There was only one thing about Kenya that scared me before I was thrown out of the country last week.
It wasn’t violent crime. I walked Nairobi’s slums with cameras and computers and never felt the least bit threatened. I slept in villas on the beach, built without walls to let in the breeze, and I never faced an intruder. My house in Nairobi, home for the past five years, didn’t even have a gate.
It wasn’t terrorism. I met radical Islamic preachers who supported al-Shabaab but the threat of an attack felt no closer in Mombasa than it does in London. The idea that Lamu, an island with almost no cars, was in a Foreign Office danger zone too dangerous to visit always felt preposterous as we sipped Old Pals and Dawa cocktails in the Peponi hotel bar.
The only thing that scared me was the sight of the police. About once a week, when driving, I would have to navigate a checkpoint. Even now my stomach churns at the thought, hoping that they wouldn’t pull me over. Policemen have a way of grinning as they conjure up a traffic crime and make a snap calculation of how much they could extract before they let you go. It is illegal for policemen to get inside your car but they would try it anyway, or confiscate your driving licence hoping that you would ask them whether “there is a way of solving this”.
The last time they pulled me over a British soldier was with me in the car. Her military ID card convinced them we wouldn’t pay. The time before that I was sent to court, without any evidence, because I refused to pay. The court imposed a fine of £80.
Corruption and impunity are not stray threads of life in Kenya, they are its fabric. Parents pay a bribe to get their babies’ birth certificates. Children pay bribes to bury their parents. According to Kenya’s anti-corruption watchdog there is a price to report a crime, go to college or get a job. But the culture of impunity costs more than money.
Abubaker Sharif Ahmed, the al-Shabaab supporter I met many times in Mombasa, was shot dead in 2014. Kenyan police are the prime suspects. At least 22 Muslim clerics met similar fates since 2012. No one has been tried.
When terrorists attacked the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi in 2013, killing at least 67 people, the troops who cleared the building looted all the shops. They emptied the change from parking meters, shot open tills with their rifles and drank all the beers in the restaurants’ storerooms, while corpses still littered the floors. No one was held to account.
During the inquest into the death of a British aristocrat, Alexander Monson, who was beaten to death in police custody in 2012, I wondered if anyone had ever been convicted of killing a British citizen in Kenya.
At least five Britons have been murdered in the country since 2012, including two former colonels from the Parachute Regiment. No one has even been charged. Julie Ward’s killers have been at large since 1988. The only conviction I could find was of Paul Nakware Ekai, who shot Joy Adamson, the naturalist and author of Born Free, in 1980. Ms Adamson was born in Austria, so that didn’t really count.
When President Kenyatta was elected in 2013 some of his opponents celebrated because they said he was so rich he wouldn’t be corrupt. Yet corruption and impunity are thriving. No one is held to account.
After landing in Nairobi last week, I was held at the airport and deported 24 hours later. No-one told me why. It wasn’t the farewell I’d expected, but it wasn’t a surprise.