Into Africa: Robert Redford’s Big Game in Nairobi

Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa” House, Nairobi, Kenya.

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part II—terrorist Nairobi, the Streep-Redford stage set, Kibera slum, and  colonial wars. To read part I, click here.

It was a Sunday, and I had arranged a full day of touring with Richard, my Uber driver who would be waiting promptly in front the Anglican Guest House whenever we agreed a time.

As touring in Nairobi means sitting in traffic jams, Richard and I spent hours in conversation—about religion in Kenya, the Catholic Church, the presidential election, violence in the streets (“here we roll up our windows”), his university education (humanities), the spate of terrorist attacks (“very bad people”), and the game parks (where travelers could see “the Big Five”—lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes, and rhinos).

Just after we met that day and were discussing my plans for Mombasa, Richard insisted that I buy my train ticket ahead of time. He said that the new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), built at vast expense by the Chinese, tended to sell out and that it could be a problem if I tried to buy a seat on the day I planned to travel.

So before heading for the Ngong Hills, we detoured into south Nairobi, where the Chinese government has built a terminus as lavish as any for high-speed rail in Wuhan or Shenyang.

Why Nairobi, with two trains a day (one in each direction between Nairobi and Mombasa), needs a terminal worthy of Shanghai is another question—although no doubt it is one intended to make a statement to the world about China’s colonial future in Africa.

Nairobi Terminus

Pulling up to the station, we parked in a lot that could well surround a football stadium. It had parking for hundreds of cars, but was empty, as are the lands surrounding the station, officially called Nairobi Terminus. (Note to Chinese engineers: terminals are dead-end stations; this one is not.)

To buy my ticket, I had to pass my briefcase through a scanner, submit to a body search, and navigate several other security checkpoints on the sidewalk leading into the station. Otherwise I was alone on a vast concrete plain, looking up at the steel-and-glass monolith that might well speak to Kenya’s Great Leap Forward.

After buying a ticket, my hope was to visit the house of Danish writer Karen Blixen (she wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen), famous for Out of Africa, which was made into the Robert Redford-Meryl Streep film.

I like visiting the homes of writers if only to look at the books on their shelves, although in Blixen’s case, the volumes in her library were a gift from Universal Studios, which donated them after shooting the film at or near the stone farmhouse that is about six miles from downtown Nairobi. (For the movie scenes set in Denmark the producers used Surrey, England, satisfied, I am sure, with its bleakness.)

The night before at the Anglican guest house, I had checked online and discovered that the Blixen house was closed on Sundays. Instead, Richard and I decided to drive west from the SGR Terminus toward the Ngong Hills. Blixen begins her memoirs with this passage:

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time, you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

If I could not visit the house, at least I could see the hills visible from her backyard. On the way, I suggested to Richard that we should stop at the house—just to see it from the outside. Anyway, it was on our way to the Ngong Hills.

An Out-of-Africa Christian Subdivision

After Blixen gave up her farm in 1931 (by that point her lover Denys Finch Hatton, played in the movie by Robert Redford, was dead in a plane crash), her successors subdivided the 6000-acre farm, which now is one of the more popular and upscale neighborhoods in Nairobi, appropriately called Karen.

She and her husband, Baron Blixen, never cashed in as coffee farmers. Little did they realize that they could have made a fortune subdividing their land into gated communities.

Much of Karen, as best as I could see from the car, is given over to Christian schools and churches, of every stripe and persuasion. I saw faith centers and churches for Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Evangelicals, Copts, Quakers, and Pentecostals—just to mention a few.

In June, I had driven across Tennessee and Arkansas, and nowhere there did I see the stations of the cross that I found in Kenya, bearing such names as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya, Maranatha Faith Assemblies, Overcoming Faith Center Church of Kenya, and Salvation Army.

Because it was early on a Sunday morning when we were driving through Karen, hundreds of local residents were either on their way to or coming back from church.

