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Friday, October 12, 2012

Emerging Democracies

The other day I was talking to a group of women after a meal and we got to talking politics which is sort of unusual. I think I broke the ice because one of the women, about my age, is a nurse, and the nurses have recently been on strike, so I asked her about it. It is so interesting to me because not only the nurses, but the teachers and the doctors, all of whom are government employees if they aren’t in a private facility, have been on strike since we arrived and this news has been all over the papers (the government recently negotiated a deal with the teachers and the nurse went back on a “promise” she told me).  In fact, the day the nurses struck I happened to be walking home from town and I ran into this huge mob of mostly women standing in a big circle outside the hospital doors (Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital which is both a medical school , AMPATH’s partner, and a public hospital) singing and chanting union songs….At first I was a little nervous because I was literally stuck in the throng , unable to move one way or another…so I just stood there watching and listening and hoping  that nothing weird would happen. Nothing did. In fact, all the singing and smiling and chanting got me sort of fired up and had I known the words, I would have sung along!
 I find this a tremendous step in the right direction although there has been a lot of debate in the papers about these strikes. The fact that these people are able to protest and assemble without worrying about arrest or violence on the part of the government seems huge to us. Also, the press is free. The newspapers here are incredibly forthright and frank. They criticize the government freely, they report on individual politician’s issues and inanities, and they give  lots of in depth  local, regional and national news. It is sometimes overwhelming  to read partly because I am still learning all the various regions         ( they have districts, regions, counties, etc) which I have been reassured by others who’ve been here much longer, are “impossible” to figure out.
As I get a handle on the various regions I’ll be better able to understand what is going on where but for now, it is helping me understand their political system (and keeping me aware of where we are not going to travel anytime soon). As you may know they are about to have another General Election in early March 2013. In 2007 there was an election and it was “stolen” by the current president’s  (Kibaki) party at the very end of the day. On the day of the election, according to friends who have described that day to me,  it was pretty clear that his opponent  (Odinga) was winning  the election and then suddenly the lights went out, the television and radio transmissions ended and when it all came back on , Kibaki was announced the winner. He then went on to have himself sworn in in the middle of the night! This was totally out of protocol so clearly something fishy was going on.
So, the shit hit the fan…people went nuts and looting and burning ensued, a lot of it in this area, because this is where Odinga is from.  Folks  are still very tied to their “people” and vote accordingly.  It was a terrible time because many  people were killed  and maimed and a lot of people fled their homes. However, after Kofi Annan intervened and a new position was put in place for Odinga (Prime Minister) the country has been bumping along pretty well. In 2010 they had a referendum vote on a new Constitution which ensures freedom of religion, press, and assembly.  There was a little conflict in Nairobi during that vote but apparently not enough to cause much concern.
 So as the next election approaches, there is a bit of mystery in the air. Non Kenyans whom we know and who have lived here for quite awhile seem not to  be too concerned about the possibility of violence. They are fairly philosophical about it, even saying “so why should I leave and get out of the situation if they have to deal with it?” Very interesting take.  Kenyans whom I have spoken with usually say something like , “oh there will be a lot more security”,  or ” we are very optimistic” meaning they don’t really know either and are hoping for the best. This is not terribly reassuring to me as someone who is pretty violence abhorrent.
Some people say that some of the politicians (MPs) were responsible for inciting the violence which is disappointing to hear. Others say it was the poor and disenfranchised who were so pissed off, taken by surprise by the outcome,  and got all riled up out in the streets  and then it just snowballed (or fireballed). In any case, you can see it happening in a place like this where democracy is a relatively new concept, and there is a lot of poverty, tribal connections and some corruption among the police force. People speak of it freely and are highly aware of it but they don’t seem to be sick of it yet! In fact, the other day in my conversation with the women, I told them that if our MPs (Representatives) behaved the way theirs were currently (they just voted to take a large  bonus at the expense of the taxpayers when the coffers are empty and they have promised pay raises to those recently have struck. Update: President Kibaki vetoed this idea, hurray for him!  ) that we would “kick them out” and vote in all new people,  which is what we seem to do every two years. They seemed surprised and sort of sheepish about that comment and kind of looked at each other like “would we ever do that? “ It was illuminating I thought.
If you listen to world news you will hear reports on Kenya. Kenya used to be considered sort of the diamond among African nations. It has of course, a lot of physical beauty, a strong tourism industry, a thriving tea and coffee industry, resources, culturally intriguing people, and it is relatively developed. In parts. Recently the news has likely been reporting on the various tribal conflicts in various areas (far from here fortunately). It has also been reporting on a large suit against the British government by a group of former Mau Mau rebels who were victimized by the British (along with thousands of others who were incarcerated , mistreated and murdered) and are appealing for compensation. 
Michael and Liam playing checkers on soapstone board with bottle caps

baby Natasha and me

richard's house in the country

country road

Michael and jacob

Michael, Richard, and Jacob


Mother of Natasha on left, and friend

new friends in Kapkeino

saying goodbye

cloth found in Eldoret shop/ only decoration hanging on our walls!
Kenya is rife with issues and problems AND corruption, but frankly, so is the US and we’ve been at this a lot longer. Our election process is far from perfect and it is far from just, right? How many of us would not like to see some sort of changes made to our political process (more parties participating, less money talking, fewer “bought” politicians, less negative advertising, less lobbying, direct popular vote, no voter suppression, etc. to name a few!) yet we can’t really figure out how to make it happen? So, Kenya will plug along, making mistakes, having conflicts, and hopefully growing and changing in order to become a better stronger and more representative democracy than it is right now. I would not expect that for a long time, though, as we all know that it takes a very  long time for any sort of evolution to occur!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Liz,
    This is interesting -- the descriptions of the conflicts. In Kathmandu, Nepal they had politcal bands while I was there (Nov to Jan 2012). The ruling party calls for a band. If a business opens or a non tourist vehicle drives they are visited by the band members and made to close -- one motor cycle rider showed his bumps from being hit with a bat for driving. Even businesses (like my coffee shop) who did open were later found closed because the band made them.
    Keep writing (I commented on the last but not sure if it made it). Will share these with my students.