I came to Kenya thinking that talk of the recent post-election violence would be everywhere and I was right. However, what I have been surprised to discover is that ethnicity, key to the violence, has been a non-issue amongst the Kenyans I have met. I was quite confused about this until I met Alex (below, right) and James (below, left), two shopkeepers who make and sell handicrafts.
According to them, the violence that occurred was not a result of strong ethnic divides between ordinary Kenyans, but rather emanated from the tribalist ways of current leaders from the old generation. For instance, James told me that during the violence, politicians would bribe poor and desperate youth with beer and money to instigate violence. They would be hired to burn property and go after people and would do so due to their poverty, not necessarily their desire to go after their neighbors.
Talking to many Kenyans of the new generation has confirmed that ethnicity is essentially a non-issue. One night I was out to a restaurant/bar called Carnivore, which was having a Kikuyu night. (The Kikuyu are a large ethnic group in Kenya and were targeted during the violence). To be honest, I was shocked by the apparent insensitivity of such a theme in a post-conflict country such as Kenya. However, this was incorrect of me to think.
Everyone explained to me that such nights are not meant to elevate or promote any one ethnic group but rather learn more about different cultures. In fact, there are Luo (another large ethnic group) nights as well. Just like Alex and James said, the common Kenyan does not seem as ethnically focused as the news reports would have you think. They tell me that tribalism is dying out in the new generation of Kenyans due to mixing and intermarriage. It is rather the politicians of the old generation who think this way and who perpetuated the post election violence.
The result of the politician’s past call to violence was not only the death of at least 1,000 and displacement of over 300,000, but also the economic hardship faced by nearly everyone in the country.
For instance, when I met Alex and James, they told me how their business has slowed dramatically ever since the violence, an issue they say has been felt by all shopkeepers.
The hardship faced by these two men is illustrative of the larger economic slowdown in Kenya. Of course, it is too simplistic to blame all this suffering on the violence, however it does deserve to carry the majority of the blame.
For instance, the largest problem Alex and James noted was the fact that nearly all tourists have been scared away from visiting the country. When the tourists go, so does a lot of Alex and James’ business.
The post election violence not only removed income from the tourists, but also removed income from Kenyans. Farms were burned and farmers were evicted during the violence, which happened to coincide with a harvesting season. Obviously, this had an effect on food prices, resulting in less disposable income for ordinary Kenyans.
On top of all this is the worldwide food crisis and increasing oil prices. So it is no surprise that the Kenyan shopkeepers are hurting. What’s more is that they are not only shopkeepers, but Kenyans too. Their customers don’t want to spend money on “extras,” and neither do they.
You may be wondering how this all relates to USK and poor children and youth. First of all, due to the state of the economy, these children and youth are hurting just like everyone else is. Additionally, what I haven’t yet mentioned is that Alex and James teach children on the streets how to make wall hangings made of wax drawings. Many other shopkeepers that I met do the same. However, when the teacher hurts, so do the students. Therefore, the violence instigated by politicians has perpetuated poverty, serving as a roadblock for youth wanting to get off the streets and have a better future.
The good news is that the violence has ended and everyone seems hopeful. There are many organizations like USK working to empower children and youth of this new generation. The Kenyan economy also seems to be rebounding. For instance, while I was in the market interviewing Alex and James, about 10 to 15 Canadian tourists came in and gave the shopkeepers business. So perhaps in the future, the new generation will no longer have to be proxies for the old generation, but rather be able to resist in order to move Kenya beyond ethnic conflict and the hardship that results from it. There are reasons to be doubtful, however, I will follow the old adage “When in Rome do as the Romans do” and be optimistic like the Kenyans.
Posted By Kristina Rosinsky
Posted Jun 4th, 2008