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Robbed in Nairobi

In terms of danger, Nairobi is frequently mentioned in the top 20 most dangerous cities in the world.

One minute everything was fine - I was chatting away in the passenger seat next to my driver Joe - then wham - my bag goes out the window and I'm shouting at him to take me to the nearest police station.

I'd been in Kenya almost three weeks and had conquered its highest mountain, visited the coast at Watamu and Gede and had witnessed some spectacular scenes in the Masai Mara. We were on our way back from Nanyuki, 200km north-east of Nairobi and nearly at the airport when we were robbed.

The road we were on - the Thika Highway, was a nightmare from the start. I'd had to travel it bcause there weren't enough flights between the two destinations to complete my schedule in time. Anyway, I reasoned, it was a four-hour drive at most and I was looking forward to the scenery. I'd booked the return transfer through a company that had been recommended, so I trusted things would work out.

What I didn't know was that major roadworks on a 40km stretch of road east of Nairobi's centre added clouds of dust and serious traffic to the already dangerous potholes and the toxic stench from badly maintained vehicles. On the outward journey, we soon left the genteel surroundings of Kenyatta University - all lawns and purple flowering jacaranda trees - and began to pick our way through the roadworks. A Chinese construction company has been contracted to do the job while the road is still in use and dozens of its lorries lined the unmade road. Despite all this, we had made it safely to Nanyuki. I was pleased because once I'm in a country, I don't like flying everywhere as it gives you an unrealistic view of a destination and makes you feel as though you're holidaying in a bubble. Yet purely from the point of view of comfort, I wished I'd been able to fly the distance.

Leaving Nanyuki at 4pm, our journey back six days later was mostly calm and uneventful, although I was irritated again by the black fumes which filled the air, Joe's slow driving and the constant opening and closing of windows instead of using the air conditioning. But I didn't like to criticise and trusted that he would get me safely to my destination. We stopped twice at service stations and my guard was probably slightly down as I'd used public transport the previous day without incident. At about 6.15pm we hit the evening rush hour and the roadworks; at about 7pm, after we had been stationary in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a few minutes, a man rushed past our car on the left, knocking the passenger wing mirror. "Sorry!" he shouted, without stopping. I went to push it back, but just as I went to close the window, another man reached in and grabbed my bag. I kept hold of it for as long as I could - gaining a huge bruise on my arm in the process - but Joe did nothing. The man ran off with my bag and I shouted to Joe "Why didn't you do anything?"

"They had a gun to my head," he said. "There were three of them - one was on my side with a gun and there was a third one trying to get into the boot."

We were fortunate, I suppose, not to be carjacked or shot, but I still lost more than Dh9,000 worth of items - from my wallet with cash, credit cards and driving licence to prescription sunglasses, iPod and camera. People keep telling me I'm lucky, but I didn't feel very lucky, I felt angry - mainly, that tourists who already put huge amounts of money into the Kenyan economy can be treated in this way. The only comfort was that my passport was in a different bag and that I had travel insurance, although that cannot compensate for the trauma or the time spent sorting everything out. I also found comfort in knowing that the vast majority of Kenyans are kind and helpful, shown not least by the fact that many people personally apologised to me when they found out what had happened.

The police in the run-down district of Pangani not far from the airport, were reasonably efficient if not particularly consoling. The company I had booked the transfer was immediately helpful in meeting me at the airport so I could cancel my credit cards and lending me some cash to get me through the airport and to my bank in London. It rather spoilt things when I received an e-mail the following morning saying: "You seemed fine ... Best wishes from Nairobbery!"

In terms of danger, Nairobi is frequently cited as one of the world's most dangerous cities in the world - although it falls way below places such as New Orleans and Detroit in the United States, Cape Town, which I visited this year without incident, and Beirut, where I've been three times, also without incident. Indeed, in 15 years of travel to 52 countries, this is the first time I've been robbed.

According to figures from Kenya Police, crime dropped steadily in the country between January 2006 and December 2008; figures for 2009 are not yet published online. The UK Foreign Office, however, warns against all but essential travel to low-income areas of Nairobi, to "avoid stopping at the side of the road, particularly at night", and to "always drive defensively with vehicle doors locked and windows closed at all times ... Incidents of armed car-jackings are more prevalent in Nairobi and Mombasa but can occur in any area of the country. Do not attempt to escape from hijackers or resist their demands."

The Kenya Tourist Board chooses not to warn visitors of Nairobi's dangers on its website, but its managing director, Murithi Ndegwa, told me: "Most visits to national parks, game reserves and other popular tourist destinations in Kenya remain incident free. The Thika Highway and Kenya, in general, remains relatively crime free and almost all visitors to Kenya will return home having only experienced a pleasant stay.

"Despite our best attempts and efforts to ensure the same, Kenya, just like any other country, is not devoid of such unfortunate incidents. Visitors are encouraged to be aware of their surroundings and demonstrate an appropriate level of vigilance at all times just as they would visiting any foreign country. Additionally, travellers should always use transportation organised by reputable tour companies or well-marked taxis."

I, for my part, won't be put off travelling to Kenya in future - but I will, sadly, have to be more vigilant. All travellers, no matter what arrangements they have made or which company they are travelling with, should take responsibility for their own safety and never, ever, delegate that task entirely to others.

 

rbehan@thenational.ae

 

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