De Coop in Kenya

We had been out of touch with the world for a few days when we got to Addis Ababa. There was nothing to cause us any concern as we waited to board Ethiopian Airlines flight to Nairobi - except perhaps the age and condition of the aircraft itself.  Some hours later, on our final approach to Nairobi, it came as some surprise when the captain announced that we should not be concerned to see massed troops surrounding the plane on our arrival as we were “de first flight in afta de coop”. “What does he mean, de coop?” asked Dearly Beloved, assuming it must be something to do with the brightly colored lady three rows back who boarded with a rooster in a crate. “I think he means coup" I said "as in Coup d’Etat”. We looked at each other, amazed that this seemingly vital piece of information was only being communicated to us when we were on final approach. I looked around the plane expecting to see scattered outbreaks of mild hysteria, but no one seemed in the least bit phased by this pronouncement. It has to be said that most of our fellow passengers looked like they had lived through a few and judging by their appearance, some could well have been personally responsible for several sub-Saharan despotic substitutions.

Sure enough, on landing, the plane was escorted to the terminal building by an armored car and quickly surrounded by armed soldiers. We filed out and into the customs hall where it seemed to be very much business as usual. Our passport was stamped by a smiley customs official who assured Dearly Beloved that everything was now fine; de coop had failed and all those responsible had been briskly rounded up and thrown into some mind-bendingly unpleasant cell - if they were lucky.

The usual motley selection of Taxi drivers were waiting outside to accost fresh tourists, but today they seemed particularly eager to please - perhaps because they had been deprived of revenue for several days by de coop. Dearly Beloved selected the one she deemed to be least offensive, based on a complicated algorithm perfected by her over a number of years. All I knew was that it involved rating factors such as body-odour, use of English, charisma, number of wheels on the vehicle, degrees of leprosy or mange, evidence of smoking and her own mood on that particular day. The fortunate winner piled our bags into an ancient Peugeot that appeared to be held together with duct tape and we set off.  In a moment of great optimism his mother had christened him Professor and he was a friendly and eager chap, although his driving skills had apparently been acquired on a Play-Station.

At the timem, the A109 Nairobi to Mombasa road was the only bit of dual-carriageway in Kenya and the main route into the city from the airport. Turning onto it we we immediately found ourselves at a roadblock. Passports were duly produced, a few perfunctory questions asked to establish our credentials as tourists and we were sent on our way. No sooner had we travelled another half mile than we came upon another road block. This struck us as rather amusing, because there had been no way of joining or leaving the motorway since the previous checkpoint, rendering the check entirely redundant. Nevertheless the troops manning it were keen as mustard, in the unlikely event there had been some nefarious parachuting or tunneling activity in between the two exits. As we produced our passports once again, the guard noticed a portable boom-box cassette player that I cradled on my lap and instantly became suspicious. “Radio?” he asked. “No” I responded cautiously, immediately sensing that he meant the sort of radio that would be useful in a coup, rather than of the type required for relaxing on a beach to the dulcet tones of Brian Ferry. “Radio” he repeated as the barrel of an AK47 made an appearance and in one swift movement a long black arm extracted the boom box through the window in much the same way an elephant might have. An officer was called over and it was examined with deep suspicion from all angles. At the time, it was one of the latest versions, purchased recently in London and doubtless never before seen in Nairobi. It was silver and had a great number of switches, dials, buttons and LED’s. I quickly realised this could be a problem. There was a lot of discussion about the buttons and our passports, as Professor animatedly tried to explain to them that we were just innocent tourists. They told him to shut up, which he sensibly did. The only hope of convincing them that I was not the leader of next weeks sub-saharan coup seemed to be through the power of music. Indicating that I wanted to show them something, I hit the play button and Bob Marley’s “Easy Skankin” erupted forth at most impressive volume. They looked amazed for a moment and then burst onto smiles and laughter, reluctantly handing the boom-box back to me as they smiled and joked and shook their heads in disbelief that they could possibly have been so silly as to think that I, a Bob Marley fan, could ever have been a threat to national security. Professor ground the gears and took off at considerable speed, releived that a major diplomatic incident had been averted through the cunning use of Reggae.

