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.


Unknown said...

Well said, except for the very last bit where I differ.
What is needed post the 2008 maneno is healing. We failed! Not three people, we, Kenya, failed. We, Kenyans, failed!
Through the Westgate manenos, we united as one. The same spirit that we see clearly at the sevens through the same weekend, and indeed into the IRB as it starts, as we saw in Moscow during the athletics World championships, as we supported our gallant volleyball queens.
We unite in sports and are proudly Kenyan then. We also unite in grief.
As a people we must find a way to shun those who divide us. Leaders who preach division must be thrown out of leadership positions since truly they are not leaders.

Nduta said...

"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."

Gathara, I see where you could be coming from. But we are forced to look at a few important things here:

The response from all over Nairobi is overwhelming, with long lines and consistent donation of supplies. This is beautiful. But I think we need to be careful in our assigning of affect to Kenyans. As everyone in Nairobi and much of the diaspora pays attention to Westgate, we must think about Kenyans outside Nairobi. What does this mean to them, especially those who barely have any ties to the capital? Does this matter to them, at least as much as it matters to us? I am not looking to aggravate anyone, but we need to remember, or learn for those who did not know,that this kind of attention is never given to places outside Nairobi, and attention of this magnitude was never given to places like Mathare or Sinai or Eastleigh.If we were to assume that every tweet is a prayer, Garissa, Tana and Moyale have less than 20 to Westgate's thousands.

When you mention the artificial nature of our class differences, I am thinking about the number of victims who have been mentioned over and over again by both international and local press and on Twitter-- Awoonor, Kenyatta's family, Simani, Adatia... In no way are they undeserving of our grief and my heart goes out to those who knew them. But who is mourning the unnamed, outside their families and friends? Are they not at least worthy of mention? Where is their public memorial?

My primary question(s) (and wondering) is this: what about the Westgate attack makes it any more Kenyan than other tragedies? Was it the presidential address? Is it the extensive coverage by the media? Is it the impressive coming together of people in an urban setting? Is it the people, Kenyan and non-Kenyan, who died? Is it the nature of the attack? While our people pray and weep for Kenya, are they really praying and weeping for Kenya? Can we honestly lay claim to national grief here?

I may be wrong-- I hope I am-- but I see the possibility of even deeper rifts between us as Kenyans. Because anyone can see the bodies, the tragedies, that matter more. Even as we speak the language of revenge against the Al Shabaab (which, for many, will be against Muslims and especially Somalis), I see the war that is likely to happen amongst ourselves. I do not see a united Kenya. I see a reactive Nairobi.

I realise this comment may sound heartless. It is not intended to be. I grieve for those who have lost loved ones hope healing for those injured, and for those affected in the slightest way. But I ask that we grieve for the silent dead and hurt too, those who were or are inside the mall, and those all over Kenya. Unified feeling can be the start of our revolution, but it must be ours as all Kenyans.

Gathara said...

Thanks for writing that. I must admit that I have been struggling with that myself ans was actually planning a follow up post exploring this very issue.
I think calling the class differences artificial was a really poor choice of words. I meant, not that they do not exist, but that they can be overcome.
I also agree that some deaths are more mourned than others, though the blood donation drives going on in the counties suggest the grief is somewhat widely shared.

I also think (or perhaps hope) that there is something that we are all identifying as Kenyan that many seem to share. The lines at Kencom, Uhuru Park and in the counties are not merely made up of middle-class wannabes. I have seen some of the most ardent and virulently opposed social media chap pretty much setting aside their differences.

I think this feeling is perhaps something we can build on, to enlarge the circle of empathy so it includes all the forgotten and silenced.

Firebird said...

Poignant article. It speaks to our deepest longings which ache to be realised. It is the feeling of the hope that was our nation in 2002 after that change election. Goodness knows how and why we are so susceptible to narratives and voices that are unable to contain our full Kenyan sense of being, the Kenya vision. What would it take to heal the things that lie unspoken and vulnerable to other peoples' hateful musings? The thing about a horror like this is that it reveals the deepest truth of who we are, our amazing, beautiful humanity. We do not hear enough from our media or leaders how lovely we are, what our immense global advantage, our sense of joy and capacity to love and befriend and create a sense of enjoyment wherever we find ourselves together. Perhaps this horrid event, caused by agents of evil, has become a gift of God to the nation. Will we receive it as that? Can we, or will a miffed politician try to turn this into an opportunity to wound the heart of our people and country again?

Perhaps on the day we come together to exorcise the evil of Westgate, perhaps we can also start with a ceremony to cry out our old griefs, our losses, apologise to one another for all deeds, thoughts and failures to other and nation and ask for forgiveness, mercy and a chance to start again. A gesture that echoes Rwanda's Gacaca courts. Maybe the psychic wounds can heal, and the fullness of life within our Kenyan being released. We need a transcendent gesture, Gathara, so we can feel free to walk simply into our rich, beautiful Kenyan identity. I for one long to have a conversation among my green-black-white-red-and-other-colour tribes folk, the Kenyans.

Unknown said...

The response to Westgate surely leaves Kenyans naked bare. Coming so soon after other dreadful acts like Sinai, Baragoi, Garissa, the Tana delta, and other scattered incidents where Kenyans have died senselessly in singles- with our lacklustre response, It mirrors the selfishness in us, it screams of the artificial or plastic 'oneness' we are proclaiming. It brings to mind that dreadful Kikuyu saying that 'a rich man's flatulent is not stinky', or 'How can I curse a rich man when I've never eaten anything from a poor man?'...
We desperately need a reconstruction of a national psyche. Westgate may as well be a standard of measure, but mehopes the event smowballs into a real realisation of our nationhood- trully Kenyan. Daima waKenya!