Jacaranda petals fall like snow. Hawks wheel overhead and pairs of Hadada Ibis make terrific noise. This is Karen, Nairobi, Kenya. Quiet leafy suburb with towering trees & abundant wildlife. Populated by the wealthy who I never see. Mostly white settlers, Mzungu, “Kenya cowboys,” or Kenya’s elite, they are hidden inside their mansions, behind tall gates and electric fences, venturing out only encased in their metal boxes on wheels. Every property has guards & dogs; at one, the home of a Kenyan politician, we assume, ten soldiers are replaced every evening by another ten in a bizarre changing of the guard ritual.
I walk the long walk to the shops down the empty lane with its high hedges, razor-wire & security signs. Kenyans are at work building walls to keep their kind out. Swahili has just one word for wall, fence and hedge – ukuta.
The only people walking are Kenyans, servants of the rich, walking here from the slums. I am conspicuous with my white skin & my sheepskin boots. Conspicuous because I am white, and I am walking. An occasional SUV roars by too fast, too fast to even see whether its occupant is black or white.
Early morning there are droves of Kenyans walking to work for their $3 a day – cleaners, cooks, gardeners, drivers, dog-walkers, horse-exercisers and security to guard the wealth of their employers. They fill the road and walk along the verge in the hoof prints of the horses of the wealthy. Kenyans are friendly, deferring, phlegmatic, but what simmers beneath?
From my place of privilege behind the fence of my friend’s compound I hear the thump-thump of cement mixers across the road, where Kenyans, who live five or more to a room, are building more enormous houses for the affluent. My friend says, “White people don’t do any work here!” There are 3000 NGOs. And with 56% unemployment, crime is rife. Uncomfortable in my white skin, I am shocked by the glaring disparities, eager to be of service and troubled by very real dangers. Corruption and philanthropy vie. Which will prevail?