Happy Birthday, Kenya!
On 12 December 2013 you turned 50!
But how much is there to celebrate?
After those full 50 years of independence, are you really happy, content, at peace with yourself? Are your children well fed and educated? Are your women safe and protected? Are your men walking proud and tall, in control of their lives?
At independence, they say, you used to be richer than Korea, and there was real hope that you will flourish after getting rid of that brutal British colonial regime.
You were never called a ‘rainbow nation’, but you really were, consisting of many different tribes, races, cultures and religions. You were truly ‘multicultural’, long before this expression became iconic and constantly used and abused abused in the West.
At one point you seemed to be poised to become one of true leaders of ‘developing world’ (another cliché term, of course, but you know well what I mean).
Where did all this hope go; how did it disappear?
Why do you radiate so much sadness now, so much desperation and fear?
Why are your men and women, in the countryside as well as in those big cities like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, telling me that there is almost nothing to celebrate, anymore?
Why are your slums housing despairing millions of have not’s, why are your camps for internally displaced people still holding tens of thousands of those who lost everything in the outbursts of horrendous tribal violence?
Why are your villages so untidy, your cities so dangerous, and your public services so inadequate. And at the same time, why are your ‘elites’ so unbearably arrogant and selfish, and your politicians are getting paid more than in great majority of much richer nations?
As you are celebrating your 50th birthday, Kenya, your army has been occupying a big chunk of even more desperate country – Somalia, your neighbor. It is said that you are expected to carve-off that oil-rich area called Jubaland, and try to make it ‘independent’, so the Western companies and governments could begin to plunder yet another defenseless part of the world.
Which makes me ask: how independent are you, Kenya? How independent are you, really? With all those intelligence agencies from the US, Europe and Israel, having their bases on your soil, could you say that you are in control of your own affairs?
I am not the only one in doubt about whether you have much to celebrate. Even your new President – Uhuru Kenyatta – shelved recently all lavish plans for your 50th birthday party, opting for a quiet, subdued and humble commemoration of the independence. He made it clear that there are other priorities than elaborate fireworks, parades and fanfares.
To him and to many others, right now, Kenya is at urgent need for a series of complex surgeries and emergency treatments. Bouquets of roses and serenades can wait.
As I was filming in December 2013 at Kibera slum (with between 300.000 and 1 million inhabitants the largest shantytown in Africa) I managed to capture long cargo train being pulled and pushed by two heavy diesel locomotives. It was an impressive sight, full of hope and optimism – some sort of African Socialist-realism. That’s what I thought.
Three days later, almost at the same spot, almost identical train got derailed, fell to its side and squashed numerous huts. Several people died, others were injured, and hundreds lost roofs over their heads.
Accidents like this one have been occurring with deadly regularity.
As I approached the disaster site one day later, there were hundreds of idle onlookers hanging around, and aggressive staff of Kenyan Red Cross doing absolutely nothing except talking on their mobile phones and arrogantly refusing to answer any questions. Police and army were holding to their guns, restless. Rescue workers were sitting next to each other, like sparrows, on top of those overturned carriages. An enormous crane was banding its massive arm, lazily – there was no one inside its control cabin.
“There are people under the carriage, inside this shack”, explained a woman from the neighborhood. “Rescue brigades are doing absolutely nothing to get them out.”
Were these people still alive, or death? I asked her, but she did not know.
Then I asked her whether she was angry.
“Angry? Why?” She could not comprehend my question.
Nobody expects anything in Kibera slums. Definitely nobody expects anything good.
I was trying to find out exact number of victims, but no one seemed to know, or to care.
I went to the central morgue, but there, authorities were ‘not authorized’ to speak.
I stumbled over a family parting with one of their members. A tall man was crying loudly, then howling: “Why have you ruined my life?” As he was addressing a dead body, his question was obviously a rhetoric one.
As I was exiting, one of the morgue attendants approached me, whispering: “We just dumped 700 bodies to a mass grave. Nobody came to claim them, so we had no choice.”
Does it happen often? I asked? “Regularly”, he replied.
50 years after the independence, a great majority of Kenyans live in total misery.
Although there are no reliable statistics, it is believed that between 70 and 80 percent of city dwellers are housed in what would be internationally defined as slums. And slums here often resemble war zones, with comparable vital statistics.
