So Close and Yet So Far
In case you’ve somehow missed it (which, let’s admit, is easy to do in the US given our news networks’ proclivities against international stories that don’t involve the US going to war on false grounds)… the most recent elections in Kenya didn’t go so well. The incumbent won – but likely by nefarious means. And unlike the fraudulent elections in the US in 2000, the runner-up has not been inclined to drop his claims on the office for the sake of the nation. In Kenya, long standing ethnic and tribal issues (which were exacerbated by British colonial rule) have complicated the situation. There has been violence. Up to 1000 people have died in either clashes with the police or via small pockets of “ethnic cleansing” that bring chillingly scary flashbacks to Rwanda in 1994.
This is scary shit. And it is happening just on the other side of the border from Tanzania.
But just so you are all at ease… The Kenyan border is a good 10 hour drive north – and the problems are not happening all over Kenya – but in limited pockets. Since I’m a big fan of geography, I can make for you the analogy that it is like sitting in NY watching riots Ottawa, Canada. It is pretty far away and in another country to boot.
Still… this is scary shit. And it is happening just on the other side of the border from Tanzania.
Imagine the idea of a whole continent judged by the misfortune of sharing a land mass with a few rough places – like if we judged all of the United States by the violence and poverty of inner city New Orleans and Detroit. What about the beautiful savannahs? What about the jungles full of amazing creatures? What about all the wonderful people I’ve met in each of the sub-Saharan countries I’ve visited? (Eight so far!)
Africa needs an image consultant.
But Africa also needs some of our compassion and understanding. As a continent, it’s gotten a bum deal – what with all the colonial plunder of natural resources and mass murder perpetrated by the Belgians, British, French, Portuguese, Spaniards and others; and not to mention the slave trade to the Americas and to the Arabian peninsula, yada, yada, yada….
And then there is the shitty thing about how the beautiful forests and animals are also the source of deadly diseases like ebola, malaria, and maybe even HIV.
Talk about being screwed from both ends.
I started to write this post in response to good friend who sent an e-mail asking me to blog about what is happening in Kenya and my snotty – but intended to be humorous - response to her was… get a map.
Tanzania is not in Kenya. Tanzania is not Kenya.
I prepared my high horse (or is it my soap box?), ready to give you all (my readers) an education about how Tanzania was saved from much of the post colonial division that happened in other countries by a visionary first president, Julius Nyrere (look him up if you are a history or politics fan – he was a really interesting person and a national and regional hero) who decided to turn Tanzania towards a socialist, rather than Western, path and then worked to do away with tribalism by uniting Tanzanians under one language (Swahili) and one nation (Tanzania). As a result – the question of ethnicity or tribe is not part of the daily discourse here as it is in Kenya where Kikuyu help Kikuyu get ahead, and if you are Luo you definitely voted for the opposition. And today, even though the path is definitely back towards capitalism, the trick about uniting Tanzanians continues to stick. It makes Tanzania a very unique place.
But there is also a list a mile long of things that are just the same here as they are in Kenya.
Like crippling poverty
Like disenfranchised youth
Like the fact that death and sickness are as much a part of day-to-day life for most people here as Starbucks is to people who live in Seattle.
I don’t mean to be crass… but it’s true. Whenever I forget, there is always something that reminds me. Like the day last month when the kids and I saw three dead bodies in less than 24 hours.
Two of them were around the corner from my house. Two young men – security guards for the same security service I use - had been hit by an even younger man who was driving his new car drunk at 10 in the morning on Boxing Day. When the kids and I drove by the bodies were still in the street although they had been hit more than an hour previously. People were standing around them disinterestedly. The police were there just hanging out. There had been no attempt to get the guys to the hospital, no attempt to clear the scene or cover the bodies. They were just there in the road for the rest of us to drive around.
We saw the third guy the next morning on the highway as we drove west towards our vacation destination. Again it was a guy lying dead in the road. This time it was along a stretch of highway that was surrounded by savannah on both sides. There were two police officers standing over him – filling in a form, it seemed. No one else was around. It was unclear how he got there – although I imagine he was hit by a bus or fell off a truck. It was unceremonious. That’s how death often is around here.
I actually have a million stories I could tell you – and it would be cathartic to spill them out – like how my friend’s security guard had his second baby in the past two years die from malaria over the weekend, or how another friend’s nanny died of AIDS in her backyard a few months ago. But I’m going to hold back. You get the idea – I think.
But why am I sharing all this with you?
It is because we need this lens in order to understand what is happening in Kenya. You need to know that death is always close here. That in many communities people are desperate for food or for power or to survive the week. And many – especially the youth - have no grander plans to look forward to. When you hear about people hacking each other to death with machetes in Kenya it is not enough to assume that the reasons why or the solutions are simple politics.
Send in Kofi Annan and he can fix the situation, right?
Don’t turn away from what is happening. Don’t turn off the news. Africa needs us to pay attention and to care.
Tanzania is not like Kenya, right?
Or is the other side of the same coin?