Seb took his ’98 Starlet out for the first time. Exiting the basement parking garage of the Muthaiga View apartments, he stopped to greet Moses, the night guard. Moses grinned wide, revealing his missing bottom teeth. How could he be only thirty-eight? If he weren’t missing teeth, though, he would look much younger with his boyish smile, crinkly eyes, perfect posture, and not a single gray hair. This was more than Seb could say of himself, and he was only thirty-three. Moses tapped the side of the car and leaned in the passenger-side window.
“Mr. Sebastian, what you’re doing here is very good. Even me, I walked all the way from home today.”
“All the way from Kengemi?”
Moses nodded. “What you’ve done here, Mr. Sebastian, I really like it. We’re fearing very much the matatus now. You are very smart to get a personal vehicle.” He tapped the car again. “Sincerely.”
“Ever since the Thika Highway blast,” Seb clenched his mouth and shook his head, which had become his way of finishing a statement when conversing about the most recent explosion and not knowing what else to say. What else could you say? “Tunaomba. We’re praying,” he added.
Seb had taken his share of risks. What kind of journalist would he be if he hadn’t? There was a close call with rebels in Eastern Congo, and who knows what would have happened with the suited man who trailed him for weeks before he gave in and decided it was time to get out of Rwanda? At the Kigali airport, Seb’s stalker made eye contact with him for the first time, giving him a controlled smile that assured Seb it was in his best interest to board that plane to Nairobi and never come back.
Were his risk-taking days over? He hoped not. Risk-taking was a significant if not critical part of his identity. He’d already given up triathlons when he moved to Rwanda, which he still hadn’t reconciled with himself. Every so often an old teammate inquired via email how training was going, which then brought on a fit of nostalgia. On those days he’d lace up his running shoes and dart out of his flat. He’d run hard for about ten minutes imagining the last mile of a race, but then his breathing would become heavy, his side would stitch up, lactic acid would fill his hamstrings, and he’d find himself walking with his hands folded over his head—how he imagined he would feel at fifty.
Many of his friends were now married and owned homes and though he wasn’t eager to admit it, the thought of such stability was now appealing. He liked the U.S. He liked that tax dollars fixed potholes and funded libraries and ensured free secondary education. He liked that most crimes were investigated. He liked feeling more or less protected by the police, though he was aware that this was a privilege that many didn’t enjoy. Perhaps the recent flood of his friends’ posts had gotten to him as he now found himself imagining a wife and children, a modest home in a college town in the northeast, close enough to his parents that visiting wouldn’t have to be limited to holidays, but too far for spontaneous pop-ins. Ten years after moving to East Africa, the region still interested him, but it didn’t give him the highs it used to. His life here had always been precarious, but now it was starting to feel cheap, as if it could be snatched away at any moment.
He never thought he would buy a car in Kenya. Even as recently as a few months ago, before the Operation started, he loved cramming into matatus, twenty passengers for thirteen seats, bopping his head to Busy Signal or Kenny Rogers. It was a space where his Swahili was adequate—he only needed to know numbers and how to say nashuka hapa or command shika when paying the conductor. He liked the feeling of anonymity yet knowing the system. He knew when to tap someone’s shoulder or why his shoulder was being tapped. He knew when it was appropriate to pass someone’s change to the seat behind him, how long before his stop he needed to demand his change. He loved all the silent communicating. He would miss the matatus, but now a car felt essential, as too many matatus had exploded in the last couple of months.
“Even us, we don’t know where is safe,” Moses said, continuing to hold up Seb. Now he would surely be late for dinner with his expat friends across town. “Even us, we don’t even know who’s doing these blasts, if it’s the government or the opposition. I don’t think it can be Al-Shabaab. They have not claimed. Now we’re just praying that God will protect us. Mr. Sebastian, let me say, I really like what you’ve done here with this vehicle, sincerely. May God bless you.”
“May God bless you and your family,” Seb said. These words no longer made him uncomfortable; they no longer made him feel like a fraud. He didn’t exactly believe in God, but he was no longer closed off to the idea. Sometimes he even found himself on the toilet or in bed, wanting to pray.
A few months ago, at the end of one of their hour-long conversations at the building entrance, Seb slipped Moses an envelope with 10,000 shillings. Moses called it sponsorship. Seb wanted to call it a friend helping a friend.
