letters from nairobi

March 9, 2013, 19:48
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Every day, when I take my dog for a short walk outside of my apartment complex, I stop by the front gates and talk with Boaz, the resident askari (security guard). We chat about the weather, upcoming holidays, happenings around the neighborhood – the usual topics that comprise small talk. But this past week, as the country ground to a halt while ballots were counted, mis-counted, re-counted, and re-counted again, there was only one subject of discussion, here and everywhere: the election.

Boaz, like most non-Kikuyu or Kalenjin Kenyans, supported current prime minister and leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, Raila Odinga, in his bid for the presidency. In the weeks leading up to Monday’s election, I would walk by the askari post where Boaz would be sitting, listening to the radio in the sunshine. He would point to the prime minister’s tinny voice issuing from the radio’s speakers, promising campaign reforms in English and Swahili, and tell me, grinning, “Listen – this is our next president!”

“Our country is ready for change,” he would say. And the conviction in his voice was unshakeable.

On Sunday evening, I wished him luck in the voting process the following day. On Monday, as I walked through the gate in the morning sun, he proudly displayed his pinkie finger, the fingernail stained by the dark ink used to signify an individual who has cast a ballot. He had awoken hours before dawn to wait in endless voting queues, along with hundreds of thousands of Kenyans across the country. On Monday, his grin was wider than usual, his eyes bright with hope.

On Tuesday, our conversation was brief: “So, now they’re counting?” “Yes, so we just wait.” On Wednesday morning, following a breakdown in the electronic tallying system which caused all ballot counting to stop and begin again from the very beginning, a hint of fatigue colored Boaz’s voice: “Still counting,” he told me, adding, “I have heard rumors of fraud in Central Province. People getting two, three ballots each. But as long as the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] addresses these issues, I believe people will remain calm.”

“Kenyatta [Odinga’s rival and presidential frontrunner] is ahead in votes. But that will change,” he said confidently. “If you look at a map of Kenya, it’s red just in the middle” – red signifying supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta’s party, The National Alliance (TNA) – “and orange everywhere else! The north, the coast – all over!”

“So we are just waiting for the votes to be tallied.”

On Thursday, as the number of counted ballots rose and Kenyatta’s lead over Odinga widened, I stopped by the front gate as usual to discuss the latest developments.

Holding the metal door open with one hand, his pinkie fingernail still stained with ink, Boaz shook his head and looked grim. “I have nothing to say today,” he said, and gave a half-hearted, bitter laugh.

Friday morning marked the first of several missed deadlines when the IEBC claimed it would be ready to release final results to the public. People’s impatience with the bungled process, overshadowed by a growing fear that each passing day heightened tensions and the possibility of violence, was stretched thin.

There was no smile in Boaz’s voice, no sparkle in his eye.

“Kenyatta has stolen the election from us,” he said matter-of-factly. In his voice, anger mixed with sadness, colored by a sense of resignation; of inevitability. And for the first time since the political contest began, I didn’t know what to say to him.

Another day came and went without a final verdict. But finally, six days after Kenyans turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard under the new democratic constitution, six days after the people maintained peace despite rallying cries of hate speech and incitements to violence – and to the disappointment of foreign journalists who flooded the country, eager to snap photographs of burning buildings and machete-wielding slum-dwellers – the votes were tallied, and a president was declared.

Uhuru Kenyatta won the election with 6,173,433 votes, or 50.03% of total votes cast.

The margin of victory was so slim – just over 4,000 votes of the 12.3 million cast – that Odinga has pledged to contest the results in court. As television screens across the country broadcast images of red-shirted Kenyatta supporters dancing in the streets, waving flags and cheering, I walked down to the front gate.

Was the election really over? Or is this just the beginning of the next phase – of judicial appeals, protests, and defiance?

As the late afternoon sun streamed through the leaves of acacia trees, I walked up to Boaz. “I’m sorry,” I said. There wasn’t anything else to say.

He smiled, sadness touching the corners of his mouth. Sadness, but something else – acceptance? Exhaustion? Relief?

“Now is not the time to look to the past,” he said simply. “Now, all we can do is look ahead, to the future.” And the radio blared on.


On the Election
February 28, 2013, 11:32
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In Nairobi, four days before the election, the tension is palpable.

