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  • June 2004
  • Good morning, Vietnam | The new Spain | (In)security Kenyan style

Good morning, Vietnam | The new Spain | (In)security Kenyan style

Good morning, Vietnam

Living images

In this corner of Vietnam, the open bay, just a curve on the coastline is lined with coconut palms. The beach is shockingly littered. In the water mysterious things underfoot could be slugs (seen stranded at the water’s edge) or squelchy plastic bags of discarded stuff. They could be nimble, nipping crabs or half-buried beer cans. And things that brush your leg or arm could be strange weed, stranger jellyfish, or fishing nets.

One afternoon the water was warm and a million, trillion green spores were released, like tiny leaves of maidenhair fern. I was nervous at first to swim in such spotty water, but there were no stings, just a broth of new life, with me for exotic flavour.

The fishing boats here are small round bowls woven from coconut palm. They hold one person, standing, who with a paddle at the front wiggles the boat forward with one hand, playing out (or hauling in) a long trailing net with the other. There is much mending of nets in the daytime and evidence that fishing is a slow, often disappointing labour.

Meanwhile, a minute boy with a whippy stick exercised authority over a herd of bony brown cows, marching them along the beach, cutting short their investigation of my things on the sand. He reminded me of Heidi’s Peter, a tough little so and so, with his work sometimes made harder by marauding kids roaring out of the fishermen’s shacks to scatter the herd just for fun.

At night I went to sit on the sand, under the stars, looking at the fireflies on the horizon which meant the fishing fleet was out. Large crabs cut through my peace, their forays magnified by shadow, clattering, scuttling zigzags of startling swiftness.

Marg Honner

The new Spain

Views from a train

In the bar of the railway station, the only people present are silent old men wearing berets and playing dominoes.

Two soldiers, armed as if ready for Iraq, wander in and order a coke. With each movement, their machine guns swing without malice, covering the room. It is Wednesday afternoon and a storm is brewing. Great leaden clouds sweep in from the west. The clatter of dominoes is the only sound until the rain rattles against the roof.

On this afternoon in Sigüenza, a medieval town in north-western Castilla La Mancha in central Spain, the soldiers are the only reminder of the town’s turbulent history. In the Spanish Civil War, Sigüenza stood on the front line of battles between Nationalist and Republican forces. On 15 October 1936, Republican soldiers took shelter in Sigüenza’s cathedral, which was shelled into partial ruins by Nationalist guns. The cathedral was built almost nine centuries before in 1130, a few years after Christian armies reclaimed the town from Muslims during the Reconquista of Spain. It has always been thus in Sigüenza: a town which has never been a centre of power, but which has always stood in the path of warring armies. Men with guns are of no consequence in this town.

When the train to Madrid arrives the two soldiers patrol the platform, eyeing all passengers who regard them nervously as a sign of reassurance. The attacks of 11 March have placed the country on high alert and soldiers in full combat gear have become as ubiquitous as memorials to the dead in train stations. It is hard to imagine that anyone would want to attack Sigüenza, but then no-one imagined the attack on Madrid before it happened.

Two days later, Friday. Another train, another spring storm of cinematic beauty. We have left behind León where the 13th-century cathedral rises from the centre of town, an astonishing Gothic masterpiece which is home to some of the finest stained-glass windows in Europe. Through the window, we see pilgrims, one or two at a time, marching, stick in hand, backpacks on their backs,  towards Santiago de Compostela.

One of Europe’s last great pilgrimages, the Camino de Santiago was born in the legend of the apostle Santiago (St James), the son of Zebedee. Thought by many church scholars to have preached in Spain, Santiago was executed by Herod Agrippa upon his return to Jerusalem. His followers spirited his body away and their boat washed up on the shores of Galicia in what would become north-western Spain. The bearers of Santiago’s body were imprisoned but then escaped, assisted, it is said, by an angel. The local queen was so impressed that she converted to Christianity and authorised the construction of a small mausoleum.

Over centuries, the mausoleum fell into disrepair and was forgotten altogether until the 9th century when it was rediscovered by a hermit, his path guided by a heavenly light. At the time, Spain was in Muslim hands, and Christian soldiers wrote of Santiago’s spirit joining them in battle, spurring them on to famous victories. As Christian forces launched the Reconquista of Spain, the Order of Santiago was founded by Castillian knights who were at the forefront of battles against the Muslims. By the 11th century, the last resting place of Santiago had become famous throughout Europe and pilgrims were already crossing the Pyrenees on their way to Santiago de Compostela. They have been doing so ever since.

