Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and one rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part I—from Jeddah on the Red Sea to Nairobi.

I am sitting on the terrace of the Mombasa Yacht Club, drinking a Tusker beer (it’s the local favorite), and looking out at a number of tramp steamers swinging on their anchors in Kilindini Harbour.

The ship closest to the yacht club jetty is a rusting hulk, and might well have ferried Marlow up the Congo River so that he could touch base with Mr. Kurtz, except that the Conradian river is on the opposite side of the continent. Mombasa is a port on the Indian Ocean.

While the yacht club is an ex-pat oasis (famous for its chicken sandwiches and vegetable curry), as a city Mombasa is a moving atom of tuk-tuks, container trucks, sooty buses, muezzins, and pickpockets—the reason that I talked my way into the club, citing as precedent my summer membership in a small boat club on the coast of Maine. Conrad might have done the same.

Although my decision to head “up river” was last minute—I found a roundtrip air ticket on Saudia Airlines for $260—I have been thinking about Africa for most of my adult life, without, however, doing much in the way of due diligence.

Ten years ago I took my family on the overnight train from Cairo to Aswan, and then we floated back toward Cairo on a felucca, spending our nights in the cold desert air as if a pack of wild dogs, huddling together for warmth. In the 1980s, my wife and I took our honeymoon in South Africa, during which I traded several magazine stories about apartheid and the author Alan Paton for our air tickets.

The rest of Africa has remained for me, at best, a literary illusion. I read the Hemingway big-game short stories in high school and college, and in the 1980s I paid my obeisance to Robert Redford and Meryl Streep by going to see the film Out of Africa (two hours and forty-one minutes of product placement ads for Banana Republic).

Otherwise, all I knew about the continent was what I read in the New York Times or watched on evening television—and none of that was good news. Depending on the day in question, I thought of Africa either as an al-Qaeda training camp, an impending famine, or a breeding ground for AIDS and corruption. I never troubled much with the facts on the ground.

Because Africa is so large and so difficult to move around, I hardly knew where to start. I was tempted to begin in Senegal, in French West Africa, but the airfares and hotels struck me as expensive. I also thought of Ghana, as the man who looked after my father at the end of his life was from Accra, and I admired his genial humor and gentle disposition, especially in the face of death. (He was also a fan of the Baltimore Ravens, but that had nothing to do with post-colonial Africa.)

In the end, I decided to take the plunge in Nairobi, as from there I could catch the new Chinese-built express train to Mombasa, and make further connections to Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe by ferries, trains, buses, and the odd flight.

Along the way, I might encounter more than a few hearts of darkness, but I could put some concrete images to my readings, at least those histories I jammed on to my Kindle.

I would have loved to travel with my folding bike, which serves me so well in Europe and, sometimes, in American cities (Indianapolis is great on a bike). But after watching YouTube scenes of Kenyan street traffic, I decided to leave the bicycle behind, much the way Mr. Kurtz dispensed with humanity when he went up his own river.

To Saudi Arabia: Caviar is King

Just booking a ticket on Saudi Airlines—it’s the airline of the House of Saud—was fraught with complications. It turned out that my $260 fare would only work if my layover in Jeddah was less than twelve hours. Anything more than that and, even if I didn’t plan to leave the lounge, I would need a transit visa. And here was the catch: Saudi Arabia doesn’t issue them to infidels.

I found a Saudi office in Geneva (where I live), and presented my $260 case for Nairobi, with a return ticket from Johannesburg. The officer on the desk said I could not travel on those dates, as it would involve a 14-hour layover, and, not even the pledge of a side trip to Mecca or Medina would put me on the side of the holy men.

In the end, I found other dates with tighter connections and pushed the Purchase Now button on Priceline’s website, not sure why the discounter has such sweetheart deals with the official carrier of 9/11.

The flight left Geneva late on a Friday afternoon—normally a holy day—but apparently, Saudis in Switzerland can get away with skipping some of the commandments, at least if shopping is involved.

I was given a window seat at the back of a large Airbus, next to a man and his extended family who were carrying a number of shopping bags that I recognized as having come from Caviar House—a fish and chip emporium for the smart set in Geneva.

Shortly after takeoff, my seat mate began badgering the stewardesses—not for the coordinates of Mecca or her phone number—but to put his caviar in the plane’s refrigerator. Crew meetings were held, senior pursers were consulted, and even a relief pilot came back to discuss the matter.

