In the village in Western Province, Kenya where I lived and taught English for four months, everyone had a method for predicting the afternoon rains. Some would focus on the wind blowing off Lake Victoria. If it ever blew east, people would say: we're in for it. My host father relied on the clouds that gathered in the west; he cancelled any plans for farm work if they were teeming when he woke up.
After a storm, people gathered to discuss the signs they'd missed, and brainstorm some new approaches. Those on a winning side seemed to say, in zealous gestures: if only you would look at nature through my eyes, you would never be taken by surprise again.
I think of this attention to environmental subtleties in terms of the post-election violence that stunned Kenya into paralysis during January and February. It was an unforeseen storm like no other before. More than 1,000 Kenyans were killed, and 350,000 were displaced after the contentious and unquestionably rigged elections.
On the eve of the primary elections in November, Michael Mwimahli, a poet turned English teacher, was standing with me as I watched a group of mothers collect bribes at the school gates.
Since I had arrived in September, men in pickup trucks had been passing through Sidikho, the village where I lived, outfitted with signs for the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), the dominant party of Western Province. They would stop for a few minutes outside the school, shout through megaphones and throw a few thousand-shilling bills to the crowd before moving to their next stop. Most of the men were drunk, their orange t-shirts soaked in a heady mix of sweat and changa, the local brew made from anything that ferments.
I heard these gatherings were ending fatally in other villages. One person would dash away with the bills before someone could bring the change, and the crowd would hunt him down, stoning him or beating him to death. With the general elections two months away, tales of these periodic killings were already commonplace.
These stories were little more than fodder for lunchtime conversation in the teachers' lounge--brought up nonchalantly, as though expected during election season. If anyone believed that this was a sign of larger tensions brewing, nobody admitted it.
In my apartment in Providence is a February issue of The Economist. The headline reads "Kenya Descends into Hell." When I look at it, Michael's voice rings in my ear:
"This will settle down," he told me. The men in the pickup truck were rounding the last hillock. "You will see. Kenyans are a peaceful people."
The ethnic makings of a storm
Politics, like a great deal in Kenya, falls along ethnic lines. Among the 42 distinct ethnic groups or 'tribes' in the country, the Kikuyu are the largest and most powerful. They have dominated the highest echelons of economic and political circles since the country's independence 45 years ago. Two of Kenya's three presidents have been Kikuyu.
The second dominant tribe is the Luo, which has held few major offices in government, and never the presidency. Many attribute this to the poverty that afflicts Western Province, an area known as Luo country. All this seemed on the verge of change with Raila Odinga, a Luo who was poised to clutch the presidency last December.
Dr. Richard Lobban, director of African and Afro-American studies at Rhode Island College, believed an Odinga victory was all but certain in the days before the election. "Everyone was expecting the Luos to win," he said. "They thought they'd win, and they probably did win."
Hell breaks loose
On December 29, 2007, despite Odinga's 18-point lead the previous day, the Election Commission of Kenya (ECK) announced that President Mwai Kibaki was the victor, with 1.5 million votes that had appeared overnight.
In Luo-dense regions, particularly Western Province, people took to the streets. For a year, they had been depending on Odinga to storm Harambee House--the Kenyan equivalent of the White House--and anoint them with all the favors that had been given to Kikuyus under Kibaki.
On the morning of December 29, after the mysterious 1.5 million votes, the ECK extinguished any chances of an Odinga, or Luo, victory. They promptly declared Kibaki the victor, and he was sworn in one hour later. It was strategic in closing off any chances for a recount. According to Kenyan law, once the president takes the oath, the only outlet for appeal is the court--a circuit in Kenya that is known for its loyalty to the government.
Machete-wielding mobs took to the streets and began burning Kikuyu businesses and homes. Kikuyus in Western Province were forced to seek refuge in police camps, as many were unable to afford a flight to a different part of the country. In a matter of days, the mobs overtook the country's understaffed civil structure, a mixture of its army and police.
