Reality Check

Betina and I were in Nairobi for a few nights last week; I went down by myself on Tuesday, amazed yet again at my confident ability to navigate the city with relative ease. Hopping on the mutatu from Njabini, I put on my headphones and settled in for the journey; the area in Nairobi where the mutatus arrive is slightly dodgy, but as long as one uses common sense and street smarts while walking around, you should be just fine during the daytime. I made it to our hotel with enough time to run out and grab a weeks worth of REAL food and a bottle of wine to scarf down while I watched the bootleg movie I had purchased; after nearly three months of real world depravation, it was the perfect evening.

The following day, I did some work at an internet café and met Betina around lunchtime. We had a couple meetings in the afternoon and then decided to go out for a big dinner at a restaurant about a 5 minute walk from our hotel. After some delicious food and drink we ended up catching the attention of the man at the table next to us, a fellow American here on business working for an NGO. He couldn’t help but overhearing our conversation (I’m sure we were loud enough, and Westerners always pay special attention when we see one another), and we ended up talking to him for another hour about non-profit work, benefits and downfalls of working in Kenya, etc… At about 11:30, we finished up, said our goodbyes and Betina and I headed to our hotel. We debated the merits of taking a cab versus walking; personally I felt more uncomfortable getting in a cab. In Kenya, taxis are unmarked and are just normal cars, no meters or dividers between the front and back seats, so I was concerned we may be more unsafe getting into one of these cars than we would be if we walked. It was a 7 minute walk in a relatively safe and well lit area and we were anxious to get back, so we began walking.

We were on one of the main, well lit avenues a few blocks away from our hotel when a group of men walked by us and the next thing I knew, one of them had grabbed my purse and was wrenching it off my shoulder. It’s habit for me to walk with my bag on my shoulder, and I always zip it shut and hold the straps close to my body, so when he pulled I already had a grip on the bag, and of course, my instinct was to tug back. I immediately began screaming as loud as possible and engaged in a tug of war for my bag with the man (in my head, this lasted 5 or 10 seconds, but in reality it was probably only a second or two). Eventually, I realized that this man might be armed and could hurt me a lot more if I put up a fight, so I released my bag and watched him run away. In shock, I ducked into a doorway to catch my breath for a few seconds before I realized that I didn’t know where Betina was. In hindsight, maybe I should be a little more ashamed about the fact that my instinct was to run for my life rather than stay and help Betina, but I never really figured myself for a person who puts the lives of others before my own; a main reason why I think that maybe having children just isn’t in the cards for me… I went back into the sidewalk and saw her on the ground collecting her things. She had been wearing a lightweight backpack, while I had had a shoulder bag, so the man who attacked her had to rip at the bag; as a result, the bag was in two and he just grabbed what he could and ran. I ran over to her and helped to pick up random cards and papers that had scattered. A few seconds later, we heard what I SWEAR was two gunshots, but what Betina is convinced was just a car backfiring (it’s like Ross in friends except my instinct was to duck for cover like Chandler and not throw my body on Betina), but either way, I wanted to get the hell out of there.

Betina was upset because the men had gotten her passport. Understandably, this is a big deal, but at the same time, we could go to the Embassy the next day and begin the process of obtaining a new one. My priority was to get out of the street before the men came back, or another group of people spotted us as easy prey. We had just continued to walk (this time looking for a cab – fortunately, I had about 20,000KSH (~$200USD) in my bra, as I had just been to the ATM that day and didn’t want to leave my money in the hotel room, nor did I want it in my wallet, in case something happened – which it did), when a car screeched up into the intersection we had just reached, and a man shouted from the car “miss, we have your bag, we caught the robbers, come here!” Of course, I didn’t want to get anywhere near the car, as I assumed that it was the same men or their friends, trying to lure us close enough to snatch us. Betina and I turned around and began walking quickly in the opposite direction. The man proceeded to get out of the car, and I saw that he was holding my bag, completely ripped in half, but it didn’t look empty. I don’t fully remember what happened, but I took my bag back; I looked over his shoulder into his car and saw that there were in fact, 2 men in the back seat, thrown in on top of a couple women and men. It may have been a taxi driver or a group of friends out for a drive, but either way, they had seen or heard what happened and had chased down the men with their car. We began to walk away, and heard shouts and fighting; I turned around and it looked as if the two men had gotten out of the car and were trying to come after us, or run away, or something, and they were getting knocked around by the others. We took the opportunity of both parties being distracted to run around the corner and find ourselves a cab. We approached a “cab stand” and told the man where we were going (just a few blocks away at this point); he noticed that we were upset, and we explained that we had just been robbed. As we pulled out of the parking spot, we noticed a paddy wagon of policemen had arrived, and pulled up to them to tell them what had happened.

