Wednesday, October 7

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Bribes

A couple of weeks ago my grandparents warned me against being too cavalier in my descriptions of the Kenyan government's corruption. They are going to be so disappointed in me for this post. Their hearts are in the right place, and normally I would agree with them. People don't need me to reinforce how corrupt the government is when they can read a new investigative report every week in The Daily Nation or in annual indexes of screwed-up African governments, but these people have demanded exorbitant sums from a children's home. That kind of annoys me. And the district children's officer slapped around an orphan who walked from the Mau to Nakuru because he heard there were good homes here. I wasn't present for that, but I was told the reason was to discourage other orphans from coming to and overwhelming the city. He then put the kid into a cell until enough orphans were collected to make a drive back to the Mau worth it. That kind of really annoys me. For now, the abstract.

Bribes suck.

These two words may seem self evident and entirely natural in their relation to one another, but I'm not so sure. I think bribes have more than a hint of romanticism in the Western world. In American movies, the bribe is always smooth and performed solely by men in tailored suits. Bribes are the tucking of a roll of bills into the concierge's breast pocket. They are the line, “Could Mr. Franklin persuade you otherwise?” They are Captain Jack Sparrow dropping coins and suggesting the official forget the name. Cool, non? I think it's the sense of doing something dangerous, just a little illegal, that gives bribes this flair. Kind of like underage drinking.

Then again, all of those bribes are for preferential treatment, a little bonus for someone not to do their job to the fullest degree, but this is East Africa. I would single Kenya out, but apparently half of all surveyed East Africans have been forced to pay for government work that is legally free. Here they demand bribes just to do their jobs.

Here's how it works, at least in our case. If the official is stressing how they are protecting you, how they are doing you a favor because you have enemies in other parts of the government that would eagerly screw you over, but is still hanging back from making any promises, you ask if they would like some tea. Then you discuss your fee and a payment schedule. This may also occur through an intermediary. The official may demand that you hire an outside contractor to help you complete the paperwork. If you refuse to hire them, the official refuses to speak with you because they can't be bothered by your every little question. The point here is plausible deniability. Then the bribe is just part of the contractor's fees because they legally can ask for money to do their job, unlike those in the government.

For what it's worth, it's a streamlined process. There is only the one contact who distributes the bribe to every pig with a wrench in the system. There is no worrying about every single person making their own request. Not that it stops them from coming back for more. When the official asks that you go on without him and talks about nothing of importance, it's a big hint the last payment wasn't enough. That's when things get really difficult, but you pay it anyway because it's the only way to get more important things done.

Now I understand why the line to report acts of corruption wrapped around the block in Nairobi.

Maybe I just screwed myself and will be facing a deportation order by this evening, but I like to think for the moment that the audience of Spice of Life is exactly as small as I think. Of course, it is very possible this won't make a difference. I was mad and far less than diplomatic when speaking for two hours with the contact yesterday. If he wanted to, he could probably get my visa revoked. My only hope in this case is that he doesn't know my whole name, though I can't imagine there are too many Heinrichs in Kenya at the moment.

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