(or: What “Us” vs “Them” really means in Kenya)
And so today I finally post this article. I started to write it around the time the inflammatory Kikuyu songs were publicized in this excellent article. I commend the author for having the courage to write it. But perhaps it is Providence, after all, that I am posting this article on the day when we all unite around our celebrated and talented track athletes as they represent our nation at the 2012 London Olympics. On this day, it’s not “hao waKalenjin.” Today, you will not see #TeamMaasai or #TeamKaleoz or #TeamRift hashtags. No today, as it has been for the past one week, and as it will be for the next one week or so, it will be #TeamKenya.
Expect this unity to be short-lived.
For seven years now it has been a source of constant wonderment to me just how much success our politicians have enjoyed when it comes to putting us all in tribal pigeonholes and then making us all put one another in tribal pigeonholes as well. I wonder at it, honestly. I wonder at how tainted a word sisi has become in Kenya. I wonder at how much more tainted a word hao has become. I wonder how we are able to celebrate and befriend the Kalenjin when he is winning glamorous Grands Prix in ritzy European capitals, and then resent the same Kalenjin when he is our neighbour. I wonder at it.
Let me wax political. I wonder how two Hague suspects, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, can declare their respective interests in the Presidency, and receive the support of millions for their flawed bids. I wonder how it is that any of these candidatures can be robustly defended on middle class forums such as the The Daily Nation/East African Standard/Capital FM news sites and on Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps I will wonder even at the comments on this article, even though I promise here and now to answer each comment as patiently as I can. It appears to me that much of the middle class in Kenya has managed to attain a middle class economic status while remaining steadfastly “below the poverty line” intellectually speaking. How can anyone rule when defending themselves for months at a time at The Hague? Why should we expose ourselves to the peril, the embarrassment, and the stigma of having a President in international courts for months at a time? Or a President who is unable to make any foreign trips for the fear of being jailed? But I digress.
Anybody can stand on a podium and say anything, within limits. That’s called Freedom of Speech. For example, I can stand behind a pulpit and say if you touch my great-grandmother’s tombstone (may she rest in peace), within two hours from aforementioned contact you will receive news of great personal wealth. Now that is all kinds of un-Scriptural. Yet supposing there were queues of people waiting to touch said tombstone. Who should be blamed, myself (the liar) or the congregation (who believed it)? Yes, I’ve told them a lie. But they’ve believed it. Is the congregation entirely blameless?
Because in quite similar fashion our politicians have pulled the wool over our own eyes. “It’s them!” they say. “They are the ones stealing NHIF money!” Or: “It’s them, they stole the Anglo Leasing money!” As I’ve pointed out in a poem, things are now at the point where it is less about the stealing, and more about who did the stealing. The stealing no longer troubles people. We have sunk to such depths that we only really care to know who benefitted from it. The fact that it was stolen is neither here nor there. As soon as we can ascertain that “they” did it, however, we leap to our feet, with the decibels pouring out of our throats.
What has led to the success of this divisive kind of politics? It is the perception that when mtu wetu is in power watu wetu benefit. [Frankly part of the reason some of the Kikuyu feel so close to Uhuru Kenyatta is because (I hear them say) “At least Uhuru stood up for us when were being finished.”] This perception that watu wetu benefit when mtu wetu is in power is perhaps the biggest deception on the Kenyan political scene. When mtu wetu is in power, what he/she does is to busy himself or herself looking out for the interests of – wait for it – mtu wetu. “Not watu wetu?” I hear you ask. No. Mtu wetu. Best believe it is mtu wetu first, mtu wetu last, and mtu wetu always. Anything mtu wetu does for watu wetu is done either accidentally or solely as a way of keeping mtu wetu in power so that mtu wetu can then continue stealing from everybody up to and including watu wetu. Now that is the truth, and if you’re fidgeting, calm down while I try to give some examples. I will give two instances where Kenyans have had to live like animals because of their so-called leaders’ failings – and the culprits may surprise you.
I am reminded of the time when our current Mtu-Wetu-in-Chief, President Kibaki, had just come back into power after a flawed election. It is a documented fact that people in Nyeri were eating pig food at the height of the 2009 drought. I remind us that Nyeri happens to be President Kibaki’s home district. What good had it done watu wetu that mtu wetu had retained power? Had that sneaky swearing-in stopped those poor Kikuyus, our countrymen, from having to eat the food of swine? Were they benefitting in any way from all the scandals that have occurred during the reign of mundu witu the President? Or perhaps let us take the example of Mr Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, the current Vice-Mtu-Wetu-in-Chief, and a man who has done precious little for the people of Mwingi in over a quarter of a century as a Member of Parliament. It is yet another documented fact that his people were drinking water straight out of the ground like cattle as recently as 2010. What good has it done these poor Kambas, our countrymen, that the Vice President is a wa kwitu?? I use the phrase “his people” quite loosely here, for they are not his people. They are merely his intellectual slaves, and he uses them for his own ends. It ought to be a criminal offence to treat one’s constituents like that. You see, this is the end-result of the mtu wetu argument for the watu wetu: misery, dehumanisation and utter, abject lack. That is the mtu wetu argument distilled to its essence.
