Finding accommodation and more in Nairobi, August 2012
Lights out, no power, again!
Welcome to Kenya!
For the past two weeks we have had a mad scramble to find a new place to live in Nairobi. Our quest had been dampened by the recent rains, not the short rains, just what I would call “rains”. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a glut of 2BDR and 3BDR places available but at an increased price. This might be attributed to the burgeoning middle class in post-modern, post independence former British colony and protectorate called Kenya. It would appear that most of these nouveau riche are buying flats either as an investment or as an abode.
Despite this apparent new-found wealth for some Kenyans, i.e. certain tribes, Indians and politicians—there is also a glut of poor people. Recent statistics reported on BBC claim that South Africa has the greatest divide between rich and poor people, but Kenya must surely be at the top of that ranking or those damn statistics are lying. We had noticed this growing class distinction or ranking where we were presently living. Those tenants, who had bought their flat outright, looked down their noses at us and let us (mixed couple) know we were only ‘renters’. I pitied them as the apartments and the compound were crap: insufficient parking, no place for kids to play except in between parked cars and those trying to park or leave, frequent power cuts, extra charge for storage water, no backup power, ill-fitting cupboards, very small rooms, and way too many screaming kids. We could not get out of there fast enough!
Naturally, we enlisted the services of some real estate agents along with our old trusty handyman, Titus. He would help us in our quest. In Nairobi, as it might be anywhere, you are not allowed to view potential flats without prior consent or without having an agent with you. But there are other places where you can just drive up to and see if they have the “To Let” sign on their gate. All places that we looked at also had security gates, guards, barbed wire, electric warning systems, a peek though hole for security guys to look you up and down before allowing access.
There are your ubiquitous “NO HOOTING” signs posted everywhere near the entrances. At first look, I thought Kenyans had something against owls but then realized they use the British term ‘hooting’ which means ‘honking horns’ where I come from. The problem is, the guards are usually washing someone’s car or listening to their radios which necessitates hooting to get them to come for a look see.
Oddly enough, a few places that we were initially interested in were not for us. That is even before we set foot on their property. These places had names like Taj Apartments, Raj Palace, Khina Place and other Indian names but the agent just told us that we could not get in.
‘Should we apply there?’ I asked innocently.
‘No,’ he said quickly, ‘they only want vegetarians.’
I started laughing—‘Vegetarians?’
‘Yes, they only want Indians.’
‘How do they know who is a vegetarian.’
No answer as if I was talking to myself.
‘Do you have to take a stool sample?’
My wife started to laugh as did the agent.
‘Do you have to have a certificate?’ I said. ‘I was a vegetarian for 20 years…’
This comment elicited more laughter including Jessy and Mary who always joined us for most of our excursions.
‘What if you said you were vegetarian,’ I added, ‘and didn’t eat meat for two weeks and then had a BBQ?’
The laughing had not subsided.
‘Sah,’ said the agent between laughs, ‘they only want Indians.’
‘But all Indians are not vegetarians!’ I protested.
Silence now as the agent and the others wondered what I was on about.
‘Sikhs, your Kala Singhs, Ismaili or Muslim Indians are not vegetarians.’
“Oh,’ said my wife and the agent.
‘Where do you think Chicken Tikka or Tandori Chicken comes from?’
‘Yah you are right,’ said the agent.
‘They only want Hindus,’ I said finally.
“Yes, they only want Indians,’ he added.
My protests fell on deaf ears as my companions did not appreciate the subtleties of peoples of the Indian subcontinent. I reckoned that the landlord/landlady at these ‘vegetarian’ apartments had to be Indian. This ‘new’ discrimination for potential tenants only came about after I caught my wife and agent laughing out loud.
Our handyman friend Titus, he of the Kamba tribe, was also searching out places on our behalf particularly around our old digs in the Kileleshwa suburb. He had access to compounds through other handyman or watchmen that he knew. Maybe this would give us an edge in finding a new place. We spent days looking at new buildings, old maisonettes, ill-kept villas from an older era, fancy flats with the Jacuzzis, and two new buildings with Indian-made elevators, complete with Kirloscar Indian pumps and back-up generators. A couple of other compounds were located next to noisy, dusty construction of a new by-pass and we could envision the increased traffic and steady drone of excavation equipment. Our requirements were larger rooms with attached bathrooms, a quite compound, back-up generator or solar, close access to the matatu (mini-van) route, a servant’s quarters with separate entrance and if we were lucky—a pool. We were running out of time but had seen three potentially good flats.
