Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes
A couple of people have seen the movie The Constant Gardener
and have asked me whether Kenya is really like that. For those who don't know either the rip-roaring book
by John Le Carre or the very good movie that is based on the book, the story revolves around the death of a low-level British diplomat's wife who was about to uncover the nefarious goings on of a multinational pharmaceutical giant using Kenyans as "guinea pigs" for a dangerous drug.
The movie, which stars Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, was shot on location in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, on the outskirts of Nairobi, and also in the starkly beautiful landscape around Lake Turkana in the northwest of the country (which, although it is starkly beautiful, is also too dangerous: apparently the footage of the lake was shot in Canada!). The image of the country in the movie is far removed from what tourists normally see (which is usually leaping Maasai
or the wonders of the Masai Mara
The footage of Kibera shows shacks crowded together over open sewers, a teeming mass of people trying to go about their business with no running water or paved roads and no main infrastructure. It also shows people being herded into lines to receive medical advice. For the purposes of the film, this medical advice comes with a cost: in order to get drugs for TB or malaria or other common illnesses, you need to sign up (without real consent in most cases) to this experimental drug. But using people without their consent is not an unusual phenomenon in Africa—and nor has it been unheard of in America
The north of Kenya is considered out of bounds for tourists because of the instability in the countries bordering Kenya: Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. There is banditry and lawlessness, often caused by warring peoples fighting over resources and Somali herders moving in to snatch cattle and other things.
When we were traveling to the west of Nairobi in 2001 we came across a Somali herder and his camels on the road and were told to lock our doors as our van sped on. Indeed, the authors of the guidebook we use (the The Rough Guide to Kenya
), explicitly tell you that they are not putting any information about these areas or how to get to them because they do not want to encourage even their most perverse readers to venture there. No joke.
The area around Lake Turkana is included within the no-go areas. In northern Kenya and over the border in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia are refugee camps where victims of the decades-old conflicts in the region live and are serviced by UN and other agencies. The film shows a raid by a janjuweed-like militia, currently terrorizing people in Darfur, in Western Sudan. This is not unheard of in real life.
That said, there are many areas of Kenya that are beautiful and relatively safe. You can walk around Mombasa late at night with no trouble, and from the east coast to the shores of Lake Victoria there are wonders galore for the savvy, non-credulous tourist. Even Lamu off the northeast coast, near the Somali border, is a good destination.
In addition, The Constant Gardener
, both book and film, still encourage an idea of helpless, innocent Africans being exploited by governments and international agencies and subject to the corruption and brutality of their own regimes and people. These ideas of helplessness and passivity, I hope, Wangari Maathai
among others are putting to rest. Kenya, like many developing nations, functions and is open for tourism, and I would encourage everyone to visit. You may not visit Kibera or Lake Turkana, but you'll have a fascinating experience.