Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Sad, Frustrating Week

I was going to write about Perudo night, a pizza-ordering incident at the office which demonstrated that no good deed goes unpunished, and a fatal car accident involving Alex the Driver (he’s OK, but killed a pedestrian), but amazingly even that incident paled in comparison to some larger events this week.

This week has been filled with both tragedy and anger in Kenya. On Wednesday, the Nakumatt supermarket in the downtown business district caught fire mid-afternoon. Nakumatt is an Indian-owned East-African chain that has been changing the way Africans shop. I’ve mentioned before how the store sells everything from motorcycles to milk, and caters to the rising middle class. Due to the location of the downtown store, this store gets a wider variety of shoppers.

When the fire broke out, crowds gathered to watch and to loot. The small police force was unable to hold the thousands of people back, and they swarmed the scene. It has now also come out that guards inside the store bolted the doors to prevent looting, but also preventing employees and shoppers from escaping. The death toll is over 30, there are still many people missing and unaccounted for and there is a rising tide of anger toward the Indian community.

The Kenyan government has been criticized for its lack of infrastructure, slow response rate and inability to handle incidents such as this. There is only one fire station for the entire city of Nairobi - 5 million people. It is less than ½ mile from the fire site, but it took over an hour for the first engine to arrive. Equipment on the trucks was not fully operational. Fire hydrants had been vandalized and were not working. Tanker trucks ran out of water. Pretty much everything that could go wrong, did. To make matters worse, the crowd turned on the looters and administered vigilante justice. Police then had to expend energy saving the looters from the crowd, rather than holding the crowd back from the burning and exploding building. It’s a tragedy that is still unfolding, and nothing prepared the people of Kenya for what would happen next.

On Saturday afternoon, a tanker truck carrying gasoline overturned on a road about 2 ½ hours outside of Nairobi. Local villagers flocked to the scene to gather free fuel while police tried to keep them away. There is still some dispute as to what exactly happened, but either a careless cigarette or a match thrown by an angry villager ignited the gas and the entire area went up in flames. At present, over 110 people have been found dead and 200 are in hospitals with severe burns, but they are ill-equipped to handle the volume and severity of the injuries.

Again, much of the issue is the inability of local law enforcement, fire and hospitals to handle large-scale disasters and it brings up the issue of governmental corruption and misappropriation of funds. In a country where the members of parliament monthly salary is a tax-free $11,000/month (excluding housing, auto and other allowance) while the average Kenyan lives on $1/day, it is clear that money coming into the country’s coffers is not being spent in a way that benefits the nation.


Anonymous said...

wow what an awful week. not a good way to end you time there huh.
hope you are ok

Margaret said...

I heard about the two fires in the news here. Thanks for putting a human voice to the stories.