Last time there was a big election in November, I was reporting in Kogelo, Kenya, Obama’s father’s hometown, and wrote a gushing Facebook post about how much I missed America. It was goofy hanging out with Kenyans who loved Obama, and I wanted more than anything to be far from there, to be back in the US.
One thing that hung beneath all the exuberance was the real fear of Kenya’s own elections. As you may know, Kenya’s last election in 2007 was awful, over a thousand brutally killed, hundreds of thousands made homeless. So people are worried about a repeat of the violence tomorrow, when the election finally takes place.
It’s been sort of a weird journey for me getting here…I left South Dakota for Kenya with no real plan. I’m not entirely sure why I chose Nairobi. I’d visited and thought it was an amazing city. Like many Westerners, I was struck by its modernity and vitality despite its awful corrupt government. I have a few great friends here from college, and I’ve always had this sort of secondary interest in East Africa. So I decided why not try to make a big change and see where I take life for a year. Somewhere in the back of my mind I vaguely wanted to be here for the election–I thought it would matter. It does matter, it will matter.
For some reason, Kenya–rather than Ghana, Egypt, or South Africa–represented most to me the anti-colonial struggle. When I was here in 2011, I read both Jomo Kenyatta’s “Facing Mount Kenya” and Ngugi wa Thiong’o's “A Grain of Wheat,” two books that together show the potential and failures of Kenya’s liberation and nationalism. 2013 is the 50th anniversary of that liberation, but there is still too much work to be done here by Kenyans.
I think I came here in part to bear witness to that election and anniversary, to take stock of where things are and where they are going for Kenya, for East Africa, to see the chance for Kenyans, and my Kenyan friends who I really admire, to take a huge step forward. I couldn’t get a real job, but I’ve had halting success as a freelancer. I’ll be reporting for three different media tomorrow, and have been here long enough–almost 7 months–to be more than just some hack parachuting in. I’m a local hack, which is different.
Everyone wants to know about violence. Foreign journalists, including me, are already overusing old cliches about bloodletting and tribes. The leading candidate is wanted for committing crimes against humanity, for god’s sake. But in the past week, despite all the shit Kenya’s gone through in the last year, I am very hopeful that this will go peacefully. At one party’s last rally yesterday (the rally of the alleged war criminal, Uhuru Kenyatta), the only thing any person among the tens of thousands of cheering supporters wanted to tell me was that they were there for peace. Indeed, peace seems the only word I hear in Kenya from Kenyans.
When I took a bus home from the rally, the streets were empty. So much of Nairobi was at the same rally, or the other one on the other side of town. On the bus radio, which usually features blasting hiphop, a slow R&B groove played, with calm, quiet voices telling their stories from 2007. One female voice told of being raped. A male voice told of murdering someone, and not being able to live with himself. “How did I become a murderer?” he asked. “I gained nothing from it. We can never go back.” Then the chorus came in, crooning “amani, amani”…”peace, peace.”
As an American who takes peace at home for granted, I realize now that being peaceful takes real work. Hard, sustained work. It takes screaming it at huge rallies, and singing it on buses, and wearing it on shirts and tweeting it on twitter, and talking to and hugging enemies. Kenyans are working so hard for peace. I think there will be some small violence tomorrow or in the coming days or weeks. But pictures are now circulating on the web of supporters of the two rival parties, TNA and ODM, meeting in the streets, exchanging their red and orange shirts. Overall, Monday will be peaceful. Kenya will succeed.
As I look at my low bank account and pictures of beautiful South Dakota on the internet, I miss home. But tomorrow when Kenyans vote in Nairobi, there’s no place I’d rather be.