When my brother was four years old, he was convinced that North America was on the moon. Wearing yellow gumboots and a secondhand shirt, stretched thin from many hand washings, he would look up at the African night sky and say, “Mom, look! There’s the U.S.A.”
It made perfect sense to him. Even though my family was American, my brother and I were raised in Kenya. Our parents were teachers and moved there when I was just a baby, and we had never known anything other than Africa.
Whenever our family went back to North America, we would board a plane that looked like a rocket ship, jet off into the night, and arrive in a land that was very different from Kenya.
My brother and I were always shocked. We had forgotten that roads in America didn’t have potholes, that the stores sold endless amounts of plastic goods and the mud did not stain your clothes red.
Looking back, its weird how culture shock hit us each time. You would think, year after year, we’d get used to it. You would think that we would remember that it was different in North America. But – in defiance of desensitization – we were genuinely startled each time we stepped off the plane.
My brother first announced his stunning geography breakthrough during a family trip to the Kenyan coast. It was a hot, soggy day, and I was more interested in playing in the ocean than my brother’s scientific conclusions. Little did I know that my Mom and Dad had an alternative reason for going to the coast that Christmas.
It was 1992, the first year of multi-party elections in Kenya, and my parents wanted to make sure we were out of Nairobi for the event.
The country was bubbling with anticipation and fear. President and dictator Daniel arap Moi had ruled the country with an iron fist for almost 14 years. People across Kenya were praying for change, and many were prepared to fight for it. In the months leading up to the election ethnic clashes had taken place in different pockets of the country. And things were predicted to get much worse.
These ethnic clashes were not random.
Behind the pre-election violence was a small circle of dishonest politicians all vying for the presidential title. At the forefront was Moi, who openly encouraged people to vote along ethnic lines. Under the radar, other bigwig politicians also instigated the “ethicizing” – including a man named Odinga from the Luo tribe and a man named Kibaki from the Kikuyu tribe.
Luckily the election violence never got too out of hand. While Moi was again announced the ruler in a blatantly crooked election, life across Kenya continued normally.
But politics in Kenya have always stunk of corruption, and this was not the last time ethnic tensions would threaten the peace. The 1997 elections saw larger riots and clashes. And behind the scenes, Moi, Odinga, and Kibaki still had their greedy fingers in the cookie jar.
One month ago, the national election spawned more violence, throwing Kenya into the media spotlight.
As newspapers around the world blasted the headline “Kenya is the next Rwanda”, those old familiar faces – Kibaki and Odinga – could still be found grinning at the crime scene. Once again, those sleazy politicians used ethnic differences for their own political agendas. Once again, they targeted the poorest, most desperate people to help boost themselves into the presidential seat. And, once again, Kenya is left riddled with tension and riots.
This time though, the bomb is really ticking. More than half the population in Kenya is under the age of 20, with lots of young, unemployed men frustrated by a political system that has always let them down. The violence during last month’s clashes was worse than in past elections. The threats were louder. And the country is bubbling ferociously.
It is amazing how we can still be shocked by something that we’ve seen coming down the road for a long time. I was too young during the 1992 and 1997 elections to know anything was out of the ordinary. My parents avoided the violence, and I never really saw the ethnic clashes. But now, from my home in Whistler, I have been feverishly checking the news and reading with horror about the recent outbreak of bloodshed.
After the bloody dawn of 2008 in Kenya, things seemed to subside. The daily violence was temporarily over. Schools opened again, businesses were back in operation, and life had returned to downtown Nairobi. Although the nation is bubbling, I can hope it won’t erupt.
Yet, as I write this, more violent melees have spurted up across Kenya, bringing the death toll to more than 800 and the number of people displaced to 300,000. That innocent day in 1992 when my brother announced North America was on the moon seems so long ago now.