The next day Moses invited Seb to Kengemi. They sat in the one-room house on hard hand-me-down couches from other Muthaiga View tenants. It was around noon, so normally Moses would have been sleeping and his wife would have been at the market selling tomatoes and onions and sukumawiki. Every few minutes Moses refilled Seb’s mug with hot milk out of a plastic pitcher and sent the boys out to buy more packets of Nescafe. His wife prepared rice and beans on a jiko behind a curtain. The television played soap operas. The door remained open, and at one point a chicken waddled in. Moses looked at Seb and laughed and said that he just couldn’t live without chickens before commanding one of the boys to escort the animal out. He spoke nonstop of his boys, how they were so disciplined and well-dressed that people in the community mistook them for sons of politicians, and how he hoped they wouldn’t get involved with the wrong crowd, and how what Seb was doing for them was unbelievable. Even his own brothers refused to send a single shilling for school fees, even though he was entitled to a third of the family sugarcane profits in Kisii. “You are more than a friend, Mr. Sebastian. When I talk about you, I call you my brother.”
Seb didn’t feel he deserved such gratitude. In fact, it embarrassed him, made him feel like a phony. What he gave Moses was just over two hundred dollars, not a sum of money he would think to miss. He had not intended to make any grand gesture or make Moses feel indebted. He simply felt it was the right thing to do and more than being the right thing, he would have felt badly if he’d said he couldn’t help. He could help. He was by no means rich, but he would not die in need of that money. He had some savings, and he could stand to eat out less. Since he gave Moses the money, Moses had been praising him, squinting to hold in tears, retelling the story of how he was never sent to school and studied from his brother’s books at home. He insisted that one day, when the opportunity arose, he would help Seb out of a jam. “That’s what brothers do.” Seb would nod along and become lachrymose himself.
Over lunch Seb got Moses talking about the other tenants at Muthaiga View. It turned out Seb’s coerced exit from Rwanda a few months ago coincided nicely with all that was happening in Kenya between terrorism, the president’s International Criminal Court case, and rampant elephant poaching. He felt badly thinking about it that way—that misfortune served him, that he profited from tragedy—but then he would remind himself that what he was doing was good. Who else was going to write in-depth articles that showed the complexity of such situations? Didn’t the world need this perspective? Hadn’t Rwandans needed the world to read his article? Now, didn’t Kenyans need the same?
He was curious about who lived in his seven-story building, a new middle-class building in one of Nairobi’s older neighborhoods. It was right in the thick of the latest chaos, being so close to Eastleigh, the epicenter of Operation Usalama Watch—the government’s attempt to send all Nairobi refugees to camps or their country of origin. Seb didn’t want to condemn the government and wake up at midnight to soldiers pounding on his door. Or worse, he didn’t want to be followed and driven off the road into a ditch or crashed into by a truck. He was sure the smartly-dressed man in Kigali had appeared because of his article on the Al Jazeera website, “Nineteen Years Later: Repressed Rwanda.” Now he was trying to maintain a low profile in Kenya, but this was difficult, being one of the only white people in the neighborhood. He got the feeling that most of the tenants in his building were also trying to keep a low profile. There seemed to be a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. He felt resistance and discomfort in the elevator when he would push a conversation further than a greeting. But everyone talked to Moses. Moses revealed that there were many foreign tenants in Muthaiga View.
“But no Somalis,” Moses said, proudly.
“You know these guys live so many in one room, sometimes up to twenty. And they’re always shouting and breaking things. What the government is doing now is very good.”
“But I don’t think most Somalis are bad.”
“They’re not all bad, sincerely, but they are taking advantage of our hospitality. Mr. Sebastian, what the government is doing is making sure every person in Kenya has proper papers. Even me, they have asked me for my papers. A terrorist could have ID, but we just have to pray that our government will catch those guys.”
Now there was another car waiting to leave the garage. Through the rearview mirror it looked like Amoo, Seb’s Nigerian neighbor who was placed in the Pangani neighborhood for his job in forensic intelligence. Amoo was the only neighbor who had openly conversed with Seb. What kind of person in intelligence goes around advertising what he does? Seb often found himself on the lift with Amoo. Sometimes in the evenings he’d hear whistling, and he’d see Amoo strolling by the kitchen window, which overlooked the hallway. This wasn’t curious because Amoo also lived on the seventh floor but was curious because he didn’t need to walk by Seb’s unit to get to the lift or the stairs. Perhaps he was going to the other side of the building to look at the city’s lit-up skyline or to see a miniaturized Pangani—too high up to discern its chipped paint, tumbling trash, broken bottles. All you could see was terracotta rooftops, bright-colored dukas, folks strolling by with swinging arms. Sometimes when Seb felt anxious, he would take in this view in effort to trick his nerves.
