"Isn't Africa dangerous?"
- on security concepts and other illusions
According to the website of the German Foreign Office, I should never have travelled to Kenya in 2012. Safety warning due to increased danger of terrorism, robberies, tribal conflicts, traffic accidents, piracy, malaria, Aids....
According to my GP at the time, who gave me 7 vaccinations in 2012 as a precautionary measure, it would be my own fault if I died in Kenya, because after being bitten by a rabid dog I would have to expect days of walking to the nearest medical care centre.
My tropical doctor, who had advised me on malaria prevention and whom I told that I did not want to take strong tablets with considerable side effects for over 1 year, said it would be suicide not to take them.
A lady from my airline at the time strongly advised me to pack a pepper spray - despite an explicit ban on imports - because in Kenya I would have to expect anything.
Friends and family advised me to have a large first-aid kit, because I had to be able to help myself somehow if I had to eat the unhygienic, fly-ridden food from the street.
It is obvious that I was not particularly convinced by the warnings, which I reflect on today with great amusement, otherwise I probably would not have left. Despite my doubts about the necessity of all precautions, I had left in 2012 with 7 vaccinations, malaria tablets, a huge first-aid kit and such findish items as a belt in which to hide money.
Review - a provocation of the security question
My only gastro-intestinal upset during this time was on the last day of my trip after 9 months, after eating European food, turkey steak and Heinz ketchup just before the drive to the airport. The gastro-intestinal problems continued for another 2 months in Germany, my stomach was now used to food from the field to the mouth, without additives, without processing.
When I was violently detained and robbed in a taxi in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in 2013, I was not helped by pepper spray (I was in the taxi after all) or my ingenious hiding belt (when you fear for your life, you give what you have) - safety was provided by my quick assessment of the robbers, my negotiating skills, the money I found on the street less than 1 hour after my release and the many people who miraculously met me and generously offered help.
In 2018, when my partner inexplicably suffered a severe nerve entrapment overnight and fell into unconsciousness, we found ourselves for the first time in a place that was actually cut off from any medical infrastructure, in central Kenya there is a small hospital every 4-5 km and a bigger one every 20 km at the latest. At that time, neither our health insurance nor vaccinations nor a first-aid kit helped us. We were helped by a series of miraculous coincidences that took us 400 km to the mainland within a few hours by private propeller plane - on a flight that should not have taken place at all and which was to be the last one for the next 7 days.
When I witnessed a bus accident in Tanzania in 2015 and found myself with my injured girlfriend by my side, neither my ADAC foreign insurance nor my well-filled travel fund helped me in the area without a telephone network. It was my ability to communicate with the locals, despite language barriers (here people spoke only Swahili, no English, I spoke only English, hardly any Swahili) and my courage to keep focus and confidence to manoeuvre us out of the deserted place. I owed it to my intuition that I had put on the seat belt 2 minutes before the accident.
When it became clear to me and other 3 young girls in 2012 on the 5000 metre high Mt. Kenya that we had lost our orientation, that elephants and buffalos in the fog were a great danger, that our supplies were scarce and that statistically there was little chance to come back unharmed without an experienced guide, it was neither the expensive hiking equipment, nor the guidebook, nor the sparsely sown signposts that made us arrive back at the entrance gate after 4 days. It was the guardian angel in my pocket, our healthy naivety to believe we would make it and the will to survive.
In 2018, when I found myself in a situation of strong storms on a ferry on the Indian Ocean and saw no prospect of ever arriving safely in port, knowing that there were safety boats on the ferry didn't help me, because my shaking legs wouldn't have carried me to them - and even if they had, they would probably have been the first to fall victim to the big waves. Safety came from my own ability to calm down and keep focus.
When I took my family on a bike ride through a national park in 2013, it was neither the safety instructions and armed rangers, nor (as we had been told ealier) the fact that we were on bikes, that saved us from the attack of the aggressive buffalo bull. It was the unpredictable, fateful appearance of a single passing vehicle that managed to get between us and the animal.
The fact that our school in Kandongu has never been attacked since its inception 12 years ago is not because of our wire fence and not because of our "soldier", the night watchman who makes his rounds every night with poison dart and machete to give the almost 30 children living here and their parents the illusion of safety. A single man would be an easy target for any planned robbery. It is the good and trusting relationship that the Brothers and I have with the neighbouring community that has kept us free from attack for the past 12 years - even though, as the only white person in the area, I am often seen as a flagship for wealth.
Between security wing and slum - on the absurdity of security concepts
I am writing these lines from Nairobi, where I am spending a few weeks for my artistic work. I'm sitting in one of the flats in Westlands, in one of those locked apartment complexes with a security gate and 24-hour night watch. I chose this accommodation mainly because I have expensive equipment like camera, laptop and microphones with me.
I have been spending a few months a year in Kenya for over 8 years now. For the last 9 months I have been almost non-stop in the Kenyan countryside, in the Kandongu project, where I don't even close my door at night and where there is no door lock, no wall and no back exit to save me from attacks.
And now in this flat, in one of the so called safest areas of Nairobi, I realise: I have rarely felt as unsafe as I do here.
Maybe it's the guard at our gate who knows exactly when I leave the house and asks me every time how long I'll be gone. Maybe it's because of all the other watchmen in front of the other gates along our street who eye me from top to bottom when I pass by and who all know about my daily rhythm. I am one of the only ones who leaves the entrance on foot and not in a fat SUV or Landrover. Maybe it's the high walls littered with broken glass or the surveillance cameras - all these precautions that want me to think I'm safe, but actually make me feel that insecurity lurks in every corner. Whoever lives here proves 'I own something that I'm afraid could be taken away from me'. When I leave the house even to go shopping, I carry my laptop and camera equipment with me.