I think it should be important to note that not once did I think of going to the police, and in fact, upon seeing 20 of them on the side of the road, I actually recoiled. There is such a pervasive mistrust of the police among both foreigners and Kenyans alike, that one does not immediately think to turn to them when in trouble. On the contrary, I would have preferred to keep driving and forget the incident had ever happened. I was lucky enough to have my bag back, and that’s all that mattered to me at that point. However, Betina had lost her passport, about 20,000KSH and two debit cards. Additionally, she and I had polar opposite reactions to the mugging; she felt that the danger had passed, and we didn’t need to be in a rush to get anywhere, and I felt that the sooner I got to a safe place, the better. She wanted to scour the escape route taken by the muggers, hoping she would recover some of her property, and I wanted to get the hell off of the street ASAP. Betina being the one who still had stuff to recover, she won and our cabbie pulled up to the cops and began talking to them. They said they had just gotten a report of an incident around the corner, and they would go get the men. They told us to wait there, and to follow them to the police station to identify the men and make a report. Mere moments after we agreed, a group of police showed up with two men struggling in their grips, and proceeded to load them into the back of the paddy wagon. They slapped their heads a bit as they loaded them in, but didn’t really rough them up too much (which was surprising, because I was under the impression that stealing was a major crime in Kenya, and offenders have been known to have been beaten to death on the spot – perhaps an extreme reaction, but certainly a deterrent). A few moments later, I watched as the two men walked out of the car and down the street. We could only assume that they had slipped some of the money they had stolen from us to the cops who had let them go.

At that point, there was no way we were going to follow the police, knowing they had let these men go, so we had our cab driver take us to our hotel. All I wanted was to lock myself in my room, take stock of what had been stolen, and call my parents. Betina, on the other hand was pissed; she wanted her passport back, and didn’t intend to call it a night until she had done all she could to get it back. She began dialing the emergency number here, which is also 911 (fortunately, her phone had been in her pocket and was not taken), only to get no answer. She called for 1.5 hours that night and not ONCE did she get an answer at the EMERGENCY number. God help you if you’re bleeding in a ditch somewhere and you need an ambulance; better stay alive until business hours, because you’re sure as hell not going to get any help in the middle of the night.

I think that’s one of the things that scared me the most; the knowledge that if something even worse were to have happened, there are literally no resources available to you unless you physically take yourself to the authorities, and even then, I know now from firsthand experience that their morals are for sale to the highest bidder.

We both finally settled into our room, and realized just how lucky we really were. I consider it a complete miracle that my bag was returned; it contained my phone, camera and wallet (which did not have much cash, but did contain my license, debit card, credit card and travel insurance information) and 200USD, which my dad handed me the day I left and told me not to change it, that I might someday find myself in a situation where American money is a more valuable bargaining tool than Kenyan shillings. Ironically, it’s entirely possible that in this situation it would have been more valuable, but it would certainly not have helped me at all. It’s not like there was time for me to negotiate with the man as he ripped my bag from my shoulder: 200USD for my bag and my life. Amazingly, Betina found her passport in her big backpack, she had not transferred it before dinner, which was a huge relief, and also made us feel better about our decision to not continue on to the police station. Neither of us was hurt; the muggers could have very easily been armed and harmed us, or tried to abduct and assault us. We were fortunate that the citizens who had seen the attack aided us and got my things back, the cab driver we found was very helpful and spoke to the police on our behalf. Our hotel is similar to a hostel, in that we have to leave our room key with reception when we exit the hotel. The key is on a very large keychain with the name and address of the hotel, along with our room number. Had our room key been on us, we could have reasonably assumed that our belongings would have been cleared out upon our return; we were also fortunate that the attack happened far enough away from our hotel that they couldn’t reasonably assume that we were staying there, which at least gave me peace of mind about going to sleep comfortably that night.

I have mixed emotions about the way the situation was handled. I remember that about 5 or 10 feet before we were attacked, we had passed the doorway of a bank or some store that had two security guards on the steps. In those brief seconds that I struggled with the man while I was screaming (now I understand when people say their lives flash before their eyes when they have a near death experience. While my experience was no where near-death, I do feel like I had a lot of thoughts in a very short amount of time), I remember thinking that this couldn’t have happened in a better spot, because the security guards would surely rush out and help us. No such luck- I was so angry with them for just allowing it to happen, and while they probably had the same fears about the men being armed, THEY WERE ARMED AS WELL. Isn’t that what they train for as night security guards in a dangerous capital city in a third world country? It felt as if they felt we deserved to be robbed, or we didn’t deserve their assistance; either way they did not one thing to help when everything went down. However, on the other hand, that carload of friends or whatever they were went out of their way to chase down the men and return my things. They could have very easily split everything up between themselves and called it a night; I do wish that I had had the presence of mind to thank them properly, but once I had my bag back in my hands all I wanted to do was get out of that situation. And then regarding the police, I would not have put much faith in their ability to help me in the first place, but they are, after all, the POLICE. They should have at least a modicum of civic responsibility, but apparently that responsibility can be waived for a reasonable fee.

