Former Lost Boy Machot Lat Thiep in Nairobi, Kenya. All photos by Tim Freccia.
"They’re all coming here. Maybe not now, maybe not next year, but they are coming. Halliburton, Monsanto, Nike, Samsung. They’re all coming.”
Our driver’s name is Edward. He’s in his mid 30s, white, and born in Kenya, with rosy cheeks and blond, curly hair. His English accent is the kind that some might call archaic. Others might say it’s colonial.
Hours earlier, Edward told me that he’d finally found a pilot who had agreed to fly our motley crew into war-torn South Sudan, specifically the volatile rebel-held region. South Sudan is Africa’s—and the world’s—newest sovereign nation. It was granted independence on July 9, 2011, following a referendum that passed with more than 98 percent of the vote.
Weeks before our arrival, the government had imploded after a series of events that resulted in deep schisms within the administration, perhaps most critically the ousting of former vice president and current rebel leader Riek Machar at the behest of President Salva Kiir. Current reports have Machar running for his life, hiding somewhere deep in the bush. I was determined to find him and was fairly sure I could—if only we could charter a goddamn plane and find a pilot with the nerve to fly in.
Edward is telling me what he would do if he had a million dollars to “invest in Africa.” All the while we’re driving at breakneck speed on a dark Nairobi highway, with our low beams barely revealing the road ahead or anything that could be obstructing it.
Accompanying me is Machot Lat Thiep, a Lost Boy and former child soldier and now a manager of a Costco in Seattle, who insists he wants to “save his country.” The third member of our party is photographer and filmmaker Tim Freccia, an old hand at covering Africa. Persuading these two to come along was easy.
What has been a real bitch is finding a pilot in Kenya who wants to smuggle us into South Sudan. This is mostly because of the risk of being tagged as conspirators with the rebels, which could easily result in the pilot’s being burned to a crisp after dropping us off. We had been in the country for ten days, had met with a dozen charter companies and tried to convince half a dozen pilots, and those who didn’t turn us down outright had bailed at the last minute. It was getting to the point where we were considering a flight back to the States instead. But Edward insists that he’s found our man.
“This guy’s a cowboy. He does hostage extractions out of Somalia,” says Edward. “The Somalis tried to grab his helo last year, and he just buggered off. He was shut down for a month, but that’s the price you pay.”
Edward is an animated fellow. He occasionally stares out the windshield, narrowly avoiding potholes and speed bumps, his headlights still set low at dim yellow. We drive past a semi that has rolled off the highway. “Gimme your camera,” he says. He pulls closer to take a photo in the fading light. The locals try to block his view, swatting at the lens. He pulls forward until he gets his shots of the mangled cab and rig. “Nasty one.”
The brand-new country of South Sudan fell apart a few weeks ago, and Machot wants to get in. I want a scoop interviewing Machar, and Tim is along to capture it all.
We are on the way to our aircraft. This pilot is our last option.
But we have three hours to kill as we drive north to the private airfield. In my pocket is a wad of crisp Benjamins totaling $15,000. We talk about Africa and opportunity.
“You open a corporation, file everything, create a website, the whole thing… and you wait,” Edward says.
He dodges a belching fuel truck and returns his attention to me.
“Sooner or later they have to come to you. The president’s son stole the Vodafone name. Vodafone put him up for two weeks at the Intercon, but he wouldn’t budge. So they had to call it Safaricom.”
He is talking about the son of President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, himself the son of the nation’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta.
On a continent known for poaching, this is an odd, high-tech form of legal trickery. It’s like squatting, similar to what tribal chiefs used to do when they met white explorers, eager to sign away thousands of acres of land they didn’t own. Back then, all the deal took was a bolt of cloth and a few trinkets.
“It only costs $240 to register a company. Names like JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs… you know they are coming.” Edward is quite sincere, apologetic for revealing his greed.
We careen north from Nairobi through the maze of matatu minibuses, giant potholes, and rambling pedestrians in the Kenyan night. Our hurry to the airstrip is part of some yet-to-be-explained intricate game of timing, something that always seems odd in this laid-back continent.
Robert Young Pelton counting hundred-dollar bills
I chose Edward because he is a rose man. Roses are a major crop in Kenya, and they need to be flown out every day. He spent last week arranging flights to rescue NGOs from the fighting in South Sudan. As a native white Kenyan, Edward knows a lot of things that the causal visitor would never see.
