Quick history of Kenya AND some musings about technology

I was about to sit down and explain the history of Kenya for you tonight, but I found someone who has already done it (in my opinion fairly, and probably better than I could!) The next few paragraphs come from a man named Alex. Short history first though for those who do not have the time nor interest to read more.

A few months ago every one’s worst fears came true. After a rigged election (both guys rigged it- just the one that would NOT have won rigged it more), people got very mad and rightly so. It certainly looks like “tribal violence” (and my jury is still out on that debate) but some argue it had nothing to do with tribalism, but with the people’s rights. In the worst instances of ethnic cleansing – as in Eldoret, 50 women and children were burned alive in a church, and at roadblocks gangs dragged Kikuyus from minibuses trying to escape and hacked them to death with machetes.

At Tenwek (as I understand it), people who were members of different tribes (other than the local Kipsigis) had their lives threatened and had to evacuate. John (the CEO of Tenwek), received threats warning him about what would happen if he did not get rid of the non-kipsigee employees. John says some of the interns were very vocal about not wanting to leave, and they gave him their cell phone numbers and said, “as soon as it’s safe call us and we will come back.” These interns were very serious- and did return, and I can now boast that they are my friends (and I boast because they are really awesome!) One family was forced to secretly hide in the hospital library for a week! So, while some shrug their shoulders and say “it wasn’t as bad as the media portrayed it,” I want you to know that for some that might be true, but at least 1,000 died and 300,000 were displaced from their homes. The doctors (only the non-kispigi Kenyans) who had to evacuate by accompanied by armed guards by helicopter/plane returned to Tenwek last month – so this is all still on everyone’s minds and occasionally dinner conversation. More history…

“If it happens in Africa it must just be the primal instinct based in tribalism. The mass media has been covering the situation in Kenya as a near exclusive tribal and ethnic conflict without accounting for the history of Kenya’s political turmoil and where ethnicity is put into a colonial context. The crisis in Kenya is not solely ethnic and tribal. It is a crisis based on democracy and fueled by past divisions created by British colonial rule.

What we have seen recently is a devolution of ‘democratic’ elections into ethnic conflict. The Presidential incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was made President in previous elections as the opposition candidate was declared unable to run by the constitution. Moving into the most recent elections Kibaki did not have the majority support. However, in the end tallies of votes Kibaki came out ahead of the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga. Odinga was running with his Orange Democratic Movement behind him. European Union observers declared Kibaki’s second term as stolen when the national vote counts came back different than the district vote counts, putting Kibaki as the winner. What we then saw was a devolution of a ‘stable democracy’ in to “tribal” conflict. But, before we can even begin to grasp what this means in Kenya we have to examine and understand Kenya’s history of colonial violence and created ethnic tension.

In 1888, the British took over the area known as Kenya as part of the 1885 Berlin Conference that divided the land area of Africa between the major European powers. The Germans formerly controlled the land. The colony known as British East Africa remained uninvolved in World War I. By the twentieth century 30,000 white British settlers began establishing themselves in the fertile highlands growing coffee and tea and commanding unjust political and economic power in the country. The highlands had traditionally been home to the Kikuyu people, who were forced off of their land and had to then seek jobs on their own former land under the employ of white settler farmers for a meager wage of newly imposed British currency. This injustice set off the start of the Mau-Mau rebellion lead by the Kikuyu people and the Land and Army Freedom movement in 1952. The country was placed under martial-rule. The British Long Rifles, the Home Guard (Kenyan soldiers), and the British army backed by Winston Churchill‘s command came together strongly against the movement and killed 42% of the rebel fighters. The capture and execution of Dedan Kimathi in 1956, the Mau Mau leader, essentially ended the rebellion. The Kikuyu rebellion was destroyed. The British consciously divided the Kikuyu and Luo people for fear that they would be too strong of a unifying force against their colonial empire. The Kenyan elites were able to take power with the election of the Kikuyu elite, Jomo Kenyatta.

The first elections in Kenya were in 1957. To the dismay of the British, the election was won by Kenyatta backed by his Kenya African National Union (KANU) party instead of the ‘moderate’ Africans the British had hoped for, but this was their own product of favoring the Kikuyu. Upon Kenyatta’s death Daniel arap-Moi took power, stepping up from his Vice Presidential role. His succession to president was strongly opposed by the Kikuyu elite, known as the Kiambu Mafia. He held power in uncontested single-party elections from 1978 until 2002. (Sidenote: Moi courted his wife here at Tenwek- she was practicing to become a nurse!!) Moi dismissed political opponents and consolidated his power. He put down Kikuyu coup attempts through execution of coup leaders. Moi was central in the perpetuating Kenyatta’s single-party state, reflected in the constitution. In his 2002 and 2007 election wins, Moi exploited the mixed ethnic composition of Kenya and with a divided opposition of smaller tribes – Moi won. Moi represented an ethnic minority, the Kalenjin, that kept the Kikuyu out of power for many years.

