Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sunday Calm

We left the house for the first time in seven days yesterday. What a relief. We've been talking to local police and other officials on a daily basis to determine security situation and was finally advised that it was safe to move around. I haven't posted for the past few days because I didn't want anyone to worry. There really was nothing to worry about, we were just stuck where we were. However, there were roadblocks of stones, tires, logs, whatever people could get their hands on, all over the area. Just an excuse to make some money. There has been fighting in the area, but no one bothered us up here.

Our driver is Kikuyu, and against our advice, decided to travel to reach his sister in Eldoret on the 21st. He got halfway there and had to stop and hide at a police station. He spent the week in hiding with a friend, but several nights had to flee to the bush to hide as mobs were looking for Kikuyu to lynch or set fire to their houses.

Anyways, we have been stuck at the house, and water ran out two days ago so we've been hauling 40L jerry cans from the house below us (the pump for our house seems to have broken and the caretaker for the Mission left to go to his village and took the keys to the pumphouse with him - a typical African scenario - "the man with the key has gone"). It’s really amazing how little water you need to get clean when it consists of a jerrycan and a margarine container. Makes me feel very guilty for filling the tub to its brim to have a bath at home.

We also ran out of cooking gas yesterday so have been boiling water and cooking over a charcoal pot (well, we haven't been, our cook has). Nothing left in the shops except tomatoes, rice and beans. Had to get a friend in Uganda to send airtime as there is virtually none left in the country. The icing on the cake, however, was that we discovered the spare tire from our only functional vehicle was stolen while we were away so we had no means of transport, which is a huge no-no in this situation. We scrambled around trying to find a wheel but the only place it was available was in Busia, which was inaccessable to us. We sent word out to see if anyone around had a spare tire that would fit on the pickup, and someone finally brought a spare from a Volvo that happened to fit the Toyota pickup yesterday so we could move.

No, wait a minute, the real icing on the cake was on Thursday, when the hillside behind us caught fire. There was a huge brushfire behind the house (people set fires all the time to clear brush and encourage fresh grass to grow for their cows and goats). It was literally 50 feet from the house. Of course this was the day the water ran out as well. I will admit I was pretty freaked out...I had my money, passport and laptop packed and was ready to leave. Thankfully it petered out (with the help of the local "fire brigade", a bunch of kids beating the burning bushes with tree branches).

I thought, "what's next, an earthquake? volcano? plague of locusts?" After it was over Fanette and I just laughed hysterically. What else could we do?

We watched all 22 hours of the first season of Prison Break this week. We almost cried as we watched the last episode…and are seriously considering calling in the Marines to airlift us the second season. This is truly a humanitarian crisis!!!

Anyhow, calm seems to have returned to most of the country. Reports from Nairobi indicate a sense of normalcy breaking out. Transport in Nairobi is moving, businesses are opening, and there is talk of some sort of negotiations occurring between Odinga and Kibaki. Archbishop Tutu is here trying to bring the two sides together (although initially Kibaki had refused to see him, saying "he wasn't invited". Brilliant, turn away a Nobel Laureate when he comes to visit). An American envoy arrives today and I'm sure the threat of withdrawal of American aid money will provide an incentive for both sides to seriously consider working something out. Kenya, and Kibaki, has been an important American "ally" (which means recipient of aid in exchange for intel) in the "war on terror" (ech, I hate that term) and has provided a base in East Africa and the Horn for their surveillance activities. In fact, the first reaction of the US was to send congratulations to Kibaki on his victory. That statement was quickly retracted when the US realized it was the only country in the Western world that didn't condemn the elections as being clearly rigged. Oops! My Bad! It's very interesting when you start to look below the surface at politics in much manipulation by foreign interests and a historical context that most people are not aware of.

Here is an absolutely brilliant article from the Washington Post regarding the roots of the current conflict in Kenya:

DIVIDE AND RULE What's Tearing Kenya Apart? History, for One Thing.By Caroline Elkins
Sunday, January 6, 2008; Page B03

As Big Ben struck midnight, Londoners welcomed in 2008 by cheering a blaze of fireworks above the Thames skyline. But the new year has been marked by far less happy conflagrations in several fledgling democracies that had once been part of Britain's empire. Days earlier, Pakistan had been rocked by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Iraq seems trapped in a cycle of terror and counterterror. Afghanistan looks much the same. Zimbabwe squirms under Robert Mugabe's thumb.

Now Kenya, too, appears to be on the brink. The East African country -- widely seen as a model of economic and democratic progress since 2002, when the 24-year dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi was swept aside -- has been moving toward an ethnically charged civil war since a disputed election on Dec. 27. President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of a second term after a vote that opposition candidate Raila Odinga denounces as rigged and that European Union observers agree was seriously flawed. As tens of thousands of Kenyans flee their homes and hundreds lie dead, part of the blame rests with Britain and its imperial legacy.

