A bitter wind of grievance
The memory of violence will be hard to suppress. The idea of a
Kenya for all Kenyans is dead
Thursday January 31, 2008
By now, the question of who won the election is almost beside the
point. Neither "President" Kibaki nor Raila Odinga should be
allowed within sniffing distance of the presidency. The country is
imploding, people are dying and destitute, and these two great men
have to be coaxed to the negotiating table.
The idea of Kenya belonging to all Kenyans and Kenyans having the
right to live where they like is dead in the water. For some of
the victims of the violence in the Rift Valley, this is the second
or third time they have lost everything. Many have vowed never to
come back. The message being telegraphed by the violence is that
the only really safe place to put down any roots is among your own
kind. Rift Valley for the Kalenjins, Central Province for the
Kikuyus, and so on.
As a child, my family and I travelled at least once a year to
visit my grandparents via the western reaches of the A104, the
road from Mombasa to the border with Uganda. The journey was a
bone-jarring eight hours, but pleasant enough, through the Rift
Valley province. We would stop periodically for bathroom breaks or
food in Naivasha, Nakuru, Kericho and finally Kisumu. My parents
would buy produce from local farmers, all of which ended up in the
cabin of the pick-up truck. And so we would continue, ankle-deep
in potatoes, carrots and cabbage.
In 1992, when the violence in the Rift Valley first reared its
head in the run-up to the elections, the signs of trouble were
everywhere. There were burned-out houses all along the road. The
farmers who sold produce by the roadside were gone - at least the
Kikuyu ones were. Long stretches of the countryside were emptied
The Rift Valley is the largest of Kenya's eight provinces and, bar
Nairobi, the most populous and ethnically diverse. People from all
over the country have flocked to its urban areas and rural
plantations. So in addition to the indigenous Kalenjin, there are
large numbers of Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kisii and others. Nothing
wrong with that. Kenya, we were told over and over, was for all
Kenyans. We were free to go where we wanted, live where we wanted.
For years this rhetoric concealed abiding anger surrounding land
and its distribution: who had it, who didn't, why some had so
little and others so much, how the land-rich had come to own what
they did. But the lid was mostly kept on this disaffection until,
in 1992, with the real possibility of losing power, Arap Moi
cynically gave that anger a murderous outlet. Non-Kalenjin, we
were told, were only visitors in the Rift Valley. They were
welcome to stay as long as they toed the line, which meant voting
for the right candidates.
In the event, few "outsiders" got a chance to vote in the Rift.
Most were driven out in an outbreak of slashing and burning and
killing that shocked us to our core. With the elections over and
Moi back in office, the violence lost its intensity. The "visitors"
trickled back to rebuild their lives and homes, although many did
not return, and in some places it was years before things returned
to normality. But that Pandora's box of violence has never been
successfully shut. It has simmered under the surface with
occasional outbreaks and has now exploded once again into life.
Fool me once, goes the saying, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame
on me. There must be a lot of Rift Valley Kikuyu ruing their lack
of sense in returning to live among people who had so violently
communicated their dislike. And there are, no doubt, many Kenyans
watching and wondering what it all means.
Will any "outsiders" ever again stake their livelihoods on the
existence of a country called Kenya and buy land in the Rift - or
anywhere outside their districts of origin? Will we all retreat to
the safety of our homogenous ethnic enclaves? Will we ever again
be able to look each other in the eyes, to suppress the knowledge
of the things we have done and are capable of doing to each other?
And if not, what kind of country will we become?
The national memory is very long, and injuries are not easily
forgotten or forgiven. The Rift is evidence of that. But now we
are sowing a bitter wind of grievance, and unless we handle this
cataclysm judiciously and with more courage and honesty than we
have ever before mustered, we will certainly reap the whirlwind.
National memory is long indeed. Let us never forget that our
so-called leaders sold us all down the river.