The sides of the busy roads were clogged with either parked cars or clusters of pedestrians, all of whom were Sunday best-dressed, in lively and elegant African colors.

One of the more popular churches seemed to fly the flag of “Jeff Fleming”—at least its parking attendants came with that name emblazoned on their reflective security vests. It sounded like a religion with its own page on Linkedin.

Lionizing Karen Blixen

When Richard pulled the car up in front of the Karen Blixen House and Museum, we found that it was open for business. When we asked why the website said it was closed, one of the attendants whispered: “We like to have a slow day on Sundays.”

I was assigned Martin as my guide. He began the house tour by leading me into the front garden, where we sat on chairs in the shade of the large tree and looked at the elegant stone house across the large, closely clipped front lawn. It was a perfect way to begin. Think of a White House tour beginning on plastic chairs set up in the Rose Garden.

For the most part Martin explained Blixen’s Out of Africa story in its unvarnished version (although he left out that the Baron gave her syphilis in their first year of marriage).

Blixen lived for almost twenty years in Africa (1914 to 1931), and all of it in the stone house that is now a museum. Baron Blixen was her second cousin, and Karen had been a lover to his brother before she ended up marrying the baron.

He had the title and she had the money, and they dreamed of turning their farm into a thriving coffee plantation, as the troops in World War I were spiking demand for the Kenyan beans.

Karen had thought she was heading to Africa to make a go of a dairy and cattle farm, but her hot-headed husband had decided on coffee, even though it took four years for the beans to flower and no one in Africa had ever been successful growing coffee at the altitude of 6000 feet.

It was the first of Karen’s many disappointments with the baron, who promptly set off on a big-game safari, which lasted several months. (Apparently, he bagged something other than leopards, and the marriage only lasted a few years.)

As Martin told the story, it was the manager of the colonial club in Nairobi who noticed that Karen was a “bored plantation owner” and who introduced her to Finch Hatton, an Englishman also obsessed with Africa and big-game hunting. Martin made it sound as if the procurement of a lover was one of the services that the club provided, along with cribbage, snooker, and sherry in the late afternoon.

I have no doubt that Finch Hatton was the love of Blixen’s life, and her memoir recounts many touching moments from their romance, which was also a love affair with Africa. But the most erotic passages in the book involve the loving couple arming themselves and gunning down several lions in the garden.

She describes one hunt on the property:

We walked up to the lions and paced out the distance. From where we had stood the first lion was thirty yards away and the other twenty-five. They were both full-grown, young, strong, fat lions. The two close friends, out in the hills or on the plains, yesterday had taken the same great adventure into their heads, and in it, they had died together.

Afterwards, they enjoyed a celebratory meal, which reads like soft porn:

We went back to the house and Juma brought and opened our bottle. We were too wet, and too dirty with mud and blood to sit down to it, but stood up before a flaming fire in the dining-room and drank our live, singing wine up quickly. We did not speak one word. In our hunt we had been a unity and we had nothing to say to one another.

Inside the house, which I liked for its books (she has The Intimate Papers of Colonel House) and simplicity, Karen’s bedroom is done up in fairy-tale white. She had a Barbie-ish canopy bed and dressing table, while her husband, and subsequently her lover, was relegated to a smaller, nearby bedroom, with a monastic single bed (there are boots and jodhpurs in the closet).

During several nights in Nairobi, kept from after-dinner strolling and stuck inside with the Anglicans, I tried to re-watch the Redford-Streep 1985 movie. But I never could get past the twenty-minute mark—it’s that awful.

Why anyone would cast the Sundance Kid as an English lover is a mystery that only Hollywood can explain. He speaks, throughout the film, with an American accent, as if he’s still on the set of The Sting. (Doyle Lonnegan: “Your boss [played by Paul Newman] is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly; how does he do it?” Johnny Hooker [played by Redford]: “He cheats.”)

