Into Africa: China Uber Alles

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 III—the train to Mombasa, terrorist East Africa, the Zanzibar slave trade, and the ferry to Dar es Salaam. To read part I, click here.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Memorial for the 1998 attack on the U.S. embassy.

On the Chinese Train to Mombasa

To give you an idea of Nairobi’s dysfunction, for me to catch a 9:00 train to Mombasa, the city on the coast, I set my alarm at 5:45. Richard (the driver) dropped me at the old station around 6:30, for the 7:00 train to the new Nairobi Terminus. That train only departed at 7:30 and drifted aimlessly, so it struck me, for an hour through the southern suburbs. I could easily have biked the route in less time.

At the Terminus, the passengers were herded into the expansive parking lot, where the bags were lined up with military precision. While the passengers literally stood in line at attention, sniffer dogs went up and down the line of luggage. In my cohort, the lead sniffer dog was an amiable mutt on the lookout for a handout, while his backup was a no-nonsense labrador who clearly buys into the war on terror. (I called him Cheney.)

Once the luggage was sniffed, it was fed through several scanners, and the passengers were waved at with a wand and given a CSI pat-down. Only after all that could we head into the pyramidal station, feeling as doomed as one of the pharaohs.

I had booked first class, having heard that second-class passengers could not use the dining car. Despite all the stories about sold-out trains, the first class coach had only four other passengers, although that did not prevent the Chinese train staff from coming through the car and criticizing me for how I had stowed my backpack (the straps were dangling loosely over the side of the rack).

Everything about the Madaraka Express to the coast suggested a Chinese train. The rail cars were Chinese-built, the procedures were Chinese, the lettering and car numbers were Chinese, and even some of the staff was Chinese, much as I can imagine that the stewards on the old British East Africa Railway came from Glasgow.

I found it hard to believe that I wasn’t on a fast train to Yenan or Chongqing, perhaps one leaving from Beijing South Station. Chinese style, the train left on time, even as several passengers were trundling down the overpass with their belongings stuffed into cardboard boxes.

For the first fifteen minutes, the train ran along the southern border of Nairobi National Park, a preserve that spills into the city limits. I had ambitions to turn this part of the journey into one of those rail safaris which normally cost $5000 and serve bespoke wines with dinner. But the only animals I saw in the national park were ostriches, who were indifferent to the sound of the passing train.

I was happy to be leaving Nairobi and to roll across the arid Kenyan landscape. In books and films, such as The Flame Trees of Thika, it is always described as lush green. On the ground, however, it looks more like West Texas, with a stony rolling bush country and buttes in the distance.

I read my book and then drifted into the dining car. In place of Chinese noodles, most passengers bought tea and sandwiches from the deli counter at the end of the car. Think of Costa Coffee rolling across the savanna.

In Nairobi, I had spent time worrying about the fate of the elephant, as poachers remain active in the ivory trade, even though China has outlawed its importation. The reason for my disquietude was an article in the Daily Nation (an English language paper) that said ivory brokers were now setting up across the border in Laos, which has few qualms in serving as the middleman in the illicit trade.

More discouraging, the dispatch said that since 1979 Kenya’s elephant population had shrunk from 179,000 to 39,000 today, although when I shared this discouraging statistic with my driver Richard, he said: “Well, the number is up from 20,000 in the last ten years.”

Turning poaching into a capital offense and hanging offenders from nearby trees might win some hearts and minds for the preservation of the elephant, but that would not take into account that the ivory trade happens with government connivance—across both Africa and Asia.

After all, Denys Finch Hatton—the lover of the writer Karen Blixen—came to Africa in search of ivory, as of course did Teddy Roosevelt. (Tusks line his study at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s family home in Oyster Bay, Long Island.)

On the train, I thought about Roosevelt’s safaris and wondered if he had campaigned in Kenya. Later I looked up the roll call of his kills, and it read like this:

The President blew away no less than 296 large animals, including 15 zebras, 13 rhinoceroses, 8 elephants, 9 lions, 8 warthogs, a crocodile, 5 wildebeests, 6 monkeys, 2 ostriches and 3 pythons. . . . TR and party carved a path of destruction through Kenya (then a British colony), the Belgian Congo and up the Nile into Sudan.

About halfway to Mombasa, the train cut through the Tsavo National Park, where I renewed my search for big game. (I could well imagine Teddy blasting away from the back of an open train.)

