WAR JOURNALISM: KENYA’S NEWEST TOURIST ATTRACTION

January 23, 2008

By SIMIYU BARASA

The chaos in the peaceful country Kenya has sent everyone blaming fingers on everyone else. The media in particular has been at the forefront of throwing accusations at the Electoral Commision Chairman Samuel Kivuitu for ‘irregulaties’ during elections, the President, Mwai Kibaki for ‘stealing votes’, and some accusing Raila Odinga of being nothing short of a terrorist. But the Media has not asked itself what role it is playing in fermenting this chaos, and better still, how it contributed to all this chaos in its coverage prior to the elections, during the elections, and in this undefinable times since what it calls ‘Post Election Violence’ started.

The local media, in cahoots with international media, has created the latest tourist attraction package for Kenya: War Journalism. As tourists take the first flight out of their African Safari, foreign journalists have trooped in, each with eye and camera lens eager to beam to the world the latest pictures of Africa’s violence in a tone that reads: ‘if Kenya of all the places can go to such violence, then the Rwanda Genocide trait must be genetic to Africans.’

What is going on in parts of Kenya now is not civil disobedience or acts of protests due to the election debacle. It might have started like that, but what we are seeing now is well trained militia hunting members of opposite tribal backgrounds for elimination-not even forced migration. We are seeing pregnant women being thrown off multi-storey buildings for belonging to particular ethnic backgrounds. Children who sought refuge in a church with their mothers being burnt alive. Residential estates being cleared off tenants of certain ethnic backgrounds. In short, Ethnic cleansing. The foreign journalists know that this is what is happening, and are here in droves to send back the story. Their excitement waned for a moment, but is now back. The media, for all its great work, can’t escape the same kind of scrutiny that it is turning onto every institution and individual in trying to make sense of all this.

For the local media, it was obvious they had taken sides during the period leading to the elections. Which is not a bad thing, since media independence and impartiality is a theoretical frame work good for passing your Journalism school exams but not good in real life practice. Fox News is the mouthpiece for the Republican America in as much as the national Broadcaster in Kenya is a government mouthpiece.

The Kenyan media houses-audio visual and Print-went out of their way to give coverage to political statements of whomever they fancied during the campaign periods. Even when such sentiments were thinly veiled sentiments firing up tribal hatred. The result of this was tribal prejudices, which were not exactly dead but dormant like a virus, came to be regurgitated. Political ‘analysts’ went as far as looking at which tribe would support who, and for local MPs, which clan they came from and which long running vendetta since the migration of that tribe to that area would bar this and that clan from supporting a member from the other clan. Armchair political analysis was excused by ‘but this is how it is, this is the reality on the ground.’ By reporting on a story, the press fanned embers into a fire.

So obvious was it that certain National broadcasters and media houses would not be allowed to cover certain politicians and events. Media houses fired staff belonging to the opposing tribe, and filled their positions with their own, just to ensure that ‘the editorial policy was followed’ in a Nazi like Aryan supremacy kind of mentality and cleanliness. Politicians knew who to buy, who to bribe, who to grease. Politicians are on record barring ‘enemy’ media houses from covering their events, and inciting citizens against them. In retaliations, the houses each went overboard in demonizing the other’s political affiliations which meant tribe. Even before ethnic violence broke out in Kenya, Ethnic cleansing was underway in Kenyan media houses: of staff, and more so, of coverage.

So bad was it that even when violence broke out, certain media houses couldn’t cover it adequately. It isn’t suprising that Salim Amin, a respectable Kenyan journalist, on being interviewed on Al Jazeera (Thursday Jan 17th 2008, Witness), said, “journalists were too steeped in their political inclinations meaning that citizens were against certain stations thought to favour particular political leanings,” and “for the first time in Kenya, it was easier to have foreign journalists doing what is a local story”

