Guests at the Kisumu hotel had not expected to spend quite so much time in each other’s company. Events, however, intervened in the form of riots that exploded in the Kenyan opposition stronghold on Saturday as the city’s residents sensed electoral victory was about to be snatched from their candidate’s grasp.
On the previous evening, it had appeared that Raila Odinga, son of Luo leader Oginga Odinga, had the election in the bag. Kisumu’s inhabitants, who belong mainly to the Luo tribe and accord Raila near god-like status, knew better.
The deserted morning streets were the giveaway. Once at the heart of a thriving sugar, cotton and fish trade, Kisumu is in the economic doldrums. Its prospects were about to get a whole lot grimmer. In the slums, supporters of Raila’s ODM movement were taking out their fury on residents from the rival Kikuyu and Kisii tribes suspected of voting for the government.
The blue waters of Lake Victoria, framed by the jewel-green Maseno hills, glittered enticingly. But the smoke rising from burning barricades in the city centre lent the scene a revolutionary flavour. “Close the door,” shouted a female security guard as guests spotted young men running towards the hotel, fleeing a police charge.
Situated just round the corner from the main shopping street, the hotel verandah was the ideal vantage from which to monitor a day-long looting spree. Locked inside, the guests – mostly middle class Luos who had returned to Kisumu to vote and to celebrate Christmas – kept up an appalled, increasingly sardonic running commentary on events outside.
First came Bata, the famous shoe chain. It is not easy to carry 10 pairs of shoes, but many looters managed it. “Look at that woman, she’s got hundreds of shoes; all she ever wanted in her life,” said a guest.
Then it was electronics: generators, microwaves, ghetto blasters, even double-compartmented freezers, herded along the street like cattle. “You can bet none of these guys have electricity at home,” remarked a US-accented entrepreneur. Scores of televisions were wheeled past on boda boda taxi bikes.
Next were furnishings: rolls of linoleum, fake Persian carpets, sheets of corrugated iron, entire velour sofas, balanced on heads or carried by two men, piled high with goodies. “Terrible, just terrible,” muttered a guest, lifting her daughter to get a better view. Occasionally the General Service Unit (GSU) riot police drove by, firing tear gas in a desultory fashion. But it was like trying to dam the tide: 10 minutes later looters were back. Nearby buildings were burning, black smoke billowing, gas cylinders exploding.
The same looters were coming back for second, third and fourth helpings. A surprising number were female. Two strapping girls, running in kitten heels, made a strong impression. “These are thugs, women thugs,” said the hotel clerk with a shake of his head.
As the sun set, the looters tired. The occasional “ODM, ODM” chant had come a definite second in a sustained operation of self-enrichment. During 12 hours, Kisumu’s most impoverished inhabitants had done their bit to narrow Kenya’s yawning gap between rich and poor, reducing one of the country’s most charming urban hubs to the state of a city in a war zone.
Long after they could play any useful part, riot police with helmets and shields deployed across the burning commercial centre. A hotel guest, surreally chirpy, was on the mobile phone to a friend: “Hey, don’t bother coming shopping down here tomorrow. There’s nothing left to buy.”