it’s the end of the world as we know it

I got really quite horrifyingly ill last week. I will spare you the details, but it involved undercooked chicken and the digestive tract equivalent of Fukushima Daichi — your personal experiences with salmonella poisoning can fill in the rest.

As I laid in bed on Wednesday contemplating the sweet release of death, the sky outside my window increasingly darkened. A huge clap of thunder shook the walls, and then it started hailing. Yeah. Like, ice falling from the sky. Pea-sized chunks of frozen water pummelled the earth, mixed with rain and general atmospheric chaos. Keep in mind Nairobi is just a few latitude south of the equator. It’s supposed to be summer here.

I stared in disbelief out the window. Then I thought about the plague infesting my body… and all I could think was, “Yup. It’s the apocalypse.”

Talk about pathetic fallacy. I managed to struggle out of bed and get my camera soaking wet, just to document the moment — for future proof that I hadn’t been delirious. In the end, I was spared a hospital visit by my travel medicine doctor in Montreal… more specifically, the little bottle of miracle antibiotics she prescribed in May. This was not the first time I’ve found myself deploying 1000 mg of cipro-fury on a stomach bug, and I never cease to be amazed at the effectiveness. I may name my first-born Ciprofloxacin.

Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me. I’m better now. And a week from today I’ll be waking up here. Jealous? Distract yourself with this crazy story [via Goulet]. Or this awesome element of American society. (The whole rice and curry thing is getting old. I could really go for some grippachos or alligator jerky.)

gardens and grenades

It’s been (dare I bring it up) more than a week since the last attack in Nairobi, and the new reality is becoming routine. Military guards stand sentry outside hotels and malls, cradling semi-automatics. Entering a grocery store or nightclub requires a swipe of the metal detector, although the screening seems a little selective. If you’re a muzungu trying to get into the popular downtown bar Simmers, the staff just waves you through. (Guess they figure white people are the targets, not the perps.) I think it’s a lot like airport security — it’s there to make the patrons feel safe, rather than serving any real purpose against a serious attack. For example, Simmers is an open-air club, bordered on three sides by sidewalks… not exactly difficult for a pedestrian to lob in a grenade.

The initial panic seems to have subsided, but I don’t know if that’s a return to logical thinking or a false sense of security. I ask my taxi drivers what they think of al-Shabaab and they shrug them off as hooligans. Some Kenyan blogs are covering how to survive a grenade attack. Others are even brazenly going as far as making fun of the whole situation. (Both via Paige.) But I honestly don’t know what to think.

Despite the new reality of living in Nairobi, life goes on. I have a new story in the Nation today. Gathering the material for this piece was really enjoyable — it reminded me of home. I’ve only recently begun to get my fingernails dirty, but I grew up on a diet of vegetables grown in my own front yard, and it’s nice to see people trying to bring some of those same techniques to an area that so desperately needs an agricultural revolution.

note the lush green that Gai has created against the background of a parched savannah

It was also just great to get out of the city — Gai’s farm is on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Canadians have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Gai has giraffes and cheetahs. And also a generally gorgeous home.

My bedroom for the evening.

Also — I finally went to the coast. And I approve.

Dear Canadians, you are suckers.

Breathing space.

But it’s not all coast and cocktails. Next up for me? Some dangerous women are showing Nairobi’s rapists the meaning of the word no. Aw, hell yeah.

three dead

“Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.” — Balzac

Last night’s second grenade attack killed one person and injured eight. And the news keeps getting worse: yesterday, two victims of the nightclub bombing succumbed to their injuries. That makes three dead in 24 hours.

Al-Shabaab hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attacks. News articles are clear on that fact, but the situation in Nairobi is still being framed as part of Kenya’s war with al-Shabaab. I wonder, though. The grenades were detonated in crowded areas downtown, but they’re not areas that foreigners frequent. So far, only Kenyans have been injured or killed. That, combined with al-Shabaab’s silence on these attacks, makes me wonder where the attacks are actually coming from. Al-Shabaab swore they would destroy skyscrapers and target foreigners, which hasn’t happened so far. These attacks could just be a rogue element within al-Shabaab who’s decided to take matters into his (her?) own hands, or just some crazy person with access to grenades.

Kimathi Avenue, downtown Nairobi

It’s business as usual in Nairobi. Sort of. On my walk to get groceries today, a rifle-wielding soldier stood sentry outside the posh colonial Norfolk Hotel (alongside the hotel’s regular private security), watching the ex-pats come and go. I wondered if every loitering car had a trunk full of explosives. I usually just buy a day or two’s worth of food at a time, but today I stocked up on as much as I could carry — if everything goes to hell, at least we’ll be well-fed for the first week.

