Keeping an eye on the neighbour

Posted: January 4, 2008 in Blog

The line between the ”vacation world” and “real world” is often a distinct one. You cross it in stepping off a plane, closing the trunk of an over-packed car or coming home to find a mailbox full of bills.

But that divide was more blurred during our Zanzibar trip by the election in Kenya. Amongst our group, one came from Kenya and two others, including myself, were flying through Kenya. And so we all, especially the friend from Kenya, were eager for news as the election came and went. The fact that it took three days for officials to count the votes meant the result, and threat of violence depending on the outcome, loomed over our otherwise pleasant days of lying on the beach and touring the area.

Finally, when we moved to the island’s largest town, Stone Town, we had access to a television and the Internet. We stood in the breakfast room of the guest house we were staying at and watched footage of massive riots and read stories online tracking the mounting death total (now at over 300, with an estimated 100,000 displaced across the country).

In the months leading up to the election, the opposition leader was ahead in all but a few polls  and as the votes began coming in, he was in the lead. But at the last second the incumbent president, Kibaki, was declared the winner by the slimmest of margins. Since then, there have been many reports of vote-rigging, including one region where 25,000 more votes were counted than there were voters.

It is unsettling to watch all this violence happening in a country that is often seen as East Africa’s stabilizing influence. It is certainly the region’s strongest economy and is generally better developed and more wealthy than its neighbours. This includes Uganda, as during my trip to Kenya I was shocked at the everyday differences between infrastructure in the two countries.

The violence that followed the election outcome goes beyond fighting between government and opposition voters. Supporters for the two sides roughly follow the lines of two of the country’s major tribes and so there is now fear that those leading the riots could begin forgetting the reason they’re staging an uprising—the election results—and begin simply targeting anyone of a rival tribe.

So as our friend agonized over whether to fly back on her scheduled return date or stay longer in the hopes the violence would dissipate (she ended up flying back on schedule and got home safely), we all wondered what this meant and how it might play out.

Flying out of Zanzibar on Wednesday, my plane was to land in Nairobi before connecting to Uganda. Rounding the corner approaching the airport in Zanzibar, I was greeted with crowds of people lined up in the scorching mid-day heat. A flight scheduled to leave for Nairobi that morning had been canceled so there were dozens of people (including one of the friends in our group) who were not happy about the airline’s proposed solution: that they be flown to Nairobi that night and put up at a hotel in the city’s downtown. In other words, have them driven right into the thick of the city’s riots. I was happy to hear yesterday morning that my friend got home safely.

Luckily, my flight left more or less on time, and I caught the connection to Uganda. But the layover in Nairobi was long enough to get a sense of the atmosphere in the airport. It was jammed full of people who chose to sleep there instead of the city’s hotels. I spoke with one family on my plane who were booked into a hotel in Nairobi, but planned instead to sleep at the airport because they didn’t want to risk the violence.

As our plane took off for Uganda, I looked down at Nairobi below me to see a city on fire. All across the city, plumes of smoke rose in places where violence was fresh. Later, I mentioned this to a friend who lives in Nairobi and her response was that the street in front of her apartment was on fire at that very moment.

In all the talk about the violence I had not thought of how it would affect things in Uganda. But that changed the moment I walked out of the airport in Entebbe. While negotiating with the taxi drivers that flock the departures exit, they had a grave look on their faces. The main one I was bartering with said, “Sir, we need to discuss the price. Because of fuel prices we are now charging 100,000 shillings (about $60) for the trip to Kampala.”

I almost laughed. That’s more than double the usual price, and I figured there was no way gas prices (normally about $1.40 a litre) could have risen that much in the time I was gone. So I said there was no way I would pay that price, figuring it was just another ploy. Taxi drivers here will use every excuse in the book to justify asking for more money.

“No my friend, fuel is now 10,000 shillings a litre (normally about 2,440 shillings a litre) because no fuel is coming into the country from Kenya.”

Sure enough, on the drive into Kampala most of the gas stations were closed, or charging 10,000 shillings a litre. It is part of life as a land-locked country that the supply route from the coast, in this case Mombasa, is so vital. Not a single commodity has arrived at or left the port there since the election and that port supplies most of East Africa.

Putting the Kenya violence aside for a moment, think about what that fuel price means for the average Ugandan. Fuel prices here are higher than North America at the best of times, but they are now at the equivalent of about $6 per litre. Think of the uproar in North America when gas spikes by, say, 20 cents a litre. How would people react there if prices were suddenly $6 a litre?

Here is a situation where gas is at that price in a country where the average household income is $300 a year. Granted, those with cars are part of a higher income class but that rising cost of fuel affects commodity prices as well and suddenly rising fuel prices are not something to complain about over a morning coffee and muffin as they are in North America. Instead, they are something that stops lifestyles in their tracks. Or, people find another way. The roads are now bustling with pedestrians because public transportation has become too expensive, but people still need to work.

This morning I was talking with my boda-boda motorcycle driver about the Kenya situation on the way to work. “There in Kenya, the two major tribes are fighting,” he said. “We here in Uganda pray to God that the fighting does not come to Uganda because we have 32 tribes.”

He then proceeded to count off nearly every one of them while explaining which ones would be fighting against each other if rioting broke out. At first I tried to keep track of which tribes had issues with each other but it quickly became too confusing to sort out. It illustrates just how easily this type of fighting can explode and how powerless people like my boda-boda driver feel—that if the rioting comes to Uganda, the fighting can become a lightning rod for decades-old tribal differences that today are not apparent in the everyday street life.

But it is, hopefully, an unlikely scenario. This is a country that harbours its internal differences but also is aware of how damaging tribal fighting can be given the decades worth of destruction caused by the Idi Amin years in the 1970s.

This afternoon I sat working in a café, watching the news and listening to the BBC for news on the Kenya situation. Having just finished reading an article written for the Toronto Star by a friend of mine in Kenya that outlined concerns about the ethnic lines separating the two fighting sides, I watched a man in a Kenya slum being beaten to death on TV.

These next few weeks will be interesting.

  1. kpinchin says:

    You are a brilliant, brilliant writer and this is why you are the only blog I read. Please keep writing such incredible stories; I can’t wait for your memoirs. 🙂

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