Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Oh, Kenya...

I lived in Kenya, in Nyeri near the foot of Mt. Kenya, for a year in 1996-1997. I taught at a private Kenyan primary (and boarding!) school (K-8) and had my first experience teaching younger children (3rd/4th grade, language arts and science). I learned so much that year--so much--about myself, about private schools, about Kenya, about what true "luxury" is (time, media-free time).

So, speaking of media, I am chagrined by the coverage of Kenya's election and the subsequent violence. What's happening there is horrible; don't get me wrong. But there's something about this general sense of the country that I am guessing my fellow Americans are getting...that Kenya is now "off limits," that what used to be one of the most "progressive," tourist-friendly African nations is proving to be as politically unpredictable and violent as one might have imagined.

It makes me very sad, because I think there's so much more story to tell...

Now I need to make some disclaimers, before I state what I know and/or believe to be true. First, I have not been to Kenya in ten (gulp) years (that makes me sad). Second, I am no expert on politics, on Kenya's tribes, and on what is happening now, for sure.

But here's what I want to assert, perhaps in defense of Kenya and its people, and perhaps because I think we Americans just don't get the developing world (I apologize for how patronizing that sounds! But still!):

1. I will always think of Kenya as far safer than America, in general. And I can hardly convince you of the confidence and security and general well-being I felt while living there, especially since most of the news ABOUT Kenya at the time was not so good, and it made my family WORRIED. There were riots and demonstrations then that turned violent. Here's what was kind of civilized about it, though: everyone seemed to know that there would be Trouble in a given place at a given time, warned their friends, and only the People Looking for Trouble showed up for it (or those who are bussed in from the countryside and paid paltry sums to be part of a headcount). I think we all understand that looters are not our friends, and "hooligans" with no jobs needing a way to express general anger about the Current State of Affairs are likely to come out of the woodwork at times like these...

But, what's clearly terribly wrong and sad about what's happening in Kenya right now is that People Not Looking for Trouble are becoming victims. Nevertheless, I am guessing (see disclaimers above!) that despite hysterical news coverage, most Kenyans are safe and sound...and horrified about the state of their country at the moment.

2. Tribalism in Kenya is real, but we're not talking about deep deep rifts, here? I lived in a Kikuyu region (former, and apparently "reelected" president Kibaki is Kikuyu). My best friends there were Kikuyu, but the best man for one Kikuyu friend's wedding was Luo, for example (the tribe of election challenger Raila Odinga). I heard plenty of cliched characterizations of various Kenyan tribes (fairly tongue in cheek), and as plenty of Kenyans are currently pointing out, this is a country of "tribes" who have lived quite peacefully together.

(As an aside, I need to point out that I think the mere mention of "tribe" by our media suggests a lesser civilization of my Kenyan friends, when in truth, I would characterize their tribes as akin to our "New Yorkers," "Southern Californians," "Southerners," "Midwesterners," and to the extent that "tribalism" leaks into "religion" and "politics": "fundamentalists," "hippies," "liberals," "Republicans" and "Democrats.")

3. This election debacle is not unlike the Kerry/Bush election of 2004, where there were plenty of questions about voting fraud and rigging. So, why is Kenya erupting in violence, while we Americans simply watched, flaccidly, as dangling chads were jiggled before us on the national news, and the Supreme Court so calmly ruled on the fate of our next leader?

My answer is that Kenya is a nation only independent since 1963 (versus our more-than-200 years of YoYoMac=You're on Your own, Mac). Imagine the suspicion, the lack of faith in one another on the basis of inexperience alone, the disbelief that democracy can work, when living people among the Kenyan constituency remember colonial rule? Add to that the fact that graft, corruption, and fraud have been all too real among the Very Few elected officials who have led Kenya, and there are more have-nots than haves, and you begin to understand. This is a country struggling to figure it out! And who knows what is True and Right?

Honestly, here in our own democracy-"proven" nation, who knows what is True and Right? I hope we remember that as we watch, and report on, the struggles of our African friends.

No comments: