A new vision rising from the ashes

Monday September 14 2009

Armed youths at the height of the post-election

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

By Shalini Gidoomal

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.

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.

“A Kenya-born, Kenyan-created, Kenyan-run technology in full international use,” she said. Judging by the applause at her statement, everyone was impressed and was proud of the achievement. In fact, judging by the applause that evening of the positive things said, it seemed that the audience was hungry for success stories, stories of hope, of possibility, nuggets that can be taken away and tried at home.

And yet even with all the preparation and presentation by a number of speakers, it was the spontaneous contribution from the audience that crowned the evening.

A young journalism student, Ahmed Kassim Abdi, a “periphery Somali” from Wajir as civil society would describe him, had the dubious pleasure of creating the first moment of pin-drop silence for the entire forum.

When the question and answer session began, Abdi calmly got the attention of moderator Irungu Houghton, walked to the edge of the stage shyly, and awkwardly shuffled papers.

“I have something prepared,” he announced. “Only one minute to say it,” warned Houghton.

“I hear voices in my head,” Abdi began.

“It’s like a multiple personality disorder…where there is nothing but confusion; mixed sounds…all these many, many, many different voices...”

There was total silence, the audience squirmed, as Houghton tried to figure out the least disruptive way to get Abdi away from the microphone.

“Mixed up voices…..” he continued,

“All confused. In my head……”

“Just like those of our Grand Coalition, who’s muddled noise has become a sickness, whose voices disturbs the nation’s heart.”

With these words the audience erupted into cheers, which continued throughout the young man’s performance.

I’m a pastoralist, not a terrorist,” he continued.

“Optimist, never pessimist

Creative and innovative, camel and cows my provision,

I’m now in a disorganised house like the tower of Babel, multiple personality, another sad story

I hear desperate multiple voices, I know not why

Abdi! Kenya is burning

Abdi! Nakumatt is burning

Abdi! extra judicial killings

Abdi! I’m starving

I slept, still multiple voices insist!

Abdi! again!”

It is this perfect expression of confusion that captured the hearts, that reached out to everyone in the audience. And this is really what Revisioning Kenya is about — connection — and then the creation of hope through honest open engagement.

And comments were thrown around freely after Abdi’s recital. “Too many people treat the truth like a leper, we stigmatise and carefully avoid most practioners of it,” said someone.

And yet when the truth is spoken, the impact is deep, as demonstrated by one of Kenya’s few regular practioners of the art. “I have to apologise on behalf of my generation,” said Ambassador Kiplagat as summed up the evening in a sombre mood.

“We have poisoned your minds. We have to face and take responsibility for what we have done,” he said.

Now when was the last time you heard a Kenyan leader say that?

As the evening came to an end, the atmosphere in the auditorium was light, reflective and positive. Even as our leaders fiddle, it is clear there are many people out there who are not prepared to let Kenya burn.