Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Situation in Kenya

I really love Kenya, and even though I've only been there twice, I'll never forget it's gorgeous scenery, astounding animal life, and wonderful people. Although I spent the most time with Maasai and Samburu, I met people from several other tribes as well, and I really enjoyed my time with all the Kenyans I had a chance to speak to. I have friends there I correspond with regularly, in both north and south Kenya. When I was last there in May of 2007, the Presidential campaign was well underway, with Raila Odinga challenging the incumbent, Kibaki.

It was interesting to note that all Kenyans seemed to know about Barak Obama and be hoping for him for a Presidential candidate in the U.S.

The campaign for Kenya's President was shocking in some ways. There was a newspaper article arguing that Odinga should not be President because he is from the Luo tribe, which does not circumcise men. An uncircumcised President was apparently an appalling thought to some. I tried to imagine the President's penis being a subject of debate in America (well, there was that Monica Lewinsky episode....) Anyway, it was interesting to see a race underway, and everyone seemed to be paying attention.

In 2005 when I was there, they were about to vote on a new Constitution (voted down). I read a copy and discussed it with several Kenyans and it was REALLY interesting. For one thing, they thought ALL Americans voted (I wish!). They prized freedom of speech because they had only recently had it. Many had felt that after electing Kibaki to replace Moi, initial reforms in education and other areas had been positive, but then when it came to a new Constitution the President was trying to give himself too much power.

It was clear that another major problem with the draft Constitution was that it attempts to be not just a guiding document but the entire codification of all laws of Kenya - divorce law, property law, civil rights laws, etc. A big mistake. A Constitution needs to be a simple framework of government operation and the balance of power between the branches of government, defining the rights of the people against their government and the power granted.

When election violence broke out late last year, I knew it would have a tremendous impact of Kenya's economy, and it has. People in the tourism industry are being laid off, and people are afraid to travel there even though the violence is largely Kikuyus vs. Luos and in areas not near National Parks and tourist stops. I have been relieved to hear that my friends are fine, whether in Nairobi or a National Park. They tell me that things are calming down, and I hope they are.

I recently read "Unbowed," the memoir of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the nobel prize. She founded a grassroots environmental tree-planting movement and mushroomed into being an advocate for democracy. Educated in Kenya and the U.S., and later, Europe, she is a Professor and a well-educated woman. While there are those who have issues with her, I thought the book offered interesting insights into Kenya's recent political past. Luos and Kikuyus have been pitted against one another before in other political conflicts.

If I had a trip to Kenya planned, based on what I know from people on the ground, I wouldn't cancel it. I hope that things calm enough for mass tourism to remain, as it is so vital to so many people there. Kenya was such a hopeful, progressive country it's sad to see this setback...yet it's understandable. If an election is rigged, people have to fight back. Kenyans have fought hard for the freedoms they have and they do not want to backslide or have more corruption. Many, many want change and found that hope landing in Odinga's camp.

I have great hope for Kenya, and a great love for the struggling nation as well. Things will calm down, and hopefully before it is too late.

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