Tsavo has low bush cover, making it hard to spot animals. Around the town of Kenani, however, I did see three or elephants in the distance tracking through the bush, although the experience did remind me of taking the number 5 subway through the northern Bronx and looking down on animals in the zoo.

Just south of Tsavo, the train slowed down to pass through Voi, where Denys Finch Hatton died in his plane crash. I could, in general, see where the airstrip is now located, although in the 1920s my guess is that he simply landed his plane in a field and died while trying to take off after lunch.

Voi reminded me of Wyoming, both for the dryness of the soil and the sense of it lying on the frontier. The bleak landscape fits with a description of Finch Hatton that Blixen includes in her memoir. She writes: “Now Africa received him, and would change him, and make him one with herself.”

Mombasa: Coastal Mayhem for $15

Several descriptions that I had read about the Madaraka Express alluded to a waiting bus that took passengers from the Mombasa Terminus (outside the city) into the historic downtown. It made the journey sound like a seamless transition, although when I arrived in the parking lot, all I could see were touts flashing signs that advertised tuk-tuks, taxis, and various bus companies; so much for Mombasa Terminus as a modern intermodal hub.

I boarded the first bus I found that was heading into Mombasa, paying $1 as my fare. The conductor said that once we got close to the old town I could switch to a tuk-tuk to get to my hotel.

After about thirty minutes of dodging through the chaotic traffic, the bus dropped me on a street corner, near a large puddle. The conductor pointed toward an available tuk-tuk and motioned for me to get in—using the international sign language for sink or swim.

I cannot say that the driver was happy to have me in his motorized rickshaw. It was raining, he was tired, and the traffic was awful. Nor did I feel like haggling for a five-minute ride in the rain. The going price, I knew, was $1. I paid $2, but his opening bid was $20. Most taxi negotiations in Africa followed this pattern.

At least the driver knew where to find my hotel, which I had chosen as it was close to the railway station (and those mythical transfer buses), Fort Jesus (the historical fortification that the Portuguese, the Omanis, and English occupied), and the Mombasa Yacht Club, where I had decided to spend the evening.

What is Mombasa like? It’s a coastal city—the second largest in Kenya—with many smaller neighborhoods in the metropolis. Mostly, it’s a major port for East Africa, so many corners are piled high with containers. Warehouses are everywhere, as are cranes and trucks.

The advantage of Mombasa as a port is that from the ocean there is a large estuary where ships can unload their goods. It also has the look of a city where customs inspectors can be bought and sold with the ease of flagging down a taxi or mumbling a prayer to Allah.

Except in passing, I didn’t see tourist Mombasa. It is a series of beachfront hotels that stretch north and south of the city, but away from the dense slums of the center.

On either side of the old city there is a river, which functions as something of a moat between the tuk-tuk brigade and the beachfront all-inclusive resorts.

Package tourists fly in on chartered or scheduled flights, take buses or taxis to their resort, and stay there for a week or two, relaxing on the beach, and fly home, no doubt to say: “We didn’t think much of the downtown, but the beaches are great.”

Then there is terrorist Mombasa, which struck me as alive and well, despite the best efforts of various Homeland task forces. Politically, Mombasa is a free-fire zone, with a large Muslim population, porous border controls (except for those on tourists, who cough up $50 for a visa), and countless warehouses, where I doubt it is any problem to hide a shipment of guns or explosives.

Riding in the tuk-tuk, bouncing among the potholes, I gave some thought to bailing on my pre-booked, budget hotel, the Metric Annex, even though it was located where I wanted to be. I knew the accommodation would be basic, and in my mind I could hear the exasperated voice of my wife and children, saying: “Why do you check yourself into $15-a-night hotels?” (Nor do they like it when I say: “A good hotel is never good enough, but a bad hotel is a joy forever.”) But I travel as Ulysses S. Grant planned his campaigns, and no backtracking was involved with this reservation.

The (dozing) clerk on duty at the Metric Annex took forever to inspect my reservation documents from I did ask him if, in fact, the hotel owned a computer, but the question was lost in translation.

After ten minutes in the “lobby”—the front desk was so high that I felt as if I was checking into a savings bank—the clerk took me on a lengthy tour of the hotel, during which I inspected about five rooms, none of which will ever get written up in Condé Nast’s Traveler, unless they do a series on “Mosquito Friendly Mombasa Hotels That We Love.”

As I only needed the hotel to pass a short night—I was off early the next morning to Zanzibar—I picked the room closest to the stairs, left my bags on the bed (which was clean), and departed. On the way through the lobby, when I asked the somnolent clerk about wi-fi, the answer was: “He has problems.”

