I have realised that in this country, we are all kinds of crazy. Our craziness manifests itself in very diverse ways including, incomprehensible greed, angry outbursts, maniacal tendencies and violent flareups, among others.
I was unfortunate enough to encounter the full range of Kenyan craziness last week when I travelled to the Kenyan coast for work. I work for an NGO and we have various field projects, along the Kenyan coast. Some of our key donors had planned to come and visit in early December and go to a few field sites. Our office had selected Mombasa and Malindi as two of the best sites to visit as the community projects there were among our most successful.
A few colleagues and I were therefore requested to go to Mombasa and Malindi on a recce mission and make sure that all was in order for the donor visit. My colleagues took an earlier flight to Mombasa while I elected to take the late afternoon flight.
Therefore last Monday at exactly three in the afternoon, I arrived at the airport and queued at the check-in desk of one of our local airlines, Crane Carriers. When my turn arrived, I expertly put my bag on the weighing scale next to the check-in counter. It weighed six kilograms, way below the baggage allowance of twenty-three kilograms. I was therefore surprised when the check-in clerk politely requested me to go and pay for my luggage at the cashier’s counter and return to her with the receipt to enable her complete my check-in procedures.
“Why?” I asked, lifting my arms in exasperation. Was she crazy?
“The airline has a new policy whereby you have to pay for all checked-in luggage,” she responded.
I showed her my ticket, “See here. It says, ‘Baggage Allowance: One Piece, Twenty-Three Kilograms.’”
“That just shows the maximum we will be allowed to check-in,” the clerk responded. “It does not say that it is free.”
I turned over the ticket and showed her the fine print titled, “General Information.”
“Look here,” I pointed to the exact sentence and read aloud to her. “Carriage and other services provided by the carrier are subject to conditions of carriage, which are hereby incorporated by reference.”
“Now read this sub-topic here on conditions of carriage,” I said, again pointing to the exact spot. “Ticket prices inclusive of taxes, meal and baggage allowance. Doesn’t that mean I have already paid for my luggage?”
“Please talk to our supervisor,” the lady said, picking up her phone and speaking rapidly into it.
After a few minutes, a woman with a name tag saying ‘Supervisor’ appeared and shook my hand. She requested me to move to the side so that other passengers could be served as she listened to my complaints.
The supervisor then said to me, “You see madam, the policy changed this morning. We no longer have a free baggage allowance on the ticket. You have to pay twenty United States dollars or five thousand Kenya shillings for your checked-in bag.”
I showed her my ticket again, “I purchased this ticket a week ago. See the date here. How can this new policy affect tickets purchased before today’s date?”
“It-it-it…,” she stammered.
I cut her off, “And how does twenty United States dollars translate to five thousand Kenya shillings?”
“That is our exchange rate,” she said.
“Two hundred and fifty Kenya shillings to the dollar while the commercial rate is ninety-eight Kenya shillings to the dollar. Are you crazy!” I exclaimed.
“Please keep your voice down or I will have to call security,” she said threateningly. “Pay the money or miss the flight.”
She put out her hand, palm-up, which was Kenyan silentology meaning that I had to pay up.
I took a deep breath to calm myself down and called a mental committee meeting with myself where, after hasty deliberations, it was agreed that I should just pay the money and avoid creating a scene. All I needed to do was demand a receipt and our travel agent would follow up with the airline on reimbursement for the double payment. I reached into my purse, took out a twenty-dollar bill and handed it over to her.
“What is this?” she asked getting upset.
“Twenty dollars as you requested,” I said. “I will need an official Crane Carriers receipt and electronic tax register receipt. This is my employer’s money and I have to account for it.”
“We do not accept United States dollars, give me the full amount in Kenya shillings,” the Supervisor demanded.
“How do you bill me in dollars and then turn around and claim that you do not accept dollars?” I asked. “My ticket here is also billed and paid for in dollars. When did you stop accepting dollars? This morning as well?”
“You will not step into this aeroplane with your stupid insolence!” the Supervisor said. “And I will make sure you never step into this airport again. You’re a crazy animal!”
“Does your father have a title deed to the airport?” I asked, losing my cool.
“That’s it,” she shouted. “I am calling security. They will forcibly remove you from this place.”
She turned away and spoke into her hand-held radio and then turned back to me and gave me a meaningful look that went from the tips of my hair to the tips of my toes and back up again. This again was Kenyan silentology meaning that she thought I was virulent epidemic of noxious vermin and she was about to put me in my rightful place.
The airport security arrived promptly and demanded to know what was going on. I explained to them what had transpired and urged them to take me away from this crazy woman. I feared for my safety. The security officers took us both into their custody, which was shocking to the Supervisor. She had expected the officers to arrest only me.
We were taken to the Commanding Officer’s office where I was made to explain myself again and the Supervisor made to give a rejoinder to my accusations. The Commanding Officer quietly took my ticket from me and read it. He then asked the Supervisor for the new airline policy.
“I don’t have it here with me now,” she explained. “It is in my office.”
