Archive for January, 2008

What’s new here

January 28, 2008

Every Kenyan I meet wants this to be over, for life to get back to normal. They’re embarrassed about the fighting and are suffering because of it. As you may be seeing on the news, parts of Kenya continue to be dangerous places. For a while it appeared as if people had calmed down but riots keep popping up like like whack-a-moles. It’s hard to say how much of it has to do with the election results, almost a month old now, or if it’s just an outpouring of anger over preexisting resentments and the frustrations of poverty.

The general assumption is that people are paid to riot or that there’s some high level coordination. What usually happens and seems to be happening here is that the violence gets so convoluted that it’s hard to see an upside for anyone. Someone will almost certainly end up on top but the damage to Kenya’s reputation will linger for years.


Catch of the day

January 21, 2008

As I was walking down the main drag in Mombasa, Kenya’s port, a pack of street kids approached on the sidewalk. They looked about eight or nine years old. In the lead, a boy dangled a moray eel in his hand. Ever since childhood, I’ve had a thing about moray eels, the most sinister of fish. They’re always smiling in that cruel mocking rictus, pondering, no doubt, the joy of snapping off a diver’s finger in their guillotine jaws. This one looked dead but rigor mortis is a relative condition for eels and it swayed in the humid air. Melville would have waxed metaphysic for volumes on its grotesque off-white belly. Peeking out of the boy’s fist, it was still smiling. If they sauteed it in butter I would have given it a good forking, but with it all grinning and raw, I was at the eel’s mercy. One whipping motion and I would have emptied my pockets. The boys noticed and smiled broadly. Still, they passed quickly, only one lingering to ask for money. They must have had big plans for their prize, torturing their sisters or, more likely, roasting it over some dirty charcoal.


January 17, 2008

Last night one of the Kenyan news programs showed a man in Kisumu taunting a soldier. The man was wearing track pants and a black tee shirt. He danced with his hands antlered on either side of his head as if he were a four year old in a playground. The soldier raised his military rifle and shot him. The soldier approached slowly after the man had fallen and kicked him as he lay on his back. The soldier circled and then kicked him again.

A refugee camp

January 16, 2008

The signal crime of Kenya’s post-election tumult took place near Eldoret when a gang burned down a church killing about 50 people who were locked inside. It also saw more than its share of the rioting and probably will as they’re expected  to heat up again in the next few days. Even so, when I visited last week it looked like a relatively orderly and prosperous place, albeit after many of its population had fled. Its massive hospital serves the region and the airport is more imposing than it needs to be. In the city center stores have reopened after last week’s looting. Buildings burned along the airport road, were destroyed too thoroughly to be eerie. All that remains of them are unevocative piles of ash.

In Nairobi, diplomats and power brokers are still trying to reach some sort of settlement that would satisfy both President Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity and Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic movement after the disputed election. As the various factions flirt, a growing refugee camp outside Eldoret, one of many in the area, shows how difficult it will be to resolve Kenya’s unsteady situation.

When I visited last Wednesday the camp had grown from about 200 people into a town of 4,083 registered inhabitants, 33 of whom were orphans. Many of them have seen their homes burned and are frightened to return to places where the only remnants of their past lives are the people who ruined them. They are now confined to the Show Ground, a large field more frequently used to host farmers’ markets.

Immediately after Kibaki claimed victory, members of Odinga’s Luo tribe began protesting in riots that caused widespread looting and arson across Kenya. In their sights were members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, the largest and wealthiest in the country. Apparently the refugee camp holds people from several tribes but everyone I interviewed there described themselves as a Kikuyu fleeing violence.

David Karioki, a gaunt man of 47 with rotting teeth and a Manchester United cap was sitting beside one of the paths through the camp. “They burned my house,” he said. “They stole everything in my house.” A younger man who crowded around added that the looters and arsonists were their friends and neighbors. He thought they had received payments from “politicians” or believed they would be rewarded for punishing Kikuyus.

Across the field, people were trying to make themselves at home. Many had constructed shelters of arched branches covered by tarps or sticks and grass. Some had been able to salvage mattresses from their houses and generally surrounded themselves with everything they owned, including their food. (At a smaller camp on the grounds of Eldoret’s modern cathedral I saw the timbers of a dismantled house and a wall unit that might hold a home entertainment center.) The field was large enough that people could spread out. From a distance an observer might think it was a popular picnic spot.

Laundry dried on barbed wire fences. In a position that looks both painful and permanent, Women bent with their torsos parallel to the ground, as they stirred pots of beans and corn kernels over harsh charcoal fires. Everywhere kids called “How are you? How are you?” at the white folks, aid workers mostly, who were milling around. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms patrolled with rifles, perhaps responsible for the prevailing, and surprising calm. Many of the refugees had already been homeless for more than a week, initially fleeing to police stations for protection. After several days they were trucked to the facility.