Anthony, a 32 years old gangster, explained to me right in the middle of Mathare slum: “Look, I am old… I am very old!”
“Old at 32?” I wondered. But he was actually making perfect sense:
“I used to have many friends”, he began explaining while poking with his deadly Somali knife bila, into various scares left from bullets, decorating his legs. “I used to have many friends but they are all dead… Killed… I am the only one left from my original gang… I think I lost some 30 of them, maybe more… Now I am very scared. I don’t want to die… But I feel so old!”
Countryside does not fare any better. Entire hamlets and villages, particularly around the city of Kisumu, are depopulated due to the AIDS epidemic and hunger.
Three years ago I made a documentary film in Nyanza Province, where there is one entire generation missing in some villages and towns: Grandmothers are forced to bring up young children and babies, as almost all adults of productive age had passed away.
Some stories in Nyanza are horrific, beyond belief. I was told about one old blind woman who was taking care of her two tiny granddaughters. One night local men broke into her hut and gang raped two children in her custody. Girls were screaming and crying but neighbors decided not to intervene. And the old woman was totally helpless.
Entire hamlets, even villages, now stand depopulated. It is chilly, surreal site. Traditional support system collapsed, replaced by savage and merciless capitalism.
Countless foreign NGO’s and ‘feel good’ organizations are running around the country, providing little help in order to justify their own existence and generous wages and allowances of their staff, while making sure that the system never changes.
Kenyan educated class is not producing almost anything, except some cut flowers for the export to EU. There are very few engineers and scientists. Many young men and women go to study, in Kenya and abroad, in order to join the ranks of ‘development workers’; employed by countless organizations that are claiming that they are providing help, but in fact are making sure that the country never leaves neo-colonial orbit.
Mr. Mwandawiro Mghanga, opposition leader and Chairperson of Social Democratic Party of Kenya (SDP) blames local elites and foreign NGO’s for many ills that Kenya is suffering from:
“You know that most of the intellectuals who used to be for real are now absorbed in non governmental organizations… even those who were revolutionaries or progressives have been absorbed in the NGOs that depend on funding from the Western countries… and they are now really tamed. In Kenya, there are hardly any political theatre activities taking place at the universities… There are no university public lectures… What survived is a culture of fear and silent. In fact, after 9/11, we are experiencing real culture of fear and silence among the intellectuals… it increased very many fold, and spilled to media: even to journalism – you can see what kind of journalism we have here… it is all fake… Media people don’t deal with the reality; they deal with the reality, as the donors see it, as the donors demand. It is not Kenyans who are governing this country, anymore!”
All this is hardly a cause for celebration. In many countries such dreadful situation would easily lead to a revolution, but not here. Propaganda and thousand times repeated lies succeeded in creating extremely violent, but shockingly submissive society.
For poor majority of Kenyans there is no relief, no help; and there is basically no hope. If Kenyan rulers are good at something, it is at dividing and keeping booty to themselves – as far as possible from destitute masses.
In all slums where I filmed, I asked whether people knew about great recent victories of socialist movements in Latin America. People looked at me in bewilderment: they knew absolutely nothing about what I was talking about.
But they all knew plenty about mass-produced pop rubbish coming from the United States and Europe. And of course they knew about football and about the suffering of the rich in lavish mansions, beamed to them from television screens, through soap operas.
Here, like in Indonesia and other extreme and collapsed feudal pre-capitalist societies worldwide, the concept of social services and social justice is almost unknown.
But in Kenya, where schools fail to educate, there are tens of thousands of churches, mainly protestant, ready to indoctrinate and maintain the status quo. There is immense and consistent religious brainwashing apparatus, financial extortion by preachers, as well as sexual violence against children and women.
Everything is confused and twisted here. If there are strikes, they are for higher wages, not for the rights and for the system change based on progressive ideology.
For decades, Kenya had been groomed by the West as some sort of shop window of capitalism in East Africa. It was supposed to be both local West Germany and South Korea, promoting Western interests and ‘values’ against ‘advances of socialism’ in neighboring Tanzania and at one point in the past in Ethiopia.
It failed to impress Africa and the world. It even failed to impress its own people. But the system made most of Kenyan citizens phlegmatic, passive, and unengaged.
As I was visiting an enormous public primary school in the middle of Kibera slum, vice-principle, Ms. Margaret Otieno, described herself as a hero in fight for education and life of her children.
