Let's all chip in to buy a new police station

NAIROBI DAYS

There are plans to upgrade our local police post to make it a proper police station. It's not a bad idea. A suspect being held there recently had to be chained to a tree because there was no cell for him. A residents' committee has suggested we have a harambee (self-help, or, more colloquially, a whip-round). This is a very Kenyan concept. Everyone from President Daniel arap Moi downwards holds a harambee when funds need to be raised.

The police commissioner has given his blessing to the proposal and offered to provide the labour for the job. The wananchi (the public) would contribute the funds and the materials. For pounds 100 per household, we could have our own real police station.

This might sound like a lot of money and for Africa it certainly is. But the Langata suburb of south-western Nairobi is an affluent, leafy area with more than its fair share of expatriate executives, retired colonial types, and successful Kenyan businessmen, both black and white. Many of the five-acre plots boast horses, even cattle, and there are more Land- Rovers here than in the smarter parts of the Home Counties.

Nairobi's crime rate is high. Langata is one of the burglars' more popular targets. The lure of rich pickings - stereos, videos, televisions - is too much for some to resist, especially for those living in the shanty towns. Not a week goes past without some horror story of machete-wielding youths carrying off crateloads of hi-fi equipment or hijackers stealing a four-wheel- drive vehicle at gunpoint.

Hence the enthusiasm for a beefed-up police presence in the neighbourhood. How effective it might be is another matter. At the moment they have one car at the local police post but rarely any petrol to run it.

The more generous Langata residents will tell you that while some police officers are extremely capable, most are poorly trained and ineffectual. The most critical assessment is that the Kenyan police force is riddled with corruption.

Stories of policemen conspiring with burglars and hiring their guns out to criminal gangs might be the stuff of expatriate dinner-party gossip. You will also hear that it is the servants, either wittingly or unwittingly, who tip off the intruders and that insurance companies - which must be alerted by householders going away for more than a week - are in on the act.

But it is not only the "blow-ins" here on two-year contracts who are scared. A black Kenyan pilot who has just built a house near me is so worried about security that he is thinking of staying put in town.

"The crime problem might not be as bad as some people make out," said Nick Russel, editor of our community newspaper, "but it would frighten the knickers off someone living in Manchester. As a rule you don't get gangs breaking your door down in the middle of the night - though that can happen. Mostly it's guys coming up to your windows with bolt cutters when you're asleep. Most of them are carrying machetes."

The property where I live has relatively low-key security by local standards. Like most houses hereabouts we have an alarm which calls out a private security force within minutes of being activated. More important, there are two Rhodesian Ridgebacks tethered at the back.

One of my neighbours, a second-generation white Kenyan, has taken his security precautions a step further. In addition to his three dogs, he has installed the following: a night watchman, high fencing, radio alarms, sirens, infra-red beams and trip wires. It goes without saying that he has metal grilles and iron bars on all the windows. What a burglar might be unprepared for, however, is the fact that at night he wires the window bars directly to the mains supply.

You might expect that my neighbour would be armed. And indeed he would be if he had his way. He used to have guns and until recently kept a crossbow close at hand. But he was ordered to hand them in and, being a law-abiding if paranoid individual, he complied.

The other day a white Kenyan actually commiserated with me when I told him I had lived in London for nine years before moving out here. How could I have survived in that urban jungle, he wondered. The job pressure, the crowds, the commuting. Give me the lifestyle out here any day, he said. Who was this guy? Actually he was the director of one of the local security firms.

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