In the end, the airline said it could not accept a passenger’s private caviar collection into its coolers, but—this was Saudi after all, a magic carpet with frequent flyer alliances—the crew did agree to drop off regularly bags of ice on the five-hour flight to the Red Sea.

I guess it could have been worse. As these negotiations were ongoing, I remembered reading about an earlier Saudi flight on which some pilgrims at the back of the plane lit up a hibachi and began grilling a goat—until that cookout consigned everyone on board to eternity.

Knowing that I faced a ten-hour layover, I had done my homework on King Abdulaziz International Airport. Believe it or not, there is an entire website dedicated to “sleeping in airports.” Who knew? From that link, I had learned that King Abdelaziz has often placed last in the rankings of global airports.

The site’s chat rooms compared its waiting rooms to cattle cars, and implied—to use an expression that my father liked—that the restrooms might “turn the stomach of a vulture.” Where were all those oil billions when it came time to upgrade the transit lounges at King Abdulaziz?

Overnight in Jeddah: Allah’s Transit Lounge

I did love the approach over the Red Sea into Jeddah, even though it was dark when we landed. The plane reached Arabia around Yenbo, the port where in 1916 T.E. Lawrence had come ashore with a small advance party—to ally Britain, he hoped, with various Arabian tribes.

He writes in Seven Pillars of Wisdom about how Yenbo was a turning point in the desert wars:

Afterwards, old Dakhil Allah told me he had guided the Turks down to rush Yenbo in the dark that they might stamp out Feisal’s army once for all; but their hearts had failed them at the silence and the blaze of lighted ships from end to end of the harbour, with the eerie beams of the searchlights revealing the bleakness of the glacis they would have to cross. So they turned back: and that night, I believe, the Turks lost their war.

The plane skirted the Saudi coastline down to Jeddah, which like Geneva has a “jet d’eau” (a tall spout of water) to mark its harbor. The rest of the city was a rushing stream of street and car lights, which all ran together as if part of a modernist photograph. Even from 5000 feet, I got the impression that Jeddah is one of those Arabian cities where there are traffic jams at two in the morning (I found similar conditions in Oman).

The transit facilities at the airport, however, were less impressive. I collected a transit card from a cheerful Indian man at an airport desk, and lined up for yet another security checkpoint, although this one had segregated screeners for men and women.

Even though the pat-downs took forever, I got the feeling that security at King Abdulaziz is consistent with Saudi Arabia being an official sponsor in the wars of terror.

No one bothered to check laptops or other electronics, and at one point I saw a Western women take scuba gear from her carry-on backpack—a mask and respirator—which prompted only shrugs among the guards (even when she put the mask on her head, as if getting ready for a Sea Hunt episode in an airport fountain).

Past security, I figured out why the King Abdulaziz gets the low marks that it does from “sleeping in airports.” Transit passengers were literally everywhere, especially up and down the aisles of the duty-free shop. (It had room to spare, as, without alcohol on the shelves, the inventory is mostly Snickers and M & Ms.)

In the main departure hall, banks of metal-backed chairs were chock full of passengers in all manner of positions, such that it was hard to distinguish those who were jet lagged from those performing their ablutions. In fact, when I went into the men’s room, I discovered a fellow traveler washing his feet in one of the sinks.

Even though my ticket was “super economy,” I tried to talk my way into the Al-Fursan Golden Lounge. Thirty dollars might have done the trick, and the agent at the front desk was open to incentive compensation. Then he explained that the lounge limited layovers to six hours and that the earliest I could check in was 1:00, still several hours away.

In the end, as a convert to the cause of a good night’s sleep, I found a comfortable corner in the airport prayer room, Allah’s transit lounge. The duty-free mosque wasn’t very crowded, and I judged the zeal of the pilgrims from the fact that several of the faithful were speaking on their cell phones while others were curled up and sound asleep. I figured no one would challenge my faith, and around 23:00 I stretched out near one of the walls, using my briefcase as a pillow.

I dozed and listened to podcasts (I can’t imagine other pilgrims were tuned into Dan Hanzus on Around the NFL) until 5:00 when there was a serious call to prayers. Suddenly my fraternity sleeping porch took on qualities of the hajj, and I decided to move my encampment to the Kit Kat aisle of the duty-free shop.

