of them saying.

Which created a dilemma for me: Should I let these American friends leave Nairobi so impressed with the safety and security in our nation’s capital or should I crush their sentiments and tell them we had just become the latest victim of a police shake-down? What would you have done?

My children might read this so I’ll let them answer before I say what I did.

We all have TKK stories but this one tops them for me rivaled only with another one I had at JKIA the first time I returned home a few years after coming to the US. Upon arrival, I was greeted by an airport employee by the luggage collection area who called and greeted me by may last name! I was expecting my sister I mention above and her husband so I assumed they had sent him to get me. No; he just happened to identify me by facial appearance. Yes, from boyhood, the Omwenga offspring will have total strangers in the street, stopping us and saying, “aye tori omwana bw’Omwenga?” (Are you not a child of Omwenga?) We all have a striking resemblance with each other and in common with of course our late Mzee. Sometimes a good thing but other times definitely not a good thing especially those high school days when sneaking to the city for fun while supposed to be in school miles away from home only to have someone recognize you just for being your father’s child and not because they know you. My friends did not have this problem and I even used to think the communities they came from were anti-social: you mean you don’t have people from your village who would id you in the streets as so and so’s child?

Anyway, back to this dude calling me by my last name at JKIA and by now speaking to me in full blown Kisii which I was tantanaring (haltingly speaking), having been away that long, he nonetheless tells me he will be able to help me clear customs with my bags (2 huge ones I carried like a fool: my mistake #1) and that, he told me, all I needed to do was to give him “egento gekeigo” (something small) to facilitate this. How small? I inquired, “100 pounds.” Having been out of the country that long, I had no I idea what “100 pounds” was equivalent to in Shillings which I in turn had no idea what their value was relative to the US dollars I had in my wallet that I planned to change but had not done so as I had just arrived.

As we stood there awaiting arrival of my luggage to come through the conveyer, I told this man that my sister was supposed to meet me at the airport but I was not seeing her in the crowd across the hall; she could be there but I was not seeing her. “Don’t worry,” he assured me (much as the cop had assured me years later; somethings just never change do they?), “aye noonde naye” (I am with you/I will take care of you).  I then committed my second foolish mistake (1st one carrying two heavy suitcases on my first trip back home after a very long time) which was, I told this man I had no pounds (whatever that was; I left home for America before I saw or knew the value of one, I think it in hindsight it used to be 1:20) anyway, I can still remember the man’s big grin; he thought I was landing from poor Britain, now voila, I am landing from America! The land where money grows on trees! He just could not contain his excitement so he told me the plan:

By this time, the bags were arriving…the Plan: he will go talk to the customs duty inspector, clear my bags and we’ll just walk out without inspection. I meanwhile should give him him $100. I may have had two heavy bags but all of it except for two cameras were a mix of used and new clothes I was bringing for my relatives so doing quick foolish math, I reckoned $100 was not too bad, given the value of the two cameras I stood to lose, I feared, if I did not handle this properly.

Thus, I was on to my foolish mistake number 3: getting my wallet to remove one $100 bill from it in full view of this man that did not lose a moment to observe I had other dollar bills he would like to tax.

And tax, he did. The man told me to follow him and true to his word, we matched past the customs area without as much any of the officers bothering to glance our way. Whatever he told the customs people, they were happy and in it. Next, we are looking for my sister by in the throng of faces by the exit but she was nowhere. Next, let’s call her at home, so my new happy assistant takes me to one of the service desks by the exit area and asks one of them to allow me to use their phone, which they do.

I dial my sister’s house number, phone rings and is picked up to my relief: “Can I talk to Jane?” I ask. “Wrong number, click,” phone is hung up. Confused, I double-check the number and redial, same thing. Tried two more times, phone rings no answer both times. (Incidentally, this reminds me of a different experience years later I may blog another time about: I am going to San Francisco for business and for the first time. Knowing the reputation of the city (gay) I inquire from my buddies if they have any female friends or relatives in the area to keep my company–platonically speaking– just so it’s known to all this is one straight man in the city (taking my wife with me was not an option) so one of my friends suggested I call someone he knew in the area, gave me her number and name. I get to my destination, do the necessary and call this person; perhaps they can suggest a straight restaurant I can go to for dinner, etc. Phone rings, I ask for the name I was given, response: “hello,” then I say hi and go on to say was given the number by X and … before I even say another word and in the whole of approximately 1.2 seconds, I mean faster than I can end the call, I am told “you mother%*&$, don’t ever call this number again, ever!” Click. I ran into my friend some time after my return to Washington at a local joint we just laughed about this and ever since. Turns out this was my friend’s ex who apparently had not quite forgiven him for leaving her years before for another woman! But that’s a blog for another day, now onwards with my current one:

Panicked (after the phone at my sister’s being hung-up and no answer third time), I told my new assistant or aide, I could not reach my sister. “N’gai amenyete?” (where does she live?), he inquired. I had no idea! Before I left for the US several years before, she used to live in an estate she had since long moved to a home I only knew to be in Kileleshwa but never been there, had no idea where it was.

