International Writers Magazine: Life in Kenya
on the line
Kit Chapman in Kenya
you used the phone today? I asked my wife Laura, as I gently
supped a early morning mango juice on our balcony overlooking
Mombasa creek in Kenya.
No, she replied, Why?
over there, I said, You see where our telephone line
goes across the road and into that tree?
She followed my
pointing finger and we watched as a local chap started draping the lower
branches with old plastic sheets and bits of corrugated iron. The tree
was just outside our compound, and grew out of what once was the pavement;
it was soon reminiscent of a Christmas tree decorated by a deranged
Turner prize winner.
He's moved into that tree, said Laura.
Hes moving a couple of goats in as well, I said, and
we both watched as the real estate developer tethered his pets to the
tree using our telephone line.
Telephone poles are a rarity in these parts as they make exceedingly
good objects to run into when the brakes fail, allowing the vehicle
to come to come to a stop, albeit a sudden one. The answer is to drape
the line from tree to tree thus giving the Telephone Company workers
the double advantage of being able to sell any new replacement poles
to local charcoal burners and itinerant builders.
Thats it, said Laura, Thats the end of
our telephone again.
By again just about summed it up. It was a regular occurrence
for one reason or another, ranging from floods, fire and monkeys. Getting
back on line again was always fun. If you didnt look upon it as
fun, you may as well book a straight jacket there and then. Dealing
with any Governmental department here in Kenya was the same. Logic goes
out of the window and so does any sense of common sense.
I arrived at the Kenya Telecom offices later that morning. An old colonial
building that had served the Mombasa telephone subscribers for decades.
It was like walking back a few decades as well, as you enter the reception
area. This area is one to miss as its always crowded with customers,
Africans, Arabs and Asians waving sheets of paper in various stages
of agitation at the laid back clerks There were unofficial guides wanting
to show anyone the attributes of the now wonderfully decrepit building
for a few shillings, and a couple of Security guards reading newspapers.
Niftily avoiding the maelstrom surrounding the reception clerks
desk, I mounted a staircase on the way to the Promised Land of mystifying
East African beguilement.
And promises were all I was going to get, I knew that, it was a start
though and in this land of illusions all I could expect. The shabby,
corridors were full of files, sometimes up to the ceiling, probably
I thought, holding the damn thing up in places. Glancing through opened
doors into offices was much the same boxes and boxes of files stacked
in every available place. Overhead, fans ground their way slowly around
like arthritic mosquitoes, while their healthier cousins flew around
biting anything that moved. Flimsy pieces of paper that had escaped
from the filing system, perhaps twenty years ago gently wafted around
the building in humid air currents. Occasionally someone would catch
one, read it idly and then send it on its interminable way to continue
its gentle flight of fancy.
Eventually I reached the office of Mr Umbungo, who I was informed was
the very chap to sort out my problems. The office was much like any
other, no sign of technology, not even a phone for Gods sake,
just stacks and stacks of files and a girl fast asleep under a table.
Ahem, I sort of coughed. She stirred, opened one eye, closed
it and yawned. I moved a stack of newspapers off a chair and sat down.
When she finally arose she seemed to go into a semi trance while staring
at an empty coca-cola bottle. This went on for some minutes and I was
beginning to worry that she had somehow self hypnotised herself and
was going to suddenly pick up a stack of files and suffocate me with
them. However all was well, she sat down and she smiled very sweetly
in my direction and said, Good morning, how are you?
Im very well thank you. I said.
And how is your family?
Theyre very well as well. How are you
This exchange of pleasantries regarding the wellbeing of families is
a normal formality in Africa and if not brought as diplomatically as
possible to an end can go on ad infinitum. Its a precursor to
the start of any business or meaningful discussion. The meaningful discussion
in this case was whether I would like a drink? I suppressed the retort
that a large Bloody Mary would indeed be welcome and told her that a
coca-cola would be nice.
Frederick, she shouted, out of the door.
A young lad ambled in. Go and fetch two cokes, she said,
and turned to me, Give him thirty shillings. I did as I
Mr Umbungo will be here very soon, she said.