A small counter-example: Yesterday, I took a tour guided by a local through the largest slum in Africa, Kibera. (Actually, this was an eye-opening experience, exposing further absurdities and illusions, which I will gladly share with you in my next article). So I went to the place that is probably the symbol of danger, crime and insecurity here in Nairobi. Not only people from Germany, but also Nairobians told me: "To Kibera? Are you crazy? Take good care of yourself!". I'll keep it short at this point: these were the only hours since I've been in Nairobi that I felt really comfortable, safe and 'part of the crowd'. So, ironically, I had taken my technical equipment with me from the security wing into the Slum for fear that it might be stolen. And here I quickly knew: it was safe. And so I left it in my host's mud hut, which had no proper door - and left my valuables there unattended and fully relaxed for several hours. One of the reasons I felt so safe here: I was part of the crowd, talking eye-to-eye with many people, a diverse assortment from all social classes and tribes. The feeling of community and the dependence on the neighbours, which has trust as its basis, was palpable to me from the very beginning. I was a human being here and not a figurehead of an elite with something to protect.
And I note, as I have so often before: the absurdity of the "Western" understanding of security, is taken to extremes.
I come back to the question I am asked at almost every lecture I give and in other exchange situations:
"Isn't Africa dangerous?"
Yes, I deliberately use the word 'Africa' and thus quote most people who ask me this question. At this point, I am happy to mention the perhaps banal and yet important fact: I cannot know this, after all, I live in Kenya and even there I have only got to know fractions of the country, so how could I make a statement about Africa.
And what do I say about Kenya? To claim that there are no dangers here would of course be unbelievable after what I have described so far. And I would like to answer: if you look at this country from the perspective of German security concepts, then yes, it is probably dangerous.
But that would only be a fraction of the truth. Because other concepts, other laws prevail here, which are not done justice to if they are viewed through 'Western' security glasses. What I can say: I now find it an illusion to believe that I can prepare myself for the challenges we interpret as dangers, through precautions such as insurance, prevention or a filled bank account. Not here and not in Germany. And that is precisely where I recognise the Kenyan basic serenity.
How about nothing is certain?
No, for most here it is not certain whether they will be able to pay their children's school fees tomorrow. It is not certain whether the rain will fall that will make their crops fertile. It is not certain whether they will be able to afford a hospital visit tomorrow. Whether the fences will still protect their village from elephants. But they are less fearful than we are. Because they have not built up a system of security that makes them believe in a permanence that reality does not offer them. Their security lies in the belief that every problem brings a solution. That God will fix it, or the universe, or life. That the web of community will carry, existing regardless of the moods of an arbitrary government.
And whether we like it or not - they are right, here their faith has absolute truth. I have experienced 'miracles' here in the most hopeless situations that people in Germany often don't believe me - while here I am not special with my stories.
And I understand that, because in Germany I have not come close to encountering such miracles. Why is that? I think because our security thinking leaves no room for 'miracles'. No space for the intervention of the universe/God/life - whatever we want to call it - of spontaneity, of flexibility, of breaking away again and again from the idea of the 'one' path to the goal and balancing out new possibilities.
Who would have thought,...
We know we are safe when we have a permanent employment contract in our hands and our insurances are paid.
But who would have thought that they would lose their belongings overnight in a storm surge? And that loved ones would be on a missing persons list? Who would have believed that a pandemic would plunge them into a depression or a time of deep despair and untenability, taking away their sense of security overnight - and this regardless of whether their employer continues to remit 100% or 60% of their salary?
Who would believe today that the security of our basic supply could be gone tomorrow, that only a few drops fall from the tap or that the supermarket shelves can no longer supply us adequately? What security do we have then?
Even though at the beginning I was struggling a lot with the 'dangers' I was exposed to, as I claimed, due to massive security gaps from the Kenyan side. Today, I feel deep admiration for the form of security that prevails here. To me it's more honest. And since I stopped taking precautions according to the German recipe, I have not been in any situations that could come close to those described above.
Except for today, when I find myself in this 'secured' flat, smiling and wondering about myself and my kind of precaution that brought me here and is now manoeuvring me into sleepless nights...
I don't deny it - I have been very lucky along the way. And this luck gives me the opportunity to write about my experiences today and to express the wish that we would let go more often and give more space in our lives to the little coincidences, the wonderful turns and creative solutions. This is not easy and requires giving up previous security structures. But - guess what? - they are only illusions and only work as long as we stay in the bubbles that create these security concepts and as long as we ignore that the world is and has always been unpredictable.
To say that Kenya is dangerous is as absurd as saying that Germany is a safe country. What is safe are the illusions of a security system that has obviously started to crumble since 2020 at the latest.
Is Kenya dangerous? - How would I come to answer that question? Because I now know it can only be answered experientially. Who am I to say what someone else needs to feel safe?
For my part, I can only say with absolute certainty:
Today, I feel nowhere safer than in Kenya.
I watch the events in Germany and Europe, the waves of panic, the aggressive discussions that the current situation creates and I am happy to be here, on this safe spot on earth, where one can completely and easily relax into the fact that only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain - and that creates endless possibilities of living.
From this point of view, I am in one of the safest places on earth.
I believe it is high time for us to reshuffle the paradigms of dangerous and safe and to look for certainties that still give us a foothold when we find ourselves in a time when the self-evident facts of human coexistence around us are slowly, but surely, dissolving. How wonderful it would be if we did not (only) give the security warnings on the pages of foreign offices the power to decide on our sense of security, but if we gave countries and people the chance to familiarise ourselves with their security strategies, that make them feel safe day by day.
More about Kenyan security strategies, e.g. in Corona times, can be found in my article "How does community work? On the secrets of Kenyan communal life - crisis proof?" and in the introduction to the January 2021 newsletter.