Towards the back of the field the aid groups parked their SUVs and kids played soccer. There I met a Kenyan who had arrived from Nairobi to be the manager of what he called the “transition center.” Wearing a Red Cross coverall he said the group expects to distribute at least two weeks worth of food as well as water, blankets and mosquito nets to prevent malaria. Several refugees said they had not yet seen any Red Cross supplies but a large truck with the group’s emblem drove through, suggesting it was on the way.

The goal is for people to leave relatively soon, the Red Cross guy said, though he expects many would not be able to go back to their home towns. He was trying to supervise latrine digging which would add 20 toilets to the fifteen already in use.

Other aid workers from groups like Unicef and Medecins Sans Frontieres were represented to contribute to the relief effort. A white Mormon woman who looked to be in late middle age said she had been in Eldoret for 19 months. She and her husband were supposed to leave in December but decided to stay on “We didn’t know why, but we know now.” Welcoming some relative newcomers to Kenya she said “We think it’s the Garden of Eden.”

The transition center has become a haven for refugees in their own country. For the most part nothing, not even their houses or a bank account, awaits them where they came from. The solution they describe, are begging for really, is aid from the government to help them restart their lives, preferably someplace new. With no clear shape as to how the new government will look, let alone how or if it will be able to help them, the people now living at the Show Ground are in for a long two weeks.

In the country

January 14, 2008

For a few days I was in the Kenyan countryside traveling across some of the areas most scarred by the recent chaos. You won’t find a single article on Kenya from the past few weeks (including my own) that doesn’t hold the country up as a shining trophy of African economic success. Still, it’s important to maintain perspective.
Compared with northern Mozambique, one of the least developed parts of Africa, small Kenyan towns were models of abundance and wealth. But this says almost nothing. As I blogged about earlier, Mozambique’s towns, the one’s on the main road, were generally a few mud huts topped with sloppy thatch. Occasionally there’d be a solid building, usually a church or a mosque but even many of them were just a few pieces of sheet metal slapped together like a house of cards. In Kenya, the towns were larger, many of them had rows of bodegas and stands fronted with some sort of an awning.
From the matatus I spotted printing shops, tailors and small restaurants. Whenever I stopped there were people eager to offer lifts on the backs of their bicycles, which of course requires there being someplace to go. Even so the villages are quite decrepit. In a small town where I stayed for two nights, rioters had burned down a gas station but most of the decay had evidently been in progress for years. Along the roads, rusted signs testified to one development project or another which had long since disappeared.
The town worst hit by the violence was Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, which is on the shore of Lake Victoria. There, street lamps had been bent over, their lights pulled off. The husks of burnt cars greeted visitors on the road into town. Rioters had vandalized billboards and smashed windows. It will be hard for the town’s reputation to recover. But many ramshackle markets and houses had clearly not been damaged in the unrest. Back in Nairobi an unsympathetic Kenyan called Kisumu residents “foolish people, they destroyed their town.” It’s also sad how little they had before the election.

From boil to simmer

January 6, 2008

After a week of violence and uncertainty there are signs in Nairobi of life returning to normal. The matatu’s, those minibuses, are crowding out other drivers on the roads and in the supermarkets the lines are shorter and people don’t seem to be stocking up on insane amounts of basics, say 20 kilograms of rice as was common last weekend. “Kenyans are too busy for war,” a Kikuyu told me the other day. In the same breath he continued, “only one tribe wants war but they are poor and primitive.”
I’ve heard plenty of similar comments. What should one make of them? Is it routine off the cuff racism or spurred by the last week’s riots? Even in the event of a settlement these rivalries and hatreds will remain. Should peace return, the normal business of life will paper over this corrosive bile to some degree. The concern is that these prejudices aren’t wounds from the last week but passed down lore on which people base their identity.

Welcome new readers!

January 4, 2008

Blogging will recommence over the weekend. Please enjoy these stories from the last four months.

Nairobi update

January 1, 2008

Thanks to everyone who’s expressed concern over my safety. The scene in Kenya seems to have cooled a bit. Shops are opening and there are more cars on the road. However, just about every relevant NGO, foreign and domestic, has attacked the vote counting and there will be protests in coming days. As usual, the poorest people suffer worst. If they had nothing but a hut before, there’s a good chance it’s burned down. On my as of yet unscheduled next trip to Kibera, the slum will be far worse, and it was awful before.

On New Year’s Eve I sat by a pool in an international hotel. I was one of those people hardened journalists unfailingly deride in their battle memoirs: white folks sipping cocktails as the world burns beyond the gates.