Last week, I spoke with Jeremiah Korungani, a friend I met in Kenya who has homes in Kakamega and Kisumu, two hubs in Western Province. On the second day of violence he had to fly his wife, a Kikuyu, and their newborn child to Nairobi. I asked whether the headlines like those from The Economist were accurate or sensational. "It was real," he told me. "In Kakamega, nobody could get food. People were looting and nobody was willing to open their shops. Everything was at a standstill. We had to stay indoors and in the distance you could hear the gunshots, people screaming and being maimed. It was bad. It was really, really bad."
The prices of simple necessities tripled and quadrupled overnight--and have yet to go down--and movement between cities became impossible once mobs took hold of the highways. For two months this was the status quo while Kibaki and Raila were locked in bitter negotiations for a power-sharing deal. Finally, Kofi Annan was brought in.
"If Kofi Annan hadn't come," Jeremiah said, "people could still be dying."
On Febraury 28, Odinga and Kibaki signed the National Reconciliation Accord. It decreed a 50-50 power-sharing deal between the President's "Party of National Unity" (PNU) and Raila's party, ODM. The most notable outcome of the accord was the creation of the office of prime minister, the position Odinga will now hold.
The accord put an end to the majority of violence across the country, and Kenya receded from the world stage as an African country plummeting into chaos. The country's peace now hangs on two opposing parties sharing the levers of government equally. Everyone, meanwhile, is waiting to see how the two will play together, taking brief glances at the bloody wake left after two months of violence.
Causes of the storm
On the surface, it's easy to blame the violence on the rigged election. It left a throng of Luo, as well as members of other tribes, feeling hopeless about a day when Kikuyu no longer dominate the government. But the truth is that the elections were just a spark. The underlying problems were present long before the polling stations opened in December.
Dr. Lobban of Rhode Island College shudders at the use of the word 'tribalism' to explain the post-election mayhem. He vehemently denies that this violence can be boiled down to simple 'ethnic clashing.'
"If you see ethnicity as the primordial factor," he said, "you overlook class."
According to Lobban, economic disparities, which transcend ethnic divisions, were the driving force behind Kenya's violence. Instead of Luo versus Kukuyu, Lobban sees a war between the elite and the impoverished.
"If the ruling class, or the ruling tribe, practices nepotism, then people start realizing things along ethnic lines. But it begins with lack of access, not some inherent disdain between groups," he said.
Lobban didn't expect this to incite the sort of killings that were reported in January and February, but he was not surprised that it did.
"The system is hanging together with chicken wire and chewing gum," he said. "You have one incident like the election and it all goes into free-fall."
Mark Barrah, a fourth-generation white Kenyan who has served in the British Royal Navy and now runs security and safari operations out of Nairobi, sees another reason for the violence. For him, the root of it lies in land struggles begun after independence.
Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president, gave large plots of land that previously belonged to other tribes to his fellow Kikuyu in the mid-1960s. When Kenyatta gave this land away, there was little resistance from the tribes that owned it. The country had a population of 7.5 million, and land was not a huge issue. But four decades later, the population is conservatively estimated at 39 million.
"This makes land a hugely significant issue," Barrah said, "especially in places like Eldoret where land is good and fertile."
He believes that these issues of land, and ideas of ancestral ownership to plots, bred jealousy and hatred between Kikuyu and neighboring tribes. This began with the country's independence, and "the election provided the perfect trigger," Barrah said.
There is no consensus on where Kenya is heading. It is still dangerous for Kikuyus in Kakamega and Kisumu, and most have lost their shops to owners of other tribes. The government has assembled committees to help with reconciliation efforts and relocate families, but most in Nairobi are waiting for Odinga and Kibaki to successfully assemble a cabinet before they embark on a cleanup.
Dr. Lobban, a proclaimed "Afri-optimist," said it best when he invoked the Chinese characters for crisis: "disaster" and "opportunity."
"That's where we are in Kenya. We're in crisis. But if they respond adequately, and they begin to reverse the injustices of class, land and favoritism that have existed since the days of independence, this could produce great things."
MICHAEL GONDA B'09 is listening to Circle of Life.