Denys Finch Hatton Buys the Farm

The Finch Hatton plane crash ended the blockbuster film and their love affair, and sent Karen home to bleak Denmark, where in 1937 she published her memoir, Out of Africa, a series of sketches of those she remembered from the Kenyan farm.

Flying was Finch Hatton’s passion, and, in the 1920s, to swoop around the bush in an open cockpit plane must have felt magical. He could track game, visit far-flung friends, and discover a country that he had come to love. Blixen describes the experience in her memoir, writing:

Where you are sitting in front of your pilot, with nothing but space before you, you feel that he is carrying you upon the outstretched palms of his hands, as the Djinn carried Prince Ali through the air, and that the wings that bear you onward are his.

Finch Hatton’s plane crashed after taking off from Voi, which is on the rail line toward Mombasa. He had called on friends there. No reason for the crash is given, but it was in the early days of aviation, and things went wrong.

In describing his death as we walked around the house, Martin mentioned that “Finch Hatton is buried up in the Ngong Hills. You can visit the grave.” He said it casually and pointed to the spot on a wall map so that I, new to Africa, thought it would be easy to find. I mentioned it to Richard, who was game for anything that kept the meter ticking.

The only additional detail I had to go by was a passage from Out of Africa, in which Blixen writes about the hours after his death: “While I sat and waited for the report on the roads, I remembered how Denys had told me that he wished to be buried in the Ngong Hills. It was a strange thing that I had not recollected it before, but it had been so far from my thoughts that they should mean to bury him at all. Now it was as if a picture had been shown to me.”

Before leaving the house museum, I wanted to get directions to the gravesite. But Richard was sure he could find out where it was from the Kenya Wildlife Service that operated a checkpoint in the hills (yes, even at the gate to national forests there are guards with AK-47s).

We wove through the market in the town of Ngong—one of those clogged African street scenes—and ascended the high country, which has the feel of the hills around Sonoma (absent all the vineyards).

The guards on duty could not explain where Finch Hatton was buried (I suspect they had no idea who he was). Not even incentive compensation sharpened their memory. But a friend of Richard’s who we called did have a phone number of a woman who, we were told, “operates the site” (as if it were Vicksburg or Shiloh).

For the next hour and a half—by consulting Google maps and placing about twenty phone calls—Richard wandered among Ngong Hills in search of Finch Hatton’s final resting place. We went up and down dirt roads (most were nearly impassable), stopped in driveways, and detoured to police stations, all in search of the doomed lover. But he had skipped out the back, Jack.

Finally, the owner of the gravesite returned Richard’s call, and she guided us for the last five miles, using what might be called African GPS, in which the voice sounds something like this: “Once you find some shops, you start looking for a Catholic church. But not that one. After about a mile but maybe more, there will be a sign on an electrical pole. Turn there. Wait for me.”

Finally, creeping down a rutted dirt road, we did see a hand-painted sign for Denys (misspelled) and the grave. Richard turned up a dirt path into the bush, where a woman, her two children, and five kids from the neighborhood led us to the gravesite, which is on a privately owned farm (with no connection to the Blixen house, family, or museum). The woman carried a key to unlock a metal gate.

Eternity in the Ngong Hills

Finch Hatton is buried in a small, enclosed courtyard—now there’s an obelisk to mark the spot—that looks down from the Ngong Hills toward Nairobi. Blixen buried him here because she once owned the land and they would come up for picnics. In Out of Africa, she writes:

In a bee-line, it was not more than five miles from my house, but round by the road it was fifteen. The grave was a thousand feet higher up than my house, the air was different here, as clear as a glass of water; light sweet winds lifted your hair when you took off your hat; over the peaks of the hills, the clouds came wandering from the east, drew their live shadow over the wide undulating land, and were dissolved and disappeared over the Rift Valley.

After the burial, she tied white sheets into the trees around the grave, so that, from the garden of her house, she could see where her lover was buried. But between the failure of the farm and his death, she was bereft and soon departed for Denmark, never to return to Africa, except in her stories.

