Jul 19 2008

the Kenyan way: past as prologue

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:26 PM

Since I visited Kenya last month (and then again early this month), friends and strangers have asked me for my impressions about efforts to reconcile the disputing sides in the country’s post-election turmoil. I made no serious examination of this question while in Kenya, only coming across random impressions in passing. My sense is that life in Kenya is back to normal and that supporters of Kibaki and Odinga (who are both in government under a power-sharing arrangement) simply are denying their differences. My discussion with people at media houses in Nairobi supported the denial explanation. Media actors are promoting reconciliation in the abstract but they are unwilling to examine ethnic pride, mobilization and discontent. Indeed, there is essentially a regime of self-censorship in Kenyan media around the subject of ethnicity and “tribal” affiliations. That people in Kenya who identify with the Luo group (of Odinga) feel unfairly treated by people who identify with the Kikuyu identity (of Kibaki) is undeniable. Yet from reading the media, the existence of both the Luo and the Kikuyu would seem to be in great doubt.

There is much to applaud in people who can see the worst in each other and then move in, forgiving and forgetting. There ought to be more of that in the world, I suspect. Yet Kenyans, from the very start of their history as independent country some 45 years ago, have shown an outsized willingness to set aside past differences — to pretend, in short, that the past does not matter. Kenya’s first president, Kenyatta, from the very start of his new nation in December 1963, chose to set aside concerns about who did what during the violent campaigns by British colonial authorities and “Mau Mau” freedom fighters to alter political arrangements in Kenya during the 1950s. Kenyatta decided not to examine ethnic differences in his country; he chose instead to priviledge the “fiction” of Kenyan identity in hopes of turning this lie into a reality.

To some degree, Kenyatta succeeded. I was struck in Nairobi by the intense patriotism of young Kenyans with education; people of talent and good character who weren’t born even during the last years of Kenyatta’s stern rule. For these young strivers in Nairobi, their pride in nation is palpable and, actually, moving. Kenya is a destroyer of hopes as much as a creator because of the long night of poor governance under Kenyatta’s successor, Moi. Today, hopes are reviving and young Kenyans can dream of a better day without suspending either their reason or their morality.

Which brings me back to the post-election violence. The willingness of people to move on, without examining what happened only a few months, is of a piece with Kenya’s modern history, which has never received even a rough kind of reckoning, either inside Kenya or without. These closing words in Caroline Elkins disturbing book, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” could well stand as a coda on the Odinga-Kibaki rivalry — and the ethnic violence it spawned earlier this year. Elkins is writing of course about political violence in Kenya 50 years ago. Her words seem eerily relevant to the recent crisis and not only because of the obvious observation that if Kenyans can’t come to grips with the history of a half-century ago, what chance exists to reconcile less distant, more hot and painful conflicts of the moment.

“To this day [Elkins writes] there has never been any form of official reconciliation in Kenya. There are no monuments for Mau Mau, children are not taught about this part of their nation’s past in school, few speak about it in the privacy of their own homes, and, with the exception of the relatives of the Hola massacre victims, there has never been any kind of financial consideration given to those who lost family members in the camps and villages, or property to the local loyalists [to the British]. Some men and women lost the use of their limbs, others their minds, as a result of years spent behind the wire…. But they too have insisted that bygones remain bygones.”

Is this the Kenyan way?

Comments are closed.