Saturday, June 09, 2007

Africa Agonistes: Reflections on the Horrors in Kenya

For 42 years now, my dreams and often waking thoughts have drifted back to the green hills of Kenya where I had gone in 1963 with a courageous new bride, Phyllis, to explore the "dark continent" of Africa. I would teach. I would do good. I would spread civilization.

Given the massacres that have erupted in Kenya over the past two weeks, making headlines around the world, I now know that I was young, foolish, and naive. As it turned out, my three years in Africa -- two in Kenya and one in Nigeria --taught me some of the most important lessons of my life.
First, I saw real poverty. Before going to Africa, I always thought that as an unwanted child who grew up in foster homes that I had grown up in poverty. I didn't. Maybe poverty by American standards, but not REAL poverty. I was given shelter. I slept in a bed. I was given clothes. I was giving food. I went to school. When I needed medical care, I got it.

But everywhere I went in Kenya, I saw children naked, walking in bare feet, often with distended bellies that is a sign of malnutrition. They died of hunger and disease in shocking numbers. And it goes on today. The rural scene, shown here, is no different from what I saw more than 40 years ago. Little has changed for the poorest people of Kenya.

Our son, Greg, was born in Kenya, in the little town of Kisumu at a tiny clinic with one British doctor. Ian Maxwell was his name. He supervised the birth and joyous arrival of a healthy baby boy as a natural-born citizen of both Kenya and the United States. And when nine months later, Greg came down with malaria, Dr. Maxwell made sure he got the quinine and care that he needed. He saved his life.

Greg was an early walker, but when the malaria hit him at age 9 months, he became too weak to stand up. I'll never forget the little guy struggling to stand up, not being able to, and not understanding why. Malaria is deadly. And though we always slept under mosquito nets, all it takes is one jab from a mosquito carrying the parasite.

We were lucky not to have lost Greg. If he had been African, he would have been gone. Then all but a tiny elite of African families lived in huts, scratching food from tiny plots or worked for pittances for white owners of vast farms or Asian shopkeepers. For health care, they had tribal healers. When malaria struck, their children died. One reason Africans in Kenya have so many children is because so many die of disease. Today, 44 years after Dr. Maxwell saved my son Greg's life, the children are still dying. Africa is a continent where a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds, according to the World Health Organization.

Today, many of the white landowners and Asian shopkeepers have been replaced by members of the dominant Kikuyu tribe while the vast majority of Kenyans still live in poverty. And not the American kind, either. Just outside of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, is Africa's largest slum, Kibera.

In it a million black African souls exist in a mass of shanties without electricity, running water, sewage, and health care. Life here is short and brutish. Most of the residents are Luo and other minority tribes. The Kibera slum, shown in the photo, is a stronghold of support for Raila Odinga, a Luo, and his populist message.

In passing, we should note that the winner of the Iowa primary, Barak Obama, is also a Luo. His ancestral home is the western tin-shacked village of Nyango-ma-Kogelo. His father, a goatherder who became an economist grew up in the village and was buried there in 1982 after a fatal car crash. He won a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he met and married Obama's mother, who is from Kansas.

When Obama visited Kenya in 2006, he was greeted as a hero and attracted huge crowds. He attacked the tribalism and corruption that has played such a large role in Kenya's government. In one speech, which got great applause, Obama said:

"Corruption is not a new problem; it's not just a Kenyan or African problem. It's a human problem. ... While corruption is a problem we all share, here in Kenya it is a crisis robbing an honest people of the opportunities they have fought for and deserve....Ethnic-based tribal politics have to stop."

Luo villagers are following the U.S presidential campaign closely by radio and rooting for Sen. Obama. An uncle in Obama's ancestral village, interviewed by telephone, said he is praying for Obama to become America's next President.

The President of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, is a Kikuyu. The Kikuyu are the largest tribe of some 40 tribes in a population of 37 million. Only 22% of the population, the Kikuyu thoroughly dominate Kenya's business and politics. Rail Odinga is out to change this, to get more of the spoils for his and other minority tribes.

Yet this economic and social inequality has been firmly rooted in Kenya since independence from Great Britain on December 12, 1963, when the British Queen and her consort, the Duke, peacefully handed over power to Joma Kenyatta, a Kikuyu. He is not spoken of much these days but during my time in Kenya he was the reigning face and personality of the new Kenya.

