05 August 2010

There's No Blood Thicker Than Ink? (Dispatches from Kenya)

Nairobi is a gritty town. Sure, it’s got the shopping malls, the fancy restaurants—but underneath the veneer, Nairobi is a coarse industrial machine, with money and labor pumping through its veins like crude oil through a pipeline. You feel it on the road—black plumes of exhaust, traffic jam, horns blaring, streams of men and women weaving in and out of traffic, some selling things, others just on their way somewhere. Pass by petrol stations, car lots, and factories—cement, foam, tires. Then by an ocean of slums, waves of brown cardboard and tin, and along their periphery, commerce: blacksmiths, spare parts, sheet metal. There are lorries everywhere. From the back seat of my taxi I watch a man seated atop one, riding there in the back in the early evening haze, his shirt flapping in the wind.


In December 2007, Kenya held presidential and parliamentary elections. Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner, but his opponent, Raila Odinga, contested the result. The election commissioner admitted he didn’t know who won.

People began to say that the election had been stolen and riots broke out. First in the Rift Valley, they spread like a shockwave to the streets of Nairobi, ripping, tearing, blasting apart the sense of solidity that the country (and the world) had of itself. Buildings were set on fire, demonstrators were shot.

—We locked ourselves in our house for two days.

—I lived across from Kibera [a slum]. Even in the house we had to wipe our eyes from the tear gas police were using outside.

—If the international community hadn’t come in, this place would have been gone.

—Sometimes I don’t even like to remember.

Over 1,300 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Such things are not easily forgotten.

Which is why Wednesday’s referendum, in which a large majority of Kenyans voted in a new constitution, was monitored so closely. No one wanted what happened in 2008 to happen again.

Reports from international news agencies preceding the referendum suggested that Kenya was on the brink of a descent to violence:

“Kenyans will decide on Wednesday whether to adopt significant changes to their constitution, but the vote may produce violence rather than reform.” —Reuters

There are “heightened fears of political violence ahead of 6 Aug constitutional referendum.” — International Crisis Group

“Once again, many Kenyans fear that the prospects for more violence are increasing as their country heads toward another politically divisive turning
point.”—The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman

The reports did not match reality. Most Kenyans felt relatively confident (rightly it turns out) that violence was unlikely. So was this just another example of the press painting African countries as more violent and chaotic than they really are? One more example of cowboy reporters making things sound more dangerous (and exciting?) in the cities where they are based? (Yes, Gettleman, that one’s for you.) Maybe that is part of it.

But maybe the speculation was also borne out of the doubts that appear, like cracks on the surface of an ice-covered pond, when our sense of the inevitability of stability is broken.


The constitution contains many landmark provisions—a Bill of Rights, land reforms, and limits to presidential powers. No one is sure if it will usher in a new era, one less riddled by corruption, one defined more by equality and opportunity than sickening poverty side by side with ostentatious wealth. It is, after all, just a document, just words. And we rarely live up to our words.

But words are not meaningless either. They express what we hope for, what what we think we have it in ourselves at our best to be. Maybe that's why, all around Nairobi, in newspapers, on billboards and banners, on the radio, scattered like flecks of gold on the beach, are words like Renewal. Healing. Unity. They are words about leaving the past behind, about bringing fighting to an end and having peace.

Making them real will require effort—mundane, unglamorous work. (For a good analysis of the challenges ahead, see John Githongo’s Fear and Loathing in Nairobi.)

But at least for now, there is a sense of possibility.

"Things change for the worse so quickly. They change for the better more slowly—but they can." --Bono

(With thanks to Matilda for taking the time to talk.)

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