Over the last 10 days it has been difficult to read about and take in the photos documenting Kenya’s election debacle. While not an avid follower of Kenyan politics, I heard from friends and colleagues there that the 2007 election cycle was unlike any other. Massive, historic change was underway and friends’ excitement leading up to the election was palpable. Nearly every conversation inevitably turned toward the latest political news and foibles of the politicians (and their spouses). Young Kenyans seemed increasingly engaged in the electoral process – flexing their political muscle much like their American peers these days – and voter turnout was expected to be off the charts.
What unfolded in the aftermath of Kenya’s election was impossible to fathom. I felt numb reading news accounts of violent clashes—among ethnic groups, between government troops and slum residents—in Nairobi, Kisumu, Kisii, Eldoret, Kakamega and other towns throughout Kenya where we know people.
The absence of political leadership in the midst of it is equally
disheartening. Yet on some level, I understand the frustration and
anger triggered by the belief that the election was stolen. As one
Kenyan friend explained, when this happens to a dispossessed,
disenfranchised people, there’s nothing left to lose—getting revenge is
all that matters.
Email and phone contact with Kenyan friends and colleagues has been
sporadic. A common thread in their communications is that it has been
far worse on the ground than portrayed in the news. At least the world
is paying attention to Kenya’s morass, noted another friend. I began
cataloging who was where, with whom … who’s Luo, who’s Kikuyu (different Kenyan tribes) …
I’ve never thought this way before.
I keep thinking about Mathare – one of Nairobi’s vast slum
neighborhoods – where we had spent several hours talking with women in
what had been a family planning/reproductive health clinic supported by
U.S. assistance until the Global Gag Rule was reimposed. The clinic
had recently closed and the assembled women were eager to share with us
how much the clinic meant to them in a place where no government
services existed. The clinicians who staffed the three-room clinic
later kept it open on a limited basis, donating their spare time to see
patients and scrounging up donated health supplies. I’ve thought about
those women a lot since then, but never more so than this past week,
hoping against the odds that they and their families found safety.
Another Kenyan friend pointed out something that I’d given scant
attention to: the United States’ active role in resolving the crisis.
Not only has the U.S. agreed that the election results were rigged, the
Bush Administration also sent a high-level envoy to Nairobi to help get
the two sides talking. This is more than the Europeans have done, she
pointedly noted. This is unusual praise for American diplomacy, which
generally seems too little, too late in most cases.
As another round of political and ethnic turmoil threatens the
well-being of many Kenyan friends and colleagues, may U.S. diplomatic
efforts – in concert with the African Union and others – be sustained
and strengthened in the coming weeks and months.
Wendy Turnbull, Sr. Policy Research Analyst