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A trip to Nairobi's "Little Somalia"

Bumping up another traffic-clogged alley that was more rubble than road in Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Somali quarter, it all got a bit Cheech and Chong.

The plan had been simple: go to Eastleigh, find some refugees who had left the squalid refugee camps in northern Kenya for the bright lights of the city, interview them about their experience, then get out before the late afternoon Nairobi traffic really kicked in.

Things are never so straightforward.

Daud, a Somali journalist with contacts in Eastleigh, pitched up with his two friends Nassir and Kanu in a beat-up old station wagon, cigarette smoke billowing from the tinted windows, Somali music blaring from the speakers.

Kanu was there for his rather questionable driving skills, Daud for his local knowledge, and Nassir … it seems he was the in-car entertainment, dispenser of witty quips and chief buyer of ‘khat’, a supremely popular, very bitter chewable herb with a mild, non-chemical cocaine-like high — all aching jaw, bulging eyes and over-friendly chatter.

A kilo bag of khat cost $20 and by the time the day was over most of it was gone, chewed up and spat out the car window.

The exuberant banter — like Kanu’s driving — veered from one place to another and frequently came to a shuddering halt up a conversational dead end only to restart in another entirely new direction.

“That shopping center’s built with pirate money,” points Daud as we pass yet another of the multistory buildings clad in rickety wooden scaffolding that are going up in Eastleigh. “Keep your head down, all the Shabaab go to that mosque,” shouts Kanu driving by a group of young men spilling out of one of the larger mosques .

“The problem with Somalis is they just like fighting,” imparts Nassir for no particular reason. And so it went on.

The interviews — eventually — worked out all right although they had to be done in a secret neutral location because it’s not good to be seen talking to a white foreigner. The job done, Kanu swung us the wrong way up a one-way street as a plain-clothed policeman, handcuffs glinting under his shirt, banged on the bonnet.

Normally, this is ‘chai’ time: the policeman threatens court action and jail then offers the opportunity to settle the matter ‘locally’, the unfortunate driver shells out a varying amount depending on the police officer’s greed and how well the driver knows the going rates. Then everyone goes on their way.

Except Kenyan police don’t like their blatant corruption splashed all over the local papers so a wave of a press card, some abject but entirely insincere apologies, a verbal warning and that was that. The music was cranked up again, another fistful of khat was yanked out of the plastic bag next to the gearstick and the red-eyed journey out of Eastleigh began again.