Thursday, June 11, 2009

An excerpt, and NO GO ZONES

I've been in war torn countries and violent regions. I've been held at gun point, shot at, threatened with death. I've had my campsite stormed by military. I've been mugged at knife point.

I would go back to these countries. In fact, there are few countries in the world which I would not hesitate to visit. I might hesitate visiting Iraq, and would perhaps only go after researching the region, dangers, and issues involved.

There is only one country in the world where I will definitely not go, not without a significant military presence guarding me anyway. That country is Somalia. If you are a Western journalist or an aid person, basically, if you are white, don't go there for a visit or a story. It's unstable. There is no functional government. The people are xenophobic, and those who aren't, may see you as a meal ticket for kidnapping and ransom, if your lucky. If your unlucky, they'll scalp you, rape you, chop your head off and drag your broken body down the street.

Here is an excerpt from my book, leading up to a particularly dangerous section of my journey to a region bordering Somalia.

The ten-storey brick building housing the Canadian consulate seemed typical of downtown Nairobi; poorly kept and blackened from pollution. Inside and on the third floor lay the standard, uninspiring Canadian Public Service office with grey carpets, glass barriers, and a rack of relevant pamphlets. On my only previous visit, I’d asked about what party festivities were taking place for Canada Day on July 1st. Within minutes, I’d managed to get the entire Kenyan staff worked into an angered frenzy. They thought that their unappreciative bosses had forgotten to invite them. In the end, a woman from the embassy, located elsewhere in the city, shouted at me over the telephone. “There is no Canada Day Party!”
Now, more than a month later, I returned to the consulate. Based on the advice of a fellow traveller, I went to inform them of my imminent travels to the north.
A frizzy-haired Kenyan woman sitting in her cubicle looked up at me as I approached. “I remember you.” She narrowed her eyes. “Have you come back to cause more trouble?”
I took a hesitant step toward the window and greeted her with my warmest smile. “That’s a lovely blouse.”
She unfolded her arms and her face softened as she glanced down over her frilly cream-coloured blouse. “How can I help you today?”
“I’m driving to Ethiopia. Someone told me I should consult with the embassy first.”
Her expression changed into one of confusion and she began shuffling through papers on her desk. “You shouldn’t drive there. The Canadian Embassy doesn’t recommend it.” She found the correct stapled stack of papers and picked the phone up to call someone. A few moments later, a white woman came through the door. Her sour expression and pressed suit made her seem like a staunch feminist who scared male co-workers into submission. They talked in Swahili, discussing the Canada Day incident before switching over to my travel plans. The Canadian woman finished with something to the tune of, “Stupid tourist,” after which they both laughed and she turned toward me. Her pale blue eyes were cold and penetrating. “We recommend that people avoid travelling north of Mount Kenya.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s a UN level three zone,” she said with conviction, as though it was something so obvious any idiot would understand.
“I’m sorry, what’s a UN level three zone?” I asked.
“It means it’s dangerous.” She put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips.
There was a silence. I hadn’t expected a red carpet welcome, but didn’t think I’d get called a stupid tourist either. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s discuss my other options to get to Egypt. I hear in Somalia they chop Westerners heads off and drag them through the streets. Then there’s Sudan: where the south is run by rebels fighting a government who are trying to ethnically cleanse them. Functional roads in the war-torn Congo don’t exist, however rape and heroine-addicted child soldiers do. Which do you recommend?” I doubted she could even name the surrounding African countries.
Her eyes narrowed into angry slits. She waved her finger at me. “Northern Kenya is so dangerous,” she began, “It’s so dangerous that no insurance company will cover you there.”
“That’s okay, I don’t have insurance.”
The secretary handed her the document and the woman held it up to the window. “This is a travel advisory warning Canadians not to travel to northern Kenya. I suggest you read through it and rethink your plans.” She handed it back to the secretary who slid it through a tray under the window. “Is there anything else?” she asked bitterly.
I responded in Swahili. “No thank you. I’ll read this and then drive to Ethiopia.”
We locked eyes for several seconds before she gulped and looked away. Her mouth opened, but for the first time nothing came out. She remained that way as I winked at the gaping secretary, turned and left.

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