The immediate cause of the crisis was Kenya's delicate ethnic balance. The incumbent president, Kibaki, is a member of Kenya's largest and probably most powerful ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who total about 22 percent of the population; his rival, Odinga, is a member of the Luo, who comprise some 13 percent of the populace and live predominantly in western Kenya. In their bitter contest, in which Odinga promised to end ethnic favoritism and spread the country's wealth more equitably, ethnicity was the deciding factor, and a marred victory on either side had always been likely to spark violence.

Both men are rich, elitist African politicians who have far more in common with each other than they do with their supporters; in their struggle over power, both are using their followers as proxies in a smoldering war. Still, Odinga has a real point about vote tampering; the chief of the E.U. election monitoring mission said that his officials had been turned away from the central vote-counting room in Nairobi, and even Kibaki's hand-picked head of Kenya's electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, told reporters that he did "not know whether Kibaki won the election."

Enter Britain, Kenya's former colonial ruler, which now prides itself on being a purveyor of global democracy. Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, issued a joint statement calling for compromise. Prime Minister Gordon Brown rushed to the phone lines, offering Kibaki and Odinga a quick lesson in democratic principles. In a Kiplingesque touch redolent of the colonial "white man's burden," Brown reportedly told both men, "What I want to see is . . . ." Miliband directed the Kenyan leaders to "behave responsibly."

I doubt that the irony of Brown and Miliband's message was lost on Kibaki or Odinga. Today's Britain, between its botched war on terror and lack of checks on executive power (to name but a few flaws), falls far short of the democratic ideals so paternalistically espoused by Brown and other British leaders. Still, the prime minister's jaw-dropping chutzpah -- on display not only in Kenya but also in former imperial possessions such as Pakistan and Iraq -- is rooted less in Brown's own tin ear than in the nature and structures of yesteryear's British colonial rule. So are today's crises in the former empire. If you're looking for the origins of Kenya's ethnic tensions, look to its colonial past.

Far from leaving behind democratic institutions and cultures, Britain bequeathed to its former colonies corrupted and corruptible governments. Colonial officials hand-picked political successors as they left in the wake of World War II, lavishing political and economic favors on their proteges. This process created elites whose power extended into the post-colonial era. Added to this was a distinctly colonial view of the rule of law, which saw the British leave behind legal systems that facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government. And compounding these legacies was Britain's famous imperial policy of "divide and rule," playing one side off another, which often turned fluid groups of individuals into immutable ethnic units, much like Kenya's Luo and Kikuyu today. In many former colonies, the British picked favorites from among these newly solidified ethnic groups and left others out in the cold. We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today's conflicts in Africa. In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.

It's no wonder that newly independent countries such as Kenya maintained and even deepened the old imperial heritage of authoritarianism and ethnic division. The British had spent decades trying to keep the Luo and Kikuyu divided, quite rightly fearing that if the two groups ever united, their combined power could bring down the colonial order. Indeed, a short-lived Luo-Kikuyu alliance in the late 1950s hastened Britain's retreat from Kenya and forced the release of Jomo Kenyatta, the nation's first president, from a colonial detention camp. But before their departure, the British schooled the future Kenyans on the lessons of a very British model of democratic elections. Britain was determined to protect its economic and geopolitical interests during the decolonization process, and it did most everything short of stuffing ballot boxes to do so. That set dangerous precedents. Among other maneuvers, the British drew electoral boundaries to cut the representation of groups they thought might cause trouble and empowered the provincial administration to manipulate supposedly democratic outcomes.

Old habits die hard. Three years after Kenya became independent in 1963, the Luo-Kikuyu alliance fell apart. Kenyatta and his Kikuyu elite took over the state; the Luo, led by Oginga Odinga (Raila Odinga's father) formed an opposition party that was eventually quashed.

Kenyatta established a one-party state in 1969 and tossed the opposition, including Odinga, into detention, much as the British had done to him and his cronies during colonial rule in the 1950s. The Kikuyu then enjoyed many of the country's spoils throughout Kenyatta's reign.
The Kikuyu's fortunes took a turn for the worse when Daniel arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin ethnic minority, assumed dictatorial power in 1978. He managed to hang on for more than two decades. Western Kenya enjoyed the economic benefits of state largess until Moi was voted out of office in 2002, at which point the pendulum again swung back to the Kikuyu, led by the incoming President Kibaki.

Fears of ethnic ascendancies, power-hungry political elites, undemocratic processes and institutions -- all are hallmarks of today's Kenya, just as they were during British colonial rule. This does not excuse the undemocratic behavior of the current Kenyan president, nor that of his opponent Odinga, both of whom are bent on seizing power and neither of whom is necessarily a true voice of the masses. Nor does it excuse the horrific violence that has unfolded throughout the country or the appalling atrocities committed by individual Kenyans. Rather, it suggests that the undemocratic historical trajectory that Kenya has been moving along was launched at the inception of British colonial rule more than a century ago. It's not hard to discern similar patterns -- deliberately stoked ethnic tensions, power-hungry elites, feeble democratic traditions and institutions -- in other former British colonies such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Iraq that share similar imperial pasts. In retrospect, the wonder is not that Kenya is descending into ethnic violence. The wonder is that it didn't happen sooner.

Caroline Elkins is an associate professor of African studies at Harvard University and the author of "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya."

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