Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Aaron: I would like to introduce you to some very brave and righteous people. They are all Kenyans who have refused to accept what the past election has offered them, and so we have called this special supplement #KenyaRefuses. Let me explain.
Shailja: I asked three things of each piece I commissioned for this supplement. That it be dangerous. That it be necessary. That it be true. I wanted to create a platform for transgressive voices, voices not widely known outside Kenya. To showcase writers who dedicate their days to the daily construction of what Wambui Mwangi calls, in Silence Is A Woman, “a more sharable, livable way of being Kenyan”.
During the 2013 presidential election, #KenyaDecides was the hashtag used on twitter to describe the choice on the ballot between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, the two major candidates. The lines were long but people voted, and a winner was crowned. Journalists hoping for violent spectacle were disappointed; international observers praying for order and peace were rewarded. Uhuru Kenyatta became president and William Ruto became his deputy president. Everyone went back to what they had been doing before.
Three and a half months later, the final vote counts, by each race, have not been released. And there are discrepancies, almost a million of them. Former anticorruption czar John Githongo quoted a commissioner of the electoral board saying “We are having sleepless nights reconciling the presidential results and those of the other positions. Over a million votes must be ‘reconciled.’” Reconciled is a nice gloss for “we can’t tell where the votes came from.” As Wycliffe Muga, the weekend editor for the Nairobi Star put it, “Nobody can seriously expect Kenyans to believe that about a million citizens walked into the voting booth; tossed aside all the ballots for county representative, MP, governor and senator; and then voted only for the president of their choice.” Kenyans are being called on to un-see what they saw, to ignore what they know, both before the election and at the National Tallying Center. But as Shailja puts it, in her blistering essay, The Politics Of Contempt, contempt is when it doesn’t matter what Kenyans know, but only that they won’t say anything about it, won’t do anything about it. Chagua amani, they’re told; choose peace. “Wait. Sing. Dance. Pray. Be patient. Stay calm. Pray. Wait.”
Everybody knows the good guys lost
“Accept And Move On” is the mantra of Uhuru Kenyatta’s triumphant Jubilee administration. After all, Kenya’s last election, at the end of 2007, took us to the brink of civil war. After record voter registration and turnout, and a successful Election Day, the opposition party led by Raila Odinga won a substantial majority of parliamentary seats. But tensions rose when, after two days, the presidential result had still not been announced. On the third day, the tallying of the presidential vote was abruptly shut down by government security forces, who ejected all media at gunpoint from the national elections center. A few minutes later the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was declared presidential victor, and sworn in after dark.
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
Mass popular protest followed, met with violent reprisal by Kibaki’s state apparatus. Police were given shoot-to-kill orders, and hundreds of Kenyans died. Powerful politicians deployed armed militia in different regions of the country to consolidate their power. And for six weeks, Kenya burned.
A mediation agreement brokered by Kofi Annan would only halt the chaos after over a thousand people had been killed and over a quarter million displaced from their homes. Uncountable and uncounted numbers of women were raped, men and women were sexually violated, and “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDPs) became a new subcategory of Kenya’s population, one that persists and grows to this day, now standing at over half-a-million people. Kenyans suffered, and continue to suffer.
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
The writers you will read here are committed. They are fierce. They are whistleblowers, breaking the hegemonic omerta of ethnic and class allegiances. They are willing to go where the ugly is. Like the poets in Their Justice Shall Be Our Justice who, in a collective act of imagining, resurrect and amplify the voices of the victims, survivors and witnesses of the post-election violence.
The passive voice is too circumspect to describe what happened, and it is not enough to simply say that “violence erupted.” Who was responsible? Why did it happen? How to ensure that it never happened again? As part of the power-sharing agreement between the two major parties, a national commission was appointed to investigate, and amassed a substantial body of evidence “to show planning and organization by politicians, businessmen, and others who enlisted criminal gangs to execute the violence.” Eventually, Kenya took the cases of the indicted to the International Criminal Court, which began a prosecution against a handful of figures who they charged with crimes against humanity: murder, rape, torture, mass displacement. There was evidence. There were witnesses.
Is there still a case? Witnesses have disappeared, and there have been calls to drop the case. It’s easy to say why: two of the defendants are Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who joined together in a party which they named the “Jubilee” alliance, who ran for president and deputy president on a platform that promised calm in exchange for impunity. Since these two men had been on opposite sides of the election violence five years earlier—and since they stood accused of orchestrating violence against each other’s supporters—their promise of a jubilee was compelling. They were declared winners of the election. President Uhuru Kenyatta has said that if he must govern from the Hague, he will. It will be the first presidency by Skype.
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Elections are many things, but they are also stories that people tell about themselves, stories that people say yes to when they vote. The story that many Kenyans have wanted to tell with the 2013 election was a story of peace, the story of a peaceful democracy in which no one died, no one was forcible circumcised, no one was raped, and no one was sent fleeing from their burning home. Kenya continues to be “stable,” one of the most “stable” countries in Africa.
That story has been told. #KenyaDecided
This election supplement tells different stories. In Against Voting, Okwiri Oduor recalls bombardment by “peace infomercials” before the election, and by massive billboards thanking Kenyans for keeping the peace after it. “Vote and go home,” the authorities demanded. She preferred not to.
Some stories are the story which cannot be told. In Wailing, Keguro Macharia remembers the sight of a man whose tears cannot be articulated, whose tears disarticulate the thing he needed to believe in, a process that made sense to him, a process not governed by an arcane maze of rules and processes, so arcane that he could never negotiate it. In Kenya Will Never Was, Orem Ochiel wants to say “Kenya” and not feel irony slip into the space between the word and the wistful exhalation that follows it.
That irony can be encapsulated in a single name. Uhuru Kenyatta. Uhuru is Swahili for ‘freedom.’ Uhuru was named for Kenya’s independence by his father, Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, who changed his own given name, “Johnstone Kamau” to exactly the kind of name a founding president should have.
Jomo Kenyatta’s successor was Daniel arap Moi, who raised to new heights the authoritarianism and corruption of the last years of Kenyatta’s administration. To mention “the Moi years” is to refer to a dark period of gangster cronyism and dictatorship that didn’t end until 2002, if indeed it did. For when Moi was finally forced out of power, it was Uhuru Kenyatta that he named as his successor. But the Kenyan people rejected the Kenyatta name and legacy and instead voted in a rainbow coalition of opposition parties under the leadership of Mwai Kibaki. Who happens to be Uhuru Kenyatta’s godfather.
So Kenya’s fourth president is the son of the first president, the declared successor of the second, the godson of the third. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Everybody knows that you really do…
From the bloody cross on top of calvary
To the beach of malibu
Also silenced are the regions and communities of the country outside Central Kenya. Decades of land grabs by politicians have turned indigenous peoples into indigent squatters. Many are still undocumented as Kenyan citizens. Studied neglect by successive governments has left the hinterland and margins of the country without basic infrastructure and services, but subject to ongoing resource plunder by politicians and their corporate multinational partners.
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows…
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this sacred heart
Before it blows
A month after #KenyaDecided, Ali Zaidi, consulting editor of the respected weekly The East African, posted the lyrics of Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, on a Kenyan listserv.
He posted them without comment. Everybody got it.
–Shailja Patel and Aaron Bady