I’m touched by the number of friends and colleagues who’ve gotten in touch over the last 24 hours to ask if I’m okay, wish me well, and tell me to stay safe. I’m not going to lie that I’m unsettled by what’s happening here, but the fact remains that I am incredibly fortunate: if things get worse, either the Aga Khan Foundation or the Canadian government will get me up-on-outta-here in a hurry. I can’t say the same for the millions of Kenyans who call this country home. I hope for their sakes — and selfishly for mine, as I really don’t want to leave this otherwise fantastic city — that it doesn’t come to that.

I especially feel for the Somalis living in Kenya (and abroad) who have nothing to do with al-Shabaab but get lumped into the same camp. No doubt they’ll be taking the brunt of some Kenyans’ anger over the coming weeks.

the I&M building, one of Nairobi's tallest skyscrapers

Aside from the regular warnings I receive from the Canadian government, Nation Media has started sending “Security Bulletins” — complete with emergency numbers and evacuation procedures. I’ve already stored the numbers of multiple private ambulance companies in my phone, as well as the emergency response number for the Red Cross (1199, if any Kenyans are reading). Other than that, there’s nothing I can really do, aside from avoiding crowded areas, following my instincts, and hoping for the best.

Being in a situation like this changes your perspective. My biggest complaint about life here used to be pollution and traffic, but yesterday I found myself flipping through my medical insurance policy to find out what kind of coverage I have if my legs get blown off by a terrorist. Sirens are no longer background traffic noise — my mind immediately jumps to grenades, carnage and debris.

When I accepted this contract, I weighed the risks and benefits… and in terms of personal safety, I wasn’t too concerned. Nairobi is known for being a crime-ridden city — but that means robberies and car-jackings, which are unpleasant but don’t usually end in death or mortal injury. There are diseases too, but that’s more of a risk outside Nairobi. There’s no malaria in the city, and there’s good sanitation in the areas where ex-pats live… plus some of the best hospitals on the continent. So, when I told people I was moving to Kenya, I was overly flippant in response to widened eyes and is-that-safe-be-careful. I never imagined that the city would become a war zone. Two low-casualty grenade attacks are not on the same level as the devastation and horrors of places like Somalia and Afghanistan, but things are definitely not heading in a peaceful direction here. Even the Amurrrrrrcahns are admitting they may get involved (in fact, I would be surprised if they’re not already on the hunt).

In the meantime, I’ll be here on my balcony filing stories with a mug of tea and a watchful eye on Nairobi’s skyline. I may be in more danger than friends and family back home, but when you take a good hard look at the grand scheme of global poverty, violence, rape, fear, and torture, I’m still incredibly fortunate. I just have to hope that luck holds.

crisis in paradise

I woke up this morning to an email asking if I was still alive. Tangled in the sheets and still half asleep, I squinted in the blinding glow of my Blackberry screen, trying to make sense of what was going on. Turns out, while I was peacefully sleeping off my long weekend, someone lobbed a grenade into a nightclub downtown. At least a dozen confirmed injured. The police are blaming al-Shabaab, and the anti-terrorism squad has sealed off the bar. It’s begun.

bloodstains on the floor of Mwaura's Bar in Nairobi (Mukoya/Reuters)

Since Kenyan troops went to war with al-Shabaab last week, there have been escalating threats of terrorism — threats that the international community are taking seriously. The Canadian government emails me once a week to warn me to stay away from anywhere crowded or popular with foreigners. No bars, malls, sporting events, or anything fun at all. And don’t even think about going anywhere near the border with Somalia. The Americans have also issued a travel advisory for Kenya, warning of terrorist threats… although they’re denying involvement beyond that.

So it shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it’s still a shock. We knew something like this was coming, and we’ve been speculating for days on what it would be. Al-Shabaab promised the destruction of Nairobi’s skyscrapers and the decimation of the country’s tourism industry, so maybe I expected them to start with shock and awe. Images abound: explosions in hotel lobbies, suicide bombers on buses, car bombs in the underground parking of my office building (a prime target since it’s also home to foreign embassies and the stock exchange… great). Last night’s attack may not have been on that scale, but it makes those visions seem more likely. Al-Shabaab is clearly walking their talk, and this could just be the beginning.

