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Africa Journal
Thursday, November 4, 1999, Noon EST

Karl Vick

Curious about the culture, cuisine or customs of East Africa? From quirky tourist spots and political updates to economic development, Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick, who's LIVE from Nairobi, is taking your questions and comments about day-to-day life in Kenya and neighboring countries in East Africa.

Following is the transcript from today's discussion.


Karl Vick: Welcome to our show.

Mt. Rainier: Uganda is trying to encourage the tourist trade to bolster a flagging economy, especially tourists interested in Bwindi National Park. The well-read may remember that several tourists were killed there last year, apparently by rebel troups. How safe really is Kampala to visit? And how safe is Bwindi? The assorted rebel groups seem to be going strong despite the government's efforts.

Karl Vick: The well-read and anyone who caught an hour-long program NBC did on the sad, sorry episode. I didn't see it, living here in Africa and all, but I did talk to Uganda's top public relations official about five minutes after he came back from a screening, and all he wanted to know was who he could sue.

It was a sensastional bit of news, of course, and had the effect the crazies desired: reducing Uganda's tourism to pretty close to zero. Tragic for all concerned, of course, and a vivid window on the horror people who live in that region--the park is really part of Africa's Great Lakes region--have been enduring for five years.

That said, I should think that going to Bwindi now--home of the original Impenetrable Forest; it's actually part of the proper name--would be like flying the day after the airline you've chosen had a crash: about the safest place you could be. I know of a couple of reporters who went in shortly after the park opened, and they had a fabulous experience.

Kampala is also quite safe. It had had a run of small-scale terrorist bombings over the last few years, but the target is usually Ugandan gathering places; I know of no tourists who've been affected. It's one of the places I go where I pretty much always feel safe. Sunny and warm year round, too.

Arlington, Virginia: Has there been any cultural backlash against Americans in Nairobi in the aftermath of the embassy bombing?

Karl Vick: Not as so you'd notice. Kenyans like Americans as a rule (as a rule, they seem to like most everyone, but that's something foreign visitors find of Africans in general). There were definitely some hard feelings the first weeks after the bombing, but that was directed more at the embassy and the U.S. rescue crews who were working only on recovery and crime scene efforts at the bombed embassy building, which was cordoned and even curtained off from the far more devastated office buildings next to it. That rather insensitive spectacle (one day, the troops even mounted machine guns in the upper stories, pointed out at the city that had suffered so for hosting Americans) was aggravated by some remarks the ambassador made about looting in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. There may well have been some, of course, but the overwhelming reaction of Kenyans was an extraordinary outpowering of Good Samaritanism and neighborliness.

But even when feelings were strongest, I never felt anything personally. And did not hear from anyone else who did.

Blacksburg, Va.: What's really going on in Tanzania? You hear from some people that it is this beautiful oasis for tourists with a lot of beaches and scenery. On the other hand I've heard that the government is pretty facist and that a lot of human rights violations are taking place. WHat do you hear out there?

Karl Vick: I'd put more stock in the former than the latter. Which is not to say that, after decades as a one-party state, where, at one point (as a Ugandan editor pointed out following the death of the country's father, Julius Nyerere), there were more political prisoners than in apartheid South Africa, there aren't some lingering totalitarian leanings. The founding party is still in power, and old habits die hard. The U.S. State Department calls arbitrary arrests "a problem." And the system of local "cells" continues, with all the implications of neighbor-watching-neighbor.

But the feeling that an occasional visitor has is far from oppressive, a long way from a police state. It is, in fact, a gratifyingly mellow place. Beautiful indeed, a lot like Kenya in terms of its tourist offerings: fabulous beaches in Zanzibar and the coast, unbeatable game parks including the Serengeti, and extraordinarily varied topography. If the roads were passable, it'd be a wonderful place to just drive around.

Georgetown: Jambo! I thoroughly enjoyed the recent article on the division between north and south Somalia -that was you, wasn't it?-. So much so that I rotated Mark Bowden's "Blackhawk Down" -- about the Battle of Mogadishu -- to the top of my reading list. In it, he mentions that Aideed's men thought that Boutros Boutros-Ghali was using the UN in a personal battle against Aideed -- Boutros-Ghali's clan against Aideed's and that the U.S. had been "duped" into assisting him -this is on page 71-. Was this true? Did this have anything to do with the U.S. opposition to Boutros-Ghali's reappointment as secretary?

Karl Vick: Ah, you have me confused with the writer for Newsweek, another publication of The Washington Post Company. But I'm sure the Grahams thank you.

I read Blackhawk Down as a newspaper series and thought it quite something. The Boutros-Ghali stuff wasn't in that version, I don't think. It's news to me and of course can't vouch for it either way. The former UN Secy-Gen has got a book of his own out, though, and from what I've read about it if the U.S. used anything like this against him he made the most of it, or of the allegation. They did not part friends, our country and that man.

Herndon, VA: Has Kenya made any progress in controlling its terrible crime problem? How safe is it to walk around Nairoibi these days? Is there any chance for democratic elections in the near future of Kdnya?

Karl Vick: I'm going to get my head handed to me one day--or that of a worried tourist who I've offered false reassurance--but I really don't think crime in Nairobi is very bad at all. I live on the edge of town, behind walls and guards and dogs like everyone else in what passes for the upper crust in this part of the world. But those precautions seem more an understandable manifestation of the chasm between income groups than any immediate risk.

