Day 4: Okay, that’s more like it

[I’m putting these posts up in sequence, with a one week delay from realtime. Feel free to skip this one if there’s too much to read – please tune in tomorrow, though, for the “E-Day” post”]

It’s hard to feel like you’re in Africa at The Village Market. The nominal “market” is a sprawling steel-gated reproduction of some generic California outdoor shopping mall, with food court, bowling alley and steak-and-ribs roadhouse. Little blonde girls in sundresses and sandals, skip down the fake mission-style steps in tow of pale round corn-fed parents in shorts and matching “Gotta Have God” t-shirts. Teen slackers, obviously dragged to Nairobi by their Embassy-staff parents, try to look cool hanging at the mall on a Saturday afternoon.

Sorry – I really shouldn’t denigrate this little enclave – I remember being an expat in Japan. There were times when, the hell with cultural immersion, you just wanted a beer and a bacon cheeseburger somewhere that was even vaguely trying to feel like home. I was in Japan by choice, so after I’d had my swig of American cultural imperialism, I was ready to venture back into the crazy, inexplicable world of Tokyo in the 80’s. But I imagine that if you were the dependent of a government staffer, you might just be content to drown yourself in this little smack of Disney-America until your husband/wife/father/mother got reassigned somewhere more emotionally tractable.

Anyhow. We’d stumbled into The Market yesterday in search of a mutually-agreeable lunch. Found ourselves sipping smoothies at a faux French brasserie that could have been tucked away in the Stanford Shopping Center – the cognitive dissonance with what was outside those steel gates was dizzying.

Today, though? Today was different. It’s a hell of a lot easier to feel like you’re in Africa when you’re lost on a dirt road in a crowded slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. Not scary or anything – when you’re this far out of your element, folks are surprised and curious to see what the white guy’s doing here. Oh, and glad to help. David, Oley and I probably spent 45 minutes asking directions and going in circles around Kangemi. There are supposed to be four polling places in the slum, but since there are no official roads or addresses, the current location of Old Kihubuimi Primary School was more a matter of philosophical conjecture than fact. Tomorrow, on election day, it’ll materialize somewhere, and the folks who are supposed to vote there will find it.

Today, the red dirt roads were a river of people – barefoot merchants hawking goods from wheelbarrows, elegant young couples dressed in exquisite Sunday best on their way to church. Kids, kids, kids everywhere, most just playing the way kids do, some poking in close to get a look at the tall white guy with the ponytail.

We never did find Kihubuimi or the three other polling stations in Kangemi, but by the time we made it back to the main road, we were all covered with fine red dust from the maze of its dirt roads. And yeah, my face was covered with a big smile. Yeah, this was more like it: definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Getting a taste of life outside the gates was only part of what made today feel good. The other part was that finally – after all the cramped hours in a plane, the jet lag, days of briefing and planning – finally, we’re getting to do what we came to do.

From the perspective of an STO (short term observer – what I am), the tally centers are where it all begins and ends. Today, the CECs (Constituency Election Coordinators) are there, marshalling all of their staff to prepare all the materials the hundreds of polling centers in their constituency will need for e-day, tomorrow. Cardboard voting booths, ballot boxes, propane lamps, numbered seals and tamper-proof envelopes and – most importantly – the blank ballots themselves are being, stacked, grouped, labeled and tallied under the watchful eye of Kenya’s police and armed forces. At Jamhuri High School, the beautiful colonial courtyard has been transformed into an outdoor warehouse. The atmosphere is one of opening night – a million errands, checklists and a giddy nervousness. Everything needs to be ready and at the polling centers by 5:00 a.m. tomorrow and most of these people will not sleep tonight. Or tomorrow night, for that matter. We, back in the US, have come to think of democracy, like hamburger, as something that comes shrink-wrapped in styrofoam from the local Safeway. Here, on the ground, we’re getting to see how it is really made, and it’s both humbling and inspiring.

Tomorrow’s the election, or “e-day”, and it’s going to be gruelling. We need to be on the road by 5:00 a.m., and may not get a break until some time the following day, when local tally centers complete their manual counts. No one will. The polling staff will be setting up all night – some will sleep in the the school rooms to guard their ballot boxes until the polls open in the morning. We’re lucky – we get to go “home” for the night tonight.

Tomorrow, we’re going to be on the go, trying to visit and observe as many polling stations in our area of responsibility as possible, so today’s task was finding those polling centers. We’ve got names (“Old Kihubuimi Primary School”) and we’ve got a rough map, and we get to work out the rest for ourselves. Google’s a great help here, but we need to run the route manually to work out the inevitable bugs. There are always bugs. Many of the landmarks aren’t where Google thinks they are. Some of the roads shown as “primary” are dirt ruts disappearing into a hillside, and at least twice, the driving directions recommended that we turn left off a downtown overpass and plummet to the ground to make our next turn. Again, not that Oley and I have anything to complain about. Unlike folks up in the Rift Valley, or northeast, at least we’ve got maps. Oh, and roads.

So we spent the day threading the crazy streets of Nairobi, making wrong turns, getting stuck, relying on the ample kindness of strangers and generally treating the adventure as a learning opportunity. Oley and I picked up all sorts of useful Swahili: Iko karibu? (Is it near here?) Highridge shule hakupatika (Highridge Primary School is nowhere to be found) and the ever-popular Kwenda kuzunguka moja zaidi wakati (Let’s go around the block one more time!).

No, actually, David didn’t teach us the last one, but we did orbit Jamhuri three times trying to get away, apparently caught in topological black hole of Nairobi traffic signs.

In the end, we did find most of our polling stations. We got shown around a few, strolled around the others ourselves. We were just a little grateful that “Posh Duty” wasn’t as rarified as we’d been led to believe – just a little. Still tomorrow’s going to be rough for everyone. Which means I’d better get off the damned computer and get some sleep – 4:30 a.m. is gonna come way too soon.

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