[published: February 27, 2008]
An American resident of Nairobi reacts to Kenya’s post-election violence
Before Christmas I found myself on safari, caught between four rhino on one side and 20 elephants on the other. On January 4th I found myself outside my Nairobi home, caught between the political opposition’s rally and the anti-riot police. Today, Kenya is still stuck, between obstinate politicians on one side and unyielding neighbors on the other.
Kibera, a slum packed with so many they can’t count them all but label it as the most densely populated slum in sub-Saharan Africa – and which, incidentally, is not only the poorest constituency in Kenya but also has opposition leader Raila Odinga at its helm – has once again been showcased.
I may not be Kenyan, but I know Kibera and love its people – I worked there for five years and two months. I know two mamas who made a youth return a stolen item and apologize, saying “You cannot do this, these people are helping our children.” I know Mary who sells vegetables, and gives away her smiles. I know Ken, who gives food to HIV+ parents and their dependents. I know Laban, once a street boy and now a proud (but still sometimes naughty) high school student who helps around my house on holidays to put food on his family’s table. I know Freddy, the guard at our gate, whose smile lights up the dark night. I know Joseph, a former guard who hosted me numerous times for tea, and his ancient grandmother, whose dance of shoulder-shaking and toothless laugher welcomes me as their visitor. This is the Kibera I know. Different ethnic groups. People of dignity, poor but more full of life than most wealthy people I know.
Their vibrant spirit comes from knowing that true life is not found in the things you have, but with the people you can share life with. It comes from keeping hope alive – hope that the future can be better for your children, hope that you can, in a small way, make a difference. That hope was what caused Kenyans to queue in serpentine lines for hours upon end to vote on December 27th. Their vote was their voice, and they wanted it heard.
President Mwai Kibaki’s economic advancements had not benefited them: the rich got richer, as evidenced by Kenya being the third most unequal country in the world, while the poor got poorer. In 2002 Kenyans were statistically the most hopeful people in the world. As one Kenyan said in response to a New York Times article, “killing hope can make people go crazy.” That former president Daniel arap Moi acted like a dictator was expected; Kibaki acting like one was betrayal.
Kibaki may have won. It’s really not clear. Both sides surely rigged. But the sheer brazenness of it, with Kibaki’s Central Province delaying reporting by three days to see what gap needed to be filled, and the waffling words of the Electoral Commission chairman, became the fire that consumed the hope of the poor and set their anger raging into an unstoppable fury. The violent unrest has tragically ended the lives of over 1,000, left an estimated 500,000 people traumatized refugees, and caused billions of dollars worth of economic losses (not including the losses to land-locked countries of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC that depend on Kenya for the safe transit of supplies) which has translated into 400,000 lost jobs. What makes me saddest of all is the insurmountable loss incurred by the poor who were inching their way up shilling by shilling as they started their own humble businesses to put food on their table. When I think of people like Mama Kamam, whose children I once worked with, calling me panicked on Monday the 31st, fleeing for their lives and wondering where to go – I cry for the Kenya I believe in, which has gone into hiding as much as Kibaki went into hiding for the first five days of violence.
It is important to see the current ethnic violence rooted in the “ethnicity” of economics – the rich tribe and the poor tribe combined with lack of systemic change. Ethnic violence is not new to Kenya and has permeated the Kenyan system since independence, and still happens on a daily basis for many of Kenya’s indigenous communities, such as the Ogiek of the Mau Forest. In the same place where Kikuyus gave their lives to fight for independence, these Kenyans have for decades had their houses burned by timber companies, their land confiscated by the government and their women raped so that other dominant tribes can exploit the forest resources. There are actually at least 74 tribes formally recognized by the UN. Many are small because of such historical activities. Many Kenyans have lived chronically as victims of ethnic violence. Now, however, that Kikuyus again (after colonialism) and other dominant groups feel what it means to be persecuted, I pray now that peace will mean not only peace for the five major ethnic groups, but peace for all Kenyans.
The writing was on the wall, as Sunny Bindra’s article in the February 24th Sunday Nation stated: “The fundamental ills in our society have been apparent for a long, long time. What we lacked was the honesty to accept them and the guts to confront them… Clearly, the fact that our country’s median age is around 18, that we have the world’s biggest and most studied slums, that people in rural areas routinely kill their neighbours over things like access to rivers or ownership of cattle, were beneath our notice… [And] which of the big people have ever ended up in jail at any point in our history, no matter how large the crime?”
The world’s most expensive constitutional review process with no new constitution, victorious political parties registered three months before the election, and failure to implement key policies, along with a complicit upper class and complacent middle class have played their parts in what we have seen.
I went to Kibera on the Friday after election results, to see for myself. Toi Market, the supermarket of Kibera, was leveled the day prior. The paths I wound daily for six weeks in 1998 were indistinguishable from the ashes. Ah… so that was the plumes of smoke we saw on the horizon…Livelihoods turned to ashes.
My heart breaks, and I do the little I can – we jump the fence at the supermarket on the 30th after hearing the election results and find bare shelves and floors carpeted with sugar and flour. For over a month I bought food to feed those I know who could no longer afford food as the prices in the slums quadrupled – factories cannot produce, and vehicles cannot deliver, wholesale markets ground to a halt and who suffers still more: the poor.
But the story that hasn’t been told by the media in the midst of the looting, the ethnic violence and the excuses for unbridled brutality, are the stories of ordinary heroes. Countless people – far outnumbering those committing crimes – have stepped up, talking to those they know in power, or offering blankets to those left out in the cold, or taking someone who has been injured to the hospital. Without media coverage, without glitz. Like Mukuria, who risked his life at roadblocks to take supplies to displaced Ogiek who had been left out of Red Cross distributions. Too many who could do something have been silent – painfully silent, astonishingly silent – but that does not lessen the significance of those who have made a stand. Still, the voices least heard were those most needed: those of the political leadership.
Those of us who may see “ethnic cleansing” as something removed from our own world need but to just review our own muddled history in America and realize that the human heart is, at its core, centric to its own kind, be it race or ethnicity, culture or religion. It was not long ago that I looked back across the Atlantic to my own country and saw media reports of beatings and killings of those who looked Muslim or Arab. I have black friends who turn when they see police cars lest they get harassed for the crime of owning a nice car which they must have stolen. Last year hate crimes increased according to the Associated Press. The point is, America and Americans: we are no different. We are equally able to let anger dominate us; we are expert at taking out our frustration on the wrong people; we are quick to point a finger, and to find a solution for others’ problems. And the hope for Kenya is the hope for America: that we are equally able to heal the underlying festering wounds in our respective nations.
I do not think Kenya’s solution is through political mediation alone. Each Kenyan has to look in the mirror and see both his own worst enemy and Kenya’s best hope, as my friend said. What kind of world could we all create in our own countries if we individually really were “the change we wanted to see in the world”, as Mahatma Gandhi said in South Africa during his own struggles with intense racial discrimination. None of us are defined by only one aspect of our identity. It is that complexity within us which enables us to appreciate the diversity of other people.
- #1 Rock 'n Real Estate
- #2 Farm/Land
- #3 Showbiz
- #4 Violence & Conflict
- #5 Islands
- #6 Animals
- #7 The Subterraneans
- #8 After the Deluge
- #9 Boredom
- #10 Fear and Loathing
- #11 Medicine
- #12 Obsession
- #13 Migration
- #14 Revolution
- #15 Hidden In Plain Sight
- #16 Independence
- #17 Exploration
- #18 Education
- #19 Walls and Borders