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Another bad August for Kenyans

August, we all know, is traditionally a bad month for Kenyans. It is the month in which our leaders die, our trains crash, our ferries sink and our buildings are bombed. It is the month in which catastrophe chooses to strike, in which we are rocked back onto our heels by some monumental disaster.

Most of this August has passed us by without any sign of a large-scale calamity. Many Kenyans could be heard asking whether the curse had finally been lifted. And then, of course, came the news of minister Maitha’s unexpected death in Germany. It seems the jinx is still with us.

But big events only divert us. We fixate on them and think in terms of curses and plagues, as though these things are somehow visited on us from outside. The truth is, we’ve had an exceptionally bad August regardless. True, no bombs fell and no natural disasters occurred. Nevertheless, a number of smaller events did take place that revealed what bad shape we’re truly in as a country.

The first such event was the fiasco surrounding the Kenyans taken hostage in Iraq. This is not a situation we can walk away from easily, for it exposed a number of harsh truths. One, that we are pygmies on the world stage – we have no ability whatsoever to influence events in our favour. Two, that as a Kenyan abroad, you are cast to the four winds. Your country can offer you neither service nor succour – it has no capacity and no competence with which to offer these things. And thirdly, (and most worryingly) those who lead our foreign policy apparently feel no shame about their inadequacies. They will provide a hundred justifications rather than tender one tiny apology.

My second August event was the furore surrounding the ‘miracle babies’ saga. The first thing that was perturbing about this affair was that it was initially exposed from abroad. Until the UK media and investigative authorities first publicised the matter, we seemed to have no clue that such things take place in our midst. Now, armed with the X-ray vision of hindsight, our policemen, reporters and medical regulators are traipsing all over the place with moral zeal and investigative fervour. Now, a crackdown on illegal clinics ensues. Now, the sordid ways in which baby trafficking chains operate are under scrutiny. Before August 2004, we heard nothing, saw nothing, knew nothing.

The other unnerving aspect of the miracle baby saga is how numb we are to the horror that is baby trafficking. For this is what it entails: that tiny babies must be snatched or procured from those who have them in order to fulfil demand from those who do not, like some piece of merchandise. To disguise the basic brutality of this squalid commercial act, the whole thing must be shrouded in religious mystery. One look at the faces of those little ones being paraded before us should be enough to spark our anger: where were the police when all this was happening for years and years? Where were the media, so adept at uncovering political conspiracies and procurement scams? Where were the learned doctors that are tasked with regulating the activities of their colleagues? When we fail to protect the most vulnerable amongst us, we are failures indeed.

A third event took place this August: the triumphant homecoming of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, our most lauded literary icon. The joy was turned to shame by the subsequent assault on him and his wife by mysterious forces. Again, one thing was apparent: how easy it is in Kenya to circumvent the most elaborate security arrangements by involving the security providers themselves. The case is under investigation, and the precise details are not yet known. But early reports certainly seem to suggest an elaborate conspiracy with a clear aim: the rape of a woman.

This is the most alarming aspect of the Ngugi affair: our propensity to use rape as a weapon of intimidation, and the casualness with which it is enacted. Alongside the Ngugi incident, our newspapers carried other reports of rape: of the bar where raiders not only raped the women present but forced male patrons to do likewise; of the students who gang-raped a woman in their hostel; and of the man who took to forcing himself upon his own young daughters, simply because his wife died and left him with no other obvious outlet for his sexual energies.

Far from regarding the reproductive powers given to women as holy and a depiction of divinity, men treat them as receptacles for base and brutal lust. For this is the dirty secret about rape: that many men do not even regard it as a crime. It is a sign of virility at best, a joke at worst. An evil act? No, no. Just men doing what they do best, surely. Fun for all concerned. And for as long as those men that share this view frame our laws and enforce them, no hope is possible.

My final notable event for August: the land claims made by the Maasai to correct historical injustices. Here, it is the reaction of the authorities that was of interest, for the crackdown on the protestors has been swift and brutal. Maasai petitioners have felt the full and unprecedented force of the law. Peaceful assembly? The right to protest? Not in this matter. The same policemen that cannot prevent the trafficking of babies or the rape of their sisters and daughters could be seen wielding guns, clubs and teargas to devastating effect on a few old Maasai men who had gathered in Uhuru Park earlier this week.

The reason? We don’t want “another Zimbabwe” in Kenya. Well, no one does, but is cracking skulls the only way we know in which to achieve this? The land question is a vexed one and has no easy answers. But there are intelligent responses available. A fair and equitable land policy can be devised. The question of compensation can be explored. A simple land tax can be imposed to ensure that land is put to its most productive use and does not lie idle in the hands of landed idlers. But we know nothing of intelligent responses. What we do know is how to pick up arms and plunge headlong into mindless mayhem.

So it has been a quite depressing August, with nothing to tell us yet that future Augusts can be any better. But there was some gold, silver and bronze lining in the cold and dark clouds that hung over us. For this was an Olympic August, and in an Olympic August we can be assured of one thing: that Kenya will lift the 3000m steeplechase gold medal, just like it has in every Olympic August in which it has chosen to compete since 1968. This year we took all three medals, as though to make up for our woes in the other arenas of life. The battered hearts of Kenyans across the globe swelled briefly with pride. Viva Kenya! But medals on the running track provide but a brief flutter of achievement. We need to start winning the races of the mind, for there we fail to even qualify. One August we will. May it come soon.

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