Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Kenya for All Kenyans

2002 was a momentous time, a good time to be a Kenyan. The elections to be held later that year which would see the exit of KANU as the governing party after nearly 40 years in power. The atmosphere was electric, election campaigns were in full gear and, contrary to previous polls, there were few reports of violence. Kenya had come of age. After decades of struggle against the tyranny of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi, the people were about to strike a blow for democracy, for good governance and to annihilate corruption.

For me, the zeitgeist was all encapsulated in a song that became the signature tune for the coalition standing against Moi’s hand-picked successor. “Unbwogable!” by the Luo duo Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji. “I am unbwogable, I am unbeatable, I am unsueable … Who can Bwogo me?” we all sang. It didn’t matter that the lyrics were about indomitable Luos. By then we were all Luos. We were all Okuyu or Kamba. In short, we were all Unbwogable Kenyans.

Fast forward to 2013, and little of that remains. Faith in our united strength has given way to an abiding fear of the other and we have sought solace in the comfort our tribal cocoons. It begun almost as soon as the Kibaki administration took power, with wrangles over MoUs and cabinet positions. These were quickly followed by mega-corruption scandals of the sort we thought were a thing of the past. Citizen arrests of corrupt traffic police officers, common in the first euphoric days of the Rainbow government, quickly dried up as we woke up to the cruel hoax that had been perpetrated. Nothing had fundamentally changed.

The anticipated prosecutions of Moi regime figures never materialized and the very people that had been eager to feast at the table of US Ambassador Smith Hempstone and call for economic sanctions against the country, now only “vomited on donor shoes” whenever called into account for their orgy of graft. Suddenly, the overhaul to the constitution that they had championed, was neither urgent nor did it need to be as comprehensive. Newspapers were raided and we were warned about rattling snakes. Foreign criminals broke our laws with impunity, called press conferences to threaten the Police Commissioner, and could stroll unimpeded into our supposedly secure airports.

By the time the first constitutional referendum rolled around, we seemed distinctly bwogable. The polarisation signified by the “41 against 1” formula would slowly, and inexorably lead to the balkanisation of the country into tribal units and the violence that erupted following the disputed 2007 elections. The uneasy ceasefire that has held since then, was itself inaugurated with the spectre of mass starvation as politicians looted the national granary and stole food from the mouths of the hungry.

The idea of Kenya that had blossomed in 2002 thus proved to be nothing more than a transient phenomenon, a moon flower. Perhaps it was the irrational exuberance of youth that led us to believe that a different Kenya was possible; perhaps it was our sheltered upbringing as privileged members of an aspirational middle class nurtured on a diet of false patriotism, fantastical promises of development, western sitcoms and CNN. Perhaps we wanted to see in ourselves something that wasn’t really there.

For Kenya had not been founded as a community of Kenyans but as a playground for the privileged. The uplifting of the living standards of the majority of the people has never seemed to be the goal of our politics and our politicians. As I have written before, it has always been about the wenyenchi, not the wananchi. Democracy, human rights and all other fashionable slogans have been for them little more than a pathway to power and riches.

Any who thought otherwise were quickly shunted aside. Today we glorify their courage as we trample underfoot everything they stood for. On national holidays, we dutifully trundle out the sanitized memories of Dedan Kimathi, Bildad Kaggia, Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, JM Kariuki, Robert Ouko, Wangari Maathai and others. After the celebrations are done we hide them away till next year, not wanting to be reminded for too long of what was, and perhaps still is, possible. Their modern day equivalents are cast as neo-colonial stooges and ostracised for imagining a Kenya for all Kenyans, where justice reigns, with equality and opportunity for all.

We no longer believe in ideals or values or greatness. The country has become little more than a flag to wave to the world, especially when one of us excels internationally, in order to obscure the rot and stench within. In the rubble of the crumbling cases at The Hague we are happily burying any notions that the fortunes of our people matter and that someone should be held to account for depriving them of life and livelihood.We would rather build and repair the roads between our towns while neglecting the bridges between our communities. We connect cities but not citizens.

We are now creating new songs that reflect the limited visions we have adopted. Last weekend, the streets of Nairobi rung with a bastardized version of our national anthem. The words “natukae na uhuru, amani na undugu” were no longer about living in unity, peace and liberty. In the common imagination, uhuru now refers not to an ideal but to a person. Others now sing about living with Raila, Kalonzo and Wetangula. Unbwogable is rarely heard on radio stations anymore.

I suspect that we are in a situation not very different from that of our parents. Following the initial euphoria of independence, I am pretty sure that the predations of the Kenyatta and Moi governments had vanquished in them the idea of a Kenya for Kenyans. “Kenya Nchi Yetu” is probably for them just a reminder of the idealism of a bygone age. Yet its message is not very removed from that of Unbwogable. That the citizens can decide to remake the country. That a Kenya that is different from its previous incarnations is possible. One that caters to the desires and needs common to all and not the self-aggrandizing ambitions of a few. If we can commit to that, then perhaps one day our kids can learn to sing confidently of their genuine greatness.


Unknown said...

Dear Gathara,

You are a very gifted writer. I really enjoy reading your work. Deep, ndugu.


Anonymous said...

i weep as i read your post because all this is the sad reality we live in

Pauline said...

If ever there were truer words spoken about the Kenyan political history...this has just trumped them!

Anonymous said...

Truth as it should be told. I wish all Kenyans had the same chance I have to read this.