I remember him well. A fierce opponent of British rule, he had spent 8 years in a British prison where he was kept in isolation and guards were forbidden to speak his name; they referred to him as J2. From a prison cell, he negotiated his release and the British agreed because they had no better alternative. Also, millions of Kenyans, looking to him as a savior, clamored for his release.

This was was no ordinary man. He had spent 15 years in England and had studied economics and anthropology at the Univerity of London. He wrote a book, "Facing Mount Kenya," also mostly forgotten, that powerfully described how the British displaced Africans from ancient lands, creating the infamous white highlands on Kenya's most valuable and fertile lands.

The first Kenya government under President Jomo Kenyatta was a serious attempt at tribal reconciliation and peaceful politics. The Vice President was Oginga Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, Kenya's second largest. Kenyatta even appointed a European, or white man, as Minister of Agriculture. I still remember his name, Bruce Mckenzie, a white farmer with a red muttonchop moustache and native Kenyan.

Striving for a stable transfer of power, Kenyatta also kept many white officials in their posts. Many times he said that although the British had been cruel and unjust, Kenyans must forgive and forget -- and build a new, prosperous nation.

It was a happy, optimistic time. Several times, I was among the crowds at Kenyatta rallies where he stood tall in his multi-colored beaded cap, with fly wisk in hand and evoked roars of "Harambee!" (work together) and "Uhuru na Kazi"! (freedom and work). The people called Kenyatta "mzee" (old man), a term of warmth and respect.

For many years, it seemed to work. Kenya became an important regional business and transportation hub and its tourist industry grew in leaps and bounds. Kenya became East Africa's biggest economy as well as an island of calm, avoiding the bloody conflcts that ravished Sudan, Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda.

In 2002, after Kenya's first free election, a broad, democratically-elected government took power. Significantly, Kenya's longtime President Daniel arap Moi, whose rule was notoriously repressive and corrupt, accepted the election results. All the major tribes were represented in the new democratic government: Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin -- the same tribes that are killing each other today.

What went wrong? The immediate cause was the December 27 election in which President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was declared the winner the next day by a razor's margin over Raila Odinga, a Luo, despite earlier poll figures projecting Odinga as the winner.

International election observers pronounced the election rigged to keep President Kibaki in power. The top American diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, flew in shortly afterwards and she said publicly that the election was marked by serious wrongdoing by government officials.

Furious, Odinga refused to accept the outcome and his followers turned into a machete-slashing mobs hunting down and killing Kikuyus. Most of the violence was in Luo-dominated western Kenya where Raila Odinga is a hero and most important political figure -- and my old haunting grounds.

With Luos on a killing spree, Kikuyus in headed for the safety of their own tribal homelands or took refuge in police stations or churchs. In the town of Kiambaa, a mob of Luos, Kalenjins, and Luhyas converged on a church where a group of Kikuyus had sought safety. Instead, up to 50 of them, many women and children, were burned alive as the mob piled mattresses at entrances and set them afire.

In Kisumu, the town where I lived and taught for two years, the main street, Oginga Odinga Street (named after Raila Odinga's father and Kenya's first Vice President), dozens of stores were looted, smashed, and torched. The main supermarket looked like a bomb had hit it. The main drag was literally gutted and any Kikuyu who got in the way was hacked to death. The photo shows Kisumu, Kenya's third largest city, before the destruction

By the time the smashing and killing had done its worst, the street where Phyllis and I walked peacefully so many years ago with our toddler, was in ashes and more than 40 Kikuyu had been slaughtered. This was the street where we had shopped in the little Asian-owned shops.

It was where when we went into a butcher shop and there were Africans before us, we were ushered to the front and served immediately. At first, I resisted but after awhile I didn't and went to the head of the line like some kind of lord.

It was where I had an Asian tailor make me a couple of pair of white tennis shorts, which were the best tennis shorts I have owned. My British friends called them "empire-builders." I wore them for more than 10 years.

Speaking of tennis, a short walk from Kisumu's main street was the Kisumu swim and tennis club, the Nyanza Club, where our son Greg learned to swim and where for the first time in my life I picked up a tennis racket. Besides being an early walker, he was also an early swimmer, as well as an early malaria survivor.

Although Kenya had been independent for a year, and the Nyanza Club was theoretically open to all, all the members were European. That means white. The only black Africans there were the help. At the pool, a crick of the finger would have a red-fezed waiter in white coat hurry over to get a drink and bring it to you.