Moses raised the gate and Seb pulled out into the evening, the pink sun melting behind the gray outline of the Ngong hills. He drove down the bumpy road, swerving out of the way of pedestrians and potholes so wide and deep they could swallow up his tiny car. It was the smallest car he could buy, which also made it the cheapest and he hoped the least conspicuous. But the recent ban on tinted windows following the market blasts would ensure he would still be seen.
His phone rang. It was that annoying default ring that he never bothered to change. He looked at the screen. It read: Green Starlet. Seb didn’t want to talk to that guy. He was calling to ask for money. When he brought the car an hour late to Pangani, he blamed his tardiness on having been arrested en route for expired insurance. Ten thousand shillings later they released him from Pangani police station. He asked Seb to pay for it, but Seb refused. “I feel badly, but how is it my fault that your insurance is expired?” During the bank transfer he kept asking, “What am I supposed to do about that 10,000?” Seb only shrugged.
He turned on the radio. It was playing that catchy Jesus song. It used to make him uncomfortable. Now he loved it. Even sang along. “When I call on Jesus, all things are possible.” Something was happening to him. Now he was signing emails and text messages with: God Bless. He turned up the volume.
He passed Pangani shopping center where dozens of bearded men smoked shisha and plump women kneeled next to blankets of vegetables. Then came China House, the tallest building in Pangani, the only Pangani building to have been raided by the police since the Operation’s initiation. When Seb arrived in Nairobi, he looked at an apartment on the twelfth floor of China House. He thought living there might have been advantageous to the stories he planned to write given that all of its tenants were Somali. The caretaker was friendly. She said there were many apartments available. But when he went back the next day he was sent into the manager’s office. The manager offered Seb a seat on a plastic chair. He flipped through papers and asked what Seb was doing in Nairobi. His tone was that of annoyance.
“I’m a student,” Seb said. It was the least threatening and most plausible identity he could create for himself. “I’m doing my dissertation research here.” He didn’t feel badly about lying. He’d gotten used to it. It’s not as if he lied to people he interviewed. He practiced good journalistic ethics, especially compared to some of his colleagues who had all kinds of secret recording gadgets.
“On which topic?”
“I’m looking at demographic shifts in Pangani since independence in effort to study class mobility.”
The manager looked up from his papers and raised his eyebrows.
“I’m a historian. I’m studying history.”
“You see, right now there are no vacancies here. You can just try the buildings near Thika Highway.” The man stuck his head back into his papers, and Seb loped out of the building and toward Thika Highway where he found Muthaiga View run by a young, jovial manager who was “very happy for people like you to stay here.”
Why did he live in Pangani? Everyone he met wanted to know. A matatu had exploded on Juja Road. A butchery was robbed and one of its employees shot in the head. There was trash strewn about—some permanently pressed into the ground, some loose and blowing in the wind, some in heaps. Now with the Operation he had to carry his passport even if he was just going across the street to buy bread. Despite all of this, he adored Pangani. He couldn’t see himself living anywhere else in Nairobi. It was a historic neighborhood with old Indian-style houses. Buildings were broken up by jacarandas. Hornbills and hawks circled above, and market vendors would give him four tomatoes for fifteen bob if he patronized them enough, no need to visit a big supermarket. There was barbecue chicken and pilau and chapattis and fried fish sold on the street at night. A grandfatherly Indian man gave Seb the best haircut he’d ever had with no appointments taken. There were Somalis and Indians and Ethiopians and West Africans. Muthaiga View was a beautiful new building with four guards on duty at all times, and the units featured long windows, tile floors, and balconies. And if he really needed a break from street life, he could escape across the flyover into Muthaiga, the leafy suburb where many of the ambassadors and politicians resided behind tall gates topped with barbed wire; on either side orange and purple bougainvillea snaked up old trees.
One more speed bump and then he’d be at the infamous Juja Road where two explosions had occurred and other explosives were said to have been dug up next to the Mamba petrol station and detonated by bomb experts. There was no way to exit Pangani in a vehicle without driving a brief stretch on Juja Road.
It felt strange driving on the left side. He felt like he was too close to the center of the road. He didn’t realize how slow he was driving until a car flashed by him going the same direction. It was Amoo in his white Nissan.