Once foreign journalists came to the scene, things changed. Kenya, by virtue of its geographical location, physical landscape and capitalistic policies that have been pro-West during the cold war, is a country whose people and policies are afflicted by the ‘Tourism Mentality,’ a grave mental disease. Tourism is our livelihood, so even if elephants kill human beings in Meru, touch them not since ‘tourists won’t come and we won’t have foreign exchange earnings’. Our athletes run in Europe Circuits (and more recently Quatar) and become celebs before they tire out and come back home burnt out and that is when we mere locals get to know them. Coffee and tea is grown for ‘export’ so don’t drink grade 1 coffee, we need to export it to Europe. Allow US troops to train your armed forces so as to ‘provide a base for anti terrorism in Somali and Middle East.’ Hotels at the coast can only serve the native you with a smile during the ‘off peak season’ since they are geared to tourists only. Infact, we even have a tourist police unit, and one tourist killed in a highway gunfight with thugs makes it to prime time news complete with the Police Boss swearing to ‘not leave any stone unturned’ while dozens of Kenyans are killed daily with no hue or cry.

Our visibility, together with our developed communication network means anything happening in Kenya gets the West’s attention faster and in bigger quantities than other African areas. So when violence breaks out, the whole world sits up and listens.

On December 29th 2007, marauding Kenyan youths hunted down people of particular ethnic backgrounds and killed them, despite having stayed with them as neighbours for long. A day later Mwai Kibaki was declared president and faster than Marion Jones winning the Olympic hundred metres propelled by steroids, he sworn in as the president. Woe unto you if you belonged to his ethnic tribe.

The local media gulped it like hot news but hours later realized that this was no longer a joke in media offices. This was Rwanda unraveling. All talk of ‘we the media just report reality and don’t create reality’ was forgotten.

The media realized that the scenes of ethnic animosity they were reporting were actually fuelling more violence and deaths. Even after the government banned ‘live coverage of events,’ journalists went further and ‘self censored’ themselves, actively making decisions to give the grissly images a blackout, and creating a cry for peace under the banner ‘Save Kenya.’ A historical thing happened: All Media houses had front line pages and hastily prepared clips calling for peace, and even shared an editorial across them. For a day or two, the press practiced what the Norwegian Scholar John Galtun, called ‘Peace Journalism,’ a concept that is peace oriented, truth-oriented and more importantly, solution oriented. The Nigerian journalist, Oma Jebah, maybe having seen what violence has done to his country, has aptly covered the concept in action in the paper he presented in South Africa in 2006 titled “ The Role of Peace Journalism in Africa: The Nigerian Experience.” In the paper he quotes Galtung saying the media, through its coverage of conflicts, can deliberately or inadvertently promote conflicts as well as encourage peace in order to “reduce human suffering, increase human happiness.” ( John Galtung: Peace Journalism-A Challenge” in Wilhelm Kempf and Heikki Luostarinen(eds.)

For a day or two the killings went down. Kenyans realized that we were bleeding to death and were in dangerous grounds. However the international media rushed in like dogs on smelling blood. They beamed picture of dead bodies and people hacking each other to death, and the tourism bug hit again. Youths clearly posed for international journalists wielding machetes and chanting war cries in choreographed sequences. When mass demonstrations were called for, I witnessed a procession on Mbagathi way. The youths were docile, while anti-riot police whiled their way a hundred or so metres away from them.

The moment international journalists arrived in their combat jackets written press, the youths rose up, posed and yelled as the journalists clicked away and zoomed in closer. The youths became bolder, stoning the police knowing international outcry would follow if they were beaten up. A perfect case of camera CREATING STORY.

The moment these were beamed on Al Jazeera, the following day street violence escalated. In daytime people ran the streets and in the evenings ran to entertainment dens to see if ‘they appeared on television.’ People bought newspapers the following day to make cuttings of pictures in which they had appeared.

The Kenyan media forgot its peace mission. It went back to out-doing each other in sensationalizing a crucial issue. A media house filmed armed police guarding a round-about of a main road so as to repulse youths using it to gain entry to the city centre for demonstrations. Just because the City Mortuary was in the vicinity, the reporter went to file the story as ‘police guarding the Mortuary to prevent people gaining entry into it’ and clipping it with another article to insinuate the morgue was full of people shot by police. Of course, Major General Ali, the Police Commissioner, himself a former Army Brigadier, went ballistic against the media. “The US itself never showed grizzly images in the post 9-11 period!” he begged.