One day we went to look at a couple of self-contained villas in a quiet neighbourhood. The first one was in desperate need of repair. It looked like there hadn’t been occupants here since Kenya’s independence. The fireplace was blackened, the rooms were built for wee people, the bathrooms quite grotty, the parquet flooring was up heaving but they did have a nice small garden but overall it was dark and foreboding. The servant’s quarters were lacking—the whole place needed a lot of work. Next door was a funkier villa with two separate servant’s quarters, a driveway, a garden, still very small rooms, a bigger kitchen but the villa had been maintained. Our only problem with this one and the previous was that there was no barbed wire, close circuit TV—no security! We would have to pay out of pocket for a security guy. However at this place, beside the gate and driveway was a small booth and adjoining washroom that an askari (guard) could use and stay in.
‘What about security?’
‘Oh, you don’t need to worry about that.’ Said the agent casually.
‘This neighbourhood is full of police and ex-police officers.’
Oh, that definitely gave me a warm fuzzy feeling.
Just a day or so before we would have to make a decision we got an early morning call from Titus instructing us to hurry over and pick him up as he had a hot tip. Mary, Gracie, Jessy and I picked Titus up and drove off. Titus told Gracie that he knew of someone that was moving this very day. We hurried on to the compound, after a quick word with the security gal; we drove into the small compound where two huge moving lorries were being loaded. In talking with the askari, we wouldn’t be able to view that flat, but he sweet-talked another tenant into letting us see how big the rooms were and the general layout of a flat. The rooms were large, two of them had en suite bathrooms (Mary’s favourite), the servant’s quarters had a separate entrance (Gracie’s favourite), the reading room (living room) was spacious, a good sized dining room, huge kitchen with sliding door, double sink (my favourite), and a guarded pool (Jessy’s favourite). We could not believe our luck especially at the last moment.
We immediately wanted to get in touch with the agent responsible for renting. The askari (security guard) contacted him and he talked briefly with Titus. Now comes the part that my wife found humourous, in an African sense. Apparently the agent had initially asked Titus what tribe we belonged to. I guess Titus asked him why that mattered to which the agent responded.
‘The landlord has placed some stipulations on new tenants.’
‘He doesn’t want Kikuyus, Chinese, Sudanese or Somalis.’
The Kikuyus are the largest tribe in Kenya, the Sudanese are those from Southern Sudan and he was referring to Somali-Kenyans. Titus hedged his bets.
‘They are mzungu (whitey).’
And with that we got the approval to be considered as possible tenants.
I only found this out after the fact when Gracie told me. I was curious why such a list.
‘Why the Chinese?’
‘Don’t know. Maybe they are noisy or are cheap.’
‘Why the Somalis?’
‘Because they are too noisy.’
I was thinking of the Somali compound next to where we are living and the racket that comes from there when the kids are playing. No more noisy, mind you, than at the front of our place where our Kenyan neighbour’s kids are playing.
‘Why pick on the Sudanese?’ I said, meaning the Southern Sudanese.
‘Because they won’t pay or they will try to have two families staying not one.’
I found it odd that the Sudanese were included in this group. There had been a Sudanese family staying at our compound who were quite friendly, respectable and no more noisy than anyone else. Someone said they are ‘troublemakers’ in Kenya and in further conversations with one mother, she proved quite bitter about what happened between the southerners and the Islamic Northern Sudanese. When I posted this information on my Facebook account, an Egyptian friend pointed out that this was a racist comment but, in fact, it is tribalism.
Kenya’s recent problems include allowing some of its supposedly friendly neighbours, i.e. Somalia and Southern Sudan, to run rough-shod over the border and internal security in recent months. Prior to this, Kenya had provided a sanctuary for John Garang and Riek Machar of the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the 1980s and 1990s. Plus Kenya brokered the Machakos Protocol in 2002 which set in motion self-determination for the southern Sudanese and eventual their independence from the north in 2011. However, just last week, the Kenyan news reported that the Southern Sudanese were again claiming the Illemi Triangle which is in north-western Kenya just touching Lake Turkana. This wouldn’t mean much except that last year, oil reserves were found in this area so this long withstanding border dispute has re-emerged despite Kenya’s jurisdiction over this area since 1950.
The world's and Kenya's media have been covering the recent death of an Islamic cleric who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Mombasa. Aboud Rogo was Mswahili born in Siyu near the northern archipelago of Lamu. He was on a US wanted list accused of raising money to support the Al-Shebab gang in Somalia. The cleric was killed even though, he preached from the safety of a mosque in Bamburi, a suburb of Mombasa.
