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Dark days for Nairobi - Kenya's once-lauded 'green city in the sun'

Nairobi was recently downgraded to one of the least pleasant and safe places to work.

By Danna Harman Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2001



NAIROBI, KENYA

Just getting through the day here can be a triumph. Water stops running in the middle of your shower; the car gets stuck in a crater-size pothole; and the electricity is forever flickering.

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Phone lines can take a month to fix, e-mail can take two hours to connect. And if you haven't paid off the street kids, they may just puncture your tires while you're visiting some government office to complain about it all.

By far, the most serious problem is security. Those who can afford it install "rape gates" - bars and doors that divide living areas from sleeping quarters. That way, robbers may steal, but they cannot touch you.

Welcome to Kenya 2001, a scene all the more tragic for the loss of what might have been. As President Daniel Arap Moi winds down 23 years in office, it is fair to say that his country - considered to have the most potential in East Africa at its 1963 independence - is not doing well.

Once called the "green city in the sun," Nairobi has, in the past few years, grown but not prospered. The city of 3 million has watched impotently along with the rest of the country as Kenya's infrastructure decayed, its crime rate shot up, and its leaders made promises they didn't keep.

Reasons for the decay are numerous, and include a two-year drought, an influx of weapons from neighboring warring countries, rapid industrialization, and the siphoning of state monies by corrupt government officials.

Things are bad enough in Kenya that the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), an independent body that rates conditions of service for the United Nations, last month downgraded the Nairobi duty station from "B" to "C," acknowledging that it may be one of the least pleasant places to live and work in this world.

Examining factors such as safety, mobility, communications, and availability of power and water, the ICSC proclaimed Nairobi a hardship post on a par with war-ravaged Maputo, Mozambique - and one level below violence-racked Bogota, Colombia, and terror target Jerusalem.

Kenyans, both government officials and average citizens alike, are offended.

"What city are they talking about? asks Daniel Njuguna, a taxi driver with four children who makes about 1000 shillings ($12) a day. "Are they saying they, the foreigners, have a hard time here? In their fancy homes filled with servants and satellite TV? They just wanted a way to get money out of the UN."

As a result of the reclassification, the 860 internationally recruited staff at the UN Nairobi duty station - which serves as the international headquarters for the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) and the UN Center for Human Settlements (Habitat) - will receive home leaves once per year, rather than every other, and a 15 percent hardship allowance beyond their basic salaries, up from the 8 percent when the city was a "B" station. Secretary of Internal Security Marsden Madola calls the UN assessment "completely unjustified," and "a gross over-estimation of the actual situation."

"We are a city like any other in the world," says Foreign Affairs assistant Minister Sheldon Muchilwa. "Crime is a problem, but we are committed to making Nairobi safer. The UN is allowed to have its own opinions, but I have to disagree with their findings."

The chairman of the Nairobi Central Business District Association, Philip Kisia says the report could have an adverse effect on investments and tourism in Kenya. The timing - just as Kenya is coming out of a tourism slump - is particularly unwarranted and damaging, he says.

The UN information officer in Nairobi, Tore Brevik, defends the reclassification in light of 20 carjackings involving UN staff members in 1999 and 14 in 2000 - and with close to 40 house break-ins a year in 1999 and nearly that many in 2000. He notes, however, that the rating will be re-evaluated in a year and could change.

Still, street lights don't work, garbage isn't collected, broken sewage pipes aren't fixed. Slums are bursting at the seams. A 15-month rationing of power was only lifted last week. School fees are high, wages low; unemployment is rising; arms are coming in from Somalia and other war-torn countries; and robberies, carjackings, break-ins, and muggings are a daily occurrence.

Kenya's main opposition paper, The People, in a recent editorial blamed the government's "corrupt ways" for the nation's deterioration. Putting into print what many residents here are increasingly saying out loud, The People argued that a new leadership could turn Kenya around.

"How could President Moi have inherited such a beautiful city and watch it reduced to the mess it is? the paper wrote. "Residents of the city should pray for the day when a more caring government will take over."

Vicky Leviner, who moved to Nairobi from Britain as a child, remembers when she and her siblings would just slam the door shut at night. Today, she has bars, dogs, a panic button, and a private security detail. "And you definitely can't trust the police to help," she says, with a shrug of resignation.

"Matters are certainly not getting better," says Steven Kamau, manager of Security Group Kenya, a private security firm.

"With the increase of arms from neighboring countries and the growing number of violent crimes, there are simply not enough policemen to go around," he says. "And in any case, they are unable to respond effectively,"

Kamau adds that people who were two years ago ordering one panic button for their homes are now asking for five or six.

The dog operation, meanwhile, has increased seven-fold over the past two years. Customers demand "the meanest looking one we have," he says. "It is good for business, but it does not make me happy for this country."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society