The main political antagonists realized they were in the eyes of the world, since Kenya was making headlines beating Benazhir Bhutto’s assassination and Iraq war in all international channels. Suddenly, the politicos were no longer talking to Kenyans slaughtering each other. The world was their arena. BBC’s ‘Hard Talk’ became a favourite, and Al Jazeera and of course CNN. Positions that had softened hardened overnight once video conferencing cables were set up. Instead of talking peace in Kenya, they breathed fire on each other much to the delight of the world. Look how Africans go for each other’s jugular. To cement such interviews, dead bodies and burning villages were needed in plenty. And the locals succumbed, playing to the international gallery as the country sunk.

Once people know that they have the media’s attention, they go into posturing mode, whether with a rose flower, a machete, or a human skull. When Congo rebels realized that killing human beings wasn’t garnering them world attention, they threatened to kill the Silverback Mountain Gorillas. All the western media ran to them, to see if they were bluffing. With such attention, they indeed killed coz they realized only by killing would the journalists flown in continue to stay and give them coverage. Plane hijackers operate on the same posturing urge.

Politicians rejected Nobel Peace Prize Winner Desmond Tutu as a peacemaker. He wasn’t big enough. Jet him out, we want the United Nations. No, we will take you to the Hague. Its Ok, but let African Union Chair, Ghana’s president John Kuffuor, fly in. No, we want Condoleeza Rice! Kuffuor flew out exasperated. Ok, Condoleeza sends a rep. Is she big enough? Ish Ish!! Ok, we will settle for Koffi Annan, at least the initials UN Secretary General always follow his name, even if qualified by the adjective ‘Former’. Come on guys, solve your problems locally-the guy has a cold he cant travel and maybe get an even worse strain of flu from your country. No. We are the latest Tourist Attraction. Only international figures guaranteed to have CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera star presenters as part of their entourage will satisfy us.

Facts and figures are changing depending on which station. One media house would report that Nairobi streets were peaceful, while another would give updates using repeated clips to show how the City and other parts of the country had turned into battle zones. When Kipkelion chaos broke, NTV on 20th Jan stated in its 7pm bulletin, (in the National and more listened to Swahili bulletin) that the area had come back to peace after recent inter-ethnic clashes left twenty people dead. KTN, another media house, reported that the area had ‘exploded into violence after police arrested people alleged to be looters, sending residents on revenge attacks where ten people are dead.’ So which is the truth? Was the area peaceful or not? Were the dead ten or twenty? Were the deaths as a result of police action or people targeting certain ethnic communities?

The international media drew parallels with Rwanda. More journalists jetted in. Beaming more violence. What had begun as acts of civil disobedience had actually turned out to be well planned ethnic cleansing, rapes and urban thuggery. But the media were and are not concerned with the effects. Just the figures and images.

Terminologies have changed: Vandalisers have been called ‘peaceful demonstrators’ even in Television footage which shows them breaking into supermarkets and looting fridges television sets and food. Youths armed with huge machetes and throwing clubs, stoning police and throwing petrol bombs at police and even taunting them with chants of ‘shoot us, shoot us’ have been called ‘peaceful demonstrators whom police used excessive violence while dispersing’. Police shooting live bullets at point blank range ‘are using minimum force to restore order.’ People running from organized, marauding warriors torching everywhere certain ethnic groups are seeking refuge including churches have been called ‘internally displaced citizens running from chaos that has rocked their areas as pro-opposition youths expressed their discontent at the results of the presidential elections’!

In the international Court of Justice at The Hague, people who similarly burnt others in churches in Rwanda are being charged with specific titles like “Crimes Against humanity, Genocide, Inciting Genocide.”

Peace is needed in this country and the media has to encourage it or be accused in the Hague too for knowingly fanning violence. It is in times like these where theoretical frameworks of media independence need to be judged on the human reality. In the Iraq war, there are no bloody body bags or wounded soldiers seen on American TV. Everything is sanitized and clean-including the boxes bearing dead soldiers. So flowery it makes every American youth dream that their country has gone to Iraq to deliver flowers to those unfortunate Iraq children. Anything shown on the contrary on Al Jazeera is quickly explained by US media as ‘Collateral Damage’ or ‘regrettably due to Bad vision in the dark desert nights.’ As if it is an Arabian Nights romantic movie.

