Sunday, September 22, 2013

Kenya Reawakened

Sometimes it feels like we can’t catch a break. A bruising election in March has left the country sharply divided and put two indictees of the International Criminal Court at the helm of its leadership. Just over a month after our largest airport went up in flames, and less than two weeks after our Deputy President went on trial for crimes against humanity, Kenya is once again in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

As terrorists stormed the prestigious Westgate mall in the heart of the city, most Kenyans had been struggling with the implications of the trial of William Ruto at the Hague. He is accused of masterminding the 2007/8 post-election violence that killed over 1,100 people. It was the first time a sitting Deputy Head of State was being tried at the International Criminal Court and there was a tangible sense of humiliation across the country. The first witness, a survivor of a church burning which killed 35 on New Year’s Day, 2008, had taken the stand and almost immediately her testimony begun to reopen old wounds and to rekindle ancient fears.

But in the wake of the almost unimaginable death and horror at the mall, all that seems to have been put to one side as Kenyans have come together in an impressive show of solidarity. The citizenry has literally responded with blood and treasure. When a call went out for blood donors, local hospitals were inundated and some had to turn people away. This morning, long lines of blood donors snaked across the city. Hospitals at one point were running out of blood bags, but not donors, so high was the turn out. An MPESA account set up for the victims has already raised millions of shillings. All over social media, on the streets and on air, the political bitterness of the last 7 months seems to have, at least temporarily, abated.

It is all very reminiscent of the reactions to the 1998 embassy bombings when Kenyans similarly came together. That atrocity, which killed 212 and injured thousands more, also came on the back of another divisive election, one that was accompanied with massive violence and displacement. Yet just 8 months after the vote, the people could come together in an impressive display of unity and fellowship.

Both these attacks have occurred in places in the city where the ethnic diversity is perhaps at its greatest. Since almost everyone knows someone who either was or might have been there, it is easy for it to be perceived as an attack against the whole. It is also, perhaps, an opportunity to externalize the fear and hostility generated by the political contests.

Of course, we must not forget that Westgate is not just a Kenyan, but an international space that hosts people from many different nations. It is not just Kenyans that are dead, wounded and grieving. There is a multiplicity represented there, of classes, races, religions, and we must resist the slide into a nationalistic jingoism.

Still, there is a meaningful lesson here regarding the nature of our polity.  More than anything, it demonstrates the artificialness of our supposedly deeply-entrenched ethnic and class differences, that deep down inside, there is a core at which we identify as Kenyans, not just as tribal rivals.  It shows that though we do have a tendency to retreat to ethnic conclaves every five years, the rest of the time we are Kenyans. And we only discard that Kenyanness when scared by the violence which is authored and perpetrated by our politicians and their militia.

So today Kenyans are Kenyans, all united by the outrage. For perhaps the first time since his controversial election, President Uhuru Kenyatta is President of all. His candid admission that he too lost close family members has shattered the class divide between the political elite who organize violence, and the poor who bear the brunt of it. His defiant statement echoed the defiance we all feel. We have been here before and emerged stronger.

The deluded killers at the Westgate mall may not realize it, but they have given us a chance to rediscover our common nationality. When these events have passed, and attention once again fixates on the cases at the Hague and on our divisive and scary politics, I hope we will not forget this moment, this feeling. It is important that we allow ourselves to remember that those too deal with real Kenyans, to allow ourselves to acknowledge their suffering, as we are acknowledging that at Westgate. That we recognize that by committing to the search for justice and truth, we can once again affirm and consecrate anew the ties that bind us.

Perhaps we just caught a break. One we would rather have not, but a break anyway.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Time to Remember

"Time heals all wounds" is a proverb I have never been particularly comfortable with. It is one of those sayings that is laden with a supposedly profound but somehow elusive truth. Like having your cake and eating it, which we do all the time. It's elusive because time by itself actually rarely seems to heal. Exes remain irreconcilable and vendettas continue long after memories have faded and the original slights are forgotten. Hot wars cool down, cold wars heat up, but the mere passing of the ages rarely seems to reconcile, to turn enemies into friends.

But what time does is dull memories. And today, less than 6 months after an election that was remarkable for the fear it inspired, Kenyans memories today are notably dulled. Senses are dulled too. We have breathed our sigh of relief and want to move forward. The cases at the ICC are, however, a discomfiting shout from a past we had hoped was dead and buried. Talk of the horrors of Kiambaa, the Facebook pictures of charred and bleeding bodies, are all recalling our forgotten fear.

It is important that we face this fear and that will require the courage and the integrity to do the work of remembering and confessing and resolving and reconciling and forgiving and deterring. A recognition that healing will not come from forgetting. All that will offer is a little temporary ceasefire, a chance to re-arm and sharpen more machetes in preparation for the next round of bloodletting. For while it remains hidden, the fear does not abate. It only festers, rotting away our national soul. Unattended, and Kenya will be a ticking time bomb waiting for the almost inevitable falling out -given our history- between Messrs Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto and the all too common realignments of political and ethnic alliances that leads to the exhuming of buried hatchets and rediscovery of "historical grievances".

We have been here before. After independence, the political classes who had been collaborating with the colonial state appropriated the struggles of the landless. They cast Jomo Kenyatta as the victim. Slowly, all but the most heinous atrocities were edited out along with their victims. And even the ones we were allowed to remember were only trotted out during Jamhuri day ad then promptly forgotten. As a result, the colonial state remained, only with blacks at the helm. And the abuse and dispossession and neglect continued. And the hostilities and fear grew. Trying to forget, to forge ahead, to build the nation, brought little relief. 5 years ago, these unresolved issues were the tinder set alight by the untrammeled ambition and warmongering of the political class.

