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Did we really not see it coming?

Feb 24, 2008 Strategy, Sunday Nation

We didn’t see it coming.

That is the horrified standard response to our post-election crisis from our chattering classes (also known as the drinking classes, the pontificating classes, and the not-our-fault classes).

This response is uttered in aghast fashion, and reflects the speaker’s disgust at these dreadful goings-on. This response allows many scapegoats to appear: Raila-Kibaki (the two must always be blamed together, to demonstrate the speaker’s non-partisan stance); crazed, irresponsible, glue-sniffing young hooligans; bigoted rural natives; warlike militias.

This response is a fiction, an evasion of the truth.

Let me be clear: none of us saw a thousand deaths and half-a-million displaced people coming. Of course we didn’t. That could not have been predicted by any observer (and wasn’t). But to say that we didn’t know there were many things wrong with our country is to engage in self-delusion and hypocrisy. The fundamental ills in our society have been apparent for a long, long time. What we lacked was the honesty to accept them and the guts to confront them.

Did we not know that Kenyans of all shades and accents have a peculiar urge to live and socialise amongst ‘their own’? Could we not see that whether in a squalid slum or an executive estate, tribes and ethnic groups tend to find their own clusters to live in? Why, this phenomenon even emerges in Diaspora. Did we not notice the popularity of ‘cultural nights’? Nothing wrong with that, but when was the last time you saw an ‘outsider’ attend one of these evening bashes and enjoy song and food that was not ‘his own’?

Did we miss the fact that many churches ‘belong’ to certain tribes, and that the men of the cloth who run them appear to owe allegiance to tribal gods rather than the God of all humanity?

Did it fail to register that Kenyans deploy a smiley mask and a saccharine tongue when in ‘mixed company’, but revert to awful stereotypical jokes and caricaturing of ‘the others’ once they are safely amongst their own kind? Did it never worry us that this infantile behaviour is exhibited even by the most educated tiers of society? So why are we so surprised now at how little the tribes understand or appreciate one another?

Did it really escape our collective attention that the ‘economic boom’ was an urban, upper-and-middle-class phenomenon? And that the complacency of this group was breathtaking: Kenya was already a ‘tiger’ economy, and had already cured itself of all the old ills like corruption, impunity and patronage – miraculously, without having had to engage in any meaningful institutional or structural reform.

Clearly, the fact that our country’s median age is around 18; that we have the world’s biggest and most studied slums; that people in rural areas routinely kill their neighbours over things like access to rivers or ownership of cattle – all these things were beneath our notice.

And did we also not record that big people never pay the price for doing bad things in Kenya? The awful events in our history – the political assassinations, the orchestrated tribal clashes, the grotesquely large corruption scams – are not conducted by the little people. But which of the big people have ever ended up in jail at any point in our history, no matter how large the crime?

Did we also miss all the little things, then? That we have almost never built a proper road that lasts, in 44 years of independence (must be the weather)? That we are unable to drive on those roads with consideration for anyone but ourselves and with no regard whatsoever for the law? That we push ahead in traffic jams and queues, that it’s ‘me-first’ everywhere?

And finally, did we totally miss our tendency to lapse into collective amnesia? We watched a string of brutal assassinations being commissioned throughout our history – and promptly forgot. We read about shameless plunder of our tax receipts – and promptly forgot. We watched buses crash into matatus and kill dozens all the time – and promptly forgot. We watched buildings collapse upon innocents – and promptly forgot. We saw media houses get raided by hooded thugs – and promptly forgot.

Why are we surprised, people? A country where people cannot socialise together can easily reach for the pangas when the chips are down. A country where no-one is punished for massive wrong-doing is one in which the crimes can only continue, and get worse. A country with no respect for its laws and institutions is only a heartbeat away from anarchy. A country that pays no attention to the less privileged will eventually be forced to move at the pace of the slowest.

Let’s cut out the fake horror. We have a chance now to re-invent, to re-imagine, to re-engineer this land of ours. But let’s leave out the falsehoods and the prevarication for once. Let’s face our failings head-on, and take it from there.

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