Conflicts create deaths including those of five year old girls burnt en-masse in a church. But others gain from them. The warlords gain supremacy through fear. And journalists get employed. In huge numbers. Iraq war alone has created room for about 7,000 journalists stationed in Iraq and the surrounding states of Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey and Israel. But it can also create a sense of hope. The US has practiced this due to experience.

Just like in the US where the Military forced journalists covering the Iraq war to report ‘US friendly’ stories in exchange for rides on fighter planes as the US went bombing and thus granting them ‘breaking news’, (and the threat of losing this accredition if you report what would be seen as demeaning the US,) journalists during periods of conflict create another war back home: The war of public opinion that can further escalate the armed conflict or erase it. If a people don’t support a cause, it fails. It’s the way journalists cover this cause that makes people perceive it and chose to allow it to continue happening. This is where journalism therefore creates situations rather than ‘reports situation just the way it we found it.’

All the American stories , from Afghani war, to 9-11, to the Katrina, to the Iraq war, are about Hope. About soldiers like Private Jessica Lynch who allegedly (but actually never really) fought bravely until captured by Iraq forces, but was saved in an American commando raid. About people who lost their relatives in Twin towers but now are stronger and know ‘he is smiling at me from above as a star’. About heroes like the firemen who went into the building to rescue even when they knew they would die. The outcome has spiraled to films and TV series like ‘Heroes’, ‘24,’ ‘Twin Towers’ and Jerry Bruckheimer’s ‘Profiles from the Frontlines’. The Kenyan situation will spiral later into documentaries of burnt villages, charred corpses, and ‘how a City in the Sun, the only island of peace in an African full of war, finally succumbed to ethnic violence just like its neighbours Rwanda and Somalia’ all this said with a cheer-leaders pitched voice of a white journalist standing in the beauty of the receding African sunset at the edge of the RiftValley, where the orange hue covering the silhouetted ranges of the Longonot are defined as ‘symbolic of the fiery beauty that Kenya contrasts itself in: beauty that can erupt into fire and blood anytime…’

Kenya is at war with itself. Any journalist covering it has to be clear: You are either for war or for peace.

All media houses have become cheerleaders in this war, cheering as their generals declare war on other generals whom they can’t really hit and so tell their foot soldiers to kill innocent Kenyan citizens by virtue of the terrible curse of which language your father seduced your mother with en route to you being born. The less pleasant job of questioning official policy, opposition strategy, and what vision our leaders have as concerns this violence has been thrown out of the window.

Politicians are being given lee way and extreme coverage to hold this country at ransom. No one is doing enough human interest stories about the ordinary people who are bearing the pains of this senseless chaos. As Philip Seib , in his book, ‘The Global Journalist’, argues; it is morally wrong for journalists to stand by and watch innocent children being slaughtered, women raped, children being maimed and refuse to “to prod policy makers for action to stop the genocide through incensive, investigative and consistent reports which draw public pity and attention.”

What we have is an international and local media intent on seeing more violence since they love ‘War journalism.’ Again, a huge quote from Omah Jebah in his peace journalism paper. “The low road, by far dominant in the media, sees a conflict as a battle and the battle as sports arena and gladiator circus. The parties, usually reduced to the number 2, are combatants in the struggle to impose their goals. The underlying reporting model, often very visible, is that of a military command: who advances, who capitulates short of their goals; counting the losses in terms of nos. killed, wounded, and material damage. The zero-sum perspective draws upon sports reporting where “winning is not everything, it is the only thing”. The same perspective is applied to negotiations as verbal battles: who outsmarts the other, who gets the other to say yes; who comes out closest to his original position. War journalism has sports journalism, and court journalism!, as models.”(Galtung, In Wilhen Kempf and Heikki Luostarinen,(eds), 2002).

Unless we are saying that War Journalism is the latest tourism attraction package Kenya has to offer to the world.

(Simiyu Barasa is a film-maker and prose writer. He was once a TV journalist until he realized he could actually do the same job description by being a fiction writer and making fictional films. He is a member of the Coalition of Concerned Kenyan Writers hoping to use their writing to help ease the Kenyan situation.)

