De(con)struction in Kenya
“The streets have been on fire, this is going to be sick.” (Africa pt. 2)
While waiting on line to board Kenya Airways Flight 3—a 13-hour direct shot from JFK to Jomo Kenyatta International1—one pretty, manbunned American looked up from his phone and said to another, “The streets have been on fire, this is going to be sick.”
And they had a third! This one had neither a manbun nor a pretty face, but he did carry a medium-sized, hard-shelled briefcase which I gathered was full of camera equipment. The three amigos were, presumably, on their way to Nairobi to create some sick content around the latest round of anti-government protests.
Earlier in the day, last Tuesday, I, too, had been exploring the idea of heading to the protests, albeit without the giddiness. I was curious. The sensational coverage was all I’d read about Kenya for the past week and I wanted to check things out for myself. I suggested this to Nora—smart (Nairobi-based) Nora from my last post—who laughed and said, “You’re kidding, right?” When I said nothing, she added, “Best to stay out of their affairs, at least until you know better.”2
The protests had been called for by a disgruntled septuagenarian who had refused to accept the results of his failed presidential run. Most Kenyans seem to agree that the protesters’ grievances—centered around new taxes and the increasing cost of living—are legitimate, but that much of the current agitation is a result of former-Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s sinister, relentless stirring of the pot. This exploitation of his supporters’ hardships is part and parcel of his 50-year quest for political power. Police have responded to the protests with violence, firing tear gas and live rounds into crowds, killing at least 30 people, including six on the day that I landed in Nairobi.
It’s difficult to get an accurate sense of how dire the situation really is. If you’re like most Americans, who pick up their international news from the occasional headline, social media post or viral video, chances are that your current mental image of Kenya consists of either a country burning to the ground, or elephants and giraffes on an open plain. Some locals I’ve talked to believe that the protests themselves have been relatively contained, and that they’ll result in no material changes to the country or their lives. Most estimates say that only a few thousand of Nairobi’s 4.4 million residents took to the streets, though my (new) friend Shaka—an activist who has witnessed at least three violent deaths while watching the events unfold on TikTok Live—believes that the government is suppressing information about the true magnitude of the protests.
My attempt at a class-based analysis was stopped in its tracks as soon as I ran into the question of tribal loyalties. Take Kibera, for example: the poverty-stricken informal settlement has been the site of Nairobi’s most violent clashes between protesters and police. The connection seems plain enough, but it’s not the full story. Long before Raila outflanked his chief rival President Ruto on the populism front, he had overwhelming support in Kibera. Raila, like the vast majority of Kibera’s residents, is ethnically Luo. Ruto is not.
Shaka’s faced turned grim when I asked him what outcome he feared most. “In Rwanda,” he told me, “the Tutsi went to sleep one night in peace, and woke up the next morning to be slaughtered by their neighbors.” Even in Kenya, one of the continent’s most steadfast democracies, it would not be the first time that a political dispute erupted into tribal violence (and a Raila-fueled one at that). The mainstream media here seems to agree that an existential threat is looming—on Thursday, several of the country’s most prominent newspapers ran an identical headline: Let’s save our country.
For my part, I’ve seen plumes of black smoke, have heard the ceaseless chatter about Maandamano, and have had to avoid the pockets of chaos scattered across town, but otherwise I’ve experienced Nairobi as a bustling (if not severely stratified) city where people have been going about their daily business.
If it’s not already clear, I’ve been searching for a narrative that doesn’t seem to exist. My frameworks for making sense of the world begin to splinter and break apart when I attempt to apply them here in Kenya, laying bare some troubling structural defects that may have been there all along.3 Rereading my first post, I’m already cringing at how I was grasping for a narrative before even stepping onto the plane. Call it my very own epistemological break.
If the last week has made me question my own writing, it’s given me a greater appreciation for the nuance through which the great African novelists have written about their continent’s relationship with the West—in the postcolonial works I’ve read by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, there is no clear line between good and evil. This ethical murkiness bewildered me in the lead-up to my trip, but I suppose I’m growing more accustomed to it. I asked Shaka if he believed the U.S. should intervene in matters of human rights in Africa. “It’s not that you have no right,” he said. “Or that we don’t want your help. But if you come in without a proper understanding of our culture, you will end up making things worse. We will lead and you can support us.”4 Across the board, the East Africans I’ve met have been extremely resistant to speaking about the West in generalities. Their thoughts are grounded in their lived experience with all of its texture, zigzags and unintelligibility.5
Speaking of the processing (or lack thereof) of one’s lived experience, I started this piece with the intention of writing a paragraph or two about the protests, and then getting into the things I have actually been a part of during my first, extremely eventful week in this country: a night in the bush with a renowned Kenyan sculptor, my much celebrated arrival into the local Afrobeats scene, a difficult conversation about the hygienic habits of mzungus, and six days of living and writing with an extraordinary group of refugees and asylum seekers. To this last encounter, I brought a set of preconceptions with the structural integrity of a marshmallow tower. Much, much more on this later.
Tomorrow I head to Kibera for two writing workshops, so I need to get this out before everything is turned on its head again. Thank you for reading.
Both of these airports are named for lionized, long-deceased ex-presidents with the initials JK, one of whom celebrated his country’s independence from Britain 20 days after the other was shot dead. Is there something here?
Later, a video circulated showing a tear-gassed American rolling around on the ground while a group of Kenyans laugh and chant, “Welcome to Kenya!”
See Footnote 1, my short-lived jaunt into vulgar Marxism, or my invocation of Trump, which turned to dust at the lightest touch.
Candidly, I find it difficult to believe that American hubris could ever lead us into a disastrous foreign debacle, but I kept this thought to myself.
However honest our conversations have felt, it is not lost on me that my new friends may not be sharing their raw, uncensored thoughts with me.