Running for the Hills

Running for the Hills


Once again, I found myself in the now familiar surroundings of a plush mahogany office in the upper floors of the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, facing a pear-shaped official with the suspicious-eyed look of a guilty man.  My experience over several months tells me that the mutual benefit gained from information sharing and open collaboration is as familiar to him as to the lone rhinos lumbering across the southern plains.

I sit before him, olive branch in my hand, imaginary white cat purring in his, trying everything in my armoury to convince him that we are actually trying to help the Ministry, and that the Ministry’s support on a number of key requests would improve the quality of that work:

“Thanks very much for your support over the last six months” (You’ve been a very unhelpful, and we’ve managed our work despite your time-wasting)

Silence. (Cat raises an eyebrow)

“We’re very keen to move forward, and are pleased to share our ongoing project plans with you” (I’ll try every possible way to get this done with or without you)

Did we approve these plans?” (Cat hisses)

“No, I’m asking you to do so now.” (And have been doing so for two months)

You can’t just arrive in my office and expect me to approve them” (Cat tenses claws)

“You’ve had them for a month” (You clearly have no problem rapidly signing off large sums of money for dubious projects)

“There is a long process of consultation” (Cat coils the hind legs)

“We’re concerned that the quality of our output will reduce if we miss this window of opportunity” (How the hell did anyone ever respect you enough to hand you such a senior position?)

“Yes, but you can’t just arrive in my office and expect me to approve them” (Cat casts a final eye over the prey)

“The plans have been on the table for the long time, and we are acting under the Principal Secretary’s directive at the last meeting to move as quickly as possible on these issues” (Yes I’m waiting for it, you unoriginal prick)

“There is a long process of consultation” (Cat curls up and continues preening himself)

“Well, we’ll do our best to move things forward, you’ve been very helpful” (I’m pretty sure the carjacking baboons have a better influence on Nairobi’s transport problems)

Of course, the Hon. Mr. Pear is not a unique character – I have encountered such fruits from across the continent – from Liberia to Congo, from Sierra Leone to South Africa – even Uganda, charming pearl of Africa; and closer to home, in Kent or London.  I console myself that such men must live in the cage of protectiveness and paranoia that they have built for themselves.  (Cat shits in Mr. Pear’s lap). 

Of course, Kenya’s institutions are also full of men (and a few women) of integrity. Mr. Pear’s subordinate, Engineer Ruti (for the prefix ‘Engineer’ is always used as a term of respect for the qualified man here) is such a gem. Hard-working to a fault, and highly experienced in running projects around his unwilling superior, he has a dream of one day being flown by his son,who is in the early days of training as a commercial pilot. We meet me every Tuesday morning just after sunrise, and Ruti pauses our meeting for a carefully worded prayer before we can take the first sip of tea. He tells me a story of a friend of his – a County Executive member (who have recently won a long political wrangle for access to Kenya’s purse strings), who lost his career and livelihood over a bribe of a few hundred shillings.  Ruti’s own problem is that he has far too many projects – the curse of a Ministry man who gets things done – and nor will he rise to the top floor, but he is one who gives me hope for Nairobi.

Tired of Mr. Pear, I ran for the hills, like the embattled Brits of Nairobian yesteryear.  Two and a half kilometres up on the high plateaus above the Kerio Valley, to the High Altitude Training Centre run by former World Record holder Lornah Kiplagat.  The centre is a true temple to her art form, a quiet paradise fuelled on maize and spinach, where there are three rules: eat hard, sleep hard, and run hard – and, in the high season, an unofficial Olympic village for the running elite.  Such is the devotion to their skill, that Lornah tells me she turned away a journalist who approached her about the remarkable story of Palestinian and Israeli athletes training together.

On Saturday morning, I darted out from the hive with all the other runners, beating down on the hard red earth behind some gliding teenage pacemakers, who said nothing and sweated even less.  The next morning, I flew through some 200 and 400m sprints on the new London Marathon-sponsored track, only to discover that one of the runners had a 15-year old daughter running my times.   Concerned to be shown up by more teenage girls, I skived the gym session in front of the television – and was awestruck as the Algerian who had occupied my room only days before sped to a silver medal at the weekend’s global athletic meet in Doha.

Deserving some mental respite from this pilgrimage of humility, I settled down to a well-earned Sunday beer as the morning chill burned off, only to be scolded by the great Kiplagat, who was returning from several hours at church before hitting the gym.

In her spare time, Lornah funds the construction of a girl’s boarding school in Iten.  She tells me that the involvement of the County, who were devolved significant political and monetary powers last year, extended as far as chastising her for not building a larger project.  Of course, rather than succumbing to these demands for a white elephant, Lornah has a refreshing approach to sustainability, unavoidable if you are from the community in which you work.

In fact, it reminded me that I have seen good political leadership in Kenya: recently, for example, after three months of waiting, five minutes of clear decision-making in one meeting has rejuvenated the energies of twenty organisations working for the much-needed improvements to public transport in Nairobi.  The only problem is that they are few and far between: too many decisions rest with too few men, who do not have the time to make them all or follow them all through for the long run.  Kenya needs a more balanced hierarchy, a healthy pyramid of delegation and responsibilities, giving more empowerment to the Lornahs and Rutis.  There are justifications for the big men – colonial histories, personal histories, extended families of Pears to support – but it is when I see those who lead by integrity and example that the excuses crumble around them.

At the end of this African chapter, one more pilgrimage awaits: that quintessential experience that has continued to elude me: Wide-eyed as a baby buck, this weekend I shall finally join the migration of the Homo Privilegianus into the Maasai Mara.