Understanding My Kenya


I have often seen youth as the lyrical age, that is the age when the individual, focused almost exclusively on himself, is unable to see, to comprehend, to judge clearly the world around him… then to pass from immaturity to maturity is to move beyond the lyrical attitude. [Milan Kundera, The Curtain]

I search for meaning everywhere as I try to understand what is happening in my country, Kenya. Lyrical implies something beautiful, pure, good, even. Does it speak for the stage of being that Kenya has gone through, or does it speak for me as an individual, or can I even separate my country from myself as our birthdays are less than a week apart? Are we passing from immaturity to maturity; a chrysalis that has been violently ripped apart by a post-election result that went so terribly wrong?

Choosing a leader

December 27, 2007 polling day. Kenyans lined up in unprecedented numbers across the country to cast their vote. Patiently waiting, some silent, some chatting conversationally to whomever shared their alphabetically grouped name chronology; Kenyans appeared united in their quest for a peaceful election.

The polling stations were to open at 6am. I left my house at 6:30 in the morning; mineral water, windbreaker and a foldable chair at the ready. The morning was unusually cool for Kenya at the height of its summer season and the low-hanging clouds threatened rain. The polling station was at a local government school in an upmarket residential part of Nairobi, a brisk fifteen minute walk from my house. I drove there…just in case.

There were cars parked, back to back on the grassy kerbsides on all the byroads close to the school. I managed to squeeze my 1969 VW beetle into a spot, not too far from the main road. I grabbed my tote bag with its book, chair, water and sun visor: in case it turned out to be a long wait.

The queues, when I got to the main road near the school gate, went for about a kilometre and disappeared round the block, with no end in site. Daunted, I retreated to my car. On the way, I met a young man dressed in a white turtle neck, trendy jeans and sporting tinted designer glasses his face framed with fashionably close-cropped jet black hair. I asked him if he had already voted and he responded in an Americanised accent that he too had taken one look at the very long queues and decided to retrieve his international press pass and use it to jump to the front of the queue. I wasn’t so lucky.

Four hours later, I met up with a friend and together we went to cast our vote. The queues had disappeared, and it took us an easy half-hour to triumphantly complete the process. We spent the rest of the morning, in between coffee breaks, driving around to various polling stations to see firsthand how things were going across the city. We focused on the low income and high density areas, as these were usually the trouble spots, if there was to be trouble. We wanted to have our own account of what had happened and not have to rely on partial accounts of the situation.

Everywhere we went, there was calm. In the low-income areas, those who had already cast their vote were walking around their neighbourhoods, carrying about their normal business. The whole city felt easy like a Sunday morning, even though it was a weekday. There was the thrill of not having to battle with the soul-destroying Nairobi traffic that we all had to contend with on a daily basis. Most people appeared to have been within walking distance from their polling station, or like for me, a short neighbourhood drive. The roads were clear of traffic and I was able to joyfully careen down the highways at unchecked speeds.

That evening, we sat with family and friends listening to the tallying of the polls as they came in. Some people had friends who were part of the observer team, international and Kenyan, scattered around the county at hundreds of polling stations. Thus, in some cases we got sneak previews of the final tallies before they were carried by the press. It quickly emerged that there had been an unprecedented rejection of the ruling party. The majority of Ministers had been removed from their constituencies and a larger percentage of the parliamentary old guard cast aside; some by unknowns, political novices. The consistent message was that the main opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement, led by Raila Odinga and his pentagon team, had received an overwhelming country-wide endorsement. It won 96 parliamentary seats to the PNU, government party’s 30-odd seats. Without the final results of the presidential election, it was to be a restless night. I went to bed around midnight having left the favoured opposition candidate with substantial lead of 800,000. It was estimated that there were to be about nine million voters. We had been made to understand that the majority of votes had already been tallied country-wide. I along with many other Kenyans woke up that Friday morning to hear that the opposition’s lead had been reduced overnight to a margin of less than 200,000 votes.

Over the next two days, Kenyans sat rapt, nervous, incredulous listening and watching whatever media they had available to them; flipping between TV channels and radio stations; double checking, cross-checking the incoming results against their handwritten scores of their print-out of candidate names provided by the local newspapers.

