Archive for February, 2009

Big Bad Nairobi

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

As I continued to make my way towards Nairobi I stopped again in a Nature Reserve and camped out by a lake where I hoped to see some hippopotamuses. But they were not close, just loafing in the water off in the distance. I did see a lot of birds though. Here I am at the lake in the evening.

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Not to be denied, the next day I hired a ranger to hike with me in the bush to see some other big game. You are not allowed to walk unaccompanied in the reserves due to the danger of being attacked by a wild animal. Elephants and cape buffalo are particularly dangerous.

Well we did not see much. Only a few zebras and giraffes. They are all a bit shy so I could not get too close but here are few snaps.

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Here is a shot of my ranger/guide, Patrick. He was describing some snakes there. Apparently some are 40 feet long and as large as a tree trunk. They can swallow an adult goat. You know I wanted to see one of those.

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Out of the desert now, mosquitoes are becoming a problem. I have anti-malaria pills which I should take but so far I have not. Malaria is a big problem in Africa. It is estimated that one million children die every year in Africa as a result of malaria. Distribution of mosquito nets and new drugs are helping in some areas though. I saw this sign when I was in a clinic about my kidney problem.

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I pass a lot of fruit sellers. The big fruit is mango. They grow millions of them and they are delicious and cheap (about 15 cents). Here is one such stand.

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I chuckled when I saw this. How’s this for the name of a company?

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Most Kenyans do speak English, but the quality and accent vary tremendously. Some are fluent but others are nearly unintelligible. I was walking down a street and a saw a guy sitting with a small plastic bucket. He said, “you want to buy some hacks?” Curious, I approached him. “What in the world is a hack?” I asked. He opened his bucket. Hard boiled eggs. “Oh, you mean eggs“. He said, “yes, haggs.”

In the nature reserve my guide said we are going to eepo point. I had to think a bit. Ah, he means hippo point. He also said we should see some hellephants and leo-pards (he rhymed this with leotards).

But many people still address me in Swahili, so I have picked up a few words. One common greeting is, “Habari, muzungu.” Which translates amusingly to, “Hello, white person.”

In another milestone, I crossed the equator again just north of Nairobi. Here is a shot of my bike at zero degrees latitude.

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Nairobi

My Lonely Planet book says that Nairobi is considered the most dangerous city in Africa, edging out Johannesburg and Lagos. The central district is described as very dangerous, especially at night. Carjackings, muggings, and violent theft are a daily occurrence, even in broad daylight. “Don’t even think about walking around after dark, take a taxi, even for short distances,” they recommend. It is safer to stay in the more affluent suburbs rather than in the crowded center.

Well I must be getting less risk averse in my old age because the thought of staying in the white affluent part of town was not too exciting. I wanted to be in the gritty, rough, chaotic center. Damn the torpedoes.

Then I had a crazy idea. This might be a good opportunity to practice my Haganah training. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have studied the Israeli self defense system known as Haganah. The system teaches you defend yourself against armed and unarmed attackers. Here is a photo of a victim defending himself against an attacker with a gun. The victim, in the dark shirt, has trapped the attacker’s gun, rendering it ineffective, even if fired. With his other arm he is slamming his elbow into the attacker’s neck.

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One critical aspect of the system is that it teaches you to be mentally prepared to inflict serious violence on another person. This is contrary to most people’s natural tendencies. Most of us are relatively non-violent (at least, most people I know, but I was never in the military). But when you are attacked you need to mentally be ready to first defend yourself, then immediately turn the attack around and become the aggressor. The techniques are not subtle. They include kicks to the groin, ear slaps, eye gouges, punches to the neck and throat, and breaking ankles. The idea is to contain your opponent, demolish him then spit him out within a matter of seconds.

An important technique is called overlapping, which is hitting your opponent at different levels in rapid succession. For example,you might first kick him in groin, this focuses his attention “downstairs”, then you elbow him in the face, which brings his attention upstairs. Then you punch him in the stomach. Doing this in succession will mentally and physically weaken your opponent so you can get him into what is known as a “point of reference” where you can incapacitate him by easily breaking his ankle or even terminating him by breaking his neck (this apparently is frighteningly easy to do, although understandably difficult to practice with a training partner.)

Which brings up the problem with these systems. You need to continuously practice them or you will not be able to respond quickly when it is needed in real life. So back to my crazy idea. I figured I could walk the dangerous streets of Nairobi carrying nothing of value, and wait to be attacked. This would allow me to practice my haganah techniques. I would actually be at an advantage because I would be prepared and waiting for an attack which would allow me to respond appropriately. Even if I did not defend myself well, I would lose nothing since I would not be carrying anything of value. On the other hand, a demented thief might well shoot first and ask questions later. Is my idea reckless? Do I have a death wish? What would you do?