She writes: “Later on, Denys’s brother, Lord Winchilsea, had an obelisk set on his grave, with an inscription out of ‘The Ancient Mariner’, which was a poem that Denys had much admired. I myself had never heard it until Denys quoted it to me—the first time was, I remember, as we were going to Bilea’s wedding. I have not seen the obelisk; it was put up after I had left Africa.” By some accounts, for a long time, until the suburbs arrived, lions could be seen resting on his grave.

Richard and I became friendly with the woman whose farm, so to speak, now owns the remains of Finch Hatton. She said that it was her grandfather who had bought the land in the 1970s. No one in the family, except her, cared anything about the story of Finch Hatton or the obelisk in their yard. She has never seen or read any of Blixen’s books, but she had watched the Streep-Redford movie online, and that had made her the local expert. Admission was $5.

We dropped the woman and her son at a nearby town, where they were headed to do some shopping in the market. She was amazed that so many tourists (at least once a day) would come up to the grave, but she was happy to have the extra income (otherwise, she worked as a seamstress, making school uniforms).

It was a long ride to the market, and I hated the idea of her having to walk back to the house. But her son, who was learning English at school, said they would take “a shortcut.” Still, I am sure they had a walk of more than an hour. (Africa is a continent of road walkers.)

In all Richard and I had lost about two hours in the search for Finch Hatton, but what I gained was insight into the affection that his friends, including Karen Blixen, felt for the adventurer.

In her memoir she mentions that his school friends placed a memorial bridge, in his honor, “over a small stream between two fields at Eton.” On it they inscribed the words: “Famous in these fields and by his many friends much beloved.”

And the next day at the National Archives in downtown Nairobi, I was poking around a stack of books and by chance came upon the words of Beryl Markham (West with the Night is another elegant colonial Kenyan memoir), who wrote:

Denys was a keystone in an arch whose other stones were other lives. If a keystone trembles, the arch will carry the warning along its entire curve, then, if the keystone is crushed, the arch will fall, leaving its lesser stones heaped close together, though for a while without design. Denys’ death left some lives without design, but they were rebuilt again, as lives and stones are, into other patterns.

It made me sad that Hollywood has turned him into an African Gatsby (“old sport…”), but happy that Richard persisted to find his grave in the Ngong Hills.

A Walk Around Kibera

Because of the excursion into the Ngong Hills, it was late afternoon when I caught up with the guide I had hired to walk me through Kibera, one of the largest African slums. Some two million people live in the shanty town of tin roofs and mud walls that is several miles outside Nairobi’s Central Business District.

I could have left the walk until the next morning, but I was nervous that the guide, in local fashion, might vanish, and I wanted to see it. For the moment he was waiting for me in a coffee shop, near the market that adjoins Kibera. So I pressed on through Sunday traffic with Richard, who dropped me in a parking lot.

Kibera is an urban jungle. The lanes are narrow and often muddy (it had recently rained). The houses lining the alleys (it would be wrong to call them streets) are made of local bricks and mud. My guide Lucas and I stepped over and around rocks, piles of garbage, and braziers. Because the houses and shops are so small, much of Kibera lives in the streets.

Lucas grew up in Kibera and knows the area well enough to give a guided tour, although as we walked along—single-file, as if through the jungle—he confessed that I was his first customer of the day.

He said that terrorist warnings about Kenya had reduced non-safari tourists to a minimum. The animal gamers, he said, usually skipped the capital and were flown directly to their tented camps in the Masai Mara or other national parks.

When the conversation came around to the coincidence that President Obama’s family had come from Kenya, Lucas said that not only had he been to the its ancestral village, Kogelo, but that he had met the former president’s step-grandmother.

When I asked how he managed to meet her, he said that the government had funded a local museum (in those days Kogelo was the Lourdes of the Yes We Can set), and that the Obama grandmother was on hand to greet tourists (I assume, as with Finch Hatton, at $5 a throw).

