Swimming in Greenbacks
By Evans Kinyua (Kenya)
When insomnia attacks, as it is wont in these troublesome times, I usually take refuge in television. Fortunately, television in Kenya has adopted the twenty four hour mode. Well, almost, since from around midnight or thereabout, the four major stations go to sleep and switch us over to international broadcasters, and the other one, the minnow of the group, goes into automatic regurgitation of local news.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, listless and bored, I make do with what is on offer. This is how I learnt about the global financial crisis, long before it hit Nairobi. They say that the crisis affected all corners of the globe, and I believed it since it particularly affected my already malnourished wallet. Until I visited Eastleigh, the first truly 24 hour suburb of Nairobi, the other day in search of the best rates to change a few dollars into Kenya Shillings (my very own version of a stimulus package) and it dawned on me that all the seriously educated analysts I have seen on television are wrong. The global financial crisis was not quite global. It missed Eastleigh by a wide mark.
This little enclave of the city is bubbling and bursting with life. Numerous shopping malls have come up, each one named plaza this or plaza that, never mind the sludge and sewage flowing sluggishly right outside. Eastleigh is also the most densely populated part of the city, the majority of the residents being people of Somali descent. The rest are Kenyan shoppers like me, looking for bargains in their own attempts at beating the global crisis. But Eastleigh remains unaffected, so much so that even Kenyan banks, some of them international brands like Barclays, have set up shop in the suburb, right in the middle of the murk and the vehicular chaos. They too have realized that the money is in Eastleigh and they too want a piece of the action.
Everything is available here; designer apparel from jeans to ladies’ handbags, electronics from telephone handsets to television sets. There are all manner of gold and gold plated jewellery, and money changers abound. There is a catch, though, a subtle caveat to be wary of the sweet deals. All too often such a deal is sugar-coated. You could easily end up with a Kalvin Clein pair of jeans, a Sonny TV, a Nokkia handset, a DMX bike or fake currency. Sellers advertise and cajole in thickly accented Swahili and broken English as others converse in staccato Somali. It is rumored that such cargo is imported into the country as illegal contraband without any duty and VAT paid.
With this caveat in mind, I jump over the stream of sewage outside Garissa lodge and squeeze my way through teeming humanity into the bowels of the bustling building. I pass buy buibui-clad women, their faces hidden behind the ubiquitous hijab, seated on the ground with bowls laden with gold jewellery. I turn right and then left and almost lose myself in the narrow corridors trying to follow the directions someone had given me. I know that I am on the right track when I come across many men holding bundles of Kenya Shillings in one hand and American Dollars in the other. I chose to transact with an old man with a lush but brown beard (what do they paint these with and why), choosing him because he is old (therefore more unlikely to offer me fake currency) and because he operates from a shop (which means that if he does give me fake money, I can find him for redress).
I change my few dollars and leave with a lot of Kenya Shillings, terrified that I would be robbed in the thick throngs of people. But I need not have to be worried. Thieves too, give Eastleigh a wide berth, which is one good thing that one can say about the Muslim influence. Sharia law is not practiced here, but criminality is frowned upon, which is puzzling since Eastleigh is the same place where you can purchase a gun at very competitive prices.
Eastleigh is the Somali Diaspora capital, as Mogadishu, which my friend Lloyd calls Muq’dishu, and is the bona fide capital of Somalia. The mix of nationalities can be perplexing, since a Somali can claim to be a Kenyan Somali, an Eritrean Somali, an Ethiopian Somali or a Somali Somali. There are even Canadian Somali, US Somali and many more. If arrested for lack of identification, like it used to happen in the nineties, they would claim that they are being unfairly targeted as a race despite being Kenyan citizens, and Kenyan Somali Members of Parliament would cause an uproar. The government long gave up and left Eastleigh to its own devices, thereby creating a veritable republic within a republic, much like Lesotho and Swaziland.
While the suburb has always done economically well for itself, it has recently virtually exploded with economic activity, courtesy of piracy money. It is said that those millions of dollars are finding their way into Eastleigh, because Somali’s feel that it is safer invested here rather than in their warlord and Al-Shabaab infested country. In any case, Eastleigh has always been their home away from home, a place where even the Kenya government finds difficult to govern……well, just like Somalia. Kenyan identity cards and Passports can be purchased with the same piracy dollars from hungry officials and brokers at the Ministry of Immigration in the CBD or printed in River Road. Flush with money from piracy, the global financial crisis is but a rumor in Eastleigh.
Property prices have shot up by over five hundred per cent, and not just in Eastleigh. Piracy dollars have found their way into some other parts of Nairobi with sizeable Somali populations such as South C. I live in South C, and I am witness to the transformation since real estate prices and rents have hit the roof in the neighbourhood courtesy of Somalis who are ready to pay top dollar. My house is now worth much more as a result, so each time a ship is hijacked off the Somali coast, I know that the value of my house will go up another notch. Long live the pirates, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Tired from all the pushing and shoving, I head to one of the new restaurants for a meal, eager to sample Somali cooking. I understand they are quite excellent at culinary skills. I am appalled at what I find. The washroom is filthy. The floor is covered with dirty gurney bags (apparently to act as mats on which to clean muddy shoes). At the sinks, people are competing at who hawks loudest, after which they spit huge globs of gunk into the bowls. I am petrified at the mere thought of touching the tap so I decide to pass. Suddenly I am not so hungry any more.
But I will be back. Christmas is coming and my children are talking about the usual goodies. They believe the Father Christmas folklore. The global crisis notwithstanding, I am loath to disappoint them. After all, they cannot distinguish Calvin Klein from the real thing.