I understood what she meant. As her students – East African champs in rope jumping – were training at vast open field belonging to the school, local delinquents were smoking drugs nearby, in full view, unworriedly.
“They broke huge hole in the wall”, explained Ms. Otieno. “There is nothing we can do about them. They use drugs; even leave bloody syringes all over the compound… If we call police or army, nobody will help. We tried everything. Kids cannot even go to toilet alone – we send them in groups.”
But she is still optimistic:
“We are trying to build, to change Kenya… This school is for children, but also for single mothers… We are also offering adult education here… and we are feeding children, even their families…”
Windows are broken. Gangs are all around. But at least this school tries to keep hope alive.
Then I am in another huge slum, this one at the outskirts of the city of Kisumu.
I am sitting inside small local eatery, with my friend Edris Omondi, Kenyan lawyer and an opposition figure.
Edris is cautiously optimistic:
“This new administration is good… much better than the previous ones. What you see around here is of course one horrible disgrace… No human being deserves to live in such conditions… But hopefully now Kenya will begin moving forward… This President (Uhuru Kenyatta) is different… I already see some serious changes: new constitution is being taken seriously, and legal system is being reformed. There seems to be justice for all possible again… increasingly it is possible…”
He mentions China, and its willingness to help to connect entire East and Central Africa by good rail and road network originating in Kenya and spreading to Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
“The West hates the fact that China is helping us, Africans, with infrastructure and social system… It is all being discredited in local press that is trained and financed from the West sources”, explains Edris.
“But changes are inevitable”, he concludes. “The West cannot rule over this part of the world, forever…”
Construction of giant railway system is just about to begin. But just two days after I speak to Edris, another corruption case in Kenya is unveiled, which will perhaps slow down construction of the entire pan-African transportation network.
To illustrate changes in justice system for my documentary movie, I film the gate of high-security prison in Industrial Estate area.
Lazily and arrogantly, an officer crawls out, approaches me and suddenly slaps my wrist: “Get the hell out of here”, he utters.
There is no nametag on his uniform. I demand to know his name.
He calls someone and soon I am arrested and dragged inside the prison, by several corpulent men.
An officer, whose name is Ngochi, is showing me some metal shackles and begins to threaten me:
“As far as we are concerned, you are a terrorist, al-Shabab member, and we will treat you and interrogate you as such”, he produces short, sadistic laughter.
I am laughing back to his face. “Who pays you, buddy? Who are your handlers?” Showing fear in Kenya would be deadly.
I am being thrown to the truck driven by wardens. It is all getting ugly. Wardens are big and they begin milling me between them. I keep my calm.
Eventually someone, somewhere Google’s me, finds out I have over ten books translated to 20 languages, as well as countless films under my belt, and I am released, quickly. If I would not been defined as a ‘big man’, I could have simply disappeared.
Prisoners in Kenya are tortured, raped, humiliated.
I recall words of Anthony, my gangster acquaintance from Mathare slum: “If you are a child and you commit some minor crime and they catch you, you go to prison… There, they rape you and make you serve as their ‘woman’. Wardens and guards beat you, they torture you… day and night. Just for enjoinment… And that is how you become hardened, learn your trade, become real criminal.”
“Happy Birthday, Kenya”, I am thinking.
Yes, eventually I am released, with great fanfares and apologies. The next day, a woman from Kibera slums tells me what it really amounts to, to be a woman in Kenya, especially a woman living in the slums.
And then we go to “Olympic Primary School” in Kibera, my friend Mwandawiro and I, and after I ask him all I though I had to ask him for my documentary film, he suddenly volunteers. He jumps in:
“There is something else.”
“What is it?” I wonder.
“Chavez”, he exclaims. “In this country, all changes will be cosmetic, until someone like Hugo Chavez arrives, and begins fighting for this nation and for the poor. We have no one like him here, now. But person like him would be the only one who could bring real change to Kenya. Until then, we have nothing to celebrate.”
I agreed with him. As we are leaving Kibera, I look around and realize that there are almost no numbers 50 anywhere around, and there are very few Kenyan flags. Nobody is dancing. Most of the people are looking down at their feet, with sad, almost resigned eyes.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His discussion with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism is now going to print. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. He has just completed the feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.