Betina and I are of course not happy that this happened, but we do realize that it was a much needed wake-up call. We have gotten very comfortable here, especially in Nairobi, and we were no longer respectful of the dangers that abound in this country. For the most part, as long as you apply common sense to most situations, you will be fine. The dangers in Nairobi are not dissimilar to those in NYC; in certain areas and situations, one needs to apply extra caution: don’t walk alone at night, don’t leave your bag open or put it down, don’t display enviable possessions, don’t consume buckets of alcohol and then expect to stumble your way home without a hitch. A crucial difference between Nairobi and New York, however, is that foreigners are much easier to spot in Kenya. American cities are a smorgasbord of ethnicities and races; when you see someone who is a different color than you, your instinct is not that they are immigrants or tourists, and often, you don’t even give them a second glance. In Kenya, and even in a major city like Nairobi I distinctly remember commenting to Betina earlier that day that I saw no more than a handful of white people while walking around for the few hours I was out and about. The minority population is SO small in Nairobi that any Westerner is instantly recognized, and it can be assumed that they are not residents. While the blocks immediately surrounding the ritzy Hilton and Sarova Stanley hotels are more concentrated with foreigners, once you have left that radius, you find yourself woefully alone. While I had noticed this lack of like-colored people (an interesting role reversal for any white person), it did not make me feel uncomfortable; I think I have felt that because I essentially live in Kenya, I that I was “one of them.” However it became painfully obvious to us that night that we were not, in fact, one of them, and this way of thinking is what got us in the situation in the first place.

While we were fortunate in that we learned this lesson at a very small personal cost, I am angry with these men for stripping me in 20 seconds of the confidence I have worked for 3 months to gain here. When I first arrived in Kenya, I was a scared white girl afraid of my own shadow. My friends, (more so than my parents, who were the biggest advocates for me coming here), had fed me horror stories of major African cities, regaling me with the horrors of the sex trade and rampant transmittable diseases. I have spent the last 3 months separating myth from fact, deciding what is reasonable for me to fear and what I need to suck up and face head on. It had gotten to the point that I was confident enough to go to the city and check into a hotel by myself; I had errands to run, I ran them. I was hungry, I went to a restaurant. Approached by a man hustling safari tours, I firmly told them where they could shove it, with no sense of anxiety. In a matter of seconds, these men took that from me. While I still had a couple days of work to do in town, and I wasn’t scared enough to run back to the comfort of Njabini, I was certainly shaken up enough that I was scared to walk around in broad daylight the next day. They took my confidence from me, and that’s worth almost more than my digital camera and debit card. I’m angry with myself for getting so comfortable that we made a stupid decision, but I’m more angry with them for taking in one fell swoop what it took me 3 months to earn. Hopefully with time I will be able to gain back my confidence, but this time with a respect for the city I did not have previous to this trip. Betina and I count ourselves lucky that we escaped with nary a scratch, and we certainly learned a valuable lesson. My parents were quick to make certain that I didn’t let this one incident taint my entire experience in Kenya; I’m glad that they had that reaction, and not the “you have to come home immediately” one. It gives me confidence that I can, in fact, get past this and learn from it. The reality is, the odds of that happening in the first place aren’t super high, and we increased those odds ourselves by the decisions we made that night. The odds of it happening again are super low, as long as we are careful to take the appropriate precautions during future visits. To let this episode change my mind about Kenya would be a cop out. I just have to go back to basics and not let them see me scared – that would be like hanging a neon sign over my head flashing “rob me-rob me.” I must say though, that stepping off of the mutatu onto Njabini soil was such a relief. There are obnoxious people here too, but they’re my obnoxious people, and they know that I am not a tourist, so they leave me alone. So I got that going for me, which is nice….

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4 Responses to Reality Check

  1. Donna Wesley says:

    OMG, Hannah! What a terrible experience for you and your friend! I totally agree with you that the worst thing about it was having your confidence compromised. I know you’ll get it back, though, because you’ve got real “grit” and you will work to regain it. I’m also very proud of you for not cutting bait and running home, as upsetting as this was for you.Be strong, be wise and take good care of yourself. Love, Cioci Donna

  2. Paulina says:

    God I miss Kenya.

  3. Storie-Pugh says:

    Hannah dear- so sorry about your experience. But as you so wisely said lesson learned albeit the hard way. Wonderful to think of Njabini as “my Njabini”- that’s worth everything!! xx Leslie

  4. Carly says:

    Hi Hanhan,

    I’m happy you’re OK! I love reading your posts– this one, like the rest, is very thought-provoking and well-illustrated (not to mention exciting!).

    Thanks and be safe!

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