THE FIRE THIS TIME

January 19, 2008

By MARTIN KIMANI

It is Friday, December 4. I walk through the lobby of the Serena Hotel in Nairobi. Packs of politicians and their entourages hurry past. Most have mobile phones into which they whisper urgently. They brush shoulders with white men and women lugging large cameras, trying to arrange for taxis to take them to the nearest scene of carnage and bloodletting. I get the impression that the more the politicians whisper into their phones, the more images the international press will capture.

Kenya at the moment must look to those watching CNN or BBC what Zimbabwe or Nepal looked like to me in the past. But then I know that the country is not in the grip of atavistic hatreds, images of machete-wielding, church burning men notwithstanding. This is a political crisis fuelled by ethnic differences that in Kenya are now, as never before, political differences.

Growing up, the various tribal stereotypes were the source of much shared humour among friends and family. Difference was funny. But underneath the jokes, in the same way that we say that there is no smoke without fire, was the recognition that our differences, no matter the friendly way we tossed them out, were actual and lasting.

In the 2007 campaign season for parliamentary and presidential seats, what had previously been jokes morphed into paranoid and even hateful mobile text messages. The intention was to drive the country into tribal camps from which votes for the particular candidates would issue.

I am a Gikuyu like President Kibaki and therefore expected to automatically be ready to vote along these lines. In many political conversations that I had with relatives, the opponent increasingly was not only the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) as a political party but rather the Luo tribe of Raila Odinga.

The opposition’s intention (many Gikuyus believed) was not only to win the election and lead with different ideas and policies but rather its aim was to destroy the country and us along with it. I was told that we were in a fight to the last, that the winner would take all and damn the loser. The opposition too was driven by similar ethnic mathematics even though the trend – which was confirmed in the 2005 constitutional referendum – was of the rest of the tribes aligning themselves against a perceived Gikuyu determination to hold onto power at all costs.

Three years ago, I interviewed a woman who was imprisoned in Rwanda for participating in the 1994 genocide. She has remained vivid in my memory for a curious remark she made when I asked her how far back the genocide’s planning started.

“The war,” she said, “started when I was a little girl in the 1970s and other children would tease me for having Tutsi legs?” Two decades later, the length and thickness of your legs determined who died and who lived at a roadblock. Imagine for an instant one of those children that did the jeering and teasing, now an adult with machete in hand faced by an ID-less girl with long, thin legs.

To the men huddled around the poolside tables at the Serena Hotel, political parties are not expressions of ideological or policy differences. Instead, political leaders are in a fight to our death for a politics they envision as a system of spoils.

This fight to get a larger slice of the “cake” has been growing in divisiveness and hateful rhetoric. We are like infants drawn to touch a flame or driven by a horrid fascination with what lies beyond the cliff’s edge, curious perhaps to test the limits of our peace after decades of tut-tutting at the many wars in our neighbourhood.

Kenyans for the past few years have worn tribal lens when looking at the political landscape. In this decoding by many of my fellow Gikuyu, ODM is perceived as an existential foe, not just an electoral one.

To be anti-Kibaki, or at least opposed to him, as was the case with a majority of the country’s provinces and at least 45 per cent of the voters, was going to be regarded by many Party of National Unity supporters, particularly those from the Mount Kenya communities, as inimical to their existence and survival as a collective.

A similar sense of drastic opposition applied to many ODM supporters. The stage was set for the violence seen across the country during the past week.

In politics, perception is reality. And the reality of politics, its fundamental meaning, at those rare moments when it enjoys the greatest clarity to the greatest numbers, is that it is a pitched contest between friends and enemies.

Many Kenyans have chosen their friends and enemies on the basis of tribal loyalty and identification. Beyond the much-repeated admonitions against such politics, let me suggest that we have dipped our toes into dangerous waters. That politics will fundamentally continue to be the struggle between friend and enemies and will not cease.

This is a struggle that is subject to the principle of escalation. One side’s paranoia is matched by that of the other side, one rumour with another, and text messages are sent out which appear to mirror each other in the claims of victimhood and outrage.

This escalation, which is already much in evidence, holds out the frightening possibility of a “war of all against all.” If indeed politics is friends versus foes, then how we define who are our friends and who our enemies are, is of the essence. This is the abyss into which the country is staring.

