This post actually applies to today, May 18.
Africa is corrupt. Countless people have told me this and it seems to be one of those strange truisms that everyone knows – like that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. It is a fact that is not necessarily true, but just believed by enough people that it somehow becomes true. Yet in my four “summers in Africa” I have rarely experienced it myself. Or perhaps I just glaze over it as a simply paying a bit more than you like for something like when you go to an overpriced restaurant. In the last few weeks, I have started to notice its more flagrant flavor in Kenya. Kenya is corrupt.
It started with the road blocks. I have seen and even stopped at road blocks before. Granted in the past I have been in some huge bus or half-asleep on some long journey and paid little attention, but I know I have had to wait long hours at them. In our drive from Nairobi to Masai Mara we passed several road blocks and were pulled over at two. During one pull over, Munir was asked to show his license. This seemed pretty standard. The police officer looked at the driver’s license – a check-sized strip of paper with a photo glued on. “No signature,” he said. “Ohh, it rubbed off a while ago,” Munir replied. We were told to talk to the askari kubwa (the big guard). “No signature,” he agreed. Then they just stood there looking at us, waiting for someone to panic, someone to offer something, but nothing. “So are you going to charge me?” Munir asked. There was a long silence and we were allowed to go.
After rejecting my first $100 bill as too old (it was a 1996 bill, strangely the only one that I had apparently. . . all the other bills that I took out of the bank at the same time were 2003), I received an affiliation with the National Museum of Kenya today. Unfortunately half the ink from the $100 sheet of paper saying I am affiliated came off on my arm as we drove home with it. In any case, now I just have to get the permit. Unfortunately after leaving the correct payment with someone who was going to take care of the permit for me (who of course required a bit of cash to do so in the first place), I was sent a text message and told that an extra $100 was necessary because I am a PhD student.
The worst of this corruption has come in the form of the loss of the African White-backed vulture that we put a unit on last week. Recently Munir received a call from a Maasai who had “found” the unit on a dead bird. I felt awful and Munir and I started thinking through all the things that one worries about – maybe the unit was too heavy, maybe we stressed the bird out, maybe the backpack design is problematic. Then the next time Munir talked with the Maasai to arrange payment, he asked some more questions about the bird and requested that we collect the bird when we get the unit. Suddenly the story changed, there was no bird; he just found the unit (or “battery” as he called it) next to a carcass. He also would be requiring some payment for this unit. So as my advisor so delicately put it, it is bad “that the unit attracted attention, probably got the vulture killed, and that it is being held for ransom” as we speak. Munir pointed out that the unit may just have been a bonus for this guy as they sometimes kill the birds for feathers, but one has to wonder what role the unit played in the motivation of the whole thing. In any case, our first unit is no longer on the bird and the status of the bird and cause of the unit falling off remain unknown. Someone will be delivering the unit to us soon (it of course will take a lot of gas to get to and thus we will need to pay someone a bit to get it back since it is in such a remote location); then maybe more of the story will unfold.