I was used to this very soon nonsense Very soon in Africa
means anytime within the next six hours. I settled down to wait.
Mr Umbungo arrived at about half past eleven and we exchanged the usual
pleasantries vis a vis the well being of our respective families, Frederick
was again summoned, and I bought him a coca cola.
You say there is a man building a dwelling on your land?
he said, after I had, I thought, described the exact nature of the problem.
No I suppose the council owns the tree, I said.
But you are in the wrong department, he replied.
No, I said, the telephone wire that connects my phone
to your exchange has been used by this man to tether his goats. He has
cut the wire from the tree that was being used as a telephone pole.
We do not use trees, he said.
I would have gone to the window at this stage and pointed out any number
of trees being used to convey wires to the exchange, if the window hadnt
been blocked by old files. Anyway that wasnt the way to deal with
African logic, I knew what he wanted and he knew that I knew.
I will have to pay a visit and assess the situation, he
added. If what you say is true then this man will be in serious
trouble. You can collect me in the morning.
A time was set for three o clock the next morning, which meant
in real time anytime after nine. Time starts at daybreak for Kenyans
and finishes at sunrise which makes life complicated for those of us
who dont realise there is a completely different time scale out
here. It doesnt matter much though; time is a very flexible element
in any case and has no meaning.
We were ready for Mr Umbungo the next morning. The outcome, we knew,
rested on cost, cost to us that is. Kenya society runs on bribery and
corruption, a facet that any outsider should do well to remember. Its
all done very nicely and generally without threats or menace, its
just a way of life. We were old hands at the bribery game, so anything
of value that denoted wealth was hidden and I used Lauras old
Toyota Starlet to fetch him. He arrived at ten, which wasnt too
Mr Umbungo expected at least a Toyota Landcruiser for a start and his
expectation of the amount of bribe dropped a few points. It dropped
a further few when he realised I hadnt got a driver and drove
him to our home myself. We lived in an old colonial style of apartment,
three stories up without a lift which must have depressed him even more.
A mineral water on the balcony was the first port of call, served by
Laura who had told the maid to make herself scarce. By the time he had
looked around and found no swimming pool, no computer and not even a
TV, never mind a satellite dish he was about as despondent as its
possible to get. It was obvious that we had done it well.
The three of us watched the goat herd enlarging his home to accommodate,
no doubt, wife or two and various offsprings. If past experience was
any guide we would expect him to have added another two or three rooms
by the end of the week and rent them out.
This man must be removed and your line restored, said Mr
Yes, I said, waiting for the opening salvo in negotiations.
I have a very sick mother, said Mr Umbungo, which is quite
a common opening ploy; it could have been sick wife, child or anything.
We expected it, but had to go through the paraphernalia because it was
the African way. To offer an out and out bribe meant a loss of face
for him, and anyway it was a form of wheeling and dealing which is well
set in the African psyche.
Oh I am sorry, said Laura. She was far better at this sort
of thing than I was.
Yes, he said, and the school fees are due now.
Well, said Laura, Maybe a little donation towards
That would be most useful. It means I can devote all my time to
your telephone line rather than having to spend all day taking my mother
backwards and forwards to hospital.
A one thousand shilling note was pocketed and with the promise that
all his familys prayers would be directed in our direction for
the foreseeable future, Mr Umbungo got up to leave.
I drove him into Mombasa and on returning my wife gave me a knowing
look, Honour done on both sides I think, she said. As one
thousand shillings would buy you a couple of big Macs and fries back
home, I agreed. I remounted the satellite antenna, the computer terminal
and waited for our driver to come back with the Landcruiser that hed
taken for servicing.
I expect the phone will be back on within a week, Laura
said, uncovering the washing machine and dish washer. Where did
you drop Mr Umbungo?
Oh, outside the Indian Ocean Beach Club.
Chapman September 2006
Water - The Most Rare of Liquids
Kit Chapman in Kenya
...stranger things have happened. Strange things like finding
water in the Mombasa mains supply.
The first thing you say to a friend in the street is. Got any
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