Ugandan journalist and activist, Kalundi Serumaga, reflects on his time as a political refugee in Kenya during the 1970s and 80s, and says the violence that followed the 2007 elections had been long coming.
Poverty is the worst form of violence. A person raised in poverty often suffers a sense of shame and anger that they struggle to shake off. Years of “no” and “not enough” force them to ingest a bitter diet of silent rage, thwarted dreams, hurtful choices and humiliation as their parents age prematurely before their eyes and their siblings learn to mask all feelings of disappointment. It is violence at the deepest psychological, spiritual and emotional levels, long before it becomes physical.
If Kibera is indeed the world’s biggest slum (I don’t know who measures these things, or how), then it is currently also the biggest single act of violence against African people, carried out over the longest period of time.
The recent magic tricks at the Electoral Commission of Kenya (how to breed votes and then count them in the dark; how to speak out of both sides of your mouth, and other marvellous wonders) and the subsequent orgy of blood-letting gave rise to expressions of grief, shock and anger from the Kenyan intelligentsia, in a way that leaves me truly mystified. Have they not been paying attention? If money and land meant for the poor can be stolen from them, why not votes? If it became a four-decade normality for children to grow up sharing rotting oranges from garbage skips, why on earth should they not share more direct forms of violence with each other?
I spent some formative years living both near the top and the bottom of Kenyan society, not as Kenyan, but as a refugee from another atrocity called Uganda – part of a very politically engaged community that was fomenting armed rebellion back home. Since our flight was political, we came to Kenya with a heightened interest in politics and were fascinated by the way in which the Kenyatta and Moi regimes were achieving, through “sowing acres of cynicism” (to quote Okot p’Bitek, another Ugandan refugee), what Amin and Obote could only do through planting killing fields.
Honourable Mwai Kibaki was of particular interest to many of us. We wondered if he, a graduate of Makerere University in Kampala, participated in politics with Ugandan or with Kenyan sensibilities. He answered the question most eloquently when on tour of Kamiti Prison back in the 1970s, as a Seriously Big Government Man (SBGM). There had been media reports of horrific conditions in the prisons, and his visit was supposed to be a fact-finding tour. At one point, as SBGM and his entourage walked through the prison complex, a prisoner displayed incredible courage by stepping out in front of him, and tried to hand him a sealed envelope. The prison official next to Hon Kibaki intercepted the convict’s outstretched hand, took the envelope and pocketed it. According to the news report, Hon Kibaki paused, watched the entire incident, and then carried on with his “fact-finding”.
Forget about the botched attempts to write a new constitution, about the failure to follow up on the Pattni & Goldenberg song, about the indignity of swearing-in at twilight (Was that really a Bible he was holding up? It looked suspiciously like a desk diary to me). As kids watching their elders paying a much higher price to be in politics, we read the Kamiti Prison incident as a pathetic display of craven indifference. Looking back, it is at that moment that Hon Kibaki disqualified himself from being president of anything anywhere.
When I went to school in the Limuru area, a worker named Jeffrey, who had two thumbs on his left hand, would sometimes give me and my schoolmates a lift to our hillside campus after we had been running in the countryside. He drove a little pick-up truck for one of the large tea estates in the area, and lived in the plantation – but not in a house. His home was a large garage next door to a tractor, where he lived with his wife, kids and possibly his mother. During the day they would slide the huge door open and leave it like a large gaping wound. As we jogged past, we could see them all gathered inside, going about their domestic business as if on a cinema screen. Once, Jeffrey drove us higher up the hill, where one had a clear view of much of the valley, and gave me and my friend, Karim Walji, a lecture. Using trees, hillocks and dips in the valley as landmarks, the three-thumbed Kikuyu man living in a mzungu’s garage on his ancestors land listed for us which families and, from which clans, lived where before the endless carpet of green tea was violently laid down. “Where did the people all go?” Karim asked him. Jeffrey answered simply with a wan smile. As someone who had recently been smuggled across a border on the back of a pedal-bike to this new and more ‘stable’ country, I felt strangely disturbed. I understood that what-can-I-say smile, but I was scared at how normal the dispossession across Kenya had become. We were fighting those who had evicted us, not living in their garages.
When I moved to Nairobi, fellow Ugandan exiles would often tell me: “Don’t go to town today, they are rounding up Ugandans”. Kenyans would point us out to the police for arrest. A night or two cleaning police cells or a well-deployed bribe would usually keep one from joining a refugee camp, but I was mystified by the animosity of Kenyans towards us. On reflection, it made sense for people oppressed by their own police to point out other, better prey. Wakimbizi (refugees), as we were known, have no permanence, no power to come back later and retaliate. If you kill a cop, ten come back; if you kill the rich, your fellow poor are offered rewards for killing you; if you kill a fellow poor but “non-you”, a close-stranger, you have found the perfect victim.
Those who escaped poverty also took the internalised violence with them. Kenyans, who dominate managerial positions in media, financial services, NGO and hospitality sectors throughout the region, have acquired the reputations of being the most cut-throat, ruthless, backstabbing, neurotic and yet efficient of boardroom-wallahs.
With my two teenage brothers, I wandered the Nairobi streets amid the August 1982 mayhem, following the failed coup d’état, aimlessly walking from Eastleigh through Majengo then downtown, up to Hurlingham and back, as Kenya Airforce mutineers used their jeeps to wrench the metal grilles off shop fronts and shouted “chukuwa” to the waiting looters. Take! There was also a lot of shouting of “power”, but no answers about poverty, certainly not for the half-naked man lying in the street at their feet, his whole body ashen grey from the blood loss through the open wound on his head. He was nobody’s concern. He reminded me of another half-naked dying man I had seen years before as a child in Kampala. He had been attacked by a mob. Or shot. Nobody was telling, just walking past. He was also lying in the gutter, bleeding from the head, bareley twitching as he drew his very last breaths. Their ashen greys were a perfect match.
A couple of years later we saw the would-be Mwakenya rebels hitch their doomed wagons to the notoriously unreliable National Resistance Movement. Following coup leader Hezekiah Ochuka’s forced return from Nyerere’s Tanzania that ended in “the rough hand of the noose around his neck”, one would have expected the ‘revolutionaries’ to have learned a few lessons about African presidencies and their related allegiances. Instead, wishful thinking and infantile prescriptions prevailed; while prisoners wrote never-to-be-read letters and Kikuyus were hoodwinked by Emperor Kabalega’s self-aggrandising alleged son, Jomo Kenyatta, into being vulnerably half-gathered far away from the rivers of their ancestors, and grown men danced in the footsteps. This is where the recent deaths were foretold.
There is a lot more that needs to be heard about why the ‘revolutionary’ Yoweri Museveni chose to congratulate Hon Kibaki at the expense of the ‘socialist’ Raila Odinga, and why Hon Odinga seems completely unsurprised by this turn of events.
In those 1980s, a good friend of mine (Ugandan, resting anti-Obote guerrilla) found this whole tragedy perfectly summed up in advance, while on a necessary visit to a Nairobi public toilet. There was clearly no toilet paper, he narrated, so somebody before him had used their finger to clean their behind, and then wiped it on the toilet wall. On closer inspection (my friend is insatiably curious, no matter the circumstances), he realised that this person had used their shit to write something on the toilet wall.
The word written was “Uhuru”.