Sunday, 27 March 2011

Mzungu tax

Kenya, near Makuyu, 60km from Nairobi
I’ve revealed rather a lot about myself in these blog postings, perhaps too much*. And yet it’s not just me who has revealed more than is perhaps wise.  You, the readers, have revealed what a sadistic lot you are.  My dashboard tells me that the top two most popular postings involve me experiencing either physical pain or discomfort. So it will come as no surprise that when I asked you whether or not I should vent my spleen the overwhelming result was to the positive (83% vs. 17%).  Good for you.  You weirdos.
So allow me to start this venting with a confession.  I’m an angry man trapped inside a calm man’s body.  There, I’ve said it.  I can now commence my 12 step recovery programme 12 whole steps, are you fucking kidding me, why don’t you walk down those 12 steps into my basement full of Get a Grip torture implements!?  I exaggerate somewhat, and the truth is that 99.99% of the time I’m fairly easy going, and my outer self really doesn’t stress the little things.  But sometimes the façade cracks and I lose it.  To be clear, anger doesn’t equate to physical violence in my case – I abhor physical violence, not least because I’m rubbish at it.  But I can, 0.01% of the time, be verbally violent.  My brother once confessed to me that he’d feared I’d had a rapid mental breakdown after he watched me scream obscenities through the car window of a man who’d just dropped another empty packet of cigarettes at my feet after I’d already told him that the floor wasn’t a bin.  In my darker moments I still regret not following the guy home and then returning in the dead of night with a week’s worth of rubbish to dump through his letterbox.  And a machine gun.
Last week was a 0.01% occasion.  It had been coming – I could feel myself getting more irritable, less patient, and it was sitting on a packed and steamy matatu that it happened.  Matatus are minivans that serve as the public transport in Kenya.  They seat 14 but regularly cram in 25 or more.  I’m sure some travellers enjoy the novel experience of being crammed into a rusting death-trap, figuring they are experiencing ‘the real thing’.  I’m not one of them.  The reason these matatus are crammed is because of police corruption, because the swathe of underpaid and unscrupulous traffic police will take a bribe before they prosecute a driver for overfilling his vehicle.  The impact is that ordinary Kenyans continue to experience discomfort at best, death at worst, and that there is a smaller competitive market in matatus, and therefore less competitive imperative to reduce prices.  Plus they stink.
Each matatu has a conductor who collects the fares and manoeuvres the passengers for maximum capacity.  And each conductor is a chancer.   They regularly try to scam the passengers by withholding change, claiming they received a lower denomination bill, or in the case of mzungus (white folk) straight overcharging.  On this 0.01% day he tried to overcharge me five times the fare.  Five times!  And I lost it.  To the amusement of the other passengers (for they hate the conductors too) I started shouting at him.  I recount here a slightly censored version: ‘what is this you mother-crusher, a mzungu tax? Yeh, I’m talking to you scally-wag.  I’m not paying a mzungu tax you flipping thief, give me my change or I’m gonna turn that smile upside down!’
I got my change.  We parted company with my suggestion that he go away and perform a biologically impossible act upon his person.  My anger at this one incident was probably unjustified.  But anger at corruption, which was really the root of my displeasure, is not unjustified.  Corruption in Kenya trickles down the many layers of government and has become normalised.  And as with all trickle down theories it is those on the bottom rung who feel its impact the most. 
Take this one, particularly insidious, example.  The Kenyan Ministry of Education have recently declared that all children in education must have a birth certificate before they can take their national exams.  Education in Kenya is a big deal, and Kenya has a high literacy rate as a result, and a massive youth population who are about to take this country into a new era of prosperity.  And yet the very poorest children who would benefit from education the most rarely have birth certificates.  Watoto Wa Baraka, the organisation we have been working for, are helping the children they sponsor to procure birth certificates from the local government.  To do this the local sub-chief has to write a letter to the government ministry confirming that the child does indeed exist and is a certain age.  And to do this incredibly simple, yet important, task the sub-chief expects a bribe.  Watato Wa Baraka always refuse and politely explain that they are helping the children in the sub-chief’s area, and maybe he could forego his personal interests on this occasion so that the child could be educated.
And all credit to them for keeping their cool and their principles.  I’m fairly certain that my reaction would be to not only suggest the sub-chief conduct the aforementioned impossible act upon his person, but I would help him do it with a broom handle.
And before you ask, you weirdos, no I won’t conduct this experiment myself and post pictures.    

* Note to current or future employers/clients – it’s all fiction**, I’m completely normal and really quite exceptional at my job. 
** OK, so it’s not fiction, but the rest of that sentence is true***.
*** Maybe.

A matatu.  Pronounced maa-ta-tu.  As opposed to a Yorkshireman's ballet outfit - ma -tutu.

<I’ve calmed down now.  I would like to make a special mention for those of you who have left comments – they really are appreciated so keep them coming.  And a double special mention to those of you who have become followers – you’re my favourites.  I’m on a soft promise from a literary agent that if I get 5,000 followers a publisher may take interest.  Only 4,990 to go!  Any ideas to send this blog viral are most welcome.  Whilst you’re thinking why not become a follower yourself? >


  1. I had a big smile when reading this post. I never knew you could loose it, but as we say in Sweden 'I de lugnaste vattnen...' translation: In the calmest water...
    But I fully understand why you lost it and I would pay a great deal of money to see the whole thing on Youtube. Now if you excuse me, I am going to read your entire blog to see how you ended up in Kenya :-D Take care!!!
    Hanna (from Inter-IKEA up in Väla)

  2. Your quite scary, though I can find a little rumor in your post. Hopefully it is the way it is.

  3. Hi Hanna! So delighted to hear from you. Glad you're enjoying the blog. Love the Swedish words of wisdom - there's a post coming up about not so calm waters so I may get to use it...
    You take care too, and lots of love to Vala. x

  4. Hello TFT, very welcome to the blog. I can assure you that what I write is the way it is. But I'm a pussy cat really. Thanks for commenting and hope you keep reading.