It does feel different to tourists. They tend to stay downtown, which has a relatively grubby and random feel. They are readily identifiable as someone carrying money. And , not least, they are constantly warned about street crime. But I haven't seen any in the year and a half I've lived here, and know of only one person in my first-hand acquaintance who's been a victim.

Johannesburg, South Africa, now that's a reputation for crime that is, by every account, richly deserved. But I think Nairobi, often called "Nairobbery," gets a bit of a bad rap. I suspect the nickname came from longtime residents who used to sleep with their back doors unlatched, like folks did in my Wiscosin hometown. Once Upon a Time.

Springfield, VA: My husband and I will be in Kenya on Saturday we are so excited. We are on a tour but have some free time to explore on our own. Where should we go to purchase
gifts? How is the weather out in the game parks? Do we need to bring a light jacket or will a sweatshirt do? I was the one who asked for the Stanley Hotel address, got it thanx again.

Karl Vick: A timely question, given the last, eh?

For gifts, you can buy in the hotel gift shops. You'll pay a lot more than you would elsewhere, but get very tasteful stuff. You can also buy at any of several decent retail stores, including the well regarded African Heritage store (which stocks not only East Africa and Kenyan stuff, but also a fair amount of nice masks and crafts from West Africa, Congo and other regions).

Or, you can venture into the crafts markets, see a whole lot of carved giraffes, hear "Karibu" (meaning "welcome") and "Looking is free" until you're ready to scream, but come out with a lot of very nice items for a fraction of what you'd pay in retail shops. But you've got to be willing to dicker. It's expected that you'll try to cut prices by something approaching half, but the pained expressions and complaints will have you questioning the premise. Until you try and walk away.

Game park weather is probably quite cool in the very early morning--yeah, bring a sweatshirt or jacket; maybe both--and warm if not hot in the afternoon. That would be in the Masai Mara, at least, the most popular park.

Enjoy yourself. The weather even in Nairobi has been just splendid. And everything seems to be in bloom. In Kenya, that means a lot of trees.

Arlington: Karl, have you ever been to Zanzibar? Wonder what it's like, whether worth a jaunt if I find myself in E. Africa...

Karl Vick: I was in Zanzibar last January. It's definitely worth a visit. The beaches on the eastern side of the island are something out of a storybook, just archetypal. Cocaonut palms, sugar-sand strand, aquarmarine lagoons. And everyone seems to enjoy the other two main offerings: the spice tours and Stone Town, which is the Arabesque city center and port.

The whole place is, in fact, sort of a larger, substantially more tourst-oriented version of an island town on the coast of Kenya, way up there near the Somali border: Lamu. I prefer Lamu because it's smaller and there's an outstanding hotel called Peponi in the adjoining town of Shela, which is where the beach begins. It's all much less developed and more intimate than Zanzibar, and has nearly as magical a name. But you wouldn't be going wrong in either place, and unless you're a Kenya resident Peponi, which translates from Swahili as "a good place," can mean a lot of money.

Anderson, Indiana: A few years ago, Kenya was at the forefront of the development of the common markets of eastern Africa. With the South African decision a year or more ago to stay out of COMESA, what has happened to that organization? Does it still exist and face much of a future?

Karl Vick: The plan is still on. In fact, I believe this very month Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda will formally sign an agreement creating an East Africa community. Tanzania was making noises earlier this year about backing out, but it's decided to stay the course.

It's a natural union, given the huge amount of trade between the countries, and the vital importance to the region of Kenya's port at Mombasa and Tanzania's at Dar es Salaam. They're all linked anyway, so breaking down remaining trade barriers seems natural enough.

Regionalization is the trend across Africa, and it's one strongly encouraged (not only for economic, but for security reasons) by Secretary Albright when she was here a week or two ago. Of course it's an older story in southern Africa and in the French-speaking countries of West Africa, many of which share a currency in the CFA.

Mt. Rainier : Mr. Vick, I've read that the Uganda Monitor, the only independent newspaper in Uganda and probably in most all of Africa, is being bought by a Kenyan group. How is this going to affect the Monitor's stance in Uganda? They have been the only ones to speak out about Pres. Musaveni's encroaching power and the lack of democracy in Uganda; now will Musaveni close them down as a bunch of foreigners? Why is Kenya interested in a foreign paper?
Man, if they kill Charles Obbo's column I'm going into mourning...

Karl Vick: Hmmm. I'd flip over to their website if I wasn't afraid of losing the discussion. What you're saying is news to me, and as odd as you suggest. It really is quite a strong paper, and Charles Onyango-Obbo is one of the most impressive journalists I've met on the continent. His column in the East African regional weekly almost single-handedly redeems that generally bland paper (though the other columnists are strong too).

I know Charles and other staffers have spent an awful lot of time in court lately, answering suits and charges brought by the government they so gleefully report on and criticize. I suppose it's possible the hassle has become too much, but if what you've heard is true it's hard to imagine that foreign ownership will bring anything but questions about loyalty and...well...foreign ownership.

Thanks for the tip, though; I'll make a call or two, if only out of personal curiosity.

Karl Vick: We're out of time and very nearly out of questions. Africa not the mystery it once was, perhaps. Toodles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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