“Let these officers escort you to your office so that you can retrieve it and bring it to me,” the Commanding Officer said.
The Supervisor was escorted to her office and I was asked to sit in the waiting area. I was offered refreshments, being a cup of drinking chocolate and Marie biscuits, which I enjoyed as I waited for the Supervisor to return with her evidence.
We waited for about forty-five minutes before she finally returned empty handed.
The Commanding Officer said to her, “Without proof that this passenger is supposed to pay those amounts you are demanding, we cannot remove her from this airport or charge her with causing a disturbance. You go with her and make sure that she boards the flight.”
The Supervisor cleared her throat and said, “Unfortunately, the gate has already closed and so she cannot board.”
“Then put her on your next flight,” said the Commanding Officer.
“That will be tomorrow morning,” said the Supervisor.
“That’s crazy,” I protested. “I cannot wait until tomorrow morning. I have meetings in Mombasa tonight and I had booked an appropriate flight to be on time for my meetings.”
“It is all your fault,” said the supervisor accusingly. “If you would just have complied and not caused drama, you wouldn’t have missed your flight!”
The Commanding Officer raised his hand up to indicate that we should both be quiet. He them picked up his telephone handset and dialled a number. He spoke into the phone and then handed it over to the Supervisor. She listened into the phone and just nodded and said, “Yes sir.”
“As agreed with your boss, please escort the passenger to National Airways check-in desk,” the Commanding Officer said. “It is the only airline with one remaining flight to Mombasa tonight.”
Well, I was glad that the drama was over, and I would still get to Mombasa in good time for my meeting. Crane Carriers, through their greed ended up losing quite a bit of money. They had to book me on National Airways which was a more costly airline. To add insult to injury, the only available seats were in business class. They ended up paying almost double what their ticket cost me. I flew in style to Mombasa as a business class passenger.
The next morning, I went to the hotel concierge’s desk to arrange transport for our group to and from our project site in Malindi. He was sitting at his desk riffling through a pile of paperwork but immediately looked up and smiled welcomingly at me .
“Could I get a seven-seater vehicle to ferry my team and I to Malindi and back today?” I asked.
“Sure, the hotel has seven-seater vans, but the cost is just too high!” he said.
“How high?” I asked.
“Let’s see,” he said taking out his calculator. “You see the hotel charges eighty shillings per kilometre. From Mombasa to Malindi and back is… let me see… that is one hundred and fifteen kilometres multiplied by two which equals two hundred and thirty kilometres. If you multiply this by eighty shillings per kilometre you will get to pay a total of eighteen thousand four hundred shillings.”
I was only given a twelve-thousand-shilling budget for the travel to and from Malindi and was about to call our office and request for more funds when the concierge cleared his throat and handed me a brochure saying, “I have an alternative for you that is cheaper. I don’t want to leave you in distress or overcharge you. You know Kenyans need to help each other. As you can see in that brochure, the taxi company there charges only five thousand shillings to Malindi. You don’t have to pay for a round trip like the hotel vehicle. This is because the taxi is flexible and does not have to return to Mombasa. It can still operate in Malindi as it awaits a Mombasa trip to return.”
The deal seemed good to me and it fit within my budget. Even a round trip was still below my budget. What was concerning to me though was the fact that the concierge was blatantly undercutting his employer’s business. How many people had gone to him to request for transportation and he had diverted the business towards his own private interests? I knew that by taking this deal, I would be contributing towards his corrupt ventures. However, we were getting late in departing for Malindi so I told him that I would go with the private taxi company.
He called the driver and gave some instructions and then turned to me and informed me that we would be picked up in fifteen minutes. I went and gathered my colleagues and we sat in the lounge area, waiting for the taxi. After a few minutes, the concierge motioned to me to approach him at his desk. I went towards him apprehensively, hoping that our travel plans had not changed.
“My dear,” he said as soon as I took the seat opposite him. “You look so fine and relaxed as you sit there waiting.”
I was uncomfortable at his addressing me in such a familiar manner, but I did not make any comment.
He continued speaking, “I just want to let you know of other services I can offer.”
“What kind of services?” I asked curiously.
“I saw from your bookings that you work in an NGO,” he said.
“Yes,” I said wondering where this conversation was leading.
“So I am sure you have many wazungus in your company,” he said.
“Not so many,” I said.
“Anyway, I offer massage services and wazungus really like these,” he said.
“Oh,” was all I managed to say.
“I have a crew of dedicated beautiful young girls who do the massage,” he said. “They are not as beautiful as you, but they are above average.”
He cleared his throat and then continued speaking, “And it is not just any massage. It is deep tissue massage. Wazungus cannot resist this.”
“Are you running some kind of brothel?” I asked incensed.
“No, no, no, my sweet sister,” he said, continuing to address me familiarly. “Calm down. I am not running a prostitution ring. All I offer is deep tissue massage. I can massage you myself so that you better understand the services offered.”
“No thank you,” I said.
