African poverty grows, despite Live8 concert

The Guardian

Nairobi, July 4:

Ms Dynamite was still serenading the crowds in London at around the time darkness fell in Nairobi on Saturday, but in the al fresco bar of the New Stanley Hotel — which seemed to be the only place in town screening any footage of Live8 — nobody was paying much attention.

“Concerts Held In 10 Countries,” read the ticker on CNN, as the well-to-do guests of the hotel, a relic of colonial times, sipped Tusker beers and browsed the papers. The televisions were muted. “Concerts Aimed At Eradicating African Poverty,” the ticker added tidily and, had you come directly from outer space, landing in such a serene spot, you might have been forgiven for believing that task to be as simple as CNN made it sound. Elsewhere in the Kenyan capital, most things are radically different, but the level of interest in the Greatest Concert Ever was roughly the same. As much as anything, that often seemed to be the result of a distaste for bland British and American rock music. It certainly wasn’t disengagement. The first cliche erased from the mind of a stranger visiting the poorer parts of Nairobi is that not having enough money to live on means you somehow don’t have time to formulate vociferous political opinions.

“The problem is politicians, and what I mean are the politicians of Kenya,” said Silas Majale, a clerk, sitting in mid-morning sun on the patchy grass and deep red soil of Uhuru Park, in the city centre. Below him, about a thousand people were gathered on the slopes for a rally. Most were there to celebrate Co-operative Day, a festival organised by workers’ credit unions, but the park seemed to have been double-booked by the Make Poverty History campaign, who are handing out makeshift white wristbands. “The politicians are selfish, corrupt, and maybe, I think, lacking patriotism,” Majale went on, in a refrain encountered again and again throughout the city, “You’re from the UK. What I’d say to Tony Blair is: make sure, when there’s money, that it reaches the intended people. We shouldn’t be depending on handouts, you know? You can say Kenya is a blessed country. We can afford to depend on ourselves. But because of this lack of patriotism, we have to go out begging. And we’re not happy when we start begging around.”

The predominant view here of Blair was of a man with his heart in the right place, but with not a lot of power to do anything much about it. “Because we used to be a colony of the UK, we can look at America and see that it is playing a game of colonising, using handouts that it calls aid and loans,” said David Simiyu, a Salvation Army minister. “But Blair is very weak compared to Bush. I do wonder: what tricks does he use to stay in power? How does he manage to swim through?”, Simiyu said. It is no easier in central Nairobi than in London or Washington to resolve the enormous mental disconnection between the abstractions of politics and the specifics of poverty. The speeches from the podium at Uhuru Park were all about ‘articulating an agenda of cooperation’ and ‘a fundamental realignment of priorities’.

A small group of marchers appeared with a banner reading, “The Poverty Eradication Commission Supports The Make Poverty History Campaign”. For real specifics, you have to leave the centre, driving along roads dominated by recklessly driven minibuses, past vendors selling roast corn and mobile-phone top-ups, to the shanty town of Kibera. The settlement is often described as Africa’s largest slum. That label does not prepare the first-time visitor for arriving there.