Renowned novelist M.G. Vassanji writes about the country of his birth
Why this sudden interest in Kenya?
Renowned novelist M.G. Vassanji writes about the country of his birth
KENYA HAS SUDDENLY grabbed the world’s attention as perhaps never before in its 44year history as an independent nation. The country’s elections were widely discussed outside even before their taking place, as an exercise in democracy, a rare and much desired commodity in the world. The New York Sunday Times even devoted its precious magazine space to a lengthy discussion of the upcoming event. But when the nation had voted, the news was depressing and forebode worse. Following announcement of the results, that the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, had narrowly won the presidential election, protests and random violence had broken out in the streets, and the death toll soon rose to more than 300. It seemed very likely that the election had been stolen, for the results belied all the polls taken and there was clear evidence of rigging. A “millionpeople” rally was called by the opposition party, ODU, led by Raila Odinga, who had run for president against Kibaki, but it was called illegal by the government. Protests and violence continued in the slums, peaceful protesters elsewhere were stopped on the streets by riot police firing tear gas. A news blackout seemed to be in place.
All this might have made headlines in sub-
Saharan Africa, but why the upsurge of global concern? Perhaps the unusual attention this election garnered points to a growing concern about the world, that even remote corners now matter, troubles abroad can wash ashore anywhere else, even, God forbid, in North America and Europe. Perhaps we feel more connected now, especially since 9/11, the Asian tsunami, and hurricane Katrina; we speak about global warming; and terrorists seem to be everywhere, plotting our demise. Still, surely we are immune to worldwide violence; we take notice and move on to the next bit of news. It is the important violence that grabs headlines, such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, a country which after all has nuclear weapons.
Kenya by and large is known in the West as a tourist spot. Tourists land at Nairobi airport, put up overnight at a hotel, and early next morning, having donned their safari suits, take off in hired SUVs to the national parks. They don’t rub shoulders with the populace, know or care little about the politics. There’s no time, they are too ignorant. They get their dose of local culture, such as an organized African dance at their resort, and they return. Next time Tahiti. Why this sudden interest in Kenya, then? From Africa, after all, we are used to hearing about wars, hunger, disease. What else could be new there?
It makes us seethe with rage, those of us
attached to the continent, to some part of it, to see it characterized as such, by war, hunger, and disease. It’s as if that is the only story; as if people everywhere in Africa are either killing each other or dropping dead spontaneously. It’s as if people don’t laugh and cry, children don’t go happily to school and play, young people don’t fall in love and get married, no one sings.
And then, depressingly, every once in a while events happen that play perfectly to the stereotype. Such as this election’s result and aftermath.
Kenya is a special case this time because it is a fairy tale gone awry. The bad witch threatens to steal little Democracy away. Paradoxically, we have also been told that the country has been one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Some of us might suspect a public relations stunt behind such hyperbole. Or have enthusiasm and desperation been so great as to cause temporary amnesia? For the troubles in Kenya are simply a new twist to an old story. Admittedly there was some hope that the old story had ended. And so, perhaps, the hyperbole is justified: what’s wrong with looking at the
bright side, wishing it, willing it, to prevail? Who wants yet another mess in Africa, in the world? We have Darfur and Zimbabwe and Congo. And we’ve had Rwanda. That spectre haunts the world, casts a shadow over Kenya, with its own historical tribal grievances. But every country is different. In this case, some violence has been ethnic, true, but much of it is in the growing slums, where a cardboard box will suffice as your home, and armed thugs rule.
IT MAY HELP TO SPIN a yarn about the longest-running democracy in Africa, a stable one to boot, but surely there is also history and context. Otherwise we are patronizing. Treating a nation like a child: say boo, and the wicked witch will run away. It is also not true that Kenyans have only now discovered democracy, only now are crying out for it. People have fought for it in the past, paid for it. It has been there always, but only as a dream. The last two presidents of the country ruled for almost 40 years. Both were involved in massive corruption and nepotism. According to reports, in the financial year 1995-96, approximately $10 billion of public money had gone missing. This in a country with an unemployment rate of40 per cent. Still, ironically, Kenya was held up as a model African nation. This was because it had learned to exploit its special relationship with the West.