Built in 1904, The Norfolk Hotel has been around almost as long as Kenya has been a country. On checking in at this venerable institution, the desk clerk told us that the coup had failed to overthrow President Daniel Arap Moi's government. At midnight the previous Sunday, a group of soldiers from the Kenya Air Force took over the radio station and announced that they had overthrown the government. The group tried to force several Air Force fighter pilots to bomb the State House. The pilots pretended to follow the orders but once airborne dropped the bombs on the slopes of Mount Kenya, blowing several termite colonies to kingdom come and deeply upsetting a herd of Wildebeest. The coup was quickly suppressed by loyalist forces led by the Army, but not without some civilian casualties.

The clerk finished the paperwork and handed us our keys with a jocular “Due to the coup, there is currently a curfew between 9:00 PM and 4:30 AM, so please don’t go out as we cannot be held responsible if you get shot. Breakfast is served from 7:00 AM. Have a lovely stay!"

Always planning in advance, when Dearly Beloved finds a cab driver she likes, she tends to stick with them, and in this case she had warmed to Professor, questioning him relentlessly about all the possible things she could do and see while she was in Nairobi. He told us there was a wildlife park just seven kilometers from the center of Nairobi, stocked with “so many animals” and so it was  arranged that he would pick us up after lunch and take us there.

Opened in 1946, The National Park of Nairobi was the first national park in Kenya.  Although it covered a relatively small 28,000 acres, it was indeed extremely well stocked with a great variety of wildlife. Initially, due to its proximity to the city, there was some confusion on the part of both animals and local residents about who was going to eat whom. This was sorted out when it became clear that the animals were significantly more successful at eating amateur urban poachers than the poachers were at killing animals. So, separated by nothing more than a fence, it has since worked very smoothly. For us, the day had become overcast, the animals were all somewhere out of sight and Dearly Beloved had started to feel slightly unwell. Jet lag, the soft bumping around of the car and Professor’s constant and lengthy explanations of things trivial conspired to put us both to sleep. We awoke half an hour later to find that nothing had changed, so we decided to beat a retreat and head back to the Norfolk.

At 9:00 PM that evening, the curfew went into effect. Exactly five minutes later, Dearly Beloved went in to the bathroom and pretty much did not come out again. We had left Ethiopia, but apparently Ethiopia had not left her. It wasn’t long before instructions were issued through the door, for me to go and procure doctors and  medication in whatever order they could most rapidly be found -  ideally packaged in a well equipped medevac Lear Jet with a flight plan already filed for the London Clinic. I explained that there was a curfew but her reply made it abundantly clear that me getting shot at was shockingly low on her list of priorities compared to Lomotil and Lear Jets. So I headed out to the front desk to make a plan. No, they said, I definitely could not leave as they were quite sure I would be shot. No, they would not be responsible for my safety when I went back to my room with that information.  No, they  could not call a Doctor - curfews applied to Doctors too, apparently. No, there were no Doctors that they were aware of staying as guests and they thought it unwise to go waking everyone up to ask. No, they didn’t have any Lomotil, nor a Lear Jet.  Instructing the hotel to have a cab, with engine running, waiting outside for me at exactly 4:30 AM, I returned to our room. The noises coming from the bathroom indicated that if anything, Dearly Beloved was getting worse. This was going to be a long night, the details of which I will spare you, suffice to say that it was as bad as you can imagine, and then some.

Much to the credit of the night staff, there was a cab waiting outside at 4:30 and I shot out of the hotel like a rat on crack and told the driver to step on it. The Nairobi Hospital was curfew quiet and there was no one on reception. Knowing that any delay was unacceptable, I charged about the corridors and eventually found a nurse, explaining that my wife was suffering from some hideously virulent form of stomach bug and that it was more than my life was worth not to return immediately with large quantities of drugs. Thankfully she bought-into my crisis and led me to a perfectly charming British Doctor on duty. He listened patiently while I described a range of symptoms that sounded increasingly like Ebola, then happily loaded me up with all sorts of things that he assured me would make Dearly Beloved feel better and sent me on my way without even asking for payment.

By 4:55 I was back in the room administering a vast array of medications and deflecting questions about what had taken me so long. In pretty short order things began to improve and at noon, it was suggested that perhaps I should call Professor.  She had read the Nairobi National Museum apparently well worth a visit. Dearly Beloved was on the mend.