On how I was forced to bribe a particularly frumpy Kenyan immigration official

So this is what it feels like to be totally emasculated – a pathetic, vulnerable fool at the mercy of a large, particularly frumpy Kenyan woman with a penchant for asking for cash in a particularly maternal way.

Kenyatta Airport. 1.30am. I had been warned before I left Addis Ababa that it was required for all travelers to have a yellow fever shot. Of course, I did not have a yellow fever shot.

“You will have to pay,” the desk clerk for Ethiopian Airlines said. OK, I said. Whatever, I thought. I can pay.

Upon arrival at the other end, after a plate of plastic chicken and some of the most vigorous turbulence I have felt in some time, I found myslef scribbling out an entry form at the Nairobi customs counter.

She saw me quickly. She was seemingly adept at stalking vulnerable looking idiots.

“Let me see your vaccination certificate.”

I told her I did not have a yellow fever shot.

“I am looking through your certificate and I cannot find it. I cannot find the yellow fever vaccination. Is this my mistake or yours?”

I told her it was mine.

She rounded up another British man who I would learn via audible pleading through the thin “medical officer” office walls, that he worked for an NGO. He wanted to help Kenyan people. He had a conference to get to. He was very tired. And, unfortunately, for him, he also did not seem to have a yellow fever shot.

After about 10 minutes he exited the office.

“A bit of a fuck up aye?” I asked him.

“I just don’t know what she wants.”

She then ushered me in, asked for my passport, and from then on would be on a first-name basis with me, though I would never know hers.

She was large, to be sure. She had a friendly face and seemed concerned for my well-being. I admitted blame. It was my fault, I said.

“Good,” she replied, “yes it is your fault.”

She showed me the list of yellow fever countries where it was compulsory to have the vaccination before entering. She pointed to Ethiopia.

“See you understand?”

Yes, I said, I understood. I was stupid.

“No, no, no. Do not insult yourself.”

I said I was not sure what else I could do.

She gave me two options, neither of which were really options.

Either I went back to Addis, or I waited until the morning in the airport for a doctor to give me the shot.

I could handle that, I thought.

“Then,” she said pointing to the vaccination booklet, “you need 10 days for it to work.”


So in that case, she continued, I would have to spend 10 days in the airport. Ten days mingling with the duty free peddlers. Ten nights, 10 days.

I am not sure if my reaction was audible, or if my face said it all, because I felt the blood drain out of it.

“Speak up,” she said, “speak up, you need to say something.”

I told her I was not sure what to say. These were my only two options?

“You tell me?”

I am also not sure when the conversation turned to cash and her doing me a favour and her having to check with her “supervisor” and her offering me help because she was concerned about me. But soon I found myself standing over an ATM machine trying to figure out the exchange rate. I later learned I got it horribly wrong. For her, though, it was horribly right.

I went back into her office, my wallet thick with Kenyan Shillings.

Here, I said.

“Let me see.”

She took the wad off me and counted it in her thick fingers.

I had not been to Kenya since I was about seven-years-old, back when I spoke with a horrendously posh accent, confirmed by home videos of me telling my brother to “Thomas, Thomas, look at the monkeys.”

There were no monkeys here. Just a ticking clock, this woman, and the crappy artificial lighting which always goes hand in hand with crappy airports.

“Ok,” she said, “now I want you to understand. This stays between us, because I have done you a favour, Ok? You have to understand this stays between us.”

I sighed, and told her I understood.

I felt like shit.

It was now almost 3am, my pick up for the hostel had likely long since left. I wanted to get out of there.

I understood a lot, I said as she continued in a soft, caring voice.

She smiled.

I used the muscles of my face to stretch my mouth out offering a small glimpse of teeth.

“Ok,” she said again.

She did not say thank you.

I saw the British man on the way out. I did not speak to him. I wanted to forget that incident. His face seemed pale too.



The Nowhereland

The man sat cross-legged in the dust. His feet were caked in greyish mud. He did not move. He sat and he stared. Children played around him. They kicked an old tennis ball, and sat on yellow, plastic jerry cans and rode them like horses. He did not flinch.

