A Kenyan abroad: Love vs fear

| March 1, 2013 - 12.20UTC

The view of Kenya from outside the country is markedly different to the feeling on the street – but which will prevail? wonders Mukoma Wa Ngugi.

I have a tendency to be pessimistic when writing about Kenya from the comfort of my home in Connecticut, and overly optimistic when writing shortly after a visit.

Perhaps it’s because, from a distance, I can only see the facts, and only the larger pictures matter. Yet when on the ground, I meet people on the move who are invested in Kenya; they carry hope and resilience.

In December 2012 I found a country on the march, the heart of the new constitution beating steadily, a film industry on the rise, literary festivals, and young men and women making business deals across the continent. This is the Kenya that remains unseen outside its borders.

But from a distance, I could only hear questions about the elections. How prepared are we? How did we end up with two presidential candidates who have charges of crimes against humanity hanging over their heads? If they win, won’t Kenya immediately become a pariah state?

The Kenya I fear is the politicians’ Kenya. This is the Kenya that Americans see, the Kenya that informs Obama’s foreign policy and international business – even tourism. The Kenya I love is the people’s Kenya.

In the US I can only think about the Kenya that I fear. But at home, with family and friends, I am in the Kenya that I love. I do not think one is more real than the other. The question is whether the two can be reconciled.

As we celebrate 50 years of independence in 2013, the danger the country is in could not be more pronounced. The ongoing issues of ethnicity mean politicians running without any platform beyond guaranteeing a piece of the national cake for their followers, who in turn believe them. This, in spite of 49 years of a minority elite leadership subsisting on a majority poor.

At the same time, dialogue across, and even within, ethnicity is no longer possible. Out in the bars in Kikuyu land, the fastest way for me – a Kikuyu – to be labelled a sell-out is to question Uhuru Kenyatta’s leadership; after all, he is one of us. Kalenjins, the same with William Ruto; Luos, the same with Raila. Constructive criticism is tribal sedition. More than anything, the toxic politics of ethnicity are smothering Kenyan democracy.

The other Kenya is flourishing. The universities have renewed energy. Conferences are being planned to celebrate 50 years of independence. The film industry is doing better than ever. Increasingly, younger people are taking over. Ready for order, this is the Kenya that celebrated the new traffic laws.

Hope. There is hope, albeit cautious. On election day, some people will vote and then return to homes well stocked in case of violence. Others will pull their children out of schools, just in case. Others will close down their shops, just in case. But they will still go out there and vote. And in this act alone there is an implicit trust that politicians will not doctor the results, and that their fellow citizens will accept them.

I do not know which Kenya we will be celebrating next year. I can only hope it’s the Kenya I love and not the one I fear – that the Kenya I fear will be a thing of the past, and the Kenya I love a forever-growing present.

About the author – Mukoma Wa Ngugi is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, USA. He’s author of Nairobi Heat (2011) and the forthcoming Finding Sahara (2013).

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