There was now just a dusting of light. The street was black. The sky was dark purple. Streetlights were out or too dim to do any good. He didn’t see pedestrians until he nearly ran them over.
He clicked on his brights and crept up to Juja Road. It would be a challenging right turn. He’d have to be aggressive and pray that one of the speeding matatus would pull over or slow down. He started to poke his car out into traffic, but a matatu nearly clipped him. He reversed a little and then he inched up again, but traffic was moving too fast. Then someone tapped the side of his car with a stick, and a bright light blinded him.
A month and a half ago, two bombs exploded in Eastleigh. The next day the Operation began. Thousands of soldiers occupied the streets of Eastleigh. Building to building, door to door, they rounded up Somalis and crammed them into the back of trucks like cattle and took them to Kasarani Stadium. Beyond the number of casualties, no information was released on the explosions.
A few days into the Operation, Seb took a matatu to Kasarani Stadium. Before he could get within twenty meters of the gates an officer stopped him. He pleaded that he was a big football fan and had traveled a long way and that it would be such a disappointment if he couldn’t see the stadium.
“You see, right now there’s a church function.”
“A church function?”
“Good thing I’m a Christian,” Seb said, chuckling, but the officer only licked his lips and stared.
“So would you mind if I took a quick look at the stadium? Just five minutes.”
“You see, in addition to church we’re holding some guys in there for security reasons.”
“We’re just checking IDs to make certain some guys aren’t doing these bad things. We have to be very sure these days.”
“Yes, yes, you have to be very certain.”
“So let me ask, how do you know if someone is bad?”
“If they have Kenyan identification then they’re okay.”
“Sure, sure. And if they don’t have Kenyan ID?”
“Then they might be sent back to their country. You’re from which country?”
“The United States.”
“That’s a very good country. You guys don’t have problems with security like we have.”
“We have some problems, too, but let me say, I feel so lucky to be in your beautiful country.”
“You are very welcome here. You can stay in Kenya as long as you’d like. Infinity time. We are blessed to have you here.”
“Thank you, I truly wish I could stay longer, but since I’m just visiting, I’m kindly asking if I could just take a quick look at the stadium? I’ve traveled such a long way, and I try to see the important football stadiums everywhere I travel.”
“I shall check with my boss.”
They let him linger. He shuffled between a stone wall which the officers sat atop and a small field where Somalis leaned against their vehicles. Officers whispered to each other. Somalis got in their cars to make phone calls. A Doctors Without Borders SUV, driven by a silver-haired white woman, raced up to the gate only to be confronted by four officers and quickly turned away. A pair of hawks circled high above.
An older, fatter officer approached Seb. He muttered, “We will not allow you to enter.” He chatted with a lady officer then he passed by Seb again and muttered, “You can just leave now.”
Seb crept toward the Somalis. He noticed them noticing him, but no one acknowledged him. In Eastleigh all eyes were on him. Now it was just the corners of eyes. He continued creeping over. The officers were not paying attention. They were chatting or playing on their phones. He found a Somali youth crouching behind a shrub, twirling a blade of grass. He’d been trying to interview Somalis on the situation during the first few days of the Operation, but no one would talk to him. Some accused him of being a spy. Others indicated there was simply too much to lose.
Seb crouched at the youth’s side. “Sidee tahay.” It was the only Somali he knew.
“Hello,” said the youth. He took a quick glance at Seb then reestablished his gaze on the stadium’s gates.
“You have someone in there?”
“Sorry, sorry. When did they take him?”
“Three nights now.”
“And what is he saying?”
“Fifty thousand or he’s going to Dadaab.”
“Does he have ID?”
“Of course. He has alien card, UN mandate, and student ID.”
“But they didn’t take you?” Seb’s knees started to ache so he stood to shake them out. An officer looked over. He crouched back down.
“My Swahili is very good.”
First he felt his presence, and then he noticed his shadow. Seb stood up and greeted the officer hovering over them. The youth stayed crouching and running his hands through the grass.
“What are you doing here?”
“I told your colleague, I’m a tourist and I wanted to see the stadium.”
“You might be a journalist.”
“I’m just a tourist.”
“My boss is saying you have to leave now.”
“Ok, I’m leaving.”
“He has to leave too, unless—” the guard tapped his mouth.
It wasn’t a stick. It was a baton.
