The fake passport is the holy grail of travel contraband. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are a couple of reasons for this. A whole world of opportunities await with the FP, some of them lucrative (gold smuggling in Nepal), some of them door-opening (Burma, Congo, China), but all of them ego-inflating. Nothing makes you feel like a MI6 agent from a John Le Carré novel more than the FP. This is because there are only two ways to score this coveted documentation. The first is through shrewd proprietors that somehow managed to steal the stamps, laminant, jacket, and knowledge “off the truck” to manifest such an identity and then have the skill to break into the national directory and, from thin air, create a person. A difficult task indeed. The second, and more common approach, especially in developing countries, is to pluck a live passport from the pants of a dead man. From there the photo can be doctored by splitting the front page and burning through the adhesive with vodka or nail polish remover and then re-gluing. Here in Nairobi, the latter is the method of choice. Scenario: A man is fatally injured on his peeki peeki (motorbike) and before Kenyatta hospital can dispatch an ambulance through the gridlock of the city’s avenues, the man’s pockets are pilfered and, if a passport arises, his body is hidden–making him technically still alive in the eyes of the state. In the recent months, Nairobi has seen a spike in interest for fake passports, mainly due to the war with the terrorist faction Al-Shabaab in Somalia. As thousands of Somalis have crossed into Kenya illegally, many of them flocking as refugees because of the drought over the summer, the Kenyan government has been screening the Somali quarters of the city for terrorists and consequently illegal immigrants. When I heard about such furtive dealings, I had to investigate. After all guns, drugs, magic–none of them hold a candle to the FP.
I’m leaning over the balustrade on the second floor of the Galexon hotel, watching a woman in the square scrap the caked mud off a coffin she is trying to sell. Despite her best efforts she seemingly couldn’t protect it from the daily rains that roll into the mile-high city this time of year. I’m waiting for a call from Benjamin, a local factotum that hangs out in front of a banana stand near by. He’s the one that put me onto the counterfeit ring in the Somali quarter. In my pocket I have two passport photos sheathed in a small manilla envelope as well as 8,000 “Bob” (roughly $80). Benjamin’s story is one of rejuvenation. In Kibera, Africa‘s largest slum, he used to be a “Boogeyman”, a type of dancehall personification that has roots in soul music. He says he would get loaded on Changaa: a home-brewed, white-lightning alcohol that has caused many in the slums to go blind, as well as chew Qat or Miraa, a leaf grown in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that acts as an amphetamine. He opens his mouth and shows me where he lost his two rear teeth from the plant. After getting arrested along the Ugandan/ Kenyan border for drug smuggling and serving two years in Nairobi federal pen., he found God and swore off his old habits. “If you only step on the tongue, you will never enjoy the beauty of the shoe,” he once told me.
When he calls and says it’s time to go, I’m down the stairs in a hurry and we hop into a matatu (microbus) that has “Purple Hustlin” written on the front windshield along with other confusing decals on the chassis. In the bus he tells me that these people will deliver because he spoke to them in Cheng, a pidgin language that uses words from English and Kiswahili, to gain validation with the men. He also tells me that the men have been using a variety of sim cards and numbers to remain anonymous. In Kenya, many kiosks sell sim cards without asking for identification , allowing for a truly surreptitious form of communication, similar to the early 2000s prepaid cellphones in the US. We roll laterally across the city to Eastleigh, the Somali district where we get off and walk to 1st avenue. Benjamin makes a call in Cheng to one of the numbers and we post along the fringe of an arborous arcade and wait.
We watch several jakdaws fly into a group of buzzards that are circling the arcade, endlessly eyeing the meat at our level. Eventually they perch on the branches of a baobab tree that has a beaten, corrugated tin shack built into it. Benjamin recognizes one of the Somalis at the far end of the arcade and tries dialing one of the numbers but it isn’t the right one and the man disappears into a shop. Ten minutes later we see him emerge from a chicken and chips restaurant on the other side of the plaza and Benjamin tells me that many of these houses have a labyrinthine network of tunnels connecting underground, in order to mask complicity. The man comes over and pounds Benjamin and they speak in Cheng for a moment and then shakes my hand suspiciously. “Mzungu” he says to Benjamin questionably (meaning “white foreigner“) to which Benjamin assuages his concerns. The Somali man procures three passports from the pocket of his U.S. Polo association coat and lets me inspect them, two of which are Kenyan and the third is British. For an instant, I try to hypothesize as to how this British civilian managed to have his lifeline pried from his person. But then I surrender to the fact that it is better not to involve myself in such malodorous thought. I pick the most current of the booklets and, while Benjamin is obscuring the man’s view, manage to snap a picture of the page on a table next to me. There is a growing concern now that someone maybe watching from the infinite balconies that line the arcade, so I give the man my passport photos and he disappears into a different door from the two he entered or exited from prior. Benjamin and I wait at a samosa shop for about an hour before he gets a call to come back to the plaza, alone, with the money. Soon after that he returns with the product. The craftsmanship is pretty mediocre. Could I use it to fly, anonymously, to Belarus, or Laos, or French Polynesia? Probably not. Would it save me from the declivities of a Kenyan terrorist prison? Maybe, just maybe