one of our favorite sights

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Things are "hotting up" and we are "popping out!"

big mural on wall in Nairobi--read carefully!

political rally in Eldoret

Many of you have probably heard that Kenya is about to have its General Election on March 4,  2013, which is coming right up. They are electing 6 positions this year which is one of the biggest general elections in their short history. From President and Vice President, to Governors, Senators, Women Reps, and Prime Ministers.  Unfortunately, the Kenyans have historically had a lot of tension among their tribes, much of which has to do with land issues created by the British in pre independence days (favoring certain tribes , putting certain people and not others in power, pitting people against each other) and then carried on amongst themselves after  independence (1963).
They are still carrying grudges that are over 50 years old and although one cannot feel them much as an outsider, apparently they become very heated and tense during election seasons. There was a lot of post election violence in 2008 when the current President apparently “stole” the election at the 11th hour. Eldoret and the surrounding Rift Valley region were hit very hard, many people were hurt and killed and many fled their homes. The issue of the past violence still lingers because there are still a lot of displaced persons in this region and there are land issues that came up due to people fleeing their properties as well. After speaking to many people about this topic and trying to get a better feel for what is going on and why,  my conclusion is that I can never really understand it because these sentiments are so profound, historic, and complex. I do understand it a bit better than I have, but I feel like I would need a course from a neutral person to really completely get it.
I have made the effort to speak to people from different tribes (personally I can’t yet tell but they don’t hesitate to tell you), as Eldoret is a big enough city that there are people here from all over the country. Also, on our recent trip to Nairobi, I was able to talk to a couple of other people from that area and from the coastal area. It’s also interesting to speak about it to people from different generations. Basically it comes down to racism, which is of course a difficult topic but people here even acknowledge it (they call it “tribalism”) and that it is something they have yet to get over. It may take another generation or two.
It doesn’t help that two of the current lead presidential contenders are the sons of two of the early Independence leaders who had a big falling out back in the 60’s. From our perspective, they are both, and their Vice Presidential candidates (they form coalitions before they are elected)  sort of fat cats who are out of touch with the poor of this country, own too much property and are very good at manipulating the population (see attached mural found in Nairobi). These guys, Raila Odinga, and Uhuru Kenyatta, remind me of party bosses in the 30’s and 40’s in the U.S. I can’t really describe it, but their campaigning (rallying is done in the streets a lot and sort of all the time it seems) seems way over the top, loud, aggressive, and rather unpleasant. People come out en masse to hear them; I’m told because they have nothing better to do, rather than because they are going to vote for them.
On the good side, they both have created coalitions with people from tribes outside their own which hopefully will help temper the cross tribal hostilities, and they certainly are talking that talk. The bad thing is that Uhuru, who is much loved by the Kikuyus, because his father was the leader of Kenya back during independence, and his running mate, William Ruto, who is from this region (Rift Valley is Kalenjin), have both been indicted by the International Criminal Courts for crimes against humanity from the last post election violence. There’s a lot of finger pointing and calls of “trumped up “ charges etc which causes me to see that these people just don’t trust each other at all. At least in the political arena.  It’s sad.  Most of the Americans here cannot even believe they are being taken seriously or allowed to participate, and we are quite concerned about what will happen if they win, with regard to the country’s international relations/aid, etc.
 The other thing is, and I’ve been told this several times now,that both of the big candidates, or coalitions, go out into the villages and PAY people to vote for them. This is considered normal here for those two guys, anyway, and we are told this in the same conversation with someone who says, reassuringly,  “we are hoping for free and fair elections.” My response ,  which I keep to myself , usually is “um, I think it’s too late.”
 The crazy thing is, for me, and it just proves how entrenched all of these feelings are, when you suggest to a bright educated Kenyan that he/she could vote outside their traditional tribal block (there are others who are running who seem capable, have governed, and  are not part of those two historic rivalries), they tend to respond by saying that they can’t because that is how it is here….you vote for your tribe. One young woman told me that her family would be very angry if she voted otherwise.
Another negative thing is that since the two top contenders are basically neck and neck right now, everyone is predicting a run-off. The Presidential candidate must win by 51% . The current feeling is that they are too close to call. OF course depending on what actually happens on election day, that could change.  A run-off would be very expensive for the country but also would create even more tension.
So, as disconcerting  as this is to us,  and frankly, sort of confusing, really, we are standing by, waiting to see what happens. However, IU and AMPATH have requested that we leave the country for 2 weeks, so even though we don’t really want to go right now, and Michael’s project is finally seriously underway , we are going. We are taking a road trip through Tanzania, which should be both fun and exciting. Lots of herds of big animals down there apparently which we are excited to see. We will be driving and camping and sometimes staying in hotels and will be keeping a close watch on the Kenyan elections during that time.
We are hoping that they will get through this period and election without violence but there have already been some smatterings of violent acts in other regions that may be election tension related. Maddeningly, we have also been requested to leave if there is a runoff, so let’s all hope that that doesn’t happen! Honestly, it’s exhausting and expensive to have to pick up and leave due to the possibility of unrest! Having a student, a baby,  and a dog counting on us makes it a bit of a pickle to leave for long periods of time.
Personally I find all of this heartbreaking and disturbing and in a sick sort of way, interesting. We shall see. Please keep your fingers crossed and say  prayers that Kenya comes out of this in a positive way.

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