by Eddie Ombagi
The 2007 ethnic political violence in Kenya shattered the nation’s image as an oasis of calm in a turbulent corner of Africa. More than 1,200 people were killed and up to 600,000 displaced. The violence assumed an unsettling ethnic character that saw neighbor turn against neighbor with machetes and other crude weapons. As militia mobilized on both sides, Kenyans began to self-segregate along ethnic lines. The economy was spinning in reverse. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Many had lost their homes and families, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class took a hit, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.
Yet the signs of the violence didn’t start overnight. Newspapers reported of violence in various parts of the country five months before the elections. Deaths had been reported by the security agencies well in advance. The Intelligence agency had warned of an imminent ethnic violence given the polarizing political climate but no one took heed. All through the political campaigns, we were treated reckless statements that fueled the violence that ensued. Our leaders kept quiet and we were worried. It was that there was a story the Kenyan people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but they didn’t tell it.
Now it is 2012 and the General Election is at hand just like 2007. The news filling our papers is very disturbing just like 2007. Violence is slowly but steadily creeping into our lives like they did in 2007. Neighbors are turning against one another and it is taking an unsettling ethnic angle just like in 2007. Politicians still continue to spew hatred at funerals and rallies everyday just like 2007. Ethnic realignments have all been formed just like in 2007. Fear is creeping in.
When peace was restored, after the Kofi Annan led mediation team, the country was re united again, albeit fluidly. Calm was restored, normalcy returned, hope was renewed. Kenyans needed their leaders to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that they understood what they were feeling, that they would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that they would restore order and safety. What we were waiting for never came. So we moved on, as we always do, banking on our resilience, that African aspect that made us survive worst tragedies before: slavery, colonialism and several wars in the continent.
The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”
Again, and not surprising, in 2012 our leaders have chosen not to tell us the one story we would like to hear: Why does it feel like I have lived this year before? Why do the campaign chants sound all too familiar? Why do I smell the same air of tension, fear and insecurity? Why does it feel like déjà vu?
But the most important story of all is to my fellow countrymen; Are we this daft?
Eddie Ombagi works for the World Youth Alliance Africa and writes in his own capacity. He also has his own blog http://www.eddieprince.blogspot.com/.