From Khartoum to Cape Town/AFRICAN JOURNEY. How the glamour of a trans-Africa trek by Land Rover can begin to wear thin
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As a traveler in Kenya will quickly discover, personal security and protection against theft are overriding concerns, if not obsessions, among many residents. Not only in Nairobi, but in the countryside, too. Daily newspapers are peppered with stories of murders, muggings by ``panga'' (machete) gangs, and burglaries. Just how tense feelings are is suggested by the extremely violent, impromptu form of mob justice meted out to those who are caught. Urban violenceSkip to next paragraph
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Over the past few years, the Kenya government has been trying to crack down on urban violence, a difficult task considering the high rate of unemployment, particularly among the young who have left school.
The arrival of 15,000 women in Nairobi for the world conference on the United Nations Decade for Women and the consequent potential for bad international publicity, seems to be what it takes to get authorities to dragnet streets and suburbs in a bid to keep the city safe at least for the duration of the gathering.
While some observers insist that crime is not as bad as is often made out, others maintain that it is getting steadily worse. ``I can guarantee that you will be robbed at least once before you leave Kenya,'' blithely remarked the English shipping director whose company was handling my vehicle. ``In fact, there is a pretty good chance that your vehicle will have been plundered before you even receive it.''
Sure enough, despite padlocked trunks, various pieces of equipment -- a shortwave radio, jerry cans, clothes, and rock tapes -- had already been removed from the vehicle by the time it had passed through customs in Mombasa. The thieves proved to be quite discriminating. Camping gear, boots, and classical music tapes did not interest them.
What can be done to minimize the risks? ``Well you see, I have a distinct advantage over you. I'm fat,'' continued the enormous Englishman. ``Africans respect big people. It's a sign of power. They'll think twice about tackling you.
``All I can say is assume that everything you've got in your vehicle is up for grabs and take whatever precautions you can. Car break-ins are a fact of life in this country.''
Once back in Nairobi, I had firm wire mesh fitted over the rear windows, strongboxes bolted into the back, and extra locks attached to anything that moved.
Following crime, one of the most nerve-wracking gauntlets facing overland travelers are Kenya's lethal driving habits, far worse than what I have seen in Pakistan or India. One Kenya guidebook recommends ``evasive'' rather than ``defensive'' driving as a way to survive the country's roads.
Drunk driving is an acute problem, but so are the favorite pastimes of overtaking on blind curves, dangerously overloading trucks, hogging the center of the road, and keeping headlights switched off to save on bulbs until the sheer darkness mandates their use.
The worst offenders, however, are the matatus, jampacked minibuses whose name can be loosely translated as ``always room for three more.'' Hurtling down the highways, their main ambition seems to be to take on as many passengers as possible while reaching a destination in the shortest time possible.
On several occasions I have watched foreigners intent on savoring some local color, climb out of matatus with blanched, ``never again'' expressions on their faces.
Recently, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi announced his intention to ``declare war'' on speeding matatus. But one wonders what can really be done about their drivers who pilot the vehicles with an abandon suggesting immunity to the normal considerations of personal safety.
Police have been ordered to haul in offenders and there are plans to introduce stricter driving regulations. And in an effort to educate the young, authorities recently opened a youth traffic center in Nairobi where school children can ride around on bikes and learn the highway code under simulated road conditions.
In the meantime I ponder the relative security of my Land Rover beset as it is by an internal propensity to break down at awkward moments and an external vulnerability to the reckless driver or the acquisitive thief.