If you’re ever travelling abroad, please pack clean underwear. Know-it-alls will tell you to never lose sight of your passport or to keep your return tickets nearby, but this is the single most important advice you’ll hear from anyone.
The last thing you want is a uniformed stranger disapprovingly rummaging through your soiled undergarments while the passing masses judge you on their way out.
In case any of that was confusing, let me summarise: pack clean underwear! Very important. Even more important, though, never bring Royco cubes into the United States. Royco and Ujimix.
Let me explain.
I mostly fly cattle class, with all the crying babies, smelly-mouthed seat neighbours, and food so bad no self-respecting pig would eat it. This is not to complain, because I suffer from an acute form of wanderlust that I don’t even need a fully formed excuse before jumping into a plane and heading somewhere cold and much too expensive for me.
I had a moderately complicated flight routing last week: Nairobi—Amsterdam—San Francisco—Minneapolis—London—Amsterdam—Nairobi. I was heading to Silicon Valley to watch former Apple CEO John Sculley launch his new baby, the Obi worldphone, and then head to London to co-host Kenya In the Park, an outdoor celebration of our culture in the British capital.
FLYING WHILE BLACK
I happened to be travelling in the upper deck for once, so was among the first people out of the plane in San Francisco. I may have come from a small village in Siaya and didn’t even get on a plane until I was 20, but I know how to fake being posh when I end up in the business cabin.
So I didn’t take to it kindly when the customs officer asked me to proceed to Counter 2 so his colleague could “process” me further. A humourless African American gentleman in his late 20s called Long took my bags and proceeded to unpack them. He didn’t ask for my permission, just started removing stuff and putting them aside.
I only remembered that I had three one-kilogramme bags of Ujimix for some friends in London when he got to them.
“Why don’t you just mail it to them?” he asked after I had explained what they were.
“You have much to learn about us Africans,” was the appropriate answer. “We’ll tie and lead a live goat through international airports and into America if we could.”
But I just kept quiet because he still had my landing card and could send me back.
It is then that he discovered I had several sachets of Royco cubes — the star that lifts every Kenyan meal from the bland category. He put them aside as well as he asked me questions that suggested he wouldn’t stop until he had my DNA samples.
He left me standing there while he went to channel his inner Walter White with my flour and seasoning. “Is this a random search or have I been flagged for something?” I asked his colleague. “It’s totally random for compliance issues,” he assured me.
Except it wasn’t, because I was the first black person out of the plane and only one to be stopped. Just like I had been “randomly” selected for a secondary search at Amsterdam 12 hours prior to this episode.
Meanwhile, Long had broken into my Ujimix and Royco and was testing them for heroin, marijuana and opium. “I just want to make sure that they are what you say they are,” he said with the seriousness of a mortician. His little Chemistry experiment complete, he plastered the broken ends of my gifts with the world’s most conspicuous blue tape and handed them back to me.
SMUGLER OR SOMETHING
If you think the walk of shame on the morning after a one night stand is repulsive, there’s nothing worse than repacking your bags in full view of half of India entering San Francisco. My only consolation is that it was still better than being taken into custody for being a drug dealer. “Larry Madowo arrested in America with drugs” isn’t a headline that I want to see.
A young black male travelling internationally always raises eyebrows and you get racially profiled in our post-911 world. Travelling while black is to accept indignity, racism and delays because of the colour of your skin, even in a post-Obama world. Those of us village boys who grew up dreaming of faraway cities and now have opportunities to visit are resigned to that ugly downside to it all. Sometimes you’re temporarily suspected of being an international smuggler or a drug dealer.
It is all worth it when the Ujimix and Royco cubes make their way to the UK and to grateful hands.
Genuine friends will always call, the fakes won’t
Dr Bitange Ndemo used to be one of my favourite permanent secretaries when he was at the Information and Communication ministry. For a reporter often looking for an interview or background on short notice, he was ever so helpful and gracious with information and his time.
A few months after he left office, I ran into him at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and he was kind enough to sit down with us for a quick chat. I haven’t called him lately and, it turns out, so haven’t a whole lot of other people. He recently wrote on his nation.co.ke blog that his phone stopped ringing when he left office.
“My ‘friends’ had moved on. I found myself checking my phone to establish if I had inadvertently put it off. The phone was fine,” he wrote. The post went viral, with people either sympathising with him or praising that rare candidness from a former public official.
