letters from nairobi

On ‘Post-Election Violence’

The term “post-election violence” is uttered often enough in Kenya that its meaning becomes diminished. Inserted into guide book sidebars, mentioned in passing in political speeches, and sprinkled throughout NGO leaflets, the reference to the brutal violence that followed the contested 2007 election has become something akin to a catchphrase – historical explanation and political justification rolled into one.

It isn’t until you see the countryside that you realize what the phrase really means.

The undulating hills and valleys in the west hold testament to the violence that ripped villages apart and turned neighbors into murderers just a few years ago. On either side of the road, vestiges of destroyed homes and shops remain. Between the foreground of freshly painted storefronts and the horizon, blackened, roofless structures climb out of weeds, crumbling under the hot sun. Occasionally, one can glimpse a group of small white triangles in the distance – refugee tents constructed to house the thousands of displaced persons who fled the violence and have yet to return to the places they called home.

Political violence in this conflict-ridden continent is by no means new, but there is something different about the brutality that occurred here.

Like other post-colonial societies, Kenyan identity is defined by blood. Political differences – liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right vs. center – become featherweights, insubstantial in comparison to what daughter of Gikuyu gave birth to your ancestors in the mountain foothills. Individuals are classified and judged on one criterion only: tribe. Anything beyond that is trivial.

What makes the post-election violence so striking is that it slashed through the veneer of multiculturalism in one swift, downward arc. The myth of a post-colonial, independent Kenyan society in which Luos and Kikuyus happily broke bread together, having put the scars of their turbulent pasts behind them, was shattered in one instant. Homes were torched because the family’s last name marked them as Kikuyu; shops were ravaged because they were Kalenjin-owned.

The next-door neighbor you grew up with, climbing sap-covered trees that left your fingers stained and sticky; the owner of the corner store who would ask after your mother’s health and sell you a soda even when you were a few cents short – these became your enemies. The slope of a nose, the curve of cheekbones were enough to separate You from Them.

What’s most frightening about the violence is that it is far from over. Since the last election, roofs have been rebuilt and various committees formed, lulling society into a false sense of comfort. But, as the current ICC proceedings and other political developments indicate, this sense of calm is tenuous. It is only a matter of time before tempers flare and buildings burn once again.

And this time, the people will be ready.


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