Sunday, January 06, 2008

How To Explain the Past Week In Kenya

I was asked to speak briefly in Sunday school this morning about "the situation in Kenya."

It caught me by surprise because our guest speaker had already stood up to begin her presentation when someone in the class called out, "Let's have Jean fill us in on what's happening in Kenya." As I stood up, I thought to myself, "How does anyone explain the past week in Kenya in two minutes?"

One very smart member of our class said something like, "Well, its all just tribal warfare -- ethnic cleansing, isn't it? That's what the media is reporting. That's what the experts are saying."

I became totally flustered at that point because I so want to accurately represent (as best I can) the Kenya that I love and that I am dedicated to helping - and I know full well that means I am not "objective." And maybe I am wrong but I don't really believe what has been happening is a clear repeat of Rwanda.

From several talks at the 2007 TEDGlobal Conference in Tanzania last June (which incidentally will be repeated in Cape Town, South Africa in September 2008 - yeah!) and from articles I have read and from a book I love entitled Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind by Curtis Keim, I am acutely aware that reporting on African countries by western media can be overly simplified and stereotyped.

I blurted, "No, well, it is more than just tribal conflict. Or, well, yes, there is some tribalism involved but not really because the political parties are fashioned around groups of tribes. Do we categorize justifiable outrage over a clearly rigged election outcome - regardless of which side (or both) is to blame - a tribal reaction or a political one? Or is it an economic response because it seems much of the violence was perpetrated by youth living in the worst slum conditions or at least by the "have nots" of Kenya who believed ODM's rhetoric that were the incumbent party removed from office, good days were ahead?

And then I began to babble about the Mau Mau revolt and government corruption and I don't know what else (i.e., my "brief explanation" turned into a total meltdown).

So I'd like to ask Ory Okolloh (aka Kenyan Pundit) (and others) what should I have siad? What would you have said if you had been in my shoes this morning - speaking to influential Americans who are sincerely shocked and concerned and wanting to understand. Is it "just" tribal warfare? Ethnic cleansing? Because, my dear Kenyan friends, I think that is how the situation is being framed in the US. I pick on Ory because she recently wrote in her blog:
One key resolution was for those of us who have access to the media to demonstrate that the situation is a lot more nuanced than Kikuyu vs. Luo and than “tribal war” - this tag by the international media is leading to piecemeal solutions being offered that won’t really address the underlying issues.

A January 7, 2008 article in Kenya's the Daily Nation quotes the Daily Telegraph of London as saying,
The writer opined that closely fought elections in Africa usually end in bloodshed. “Democracy in Africa does not work in a way that we might find familiar. In countries like Kenya, tribal loyalties are by far the most important determinant of voting behaviour. Put bluntly, you vote according to who you are, not what you believe,” he wrote.
But is this an accurate observation?

A good question. One I didn't answer well this morning in Sunday school class. I'd like to hear from Kenyans abroad (in the US as well as elsewhere) and, even more, currently residing in Kenya. How do I explain the past week?

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