Hello, Hello 1991

‘Have you used the phone today?’ I asked my wife Laura, as I gently supped an early morning mango juice on our balcony overlooking Mombasa creek in Kenya.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘Why?’
‘Look 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.
‘He’s 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.
‘That’s it,’ said Laura, ‘That’s 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 online again was always fun. If you didn’t 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 flies 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 felt like walking back a few decades as well, as soon as you enter the reception area. This area is one to miss as it’s 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 clerk’s 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 God’s 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?’
‘I’m very well thank you.’ I said.
‘And how is your family?’
‘They’re 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. It’s 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 was bid.
‘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, bushes and old broken down lamp posts, come to that being used to convey wires to the exchange, if the window hadn’t been blocked by old files. Anyway, that wasn’t 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 don’t realise there is a completely different time scale out here. It doesn’t 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. It’s all done very nicely and generally without threats or menace, it’s 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 Laura’s old Toyota Starlet to fetch him. He arrived at ten, which wasn’t too bad.
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 hadn’t 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 it’s possible to get. It was obvious that we had done it well as we watched his face drop as the bribery expectation duly dropped to a very low rung.
The three of us watched the goat herd enlarging his home to accommodate, no doubt, a 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 then rent them out.
‘This man must be removed and your line restored,’ said Mr Umbungo.
‘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 family’s 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 Laura 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 he’d taken for servicing.
‘I expect the phone will be back on within a week,’ Laura said, uncovering the washing machine and dishwasher. ‘Where did you drop Mr Umbungo?’
‘Oh, outside the Indian Ocean Beach Club.’

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Water Water Everywhere…But.

One of a set of articles written about the joy of living and working in Kenya. Although we left ten years ago I have no reason to believe the joy of  living there has diminished.

            We get woken up these mornings with the exhaust fumes of an ancient and very arthritic cement mixer wafting in through the open bedroom windows and through the mosquito netting. At least my wife Laura does, it’s her coughing that wakes me.

The official cement mixer operative arrives with his semi official advisors, about twenty of his extended family, including sons from first and second wives, their sons and various cousins, at about six a.m. The machine is surrounded by the family and coaxed into action by a chant or two and a liberal sprinkling of chicken blood over the starting handle.

It is being used to build a block of flats, next door to us, here inMombasa,Kenya. The flats are being built on a beach plot; actually, it is the beach and not a plot at all… not when the tide comes in and obliterates whatever this hugely optimistic builder managed to construct, in the previous twelve hours. Still it saves the builder having to find fresh water for the mixture of sand and mud used for shoving in between the lumps of coral he’s using to construct this edifice. In fact if this block of flats ever gets built it will take a major shift in theIndian Oceantidal patterns…but stranger things have happened.

Strange things like finding water in the Mombasa mains supply. The phenomenon is so rare that if someone unwisely reports they have any, the word gets round so quickly that a mass of hitherto unknown acquaintances suddenly arrive, complete with plastic buckets and containers, swearing undying friendship and promises of reciprocal water, in the unlikely event that they get a trickle through their own tap.

The normal greeting to a friend at home, ‘Nice weather for the time of year,’ is unheard of here amongst the ex-pat community. People look at you as though you’re crackers. The weathers always nice here, whatever the time of year. It rarely changes and  is so predictable.

No, the first thing you say to a friend in the street, shop or wherever is. ‘Got any water?’ or if you know them well enough, ‘Had at trickle lately?’ The answer’s usually unprintable.

Forget the drought issue, this lack of water inMombasaproblem exists whether it hasn’t rained for months or deluges until the roads become rivers and people, buildings and animals are carried away into a watery oblivion. The answer is in the complete lack of any maintenance on the once, very adequate, pipe and reservoir system, for fifty odd years.

If you want to, you can call in a water diviner. There is apparently a substantial amount of water underMombasa, lurking somewhere within the substrata and bore holes have been drilled to find it, seemingly with some success, although there is a probability that the town’s sewage has infiltrated the water table.