Piracy’s Playgrounds

Touts doubling as “historical guides” were on hand at Fort Jesus, when I lined up to pay for the $12 admission ticket. (Tourists are the big game in East Africa, at least when it comes to paying top dollar for museum entry.)

As it was late on a rainy day, few others were looking around the fort, which the Portuguese established in the wake of Vasco da Gama and Portugal’s great age of Indian Ocean exploration.

The fort has cannons poking through stone walls, a small museum, and an elaborate Oman House, which the Omani government endowed to recall the greatness of its medieval empire. It feels like a World’s Fair exhibit.

When I stuck my head through an opening in the ramparts, I saw a bulk carrier heading past the fort toward the Indian Ocean. Its gunwales were wrapped in concertina wire, to thwart Somali pirates that might be lurking just offshore— just in case neither Tom Hanks nor Captain Richard Philips was at the helm.

Anyone who has read the twenty volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series knows how Captain Jack Aubrey in HMS Surprise would have dealt with such renegades (“Never mind the maneuvers, just go straight at them. . .”), not to mention the presence of Omani men-of-war in Mombasa harbor, although in Desolation Island (fifth in the series), O’Brian writes: “Most men find [peace] entirely unlike what they had expected—like love…”

From Fort Jesus, I retrieved money from an ATM and walked around the colonial gardens just outside the fort. Once they must have had imperial splendor; now, however, they are rundown.

I hired another tuk-tuk to take me the Mombasa Yacht Club, which was on the opposite side of town. I had the idea of stopping there for a drink at sundown, thinking it might substitute for a hotel swimming pool, although by now the weather was overcast.

It took the driver a half hour to find the club; I can’t imagine many members show up there in a tuk-tuk. He took any number of wrong turns, each of which prompted him to up the rate another 500 Kenyan shillings. For a while I thought he was searching for the club; finally I figured out he was just bargaining with wrong turns.

My only claim to temporary club membership was a letter that I had mailed, beforehand, to the commodore, inquiring whether the Mombasa Yacht Club had reciprocal rights with the Cozy Harbor Yacht Club, located on a remote corner of the Maine coast. I never received an answer but proceeded on the basis that the club would welcome me.

Fortunately, I had brought with me a copy of the mailed letter, which the receptionist held up to the light (as if suspect currency) and discussed with the bartender. Otherwise, the club was empty early on a Wednesday night. Finally, for $9, I was given a temporary one-day membership, which allowed me to swim in the old pool and sit on the terrace—with beer, a chicken sandwich, wi-fi, and a squadron of mosquitos.

Beyond the breakwater, on a channel of Mombasa harbor, were a number of coastal steamers swinging at anchor. Of course I thought of Joseph Conrad and this passage from Heart of Darkness:

“In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits.”

Later in the evening, when members began arriving, I asked a man at the next table about Somalia pirates—whether they were freelance jolly rogers or corporate minions in Terror Inc. He suggested that those trying to scale the railings of supertankers were hired hands and that the piracy food chain looked a lot like the org charts of Fortune 500 companies.

It cast piracy as a business, somewhere on the spectrum between investment banking and oil. In the cloying Hollywood piracy movie, yet another illusion of Africa, Captain Phillips says to one of his Somalian captors: “There’s gotta be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people.” To which he is given this answer: “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”

Zanzibar: Shanties and $500-a-Night Hotels

Had there been a ferry from Mombasa to Zanzibar or even to neighboring Pemba Island, I might have taken it. But the only connection I found to Stone Town—famous for its slave trade—was on a discount Kenyan airline, Fly540, which has daily service down the coast.

A tuk-tuk driver named Francis, who I had met the previous day in Mombasa, had bid on the contract to take me to the airport. He arrived at the Metric Annex promptly at 8:10. I don’t think he expected me to be waiting at the terrace restaurant of the hotel. He smiled broadly when he saw me and said: “Mr. Matthews, you are man of promise.”

The ride to the airport, like the drive from the Tazara railroad station, was the same middle passage across an ocean of soot, dust, horns, and jostling traffic. Francis delivered me to the airport in good order, although not before a Mombasa policeman stopped us (near the airport parking lot) to ask for a commission on the transportation contract.

Neither Francis nor I was interested in partnering with the cop, who eventually grew bored with the standoff and waved us away from his shakedown post. Francis said as we drove up to the Departures Hall: “All polices want money.”