For long, ever since the days of colonialism, Kenya has been the darling of the West. It is where the white colonial settlements took place, and for some reason wherever white settlers have been are the places most developed, most written about. Dare one say, most cared about? Kenya is romanticized to this day. It is the wild country of public television’s Masterpiece Theatre, where good English folk set themselves up against hardships, and European aristocratic black sheep indulged in their “white mischief.” It was the hunting
ground of princes and presidents. It is the nostalgia of Karen Blixen. Hollywood has enjoyed making films here, from Mogambo to Out of Africa. “Hakuna Matata,” which would make the Swahili purist cringe, became the best-known phrase of that language. Books about the white romance with Africa continue to sell hotly in Nairobi. Kenya’s colonial heritage has therefore stood it well.
The present Kenya problem harkens back to how the colonial legacy was disposed of soon after independence. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, jailed by a colonial kangaroo court for allegedly leading the Mau Mau, is believed by his critics to have made a deal with his colonial masters. That maybe bitterness talking, from a real sense of betrayal felt by many Kenyans. All is forgiven, Kenyatta said at independence in 1963, let’s start afresh. This was a generous, statesmanlike gesture, especially after a racist, near-apartheid colonial rule and the bitter Mau Mau war. It soon became apparent however that a new pinstripe-clad black elite had taken over from the whites. It was an elite that became immensely wealthy under Kenyatta. The lucrative farms of the former exclusive “white highlands”—which had been taken from the Kikuyu people during colonization and given to white settlers—were now redistributed in such a way that mostly wealthy individuals (including former settlers) and companies could buy them. The poor farmers received little, the former freedom fighters, demanding compensation, were called “bandits.” East Africans who are old enough remember a famous character from the 1960s dubbed Double-O: his name was Oginga Odinga and he was the father of Raila Odinga, the current leader of
the ODU, now calling foul play and demanding a million-people march. While Kenyatta was in jail, Odinga with others had demanded his release before independence. Soon after independence, Odinga gave up his vicepresidency and became the opposition; he wrote a book titled Not Yet Uhuru, published in 1967, which charged Kenyatta’s government of broken promises and more. Ken-
yatta called him a Communist and put him into detention. Kenya became a bulwark against Communism in the region. The American ambassador in Nairobi, William Attwood, even wrote a book analyzing the threat of Communism in the region, called The Reds and the Blacks. Years later, Attwood casually revealed in his memoirs how some of our president’s men had been paid off. He gave names.
Kenya became a one-party state. Dissidents were put into detention at the infamous Kamiti prison, the most well known of them the novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo and the Swahili poet Abdelateef Abdalla. Ngugi’s early novels are a savage indictment of Kenyatta’s rule. Both writers finally went into exile, as did others. Meanwhile, students—as is their foolish wont—would hold periodic demonstrations and were put down by the dreaded GSU—a holdover from colonial times—and the university often closed. Assassinations became a convenient way of disposing of opponents. Thus Tom Mboya, J. M. Kariuki, Pio Gama Pinto, who had all fought for independence, but asked for a different governing style. During Moi’s final years in office
IT MAKES US SEETHE WITH RAGE, THOSE OF US ATTACHED TO THE CONTINENT, TO SOME PART OF IT
the Kenyan press finally discovered its guts and in the early 2000s, a frill exposé of Kariuki’s murder was published, implicating the former president’s close bodyguard.
And yet Kenya was the romance, development money poured in, tourists kept coming. In comparison to other African capitals, Nairobi, a beautiful Westernized city with a colonial legacy, worked; the city centre—if you looked past or through the ranks of the unemployed—burgeoned with new high-rises. Shopping malls sprang up. As did security companies, because the former green valleys became covered with slums and violent crime rampaged.
The fight for independence was long and bitter. The struggle for democracy and social justice has been longer. The cry for these essential human rights sounds sharper and more desperate this time because they seemed so reachable. M
One of Canada’s most celebrated novelists, M. G. Vassanji was born in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in 1950 and raised in Tanzania. He came to Canada in 1978. He has twice won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, in 1994for The Book of Secrets and in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. His latest novel is The Assassin’s Song, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Giller.
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