The campaign period turned the ethnic map into a political one. The individual Kenyan, despite his membership of and loyalty to different identities is now more strictly enfolded (perhaps imprisoned is a better word) in a single tribal collective that owes loyalty to those within – no matter their crimes or failings.

Its character is oppositional, its language that of the victim. Societies that have become engulfed in political violence rarely get much warning. The lead-up to conflagration is characterised by the political rhetoric of reasonableness on all sides when they speak into the larger public space.

But in their asides and coded messages to “their side,” foaming-at-the-mouth, hateful messages are uttered to secure the vote. Suspicion and rumours of fantastical conspiracies have been all the rage in the past year of campaigning.

A pamphlet that was found in Rwanda immediately after the 1994 genocide had this to say about how to motivate Hutus to loath their Tutsi neighbours and countrymen:

“Never underestimate the strength of the enemy, and never overestimate the intelligence of the target audience. Strive in your language to identify the enemy with everything feared and loathed. Lies, exaggeration, ridicule, innuendo — all ably serve the ultimate aim of winning over the undecided, sowing confusion and division among the opposed. And this freedom from the confines of truth opens up a powerful technique for sowing fear and hatred: ‘accusation in a mirror.’”

Accusation in a mirror. This is Kenya’s leading political tactic. Accuse the other side of rigging the vote while you do just that. Accuse the other of intending to rob the treasury while you do just that or prepare to have that very privilege on ascending to office.

Both sides pronounce themselves victim and the cynical acts of manipulation they utilise are framed to look like reactions to the “enemy.” Across the Rift Valley, in Kisumu and Nairobi, young men are roaming machetes in hand to finally destroy the enemy.

What many of these young men do not know is that the Serena Hotel and similar founts of privilege and wealth are the home of the very political class that has defined the friend and the enemy in Rift Valley and Central Kenya.

On Thursday last week, as people who had tried to assemble for the opposition rally in Uhuru Park were chased back and forth by the police, just beyond the Serena’s fence, I was seated next to groups of politicians who were certainly not ethnically cleansing each other off their sodas and croissants. They were muttering into their mobile phones the messages that were driving those young men across the country to violence on behalf of a political class that is willing to sacrifice our lives on the altar of their lust for power and privilege.


Martin Kimani lives and works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Reprinted with permission from the EastAfrican

BURNT FOREST

January 14, 2008

By ARNO KOPECKY

A few kilometers south of Burnt Forest, the ruins of a village called Kondo were visible from the highway. A group of six young men were picking through the ashes as we drove past; we stopped and climbed the small rise to join them.

They greeted us with open smiles, arms around each other’s shoulders as though we were meeting on a beach instead of a freshly razed collection of homes. They told us they lived in the countryside, gesturing into a green horizon split by thin lines of black smoke.

“Right after Kibaki was announced president, the Gikuyu started burning our farms,” said Kemboi Rutoni, a smooth-faced teenager.

“They called us goats” said his friend, who introduced himself only as Ken. “They’ve always hated us. They’ve always made life hard for the Kalenjin.”

“But we know how to defend ourselves,” added Kemboi. “We came back and burnt their houses, and told them to get out.”
The boys smiled as they recounted using mattresses to start the fires whose ashes lay everywhere around us. Kondo village, they told me, had been a mixed community, occupied by Kalenjin and Gikuyu alike.

“But we only burnt the Gikuyu houses,” said Kemboi. When I asked how it happened that all the rest went up in flames as well, they grew vague and returned to insisting that the Gikuyu had started the whole mess.

“But it’s over now,” said Ken indifferently. “They’re all sleeping up the road at Burnt Forest.”

Indeed they were – not just the former residents of Kondo, but some nine thousand survivors of a violence whose absurdity was matched only by its cruelty. The verdant hills of Burnt Forest have been described as the epicenter of Rift Valley’s recent chaos; the former residents of those hills are now camped in the yards of two churches, a high school and a police station.

We drove past those thousands of hungry gazes, chose a dirt road at random, and followed it into the countryside. Who knew what the sparse canopy surrounding us hid? Hardly anyone was in sight – a family washed their clothes on the banks of creek, eyeing us warily as we passed, but otherwise the landscape was abandoned.