By Friday afternoon, the old president was said to be in the lead as late votes coming from his ethnically dominated province had overturned the lead of the opposition leader by about 200,000 votes. On Friday evening, the Electoral Commission of Kenya, ECK, stated that it would beannouncing the winner of the presidential election at 10am on Saturday morning as there were serious allegations of vote rigging and the tally process had to be verified overnight.

Ten o’clock came and went with no further information. Even now, tears spring to my eyes as I remember hearing later that afternoon, that the Chair of the ECK was going to announce the results of the winner of the presidential election from a secure room and that the only media body to be allowed inside that room would be the government owned, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. Blackout.

Within an hour of the ECK announcement, the old president was sworn in as the new president from the heavily secured safety of State House, the president’s official residence. And, the country erupted into violence.


In 2002, European friends, proud to have been in Kenya during an election that showed the world that Kenya was finally a democratic nation, begged me to accompany them to Uhuru Park, where the President was to be inaugurated. My 8-month pregnant friend, determined not to miss this historical event, wobbled down the 2 kilometres from my then apartment to the park. Kenyans were hanging out of balconies and windows of government buildings that surround the park. I saw women dressed in skirts and heels, scaling the walls of high-rise buildings, fear no longer a factor in their quest to be part of a ceremony that all Kenyans were able to hold up their heads in pride about.

As the previous president, Daniel Arap Moi, who had ruled the country for 24 miserable years arrived, jeers erupted across the crowd. Kenyans wanted to block his entry but were gently persuaded by the minimally present security forces, to let him pass; after all, he had to hand over power to the then newly elected president, Mwai Kibaki.

Kenya made history twice: once for peacefully and overwhelming rejecting the old guard; and secondly for inaugurating a president in a wheel chair. Kibaki had suffered a car accident that had left him in a wheel chair three weeks before the December 2002 polls. At that point, we did not know if he would ever walk again. We were almost proud to have a physically disabled president.

It was estimated that over a million ecstatic Kenyans were in the park that day to watch the inauguration of a president whose fortunes had changed when his then compatriot and now opposition leader, Raila Odinga, stated the two most important words of the then divided opposition campaign: Kibaki Tosha! Tosha, Enough, was the Swahili word that Raila chose to tell Kenyans that Kibaki sufficed; and that he Raila, a Luo, was giving us permission to go ahead and vote for Kibaki, a Kikuyu, as our president. Kenyans obeyed, no matter their ethnic background.

Uhuru, the word for freedom in Kiswahili, is the name of a park in the centre of the city where ordinary Kenyans lie down to rest during lunch breaks; where they come on the weekends with their families, some to sail in the almost toy like boats on the big pond at the park’s centre; where as little children we used to roll down the steep, and then grassy, incline to the road that snakes its way across the park in front of the bandstand. Historically, Uhuru park was always used for all momentous national events: except the 2008 swearing-in of the disputed president.

Crisis Kenya

Last week, my office decided to walk down as a group, to Uhuru park. This was to be part of a process of healing, peace building and forging unity amongst Kenyan employees whose different ethnic communities have been ripped apart by the violence unleashed countrywide, following the flawed election process. Each employee was to lay down a single rose at the memorial for the more than 800 Kenyans who have died as a direct result of the violence.

As we walked towards the entrance to the park, we noticed that there were security forces manning an informal stone barrier and blocking entry to the park. We approached the barrier, one by one, the lounging officers got up, AK-47 guns in hand and came to meet us at the barrier. I was glad to see that they were not the previously feared, now caricatured, General Services Unit, GSU, who in their spanking new, army green uniforms, including bulky padding, clear plastic romanesque shields and Sergeant Beetle helmets, have been nick-named the Adult Ninja Turtles.

We were a group of about 30 women and men of mixed race and mixed ethnicity. The leader of the para-military forces was called from where he was lounging further up the hill that I used to roll down as a child. The officers were all very polite, even friendly. Our office head explained that we wanted to cross the park to lay flowers at Freedom Corner where the memorial had been designated earlier that week. The leader of the para-military forces at the barrier patiently explained to us that the memorial was at the farthest end of the park and that we would need to walk around the perimeter of the park, about 2 extra kilometres, in order to get to the entrance by the memorial as the park was off-limits to the public; for security reasons.

We acquiesced and took the non-scenic route, inhaling diesel fumes from the city buses chugging their way up the hill that encircles the western face of the park. We trudged down dusty sidewalks, along with the city’s walking masses and eventually reached the authorised entrance. We’d picked up some ordinary Kenyans along the way who had asked us if they too could share our flowers and come with us to lay them down at the memorial. Seeing all those masses of withering flowers their vibrant colours and beauty dissipated, handwritten notes with messages of peace, forgiveness, goodbyes, pulled my irretrievably back to another continent, another time. As I looked at the wilting flowers, laid my own fresh roses down and read the notes, I had the eerie sense of being transported back to September 2001. It was a few days after the horror of 9/11, when the world was forever changed. I had gone down to the site of the Twin Towers where I laid down a bouquet in memory of those who had died. The next day I left New York for Nairobi never thinking that I would be experiencing that same sense of tragic loss, seven years later in my own country, where the recent continuing political crisis has forever changed the Kenya that we know and love.

How did we get to a place where the whole world watches a Kenya, renowned for its gentle, friendly peoples; beautiful fine, white-sand beaches and cool ocean breezes; incomparable national parks; stunning vistas and a modern, tree-lined capital whose closeness to the equator has temperatures tempered by an altitude 5,500 feet above sea level that on a hot sunny day feels almost cold under the shade of a tree; self-destructing, with machete wielding youths; burning houses, destroyed railway lines; barricaded highways; an economic cataclysm?

On December 30, 2007, the BBC reported under its breaking news that Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition ODM party, was declaring himself the winner, the People’s President, and would be holding an inauguration on the following day at Uhuru park and had asked Kenyans to reject the presidential decision. A sort of cat and mouse game thus begun with the People’s President periodically calling for mass protests and the government banning all public gatherings of people. In the early days of the crisis, what appeared to be hundreds of security personnel were said to be encircling the park. Now, the park remains closed off with groups of armed para-militaries scattered strategically all across the park.

Every time a mass protest was called or threatened, offices and businesses closed, work was disrupted with managers and owners fearing for the safety of their staff. The government forces would throw tear-gas canisters at crowds and fire live bullets. Palm-waving youth responded with stones and sticks. We huddled in our gated and fenced homes, afraid to go out in case we were caught in the fracas. On one day, all roads to the city centre were barricaded by government forces to ensure that the mass rally would not and could not take place. Meanwhile, the official government spokesman was telling the world that there was no crisis in the country; just some isolated skirmishes in certain parts of the country. Circulated sms-es told of an impending food crisis. Upmarket supermarkets were being raided as middle class families stocked up for food items. A friend photographed a grocery shop with the lines going out into and around the parking lot as Kenyans worried about where the country was heading. This only happened on a couple of occasions but for now, the shelves continue to be well stocked with higher priced basic foods and luxury items. In the lower income areas, shops have been destroyed and prices of basic food items have sky-rocketed when available. In some slum communities, men don’t sleep at night, waiting for marauding gangs of criminals taking advantage of the political crisis or fearing reprisal attacks by different ethnic groups. Questions about who are the real victims punctuate the public discourse.

Following the announced disputed results of the presidential election, messages of anger and despair hit the airwaves, and the mobile phone lines were abuzz with sms-es. Some were messages of hate and doom, of unprintable planned ethnic cleansings. There were threats that the government was going to clamp down on communication channels and Kenyans would no longer be able to send short text messages. The mobile phone companies resisted the government pressure. Instead, we started to receive various messages from 999, usually reserved for emergency services: The Government of Kenya advises that the sending of hate messages inciting violence is an offence that could result in prosecution.

