Tuesday, January 1, 2008

As 2007 Becomes 2008...

New Year's Day 2008, Santa Cruz, CA. I'm visiting the Bay Area on my school break, while Kenya is going to hell in a matatu-shaped handbasket. I called my friend Joseph in Eldoret this morning. Last night a bunch of people hid in a church outside town, trying to avoid getting caught in the mayhem. Then some kid decided to throw kerosene on it and light it on fire, killing 40 people.

Joseph is fine, also hiding somewhere trying avoid run-ins with angry mobs, only worried for his family and friends and wondering if he'll run out of food. Public transport is barely running; the matatus that are operating are hiking fares 150%.

I've also heard sporadically from a few volunteers who are hunkered down all around the country, under lockdown by decree from Peace Corps. Everyone is safe so far, staying indoors except for the occasional excursion to get supplies from the nearest town.

I've been following the news from Kenya since the elections on the 27th. That itself was an amusing adventure, with the Xinhua News Agency in China scooping all the other news services including the BBC and New York Times for a short while. Not surprisingly, the Kenyan paper, the Daily Nation, couldn't seem to keep its web server functioning properly during the elections, and now it sounds like domestic press have been restricted from live broadcasts.

Different news sources were reporting conflicting election results until Sunday, but now the truth seems to be filtering through. The incumbent Kibaki camp is still lying about the results in hopes of retaining power, blatantly defying the will of the people. But Kenyans know better. As one guy said, "We live in Kenya. We are Kenyans. We know what is happening." At the same time, opposition candidate Raila Odinga plans to have a Million-Man March on Thursday in Nairobi's Uhuru Park to declare himself the true president of the people. Kibaki's government has already said the demonstration will be considered illegal, and most people think it will further propel the country into chaos.

It's kind of odd to hear all the news. The last time I was in Uhuru Park was a year ago. I rented a splintery wooden boat with Brady and Melanie, and we paddled around the lagoon. At one point we thought it would be funny to spin our boat with short paddlestrokes in the middle of the lagoon. It was funny only to us, three mzungus twirling in a creaking paddleboat, but I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face.

The park was full of families and kids. There was even a boat like ours filled with at least 20 people (capacity: 5) and four kids screaming CHING CHONG CHING CHING CHONG at me while their parents laughed as if it were perfectly acceptable to raise ill-mannered brats. A year ago, even a month ago, Kenya was just another country with a bustling economy, a large rich-poor gap, and a government machine that flowed as smoothly as molasses on a winter morning. Tribal tensions were a way of life, always lurking beneath the surface of social interactions, but rarely erupting into conflict.

Kenyans have always prided themselves on being one of the most politically stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa. To me, all of Africa has the same fertile valleys, savannahs teeming with wild animals and quiet, idyllic village communities that I knew in Kenya. Occasionally, after I returned to the U.S., people would ask how it was to deal with all the political instability in Kenya. After all, Africa is nothing but war and disease.

It was always strange to try to explain that Kenya has always been peaceful. I was always met with skeptical gazes, like people were waiting for me to pause and then say, "Just kidding!" They couldn't seem to comprehend that I lived in an African country and there was no conflict to speak of.

It never occurred to me to use qualifiers like "peaceful" and "politically stable" when I told people I lived in Africa. I've extrapolated my experience in Kenya to all of Africa, so peaceful was always assumed when I talked about any African country, except certain parts of Sudan, or Rwanda in 1994.

Now I see photos and footage from Kenya and wonder how this can be the same country I lived in for two years. Places I once knew are now smoldering embers. I see pictures of people dressed in the familiar clothes ubiquitous in every market, people with Kenyan features and expressions, but they've got a big stick raised over their heads while someone else with Kenyan features and expressions lies on the ground covering their face with bloody hands. This is not familiar.

I'm sad and worried for my Kenyan friends, and in a vague sort of way I feel like I should be sad for this abstract concept of Kenya itself. It's a place I once called home. It's a place that will always be a part of me. It's also a place that made me bitter and cynical about humanity, a place that I've vowed never to return to.

But with all the reports of violence and conflict has also come this sense of loss. I don't recognize the country I once knew anymore. The Kenya I knew wasn't on fire. More specifically, it wasn't on fire because people were trying to kill each other. The Kenya I once knew didn't resemble the tales of chaos and strife that dominate Western portrayals of Africa. Now, I fear that it might. When I see pictures from Kenya, I think of pictures from Rwanda 14 years ago. Of course the comparison is a bit inappropriate; nothing that has happened so far is on the scale of genocide.

Maybe this will blow over in a few days. Maybe it will get worse. I'm going to keep hitting F5 on the New York Times' website.


Ebony said...

i really hope it'll blow over soon. this does not sound anything like the kenya i've learned about from you. i'm glad you're not there, and i pray your friends will be safe. what sad news.

chrissoup said...

Thank you for this post. I was hoping you'd comment on the current situation in Kenya. What a sad situation.