He said that Obama had chosen not to visit Kogelo when he came to Kenya in 2015 and instead hobnobbed with President Uhuru Kenyatta and other tribal chiefs at the UN Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which, alas, did not include many Kibera shopkeepers.

By that time Kenyatta was no longer facing charges before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for election-related violence in 2007 that killed 1300 citizens and displaced another 500,000; hence he could be seen in the presence of the saintly Barack (who used drones more than henchmen for his election violence).

On my travels, whenever I asked others what they thought about the U.S president with Kenyan roots, many would scoff, as they do about other politicians who fly around at the voters’ expense on private planes. More than I once I heard, in reference to Obama, “All talk, no action.” No wonder his half-brother Malik Obama endorsed Trump and hangs around with birthers.

Lucas showed me the Kibera sewage recycling units that were a gift to the shanty from the European Union when France had the lead. Shoe-horned into neighborhoods around the slum, the squat plants supply drinking and bath water, and communal toilets, as many houses don’t have running water. Lucas said it costs a family $3 a month for water privileges.

At one point in the walk—by now the African sun was setting, although not on wandering wallabies—we came to a small clearing where train tracks ran through the slum. Children by the dozens were engaged in all sorts of play and games, although their only balls and toys came from the piles of garbage that littered the tracks.

Lucas said that when he was boy, Kibera still had playgrounds and some open spaces, but they had vanished as the population grew from 1.5 million to 2 million. As we looked across the skyline of the township, all I could see were metal shanty roofs shimmering in the fading sunlight—the cubism of a Paul Cezanne landscape painting, if Aix-en-Provence were an extended slum.

To be sure, the Kibera walk included obligatory stops at the shops of various relatives and entrepreneurs, during which I dispensed cash as if a GI passing out Hersey bars.

I don’t blame them for asking. The shakedown is the great legacy, I suppose, of British colonialism. Everyone from presidents to tour guides has their hand out for something. It probably explains why tourists remain huddled in game parks.

Kenya’s Election Violence

The next morning I went on my own to the National Archive, located in downtown Nairobi, opposite the Hilton Hotel. Richard had said the artifacts, “collected” by a former vice president, Joseph Murumbi, were impressive, and that upstairs I could examine any documents that I might request.

He thought of the Archive for me, as I had been asking questions about Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau, and he said that no museum in Kenya covered the 1950s rebellion that led to independence. Not even Kenyatta’s house was a museum, as part of the family still lived there. (His son Uhuru is the president.)

The art gallery on the ground floor of the archive is a general collection of Kenyan and African artifacts, from shields and spears to 20th-century art. Clearly, the job of vice president in newly independent Kenya had allowed him to indulge his passion for acquisition. He had put together an impressive collection, which his heirs threatened to sell at auction, until the government negotiated a deal to turn the art into a permanent collection on the dusty grounds of the state archive building.

Upstairs, I found the vice president’s stamp collection—he must have hounded government offices to send him the exotic stamps they received—and pictures of revolutionary statesmen, plus some of the last British governors—many with stiff upper lips—who pulled down the Union Jack in December 1963.

In the black-and-white pictures, men like Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arep Moi, his successor as president, start out looking like revolutionary activists, but by the last photograph they have the air of continental potentates, only at home in the back seat of a Mercedes-Benz (the sedan chair of the independence crowd).

When I peeked into the reading room of the archive, I saw rows of desks in a large, dimly lit library. It looked like a vision of the nineteenth century, with a handful of scholars leafing through leather-bound documents. The man at the front desk welcomed me to browse through their papers and books, which I did.

Alas, the papers in some of the thick piles scattered around had the feel of land title searches from the 1940s. It was hard for me to imagine that any scholar could learn anything from the archives—think of some historical library with half the lights out—but I sat at one of the long tables and happily caught up on my travel notes.

