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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

LECTURER DR KAMAU GACHIgi kicks off the talks with a complex discussion of the connection between technology and the human spirit.

He is followed by a talk on education by the young dynamic Fred Okidi from Mathare Youth Talent Organisation, a “goodwill” teacher who works in a small classroom made of ironsheet, with three blackboards, hosting three simultaneous classes and a lot of noise.

Together with a group of other youths, they kept their area of Mathare slum free of violence.

“Not one house was burnt in our section during the post-election violence,” he said to much applause, adding that “If you lose your phone now in our area of Mathare and someone finds it, you will get it back.” Stirring stuff, practical and real. Although I am not too sure I would want to put his testimony to test.

Dr Musonda Mumba — a Zambian water and climate change specialist — took to the stage with a series of headlines such as “Nairobi taps dry, despite rains,” and other depressing headlines, before highlighting the perils of black carbon – also known as charcoal burning, which is responsible for 18 per cent of the carbon emissions in this part of the world.

“What about cows exhaling from the wrong end?” asked someone in the audience. “Is that as bad?”
“Do you mean farting?” Dr Mumba asks. “Yes,” answers the man. There ensued an intense international debate about the effects of the meat producing industry on the climate.

Linus Gitahi began by expounding on the nature of Kenyanness and lack of it. “How can we talk about having a Kenyan meal when we mean going to eat at the Norfolk?” he asked, before launching into the importance of common national bonds created by food and dress.

“You can always tell a Nigerian at a business function by the way they proucly wear the agbada, their traditional garb. At such functions, I am the one that could be from anywhere in Africa. It is this sort of thing that makes Kenyans only a loose coalition of tribes. We haven’t worked on our national identity.”

Point taken. But he breaks it down even further. “By day, I am the chief executive of Nation Media Group, but on the other hand, since I am supposed to follow the long tradition of taking what I earn back to my rural home — I am, in fact, only a glorified villager. The patron of the local cattle dip.
Nothing wrong with that, but how can we change anything if we just follow these norms?” he asked?

So Mr Gitahi figured that if you go 350km away from your rural home — wherever you may be in Kenya — you will end up in a place inhabited by another ethnic group (or the sea if you take a wrong turn!).

He chose to go west, and 350km from Tetu took him to Ugenya where he begged the administration of a local secondary school to make him patron. He is now helping them raise funds for a dining hall. Currently the students take their meals under a tree.

“I found that people in villages in that area have never even shaken the hand of a Kikuyu,” he said “but they still have strong prejudices about us. “I realised that tribalism, which is cooked in the cities, is brought back and sold to the villagers by our leaders.”

HE IS SURE THAT TRIBALism can be eradicated if enough people took the risk to support something outside their home areas. “If others follow — say a Luo comes to a village in Tetu and does the same, we can begin to change mindsets. For all of us, if we want to bring about change — we can simply go 350k away from our homes and serve whichever community we find there.”

The second session of the discussions was more factual.

Did you know that ushahidi.com, a Kenyan Internet crowd-sourcing site set up to collect data on the post-election violence was contracted not only to monitor this year’s Indian elections, but also to collect data on swine flu cases?” asked tech researcher Jessica Colaco.

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