‘Say No to Corruption,’ read the badge on the immigration officer’s sleeve at Mombasa airport. Drawing our attention to the issue, right from the moment when we entered the country.
Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, Daniel arap Moi, was widely detested for corruption and political oppression. During his term, Kenya slipped from the 133rd to the 155th country in the world in economic prosperity. There might not be that many more countries.
Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, was elected on an anti-corruption ticket – hence the badge campaign in Mombasa. But when I asked Kenyans during our visit what they thought of Kibaki – they were unanimous. ‘He’s the same as all the others,’ they said. ‘Corrupt, just like the rest of them.’
Yesterday’s declaration of Kibaki as victor in the Kenyan elections, despite a string of exit polls indicating firmly that he had lost to Raila Odinga, serves only to confirm that view.
Corruption. It might be Africa’s biggest problem. Certainly it’s the one trotted out by people who don’t want to help the continent. ‘There’s no point giving money, or aid,’ they say. ‘It’s unlikely to end up with those who need it.’
But this trip, I began to understand corruption, just a little. Not the kind of barefaced electoral swindle which threatens the whole practice of democracy, but rather the day-to-day variety. The siphoning off the top of just a little, and then more and more goods and money, so that finally they don’t arrive at all.
Why do people do it, and how can they so mindlessly deprive the needy ? That’s something I’d never come close to comprehending before.
The sun is wan and thin today, struggling weakly to light the path around the park as I lope my way through the winter afternoon on this, the shortest day.
Christmas is just around the corner.
In Ashtead Woods, near the famous Epsom Wells, my footsteps fall silent among the leaves. The track is lined here with silver birch trees, stripped bare to show glimpses of greyed out sky behind. A still and unforgiving air is rushing past my face. I hear the rhythm of my breathing, and nothing more.
I let my mind fall empty. And dream of a frozen hillside, in another season.
* * * * *
The frost is on the ground – shining sheaves of white splashed on the grass beside the road. It’s late October, dawn. With chilly hands stuffed inside my sleeves, I’m fighting up a steeply rising lane.
At this early hour, my stiff legs are unexcited about the slope. My heavy stomach and a thickened head recall a feast of French food and wine consumed in happier hours just a thirsty, restless sleep behind me.
A curve sweeps ahead atop the climb, and I strive to meet it, counting out each breath and gasping in my exertion.
Twenty, thirty – forty – my feet keep turning, and at last I crest the ridge to greet an unexpected dazzling sunlight where yellow leaves are exploding from the vines.
The loss of one parent is traumatic enough, for any child. The loss of both must be almost unbearable.
At home, it happens rarely. But in Kenya, it happens a whole lot more.
The reasons ? Simple enough. There isn’t enough food to go round. There’s little medical care to speak of. Just about everyone has to battle with malaria, and malnutrition. Sickness and diarrhoea from unclean water dispatch thousands more, every year.
But that’s only the surface of the problem. Because there’s a huge medical problem in Africa. AIDS. It’s killing millions here.
Ville de lumière
J’ai besoin de toi
Gold – September 1986
The City of Light lies at her knees. It’s eight o’clock on an autumn Friday, and the streets of Paris are grid-locked. Frozen.
Emerging up the ramp and out of the Earth at the Gare du Nord, there’s chaos all around us. Sporadic, half-hearted toots echo from the crossing streets, but it makes no difference.
As a vision of Nicolas Sarkozy’s France, it’s dark and disappointing.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. A family celebration in Burgundy had called us here, and we’d tried to do it properly. Ecologically.
To take the train from London, bundle an exciting metro ride across the city to the Gare de Lyon and board a southbound TGV. To travel serenely, and greenly, across the evening and arrive in Dijon as sharp as mustard.
So much for plans and good intentions.
‘… So often I had felt irritated with people who arrived here, lived in “little Europe” or “little America” (in luxury hotels), and departed, bragging later that they had been to Africa, a place in reality they had never seen.’
Ryszard Kapuscinski – The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life.
* * * * *
The sun is low in an African sky and my subcutaneous fat and I are running down the road.
The Indian Ocean lies behind me now, and with it the easy lifestyle of the North. The beach hotel. Comfort. Contentment. Ignorance.
And in front of me ? Adventure, uncertainty. Guilt. A touch of fear.
The night air presses hot and thick outside the windows. The ancient bus groans and heaves itself another mile along the road. It’s four a.m.
A slim throw of light weaves ahead, as we slalom around endless potholes, the creaking chassis of the bus vibrating stiffly with every bounce of broken shocks.
And beyond our beam, it’s only darkness. As black as pitch – there is no distant orange streetlight glow here; no twinkling, reassuring glimmer of a distant homestead to break the gloom.
The rain is falling softly now, sluicing insistently down the windscreen. There are no wipers on the bus. But after a while, the drops somehow reassemble a filmy view of the road in front, and it doesn’t matter any more.
This is the main East African coastal highway – but don’t imagine any shiny roadsigns to announce that fact. No white lines, nor other traffic, either. Just deeply pitted, decaying tarmac. Puddles and blackness stretching far ahead.