Tuesday, March 18, 2008

8 Months and then some

The mosquitoes woke me up at two and five this morning. Our hot water heater exploded a couple of days ago; I haven't washed my hair since Monday. The frozen shrimp I bought for dinner last night were slightly off. My dinner guests and I are on the watch for food poisoning.

My ever-overloaded backpack just exploded all over Yaya Center. The bottle of sunscreen I was carrying popped out and wheeled through the air, leaving sticky white goo all over me and the counter of the coffee shop where I'm sitting. The French ex-pat down the counter from me is drinking his first Tusker of the morning and looking at me like I couldn't be more crass. 

It's one of those days. You know, the days when Murphy's long arm is meddling in all your business.

And still, somehow, I am laughing. This is what Kenya has done to me. I am just happy here.

Despite political turmoil. Despite not being able to walk safely on the roads at night. Despite being constantly overcharged for fruit and taxi rides. Despite no access to fresh seafood. Despite an ever-expanding network of fine lines, a product of fair skin and the equatorial sun. Despite horrific traffic on bad roads. Despite a steadily shrinking bank balance and no steady income.

I am just happy here.

I came to Kenya seven months ago. Journalists for Human Rights sent me here to "build the capacity" of Kenyan journalists to report on human rights abuses. I had never been to Africa before. I took a leave of absence from a fun job as a news producer and fill-in host for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

I expected culture shock. I expected professional frustration. I expected sunburns and a lingering sense of groundlessness.

But this happiness, I didn't expect it.

This blog is called 8 Months, but I've decided to extend my time here indefinitely. My work for Journalists for Human Rights and the African Woman and Child Feature Service is over. I have no guaranteed income. I am staying anyhow, and not just for the inexplicable happiness.

I am staying for the myriad professional and personal challenges I face here every day.

It's not only bad shellfish. Every day I find out how little I know: about this country, about reporting, about myself. Every day I have to negotiate unexpected circumstances: attempting to file audio clips when all the Internet connections in Nairobi are slowed to a snail's pace, trying to find an electrician to fix the blown hot water tank, sweet talking security guards who want to confiscate my equipment before a big interview.

I am never bored in Kenya.

Every day there are more juicy stories on my want-to-cover list. Sometimes I wish for more hours in the day. Sometimes I wish I needed less sleep. I have never been so professionally stimulated.

I look at the list of want-to-cover stories taped to the wall above my little desk and my blood pressure spikes. It's not stress. It's excitement. There is so much work to do here. There are countless stories going untold.

As a freelancer, I am free to focus on the stories behind the stories. I am able to spend time on multiple, long interviews with one person who is not a news-maker. I can assign myself a story about local musicians, another about new agricultural technology and a third about international business. I can choose to ride my bicycle around the city for a day because, after seven months here, I know a great story will find me if only I keep my eyes and ears open.

That's why I'm staying in Kenya.

I have so much to learn. My Swahili is elementary. Kenyan political history is a tangled knot of tribe, party and corruption that I am only beginning to understand. But somehow, being an ignorant white woman works for me here. It gives me license to ask elementary questions, to play dumb, to be consciously oblivious.

And now that I am beginning to figure out how to be a reporter here - it requires a different skill set than North American reporting - I can ask those elementary questions of all sorts of people. I trust my intuition, and my naivete. I also trust my ability to bring notes back to my little desk, pump out a decent story and cross one more idea of my want-to-cover list.

As long as that list keeps growing, I will stay here. As long as I continue to be elated at new story ideas, I can't imagine why I would choose to be anywhere else.

Sometimes my joy here does leave me feeling guilty about not feeling guilty. Why should I be so happy in a country where many people are struggling on multiple fronts?

I soothe my conscience by reminding myself that Africa is still a 'dark continent' as far as much of the world is concerned; there are still people who think Africa is one country.

There are countless people in this country and this region whose stories are going untold. In some small way, I can help carry a few of those voices around the world. I can use my pen and microphone to help us understand one another a little better.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The art of coalition

We are learning all sorts of things about coalitions and democracy here in Kenya these days.

This weekend's East African had a great interview with the German ambassador to Kenya. Walter Lindner talked about the utility of so-called grand coalitions when major national changes are underway that require broad consensus.

He spoke of Germany's recent experiences with a grand coalition: the hiccups, the tentative cooperation, the pull of party versus broad reform.

One of my favorite quotes was a response to a question about who oversees government when there is no official opposition.

"I guess the press will have to play a crucial role in keeping the government in check. Secondly, public opinion will be very important and things must be done in a way that everybody knows what is going on. But most of all, Kenya needs internal checks and balances within the coalition. This could be done with proper balancing of ministerial posts..."

Friday, March 7, 2008

One young woman, changed

March 8 is International Women's Day.

In preparation, the reporters of the African Woman and Child Feature Service have been traveling around the country, gathering women's stories about the post-election violence.

I went to Eldoret, a community that was briefly in the international spotlight after dozens of people were killed in a church where they were taking shelter from post-election violence.

I talked with women who are living in camps for displaced people, Kalenjin women who are married to Kikuyu men, people who are left without jobs because their Kikuyu employers have fled.

All of the stories are moving. However, for those of us living here, none of them are particularly new.

The tale of Mercy Moses surprised me, though. She's a 21-year-old woman from a middle class Kalenjin family. Nothing particularly terrible has happened to her directly. Nonetheless, the way she thinks about her safety and her future has changed significantly...

Mercy_4_webMercy Moses is wandering the dusty roads of an estate on the edges of Eldoret. She's fashionably dressed in a skirt, blouse, and long white scarf. She greets friends in the road. Most are people who she's known for most of her 21 years.

As she walks through her neighborhood, she points out houses that were abandoned during the post-election violence. She gestures toward hills that are scorched black by the fires that razed Kikuyu shambas to the ground.