Nairobi: A Witches’ Brew of Tribalism, Colonialism, and Corporatism

For much of the flight from Jeddah to Nairobi, I dozed or read my book, Tod Hoffman’s Al Qaeda Declares War, a history of the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, part of Osama bin Laden’s coming out party.

The plane flew over some of the bleakest landscape in the world—the deserts and barren landscapes of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. Between cloud cover and my nodding, I saw little on the ground until the flight banked over the Ngong Hills (just outside Nairobi) and landed to the east.

I have given up traveling with guidebooks; I hate their language and I hate running into other travelers who are open to the same pages. I find novels and histories cover the material that interests me, and to navigate locally I rely on the kindness of strangers, some Internet Googling, and my collection of paper maps, which includes an atlas of mass transit systems around the world. But even I could not miss the warnings about Nairobi—that it was a den of thieves, often called Nairobbery, doubling as a major city.

When I bought my visa on arrival, the kindly immigration agent quizzed me on my travel plans, deduced I was a mugging waiting to happen, and implored me to give up the idea of “the airport bus into town” and take a taxi. I could hear my wife’s voice in her pleadings, which is why I gave in to reason when a baggage handler near the carousel whispered: “I know a driver.”

It turned out he was fronting for a limousine company and for $20 I rode into Nairobi in a late model sedan (ashamed that I was losing what my children call “road status”—the idea being that the worse the trip, the more status points you collect).

On a Saturday afternoon, Nairobi was largely free of rush-hour traffic, but still many of the streets were clogged, and exhaust poured into my open rear window. (For air conditioning, you need more than a voucher.)

The suburbs were a collage of Maasai shepherds herding cattle in the median strip and fairly new office buildings. Yes, Nairobi has palm trees and a pleasant equatorial climate (thanks to the elevation). It is also one of the capitals of underdevelopment, a megalopolis in which many major roads are limited to two lanes and where squatters and piles of garbage can be seen in the shadows of newly minted five-star hotels.

I was prepared not to like Nairobi, but despite the traffic, noise, crime rate, and corruption there is a generosity of the city and its people that is difficult to dismiss. I also appreciate the country’s literary tradition—more than its political history, a witches’ brew of tribalism, colonialism, and corporatism.

My hotel was the Anglican Guest House of Kenya, which I chose because it was in a good location, promised me breakfast and dinner (you don’t wander around Nairobi at night, unless you are Charles Bronson with a death wish), and showed pictures on the Internet of earnest co-religionists having tea on the verandah.

In truth, I would rather take the risk of some proselytizing than spend time in a Hilton with Bob from accounting.

Around Nairobi: Al Qaeda Declares War

Whenever I am new to a city, I head to the railroad station, which in many parts of the world proves a lost cause. Nairobi follows that example.

From the hotel, it was a short taxi ride to what is called the “old station,” which is located just south of the Central Business District, next to a bus and minivan hunting ground that must be among Africa’s worst.

The old station was padlocked. The only way I could look at some of the trains in the yards was to climb the stairs of a walkway that overlooked the tracks. Not many trainspotters are drawn to Nairobi, although by luck I did see a sign for the Railway Museum, and there walked among the ruins of Africa’s age of steam engines.

Railroads came to East Africa about the turn of the twentieth century, and the golden route, in Kenya anyway, was from the port of Mombasa, where the European liners docked, to Lake Victoria and the colonial lands that now make up Uganda.

In the early days, train passengers rode on a ferry from Kisumu (in Kenya, not far from Barack Obama’s village of Kogelo) to Entebbe, the lake port for Kampala and where Israeli commandos blew away those hijackers.

Over the years, the railroads changed engines and shareholders. There was a Kenya Uganda Railway and the East Africa Railroad. But they served the interests of colonial exploitation more than local transportation, and after Kenya became independent in December 1963, the railroads began their long decline into irrelevance, with service being pulled from around the country, until now, when there is only one intercity train left—the Chinese-built express that connects Nairobi to Mombasa. The terminal is located in the Nairobi suburbs near the airport, which explains why during much of the day a padlock is on the doors of the old railroad station.

