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A new vision rising from the ashes

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Armed youths at the height of the post-election violence last year in Nairobi. Picture: Anthony Kamau 

By Shalini Gidoomal

Posted  Monday, September 14   2009 at  00:00

IT IS 4.30PM AND I AM SITTING in unusually slow traffic — even by Nairobi standards — when the Securex alert on my mobile phone beeps. “Riots. Avoid Globe roundabout, Kirinyaga Rd etc etc…police engaged in running battles with mechanics,” reads the message.

There was nothing surprising about the message. For weeks this had been a headline story in the Kenyan media, complete with pictures of billowing smoke over that part of the city, policemen in full anti-riot gear charging at an “innocent” public and gridlocked traffic as people rushed to get out of harm’s way.

That, it seemed was the new state of the nation. The violence could have been caused by something different, but it still fit headlines ran in 2008 — “Kenya is Burning – its Leaders are fiddling” and of course the “Save Our Beloved Country” that were splashed across all the Kenyan papers.

So here we were in 2009, and how much has really changed? The looting, burning and killing has stopped. But the fiddling — in all its connotations largely remains the order of the day. How much real improvement is there in the daily lives of Kenyans?

What was ironic however was that, the “fighting” at the Globe roundabout was going to delay me for Revisioning Kenya, an event showcasing all that is progressive in the country.

The line-up of speakers was impressive — a tech whiz kid, a Mathare slum schoolteacher, a Zambian climate change specialist, Linus Gitahi — chief executive of the Nation Media Group— Kamau Gachigi, chair of the University of Nairobi Science Park, and peacemaker Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat.

Their brief was to speak on things about Kenya that are, or can be made to work, in only eight minutes.

Conceived by a coterie of writers last year in response to frustration that so many Kenyans felt about the lack of political will to focus on things that were of interest to majority of the citizenry, the forum recognises that Kenya is a nation of entrepreneurs and go-getters, who are forced, by the nature of circumstance and the circumspect quality of leadership to find their own solutions to their many problems.

So, while the politicians haggled over power-sharing and vehicle allowances in 2008, ordinary people focused on water collection, raising school fees or the more esoteric but essential expansion of business ideas. When leaders later mumbled about denial of certain perks that they thought were due to them, and addressed fuel and maize shortages, Kenyans were still obliged to find ways to put food (preferably fit for consumption!) on their tables.

Revisioning Kenya celebrates, shares and networks ideas and seeks to tap into Kenyanness in a solution-focused way.

I arrived late at the venue, barely a kilometre away from the running battles at Globe roundabout. So do a number of the speakers and audience — all caught in the ensuing traffic snarl-up like me.

As the auditorium fills up, activist poet Jacob Oketch leans over to the organiser and whispers “Hey! People are paying to attend this forum, normally we never go to these ‘discussion things’ unless they are free.” Not perhaps the most encouraging comment from one of the speakers of the night, although it was quite telling that a good number of people were interested enough to pay to attend.

Revisioning Kenya kicked off with a short film by award-winning filmmaker Judy Kibinge – a kind of simple guide to Kenya’s direction since independence and a summary of how we got to a place of where post-election violence became part of the national lexicon.

Archive footage mixed with interviews mixed with searing images of the brutality of Kenyans turning on each other last year. The woman in the seat next to me has her hands to her mouth and can barely watch. “Can Kenya rise from the ashes?” asked Kibinge.

Apparently yes, according to Revisioning Kenya, and the next two hours are a showcase of ideas on how it can, how it does and how it will rise again.

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