A few nights ago I found myself being ushered in a bullet hole ridden taxi through downtown Nairobi in the small hours of morning. This was an unscheduled stop and, of course, I was not unaware that earlier in the year the people of this country were given to murdering each other en masse.
After a time spent hurtling through conspicuously empty streets my travelling companions and I were dropped in a pool of harsh light and noise, frothing with prostitutes and drunk, skinny boys, all swooning in the thunderous pulse of a monstrous PA bombing the night with a mixture of dub reggae and dancehall.
Armed guards, escorted us into a hotel whose reception was buried in the lobby of a casino. Checking in took until 2 in the morning as our credentials were checked then we were led to our rooms. More armed guards were positioned in the elevator lobbies of each and every floor. The fire escapes – apparently a popular spot for machete attacks and more prosaic muggings – were padlocked. I was advised to wedge a chair against the inside of my door.
Then I was left with the pumping noise of the street ten floors below, the cold water sink, and the TV locked into Aljezeira news broadcasts following the events in Iraq (bombing and assassination), Mozambique (contested election with the real threat of further violence looming) Somalia (internal displaced refugee camps stretching to every doomed horizon) and other blurred reports from other blurred realities.
I report all this gratuitous detail in order to offer the unexpected truth behind this unlikely situation I found myself in. I was not in the slightest bit scared. I was excited – thrilled – by the potential for unrestrained violence. I wanted a gun in my hand. I wanted to take to the casino, to the street, to the alleys. I could not sleep and so remained awake until the same driver in the same wounded cab took us out to the airport at 6.30 in the morning.
I kept my hard-on for violence a closely guarded secret from my companions. I now understand a little more clearly why the horror is made flesh – why the shock and disgust of all violence – when viewed from a comfortable distance does not, in itself, account for the sheer rush to become implicated – involved – when the situation is immediate.
It is true to say that the violence was implicit within the situation and was never realised. But now I know that my presumptions about how I might respond should the unthinkable actually happen cannot be trusted. Nor does it seem appropriate to approach any comfortably remote pacifist standpoint to conflict (like I, for one, have always held) without first appreciating and reconciling the often deeply hidden potential for violence that lurks close to heart.