By John Kamau for kamauAfrica
The Kenyan elections are over, and we have a new president. If you follow the international coverage, you will be forgiven if you think that Kenyans do not understand the concept of democracy or the importance of the ballot. The bullet, or in Kenya’s case, the panga (machete), is the only tool that can work in an ethnicized nation. But to do so is to miss a major point. If there is a country, which has a citizenry who understand the importance of freedom and the right to govern their destiny, then you will be hard pressed to find a people more resilient and committed to the democratic experiment than Kenyans. To fully comprehend the painful journey that Kenyans took to get to 2007, then you have to go back to the 1950’s, when the British, determined to have Kenya as a settler economy, imprisoned hundreds of thousands of its subjects in ghettos and tortured them to discourage them from joining the revolutionary Mau Mau movement. But they did, and the country attained its independence 50 years ago. And Jomo Kenyatta, a nepotistic and tribal leader who had no regard for the country but his family, took office, grabbed land, and birthed a son, Uhuru Kenyatta, who is now Kenya’s president elect. You know the story, he is on trial at the International Criminal Court. This background is important because in Kenya, History and the present reality are bitter cousins who are in a constant fight. Uhuru’s presidency portends a continuation of the same conservative, capitalist oriented agenda and a possible death of progressive/left leaning politics in Kenya albeit for 5-10 years.
According to the international media, Kenya is a tribal nation, stuck in the middle ages where political elites use the state to enrich themselves and their cronies, and when pushed to the wall, use it to punish the silent majority, its own citizens. This tragic narrative became apparent in 2007, when Kenyans, feeling that the leader of the country had been decided before they cast their ballot, went to the streets. They were determined to bring the system down, and its ruling elites in the process. Unfortunately, the only people they could reach were their own neighbors, so they burnt their homes, their churches, and their children. A 1000 perished, thousands more became displaced citizens. Refugees, homeless, and stateless in their own country. This tragic short history, however, is not all encompassing, for it is but one story in a complex tapestry.
Another story, rarely told, but known by every Kenyan, is one of a stubbornly resilient people, who for many years were the envy of many in a troubled region. Kenyans have watched as all their neighbors have gone through trying times. Uganda under Idia Min, Rwanda during the genocide, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Kenyans welcomed their neighbors, gave them a new home, and opportunities that could not be afforded to a foreigner in any other country in the world. Because of this, Nairobi has become a cultural melting pot, many nationalities and cultures reflected in every public space, including its architecture. Ironically, in welcoming its neighbors, Kenyans forgot about themselves, and in the process, their humanity. And that is why in 2007, the tool that communicates our thoughts, tribe, became the definitive object in determining who we voted for. Kikuyus for Kibaki, and Luos for Raila. Tribe, a divisive tool used by the British to divide and concur the Kenyan people, had reared its ugly head 40 odd years later, and this time, the results were tragic.
In 2013, the international media flocked into Kenya with their tribal toolkit ready. Their narrative was set, and all they were looking for was evidence to substantiate their parochial views. But they found a changed country, with a people determined to choose a leadership who reflected their wishes. Had I voted, Kenyatta would not have been my choice, for his families’ 30,000 acres in my mother’s hometown have rendered many landless, but I respect the wishes of my countrymen, and I hope the international community follows suit, for this is a new country with a new constitution and aspirations.