NAIROBI -- A strain of bubonic plague recently broke out in a south Nairobi district known as Embakasi, causing the deaths of at least three persons and sending more than 400 others to local hospitals. Most of the victims were workers at a major cornmeal processing plant that had been infested with rats and fleas.
The story was duly reported in Kenya's three major newspapers the other week, along with a warning from the nation's Ministry of Health and from officials of the ruling party that Nairobi citizens must stop piling up garbage wherever they choose and learn to live more cleanly.
The next day, the bubonic plague emergency disappeared from Kenya's newspapers. And it hasn't been heard from since.
The episode seemed to point up at least one peculiarity of life in this east African country of 24 million people. In a nation -- indeed, on a continent -- where diseases long ago eradicated from most corners of the planet may still break out with stunning frequency and deadliness, few incidents related to human health and safety seem likely to create much of a public shock or stir.
Measles still kills children in Kenya. So do common diarrhea and chicken pox. Hundreds of Kenyans die annually on the nation's decrepit and cratered roadways. Last year, the pitiful condition of the country's public facilities was glaringly highlighted when a light airplane crashed at Mombasa's international airport while attempting to avoid a huge pothole in the middle of the runway.
This drumbeat of accidents and tragedies, many avoidable, preventable or curable, seems virtually endless. Most are regularly recorded in newspaper headlines trumpeting the latest "horror crash" or "circumcision boy" who bled to death. Kenyans certainly are not unmoved by such travail. Sometimes, a story of especial hardship or misfortune -- such as the one some time ago about an elderly former Kenyan Olympic hero who lived in a downtown alley because he could not find a job -- triggers an avalanche of public support and donations.
But it also seems true that many ordinary Kenyans, long accustomed to an oppressive political system that rewards obedience and acquiesence while harshly punishing dissent, appear sadly resigned, somewhat fatalistic and a bit benumbed to the possibility of real change or improvement in their everyday lives, whether it be in health, employment or, indeed, politics.
This national attitude seems particularly evident now during east Africa's version of the dog days, a relatively lazy time of year on the equator when the weather begins to really warm and the multitudes of foreign tourists return home from the game parks and Indian Ocean beaches. It is the end of the peak season for tourism -- Kenya's number-one industry, an earner of nearly $500 million annually in foreign exchange -- a time when tour operators begin to count their profits.
By and large, while no official statistics are yet available, these operators seem to have done fairly well, judging by the healthy occupancy rates the nation's lodges and hotels have enjoyed the last few months.
Indeed, in light of Kenya's well-publicized political troubles in 1990, any sort of gain from tourism would seem surprising. It all started in February when Kenyan Foreign Minister Robert John Ouko was murdered, a bizarre crime with festering political overtones that set off riots in Nairobi and western Kenya claiming at least two deaths from among Ouko's angry Luo tribe.
Then, in June, amid calls for multiparty democracy from dissidents, Ouko's killing was followed by a spate of riots and looting triggered by disaffected and unemployed Kenyan youths in which at least 23 persons were killed. Next came the death in August of an outspoken Anglican archibishop named Alexander Muge, who arguably was this nation's most fearless and consistent critic of official government corruption. Muge was killed in an automobile crash, raising charges from some outraged quarters that the government had played a role in his death.
These incidents came against the backdrop of last year's rash of elephant poaching in the nation's game parks, the murders of naturalist George Adamson and several foreign tourists and the 1988 killing of a British vacationer, Julie Ward, whose burned and dismembered body was found in the Masai Mara game reserve.
To a country that prides itself on a tradition of peace and national stability in a part of the world otherwise swirling with turbulence, recent times certainly have not been the best. But in other ways, another tradition that sets Kenya somewhat apart -- that of unsolved political murders and unexplained deaths -- sadly remains alive and well.
The 12-year-old regime of President Daniel arap Moi seems to be trying to get to the bottom of all these crimes and disturbances, at least by public appearances. With great publicity and fanfare, the government called in detectives from Britain's Scotland Yard to investigate the Ward case, after Ward's father dug up evidence on his own proving that his daughter had been murdered and not killed by wild animals, as Kenyan authorities originally had claimed. Moi's government also turned to Scotland Yard to investigate the murder of Ouko and ordered a public inquest to look into Muge's death.
No suspect has been arrested or charged in any of the cases. As rumors continue to circulate about possible motives in Ouko's killing, concern in Kenya seems to center mainly on Scotland Yard's recently completed official report on its investigation -- not so much for what the report may or may not conclude, as for when and if the Kenyan government will ever make it public.
To many people here, the recent murders and mysterious deaths -- and lack of explanations -- are reminiscent of the 1975 killing of Josiah M. Kariuki, a populist politician and government opponent whose murder in Nairobi's Ngong Hills was widely suspected to have been ordered by the regime of President Jomo Kenyatta. Then, as now, the government expressed deep outrage, ordered an intensive manhunt and investigation, and promised to quickly bring the killers to justice.
Fifteen years later, the case remains open.
There is, in short, an everpresent undercurrent of questions unanswered, promises unfulfilled and tasks unfinished in Kenya, an aspect of life here that seems perfectly symbolized by a great expanse of parkland in downtown Nairobi's Uhuru Park.
Moi and the ruling Kenya African National Union had great dreams last year to build a 60-story skyscraper there to serve as the party's headquarters. The $200 million plan also called for a nine-story statue of Kenya's "great man," Moi.
The dream ended when the World Bank, an expected lender, refused to have anything to do with the project, questioning its environmental and economic sense.
That was almost a year ago.
Today, the overgrown and empty lot -- which once provided many acres of sunny haven for Nairobi citizens hungering for pastoral peace in the urban jungle -- remains entirely cut off from the public and surrounded by a garish, 10-foot, corrugated aluminum fence advertising everything from Japanese stereo equipment to European leather handbags. Nothing has been built. Nothing has been started. No one ever goes in or out.