I called a diviner in once, a nice old chap that had been recommended by a friend, who swore that a friend of a friend had used him and vast amounts of the precious liquid had been found under his patio. He came complete with forked twig and mumbo jumbo’d away, backwards and forwards across the garden searching for the source of theNileor lesser springs. He eventually found an old mosquito flit gun I’d thrown away into the undergrowth in disgust, after it failed to stop me going down with a particularly bad dose of malaria. Alas no water.

‘Mikocontainis.’ Now there’s a mouthful for you. These contraptions are people powered hand carts made of old car axles and orange boxes, which rush (relatively) about, carrying all sorts of gear including water and hired to anyone by rental firms, rather in the style of Hertz. You can tell when a water mikocontaini is around by the clanking of steel washers that the operators attach to the wheel rims. This clacking along the highways and byways of Mombasa like deranged tambourines with their loads of old cooking oil denotes containers filled with water and is sold to anybody with a cast iron stomach and about 20 cents to spare. I’ve tried it, had to, but having been bought up on my mother’s weird ideas of cooking, involving no sense whatsoever of hygiene, I reckon I’m immune to pretty well anything short of a large dollop of arsenic.

‘How and when?’ you may ask do these purveyors of the precious liquid get it to sell. Well, and this is where the African mind bends itself into a wonderful entrepreneurial logic, they get it from the town’s main’s water supply. This is done by shutting off the valves on the mains pipe as it enters an area where a large number of homes are dry and connecting a pipe and tap directly on to the water main, up stream as it were, so they can fill their old cooking oil containers…and bingo! A captive customer base.

Of course this, for want of a better word,’ blackmail’ is highly profitable for all concerned. The vendor gets a cut, the mikocontaini owner gets his, and the water board official gets some, although he probably has to share his with various other officials including the Chief of Police and local politicians.

Complaining to the ‘Powers that be’ about the lack of water, even when you know it’s being siphoned off, is well worth the effort… if only for a laugh.

‘Hello, is that the water company,’ you say.

‘Yes, how are you?’ replies a very nice sounding chap.

‘I’m very well thank you, apart from having no water for the last three weeks.’

‘Well the elephants have stampeded and trampled all over the pipes.’

‘But there are no elephants; they were all shot years ago.’

‘They have travelled from Shimba in search of water.’

‘If they find any will you tell me?’

‘Certainly sir, what is your phone number?’

One of the problems with water in these parts is not just how to get it but what to do with it when you’ve got it. Some of us enterprising sort, coming from a seafaring background, know all about pumps and what not. We build a tank on or under the ground, enough to hold about two tons of the rare elixir and another one on the roof of our houses. Then if, and it’s a big ‘if’ we are lucky enough to get water through the mains we fill the bottom tank and the pump it up to the roof tank as soon as possible. But wait…it is highly likely that an electricity power cut is in operation, so power to the pump is also off. Lady luck must really be smiling on you if both are in working order. Anyway with the top tank full you can mooch around in seventh heaven, wallowing in water as it comes through taps etc in the normal way, until it all goes dry again

There are also a number of ways that enterprising people have tried to overcome the lack of water enigma. I have, in the middle of the heavy rains constructed a water catchment area consisting of a number of upturned umbrellas with a hole on the bottom directing water into both roof and ground tanks. Laura was not very happy about this, however as they were her umbrellas, so I desisted. Another way is to wander in and out of the various tourist hotels with empty water containers, washing gear and even your weekly washing if desired inside large bags stopping to have a shower, collect water and generally splash about in the bar and restaurant lavatorial closets. It’s not really recommended though, the bag gets awfully heavy and the hotel staff eventually get suspicious and demand bribes to keep quiet.

The paradoxical factor about the complete breakdown of water supply infrastructure is the hell you find yourself in if you don’t pay the Council for your water meter. It matters not a jot if any water has passed through the damn thing for months, you still have a standing charge to pay. These meters have been known to work, sometimes they work backwards, so the council theoretically owes you money, but mostly they are stuck, rusted up with disuse.

Conrad, a friend of ours, had his mains water cut off for non payment in 1984 and didn’t notice until he moved home. It was pointed out by the new tenant. In fact Conrad had survived very well cadging water from friends and collecting rain water for twentyfive odd years. He thought the mains were broken and would be fixed ‘sometime’.

Rather like the power cuts…but that’s another story.