Kenya: heartbreak and hope

I had a post queued up forthe start of 2008. I’d planned to begin the year on an enthusiastic, positive note, suggesting that this might be the year where Africa began to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of telecommunications and where African creativity and entrepreneurialism began to be noticed on a global stage. Central to my argument was the rise of the Kenyan stock exchange, the emergence of international calibre business process outsourcing centers in Kenya, and the completion of deals to create two or three high-speed internet cables that connect Kenya to the global internet.

That post will be on hold for a little while. Or as my friend at Bankelele puts it, “Up till December 2007, the focus of Kenya was investing towards Vision 2030 – now we may have to find a new target to aim for – a Vision 2009, which is to perhaps to get the economy back to where it was in 2007.” Right now, it’s unclear who will be running Kenya in 2008, whether he will have the possibility of passing a budget, and how many people will be killed before the faceoff between Odinga and Kibaki is resolved.

I wasn’t watching the Kenyan elections closely. I took off the end of the year, as I do every year, and was spending time at my house with friends, when my mobile started going off. I got a small flood of text messages from Afrophiles around the world, most of which included the phrase, “This is heartbreaking.”

That’s the right word. Kenya’s a country so stable that the EU had considered not sending observers to monitor these elections, arguing that the chances of irregularities were low and that resources for African election monitoring were scarce. Yes, we’re all used to irregularities in Kenyan politics… but there are creative government-monitoring efforts, a vibrant blogosphere, and an occasionally excellent (and occasionally very disappointing) free press, which all make outright theft of an election less likely than in most African states.

Yet that’s what appears to have happened. The Economist pulls no punches:

The decision to return Kenya’s 76-year-old incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, to office was not made by the Kenyan people but by a small group of hardline leaders from Mr Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. They made up their minds before the result was announced, perhaps even before the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, had opened up a lead in early returns from the December 27th election. It was a civil coup.

Despite that mention of tribal affiliation in the opening graph, the Economist avoids the “reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide” theme that’s rearing its head in CNN, the Guardian and other northern media outlets. Christian Science Monitor, to their credit, is already debunking that storyline, offering a piece by Scott Baidauff titled “Ethnic Violence: Why Kenya is Not Another Rwanda“.

It may be a cause for optimism that the northern media is worried about missing another case of ethnic cleansing – as it did for the whole Rwandan genocide, the first years of the Darfur genocide, and continues to do with ethnic violence in the DRC – but it’s also deeply frustrating to Kenyans who want a more complicated story told to the world about these elections and the tensions it has exposed. Bankelele has an inspiring post about people who are maintaining the peace, which reads in part:

The answer is citizens themselves.
Every day this week, I have heard & seen touching stories like these;
– Neighbors talking to one another about maintaining their many years of peace
– Neighbors setting up watch out groups and liaising with the local police
– Neighbors taking in and sheltering friends, relative and strangers
– Police officers talking down residents this morning who had hoped to march to Uhuru Park.
– Local leaders and MP’s talking to their constituents – preaching non violence.
– Neighbors standing together and ignoring the sparks from outsiders

Al Jazeera’s coverage has been excellent, focusing on the government crackdown on peaceful protest, as well as on violence between civilians. Their excellent correspondent Mohammed Adow has been on the ground, shooting footage of Uhuru Park and the clashes between protesters and riot police:

But the best source for news, moment to moment, has been from bloggers, who continued to report on the elections and their aftermath during a media blackout. My friend Juliana Rotich – Global Voices’s environment editor – is in Eldoret, where rioters burned a church sheltering people who’d sought sanctuary from violence, killing dozens of them. She’s providing terse dispatches from the town, reporting on traffic at the airport, the closure of local businesses, the death of a local hero, an Olympic athlete, in political violence.

Juliana, like my other friends in Kenya, are reporting using GPRS service from Safaricom and other mobile operators as connectivity has been sporadic. With that in mind, it’s pretty amazing the sort of work Daudi Were is doing on Mental Acrobatics. Daudi followed supporters of the Orange Democratic Movement to Uhuru Park in Nairobi to a planned protest, and documented the confrontation between the General Service Unit (an elite group of paramilitary police) and political demonstrators. He’s got photos journalists would kill for, including shots that are disturbing to anyone who knows Nairobi well – streets that should be packed with the daily streetlife of the capital which are silent and shuttered today.


Downtown Nairobi, January 3rd, 2008. Photo by Daudi Were.

It takes guts to go out into the streets and get into the face of paramilitary police. It also takes guts to take care of your family and walk away from a situation. Ory Okolloh has been providing moment to moment dispatches on her blog, Kenyan Pundit. Yesterday, she decided to leave Nairobi for Johannesburg, where she currently lives, a decision that clearly was extremely difficult for her to make. She’s got a very young daughter, and as much as her passion for Kenya was keeping her in Nairobi, she made the right call to go back to South Africa.

It’s people like Ory, Daudi and Juliana – and the hundreds of other bloggers out there covering the situation – who give me every confidence that Kenya will continue to rise, and that the future of this beautiful nation is a bright one. But this is a dark moment, and my heart goes out to everyone who loves Kenya and wants to see it peaceful, prosperous, democratic and free.


Global Voices is rounding up blogs from the Kenyan blogosphere. Ndesanjo Macha has already posted two comprehensive roundups, and we’ll likely have a special coverage page up in the next day or so, focused on blogs covering the events in Kenya.

This entry was posted in Africa, Africa News, BlogAfrica, Blogs and bloggers, Global Voices, Human Rights, syndicate. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Kenya: heartbreak and hope

  1. Akwe says:

    Welcome back, Ethan. People should also check out Mental’s fantastic, furious rant at people who leave racist comments on his blog: http://www.mentalacrobatics.com/think/
    made me want to stand up and cheer.

  2. Kenya Diaspora says:

    The BBC’s reporting of the Kenyan issue has been shambolic. I had to write something about what is happening in Kenya from the perspective of the Diaspora, please read.

    http://www.scribblesheet.co.uk/article/kenya_in_flames__what_the_diaspora_thinks

  3. Henok says:

    It is very sad Kenyan are learning dirty politic from their neighboring country.

    I talked to one of my friends who live in Nairobi and told me he couldn’t find a food to eat because shops are closed. The country that I am so proud about in their practice of democracy and education—-been is this ethical violence is crazy.

    If the Kenyan politician’s hear—Power after people safety.

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  5. Amy Gahran says:

    Ethan, excellent job on this post. I thought you raised many points about the context of this situation, and where to find nuanced coverage. That’s stuff that western mainstream journalists should know, so I posted about your overview on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.

    http://poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=135284

    – Amy Gahran

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  7. Ethan says:

    I was very grateful for your generous amplification of the post, Amy. Thanks to everyone who’s sharing this, and especially to everyone who’s pointing people to the great work being done by Kenyan bloggers.

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  10. I agree that the BBC reporting on both the Kenyan and Pakistan tragedies in the last couple of weeks has been overshadowed by Al Jazeera English. Especially with the Bhutto asassination they were able to pull together a clear, concise analysis of the situation and the implications much faster. Perhaps we’re witnessing the first signs of the brain drain from the BBC because of the massive cuts in domestic channels. BBC News 24 was like a training college on the 27th…Same 90 seconds of news repeated for what seemed like hours.

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