Kenya’s 36 million people are divided among 43 ethnic groups, each with its own identity, cultural traditions and practices, and separate language. The main groups are Kikuyu (22%), Luhya (14%), Luo (13%), Kalenjin (12%) and Kamba (11%), according to government figures. (Where I am is mostly Kipsigis!) Now we see the colonial policy of “divide and conquer” lives on. The tradition of corruption in Kenyan politics continues and Kikuyu is pitted against the various ethnic groups. However, this is a created ethnic conflict in a country where ethnicity and politics are conjoined. Kenyatta was a Kikuyu elite created by the British colonialism, Moi was essentially a dictator for 30 years, and Kibaki undemocratically stole power and now for a second time. Instead of a conflict rooted in tribalism this conflict, “suggests that the undemocratic historical trajectory that Kenya has been moving along was launched at the inception of British colonial rule more than a century ago.” What is most surprising is not that there is now an ethnic conflict in Kenya, but that it did not happen sooner.

Surprisingly, CNN acknowledged the roots of Kenya’s ethnic political troubles. Neither candidate in Kenya’s elections really represented the people or true democracy. Odinga’s (Luo) Orange Democratic Movement was supported by Luhya and he promised to appoint a Luhya deputy if elected. Kibaki’s government has had troubles and scandals dealing with corruption and graft since beginning in 2002. The BBC also gives a more accurate account of the conflict in Kenya. They suggest that the headlines talking of tribalism should better read: “Tribal differences in Kenya, normally accepted peacefully, are exploited by politicians hungry for power who can manipulate poverty-stricken population.” But no one wants to read that. The main stream media has decided to final cover Africa as a front page story only because it provides a striking headline. As Kikuyu flee, the news wants to make Kenya out to be another Rwanda, but I wouldn’t venture so far to say that it has become that terrible….

The US has condemned the violence in Kenya. “We condemn the violence that occurred in Kenya as its citizens await these election results, and call on all Kenyans to remain calm while the vote tabulation process is concluded,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in a statement. The US would like to say how terrible it is that Kenyans have been denied democracy. However, I am not sure how we can claim to know democracy. Just as Kenyans, we too have never known real democracy in this two-party system full of government control and corruption. My swahili professor is from western Kenya, he is a Luo. The other day I asked him if his family was safe. He said they were, they had fled soon enough to miss the violence. I asked him about the history of ethnic favoring in Kenya and he said that it all started with Kenyatta.”

One thing I find SO interesting is that everyone here has cell phones. Even if they do not have electricity to charge said phones- they still have them. And, when people say the equivalent of “dont just hand out money to people on the streets… they will probably waste it on drugs and alcohol” (as we might say in the city), today I heard, “we don’t just give out money- people might just spend it for more minutes!” There are places set up where you charge them. These cell phones had their own special role in the violence orchestrated early this year.

One of the hundreds of hate short text messages sent during the post-poll violence was read out in a Nairobi court on Wednesday.

The court was taken through a chain of how the short text message (SMS) was forwarded to at least six people within hours last December 31.

This was soon after the announcement of the disputed presidential election results.

The message sent from a Celtel mobile phone subscriber, was an appeal to one tribe to rise against another. The sender asked the recipients to forward it to 10 more people.

Very interesting! the article can be found here

For the past few months I’ve been musing about how technology is changing the world and will continue to do so. Being here in Kenya, it is especially interesting to see how technology is making a difference. There is also a map mash-up called Ushahidi (witness) which allowed people on the ground in Kenya to send texts and video taken via cell phone, which then appeared on an online map of Kenya for everyone to view.

Although there are many benefits to technology, as I mentioned above, the cell phones were also used to encourage hate.

“Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future…we must deal with them in a way they understand…violence.”

“No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know…we will give you numbers to text this information.”

People sent these messages out to everyone in their phone books, and encouraged others to pass them on. One thing that people were not counting on- is that these texts can be traced!! The situation got so dire that the Kenyan government considered shutting down mobile phone service in the country but Safaricom’s CE0, Michael Joseph, convinced them not shut down his network. To counter the violence, they sent text messages of peace and calm to its 9 million subscribers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *