Belt and Road in Nairobi

ACORN International Organizing

Nairobi            My last visit to our organizers in Kenya was a trip to Nairobi in 2018.  The pandemic kept not ending from 2019 forward, so finally we are all trying to come together now five years later.

If there are easy ways to travel to Nairobi, I haven’t found them.  No US-based airline comes directly here.  My trip was a series of stops, first Newark and then Frankfurt on United, and then Lufthansa from Germany to Nairobi.  Over the years, the airport has changed.  My first visits almost twenty years ago involved walking past a series of duty-free shops after you exited the plane and chaos at the luggage area.  Once, I had the top of a bag slit before it came down the conveyor.  Lines through customs always worked, partially because most passengers were borrowing pens to fill out the forms for visas at the airport.

No more!  I swear when I booked this trip the website said I could still get a visa on arrival, but showing up for the flight on Sunday morning, I found to my horror that I had made a rookie error by not going directly to the Kenya website and trusting some old Google link.  After a grueling effort to solve the problem at the airport, I ended up back home, spending most of the morning filling out the e-visa form and wondering what the real odds of getting the visa within 48-hours to get my rebooked flight.  E doesn’t stand for easy.  The only silver in this lining is that I was saving more than $400 on the rebooking.  I would still be in time for the meetings, so no harm done.

Arriving in Nairobi after 10pm, we are now bused to an international terminal of sorts.  There was an announcement on the aircraft before we left not to bring any plastic bags with us, because it was now illegal.  Gone are the small duty-free shops, and welcome to the long custom lines, and the usual cab chaos as midnight nears.  Driving in on the long stretch to town from the airport, there seemed to be little changed, until we got to the giant expressways that had been finished over my five-year hiatus.  This is China’s Belt and Road program in action.  There were two mammoth highways going in different directions and towering over the traffic circles as we drove in.   After midnight, I only saw one car willing to pay the toll.  The hotel manager claimed to me that there was more usage during the day when drivers tried to avoid traffic jams.  He also claimed that it was a billion-dollar project that, as has been widely reported, the government is having trouble paying off.  He also repeated the rumor that China had paid 10% on top of that to the president, but despite its wide acceptance on the street, it’s unsubstantiated.  The ACORN Kenya organizers said that taxes have been doubled, and that’s the facts, partly to pay off these debts.

The country is in rough shape.  I asked about unemployment, and the organizers told me that 40% might be guessing too low.  Around the area of the Southern Blue hotel, young men were hanging on every corner, while street sellers walked by us regularly as we waited for a cab to our meeting in the Westlands.  Over there, we could see malls, condo construction, and signs of more wealth, but, like in the US and so much of the world, inequality is spreading.

It was epic to get here, but good to be back where we can get a measure of our progress on the ground, and what needs to be done going forward.