Many of those same problems remain today. but the state and its mandarins are engaged in a whitewashing exercise. To remove the most visible manifestations of the fear while doing nothing about its causes. So we resettle IDPs without sorting out why they were displaced in the first place. First the President, and then Parliament, seek to gerrymander the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation report to "improve" the testimony of 40,000 Kenyans who have been victims of and witnesses to the atrocities and theft and abuse visited upon Kenyans by their leaders and government. Foreign Secretary, Amina Mohammed goes on TV to say truth commissions should have "nothing to do with justice" and tribalism is not such a bad thing. Despite the fact during the campaigns, candidate Kenyatta had declared that the ICC was "a personal problem" and had nothing to do with the election, his government is pulling out all the stops to get the cases lifted arguing the exact opposite.

All this is part of a campaign to convince us to forget. To tell us that the events of half a decade ago were not as significant as they appeared. There wasn't much harm done. So the victims and their stories are today carefully and systematically edited out of the narratives of the violence. The dead have no one to speak for them. Our permanent representative at the UN, Macharia Kamau, today has the gumption to suggest that the 650,000 IDPs in fact got a great deal out of the 2007/8 post-election violence. After all, most were squatters before. They came out "way ahead". The raped, the scarred, the mutilated remain faceless. They don't matter, they are all lying witnesses. Nothing happened. We have reconciled. Accept and move on. It is Uhuru, Ruto and, to a lesser extent, Sang who are the real victims. Let's pray for them. The real outrage, we are told, is the court case, the attack on impunity, not the killing, raping, hacking, shooting and burning.

Yet the fear remains. We must resist the attempt to rewrite history, to lull us to sleep, to avoid the work of reconciliation. We must not take the easy road of forgetting. If we do, that terror will be nourished by the knowledge that we are all a part of this conspiracy. And we will continue to build the nation during the day and sharpen our machetes by night. For while time may not heal all wounds, it eventually will wound all heels.

Monday, September 09, 2013

The Sin Of Being Female

In the last few days, our airwaves and social media accounts are inundated with opinions on what the verbal and physical abuse perpetrated against a female journalist and a female MP mean. I came across an online discussion where some were suggesting that the public humiliation of Kiss FM presenter Caroline Mutoko and Nairobi Women's Representative Rachel Shebesh at the hands of Nairobi Senator Gideon “Sonko” Mbuvi and Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, was a ploy to distract attention from the President and his deputy's problems with the ICC.

I personally find it disturbing that some evidently regarded discussing the violence, humiliation, sexism and exploitation that our women suffer daily as a distraction from more important issues.

How we treat our women is a measure of how we regard ourselves as a society. After all, Wanjiku has become a synonym for ordinary folk, both male and female. We speak of the motherland and ascribe a feminine gender to our national collective. Kenya is a “she” and has “her” interests, we say. The disdain we have for women mirrors the contempt our rulers have for us. When Kidero slaps Shebesh and Sonko insults Mutoko, they are not just putting powerful women in their place. They are expressing their contempt and fear of an empowered society, of a populace that dares to question the actions of their betters.

In my view, the problem isn't that people are talking about Sonko and Kidero. It is that they are ONLY talking about Sonko and Kidero. Not about how they are representative of a societal disdain of women. Not that this attitude is responsible for the silence on the rape epidemic in our towns, the horrors beading and FGM and domestic violence, the lack of investment in maternal health which leads women to be beaten by hospital staff after being forced to give birth on the floor.

It is why when we discuss abortion, we are blind to the dangers that pregnancy poses to women. We have one of the highest rates of maternal deaths in the world. Many lose their jobs or have to forgo their schooling for having the temerity to conceive unwanted kids. Many are ostracized by their families and abandoned by their men. Many have no incomes, no education, no support , to take care of the kids we insist they bear.

We refuse to invest in girls education, to protect them, to empower them, to provide sex education and contraception preferring instead to blame them, to call them fornicators and adulterers and murderers, to turn a self-righteous blind eye as they die in their thousands or get maimed for life at the hands of backstreet quacks.

It is never about the men. It is never about the abuse of power.

Accept and move on, we tell women. Suck it up. It's your lot as a woman. You must have done something to deserve it. It is just punishment for your immorality, for the sin of being female.

The parallels between how we speak of the abuse meted out against women and how we speak about the violence meted out against us are hard to ignore. It is always our fault. We drive too fast. We are too tribal or stupid or lazy or ignorant. It is never the fault of those who steal elections or organize and perpetrate the violence. It is never about the brutality, negligence and corruption of officials and officers. It is all our fault for making stupid decisions at the ballot box and we must pay taxes to fund our potentates’ lifestyles as just punishment for our guilt. The poor must forgo drinking milk because the government must have the revenues to build roads for the rich. We do not demand accountability or better because we do not think we deserve such.

Thus the talk on the ICC trials almost completely ignores and excludes the victims. We are only concerned about the safety of the powerful, about what their prosecution means and about whether they are being treated fairly. That 1600 Kenyans died five years ago barely registers. Who cares about them or their stories or their families? Just like the treatment of Mutoko and Shebesh is seen as a distraction, the demand for justice is portrayed as a distraction from the more important pursuit of economic development. Just as Shebesh's husband apparently feels it is he, not his wife, who deserves an apology from Kidero, the powerful see our lives and livelihoods as mere fodder for their ambitions and can stipulate that accords between political leaders can be a substitute for justice.

No. This is not a frivolous issue or a distraction. It is a conversation we should be having but one we are determined to ignore precisely because it is about women. And because it is really about us.