Watching Kenya crumble

It is our responsibility to understand and act upon these horrific injustices that are occuring in Kenya.

When I dug my toes into the red dirt of Kenya’s lush earth, I could never have imagined that the same piece of land would be stained with the blood of my brothers and sisters a mere eight months later. I could never have foreseen the scenes of angry mobs dragging machetes on the ground, sparks flying at their feet, nor the mortuaries of Nairobi, filled with the bodies of little babies. But this is the reality for me and for the millions of others who have watched our beloved country shatter into a state of chaos. A reality that has left the whole world watching paralyzed.

Kenya is being held in the grip of a bloody massacre after its December presidential elections. The race was between incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, who has long been accused of engaging in vast governmental corruption as well as pandering to his own tribe, and the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, a man who was known just as equally for his support from the poor as for his $100,000 Hummer, which he reportedly drove through the country’s capital of Nairobi.

Kibaki was announced as the narrow victor of the race by approximately 230,000 votes out of a total 9 million cast throughout the country. Immediately, citizens and the international community suspected fraud, and violence soon ensued. It has since been universally labeled as a flawed election.

Political campaigning was in full swing last summer. I was living in a city in the Western province that often hosted political rallies with both Kibaki and Odinga as special guests. I could sense that politics meant a great deal to Kenyans – more than the average Westerner could imagine. It seemed like each day’s newspaper was filled with more election articles than the day before. People made no attempt to hide their opinions and openly endorsed their candidates.

I don’t believe this sense of political passion was because of an overly patriotic population. I soon learned it stemmed from the hierarchical inequalities that have marred the country for years.

It is not uncommon for government leaders to favor members of their own tribe. It was common for presidents to construct airports, hospitals or other amenities in their hometowns while neglecting to help other cities who may need it more. This is why people are so polarized about politics in Kenya. They know if their tribe is represented in the government, they will have a better chance of surviving.

It is easy to see how poverty is the leading killer in sub-Saharan Africa. In rural areas, it is difficult to find clean water, medicine or food, and many children are forced to work at home instead of attending school because of lack of funds. This is not the only injustice in Kenya. There are great disparities within social classes. Move through the capital and you’ll see familiar stores, restaurants catering to Western appetites and dozens of merchants hawking goods in English. Minutes away in the Kibera slums, there are children with bare feet sloshing through sewage water and fist-fighting over a piece of scrap metal. This is what poverty does. It turns one citizen against another in a fight for resources. “Survival of the fittest” is too often a fact of life.

There has been talk of ethnic or tribal warfare occurring in Kenya and there is, indeed, an amount of fact to that claim. Tribes have been notoriously pinned against each other for generations and tension has always skimmed close to the surface. But there have been few, if any, instances of violence against tribes based solely on superficial elements such as the tone of one’s skin. What is happening now, as in the past, is a fight over material resources. Unfortunately, many people, especially youth who have been marginalized by society, are seizing the moment and attempting either to take revenge on their unsubstantiated oppressors or to rebel against the country that has always kept them under their boot.

As Americans, we have an obligation to understand and act upon what is occurring in Kenya, as well as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As easy as it can be to believe that these ethnic factions are simply lashing out at each other because of some biological flaw, it is not the truth. Kenyans are people just like us, with blood that runs red and children that cry for safety in the night.

Already an estimated 800 people have died as a direct result this conflict. In my village, they have buried three children from disease as the pharmacies have been looted and closed. My coworkers at the Kenyan Red Cross have held countless victims in their arms, bullet holes and machete wounds covering their bodies, and my family is in exile in Uganda, fearful to ever come back.

As we watch the situation in Kenya unfold, we must remember and draw upon examples from the past. How many more faces are going to disappear from this world because of our inaction and our paralysis?

I cannot imagine a life in which my feet will cease to walk on Kenyan ground, but if we fail to act – fail to become disgusted enough – I will lose my beloved country and there will only be the graves of my people to return to.

Kathryn Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]