Sunday, January 20, 2008

Matata comes to Kenya

Richard Wood and I were teachers together in Kenya’s western Nyanza Province in the late ‘60s at Rapogi Secondary School. Richard was a British teacher on contract, and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Although Richard lives in England, we have have stayed in close touch, exchanged several visits and write from time to time about Kenya and our students. Troubled about the current crisis there, Richard has sent these thoughts for posting on The Red Electric.

“Hakuna Matata,” they used to say in Kenya: "There’s no problem here."

For decades it was true.

There could be genocide in Rwanda, chaos in Congo, civil war in Angola, mass starvation in Ethiopia, every form of corruption in Zimbabwe and so on throughout the continent of Africa. Yet somehow Kenya stayed sane — until now.

The madness has come to Kenya. Not only to Kenya but to Nyanza province. To Eldoret and Kisumu. Tomorrow, no doubt, to Kisii, Homa Bay and Migori. Those are places I have been — to shop, to visit, to make friends. Places in my life.

Suddenly it’s like standing on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. Your belly lurches and won’t leave you alone. Hundreds massacred in a church. Fighting on the streets. Houses torched. Buses ambushed. Thousands on the move.

The TV shows the familiar red murram roads, the corrugated iron roofs and whitewashed mud walls, the banana plantations, the distant misty hills, the overarching vastness of the blue sky. And the people, talking magnificent Luo English, explaining their bewilderment, their grief and their fury that their neighbors have turned upon them, used their pangas to slash throats instead of maize.

They are Luos, my people, the people I worked for and lived among, admittedly for a short time but they were the years that transported me from boy to man.

"Hakuna matata." No problem here. But we deceived ourselves.

There was always the potential for an explosion of violent tribal rivalry in Kenya, especially between the Kiyuyu and the Luo. It was alright when the Kikuyu were in control, but the potential for trouble always was that the Luo, the second biggest Kenyan tribe, had the knack of producing charismatic leaders, men capable of taking on the Kikuyu hierarchy.

In colonial times, Kenya spawned Mau Mau, the fiercest of all the independence movements that eventually turfed the Europeans out of Africa. The Mau Mau heartland was the so-called "White Highlands," the rich agricultural land of central Kenya, where the whites made themselves comfortable beyond the imagination of the folks back home in Britain, and from where they were eventually driven by pangas in the night. The Brits imprisoned the great African leader, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, of course. The schisms of the independence movement came together in their demand for the release of "Mzee," the wise old man.

Among the leaders who set aside his personal ambitions in order to harangue the Brits was Oginga Odinga, a colorful, intelligent, principled African who was, everyone knew, presidential material through and through. A Luo. When the Brits admitted that their time was up and allowed the great “terrorist” Kenyatta his freedom to become the first president of independent Kenya, Odinga became his vice president. It was a great arrangement and saw the new state off to a flying start, with quality men of integrity in charge. In the Cabinet was another top quality man, another Luo, Tom Mboya. Tom came to Rapogi one day and I well remember the sense of being in the presence of a powerful figure.

Shortly after I left Kenya he was assassinated. Around that time Kenyatta and Odinga fell out. The potential for massive trouble rumbled in Kenya, but the line held. Odinga’s demanded a two-party democracy. Indeed, he formed a second party, but it was soon banned.

The funny thing was that when Kenyatta moved on he was replaced not by a Kiyuyu but by Daniel arap Moi, a member of a minority tribe. That worked, in part, because the Kikuyu were not threatened by so small a tribe. The third presidency, that of Kibaki, brought control back to the Kikuyu. In December he had to face up to elections. It would have been fine, I’m sure, if his opponent had been another minor tribesman, but he wasn’t. He was no less that Oginga Odinga’s own son, Raili. The only way to have saved Kenya from its current bloodshed would have been for Kibaki to have shown his Luo rival the same respect as had existed in the days of Kenyatta and the elder Odinga.

I’m feel helpless as I watch the news. The scene has switched from the deserts of Sudan and the baffling vastness of the Congo to my own Kenya, and the only thing I know is that from now on there will be plenty — plenty "matata."

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Anonymous Jane said...

Dear Rick,

I've just been reading Richard;s excellent piece about the Kenya situation. I work for an Australian news website called Crikey -- I was wondering if it might be possible to republish the letter, with full attribution and links to The Red Electric.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards, Jane Nethercote

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Kenyan Australian (who was pointed to your story by Crikey) I found your commentary a little inaccurate I'm afraid.

You've painted the conflict as very much a Kikuyu - Luo conflict, which is not quite right. Granted the main protagonists here happen to be from those ethnicities, but this does not reflect what is happening on the ground, nor the main split in current Kenyan politics.

Those that have died are madoadoa - people from one ethnicity, living often for generations in an area more often associated with another ethnicity.
Nearly all incidents of violence are occuring in those locations that experienced politically instigated tribal violence during the 1990's as reported in the 1999 Akiwumi Report which is available online.

The ethnicities being targeted in the recent violence are not Luo and Kikuyu alone, but predominantly are Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, Meru, Embu living in ODM strongholds throughout the country. There have been many deaths in multi-ethnic Kibera and Mathare, but some of the more dramatic events have been perpetrated around Molo, Kipkelion, Eldoret and Burnt Forest, which are traditionally associated with the Kalenjin ethnicity. Other violence has occured at the coast towards a number of 'upcountry' ethnicities - predominantly Kikuyu - at the hands of a number of other ethnicities but predominantly the local Mjikenda.

At the same time, police violence against protestors is killing those from ODM-associated ethnicities. This does not mean to say that the government are using the police in this way, its more that protestors in support of Raila (not Raili) tend to be of certain ethnicities.

It is also not that reported that no Luo in Kikuyu land have suffered violence although there has been displacement of people and unconfirmed reports of planning and arming of militia for revenge attacks.

If your readers would like some historical background to recent events in Kenya, I would encourage them to access the journal at where there are two free reports which are very informative.

Carey Eaton

9:09 PM  

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