Seb knew what was happening. Since the Operation started the police had stopped him at least ten times. The officer might tell him it was hot out and request he buy him a soda, but with his American passport and a valid tourist visa, they wouldn’t arrest him, they would honor his ID. Sometimes the officers would even wish him a nice stay or proudly suggest Seb visit his home village near Eldoret or Kericho.
Seb threw the car in park and reached into his jeans for his passport, but his hand went straight to the bottom of the pocket. The police officer tapped the car again. Seb rolled down the window. He prayed the passport was in his jacket.
“Good morning, sir,” Seb said.
“You can’t even pass the simplest test,” the officer said, shaking his head.
“You said, good morning, but there’s not even a speck of daylight.”
Seb’s phone rang. It was Green Starlet.
“Now your wife is asking for you?”
“No, no. I’m not married.”
“So you’ve come here for an African woman? You guys like our women too much.”
“I’ve just come to see your beautiful country.”
Seb hoped the officer wouldn’t think too hard about why a tourist would have his own car.
“Kindly produce for me your ID.”
Seb reached into his jacket then tried his jean pockets again, but now he knew he’d left his passport behind, he could even picture that stupid golden eagle glistening on top of his black faux-marble kitchen countertop. He remembered noting that it wasn’t in his pocket just minutes before he tore out of the house. How could he have been so complacent? Was he trying to get arrested? He was headed to the other side of town, and he knew he’d have to hurry with the rush-hour jam if he wanted to be reasonably on time for the dinner party. At least he’d remembered the bottle of cheap South African Shiraz.
He removed his Pennsylvania driver’s license from his wallet and handed it to the officer. The officer’s lips moved silently as he inspected the card with his flashlight. “This is very valid. Now kindly produce for me your passport.”
“Kindly allow me to go get it and bring it to you, sir. It’s very nearby.”
The officer’s eyes widened, and he smiled. “You don’t have a passport?”
“I have one, and it’s very valid. It’s just not with me now, but I can get it in less than five minutes, no problem.”
The officer got in the front passenger seat. This surprised Seb given that just a few weeks ago two officers were blown to pieces using the same tactic. They had pulled over a car that was driving on the wrong side of the road, got in the vehicle, and demanded they drive to Pangani Police Station, undoubtedly negotiating a release price along the way. Pulling into the police station, the vehicle exploded.
“Since you can’t produce a passport, you could be a terrorist.”
“Sir, with all due respect, that is absurd. I’m just a tourist.”
“Should I arrest you?”
“No, sir. I’m just a tourist. Sincerely.”
“But without ID, how do I know you’re not a terrorist?”
Seb wanted to point out the fallacy of the statement’s implications. As if a terrorist couldn’t have proper ID. As if a Kenyan couldn’t be a terrorist. As if thousands of refugees were responsible for the recent blasts.
“It will just take 15,000 shillings.”
“I don’t have that much money. What are my other options?”
“What do you have? Let’s make it 12,000, and I won’t take down any of your particulars.”
“Which crime have I committed? Do you want to search my car?”
“I guess you don’t want me to help you.”
“Sir, of course I want you to help me, but I haven’t committed a crime.”
“But you’ve made a mistake, and you have to pay for your mistakes. Just give me 10,000. You know the cell is very crowded these days, and the toilet is broken.”
As an anthropology major, Seb took a fieldwork methods course in which the professor had studied crime in Lima and admittedly tried on several occasions to get mugged. Seb never thought it would come to this; he had promised his parents he would be more conservative these days. But then he’d just be another Western journalist based in Kenya, writing articles about complex geopolitical issues he didn’t fully understand, from his beautiful balcony, typing away on his Macbook.
“You can just go ahead and arrest me,” he said.
The officer frowned and shook his head. “Okay, give me just 8,000. If you go to the station you will pay 20,000 minimum.”
Seb was not confident in his decision. He knew the police were rough. He knew he might end up paying big to get out of jail. But he also knew he’d eventually get back to his Pangani apartment, and at any moment he could fly back to the U.S. and reenter a charmed life of drinking craft beer and playing darts, going out to brunch, working from cozy cafes over tall, iced coffees, walking freely at night without ID and without being the object of hundreds of stares. Now he owed it to those who had no freedom of mobility to suffer a little, to experience what they were experiencing. True, he wasn’t a martyr—this reckless act was self-serving and could lead to his big article, the one that could give him enough accolades to live in the U.S. and get flown to East Africa a few times a year by National Geographic, BBC, or The New York Times.
“I’m not giving you anything.”