In Astorga, a town which has survived largely through the proceeds of passing pilgrim traffic, the fairytale turrets of the Episcopal Palace—conceived in the fantastical imagination of Antoni Gaudí—stare out across a square at the grim sobriety of the town’s 15th-century cathedral. In the heart of old Astorga, the stone benches of the colonnaded Plaza Mayor are occupied by the old men of the town wearing berets and chewing sunflower seeds. There are no soldiers present but they are not far away, probably patrolling the platforms of the train station, trying to be discreet despite their attire. The pilgrims mill around the square, their faces red with the exertion of arrival. Some seem self-conscious of their pilgrim status, perhaps aware that theirs is a re-enactment of an age-old ritual across a country driven by a rush into the future, across a country in which everything seems to have changed. Yet, in places like Astorga and Sigüenza, it is easy to believe that everything remains the same, regardless of how many times the violent upheavals of history pass this way.

Anthony Ham

(In)security Kenyan style

Peace at a price

In Nairobi, security is a commodity purchased to deal with ‘security threats’.

Security concerns are a part of daily life here. As elsewhere, crime soars as employment prospects dip. The most common crime is car-jacking: many of the 20–70 estimated incidents each week are fatal. The police are believed to be involved in about 20 per cent of these violations. In this respect, Nairobi holds the dubious honour of outstripping Johannesburg. Added to this are the frequent muggings and breaking and entering.

But the greatest fear is terrorism. In Kenya, this is not theoretical. In August 1998, the United States Embassy in downtown Nairobi was bombed, in a strike against American interests. In 2001 terrorists struck again at Mombassa on the Kenyan coast, targeting Israeli interests. On both occasions the victims were almost exclusively locals. After renewed warnings about attacks against US and United Nations interests, and given the proximity of the main UN compound to the US Embassy, the flurry of intelligence reports circulating in the expatriate world of Nairobi is hardly surprising.

In Nairobi, the expatriate community has tacitly decided that all that can be done must be done to ensure personal security. The result is that protective services now form a massive industry. The typical compounds in which people spend their lives are high-walled and guarded day and night by security people. At just over AUD$100 per month, a permanent security presence is readily affordable.

Nairobi is not an expansive city, and from the suburbs in which expatriates live—Gigiri or the aptly named Westlands—the drive to work is usually short. People enter their cars in the driveway of their homes, often driven by security agents that double as chauffeurs. The car pulls up inside the work compound, which is also high walled and heavily guarded. People stay here until their return journey home. At the few shopping centres to which the expatriate community gravitates, like the Sarit Centre and the Village Market, the security presence is again overwhelming. The foreigners’ world is enclosed. Around-the-clock security guards form the roof.

When you buy massive protection, you also buy the consequences. The inner side of the security industry is the paranoia industry. The detached witness in Nairobi cannot help being reminded ironically of Roosevelt’s famous words, ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’. When one has protection against everything, there is everything to fear and so every reason to seek further protection against it, whatever the unnameable ‘it’ may be!

The larger consequence of buying personal security is that the violence within society is masked. Expatriates who work in the regional headquarters of embassies and NGOs go from one secured location to another. Meanwhile the vast majority of the victims of violent crime fall silent and unnoticed. From behind high walled fences it is hard to see the real victims of Nairobi’s criminal industry.

Personal security concerns of this magnitude are not a problem unique to Nairobi or Kenya. Nor is the security industry confined to the big end of town. In South Africa every car space is manned by a ‘Car Guard’. These informal workers, working for tips from car owners, monitor a small area of the roadside which, by custom, is known to be theirs. In Uganda, the measures are more extreme. One can barely walk ten metres without coming across a private security guard with an immense machine gun lazily resting between his or her knees. It is dramatic, but effective. Kampala is known to be one of the safest cities on the continent.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, those who can afford security pay for it, while those most in need cannot and suffer the consequences. Until the balance is corrected by the new Kibaki government this will continue to be the rule.

Matthew Albert

This month’s contributors:
Marg Honner is a teacher in Vietnam; Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid; Matthew Albert is Eureka Street’s Kenyan correspondent.

 

 

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