In my continuing quest to understand what is happening in Kenya, last week, I listened to a BBC story on its correspondent in Beirut. She recounted a heart-rending story of the beginning of the decline of her country in the 1970s. She described a photo of two children playing in the foreground; behind them stood armed military personnel. It was a photo of childhood innocence in a city whose name became synonymous with total devastation. The two playing girls were her sisters, forever captured at a turning point in history. She tells of people asking them why they never left, her mother being European with family in her native land. She explains that it is because they always hoped that things would get better and recounts scenes during the thirty years since that photographed day. Young, fashionable Lebanese sitting in trendy cafés in downtown Beirut. In all likelihood, they are conversing in French, they are part of an international elite who are at home in any major city in the world. Life moves on it seems. People get married, people bring children into this world while others continue to die.

In Kenya, life moves on for me too. My friend’s aunt calls her from London telling her to leave Kenya immediately. She responds that we are sitting at a café drinking lattes with other friends at one of the popular restaurants scattered around the city; packed with locals and the international set. The night before, we had thrown a dinner party. On New Year’s Eve, we had determinedly put on our dancing shoes and party dresses and gone out to a private club where we found over two hundred guests with the same intentions. We were all determined to bring our lives back to normality, as quickly as possible. No political madness was going to turn us into victims of fear. Then there are days like last Tuesday, four weeks after the disputed inauguration when a newly elected MP from the opposition was murdered and rumours of unrest spread around the city. The police started closing off roads into and around the city. I was on my way to the office when I started getting the sms-es telling of unrest. I was devastated. Two weeks earlier, less than a kilometre from my house, the roads had been closed off and over twenty Adult Ninja Turtles were fanned our across the main artery leading to my office. I called in to work to say that I wouldn’t be in as I was afraid to drive in on roads that could, at any moment, turn into battle grounds between youths and the security forces. My office and several others closed around the city that day. I sat at home, sickened, unable to do any work; not even from the assumed safety of my home.

As Kenyans we fight for our voice to be heard above the world clamour of “…tribal fighting”, “…ethnic cleansing”, “…another Rwanda”, “…Ivory Coast”, or a hushed, “…Somalia?”. NO! is our resounding response, we are NONE OF THE ABOVE. We try to explain that as Kenyans we don’t have an in-built hatred for each other based on ethnicity; yes there are ethnic-related responses to situations; yes there are perceptions of ethnic superiority and; yes there have been ethnically inspired, economic resource allocations. But, we have lived together and hope that we will continue to live together in the future. What we want is to know that our vote counts; like it did in 2002. Not only must our vote count, it must be seen to count. We will not accept that fiasco that we, and the whole world, witnessed on that shame-filled late Saturday afternoon of December 29, 2007.

Several parks in Nairobi are now off-limits to Kenyans. Live media broadcasts were banned less than a week after the elections. The ban was finally lifted about 4 weeks later following pressure from the on-going internationally mediated political process. The humanitarian crisis, resulting in over 250,000 internally displaced persons in Kenya, is receiving United Nations appeals. One day, I looked across my garden with its myriad old trees in full bloom interspacing the gently undulating sea of green lawn. Through the kai-apple hedge, I saw a humanitarian assistance car pass by on the road outside my home. Their offices are down the road from where I live and so it was not unusual for their cars to drive up and down the road. However, they had their red flag with the white cross at full wind. I had never seen the flag displayed outside of a conflict zone. A place that I never thought Nairobi would be. And, there it was outside my own front garden.

But, within the chaos, lies hope. There is a Kofi Annan led mediation process that Kenyans are banking their hopes on. Civil society groups all over Kenya are trying to come up with solutions. Kenyans are generously giving support for the humanitarian crisis and volunteering time. Friends working with international organisations have either refused to leave Kenya or have returned to Kenya amidst the chaos in a display of hope and solidarity with Kenyans. Last week a friend sent me a short text message about a family from the Luo ethnic community protecting the homestead of a Kikuyu family in a province in the West of Kenya. This area has suffered much of the violence that has taken place between the communities of the two leaders at the helm of the disputed election. The week before, I received another message from a friend about women in one of the slum communities of Nairobi that have come together, bringing together all the various ethnic groups, and taking a stance against violence within their particular part of the slum.

While the message of peace is important, justice must be seen to be part of the process in order to ensure lasting peace. It is clear that as individuals we each have a part to play, no matter how small that part is, in ensuring that our country achieves economic, social and political democracy. This is beyond the ability of our elected leaders to do on their own.

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