Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day 31 – New friends and some shocking sights

Wednesday morning we left early, picked up our new friends Elizabeth and Athah (the phonetic version of Arthur), and we headed out of Nairobi in direction to the northwest. What a relief! As soon as you get out of Nairobi you start a long climb that eventually brings you to the edge of the East African Rift Valley. A fabulous view! We were a good 5,000 ft above the valley, looking into an immensity of African savannah. I felt like a pilgrim looking into a holy shrine of geology.

Elizabeth and Athah are married. Elizabeth is a rather outspoken and modern Kenyan woman who works as the in-country person of an international organization that is trying to improve the lot of women living with HIV/AIDS. She has some pretty strong opinions about the undervalued role of women in Kenyan society, so Charleen and her made common cause about male chauvinists in general, and Athah and myself in particular. Fortunately we men were a formidable team to contend with.

Athah is a giant, who would be very imposing if you were to meet him in a dark alley, were it not for the fact that he always wears a warm smile. He speaks very softly--but he talks all the time, weaving one story into another. Athah has traveled all over Kenya, so he is a fountain of information about the country, and he is clearly in love with Kenya. His interest was very contagious (we dubbed him the Kenyan tourist, because he came up with all sort of suggestions about places to see or people to talk with), and he was always ready to hold a long chat with passersby about the name of a place, who ran the local school, or what was the legend behind the local lake. He is also something of an anomaly among Kenyan men in that he has great respect for his wife, so he engaged with her in friendly banter all through the trip, giving just as well as he received. Interestingly, many Kenyan men are polygamists, and modern Elizabeth was his second wife, so the dynamics of the conversation were at sometimes pretty weird.

So in this merry company we traversed the East African Rift Valley, and eventually climbed into the surrounding mountains to the west, where a lot of the violence of the last four months took place. It was horrible. Entire communities had been burned to the ground, and a frenzy of destruction seems to have swept down the land. To try to explain the problem I will have to start by saying that folks here first regard themselves as Kikuyus or Luos (or one of the other 30 tribes amalgamated by the Brits under the name “Kenya” during their colonial rule), and only as an afterthought as Kenyans (similar to the case of the former Yugoslavia, where groups that dislike each other are thrown together into an artificial country). The Kikuyus are pushy, individualistic, always looking for a way to make a buck at the expense of others, and have the political power. All others are low key, and traditionally have been underrepresented in political power. Accordingly, Kikuyuland has reasonable roads and other services, while all the others have the worst roads and services. In the last election a charismatic Luo leader had the clear lead, so hopes were high for the underdogs, when in a typical Kikuyu move the incumbent faked the results. The underdogs went nuts! They tore into the Kikuyu trading posts, slashing and burning, to protest against the fake results. Not to be left behind, the Kikuyus returned the favor, so in no time whatsoever the country was aflame.

A fragile peace is now in place, based on a power-sharing deal, but the root of the problem remains that there is no true national identity. There is no national soul to Kenya. May God have mercy on these poor people.

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