Edward knows genetics. “Roses are a big business in Kenya,” he explains. “There is a narrow window around 4,200 feet. You raise them too high, and the blooms are too big; too low, and the stems are too long. I know which roses sell. Which grow. I could buy a plot of land, put the best roses on them, and make a fortune.” Edward is tired of seeing other, less passionate, less knowledgeable people make money while he juggles multiple jobs to get by. “A square meter of roses can generate $50 a year in profit.”
We swerve out of the way of an oncoming truck.
Roses are a great way to smuggle drugs. Much of the aviation industry is hired to fly khat, a drug grown in Kenya and Somalia, next door. But there is a lot of drugs coming into Kenya—cocaine and heroin, mostly. Edward knows that business too. “Flowers come with those little white packets that are supposed to be full of sugar to keep them blooming longer.” He holds up his fingers to show me. “Heat-sealed, so the dogs can’t smell them.”
The rose business also offers the opportunity to launder drug money. “You pay expenses in [Kenyan] shillings,” he says, “but you get paid overseas in hard currency—dollars and euros. Keep it offshore and just repatriate enough to cover your costs.”
Edward is not involved in these businesses, but he sees the money that is made by those who are. For now he hustles. He’s an African jack-of-all-trades looking to cash in on his own continent while he watches foreigners make bank all around him.
He took it as a personal challenge when I asked if he could find me a pilot willing to take us into South Sudan—especially considering where we wanted to go and whom we wanted to meet.
The conversation makes the time go by as we drive in the black of night.
A Brookside Dairy truck with the slogan “Goodness for All” painted across its side is blocking our way.
“I’m telling you, Robert, everything is corrupt here,” Edward says, pointing to the truck. “The president of Kenya owns Brookside Dairy. When Parmalat, a big Italian company, tried to get in here, they suddenly couldn’t get a license.” (Parmalat pinned this on violence related to the elections.)
Somewhere in the dark is a massive pineapple plantation. “Everyone is making money. President Kenyatta’s family is collectively one of the biggest landowners in the country,” he insists. And then there are the government’s “ghost workers”: “The Kenyan government has thousands of people on the government payroll who don’t exist. They found out that of 16,000 employees, only 12,000 came to work.
“Every government tender is corrupt. When we have a $600,000 bid, we quote it at $1.2 million, because we have to slip $200,000 to the procurement people.”
Another fuel truck grinds by. “Fuel is a big scam. They load up in Mombasa, and the driver bribes the guy not to seal the lids on top. Kids ride along at night, siphoning off the fuel and pouring cheap kerosene back in to keep the amount the same. They can do it in a pickup truck while the tanker is driving. If they steal five drums each trip, that’s about $1,000 a day. Not a lot, but enough to make it worthwhile. Then the driver has the kids seal the top and drops off his load.”
Along with its lure of big money and unrealized opportunity, Edward believes that Africa is rotten to the core. While I have no way of knowing if everything Edward believes is true, it is accurate to say that opportunity in Africa is a two-way street. Those with the resources are just as smart as the people coming to exploit the continent. Corruption here is akin to patronage: Make the right friends, grease the right palms, and things happen.
“They make a lot of money on forex [foreign exchange] here. There is a man inside the Central Bank of Kenya who tells traders whether the shilling is going up or down. His friends trade and make millions. Mostly Indians. That’s why everything here is fake—they move the money up and down. That guy at the side of the road,” he points, “makes 300 shillings [about $3] a day. Next year, he will have to make twice that. Meanwhile, all the fat cats are getting rich. Every contract here has a price.
“It’s frustrating. I have sent out 32 proposals for a rose farm. Real proposals, vetted by lawyers and accountants. I need $2,800 an acre—a total of $1.2 million—and in one year and seven months you get your money back.”
Edward is not a linear thinker; he likes to digress. And so we are suddenly back to logo squatting: “Companies like Monsanto are coming here. They have to come to you because it costs too much to litigate. It’s corrupt. They have to pay everyone off. You have to pay people off…” he trails off. But his ventures have ultimately made money, he says.
“I bought a piece of land outside a military base. The colonel told me I should buy some land, so I did. I paid $5,000 for it and sold it for $42,000 nine months later. They were expanding the base, and they needed it for a fuel station. Lucky, I guess.”
Equipment and supplies being loaded into a chartered plane in Nairobi
Then we arrive. He flings the wheel over, and we plunge into the dark. A chain-link fence looms in the dim headlights.
“Soja soja,” Edward yells out in perfect Swahili. A guard opens the gate, and suddenly we are surrounded by what looks like a resort, except with a large aircraft parked outside the bar-restaurant.
Our discussion on how things happen in Africa seemed to indicate that the only way we are going to get a flight is to do it the “African” way.