Sometimes it is a good thing when your phone doesn’t ring off the hook, because the only people calling are those that truly want to be in your life. The rest were never really interested in you.
Get familiar with these new words
This is awesomesauce because the Oxford dictionary just accepted some new words into the English language. We’ve already been using them for a while but it isn’t really official until those folks who are widely accepted as the custodians of the Queen’s language say it is. Awesomesauce is one of them, and you may now use it to when you mean to say extremely good or excellent. If you’re a boss, or if you just like to speak fancy, you may use onboarding next time you’re introducing a new employee to a company or familiarizing a new customer with your products. If you’ve ever been on a matatu in Kenya, you know those people — usually men — who sit so carelessly that they take up two spaces, right? There’s a word for that now: manspreading. Hopefully he’s not going to a cat cafe, an “establishment where people pay to interact with cats housed on the premises.” If he is, that’s obvs ridic.
RESPECT THE LAW: Larry, I agree with you completely. Me and my family vehemently condemned the Garissa terrorist attack, but I pointed it out to them that they were to blame (me included), and so should not complain. I divert my gaze when the police officer at a traffic stop takes the money from a matatu, and my friends have no problem giving bribes for driving with an expired licence, or when they are found talking on the phone while driving. What happens when you transfer that police officer to the border counties where this readily available cash is not in plenty? He will let the terrorists through! As long as the common Kenyan is giving bribes of Sh1,500 to avoid a fine of Sh500, he will continue to be a key player in the graft game. The only way to weed out corruption is to learn and respect the law. Only when we stop the petty corruption can we solve the problem of terrorism in our country. Gatonye Ng’ang’a
ABETTING THE VICE: Larry, I totally agree with you. I use public means to work every day and it kills me to see passengers accept to be herded into already full matatus. A 14-seater matatu routinely carries 18 people, and all the tout needs to do to evade arrest is hand over a Sh50 note to traffic police officers on the way.
Is my life worth Sh50? Secondly, walking on the streets of the city is a nightmare as hawkers grab every inch of pedestrian walkways, and we abet this wrong because we are the same people who keep them in business despite knowing they are engaging in an illegality.
I understand that they need to hawk to eke a living, but why can’t they stay in their designated areas, where their customers will follow them? If we do our part to stop the ills near us, the government will have all the room to fight the bigger monsters within its ranks. Watare Juliet
BOXED INTO CORNER: Larry, you won’t change a thing until you deal with the law, which, as we all know, is an ass. How do you pay Sh300 parking fees to pop into a shop at the muddy Kenyatta Market for a kilo of sugar selling for Sh130 at 3.50pm, knowing all too well that the county parking inspector will be leaving in 10 minutes? Can motorists have a way with the Nairobi City Council?
Consider this: you get arrested for a minor traffic offence on a Friday, and the only way you can free yourself from the goons is to “talk nicely”.
Insist on your rights and you’re hauled to court, where you might find you have a couple of trumped up charges against you. You pay bail and the legal thieves give you a fake receipt printed on Luthuli Avenue! What are citizens supposed to do? Ngumi Kibera
BUYING FREEDOM: Larry, I have to disagree with you on the stand you have taken concerning corruption and the police. If you call attending court for the most minor or made-up traffic offences “a little inconvenience”, then I think you have never had the misfortune of attending court in Kenya; and also that you have never met rouge cops whose sole intention is to bully you into paying a ransom for you to be allowed to proceed home.
This, Larry, is not simple bribery; people are coerced into it as a way of buying freedom from rogue officers and City Council “inspectors” who have been emboldened and empowered by laws that criminalise even minor infringements on the roads. If we are serious about stopping corruption, let’s have responsible government officers who want to help you, not those bad guys who want to obstruct you for the sole purpose of stealing from you.
Your comments on bribery to procure contracts and other really unethical deeds, including fraud, are right on the money; but remember these things happen even in Western nations. Truth Hurts
Larry is the Online and Technology Editor at NTV. He is also a weekend news anchor and host of the Friday night chat show #theTrend.
Besides his Tuesday column #FrontRow in the Daily Nation’s DN2 magazine, he also hosts a radio show on Nation FM on Sundays from 2pm.
A former business reporter, Larry previously worked with CNBC Africa and KTN. He has contributed to a host of international outlets including the BBC, CNN, ABC News Australia, RTÉ Ireland and Forbes.