More than 100 delegates to the unofficial United Nations women's forum returned from weekend safaris into the Kenyan countryside to discover that they'd been evicted to make room for official delegates to the International Women's Conference that opened here today.
At the Hotel Six-Eighty, Americans arrived to find clothing, cameras and toiletries wrapped in bedspreads and piled on the lobby floor.
"They'd gone through the rooms and thrown everything together in the lobby," said outraged Washingtonian Raydean Acevedo, who is attending the U.N. Forum with the U.S.-based Kellogg Foundation.
"One person looked through her bundle and said, 'I now have no underwear and no shoes.' One poor man from the Presbyterian Church went all over town to find out what had happened to his stuff."
Similar scenes, if less dramatic, were repeated at other Nairobi hotels as the hoteliers, under pressure from the government, made way for the official delegations.
The evictions came less than a week after the forum delegates reported an agreement with the Kenyan government that would have allowed them to sleep two or three in a room to keep their prepaid rooms during the accommodations crisis here.
That compromise was reached after a group of more than 100 American and other delegates vowed that it would take government troops to evict them from the rooms they had reserved and paid for six months ago.
The mess began more than a week ago when the more than 10,000 delegates to the nongovernmental forum, held one week before the U.N. Women's Conference, began arriving at Nairobi hotels to find that long-confirmed reservations were being shortened or not honored at all.
The Kenyan government has apologized for the confusion but blamed it on nations that doubled and tripled the size of their official delegations at the last minute.
As of Friday, the government had transferred hundreds of unofficial delegates from hotel rooms to dormitory beds at the downtown University of Nairobi or the remote Kenyatta University College.
"All delegates will be accommodated," promised a headline in the official Kenyan Times as the government sought to reassure its guests.
Although they are reluctant to be identified for fear of further evictions, tour operators and delegates say they blame the mess on the Kenyan government and Nairobi hotel owners.
The government, they say, insisted on handling all reservations but underestimated interest in the conference and allowed the size of official delegations to mushroom. Hoteliers exacerbated the problem by overbooking, they say.
Acevedo and others said security staff at their hotel in downtown Nairobi entered the rooms of at least 65 guests early Sunday morning and piled personal belongings into bedspreads. The loosely knotted bundles were then transported to the lobby, and some of the contents spilled along the way.
"When some of us tried to take pictures of what they were doing, the film was confiscated. It was really incredible," Acevedo said.
When Acevedo discovered that some of her possessions were missing, including her return plane ticket and itinerary, it took 45 minutes to receive permission to enter her old room, which by then had been occupied by three Japanese delegates to the official conference.
When she attempted to gather up the rest of her things and leave the hotel, Acevedo said, she had a vehement argument with a man who identified himself as a Kenyan police officer.
"He thought I was stealing it, I think. He took my passport, and he demanded to know where I was moving. I wasn't about to tell them; I was afraid of being kicked out again. He grabbed my shoulder and he was yelling, 'I am police, you cannot go; I will follow you.' Well, it wouldn't have been too hard. There we were, three white women carrying bedspread bundles, rushing down the streets of Nairobi in the rain. It was like a spy movie."
The 65 evictees in Acevedo's hotel managed to find space in a nearby hostelry still under construction but they are not revealing its location.
"We feel very lucky not to be out on the street and we are not taking any risks," she said.
The forum delegates are not the only ones out in the cold. One American television camera crew is now housed in a tent. A correspondent for The Boston Globe arrived last week to find that his prepaid reservation, made months ago, would not be honored.
With nowhere to go he rented a car, drove 25 miles outside the city and went to sleep on the seat, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by someone trying to break into his car.
So far hoteliers have been vague about refunds, as has the Kenyan government, but they may not be the ones responsible. Several tour operators said they have paid only deposits to the hotels, although their clients paid them in full.
For many of the delegates, however, it was less the money than the stress and fear of being out on the street that distressed them.
When the American women held their protest press conference last week, some of the women in attendance wondered out loud whether the discomfort and stress of being temporarily homeless was not a valuable lesson for women at a conference concerned with the plight of impoverished women.
Acevedo did not discount that, but she said did not expect to return to Kenya anytime soon.
"I felt totally violated when I saw my things thrown into the lobby. It was pretty scary and I think the whole experience has left a sour taste in some people's mouths.
"I mean, you're invited to a country, the minister of cultural affairs welcomes you and then you're kicked out of your room. There's a little hypocrisy there."