Day 2: What Could Possibly Go Wrong

[note: in keeping with the need to respect radio silence until The Carter Center STO mission is over, I’m putting these posts up in sequence, with a one week delay from realtime.]

Morning – the air’s cool and fresh on the patio. Cloth umbrellas and jacaranda trees provide shade from the flat sunlight. A few minutes of quiet respite before we stuff ourselves back inside the briefing room for a second day of How Not To Screw Up. And oh, there are so many ways. Yesterday focused on How Not to Be Culturally Inappropriate and How Not To Interfere With The Election Process And Get Kicked Out of the The Country. Turns out both of those are more subtle that you might expect: the shirt I was wearing, an understated orange/peach cotton weave, was the party color of the CORD coalition. Good to know these things before I go out, put on my badge and get the Carter Center kicked out for choosing sides.

Today’s first briefing focuses on How Not to Get Hurt or Killed which – in my book – is a key part of the How Not To Screw Up curriculum. As I understand, the threats fall into a few basic categories:

  • Ethnic violence – a perennial favorite, as folks from one enthnic group set fire to the houses of another group, in order to drive them out of town and prevent them from voting. Not quite so much of an issue in Nairobi.
  • Opportunistic crime – it’s a short hop from Kibera, one of the largest and poorest urban slums in the world, to almost anywhere in central Nairobi, and the police are going to be stretched thin guarding polling stations. They’re not out to hurt you, they just want your stuff. You can avoid most of the danger here by going out in groups, not wearing anything flashy and carrying minimal valuables; that way, if you do get held up, you can cheerfully hand over everything you’ve got. Really, this one is just the same as in any big city.
  • The Al Shabaab wildcard. As remote a possibility as this is, this is the one that has me most worried, considering our assignment. Those whacky guys with bombs have been quiet lately. One explanation is that Kenyan army is right about having destroyed a lot of their operational capability; another is that they’ve just been sitting tight for an opportunity to get the biggest bang for their buck. If that’s the case, the rich, expat part of Nairobi on election day would not be an implausible target.
  • But the number one thing to rationally worry about is….Traffic accidents. We heard this in Liberia, too: by far, the greatest actual cause of harm to election observers and other assorted foreigners in Africa is traffic accidents. Don’t speed. Don’t drive at night. And for Bob’s sake, wear the damned seatbelt.


As I said before, the Carter Center has a hecka lot of experience in keeping their observers out of harm’s way. We get to talk about some of them, others are better if we just keep to ourselves. I’ll just say that I’m feeling as well taken care of as I can imagine. And since this is all getting posted after the fact, you can rest assured that if you’re reading in my blog, rather than the “tragic complacency” section of the news, it all turned out okay.

Speaking of tragic complacency, afternoon is reserved for our operational training exercise: can 58 well-educated and experienced world travelers follow a checklist of instructions and fill in the blanks to get the right numbers in the right places? Heh. How hard could that be? (Hey – I said it with a distinct smirk and implied sense of irony, so it’s okay. Right? Right?)

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