The pitted road wound through the hills, and before long a tractor came toward us, pulling a flatbed stacked with white sacks of corn, bits of furniture, farm tools. Two soldiers sat beside the driver and a dozen ragged Gikuyu walked behind it. We stopped, and two of the men stopped to explain they had just visited their shambas for the first time in over a week. They were bringing back what little was salvageable. But they looked uneasily over their shoulders and soon hurried on to catch up with the guards.

About a kilometer on, the landscape opened on to a flat terrace of torched houses and maize fields. Much of the ground was singed black. Relics of domesticity were scattered about – a red toothbrush, a tea strainer, an English workbook inscribed with the name Lucy – but the predominant feature were the vivid piles of clothing that lay strewn everywhere, as though someone had emptied several wardrobes into the wind.

A man and woman sat beside the road in the shade of a bottle-brush tree. James Mwangi had owned a two-acre shamba of which nothing remained but half a sack of maize; Grace Muthoni, his neighbor, fared only slightly better in salvaging four bags from five acres.

They were both approaching forty and seemed remarkably calm, with the lean, patient mien of people who spend their lives outdoors. The presence of a handful of guards in the immediate area, they assured us, was keeping the neighbors at bay.
“I know every single person who did this to us,” said James, “I’ve shared meals with them.”

The two pointed a hundred meters down the road we’d just driven. Walking back, I smelled the black corpse before I saw it lying on the gravel, face up, the skin burnt off the skull to reveal a terrible grin. Another just like it lay a few feet away, twisted on its side in the tattered cornfield.

“It happened very suddenly,” David said. “The neighbors just started yelling, but instead of words coming out they only screamed.”

The two escorted me to Rurigi high school, where they and hundreds more Kikuyu had sprinted for safety when the attack began. Having herded them out of the way, their persecutors – young Kalenjin men like the ones I’d met two hours before – spent the rest of the night torching their properties and killing whoever was trapped outside. Finally, at dawn, the mob turned on the school itself.

“We were throwing rocks out the windows,” said Grace, “but all of us thought we would die.”

What saved them was a cell phone. One of the people trapped inside had been able to call the police during the night, and they arrived in time to clear the mob and escort everyone to the highway camps at Burnt Forest.

Grace wanted to show us another body nearby, but when we got there nothing was left but a few photographs lying face down in the dirt.

“The dogs must have eaten it already,” she said. She picked up the photos and turned them over. A few showed young men proudly holding up their high school diplomas; another framed a young mother with her newborn baby; one had a family smiling inexplicably in front of a military helicopter that was parked beside their home.

Grace smiled. “These people are still alive,” she said, “they will be happy to see their pictures.” But she changed her mind as we walked back to the road, or perhaps simply forgot what she was holding. When we reached the field’s edge, she opened her palm and let the contents drop like so many seeds to the earth.

Arno Kopecky is a Kenyan based Canadian Journalist

THE MULTIPLICATION OF VOTES

January 11, 2008

By ALISON OJANY OWUOR

Another sleepless night since December 30, 2007. The horrifying, horrible denouement of Kenya’s national elections. Woken by blurred figures howling in colourful dreams of unrest. The rain and thunder of remembered speeches pounds my thumping heart.

It is three a.m. A ginger tom cat jumps on my bed, strutting with feral grace, oozes calm. He sits on my chest and purrs. I hold him tight. I imagine the rhythmic sound of his breathing will bring peace… Animals sense fear, some, like these try to appease it.

Soon I can breathe.

My mobile phone has been quiet. It is a cheap one, the sort given away for soapy promotions. I like it; it belongs to a resilient family of identical ones. No text message. A disturbing sort of absence in a night like this. But then a sister rushes into the room. Hiccuping. She has an SMS. It says the Pentagon members, the opposition, have all been arrested; that the police are on the prowl for those who have escaped.

Nausea.

There will be retribution. Death’s extended pronouncement on my country, Kenya. The unexpected expected. There is a point when disbelief gives way to surrealism. In the morning an SMS purportedly taken from the NSIS had been circulating. Sounded ridiculous, as if it should be for a dilapidated Ex-Russian republic where the presidents rename the days of the week after their children and boil their enemies. But so far the absurd script had been adhered to: declare victory for the incumbent, ring the announcement hall with paramilitary men, evict the media representatives and international observers, take control of the national broadcaster, swear in the declared president, arrest opposition leaders, and declare a state of emergency.