She says the chaos at home began on December 30.

"After the [election] results were announced, everything went haywire. I knew things were bad when I saw a group of youths - at least 800 - walking together. People had crude weapons: rungus, pangas. I saw police with guns and teargas canisters. I saw houses being burned."

Moses is Kalenjin. She says that at the end of that first day of violence in Eldoret, she called her friends one-by-one to see how they were. It was only then, scrolling through the list of names in her mobile phone, that she realized that her group of friends is a great mix of tribes.

"I never actually though about it," Moses says. "I am of the generation that was brought up to know that this is Mark, this is Nduati, this is Timothy, this is so and so. It never really hit me that, 'You're a Kikuyu, you're a Luo, you're a Kalenjin.' It's only until the chaos began that it hits you."

At least seven of her lifelong friends have fled Eldoret. Moses says she's sure that one family will not return. The others are trying to sell their property and build new homes elsewhere.

Still, Moses says, the recent conflict hasn't changed the way she feels about her friends.

"These are people I call my lifelong friends. As much as they are no longer in town, they are still my friends. If anything happens, it is them that I lean on."

Moses is dating a young Kikuyu man. She says their relationship is still strong, despite the recent bloody revival of long-standing Kikuyu-Kalenjin land clashes. They don't talk about politics together, but Moses says they do pray for peace in Kenya.

While her friendships have not changed, Moses says her sense of safety at home has.

In late January a close friend of hers was raped at knife point. Moses says her friend thought she was boarding a taxi but ended up in the hands of two unknown men. Since then, Moses says she is much more careful about when she travels, and with whom.

"I think I am getting paranoid but maybe it's for the better," she says. "I can't board a private car right now. If I have to travel somewhere, I'd rather use public means. I don't travel past six. I travel only during the day."

She and her friends used to meet in town every afternoon during the holidays, for ice cream and movies and shopping. They would return home by eight or nine at night. Now, she says, they meet mid-morning so that everyone is home long before dark.

Not far from her family's home, Moses rounds a corner to find four young men walking toward her. She looks up at them and edges to the other side of the street.

"Seeing a group of men freaks me out," she says. "I see a group of young people and I think they are up to no good."

Moses is studying business and economics at a school in Nyanza. Their Christmas vacation has been extended to April because of the violence. While at home, Moses has been running a small business of her own, making mandazis and fried groundnuts for her family's shop.

When she graduates, Moses says she would like to start a tourism business. There is not much tourism in Eldoret. Before the December election, Moses says she was willing to move out of her home area to a more tourism-rich area. The recent violence has made her question such a move.

"I think I'll really consider where I settle later on in life," she says. "I'll have to consider how safe it is and the political climate and all. I wouldn't have thought of that before."

She says she never imagined she would see so much violence in Eldoret, or in Kenya. Although she voted in December, she says she does not plan to vote in 2012. Moses believes in democracy but, right now, she's skeptical about the potential for a fair democratic process in Kenya.

She says Kenyans need to come clean about the violence that has wracked this country over the past ten weeks. People who have wronged one another need to sit together and explain their actions. Only then will people be able to move forward as one nation.

"I want to be in a land where people live where they want to live, without the insecurity of the five-year deal. Right now, people are thinking, things will cool and after five years [during the next elections] it will be the same story. I am hoping for a Kenya that will have peace. Not just peace for the moment, but Peace peace."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Power-sharing and quiet

I apologize for being so quiet in the midst of power-sharing deals, last minute emergency negotiators, regional conflict flare-ups and international acclaim.

Kenya's come a long way over the past week. After power-sharing negotiations broke down last week, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete came in to talk with the leaders. Kikwete is chair of the African Union. He is also reportedly close to the U.S. administration.

There is some speculation that he may have carried in a more stern warning from the United States, as government and opposition teams threatened to leave the talks. The two groups had agreed to the idea of a Prime Minister's post, to be held by Raila. They just couldn't decide what powers that post would have.

There are many details still to be ironed out but last Thursday, with Annan and Kikwete at their backs, the two leaders signed an agreement.

Then Annan, who reportedly said he felt like "a prisoner of peace", left Kenya after 41 days of holding the country together.

What does this deal mean on the ground in Kenya?

I notice that many people, when they talk about the deal, initially call it a "peace deal" and then correct themselves by calling it "power-sharing." People seem relieved that there is some kind of agreement. But they know an agreement is not a guarantee of peace in the long- or short-term.

There are differing opinions as to whether the deal will hold. There is a long history of broken promises in Kenya's political history, particularly between Kibaki and Raila. There is also concern that the 2012 elections will bring a new round of political violence.

Ask_camp_4_web When I was in Eldoret earlier this week, the mood was generally quiet. Food prices are still high. The hills around town are scorched from where small farms and estates were burned. There are still 15,000 Kikuyu and Kisii people camped at the Agricultural Society of Kenya's showground.

But for now, at least, tensions seem to have eased.

The great sign of an attempt to return to normalcy in Nairobi came, for me, on the cab ride back from the airport.

Navigating the endless traffic around downtown, my cab driver cut through Uhuru Park. For more than two months that symbol of independence was off-limits. As we cut past the podium and the couples sitting under shade trees, Lucas told me that the armed General Service Unit members were sent back to their barracks shortly after the deal was signed.

Tore_the_line There is still a lot to be done. The consitution needs reform. Parliament opens today to consider a couple of bills that would usher in the National Accord and Reconciliation Act. Despite unfortunate newspaper typos, the members of parliament say they will "tow the line" to help usher in a new era in Kenyan politics.

Going forward, 8 Months will continue to bring you analysis, updates, various points of view and the voices of people who have been (and continue to be) affected by the post-election violence.