My first real encounter with the Kenyan police came late one night on a motorcycle. I rounded a corner in the darkness of Langa-Langa, a large neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Nakuru, Kenya. I was sleepy and my dinner-host – a young Kenyan named Dickson – had stuffed me full of delicious local cuisine. The motorcycle's headlights illuminated a Soviet-era military truck with several heavily-armed men scattered around its edges. All of them peered with hostility from the shadows cast along its camouflage lining. I felt my stomach sink. They muttered something threatening in Swahili -- one thrust his assault rifle skyward and stepped out to block the road. I tapped the driver on the shoulder “Twendeni! Let’s go!” I shouted over the engine. We accelerated past, the men in the truck yelling after us. "Who are they?" I asked. "The police," he said.
Many times the police are conspicuously absent with most of their resources devoted to protecting formal, well-established (and usually well-connected) firms and streets near City Hall or in a city’s central business district. But private security is everywhere in Kenya. A local bar and mzungu (Swahili for ‘foreigner’) haunt proudly displays on its entrance: “Protected by Robinson Security.” Two stoic guards in pressed blue uniforms frame the open gate of a supermarket in Nakuru. Before entering a night club, a friendly but stern door guard frisks those entering. Indeed, throughout Kenya’s cities and along the roads to and from the capital, cars emblazoned with security services roll past stalled motorcycles and traders hawking their wares to trucks ensnared in Nairobi’s impenetrable traffic.