I had the feeling that I had joined a monastery where monks were still illuminating manuscripts, while outside, through the large open windows, we could hear the morning scrum of Nairobi traffic—a cacophony of horns, engines, motorbikes, and, under the columns of the archive, a sidewalk preacher exhorting pedestrians to embrace the life of Jesus.

While note-taking, however, I did hear the sound of rifle fire and a little while later what sounded like a bomb. They were loud enough for some of the other scholars to walk to the open windows and look down on the busy main square. But no one seemed too fussed at the explosions. I was reminded of a visit in the 1980s to Belfast, where local residents would scoff at the news of a bomb scare and defiantly carry on with their high-street shopping.

Come lunchtime, I wandered around downtown Nairobi looking for an upscale café (Africa has more than you might think). Instead, when I turned down a large main street, I saw a flash, heard a boom, and saw billows of smoke. This time, everyone on that street came running in my direction, as they do in horror movies. One man said to me in English: “Don’t go this way.”

Unlike most of those on the street, I could duck into the nearby Hilton Hotel, which, after I passed through its security checkpoint and scanners, shuttered its front doors with rolling metal barriers, the kind that protect stores during a blackout on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue.

For about a half hour, I felt like a hostage during the Boxer Rebellion, awaiting the Relief Expedition, perhaps with David Niven in command.

When I asked the doormen what had happened, I was told that the rifle shots that I heard had been blanks fired by the police and that the bomb I had seen was tear gas scattered into a political rally. It was a daily occurrence during the presidential election in Nairobi, although some of the rallies had recently turned deadly.

When I asked a man in the Hilton about the difference between the Jubilee Party of Uhuru Kenyatta and National Super Alliance of Raila Odinga, the answer I got was this: “Both candidates are from families who have held the presidency (it’s like a Bush-Clinton election). Both will do the same thing, which is to promise infrastructure improvements and more benefits to their tribes, and then, when they are in office, they will take everything that isn’t nailed down…”

The results of the first election in August, which showed Kenyatta to be the winner, were overturned because of voter fraud (by Kenyatta’s goons, although he probably did not need his thumb on the scale to win). In the re-run of the election, Odinga was threatening to boycott the vote, even though he had a chance of winning. (Subsequently he did boycott the vote and lost.)

Every day I was in Nairobi, the newspapers were analyzing the work of a French computer team that had been engaged to ensure an accurate vote count. Not many were hopeful. Africa has had more Presidents for Life than it has had fair democratic elections, and it was easy to follow the campaign by listening for the sirens.

A Round in Nairobi

On my last day in Nairobi, I only met up with Richard the driver in the afternoon. In the morning, wanting to walk outside—the traffic jams had gotten to me—I played nine holes of golf at the Kenyan Railway Golf Club, which was very close to my hotel and welcomed visitors to play for $15.

For $2 I rented a few clubs, applied sunscreen, and teed off in the company of my caddie, Nancy, a sullen young woman who only said one thing during the round, which was: “Tuck in your shirt.” Otherwise, even if I sank a 20-foot putt, she was unmoved.

The golf club is near the center of Nairobi, close to the old train station. The views from the fairways are of high-rise buildings. (Think of Pebble Beach in Oakland.) I assume the British who ran the rails in the early twentieth century set up the club for their weekends in the colony, although now, judging by those I saw playing in a tournament that day, the club is entirely African.

The hazards on many holes are train tracks, which slice through the course, much the way heather and heath surround St. Andrews. It used to be said that tee shots could end up in Kisumu (the city at the end of the line, on Lake Victoria), but that train is no longer running.

When I reconnected with Richard in the afternoon, we went to University of Nairobi’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Wanting to know more about Kenyan foreign affairs—its status as a frontline state in the wars on terror—I had written to the department chair, a Professor Maria Nzomo, asking for a meeting. She had not responded. I called her, and on the phone she said all appointments went through her assistant.

As Richard was keen to show me what had been his university, we decided to stop at the professor’s office and ask in person for a meeting. At the very least I would get to see the university.

