Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Changing of the Guard

Kisumu is not the highest crime place I've lived in by a long shot.  You can take either Washington D.C., where a local news reporter knocked on our door to get our reaction to the gang murder that took place across the street, or even West Philadephia, where friends of mine walking home in a seemingly safe pack of 5 were all mugged at gunpoint.  Either place might deserve that dubious honor.

But in Kisumu, I feel fairly safe. Kenyans are exceedingly friendly, there are a lot of "eyes on the street" and the culture of mob justice makes me feel oddly protected.  But, I've come to learn that this just might be a false sense of complacency.

Several months ago there was slew of crimes - a hijacking, a home robbery and even a kidnapping -  not far from us, and our compound of 4 families began to panic.

Here's why:  Most of the homes in our neighborhood have gates and guards, which seem a necessity in places, like Kenya, that have extreme wealth disparities and unreliable police. But, given that our homes are among the most modest on the street, our landlord opted for the cheapest and most ... lets just be nice and say... "relaxed" guard company.  The day guard would sometimes wash and hang her clothes.  The nightguard basically used the small guard shelter as a place to lay his head after working a long day as a motorbike driver.  They opened the gate for pretty much anyone without question.

And despite living in a relatively wealthy neighborhood, our compound is surrounded on all sides by uninhabited homes and fields - half finished and slow gonig construction ventures by people who make their money in Nairobi and dream of investing or settling in their home town.  We are the only residence on our side of the street.  The fact that there are a few wazungu consipicously living here, who most people correctly guess have something worth steeling, also makes us more of a target.
The view from my bedroom.  Nothing you see is inhabited.  Our neighbor has been constructing that monster of a house for so long it's already starting to fall apart.  Next to him is a project stalled so long that people have started to plant maize.
The view from the other side of our house.  OK. I think our immediate neighbors are present at least part time. Beyond that is more half-built construction. 

So, when these crimes came to light, we looked around and felt exposed.

The four families spoke to the landlord who agreed to upgrade our security.  Part of this meant hiring a more professional guard company.

But, being home during the day, I had come to know our "relaxed" guards very well.  They played with Caleb, admonished him when he misbehaved and fawned over Emmet.  They indulged my shaky kiswahili and patiently taught me more.  Working an unthinkable 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, they remained remarkably cheerful, despite a soul crushingly boring job.  They were crappy guards, but pretty awesome companions.

And they were fired. (Or really, they were moved to another house)

I think most everybody breathed a sigh of relief, except for me.  It's not that I wasn't thankful for the apparently necessary security upgrades.  It's just that as the person home all day, I lost the companions I'd grown really fond of and was worried the more "serious guards" would be less chummy.

And I was right.  The new day guard certainly cut a pretty intimidating figure.  He was powerfully built and had the thick neck and strong jaw line and of a Hollywood cast bad guy.  He barely ever smiled.  Since I was fixing to spend a great deal of time in his presence, I wanted to make friends.   But far from being charmed by my overly cheerful greetings and my attempts at Kiswahili, he remained stoic and nodded or grunted acknowledgements. I could not crack this guy.

Then, one day, as I was inside nursing Emmet, I heard Caleb, in his innocence and earnestness, say, "Hey, what's your name?" to Mr. Serious McGrumpypants.  Yeah, good luck Caleb, I thought.  He's a tough nut, even for a charming little man, like you.

But not five minutes later, I heard squeals of delight from outside. Caleb and his new friend had set up some stones as goals and were playing an apparently hilarious game of football.  Amazingly, the were both laughing.  I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.  Was the guard skipping?  He was certainly smiling a lot.  I observed that he did in fact have teeth.

James has become a good friend to Caleb. He asks me all morning when Caleb will be home from school, and almost seems disappointed when Caleb has to come inside for a bath or a snack.  He now greets me each morning with a "Habari, Mama Caleb."

But he's still just slightly aloof, perhaps to retain some professionalism.  When I leave the compound to take Caleb to pre-school, my wave goodbye is acknowledged with a slight lift of the eyebrows.  But then I look back in the rearview mirror and see this same man transformed, waving furiously like a teenager at a rock concert and smiling broadly at my son in the back seat.

I'm not sure what makes people have a tough, seemingly impenetrable exterior. A sense of professionalism, duty, intimidation, insecurity?  But I do know I love watching (from my doorstep) that armor peeled away by a small boy on a scooter.
I'm not sure what the cutest thing is about this picture.  There are many.


  1. That is a really sweet picture and a lovely story of how your son won over Mr. Serious McGrumpypants! Love the nickname!

    1. Yeah, I love the pic. But, then again, I'm a sucker for my son in that school uniform.

  2. That's so sweet and so awesome! I love love love the picture. Great story!

  3. What a great picture!
    You are so super great. I love reading your stories.

  4. That's the Caleb I know. I love it!

  5. Loved that story...don't know why it made me a bit wet around the eyes, though :) (Lillu - friend of Babu FedEx)

  6. This is my favorite line, "I observed that he did in fact have teeth." That made me laugh.

    I think that your new guard sounds very competent -- one must be serious enough to make the adults feel safe, yet playful enough that the children aren't afraid.

  7. loved watching the layers peel off just as you must have! your son is adorable, i think that must be why he got "in" :)

  8. What a great story. I love how you added the photo at the end. I could totally imagine him raising the brow to you, while waving emphatically to Caleb the next!

  9. I thought boys wore shorts, or is it a different kind of school? also, it'd be cool if you blogged about his experiences of going to school in kenya. And do they spank students? coz you've previously mentioned not wanting to spank your kids but i know they do that in kenyan schools. just wanted to know your thoughts on it. Otherwise love the blog.

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