Earlier in the day, the pilot had us put together a forged letter of permission from the government of South Sudan using Photoshop and the made-up name of a minister who doesn’t exist. As an example of how things work, it isn’t the pilot who needs the letter but the bureaucrat who might later ask to see it, with a little financial compensation to say that the paperwork is in order.
The price, $15,000, is also about twice what a charter to South Sudan should cost. But using a private, remote strip like this means that no outsiders or government officials will know about our trip.
While we wait for our pilot at the bar, Edward tells me another story: “My uncle and his wife had a safari company. They had an accountant they trusted. He did his thing; she did her thing. Always traveling. Then the accountant sets up a shadow company that looks and sounds exactly like the safari company. The accountant goes to the hardware store and other suppliers and gets fake invoices. For every ten grand in invoices, the supplier gets two grand.
“As my uncle and aunt were dashing off, he would say, ‘Now sign here; let’s take care of these bills.’ This goes on for seven years, and they have lost almost a million dollars. Is it possible to fight corruption? No. They have a saying here: ‘Lift too many stones, and you will get bitten.’”
Finally, our pilot walks in. He is stout, already a few beers in, and another native white Kenyan. The owner gives us beers and lights a cigarette.
The pilot fills in the gaps of the story that Edward recounted on the drive—of how he swooped into Somali airspace and snatched up the emaciated and abandoned Danish and Filipino crew of the MV Leopard. After he dropped the ransom, the authorities in Mogadishu surrounded his Eurocopter and ignored the yelling Somalis. “They complained to the Kenyans and had us shut down for 30 days.” They knew there was a lot of money involved. He rubs his fingers together.
It seems every pilot here has a story to tell. We have been through many, and we want to meet a pilot who will fly his plane into a war rather than run his mouth about how dodgy his work is.
As we sit in the airfield’s rustic restaurant, it starts to rain. A smell of fresh grass wafts through the open walls. The pilot flicks his cigarette.
I explain that we want to leave as soon as possible to link up with the rebels and interview their leader. I inform him that we’ve had a hell of a time finding a pilot who will fly anywhere other than Juba, South Sudan’s capital—a place that would mean certain death for Machot and arrest for us if they knew where we were going.
“There’s your plane,” he says, pointing to the twin-engine Cessna 210 parked in the lot with pride. “We’ll take off with the transponders off, fly low under the radar, file a flight plan for Lokichoggio, and then drop you in Akobo. The hills should block the radar, and by the time we are back no one will be wiser. You pack your stuff in the side compartments and get out the pilot’s door.”
After landing, he warns, the plane will stay grounded, engines running, for no more than four minutes before hightailing it the other way. Then, mid-cigarette, he stops, looking grim. Either the change in the weather, something we’ve said, or just sitting in the dark is bringing some juju I can’t comprehend.
“You know… something is not right. I am not going to do it. You know what? I think I am going to give you your money back.”
Edward and I stare at each other, not quite believing him.
Our pilot continues: “I brought out hostages in November, and they tried to impound my helicopter. When I got back to Kenya, they pulled my license for 30 days.”
He is retelling the same story he told us less than 30 minutes ago, but now it’s been skewed from a tale of bravery to a reason not to take us to the bush. Then, appropriately, the power goes out, and we all sit in the dark.
“I am not going to risk my license and $15 million in business. We do a lot of business in South Sudan. If Juba finds out, I’m fucked.
“We will do this one right. We will fly through Juba. I have my people at the airport. Your guy can hide in the plane, and ten minutes later we’ll be off to Akobo. Yeah… we’ll do this right. Get a visa at the airport for South Sudan, and we’ll get this done. Come round the office in the morning, and we will sort out a plan.”
Edward is stunned. We retreat to his car to discuss, but almost immediately decide to start the engine and leave the pilot and his plane and this place that amounted to a three-hour drive to nowhere. And now it’s raining.
Back on the road south to Nairobi, Edward is pissed. “That fucker!” he shouts as he pounds the wheel. “He knew everything we were going to do! He agreed! Fuck!” He shoves his BlackBerry toward me and scrolls through emails. The glowing phone confirms that our plans were no secret. “Read it. That fucker. $15 million, my ass. He doesn’t do any business in South Sudan; that’s why I picked him.”
I can feel the carefully counted, newly minted stack of greenbacks burning a hole in my pocket. Our chances of finding a pilot to bring us in are lower than ever, and there’s a real possibility that this trip will be a total bust. As Edward drives like a madman back to Nairobi, we shift around in our seats and try to muster the energy to contemplate Plan C, D, or whatever letter of the alphabet we are up to by now.