Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Violence in Kenya: Cry, The Beloved Country

Joel Kontinen

Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s touching description of the woes of South Africa was published in 1948. The novel recounts the story of Reverend Stephen Kumalo’s search for his sister Gertrude and son Absalom who like the New Testament’s prodigal son had left their home in search of a better life but had drifted into bad company in Johannesburg.

If we had good reasons to cry for South Africa in the apartheid era, now is the time to cry for another beloved country. Kenya has been endowed with an amazing variety of natural beauty, all from the snows of Mt. Kenya and the dizzying scenery of the Rift Valley with its escarpments and flamingo lakes, to the arid semi-deserts of the Turkana area in the north made familiar by the Born Free films about a lion called Elsa, and the palm beaches and reefs of the Indian Ocean.

While poaching has cut the numbers of elephants and rhinos roaming the savannahs to a fraction of what it was in the days of Ernest Hemingway and other big bwanas who came to test their courage on lion hunts, there is still plenty to see.

However, like South Africa, Kenya has also had more than her fair share of woes. In the early 1950s news of the uprising and bloodshed known as the Mau Mau revolt sprang up in headlines all over the world. The years since independence in 1963 have witnessed countless tragedies, including the assassinations of several prominent politicians, e.g. that of Tom Mboya in 1969 and Josiah Mwangi Kariuki in 1975.

Already during Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency (1963-1978) critics such as the leading Luo politician and one-time vice-president Oginga Odinga, the father of the current opposition leader Raila Odinga, and the novelist Ngugu wa Thiong’o, were kept under house arrest. Kenyatta's successor Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002) was also reluctant to tolerate criticism of his rule. Mwai Kibaki, president since 2002, campaigned to end the corruption and cronyism of his predecessors but failed to do so.

Throughout the years since independence in 1963, there has been an enormous gap between the rich with their walled luxury homes and security guards and the poor living in mud or tin shacks, who have to do with a daily diet of ugali or maize porridge and cabbage known as sukumawiki (“push the week”). The opposition leader Oginga Odinga even wrote a book entitled Not Yet Uhuru. In his view, only the privileged class had Uhuru or freedom. J. M. Kariuki quipped that Kenya was a country with ten millionaires and ten million beggars. A new concept was introduced into everyday usage, the wabenzi, or those who drive Mercedes Benz cars. The shack dwellers have with good reason tended to look for a Moses who would lead them to freedom. However, time and again their hopes have been crushed, and unrest has been a more or less regular ingredient for many decades.

Not surprisingly, Kenya has seen a couple of coup attempts, the latest against Daniel arap Moi’s regime in 1982, and much more unrest coupled with rumours of conspiracies. Clashes over cattle in northern Kenya have occasionally been bloody and in 1998 Al-Qaida bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, killing mostly Kenyans. Add to this widespread corruption and the AIDs epidemic that has lefts hundreds of thousands of orphans in its wake, with daily newspapers carrying several pages of obituaries of young people, tribal clashes and rumours, and there are more than enough reasons for getting a tissue wet.

While it might not be difficult to find psychological reasons for the spate of recent violence in Kenya, the underlying causes are probably elsewhere. Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) compared human life to an onion. We have to peel it one layer at a time, and cry in between. In Kenya, the Kikuyus have traditionally been suspicious of the Luos and the Luos of the Kikuyus. Nonetheless, finding the basic reason of the unrest might be as difficult as ascertaining what really caused the Holocaust.

We might find a hint of the underlying reason for the recent violence in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Man’s decision to disobey his Creator brought havoc to a perfect world, eventually causing the entire creation to groan in pain. This is what we are observing when we see churches burning with refugees still hiding inside or police shooting demonstrators with live ammunition.

So please cry for Kenya, the beloved country. And don’t forget to pray for the violence to end.

This violence illustrates the consequences of the Fall. Read more here.