“He has mental problems,” Sainab, a refugee worker said. “He lives here with his mother.”

Three kilometres out of Hargeisa, down a dusty road, past the NGOs and the ministry of justice and the presidential house, another track diverges. The asphalt stops and it becomes rock and mud. Soon shelters are seen – hundreds of them, then thousands. They are fashioned out of food packaging, tarpaulins and branches of trees. They are built where any space can be found. It is here where the victims of years of civil war, disease and hunger came to find refuge. They started coming almost two decades ago. Most never left. They are still coming.

There are now almost 30,000 here, in the place locals call the State House. Once it was a hub of the British administration who held a protectorate status over this place, Somaliland, until the 1960s. Then it became part of Somalia. Then it declared independence and it went to war to prove it. Now it is a nowhere land – a place which the international community refuses to recognise as a country.

The man in the dust came with his mother during the war with Somalia which saw most of Hargiesa bombed to the ground. The monument to that is a Russian MIG fighter jet elevated on a plinth near the town centre. Somalilanders will say they shot it down. Others will say it just crashed.

The mother stooped through the limply hanging corrugated iron door. She came out of the shade. She held a walking stick and looked up into the sun. She asked a young man to help her sit down.

“We have nothing,” she squeaked, barely audible. “We don’t have anything to eat.”

She looked at her son.

“I am too old to work.”

Sometimes the neighbors will help them. Sometimes they will offer the pair food. But not often. The old woman knows, they too are often starving.

Super Trouper

There is seldom such an incongruent experience as hurtling along Cairo’s ring road, the sun setting behind the Giza pyramids, eating dates and talking with a Christian taxi driver about a popular uprising on the eve of Ramadan, to the back drop of Meryl Streep wailing Abba covers.

Yes, so it turns out Itam, or Joe, as he preferred to be called, was an intense Mamma Mia fan.

Joe played the 17 track CD from front to back. So it began:

“Honey, honey how he thrills me, honey, honey, nearly kill me.”

Joe turned it down to point out something of interest: the police academy where former president Hosni Mubarak would be tried for ordering protesters be shot earlier this year.

It was the first night of Ramadan. The man next to me on the plane from Istanbul seemed not to be hungry. Perhaps he had already eaten, I thought. Then I looked around to find that I was one of about four in an economy class full to the brim that was tucking into their kofta.

Cairo’s population were all about purity now. It was time to starve oneself of food and sex and focus on God. It works, apparently. Taxi drivers rushed to drop off their customers to get back to their families before 7pm. Young men threw small plastic bags filed dates through car windows. But the military in Tahrir square stayed put amid the rags and rubbish. Months earlier it had been a different scene. Now their helmets were off, truncheons by their side. And Meryl Streep was launching into S.O.S – a personal favourite.

“Where are those happy days? 

They seem so hard to find.” 

Hours earlier I had arrived in Cairo airport after a short hop from Istanbul to await a 10-hour layover. It was a complicated procedure, it would turn out, as to what to do with someone stupid enough to organise a 10-hour layover. But after a few waits, a confiscation of a passport and a man on behalf of Egypt Airlines try
ing to sell me a musical sights and sounds extravaganza of the pyramids, it turns out that I was allowed to stay at a nice hotel free of charge. With a buffet free of charge.

“Super Trouper, beams are gonna blind me

But I won’t feel blue, like I always do.”

Joe pumped the volume back up as we arrived at the Giza pyramids. They were behind locked doors and had been all day. But there they were. Thousands of years of stone and civilisation tucked of a side road and guarded by three men that would rather be elsewhere. Joe didn’t seem too impressed. Besides, Knowing Me, Knowing You had just come on.

“Memories, good days, bad days

They’ll be with me always”

Soon the sun had dropped behind the pyramids. The neon on the Nile had lit up. The Shops shut up and my Abba soundtrack tour of Cairo was over. But at least the Buffet was on.