The cat purrs. I sob.

This is my country.

Daybreak. Three hours later. News. That last SMS was a rumour. It has been refuted. Small shift in spirit, a feeling like relief. Almost. Peculiar unease. These chants of tribalism, ethnic hatred, the incantation of division that is incoherent. Genocidal accusations are already criss-crossing the land. Dante’s hell on a three month tourism visa to Kenya.

But for the past five years few spoke about psychological holocausts when 90% of the civil service was deliberately packed with people of a shared language, or when transcontinental road arteries became murram tracks because they passed through provinces that had nothing to do with the ethnicity of the Government of the day, beyond being inhabited by to-be-useful-later-voters.

Sins of the fathers.

Must we inherit their pathologies too? Carry out their dead wars? They have lived, their bellies round, chins resting on thick necks, sitting back-left in large petrol guzzlers on their way to board private planes. In our hands they have left their slimy feuds. Fight, they whisper. Here are machetes, grenades and special guns. This is how to behead your friend. It is for the good of the whole. And then they fly away.

The reverence of opportunism couched in the convenient tag of ‘tribal hatred’. Convenient because it means that one set of people can imagine themselves under siege and therefore responsible for upholding despotism, justifying veniality and supporting geriatrics dancing on the mass graves of atavism with crude pomp and circumstance.

And that annoying little man who is sadly, again, official spokesman of facetious excuses made of whiny-voiced conceit. He is not young. Someone should tell him that one day he will die.

In 2007, many of us had come of age, many of us voted for the first time. Waited on long, winding, peaceful lines, a little bemused when we folded our ballot papers. What does all this mean? We had witnessed the 2002 event. Saw what hope could do, what change promised, were impatient to be a part of this grandness.
2007.

This is the election in which the youth who have come of age will have the greatest say. It was predicted. We cast our vote, experimenting with another imagination capable of accommodating the huge dreams in our hearts especially the ones that confirm our unitary identity, Kenya for Kenyans.

We rejoiced when we noticed the toppling of the entrenched gang.

Is this what it means?

God-blessed Kenya.

God has been invoked a great deal in and for this election: Evangelists praying, priests tossing incense, imams chanting, a laibon invoking, the ECK chairman- a man I used to revere, casting Satan out.
Lessons in exorcism.

But after the final count, the miraculous multiplication of votes.

The ominous, diffused adversary roams shopping for integrity, dignity and moral sensibility roams only in individual souls. This night we tallied our dead: Over 300. The official figures. Tomorrow night children and women will be burned to death in a church. Blood on the streets. Choice is not an option when the miracle is for sale.

Kenyans, pray a lot. They also melt quickly before fire and call for peace. But they skid before the idea of justice, avoiding it because it has a way of ensuring that the dead are exhumed. They would much prefer others, ‘the next generation’ inherit their forty year old ghosts. The same generation they tell “You are the future of Kenya.’
What they have not told us is that we may be dead before that future comes.

Sins of the father.

This afternoon when my phone beeps I receive an SMS message in praise of the man who was sworn in as president. Proof of anointing. It also contains vile words for the opposition’s leader. What do they call him, that beast from the west? I guess by default that includes me. We share three languages, he and I.
Barren speeches.

“Thank you all for voting me in.” How to violate a new generation with words. The economist. He used to be my hero, used to make me proud of being Kenyan. That was before he made me understand that under his plan, because of the nature of my last name, I am an ethnic statistic susceptible to violence, unworthy of making decisions about the destiny of my country and therefore unqualified for employment reserved for his special 90%. And because I am invisible to him, there is no realm where a simple dialogue with my small hopes for Kenya can take place.

SMS to a Kenyan God: Isn’t it in Dante’s Inferno where there is a vile hell reserved for those who steal the dreams of children?

I can hope. Can’t I?

Alison Ojany Owuor is a young published poet who has presented her work in different public forums. She got her voters card and also graduated from college late last year. She is looking for three things: meaningful work, Kenyans who are of the ethnic group Kenyan, and hopeful imaginings in red, green, white and black.

« Previous PageNext Page »