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The temporary processing centres are provided by Kenya Red Cross, and as we line up to enter the huge arrivals tent I hear a wealthy looking Kenyan say to her companion, “This must be what it feels like to be a refugee,” and they laugh.
Having just been to a refugee camp I can safely say this is nothing like what it feels to be a refugee, but the situation is so strange I can’t really blame them for making a joke.
When we enter the white cavern the feeling of festivity ends, as everyone surges to grab an arrivals or visa form from a desk on the left then dashes for one of the ten queues – which we soon realise culminate in only 3 processing officers.
Some people are polite, others shove their way to the front, but most, like me, shuffle slowly forward, swatting mosquitoes and trying to avoid being coughed on by sick people, several of whom are suddenly in alarmingly close proximity.
Over the next two weeks I am to go through these tents another five times, and it’s hit and miss how long the process takes. The quickest is about 45 minutes, the longest a late night mind-numbing two hours, caused by lack of staff and a computer meltdown in my lane.
Once you’re through the tents, it’s a fairly straightforward process to find your bags, then head past customs outside to the throng of yelling people holding signs.
We are lucky enough to be met by the IFRC’s taxi company UTU, which in Swahili fittingly means “humanity”, one of the Red Cross Movement’s fundamental principles. Our driver Jackson negotiates roads spikes, guards with rifles, and tooting drivers to get through the barrier arms and then we’re out onto the main road to Nairobi.
The exhaust fumes are incredible and it takes two hours to travel the 20 kilometres to the hotel, all the way dodging pedestrians, crazy drivers, and vendors selling everything from newspapers to lamp shades and knock off DVDs. At the hotel the AK47-toting guards put mirrors under the car and check the boot before we are allowed to enter. Fifteen years ago 212 people were killed and 4000 wounded when suicide bombers blew up the American Embassy just down the road, and there’s still the occasional terrorist attack here.
For what won’t be the last time this trip, the reception staff try to put my workmate Aaron and me in the same room. Maybe it’s the matching New Zealand Red Cross t-shirts, but they seem confused as Aaron says, “she is very beautiful but she is not my wife”. We both later admit to having referred to each other as husband and wife to local street and market vendors to make things easier.
We are in Nairobi to catch up with New Zealand Red Cross aid workers Melanie Ogle and Chelsea Giles-Hansen, who are both seconded to the IFRC. When not travelling they work from an office in peaceful leafy grounds, where I taste perhaps the best samosas I’ve had in my life.
Melanie is a disaster management aid worker responsible for 10 countries in southern Africa. And she’s busy - the area is prone to floods, droughts, landslides, earthquakes, pestilence and storms. She’s also responded to fires, cholera and malaria outbreaks, food insecurity, and the odd boat sinking and plane crash.
Chelsea is a water and sanitation engineer, whose job takes her all over eastern Africa. Most of her work involves ensuring people have access to clean water and adequate toilets, during and after disasters, but she’s also running a menstrual hygiene management pilot in a refugee camp in Burundi.
Both women live in apartments, and apart from working too hard, seem to have good lives. But they’ve had to adjust; because of the poverty here Nairobi can be a dangerous place. There are checkpoints everywhere and you lock your car doors when driving around, keeping valuables hidden – a brick through the window is always a possibility. Every apartment block has locked gates and a guard who peers through a barred window to see who’s there before opening it. In the wealthy neighbourhood of Karen six people have recently been robbed and shot dead in their cars while waiting for guards to open their gates.
And then there are the power cuts. The power and water supply both seem to be tenuous. It’s not too bad while we’re staying at Chelsea’s, but even so, the power can be off all day. While we’re there the complex runs out of water several times and tankers have to come and fill up the underground tanks.
Since the experience of the Christchurch earthquakes I’ve carried a torch at all times, and am grateful for that now. I’m also pleased I took my boss Andrew’s advice and brought with me a $2 shop rubber door wedge. My workmate Aaron didn’t tell me til afterwards, but while in Juba, South Sudan, his hotel room was entered several times when he wasn’t there. I was using my door wedge – just for peace of mind - and am glad now. The other necessity I’d advise people to carry in this part of the world is toilet paper.
As we leave Nairobi airport for the last time and I watch the first class passengers filing out of the tent past the Kenya Red Cross sign, I think about all those refugees who have come to Kenya and surrounding countries because of fighting and instability in their home lands. I wonder what would happen to them if people like Chelsea and Melanie and the wider Red Cross Movement weren’t here.