Professor Nzomo’s office is on the second floor, and her several assistants were crammed into a small outer office. Otherwise, the building had the look of a plumbing supply company, not a school of diplomacy.

The walls were bare, and the bulletin boards were limited to a few security announcements. I left a written request for an interview in a loose-leaf notebook, but I might as well have purchased a lottery ticket and tossed it through a window.

Richard walked me around the campus, which is impressive, and set around a large, open quadrangle. He had studied at the School of Humanities and had loved it. I could see why. The quadrangle of the main campus is elegant and spacious, and it reminded me of Stanford, although without the frisbees and golden retrievers with bandanas.

We walked to the university bookstore, as I was interested in finding some books about the Kenyan revolution and politics. The bookstore is in one of the buildings facing the quad, and for a moment I had high hopes that I might find a trove of African histories.

Instead, the cupboards of the bookstore were bare—limited to a few books that you might find at the Salvation Army in a box that says, “Help yourself.” It might well be the university motto.

Al-Shabaab Goes Shopping

I wanted to see the Nairobi World War II cemetery, on the outskirts of town, and to get there, Richard agreed to drive in a roundabout way, so that I could get a look at the Westgate Shopping Center, where in 2013 terrorists killed more than sixty and controlled the mall for almost a week, while outside the well-armed army and police did nothing.

In Al Qaeda Declares War: The African Embassy Bombings and Americas Search for Justice, which I was reading during my visit, author Tod Hoffman describes the attack:

… the nearly week-long siege at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Centre, commencing September 21, 2013 … left more than sixty dead and shook the entire capital. Al Shabaab planned this operation carefully, renting a retail space within the mall, which allowed them to amass an arsenal without drawing attention until they were ready to strike. It was a vicious attack that demonstrated the group’s ruthlessness and utter lack of discrimination in selecting targets.

When the army was finally unleashed to put down the rebellion (only two terrorists were found inside), its soldiers spent most of their time, once inside the upmarket shopping center, looting electronic stores for smartphones instead of hunting down the terrorists.

The looting of the Kenyan army reminded me of the way U.S. government contractors got rich on the fallout from 9/11, filling thousands of square feet of office space in the Virginia suburbs, to stand tall with their billable hours in the war on terror.

Nairobi’s War Dead

From the Westgate Shopping Center—it looks like every mall in every American suburb but is a novelty in Africa—it took almost two hours to navigate rush hour traffic to get to the war cemetery, where in World War II Commonwealth troops who fought the Axis powers (mostly in Italian Somaliland) are buried. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the site, an oasis in otherwise ramshackle Nairobi.

The cemetery has some 2000 war dead—the markers equally divided between those with European names and those of Africans. I walked among the long rows of headstones, noting that the battalions of the Kings African Rifles, among other units, had been drawn from colonials and natives living in Rhodesia, South Africa, Kenyan, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar—the roll call of imperial British East Africa.

Ironically, although in World War II they were fighting to preserve the British empire, it was these same soldiers who after the war formed the backbone of the black independence movements, especially in Kenya and Tanzania.

The cemetery had some of the most elegant trees that I saw in my travels. They formed a huge canopy, of shade and wonder, over the grim roll call below—a more fitting portrait “out of Africa” than the Redford film of linen suits, champagne, and country-club sex.

While I was looking at the cemetery, and reading some of the inscriptions on the stones—“To our loving son Nigel…”—a guard on duty approached Richard to say that it was probably best for us to leave.

Come dusk, he said, the nearby woods filled with highwaymen and muggers, and he could not guarantee our safety if we stayed much longer. I climbed into the back seat of the car and asked Richard why none of the thieves had looted the war cemetery. “Oh, that’s easy,” he answered. “They are afraid of the dead.”

Up next: the Chinese train to Mombasa, the Zanzibar slave trade, the ferry to Dar es Salaam, and Tanzania on the front lines of terror. To read part I, click here.









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.