The plane, built by Canadair, had the feel of a private jet. We were just seven passengers for the thirty-minute flight down the coast. It allowed the plane, named Bob Marley (Fly540 goes to Addis Ababa), to depart 20 minutes early, although the visa bureaucracy at the Zanzibar airport gave back the time that I thought I had won with the early start.

From the plane, it was easy to see how terrorists had been able to shoot missiles at that Israeli airliner in 2002, as the landscape around the Mombasa airport has the feel of a lunar wasteland.

I got a fleeting look at tourist hotels around Diana Beach. I did wonder about the beaches, as between the surf line and the hotel terraces there was a broad strip of rocks and muddy estuaries, the kind of detail that is often omitted from package tour brochures.

From the air, the pearl island of Zanzibar—a favorite of stamp collectors and honeymooners—reminded me of a Caribbean resort island. A shanty town covers much of the interior while along the northern and eastern coasts there are outposts of civilization where for $500 a night you can get a drink carried to your poolside deck chair.

I wanted to take a bus into Stone Town, but the taxi lobby that clogs the airport parking lot bid down the cost of transport such that I decided to skip the bus experience, which would have involved a long walk in the hot sun to my hotel.

A German named Hans owned the guest house where I was staying. He told me that he was fastidious about keeping it clean. Indeed the new marble floors glistened, although paying for the room ($27) and getting my change ($3) involved more meetings, sidewalk conferences, phone calls, and consultants than most World Bank development loans.

After checking in, I did love walking around Stone Town, despite the mad-dogs-and-Englishmen sun. Its architecture is left over from the Portuguese, Omanis, Germans, English, and other conquerors, for whom the island kingdom was an offshore booking center in the African slave trade. Only an accord with Britain in 1870 ended the practice.

Zanzibar’s independence, in the 1960s, was short-lived, as it relied too much on coastal Tanzania to survive on its own. Despite his dialectical materialism, at least in his speeches, Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere was all about consolidating power. Lebensraum, however, in the case of Zanzibar, brought to Tanzania a substantial Muslim population, with its own agendas about those seventy-two virgins in Paradise.

Lingering on the waterfront with my book, I thought about an excursion to Prison Island, but the dhows filled with tourists drove me, instead, into a waterfront café for a late lunch.

Next to the sea, I typed on my laptop, drank beer, wrote postcards, and read my Kindle. It allowed me to come across this line in Blixen’s Out of Africa: “All my life I have held that you can class people according to how they may be imagined behaving to King Lear.” (I am sure I would have invited him to lunch or tried to have helped him with his computer problems.)

In the late afternoon, I wandered through the labyrinth of the old town—a collection of mosques, souvenir shops, stray cats, kids playing, restaurants, piles of garbage, aimless Europeans in tank tops, a soaring Anglican church, the former slave market, women in burqas, and boutique hotels flying various flags of convenience (DoubleTree by Hilton, Relais & Châteaux, Marriott, etc.).

Toward dusk near the docks, I tracked down the office where I booked passage on the morning ferry to Dar es Salaam. A joyless Indian woman, covered with bling of NBA proportions, sold me the ticket, although for most of the transaction she was counting wads of money as if it was part of a signing bonus.

At sunset, a glowing affair, I went for a swim in the harbor, although far from the deck chairs of affluence. I just wanted to cool off, and the only beach near my hotel was in the shadow of several container ships and tugboats, which gave the swim the air of a salvage operation.

The Ferry Crossing to Dar es Salaam

For the two-hour run to Dar es Salaam, I rode in the windy prow of the ferry Mount Kilimanjaro, in this case a hydrofoil that sliced through the narrow chop of the Indian Ocean.

I would love to report how evocative Stone Town is from the water, with the sun rising behind the Arabic waterfront, except at that point in the journey I was wedged into a molded plastic seat and the captive of a large TV screen that was airing an Arab game show.

The program involved child singers, chic judges who played with their hair, illuminated runways and catwalks, and an ecstatic audience, of the Lets Make a Deal persuasion (assume Monty Hall in a Nehru suit and wearing patent leather shoes). Only later did I discover the forward crow’s nest, which was free of ten-year-old crooners in sequin leisure suits.

On the crossing to the mainland, I might have been on a Long Island Sound ferry, except for the dhows that dotted the water, their lateen rigging as ageless as African trade. Some were large, with ample crew for fishing, while others were no bigger than single-operator canoes that appeared lost on the ocean.