Through the years, Kenya has allowed the Somalis to set up provisional governments from the safety of Mombasa. Also, Kenya has provided Somalis with a safe refuge to flee from their internecine fighting that has raged in Somali since the abdication of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. For this, the thanks that both Sudan and Somalia have given their Kenyan host is an increased security presence on both borders. In Somalia’s case, the Kenyan Army was invited in by the provisional government to round up elements of the Al-Shebab. This was precipitated by Al-Shebab, who, snuck into Kenya illegally, and had kidnapped tourists from Manda Island on the coast and also other ‘westerners’ representing relief agencies from the largest refugee camp in the world in northern Kenya.
The Somalis record as guests in neighbouring East African countries has been somewhat tarnished over the years. Uganda had offered them sanctuary with open arms but this brotherly love was sorely tested when Al-Shebab were responsible for a spate of bombings of nightclubs in Kampala last year. Uganda had allowed Somalis relatively free access to Uganda with free visas but the bombings changed that.
In Kenya, the recent bombings in the predominately Somalian suburb of Eastleigh, churches in the north, places in Mombasa, and just down the road from our restaurant in Nairobi have put Kenya on its back foot with regards to its internal security. Over the past year, security measures in an otherwise carefree Nairobi have been stepped up as witnessed by the presence of AK-47 toting G4S guards. Other security staff also check through women’s bags, or run a magic wand over men upon entering the various high-end shopping malls. Many security gates require that you open the boot of your car whilst another security guy passes a mirror under your vehicle looking for hidden bombs. I found this all bit trifling.
‘Why don’t they just check Somali-Kenyans?’
‘Why not get them [Kenyan-Somalis] to pay for this security?’
Back to finding a flat. Our momentarily euphoria was dampened in talking with the agent in that we would have to pay three months damage deposit plus one month rent. My head was spinning with numbers and wondering where we would get that money from. Gracie just said we would have to tough it out. This was the best apartment we had seen so we were committed. I think the agent was keen to seal the deal so he was there in 30 minutes.
‘So it is three months deposit and one month rent.’ Said Gracie.
‘No, one month deposit and three month’s rent.’ He said.
My ears pricked up, this was better news.
‘Only one month deposit?’ I queried.
‘Yes,’ he reassured me, ‘your next rent will be due in early December.’
Gracie and I both breathed a breath of relief. This was too good to be true.
This was the first time I had heard of this type of payment as most places we had visited wanted two month’s deposit and one month’s rent. According to Gracie, she believed that this agent was trained in the US and that may account for why the landlord and agent preferred to have mzungus (westerners) as clients. This theory gained some credence when I saw a mzungu drive by and out the gate.
Then we got permission to see the flat we would take over. We were introduced to the Kenyan couple who were in the process of vacating.
‘We just got back from Botswana,’ she said.
‘What were you doing there?’ I asked ever the nosey one.
‘My husband’s a doctor,’ she said, ‘and I work for an aid agency.’
She gave us the lowdown on the flat and they had been quite happy with it. They had just kept this flat for when they came back to Kenya from their jobs during holidays.
‘We didn’t want to stay with relatives,’ she said, ‘we just keep this flat for ourselves.’
I spied a leather ottoman cushion in the corner of one room.
‘That looks like a leather cushion from Nigeria.’ I said being reminded of one that my brother brought back from Nigeria for me in 1982.
‘No, it’s from Ghana,’ she said, ‘we worked there for two years.’
Jessy was happy with the pool and had already made friends with the security gal. Mary also was happy with the pool and a larger room to share with the maids, Jeremy and Jessy. They would have their own washroom. Gracie and I were just happy to get out of our old cramped, noisy place and into a bigger place.
The agent went back to his office to write up the lease while we drove to the bank to withdraw funds to pay for the rent and deposit.
‘Is the agent Kikuyu?’
‘No he is ee Kisii,’ said Titus.
‘So are the couple who were moving out,’ added Gracie.
So that explained why there was a preference list of who should be the new tenants. We soon arrived at the agent’s office to sign the lease. Upon signing I paused momentarily to catch the landlord’s name. It was Shafie. The only guy I had met with this name was a Somali-Kenyan guy I work with back in UAE. Once outside, I mentioned this to Gracie.
‘I think the landlord is Somali-Kenyan.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘Because the landlord’s name is Shafie,’ I said, ‘and I worked with a guy called Shafie at ADNOC.’
‘Why would he be against having fellow Somalis as tenants?’
‘I don’t know.’
The longer I am in Kenya; the more convoluted it gets. I wonder what will happen during the next presidential election in March 2013. Two of the presidential aspirants (Ruto & Kenyatta) are to appear at the World Court in The Hague sometime soon for “crimes against humanity” which stems from the earlier post-election violence of 2007-2008. Time will tell.