My other strategy which I do employ is to carry two wallets. One with just papers in it and one real one. If I get held up by a gang of thugs, obviously my self defense techniques will be of no use. I can defend myself against one or two but five guys with AK-47s? I don’t think so. In that case I will pull out my fake wallet, make sure they see it is bulging, then throw it on the ground and run like hell. I figure the would-be thieves will be distracted by the wallet and will stop to examine it rather than chase me or shoot at me. By the time they figure out it’s a fake I will be long gone. That’s the theory anyway.

Well in the end I chickened out. At 3:00 am one night I asked the hotel security guard to open the steel doors barricading the entrance. The guard let me out then closed the heavy door behind me and locked it from the inside. The streets were dark, deserted and sinister. All the shops were closed and protected by thick metal barriers. I felt very exposed. But with my dog repellent in hand I ventured out. I only got a block away before my senses kicked in and I thought, “this is crazy.” I ran back to the hotel and banged on the door. The guard let me in. So much for my experiment.

But the experience got me thinking about personal risk and the thought process that we go through when making decisions about risk. At what point do we decide an action is too risky? Why does this vary so much between people? Think about the Mt. Everest climbers, skydivers, or white water kayakers. They put themselves in very risky situations. Many die every year. Why are they inclined to take such risks?

As I am in Kenya, the cradle of humanity if you believe the theory, I think a lot about our ancient ancestors and how we evolved. It fascinates me to think all of us are related to a few hairy Australopithecines who wandered out of east Africa millions of years ago.

How did these early humans evaluate risk? How did this factor into our evolution as homo sapiens? Did people who risked “too much” die out and therefore fail to propagate? Does evolution favor conservatism? If so how do we explain the statement, “nothing ventured, nothing gained?” Does evolution favor some risk but not too much? Early hominids must have tried attacking large mammals. If they succeeded those risky genes would have propagated to future generations, but if they died the genes that influenced that behavior would have died with them. Their “bad decision” genes would not live to future generations.

As the saying goes, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” If I had ventured out and gotten attacked and survived, the experience would have been beneficial to me. I would have learned something valuable. My “good decision” genes could be passed on to future generations (assuming I ever have children, but that’s a different story.) If, on the other hand, I had been attacked and killed, my “bad decision” genes would not be able to propagate (and I probably would be a candidate for a Darwin award, but that’s another story too.)

If this theory is true then as humans evolve (assuming we are in fact still evolving, which if you read the news seems debatable) we should have within us more and more “good decision” genes and so we should be making better decisions about risk. But judging by the recent economic collapse, I have my doubts. I like to think humans are getting smarter as a species, and I suppose if you look back a couple thousand years you could argue we are smarter and more civilized. I hope so. The alternative is pretty depressing.

OK, enough psychobabble. Back to Nairobi.

What a great place. It may be violent but it is a modern, bustling place with great restaurants (Italian!), shopping malls and fantastic coffee shops that put Starbucks to shame. There is a nice museum and internet cafes on every corner. Am I in Africa?

Here are a few photos I took near the National Museum.

This is a group of school kids on a trip to the museum.

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A small bird, I think it is called a sunbird.

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Here is how many people get to and from work every day.

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A woman and child begging from passing cars.

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Everyone has a cell phone. It is crazy frustrating to try to make a call in Kenya. There are no public phones. People could not believe I did not own cell phone.

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Finally, I met a fascinating individual, David Kinjah, a brilliant bike mechanic, racer, and all around great guy. He is undoubtedly the best cyclist in Kenya and probably the best in East Africa, if not the entire continent. He completely overhauled my bicycle, replacing my ailing headset and left hand shifter. He was explaining the corruption in the Kenyan cycling system. Most of the government grants from the Ministry of Sport end up in the chairman’s bank account rather than on developing cycling in Kenya. It’s a depressing story and a microcosm of the endemic corruption that exists in Africa (and indeed in most countries of the world.) David was banned for trying to expose the corruption in the media. Ironically they charged him with “disruptive behavior.”

David rides at least 100 km every morning. I rode part way with him one day and I can confirm he is fast. I about blew my lungs out trying to stay with him. We finally got to his shop where he has a least 40-50 bicycles and parts scattered around. He trains young riders, many from the slums, and supports their cycling financially out of his own pocket. He is an inspiration and a great role model for the young riders. I hope he manages to stamp out the corruption in the sport.

Here is David with some of his bicycles.

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