On the well-kept clay courts, we didn't have to chase our balls. We had ballboys for that. They ran for hours in the hot sun for a couple of shillings (14 cents at the time). When I began giving the ballboys more, I was firmly told that overpaying was simply not done. "It's not good to spoil them," a proper Englishman told me.

At home, the privileged life of a European in Kenya was even more in evidence. Although I was merely a teacher at Kisumu Secondary School, I lived not in a tin shack or mud hut like the overwhelming majority of Africans but in an actual permanent house with a foundation, wood frame, and shingled roof -- not unlike a modest suburban track home in the U.S.

But to the average African, this was a castle. And my income, paid by the Kenya Government and subsidized by the U.S Government through Columbia teachers College, was enough to afford domestic help: full-time cook, home cleaner, gardener, and ayah for child care. We never had chores to do.

Teaching in Kenya was an experience like no other. Never had I felt so important or was accorded so much respect. When I entered the classroom, the entire class jumped to its feet and shouted as one, "Good Morning , Sir"! And the class didn't sit until I did.

Never have I seen more eager students. In the first place, the school fees were high and very few could afford them. Secondly, education was serious business with the entire curriculum geared to passing the overseas exam from London. Pass the test, you go on to higher education. Fail the test, you go nowhere -- except back to the fields.

What pressure! Compared to this, the No Child Left Behind program in the U.S. is a stroll in the park. I taught English and history, including the history of tropical Africa. Me, a new college graduate teaching African history to Africans --absurd on the face of it. Yet I did it, largely by keeping a chapter ahead of the students.

But whenever I strayed from the syllabus, I heard about it immediately. I remember one such time during a lesson on British history (naturally there was a lot of British history in the London-created syllabus). I was giving an example from American colonial history, when a tall student in back jumped to his feet. "Sir," he said, "I believe what you are telling us is not in the syllabus and that you are wasting our time."

He meant no disrespect. He was a good student whose fee-paying parents had high hopes for him and he wanted to get their money's worth. No talky teacher was going to stand between him and passing the overseas exam!

"Quite right," I said in my best faux British accent. "Thank you."

Another thing I miss about Kenya in those days is the deep respect that Kenyans had for America and Americans. Those were the days when America was beloved throughout the world.

When President Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963, I was in the tiny village of Kisii getting my 1961 VW bug serviced at an Asian-owned service center. I got the news from the owner, a turbaned and full-bearded Sikkh, who approached me gingerly with his head lowered.

"Forgive me, sir, but I feel that I must tell you terrible news from the radio." He hesitated. His head dropped lower. "Sir... Sir," he stammered. "Your President Kennedy, he has been shot. He is dead. I am so sorry, Sir."

And he backed slowly away.

The word spread fast and soon one or two black Africans came up to me, down cast, heads slowly shaking. One touched my shoulder. "Very sorry, sir," he whispered. In the tribal way of deference, the other took his own hand and guided it palm up for me to touch, which I did. Then, saying nothing, he backed away.

Before long, as the only American in the little village, I was accepting condolences on behalf of the United States of America. I don't say the whole village turned out. There were perhaps six or seven. But it was touching and unforgettable.

Given America's standing in the world now, I doubt it would happen today.

Our VW bug took us all over Kenya and East Africa. With little Greg bouncing in a basket in the back seat, we drove the entire distance from Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria to Mombasa. We drove through great game parks teeming with animals. There is nothing quite like making a turn and seeing a big lion yawning under a tree.

We visited friends in Tanzania who lived at the base of Kilimanjaro. In those days, over 40 years ago, the great mountain still had its great white mantle. Now it's like me, mostly bald on top.

Wherever we went -- and we went everywhere -- I explored on foot. In many trips to Nairobi, I probably covered the entire city. I went out onto the streets at night and always felt safe, even though in those days the streets were mostly dark with no one out for a stroll except me.

In the darkness, I knew I was being watched because I regularly saw the whites of eyes. But when I called out "jambo"(hello) or "harbari"(what's the news?), invariably a voice returned the greeting. I would not walk the streets of Nairobi today, nor Kisumu, nor any city in Kenya.

Unlike when I was in Kenya, Europeans are now frequent targets of thugs who think nothing of killing an mzungu (white man) for his wallet. Which is one more reason why I prefer to remember my beloved Kenya the way it used to be all those many years ago when I was young.

Sometimes there can be too much reality for the soul.

So long and keep moving.