From the railway museum—it has steam engines and cars that were used in the filming of Out of Africa—I only had to ride a short distance to what remains of the U.S. embassy that was bombed on August 7, 1998, an al-Qaeda attack that killed more than 200 Kenyans and Americans, and wounded thousands.

In those days, the American embassy was on a roundabout in center city. Two attackers, driving a van filled with home-made explosives (of the Oklahoma City variety), drove into a U-shaped alley. Their plan was to kill the guard and drive the explosive van into the parking garage that was underneath the American embassy.

An embassy guard, however, sensed trouble from the van—suspicion is second-nature in Nairobi. (As quoted by Hoffman, he said later, “I just feel something in my blood that the van was unusual.”) While he sounded the alarm, the terrorists exploded their payload in the courtyard. Somehow, by diving to the ground, the guard survived.

The truck bomb badly damaged the U.S. embassy and a bank building opposite it, but it literally destroyed a multi-story Nairobi office building that was next door, accounting for most of the casualties. Hoffman writes:

In all, the explosion unleashed by Azzam claimed 213 innocent people, some torn apart by the massive blast or consumed in its fire, some shredded by spears of glass and blades of metal propelled from the embassy and surrounding buildings. Others were crushed beneath tons of concrete and other debris loosed by the bomb. More than four thousand five hundred were wounded, many grievously, losing eyes and limbs. Skin melted in pools like wax, cartilage and muscle fused, bones crackled. Blood everywhere.

At the same time, a second truck bomb was exploded in front of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, which is south of Kenya. The two attacks were attributed to a shadowy group called al-Qaeda, with which few in the U.S. government were then familiar.

Hoffman describes the origins of the so-called war on terror in local terms. He writes: “The arrival of the Americans in Somalia in December 1992 gave credence to al Qaeda’s suspicion over their broader motives in the Gulf, where they remained in force even after Saddam retreated. It seemed to them to be the second claw of a pincer movement to occupy the Arabian Peninsula.”

As a result of the bombings, Osama bin Laden became a household name, even if the Clinton administration could not connect dots between the embassy bombings and the group’s more significant plans to launch attacks against “the American homeland.”

The old U.S. embassy in Nairobi was torn down after the attack. In its place, there is a reflective garden dedicated to those who lost their lives and, behind it, a small museum that has a lot of pictures of Bill Clinton looking pensive and stern, although Monica’s dress, which blew up at the same time, might have accounted for his solemnity.

In the theater of the museum, I watched a video recreation of the attack and heard a number of FBI agents (who were deployed to Africa) analyze the crime scene.

That the attack happened in Africa, as opposed, say, to Las Vegas, was a detail largely lost on federal investigators, who sifted bomb evidence and arrested suspects as though all the world is the FBI’s oyster and U.S. law has jurisdiction across the Great Rift Valley.

From the video’s conclusion, I came away with the impression that the case against bin Laden and al-Qaeda was “closed” even before Clinton left office, especially after the president ordered a few Tomahawk missiles to be dropped down the chimney of a bin Laden pharmaceutical company in Sudan.

Later, back at the Anglican guest house, I finished reading Al Qaeda Declares War, in which Hoffman makes the connection between the two embassy attacks and September 11, which happened three years later. He concludes:

Indeed, the embassy bombings gave three years’ warning, the Cole attack one year, that al Qaeda was hell-bent on carrying out its fatwa against America and Americans. As Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer who led the Clandestine Service’s efforts to kill bin Laden at Tora Bora in late 2001, wrote, “rarely in history has a great power like ours received two such warnings and failed to act to defend itself.”

Hoffman’s thesis is that the American response failed to understand the coming danger because, in those days, officials in the State and Justice departments still had copies of the Constitution in their desk drawers, and its prissy doctrines got in the way of ordering a hit on bin Laden or his brethren, as if they enjoyed civil protection from something like the ACLU.

Hoffman quotes the British journalist, William Shawcross, who said of the defense trials of those rounded up for the embassy bombings: “They seemed to be asserting a constitutional right not to be caught while conspiring to commit murder.”

The Tomahawk missiles are viewed more as a sound-and-light show for domestic consumption rather than the work of a terrier to dig the rat out of his hole.

Kenya’s Reign of Terror: The Front Lines

Wandering around the August 7th Memorial Park and museum, I thought a lot about Kenya’s fate on the front lines of terror. The United States would like to believe that it is the only victim of random political violence, but the number of atrocities on Kenyan soil is daunting.