The city is blanketed with scrawled graffiti and an endless repetition of low-budget political posters, one stiffly posed smiling man indistinguishable from the next. On street corners and in parking lots, trailer trucks wallpapered with campaign stickers blast deafening music to rally supporters. (The purpose of these so-called rallies remains unclear, as most of the gathered crowd can be seen sitting on the ground, eating ugali and drinking soda, and looking utterly bored.) In shop windows, typed notices inform customers of upcoming closures “due to elections” – some, hopeful, announce closures of only one day to coincide with the official holiday, but many others, less optimistic, announce closures of a week or more.

In coffee shops and mutatus, grocery store queues and board rooms, there is only one topic of conversation – and one question being asked: will there be violence? Or, more pointedly, how bad will it be this time? On this topic, opinions vary widely – no one wants a repetition of the 2007-2008 disaster, when close to a thousand people were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the country plunged into social and economic chaos that continues to reverberate today. But whether or not enough time has passed, and enough change has occurred, to ensure that this election remains peaceful is a contentious debate.

“We Kenyans have learned from our mistakes. What happened last time will not happen again,” my taxi driver assures me. But what about the reports of machetes being bought in droves from supermarkets? A pause. “Better to be prepared this time. Just in case,” he says.

Despite the mounting hysteria, evinced mostly by foreigners, aid workers, and ex-pats who are fleeing the country in advance of the election and following melodramatic “emergency preparedness” decrees (“prepare a ‘go bag’ with emergency supplies including dental records, power of attorney, moist towelettes, and a signaling whistle”) the majority of Kenyans seem cautious but hopeful that this will be a relatively peaceful election.

The world is watching, this time around. But whether or not that will be enough to stop history from repeating itself remains to be seen.

Terror Threats in the Capital
January 11, 2012, 16:58
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Over the past several days, there has been a heightened state of alert in Nairobi for a threat of possible terror attacks. Initially, I wasn’t going to reference them in this blog, so as not to worry friends and family back home (hi, Dad), but it seems disingenuous to do so. Part of living abroad is experiencing everything that another country and culture has to offer, regardless of the specifics. Life in Nairobi is more than giraffe sightings and Caledonian balls – much more – and it would undermine the intent of this blog to ignore the aspects of life that are less than cheerful.

That being said, please don’t worry. The likelihood of a terror threat that I would be affected by actually occurring is miniscule. But I do think it should be acknowledged.

Mostly what I have been struck by is the chasm between what a “terror threat” signifies in the U.S. and how it is interpreted here. In the U.S., a “possible threat” is manifested by increasing the “terror alert level” color from always-threatened-yellow to really-threatened-orange, or, every so often, Armageddon-is-nigh red; electronic signs on the side of the highway urging individuals to report ambiguously-labeled “suspicious persons” to an unnamed authority; and frantic newscasters walking through subway stations with panicked voices.

In Nairobi, the approach is somewhat different.

The latest “threat” to the city and its surrounding areas is rooted in the escalating conflict between Kenya and Somalia – already, a very different “threat” than that which preoccupies the U.S., since the border is close and porous, and the conflict multifaceted and murky. According to various news organizations, two “most wanted Al-Qaeda terror suspects” have entered the country in recent days, “sparking a state of high alert within security agencies.”

As with most security threats here, the target has been described as “government offices, police stations, U.N. offices and agencies, as well as shopping centers and all areas where crowds gather or move.”

Basically, everywhere.

Particularly insidious is the amount of “threats” that turn out to be hoaxes – or so the police claim. It’s difficult to discern not only what information is reliable, but where it comes from, who it’s intended to reach, what – if anything – alerting the public with such vague details is supposed to accomplish. My post-9/11 cynicism leads me to believe that the procedure is a way of shifting blame away from the government, should an attack occur – a “we warned you” dissolution of responsibility – but the question that keeps coming back to me is: doesn’t that make the Powers That Be more responsible for the consequences of an attack? Ostensibly, they know there are two or more suspects in the country that they believe to be coordinating a large-scale show of violence – already being likened to the game-changing 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing – and yet the projected attitude is one of helplessness.

Whether or not the perceived threats come to fruition, it seems as if much of the damage has already been done merely by the rising tide of panic seeping out from local and foreign news services alike. If the public views an attack as not only imminent, but inevitable, I worry what retaliatory steps will be taken. I remember all too well the “preemptive,” “smoke em out of their holes” days of the Bush era, and fear the consequences of declaring “mission: completed” before the fight has even begun.

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