Who “they” really are
You know what? Despite all this, we actually believe the politicians! After we have eaten pig food, washed it down with filthy groundwater, and endured all the myriad cruelties, large and small, that we suffer due to inept leadership, we then behave exactly like the dumb cattle they make us out to be. Because we still believe that “us” and “them” is about Kikuyu vs Luo and/or Kikuyu vs Kalenjin and/or Kamba vs Meru and/or Luhya vs Luo and/or Kisii vs Luo. They pit us against each other and make us even fight each other. They watch as we die. And while we are dying for them, they are busy escaping the local problems that they have themselves created. Seldom do you hear that a senior politician was injured in a demonstration. Their cancers are treated in foreign hospitals even as their local Health ministries are involved in scandal after scandal (I do not wish cancer on anybody at all). Their children study in foreign schools, or schools here that are so exclusive that it is like another Kenya altogether (I saw with my own eyes the airstrip at St. Andrew’s Turi during the Madaraka Day weekend, and I have seen an eye-watering fees invoice from the school). Then when their children marry each other – across the tribal divide, mind – they will invite one another to the ceremony. And all the while we argue for them, defend them and at times die for the so-called cause.
I will be frank. I must be frank. I cannot be otherwise but frank. A thief of public funds is a thief of public funds be he a Luo thief, a Maasai thief, a Meru thief, a Kalenjin thief, a Digo thief, a Kikuyu thief, a Dorobo thief, a Luhya thief, an Arab thief, a Somali thief, or a white thief. The long and short is this: he/she is stealing and we are suffering. That is the real “us” and “them”; that is the real “we” and “they”.
Who “we” really are
You know who we are? Well, we’re the fools who are supposed to gulp down swine-feed and feel privileged that our man is in power even as we chew the stuff. Yes; we’re the guys who’re supposed to smile for the cameras while we munch. We’re the ones who get to enjoy drinking dirty water out of the ground, like cows. We’re the dirt-poor, NGO-fuelling, indigent wananchi who can’t afford a KES 125 packet of unga but who will believe the politician who gives us 500 shillings after doing nothing for 2 decades of both his and our lives. We’re so destitute that when the price of the matatu goes up by 10 bob in the morning, we have to cut back on lunch. We get to “feel it” every time fuel goes past KES 100 a litre. That’s our role in the grand scheme of things. And let’s not be naïve either; that’s the way the politicians look at us, too. They know us to be this. Let me ask this: when the price of fuel rises, does it remember who voted for President Kibaki or who voted for Prime Minister Raila? When the shilling plummets to KES 107 to the US dollar, does it remember who voted for Kibaki or who voted for Raila? No, it doesn’t. The shilling hits 107 for everyone. Fuel prices rise for everyone. Yet it is true that fuel could hit KES 200 to the litre, and these guys would never know. Why? Because our taxes give them cars, pay for their fuel, pay them a mileage allowance and add a driver on top for good measure. We pay for their opulence, as we suffer through our indigence. Right now, our taxes are even paying their taxes (one of the most ridiculously absurd ideas ever to emanate from a system of Government). Why? Because that’s who we are, that’s what we do. And then after all that, we line up at 5:00 in the morning and vote them all back in.
What can we do?
In case it isn’t clear by now (and it ought to be) this is isn’t really about Kikuyus vs Luos. It is not about Kalenjins vs. Kikuyus. It is not about Luhyas vs. Kambas. No, my friends. We suffer from a failure to discern the real enemy here. This thing is about the dizzy, staggering gazelle vs the patient, circling vulture. It is about the wounded impala, with torn flank, that is valiantly trying to fend off that dogged hyena that believes that it is now just a matter of time. It is about impunity vs justice. It is about the lives of 1,032 Kenyans vs. justice for 4. It is about the IDP vs. the politician. It is about transparency vs corruption. It is about right vs. wrong. It is about “us” the wananchi, and the citizens of this nation vs “them” the tribal leaders who want nothing to change except how much access they have to power and wealth.
I strongly urge us to start thinking for ourselves, because while our leaders do our thinking for us, we cannot, we will not, and we shall never benefit. In fact we will end up going to war against fellow Kenyans like we did last time for no tangible/valid reason. Then, after the hue and cry has died down and the politicians have paid themselves for their sins with a 40-minister cabinet, we all suffer together while the economy “recovers from post election violence.” It is urgent, it is imperative, and, as we look ahead to yet another election, it is critical that we remember that we have passed this way before. That we remember that we have paid dearly for our past indiscretions, and that perhaps we are still paying. That we remember that our so-called leaders will not be there to suffer with us when things go wrong (have you ever heard of clashes in Lavington/Runda/Muthaiga?). It is critical that we bestir ourselves out of our sleep and remember that:
we are all Kenyans.
And not just for the next one-and-a-half weeks, either.
To those sons and daughters of our nation who will be representing Kenya in the Olympic track and field events starting today I would like to say: All the very, very best. Some of our best talent left these shores because this nation didn’t do enough for them. I can’t blame them. But we all recognize that you decided to stay. Godspeed, ladies and gentlemen. And may God bless the nation of Kenya for she certainly needs it.