I had to go to Nyayo House last week. For expats (or rather expat wives), going into 'town' or rather the CBD is not generally done mainly because there is no particular need to go but also because it is seen as 'dangerous'. Most shopping is done in various secure malls dotted around the city.
When I moved to Nairobi I scoffed at people who feared visiting Nairobi's CBD. I always used to wander around the centre of Dar es Salaam when we lived in Tanzania and enjoyed it, poking about in Indian shops and visiting the Kariakoo markets, picking up unbelievable bargains (and lots of rubbish too).
Somehow, Nairobi's centre, while it has a definite buzz with hundreds of smartly dressed suited workers talking on mobile phones, filling the streets, it is not quite the same. There are the street sellers, newspapers arranged on the pavements, book sellers and shoe shine booths - but when I read about the violent murder of a man who pursued street kids when they stole his mobile phone in Jervanjee Gardens a few years ago- he just asked for the sim card back - it slightly put me off. Shops on Biashara Street are threatening to close down due to being terrorised by armed gangs who rob them on a regular basis. Parking is also a nightmare.
Sure enough, within five minutes of arriving in Nairobi the city centre, we saw a man being chased at top speed through the streets - presumably a thief. It was clear to see passers by stop what they were doing and, on a whim, join in the chase. These are the scenes that often end in crowd crazed mob justice, let's hope this was not the case that time. (I have to admit that I was once locked into a shop in Dar es Salaam town centre by fearful shopkeepers when a shouting mob passed by in similar circumstances.)
Anyway - back to the point. Last week I had to visit Nyayo House to renew my alien card.
Nyayo House has a very sinister history. It is a circa 1970s high rise building where Government offices are housed - a headquarters of African style bureaucracy and officialdom. Lots of power within the concrete walls. As we walked quickly to the building through the busy streets, I looked up at the 26 floors of the dirty yellow building and found it hard to push the thought of Moi's secret torture chambers, which were once housed in the basement of the building in the 80's, now preserved as a national monument of shame, out of my mind.
Within Nyayo House it is necessary to wait patiently in long, frustrating queues, in old fasioned hallways with dated lino floors and dark wood cubicles, strip lighting overhead. Customer service is not a term that is recognised here, you just do as you are told. I was lucky enough to have Wilfred from my husband's office to help speed up the process of form filling and having your finger prints taken, cop-shop style. He knows the ropes and it is not uncommon to take someone to help you through in this way. However, I could see a lot of other travellers and foreigners milling around immigration who were alone and would be in the offices a lot longer than me.
It is incredible to think that politicians in Government now, including Prime Minister Raila Odinga, were tortured in Moi's Nyayo House basement for being perceived political dissidents. Raila was forced to spend many days standing naked in a cell, in deep water with cold water sprayed over him intermittently. He said 'you really do know how long a night is' when you have been through such an experience. Other political prisoners and detainees were reportedly forced to spend nights with the dead bodies of fellow prisoners or if uncooperative, hurled to their death from the 24th floor. After experiencing such draconian torture techniques, many subsequently pleaded guilty for whatever crime they were accused of and then spent years in prison.
In spite of all this, Moi is still a prominent Kenyan personality now, exponding his views on politics in the newspapers almost daily and regularly honoured guest at official ceremonies. Apparently, to charge him with his crimes against humanity would risk destabilizing the country's delicate political balance. That's forgiveness for you.