Ninety minutes into the passage the skyline of Dar es Salaam appeared on the horizon, a faint line of high-rise building along the lee shore. To get into the harbor (in downtown Dar), the ferry captain had to navigate in between shoals, reefs, sandbars, and container ships spread around an anchorage at the mouth of the harbor.

Just before we arrived, the boat crew cleared the forward deck, as if docking might reveal state secrets.

The Dar es Salaam ferry landing was tout heaven. Most were taxi drivers exploding at the idea of taking me somewhere. When I stopped one of them and inquired about the fare to the National Museum (nearby), his opening bid was “eighty dollars, misters.”

That his bid quickly came down to $20 was hardly consolation, as it was a $1 ride. In the end I walked, although with a parade of pleading drivers in my wake. (Think of Jesus heading over to the museum.) The old downtown section of Dar appealed to me, as did paying $0.50 to get my sandal repaired.

The National Museum is a sad affair, a haphazard collection of dusty cabinets and random pieces of primitive art, although it does have the complete car collection of President Nyerere. (“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?…”)

I took pictures of Africans in military formations from World War I. The exhibit reminded me of a film I saw in graduate school, Black and White in Color, telling how colonialists armed the natives to fight the war to end all wars in Africa. As a spoil of that war, the British took over German East Africa and renamed it Tanganyika, now Tanzania.

Britain granted the colony independence in 1961, and almost immediately the Nyerere government decided it could see the future working, for Africa, in the economic models of Eastern Europe and China—one reason it is possible in Dar es Salaam to get the feeling that you’re in a COMECON showroom.

Dar es Salaam and Terror’s Early Light: Presidential Obsequies

Before heading to the Tazara railroad station, which the Chinese built in 1970 to anchor the line to Zambia, I wanted to see where suicide bombers had attacked the U.S. embassy on August 7, 1998, in those opening salvoes of the war on terror. But the location of the embassy, at that time, was difficult to pin down.

Repeated googling and scanning through Tod Hoffman’s Al Qaeda Declares War did not help resolve the question; nor did a director of the National Museum, who was summoned, have a clear answer. She did write down an address in my notebook, which in turn I was told I could show to a cab driver (many were close at hand and all wanted $30—“a little something for the effort, you know”—to take me to the new U.S. embassy).

Haggling on the sidewalk and studying my maps, I came to the conclusion that the embassy that was attacked had been closer to downtown, as in Nairobi. The new one, opened after the 1998 bombings, was in a suburban campus outside the city.

At one point in the negotiations, I even took out my Kindle and showed a driver a passage, which read, “The embassy comprised two buildings in an enclosed compound on Laibon Road.” But Dar es Salaam taxi drivers have few uses for history. And while I found one to drive me around for $20, it turned out to be a ride to nowhere.

The driver was sullen and morose. He kept saying, “No problem, no problem,” but would stop the car to ask guys standing under trees if they knew the geography of the 1998 embassy attacks. It was not a hopeful sign, although we did drive along Laibon Road, a stretch of diplomatic compounds and the local offices of multinational companies.

In the end, I saw more of the new U.S. embassy, out in the suburbs, where in 2013 Presidents Obama and Bush (briefly but awkwardly together in Africa) dedicated a plaque to those killed in the suicide attack. (Hoffman writes: “More than two hundred people were wounded and eleven lives were taken. Gone, gruesomely gone.”)

By chance, Bush and his wife Laura were in Dar es Salaam, empowering women at a conference, when the Obama Feel-good Express blew through Africa (a slave market in Senegal, Robben Island in Cape Town, a high-five with Desmond Tutu, a speech about the dying Nelson Mandela, a few business summits for contributors, and wreath-laying in Dar es Salaam—all in a week).

As a courtesy, Barack asked George to join him for the ceremony at the U.S. embassy, where they stood stiffly side-by-side, the wooden Indians of the American political experience. I wonder if either was reflecting about how useful the symbolism of the war on terror had been to their reelection campaigns.

With my American passport, I could have asked to see the 1998 memorial inside the compound, but there is something about the modern architecture of U.S. embassies—not unlike their diplomatic policies—that says, “Kiss off.”

The new one in Dar has the look of a minimum security prison, with a long outside wall, sulking guards, and lots of razor wire. I gave it a fly by, or the taxi equivalent, and headed for the train to Zambia.

Up next: the Tazara Express across Tanzania, waylaid in Mlimba, the drive across Antennae Mountain, a night on a Congolese bus, back on the Fuck All Express, into Zambia. To read part II, please 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.