A Kenya Primer
January 8th, 2008 by Sonja

I wrote about Kenya the other day. I was a little passionate and perhaps obscure. I’ve had time to sort out my understanding, my knowledge and my senses. I have no direct connection with the unfolding violence and mayhem there, but I find it strangely compelling nonetheless.

I wrote this statement: “Africa is crumbling. In the West we will be held to account for this in some form or another. It is on our shoulders that this mess lies.” I asked these questions: “But … have we done the work of understanding the other? Of knowing who they are? Of truly becoming One with them as God asks us to? Or do we simply wrap our culture on top of theirs like a blanket and hope that it takes?”

In a comment, Janet wrote so succinctly:

I don’t believe the missionaries are the worst offenders… the Colonial powers drawing up national boundaries based around geographical features rather than tribal identity or ancestral lands hasn’t helped. Nor has economic systems of trade that advantage the West. Nor has political covert interference by Western nations… especially in the cold war era by Russia and the U.S. Nor has impositions of political / military systems that work in the West but haven’t perhaps been translated to work with cultural realities. Nor has the world community’s tendency to tolerate the utterly intolerable as if African nations are a special case… we seem far more willing to ignore civil war, genocide and famine there than we are if white people are involved….

I’ve been contemplating that and then there’s my long since misplaced classmate from college.

He stood out even on the first day. I think he was about 6 foot 4 or so. With a smile to match. The purple and gold beanies they made us freshmen wear looked even more ridiculous on him than they did on the rest of us mortals. But Ken wore his with style. The ever-ready grin became his fashion statement. As did the workboots he wore year round. Dunhams. He wore them with shorts or jeans. It didn’t matter. They were his shoes and I never saw him in anything else. No one could keep up with him walking because his legs were so long.

I had several classes with him as the International Relations department at our college was small. So we crossed paths often and had an easy going friendship. Ken … from Kenya. He was smart, funny and good looking. And interesting to talk to. But it was not a deep or long lasting friendship. He was returning to Kenya and I went to college BI. Before Internet. For all intents and purposes I went to college BC (before computer). I typed all of my papers on … get this … a typewriter! So I lost touch with most of my classmates almost immediately upon graduation. My class is still the least reported class in the alumni rag … except for the class just before mine. We’re terrible.

In any case, I’ve remembered Ken from Kenya. I’ve remembered his full name. It’s a name you don’t forget … though I won’t reveal it here. So, when the recent poop hit the fan I began to do some research. I wanted to find him again, if I could, and mostly reassure myself that he was likely okay. I found him alright. What I found gave me pause and made me sad.

I always knew that Ken’s father was a “minister” in the government in Nairobi. I found him alright. It wasn’t hard to do. The name, as it turned out, was fairly well known. Or infamous. Depending upon one’s perspective. As I read articles about Ken’s father I read all the sad stereotypes that come to mind about African government officials. Then I also read heroic things about him as well. It really did depend upon the perspective of the author. The author’s perspective depended upon their ethnic background. Were they Western? If not, what tribe were they from? The answers to those questions really did color the perspective of the author. Western authors tend to view ministerial activities in a very light than African authors. Africans tend to have their perspective colored by their tribal affiliation. So it’s very difficult to sort out where the lines are.

In searching for Ken I’ve had a primer on Kenyan politics for the last 40 years or so. There is a lot to learn. I think it’s important that we in the West learn our lessons quickly and well. The ghosts of Rwanda and Somalia are still too fresh. We cannot afford to let those happen again. Ultimately the responsibility does lie on us. For we did carve up a continent based not upon the people who were already there, but upon a boundary system that was guaranteed to create problems in the future for these people. We have then laid over top of the cauldron of tribal/feudalism a blanket of democracy that is supposed to repair any problems that were created during the colonial period. The blanket has created a warm dark place for the problems to fester and grow … like a rotting wound covered with an unclean bandage.

I thought about attempting to write that primer out here. But I am still unsure of myself. I do not understand the finer nuances of the intertribal conflicts to spell it out yet. Here are the parts I do understand (I think … and I may have missed huge chunks) and there will be a list of links at the end.

Kenya gained independence in 1964 from Great Britain. Her first president was Jomo Kenyatta. He was first prime minister under British rule and then President of an independent Kenya from 1964 to 1978. I believe that he was a member of Kikuyu tribe. This is the main taproot of the violence and unrest that we are seeing today.

The second president of Kenya was Daniel Arap Moi. I believe he was president for 24 years (1978 – 2002). He was a member of the Kalenjin tribe. While he was president the Kalenjin was ascendent, but the Kikuyu tribe maintained it’s hold on power as well.

