Heading out on safari with D’s parents, we ran into a bit of trouble. We were cruising on a wide, recently-paved road outside Isiolo, four hours north of Nairobi, when we came upon a small cluster of cars stalled in the middle of the road. We too stopped and D got out of the car to ascertain what was going on. We had just crested a big hill; at the bottom of the hill, less than a quarter mile away, people were busy dragging giant rocks onto the pavement. Kindling and old tires followed the big rocks and before long the road was aflame.
If prior experience was a good indicator, these developments did not bode well for our safari. In 2006, D’s parents came to visit him in Ecuador, where he was serving with the Peace Corps. Their visit coincided with month-long demonstrations against a proposed free trade agreement that was being negotiated between the U.S. and Ecuadorian governments. Indigenous groups had blocked the main highway and when D tried to skirt the conflict areas by driving through the Amazon region, he encountered more blocked roads and villagers armed with machetes who were gearing up for a fight. D reversed course and was able to drive back to Quito, but that day a dozen people died in clashes with police.
On another memorable occasion, D was with a friend on an overnight bus to the Ecuadorian coast that was also forced to stop because of burning tires in the road. D and his friend waited till daybreak, then grabbed their bags, crossed the no-go zone, and caught a ride on the other side. Clearly, this was not an option this time around, as we were in our own vehicle, and with diplomatic plates to boot. Also, we were in Kenya and the potential for violence here is much higher than it was in Ecuador. Isiolo had recently experienced a spate of interethnic conflict that had displaced several thousand people and left dozens dead. The rumor being passed around by the villagers who had gathered around the stopped cars was that a policeman had shot and killed a woman. There was definitely going to be trouble.