Here’s a short list of other attacks in Kenya:

—In 2013, two terrorists seized the Westgate Shopping Mall, the most upscale such center in Nairobi, and killed more than 60 civilians who were out doing errands.

—In 2002, stinger missiles were fired in Mombasa at an Israeli charter flight operated by Arkia Airlines. Fortunately, they missed the target.

—At the same moment, suicide bombers blew up a hotel on the Mombasa coast (north of the city) that was popular with Israelis, killing 13 and wounding more than 80 persons (both Israelis and Kenyans).

—On the coast around the old world settlement of Lamu—a popular Kenya resort—al-Shabaab operatives from Somalia routinely kidnap and sometimes kill unsuspecting tourists who think only that they have signed up for a beach holiday. In one attack in 2014, some 48 Kenyans were killed in a direct attack against a police station.

—Between 2011 and 2014, when Kenyan forces were engaged inside Somalia, there were literally dozens of bombings and assassinations around Nairobi—too many to list here. It’s a roster of killings not unlike the mass shootings that take place every week around the United States, although in these cases, the attacks are politically motived—to force Kenya out of Somalia.

In this context, the suicide bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, while horrific, was just one attack of many that have turned Kenya into one of the most fortified nations in the world. In most the cases the suspected terrorists are al- Shabaab, an al-Qaeda spin-off across the border in Somalia.

Every hotel, every public space, has armed guards, security checkpoints, and scanners for detecting guns or bombs. Admittedly, some of the scanners look like those at the Bucharest airport in the 1970s, but still they are on guard, lending Nairobi the air of an armed encampment.

America Under Siege: Innocents Abroad

The reasons that bin Laden financed the terror against the U.S. embassies was that U.S. troops (under George H.W. Bush) had been fighting Muslim warlords in Somalia (General Aidid among them) and that he believed that American forces were propping up the corrupt Saudi regime.

Hoffman writes about bin Laden in his history of al-Qaeda in East Africa:

He watched with horror as tens of thousands of American troops—men, women, Christians, and Jews—swarmed into the Arabian Peninsula—the land Mohammed specifically designated as off limits to infidels—for Operation Desert Shield beginning August 7, 1991. He was humiliated by the implication that Americans were better qualified to defend Muslim land than he was, lamenting that Saudi Arabia “has become an American colony,” and declaring, “Never has Islam suffered a greater disaster than this invasion.”

My problem with the Hoffman book is that it reads like The FBI Story, a boy’s book about the daring-do of J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men. In this case they are not in the manhunt for “Baby Face” Nelson, but sifting rubble in Nairobi to ferret out the truth about “the first man of terror” (not unlike those mummies occasionally unearthed in the Rift Valley).

By the time that bin Laden dispatched his kamikaze trucks to the two U.S. embassies, however, the United States had—almost since the 1956 Suez crisis—taken up the white man’s burden to fight endless wars of colonial restoration across the Middle East and Africa.

In the late 1950s, the U.S. had landed marines in Lebanon. In 1967, it had armed, and cheered on, Israel, in its battles for the Golan, Sinai, the West Bank, and, most significantly, Jerusalem.

In the 1970s and 80s, it had turned a blind eye toward Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, stood by silently as Sabra and Shatila were overrun, shelled Lebanon from the battleship USS New Jersey, funded repressive regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (among others), and acted as a merchant of death in favoring Iraq over Iran in their trench-and-gas warfare of the 1980s.

In the 1990s, the United States had troops scattered in dozens of bases and outposts from Morocco to Pakistan, and its troops had fought on the ground in Kuwait, much as it pilots were enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq. Plus the U.S. was giving Israel $3 billion in military credits.

But when bid Laden attacked the embassies on August 7, 1998, the American reaction was that of a violated Belgian nun—complete shock and outrage that our innocence and virtue should be challenged.

Of bin Laden, Hofmann writes: “With each bloody triumph, he became more certain of divine approval. As an agent of Allah’s will, he absolved himself of any wrongdoing and felt justified in every ruthlessness.”

Up next: Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, the death of Denys Finch Hatton, the Ngong Hills, Kenyan Election Violence, Westgate Mall and Terrorist Nairobi.


Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.