“You don’t want me to help you,” the officer said, shaking his head. “You know where the police station is? Take us there.”
Outside the station, crowds of worried-faced women in hijab waited at the sides of nicely dressed men who pleaded with quiet, expressionless officers. Inside there was only one dim light on. Muddy footprints streaked the white linoleum floor. It reeked of sewage.
Seb was led to an office where a fat, middle-aged officer told him it would take 50,000 for his release. He was now a suspected terrorist since he was clearly not a Kenyan and was without documentation. The office was dark and cramped, the paint chipped, with a water-damaged ceiling, one small window, a bulky computer monitor, and a bookcase of binders and notebooks.
Seb nodded. He knew there was no point of mentioning that he could get his passport in five minutes or that the department of immigration had given him permission to be in Kenya.
“But we can help you. If you just give us 50,000 now, we will let you go with no questions.”
“But what if I am a terrorist?”
“We know people like you aren’t the ones doing these things. But you have made a mistake, so you have to pay 50,000 for your mistake.”
There was no room for him in the cell, so he was pushed in. It was about ten-by-ten feet, and Seb counted over thirty men and boys. All but a few appeared to be Somali. They stood up as straight as possible and kept their arms at their sides. When someone wished to use the bathroom, there was twisting and turning and standing on tiptoes and sucking in stomachs. The bathroom, which was connected to the cell, reeked of feces and urine. There was an inch of water on the ground and no toilet paper. Seb whispered with the man to his left, though he couldn’t turn enough to make eye contact with him. His name was Habib. He was caught on his way to taking a final exam. He had one semester remaining before he would earn his degree, and he had a resettlement case pending with the U.S. He had cousins in Seattle and Ohio. The police said that since he couldn’t produce an exam card then he must not be a student. They refused to look at his student ID. He explained that he would obtain his exam card on campus, but the police said he had to either produce an exam card or 10,000 shillings. Eventually they came down to 2,000 shillings, but he only had 500, which they wouldn’t accept because they’d have to split it between the four of them. How do you expect us to eat on 500 bob?
They slept standing up. Seb fell asleep for minutes at a time before waking to a cramped neck, begging bladder, snoring neighbor. At around five in the morning they were crudely awoken and served ugali and tea. The ugali was very little and the tea watered down. Seb’s knees and back ached. His stomach rumbled. His sweat was making him cold. He needed to move his bowels.
He saw Habib sending a text message, and then he remembered his phone. The phones were never confiscated. The police wanted the captured to contact friends and relatives to bring large sums of cash.
He’d gotten the gist. It was bad. It was worse than he even imagined. He had enough experiential research to write an article. He didn’t have to continue with his brave experiment. Now he could call someone to bring his passport and a few thousand shillings. They would release him. They had to.
He was scrolling through his contacts when a trio of bleary-eyed officers opened the cell and pulled and grabbed and pushed his cellmates out of the station and into the back of a large truck. No one touched Seb until he tried to climb onto the vehicle and an officer put his arm out like a gate.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Sebastian Bernstein.”
“Did they tell you to get in the truck?”
“They’re saying I might be a terrorist.”
The officer smirked, and then he shouted up to another officer who shouted back. Both officers laughed, and then Seb was told to get in the truck and not talk to any of the Somalis.
The Somalis only whispered. They drove about fifteen minutes before the truck stopped and they were commanded to alight. A troop of soldiers greeted them. There was nearly one soldier for each suspect. They were told to turn around and walk. Soon the stadium emerged. They were taken into a long, white, rectangular room within the stadium. At the far end was a row of tables with men and women in various military and police uniforms behind computers. They were sent up to the tables. Fingerprints were taken, pictures of faces were snapped from a tiny oscillating camera, and they were told to produce any and all IDs, even if they were fakes.
Seb produced his driver’s license. They asked for a passport, and he said he didn’t have it with him and that was the reason he was in custody. The people behind the tables debated with each other, and then finally a middle-aged man with large gums said that Seb should not be there. He said that this is a very serious operation, and that he should call someone immediately to bring his passport so he could be released.
Seb scrolled through his contacts. He had friends, but they were all foreigners who lived on the other side of town. There was the building manager, the caretaker, and of course there was Moses. Then there were all the random people he’d met on matatus, mostly well-dressed university ladies who occasionally sent him flirtatious text messages.
Before Seb could decide whom to call, his group was escorted to the soccer field where they joined hundreds of others. Some were sleeping, some talked on phones, others were in circles chatting. Heavily-armed soldiers lined the perimeter.