It’s surreal to live with a real threat of terrorism — from my balcony I can see the skyscrapers of downtown just a few blocks away, and I keep expecting them to burst into flames. I remember in the days after 9/11, when the planes finally took to the skies again, I wondered if every jet I saw was headed for Parliament. This is a similar feeling, but doubled in intensity. This is an actual threat, one that has been carried out, first in Uganda and now in Kenya. I’ve spent long enough living in different parts of Africa that being a visible minority no longer throws me, but it’s strange to know that al-Shabaab is thinking about people like me when they plot their next move.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up somewhere like Afghanistan, where this uncertainty is just a fact of life. (All life is uncertain, but a terrorist attack a few blocks from home throws it into harsh relief.) I guess the only attitude to take in this situation is fatalism — if it’s going to happen, so be it. I can’t hide inside my apartment until all the baddies of the world are captured (or buried at sea). And anyway, I’m more likely to get robbed or die in a car accident than get-gotten by terrorists, if Dan Gardner has taught me anything.

But it’s all an especially harsh crash back to reality, after spending the weekend on the south coast drinking rum punch and making friends with starfish. What a country.

UPDATE: a second grenade attack in less than 24 hours, this time at a bus stop. It’s getting real.

save the elephants

My article on poaching in Kenya was published this week. Here you go. Interested to hear your feedback, friends.

I would tell you the next story I’m working on, but I want to make sure I get it first. Ridiculous, I know, but it goes with the territory. Back in the day, Maclean’s international correspondent Michael Petrou gave a guest lecture to my fourth-year international reporting class at Carleton. When it was over, we asked what story he was working on next. He wouldn’t tell us, for fear someone would steal his lead… at the time I thought he was being ridiculous, but now I understand the irrational paranoia of the international reporter. Like my fellow reporters in Nrbi are obsessively reading this blog and just dying to steal my pedestrian idea. Watergate, this ain’t. (I’ll give you a hint: it involves a lot of cow poo. My life is so glamorous.)

Unrelated: I really enjoyed this mashup of Tom Petty and Notorious B.I.G. by The White Panda. I thought you might too. Perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

born free

The trip from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara National Reserve takes you smack dab through the middle of the Great Rift Valley. It was the first time I’d seen been there in person… but in a way, we’ve all been there before, haven’t we?

hey guys remember that time we decided to be bipedal?

I have friends in high places in the Mara, so I was lucky to get a complimentary stay at the Impala Wildlife Lodge. It’s right on the edge of the reserve, at Ololaimatiek Gate. I could hear the hyenas barking at night, and when I walked to my room in the evening, gazelles bounded out of my way.

hut sweet hut

I spent my days touring the grasslands with the park’s chief ranger, Kennedy. We patrolled for poachers (found: 0), gave tickets to tour groups who strayed from the trails (5), and picked up litter (can’t count that high).

the President of the Mara

We went to visit some of the other rangers, hanging at the Keekorok airstrip. Visiting the Mara by air is actually very popular with tourists, as you can avoid the horrendous road that leads to the reserve.

the airstrip outpost

interrupted a game of checkers

And then there were the animals.

my absolute most favourite ever

hey there tembo

try as he might, Kennedy couldn't get this lion to wake up. Apparently the expression "let sleeping lions lie" doesn't exist.

however, this beautiful lady was wide awake... and pissed that she had just failed at killing a wildebeest.

wildebeest are kind of cool, but are also EVERYWHERE... so they lose their intrigue quickly.

there is, however, something to be said for the magnificence of the Great Migration. The sheer number of wildebeest in the Mara at this time of year (about 2.5 million) is overwhelming, and made me feel about as big as a dust mite. This picture doesn't do it the slightest justice...

the gazelle -- yet another animal that loses its allure after less than an hour in the park

giraffes remain cool no matter how long you look at them

you are the strangest animal. Even stranger is how graceful you are with your bizarrely-proportioned body.

a male ostrich, vogueing

water buffalo: a lion's favourite snack

zebras taking a dip. Just another day in the Serengeti.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been on safari, but it was the first time I saw a park through the eyes of a ranger. I am so grateful to Kennedy for showing me around his kingdom.

Obviously it was a pretty spectacular few days, and it’s hard to believe that all this is just a five-hour drive from Nairobi. (Even harder to believe is that it was work.) It was fastastic to leave the city, especially to see how much the city really did feel like home when I returned… as well as to get some much-needed breathing space. And what a place to inhale.

cue The Lion King soundtrack