Which hate-filled Kenya is this?
It is nearly five years since I started to write this column. And today, for the first time, I have nothing I want to write. Today, for the first time, I am staring at the blank white screen before me without anticipation, without ideas, without purpose. Indeed, an honest act would be to submit a blank sheet for publication, to reflect the void of understanding I feel inside me.
I started to write for the Sunday Nation early in 2003. My first piece was an eye-witness account of the inauguration of Mwai Kibaki as the new Narc president. Then, I genuinely thought I had witnessed history as it was being made. A people had arisen peacefully and shown an unpopular government the door, politely but firmly. And that government had left quietly. What could be a better precedent for Africa?
Five years later, after watching an altogether different inauguration, I am not even sure what I saw in 2003. Was that unity of purpose, that spirit of brotherhood, that joyful oneness just an illusion? Were we just kidding ourselves that we had entered a brave new world, that 2003 heralded the beginning of a new order in which kleptocracy, patronage and hegemonic thinking would be things of the past, not the future?
After the events of the past four weeks, we could all be forgiven for losing the faith. I myself wonder what it is I actually understand about the country in which I was born.
I thought I understood our leaders. I knew that they were vainglorious, incompetent and untrustworthy, and I wrote so often enough over the years. I was wrong. If anything, our leaders are far, far worse than that. They are capable of burning this country to the very ground in order to achieve their personal and collective aims. They are capable of playing with the lives of hundreds of thousands, like chess pieces on a board.
I thought I understood my people. I thought Kenyans were peace-loving people who enjoyed diversity and tolerated difference, and who understood that a vibrant nation requires different strokes from different folks. I now see supremacists and tribalists everywhere, from the taxi-driver to the CEO. People who are barely able to disguise a visceral hatred for ‘those others’.
I thought Kenyans were God-fearing. I now see that they are merely church-going. Which set of religious beliefs can allow you to pick up your panga and attack your neighbour and turn him into pieces of meat? Or torch his child and rape his wife? “Thou shalt not kill” is the most fundamental commandment of all, in every faith. So how is it that people who sing hymns every Sunday have turned into blood-crazed savages who burn churches if they harbour the ‘wrong’ people?
Can we not hear the screams?
I thought I understood our business leaders and professional classes, and saw them as a force for competent standards and for enabling the economic uplift of the whole nation. Now I am stunned to see so many were just cabalists and chauvinists.
I now see a country where companies are moving employees from different parts of the country back to their ‘ancestral’ lands; where rural universities may no longer be able to admit ‘foreigners’; and where an ‘outsider’ settling in someone’s area causes the ‘local’ to harbour a hatred that spans generations.
How is this Kenya, this hate-filled, suspicious, duplicitous place, ever going to be harmonious again? How will people of diverse backgrounds exchange, interact, inspire? How will we construct companies where ‘tribe’ is not part of the equations of the business?
I may be very confused, but one thing I do still understand: if we are all going to shrink back into tribal enclaves, on the ground and in our minds, then we can kiss goodbye to the dream of ever being a ‘first-world’ country. In the modern global economy, there is no room for the narrow-minded and the short-sighted. The intolerant will not set the pace, and the provincial will not prosper.
I thought we were a country that thought big. It seems what we really think is pathetically small. We never really left our villages; we never really want to sit with anyone but our immediate cousins. We wish to think amongst our kinsmen and breed within our hamlets.
I am still hoping against hope that that is not the Kenya I have grown up in, that January 2008 will turn out to be an awful aberration, a moment of temporary insanity. I still know enough people who are thinking big and acting big; who see tribe as the most irrelevant type of identity; who can see a world rather than a country, a nation rather than a village. I thank those people from the bottom of my heart, for I need to know them and rebuild my hopes around them. It is not too late; let those with big hearts lead us out of the darkness.
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