I did know the location of their place of business by general area and name so my new aide once again swang into action to implement phase II of his plan (to milk me). He suggested that I change my dollars to shillings and then he will get someone to take us to the business, a restaurant which would be open at that time anyway. “Where do I change the money?” I wish to know. “Inchuo” (come), he beckons so I follow him to someone he knows right there at the airport who he tells me will exchange the money at a higher rate than the bureau inside the airport. Before we meet this person, however, he parks the trolley with my two heavy bags on it and asks me to give him the US dollars to change while I wait there, which I give him a crisp new $100 bill.

Foolish mistakes number 4, 5, 6 & 7 (repeat of foolish mistake #3; believing I can get my money changed at a higher rate by some strange person I did not even get to see; giving the man $100 to change for me instead of at least telling him to change the $100 I had already given him and pay the taxi and standing there with my whole vulnerable self with two heavy suitcases instead of at least retreating inside).

After a few minutes which seemed an eternity, the man fortunately returns with a wad of cash. He gives me the money which looks very strange to me. The last time I left the country, the money bills did not look anything like this; they were smaller and clearly registered as Kenyan currency in the mind. What I was looking at were pieces of paper that looked like currency alright but I had no idea what their value was. Should I count? To what end? So I put the cash in my pocket without counting and tell the man to get the person who is take us so we can leave. Mistake # 8. The man definitely confirmed I was loaded with cash and could not be bothered to know how much he changed. I am sure Phase III of his plan (to milk me–or clean me this time) was in the works.

Then suddenly I realized why the phone was hanged-up on me or was not being answered at my sister’s when I called the third and fourth times, so I asked the aide to take me back so I can use the phone one more time before we leave. He does, they dial the number for me, phone rings (good thing), phone is picked up (even better): “Can I speak to Mama Junior?” I calmly inquired, “hold on,” musical words, then on comes my sister on the phone and to say hearing her voice was a huge relief is to greatly understate the relief I felt. Why was I being told wrong number when I asked for my sister? Because nobody in the house including her own children knew that my sister’s name is “June;” they all knew her to this day only as Mom, Untie or Mama Junior! Why were they not at the airport when I arrived? Because due to a miscalculation of time, they were expecting me the next day!.

Meanwhile, having noticed that I had located my relatives, my aide/conman excused himself saying he will be right back but I never saw him again.

My sister and her husband finally came and picked me up from the airport and had quite a musing with my welcome back home experience, especially in parting company with the cash I did simply because I didn’t know the value of a pound or even our own shilling.

Lessons learned: In the experience about the cops and my friends, the cops came to our aide, arranged for their mechanic to help us get our car started and stayed with us throughout to make sure all was okay and even followed us briefly to make sure the car was okay after restarting. This is service consistent with the true meaning and spirit of the “Utumishi Kwa Wote” motto for our Kenya police.

That my American friends and I were so impressed and I went on my part went on and on thanking the officers for their excellent assistance that made me proud that, despite its reputation, we at least had these good officers doing their work, is more so the reason the officer’s in the end asking for TKK was such a sad and extremely disappointing experience, this is a habit we must do whatever necessary to eradicate.

It is a few years since that experience but, from what I gather, even in this fora, TKK for police is alive and well. What a shame. We must find a way to end it and that starts with implementing the judicial reforms envisioned in our new Constitution. Next, impose a strict Police Code of Conduct that is enforceable through the courts, either by DPP or the citizens themselves.

Ditto for the airport conman albeit with a twist: I had a lot to do with being conned at the airport; I should have known better to avoid the mistakes I made as described above. For those of you in the diaspora and returning home for the first time, learn from this because just as TKK is alive and well with the police, navigating through JKIA with valuables is something you must carefully plan ahead, otherwise you could lose it all. If you do not believe me, ask UK.

Besides being careful, at least know the value of currencies in the countries you travel; certainly know where your relatives live before you land!

Fortunately, one traveling home these days need not encounter the kind of communication problems I did back the day when only land lines were in use, not unlike these days where almost everyone including house help has a cell phone which in by itself is a testament of how far we have come as a country.

Yes, we have come through tough times and in many ways are still in it, but the country has at the same time made some progress in a number of fronts, especially in technology and communications but we need to and must obviously do more, starting with increased efforts to end tribalism and corruption which are our twin most worst enemies.

The election of 2012 will be Test No. 1 as to whether we are ready to deal this this twin evils.

Peace, Love and Unity.


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Posted by on May 1, 2011 in Siasa


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