Seb eased himself down on the damp grass. He felt hungry and weak. He started to imagine the meal he would eat when he finally got out, but then he felt guilty and promised himself he would not eat anything extravagant.
People began approaching him. Everyone wanted to know if he was with the UN. Before he could answer, they would plead their case. One woman was taken at midnight and her baby was left in the house alone. The woman begged and begged and the officers kept saying, what baby? Others were beaten. Sexually harassed. They were called goats and ATMS. Almost everyone had a government-issued ID that was supposed to allow them to reside peacefully in Nairobi. Seb said he was very sorry, but he couldn’t help because he was just a tourist. One of the women said, “Then you must tell your government about what is happening here.” He wished he could tell her he was a journalist and that he would write about this terrible injustice, but what change would his article make for these people? By the time it was published, they would be deported.
Seb’s phone rang. It was Green Starlet. He decided to answer. He was eager to talk to someone who wasn’t an officer or a prisoner.
“I’m calling to see how the car is doing. You like it?”
The car. Seb had forgotten about his car. Last he saw of it, it was parked at Pangani Police Station. He’d spent most of his savings on the car. He needed the car. He reached into his pocket and found the Toyota key. He exhaled. He needed to get released before the plates were changed and the car sold.
“I’m also calling to see if you want to travel to Eldoret sometime? I told you it’s my hometown, and I can show you around, introduce you to some of the runners. You said you wanted to see how the runners train, so we’ll go and see them.”
“Sure, sure. Let’s go sometime next month when I’m less busy.”
“Sawa, sawa. I’ll call you next week in case you free up some time.”
Now lunch was being served. Ugali, sukumawiki, soup, and tea. The portions were ample. Steam rose off the food. Seb would eat, then he would figure out an exit strategy. The servers gave him extra food. He was embarrassed. He quickly gobbled down some ugali before sitting down so that his portion looked like everyone else’s.
The men and women had now separated themselves. Within gender they were separated by age group. Seb tiptoed around the young men’s section. He felt like he was in a middle-school cafeteria searching for friends. He heard a familiar voice. It must have been Habib. He sat down. The man who he thought was Habib nodded at Seb. They ate slowly. They debated. They laughed. They sent text messages. A few others offered Seb a nod or a smile. No one spoke to him. They finished eating and then they began to pray. The stadium was now quiet. Even the soldiers remained still. Seb stayed sitting on his butt. For a few seconds he watched the young men, and then he closed his eyes and decided he would pray, really pray, for the first time in his life. He didn’t know what to pray for and everything that came to mind felt too big and too general and too impossible. He looked over at the men and then the women and children; he prayed for all separated children and parents to be reunited.
Moses answered the phone with a sleepy grunt. Seb apologized and said he would call back, but then Moses’ voice perked up, “Mr. Sebastian, brothers can call at any hour.”
“Thank you, Moses. I hope you and your family are well.”
“We are very fine. And how are you? You never came home last night? Or maybe I had fallen asleep.”
“Actually, I was caught by the police.”
“Sincerely? Where are you now?”
“Kasarani Stadium. I need my passport from the house.”
At first Seb didn’t recognize Moses. He was used to seeing him in his navy-blue uniform, his head covered by a thick brimmed hat, a baton strapped to his belt. He looked younger in baggy brown slacks and a snug red sweater.
“Mr. Sebastian, let me say, I am so sorry for what they have done to you. I hope you don’t think that we are bad people. We should be listening to and learning from your people. We should be sharing ideas and learning from each other. You are welcome here for as long as you would like to stay. Sincerely.”
“Thank you, Moses. I’m fine, but look at all these people.”
Moses scanned the field. His mouth and eyes softened. He exhaled and said, “May God help them find a good home.”
Moses negotiated Seb’s release fee down to 2,000 shillings. Then they took a cab to Pangani Police Station. The Starlet was almost exactly as he’d left it—behind its rear wheels there was a wood board staked into the ground featuring dozens of right-side up nails. Seb found an officer milling about the parking lot. The officer said it would be just 10,000 shillings to move the board. Seb sighed and pulled out the few bills he had in his wallet. He folded them into his palm so they weren’t visible.
“Please, just take this.”
“You’re very lucky,” the officer said, reaching to shake Seb’s hand.
