SOOOOOO turns out it is illegal to take photos of things in Kenya. I don't know exactly what the reasoning is (probably against spying?) but even in malls and grocery stores taking pictures is often not allowed. It is strictly forbidden to take pictures of embassies. Like, illegal. I did not know that. I took a photo of the Canadian embassy out of a taxi window as we were driving by. Call me a criminal.
Some back story is probably necessary. In the past few years, a jihadist fundamentalist militant group called al-Shabaab, based in Somalia, has caused some ruckus in Kenya. The majority of violence has taken place outside of Kenya, but there have been sporadic attacks, which caused Canada to officially list al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization In 2010. In 2010, the group pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Here's the good ol' Wikipedia page if you want more info. The most recent attack attributed to al-Shabaab was on a hotel in Nairobi on January 15, 2019 which had 15 casualties. (I heard all about it from my parents who read about it shortly after I was accepted to take on this internship.)
Just after a few days here, I am amazed by the security everywhere. Like, everywhere. There is a security guard at the entrance of every hotel, many with those airport scanner things you walk through. There are frequent, frequent, frequent police stops on the roads. Every apartment complex we saw had a private guard, and they ask for ID before they let drivers through. In fact, it is illegal not to have your ID with you at all times. All of this security has made me feel quite safe.
Apparently everyone knows you are not allowed to take pictures of consulates or embassies. Everyone except me, that is.
Here's how it went down. After spending a lovely afternoon at the Nairobi National Museum and listening to an impromptu poetry slam, the 4 other girls from McGill and I were off to a restaurant to grab dinner. We called an Uber. From insanely crowded streets with loud honking and lots of traffic, all of a sudden we were seeing manicured lawns on both sides of the road with landscaped greenery. I saw a sign for "Ghana embassy" and then one for "Saudi Arabia embassy" and eventually a Canadian flag. I snapped a few pictures for the memories. We continued another 3 minutes and a barrage of 3 security guards blocked the road until the Uber driver was forced to pull over. Then, 3 security guards quickly became around 7. One guy asked for the three phones from the three white chicks in the Uber, aka me and two of the other McGill interns. They took our passports and my debit card.
One guy demanded to know who took a photo, and I said I did. He demanded to know why. I said I was taking a picture for my grandmother to show her I wasn't that far from home. The guy with the overwhelmingly large gun didn't seem to think that was a good enough reason. Even when they learned two of us were Canadian they weren't any less aggressive. Four of them took turns copying the details of our IDs vigorously in a notebook, and asked for my address in Montreal, my phone number, and my passport number (which thanks to Peruvian hostels I memorized back in 2016).
They said not to worry.
Can I ask a question? How is it possible NOT TO WORRY?
Throughout the encounter, I must have said 5 times "I can just delete the photos as I apologize I did not know it was against the rules." But, there was no rushing the process. One guy asked me to get out of the vehicle. That scared the heeby-jeebies out of me. My knees were wobbly as I stepped into 7+ security guards / soldiers / armed men. One guy said to go look at the sign that said "no pictures." I can honestly say I did not see that sign. He didn't believe me. Maybe I shouldn't have said "it's a small sign" but I did because this was getting ridiculous and by this point I was annoyed.
I sat in the car again. Once they rang our info to the person sitting inside the consulate who verified we weren't registered terrorists, I deleted the photos from my phone and they let us go. That was after 30-40 minutes of intimidation tactics.
3 main takeaways:
1. Read about where you can and cannot take pictures before going to Kenya.
2. Be honest always.
3. Know when to give your Uber driver a generous tip.
We got to the restaurant 5 minutes later and ordered a pitcher of sangria. My Kenyan friend said it was good I miraculously acted chill (the other girls confirmed I only turned white after the car started moving again). She also said I was lucky I wasn't charged a major fee. I guess that means I'm lucky. Cheers.
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