In 2002 Kenya held it’s first contested presidential elections and Mwai Kibaki was elected president. Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu tribe (again) This was the first presidential election in which more than one person (man) was running … for real. In late 2007 another election was held and I assume it was accordance with the Kenyan constitution. Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent, ran again. He was opposed by Raila Odinga (a member of Luo tribe) among others. The reason that the presidential results are in question is that most of the parliamentary incumbents were ousted; especially those who were of the Kikuyu tribe. When Kibaki declared himself the victor and had himself sworn in without the election being properly overseen violence ensued.

Given the pattern established by his predecessors (Kenyatta and Moi), it is not unreasonable to think that Kibaki anticipated that he would be in office (by hook or crook) for a number of years. Certainly he anticipated more than five years in power.

Map of Kenya with tribes and ethnic groups

Tribal politics and vendetta relationships are the primary driving forces creating the state in Kenya at the moment. An unspoken issue is that when this generation dies out, there is a vacuum in leadership. The men who drove Africa to independence in the 20th century and have governed her since, have not raised up leaders to replace themselves. There are very few young Africans willing and able to take the reins of government and administration when this generation passes from the scene. The middle class is paltry and small. We, in the West, have done a pitiful job at passing the flower of democracy to the cradle of civilization.

Kenya: Roots of Crisis by Gerard Prunier

Ethnic Tensions Dividing Kenya by Adam Mynott

New Broom For Graft Ridden Kenya by Jeremy Scott-Joynt

African Successes: Four Public Managers of Kenyan Rural Development by David Scott

Where Tribe Is Everything by Geoffrey Clarfield

UPDATE – Because I’m Western my perspective is questionable as well … as you may discover here, in Kenya: Causes and Solutions:

That the elections results were rigged – of that there is little doubt. The hasty inauguration, the blanket banning on the broadcast media, the dispersal of security forces to deal with expected protests – all these have given the post election period the flavour of a coup d’etat. What was not expected was the speed with which the whole thing would unravel. The declaration of the members of the Electoral Commission that the results were indeed rigged only added to the growing realisation that a coup had indeed taken place.

People across the country took to the streets to protest and were met with disproportionate use of force by the police and GSU.

Emotions ran high. And there is evidence that politicians from all sides used the occasion to instigate violent attacks against their opponents’ constituencies. There have been rapes, forced circumcision and forced female genital mutilation. The western media has been quick to describe these as ‘ethnic clashes’ – but then they appear only to be able to see tribes whenever there are conflicts in Africa. What is ignored by them is that the security forces have been responsible for the majority of killings.

10 Responses  
  • Peggy writes:
    January 8th, 20082:42 pmat

    Sonja, I think you’ve hit on a deeper crisis that impacts everyone everywhere: the proper training up of generational leaders! I could go on and on…but I won’t. I’ll just say that I was glad Moses trained Joshua…and sorry that Joshua didn’t pass the mantle, like Elijah.

    It is one thing to be able to lead…it is another thing to train your replacement. I wish we would really wrap our heads around this issue…then we might be better disciple makers.


  • Captchas & Political Gotchas (Kenya) : Subversive Influence writes:
    January 9th, 200810:41 amat

    […] of what I had to say. I’m behind in blog reading again, but I see this morning that Sonja has an excellent primer on Kenya… very thorough. I’ve said nothing about Kenya because to be honest, I just don’t […]

  • Calacirian » Another Wrinkle or Maybe Two writes:
    January 9th, 20081:23 pmat

    […] just as I thought I was getting my head around the mess of spaghetti that is politics in Kenya, I read […]

  • Janet writes:
    January 9th, 200811:43 pmat

    Sonia… thank you for your insights and interest…

    I’ll shoot you an email from the Avaaz team… I think all concerned people need to pressure their own foreign ministers to exert their diplomatic will.

    In functioning Western democracies, “people power” can influence our governments… and our governments actually can wield influence… especially the economic / military superpower that is the U.S.A.

  • Janet writes:
    January 9th, 200811:54 pmat

    Unfortunately I’m too new to this blogging thing to work out how to send you an email… can you please send me one to jwoodlock@churchesofchrist.org.au?


  • Jemila writes:
    January 10th, 200812:39 pmat

    Hi Sonja, thank you for the education. Are you aware of any resources for being part of helping change the tide in Kenya?

  • Sonja writes:
    January 10th, 20081:05 pmat

    Hi Jemila …

    I’m working on a post right now that will include links with information on how we can get involved. It will be up either later today or tomorrow morning. Okay? I’ll have several avenues of action that you can take in it.

  • jomo kenyatta | Save your news writes:
    January 11th, 20086:35 pmat

    […] A Kenya Primer […]

  • Work Boots Guy writes:
    December 23rd, 200812:35 pmat

    Ah, good post – gave me something decent to read while I am bored at work. I’ll have to check your site out more often :) Thanks!

  • Links for January 10, 2007 | Based on a True Story writes:
    September 4th, 20091:19 pmat

    […] Found a new photoblog that I really enjoy. ———————– Try to stay updated on Kenya if you can. ———————– Buy […]

»  Substance:WordPress   »  Style:Ahren Ahimsa