“Oh, the driver is here,” he said as a young man approached us. “Let us continue with our chinwag when you return, my dear. My offer for deep tissue massage still stands, especially since you will be very exhausted from your trip to Malindi. I hope you take it up.”
I looked at the man like he had gone crazy and said nothing.
“Have a safe trip, my sweet love,” he said. “I will miss you so much and will be so relieved when your angelic face lights up this lobby upon your return this evening.”
I rolled my eyes at him and waved him off as I followed the taxi driver out of the hotel lobby. The guy was not normal. Not only was he undercutting his employer, he was sexually harassing hotel residents, and openly soliciting clients for his prostitution business.
I hoped that our trip to Malindi would be uneventful. But this was not to be. As soon as we got out of the city, the taxi driver stopped at the very first bus stop. We wondered if there was a problem with the vehicle but were surprised when two men at the bus stop asked him how much it would cost to go to Malindi. He told them that it would cost one thousand shillings each. I wondered where he was intending to seat these passengers for my colleagues and I had filled the vehicle.
We didn’t have long to wonder for the driver stepped out and opened the boot for the two men to get in. The vehicle was a Toyota Noah which is a wagon car with a spacious boot area. I was exasperated and confronted the driver.
“We have hired this vehicle to take us to Malindi,” I said. “Why are you then operating like a matatu and picking up passengers along the road?”
“If you are not comfortable with my passengers, you can alight and hire another taxi,” he responded rudely.
I looked around and the place seemed abandoned with no matatus plying the route. I sat quietly but vowed not to return with this driver.
Our meetings in Malindi went very well. We visited the project sites and documented progress so that we would be able to brief the donors before they visited the sites. However, at the back of my mind I remained a little stressed about getting a vehicle for our return and I mentioned this to the project manager.
“Where can we hire a good reasonably priced taxi to take us back to Mombasa?” I asked.
“The project vehicle is free right now and I can ask the driver to take you back” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, sighing with relief. “I hope this will not inconvenience you.”
“Not at all,” said the project manager. “We are done for the day and the vehicle is just lying idle in the parking lot.”
We gladly bundled into the project vehicle and couldn’t wait to reach our hotel in Mombasa and relax. As we passed through the main bus station in Malindi, we noticed a vehicle chasing speedily after us, horn blaring, headlights flashing and the driver waving at us to stop. We didn’t know what to make of this and our driver stopped.
The vehicle overtook us and screeched to a halt in front of us as if blocking our escape. The driver jumped out and rushed towards us wielding a machete. It was the taxi driver who had brought us to Malindi!
I was seated at the front passenger seat and he came to my window and tapped it with the machete. I opened the window slightly so that I could hear what he was saying.
“Why aren’t you going back with me?” he demanded. “I have been waiting here the whole day to take you back!”
“But we made it clear that we are not going back with you,” I said. “I specifically told you this. Why are not now attacking us?”
“I will not go back alone,” he said. “I will cut this vehicle and all of you unless you go back with me. You must leave this vehicle immediately, enter my taxi and go back with me.”
We feared for our safety and one of my colleagues secretly texted the project manager to come to our rescue. In the meantime, the taxi driver had jumped onto the bonnet of our car, waving his machete at us menacingly. A crowd of onlookers quickly surrounded the scene and we could not move forward or back to escape this mad man.
The taxi driver slashed at our windscreen with the machete but luckily, the glass was resilient and did not give way to his blows. Frustrated, he jumped off the bonnet and came back to my window screaming, “Open this door and get out so that I can fight you like a man!”
We sat still in fear, unsure of the maniac’s next move. He slashed at the body of the car and banged at the car windows. And then, there was a sudden explosion of gunshots. The crowed screamed and started running away in all directions, increasing the confusion and pandemonium.
This did not slow down the taxi driver as he continued his deranged attack on our vehicle. A minute or so later, we saw the police approaching us. It was they who had shot in the air to disperse the crowd and gain access to us. Hot on the heels of the police was our project manager and some of our colleagues from the Malindi office.
On seeing the police, the taxi driver threw down the machete and as if by magic, stripped himself of all his clothing. He suddenly disappeared from our view and we heard the police screaming at him to get out from underneath the vehicle. After a short while he emerged, his body darkened and gleaming with used motor oil. The fellow must have taken a course in auto mechanics for in that short space, he had managed to find our oil drain plug, unplug it and bathe himself in engine oil.
The attempt by the police to arrest the taxi driver was like a scene out of a comedy. As soon as an officer would lay a hand on him, he would slide out of his hold and run off. This continued for a while until the taxi driver won the battle. The last I saw of him was his black glistening buttocks disappearing into the horizon.
The police made us go to the station and record statements as to what had transpired. They promised to let us know on their progress of hunting down and apprehending the fugitive. They were also kind enough to offer to drive us to Mombasa in one of their vehicles since our vehicle had been immobilized when the taxi driver drained out the oil.
I couldn’t wait for this trip to end and for me to go back to Nairobi and sleep in my house and in my bed away from maniacal airline supervisors, unhinged concierges and deranged taxi drivers!