A few weeks later, twenty masked men hijacked two matatus on the small coastal town of Mpeketoni. They burned down banks and hotels and shot and killed at point blank range dozens of men watching the World Cup. They torched cars and houses and police vehicles. Six hours later the police responded. The assailants had already disappeared into the forest. Al-Shabaab claimed the attack. Their spokesperson talked on the phone with the media. The Kenyan government claimed they had evidence that proved Al-Shabaab was not involved. They insisted that local political leaders organized the violence and that arrests would be made. No evidence was released to the public. A diabetic matatu driver who was beaten and stripped and thrown out of his vehicle by the assailants was arrested. Al-Shabaab rebroadcasted their promise that Kenyans would not live in peace until they pulled their troops from Somalia and stopped mistreating Muslims.
The night after the Mpeketoni attack, the building caretaker came to Seb’s door with a notebook.
“This is for the Nyumba Kumi initiative. Just put your details here.”
“What do you mean?”
“For security reasons, now we must know our neighbor. If you know your neighbor, you will know if they’re planning something. It’s a very good program.”
“So it will work?”
“In theory it’s a very good program, but it can’t work in Nairobi. Your neighbor is a student during the day, but he’s doing something else that he doesn’t want anyone to know about and you’re also doing something like that, so no one will ask any questions about anyone.”
Seb wrote down his full name, birthday, and passport number. He paused on occupation. He put down student. But it didn’t feel right. How could he complain about corruption and deception and lax security when he himself was cheating the system? He scratched out student and in a jagged scribble he wrote journalist.
Seb had pitched his story to a few big publications. For what felt like forever, no one responded. Then one day after getting off a video chat with his parents in which he kept steering the conversation away from his work, he had an email waiting for him from the BBC. They were interested, but only if he could be more diplomatic in tone.
He spent a week trying to start the article, but he kept writing things like: “Police in Kenya don’t even realize that extortion is not in their job description.” “On the ground, Operation Usalama Watch has been nothing more than an opportunity for police to fill their bellies while they arbitrarily break apart innocent, hardworking Somali families.” “Given that nearly all refugees have been deported or are being held in custody, who then is responsible for the Thika Highway and Gikomba blasts? Is it possible that those with Kenyan IDs are responsible?”
The doorbell rang. It was Amoo. He was in shorts, which showed off his muscular thighs and a tight tank top that revealed his bulky chest. He said he was appointed chairman of the floor and wanted to ask Seb a few questions. Seb wondered if Amoo was really Nigerian—why would they appoint a foreigner as chairman? Perhaps he was a spy. He asked Seb if he was married, if he had any friends in Pangani, and if he wanted to hang out sometime. He seemed pleased with Seb’s answers. Then he told Seb he had some clothes for sale that he imported from Dubai. He said he thought Seb would look really good in the jeans and that he would bring them by later. Before leaving, he noted that Seb’s face was bright red and that he must remember to drink plenty of water, even during the cold months.
Seb felt feverish. Perhaps he had a touch of malaria. He went out on his balcony. There hadn’t been an article on the Operation in weeks. Not a single story in the news. The public must have thought it was over. He kept watching the street. The activity calmed him. But then five soldiers in camouflage emerged from the building across the way, escorting three young Somali men handcuffed together, and shoving them into the trunk of a gray station wagon. The street was quiet except for a Rihanna song coming from the nearby duka. The youths’ faces were relaxed as if they knew it was only a matter of time. It was possible they’d committed an actual crime—Moses said the police had very good intelligence—but only the youths themselves would ever know. If they didn’t have enough money, tonight they would sleep standing up at Pangani Police Station. Tomorrow they would likely be in Kasarani Stadium. By next week they would be in Dadaab or Mogadishu with only the shirts on their backs, where again they would start anew.
Michael Don is the author of the story collection Partners and Strangers (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019) and coeditor of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature. His work has appeared in journals such as Washington Square Review, J Journal, The Southampton Review, World Literature Today, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Fiction International. He teaches at George Mason University.
Catherine Eaton Skinner illuminates the balance of opposites, reflecting mankind’s attempts at connection. Her work has been published in Magazine 43, Art Hole, MVIBE, LandEscape Art Review, Art Magazineium and her monograph 108 (Radius Books). She has upcoming exhibitions in the Hockaday and the Las Cruces Museums, and has previously shown work in the Wilding, Cape Cod, Yellowstone Art and High Desert Museums. She is a New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs Acclaimed Artist and has had work in embassies in Papua New Guinea and Tokyo.
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