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GVO - A New Year and a New Kenya

By thaths in Technology
Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 12:29:44 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

After a two month hiatus the Geek Volunteer Overseas series returns with this fourth part. Since college closed for the Christmas holidays, my social life in Tala has improved with strengthened friendships with locals. The elections held in late December and the reverberations (still being felt as I write) left in its wake have made this a new Kenya - one that is different from the one I landed in four months ago.

The Short Rains
After college ended in early November and the students had left for their homes life in the compound of Holy Rosary College became quieter. I continued my lectures on using and administering Linux machines to my colleagues for a couple of weeks. After these sessions ended, my colleagues started drifting away to spend the holidays with their families back home. I settled into a routine of not waking up to a screeching alarm clock at 6:00 a.m. and listening to "world news every hour on the hour" on the BBC World Service.

The short rains that began in early November transformed the scenery. The dusty brown patches of bush changed into a verdant green. The grains of maize and beans planted a few weeks earlier germinated and shot up into healthy stalks. The unpaved road from my college to the main road turned to slushy quagmire. The open pit granite quarries were inundated into becoming ponds.

The yard surrounding my house became a jungle of waist high grass. I started wearing shoes before venturing into the yard to hang my clothes out to dry after I found a black foot-long snake crushed (and thankfully, quite positively dead) in the cranny of my front door. A rat started rummaging through my bathroom at night and taste testing my bar of soap (leaving teeth and scratch marks on it) to add to the excitement. One night I came face to face with him when I groggily opened the bathroom door and switched on the light. There in the corner staring at me was this furry rodent transfixed by the light. I can't say who was more scared.

When I want to use the facilities these days I walk noisily upto to the bathroom and bang on the door a couple of times giving my visitor ample time to finish his business and leave. I then open the door just a crack and peek to make sure there are no startled eyes staring back at me. I finish my business with a wary eye on the drain through which my visitor seemed to make his entrance. I wonder if the rat has a similar routine before entering the bathroom.

Off the Beaten Track
I ventured off the paved roads with Cyrus - a local Akamba friend. Cyrus, a colleague of the other VSO volunteer in Tala, grew up in the hills surrounding Tala. He is a teacher in a small children's center in the next town. Having worked with VSOs for the past four years, he likes volunteers. Cyrus and I have gotten into the habit of bicycling through the bush on holidays.

Once Cyrus took me through fields of maize and small coffee plantations to visit his mothers "shamba" (small agricultural field) where he grew up. Sitting on an improvised wooden bench underneath a mango tree watching the small rivulet flowing in the valley below I felt at peace. I realized that there were people in the developed world who would dearly love to live such a simple life. No mortgages, car payments and NASDAQ to worry about. I asked Cyrus why he left such a serene home to go live and work in a town. He said that if he stayed at home his opportunities were limited. He wanted to live a fuller life. He wanted to learn about life outside the shamba. I realized how universal the habit of envying the grass on the other side really was.

Richard and Rashomon
I met Richard one day walking back from the market. He was a young man of about 20 talking to one of our students. We greeted and Richard seemed to be fascinated by a foreigner living and working in Kenya. I grew a bit wary when our conversation turned to religion. "Where do you pray?," Richard asked. Not wanting to offend someone I just met with my atheism, I said I prayed at home. Richard seemed unconvinced and dubious.

I met Richard again one Sunday evening. After exchanging pleasantries the small talk meandered to the topic of religion again. Still not wanting to offend him I said I was a Hindu. "Do Hindus go to church?," he asked. I patiently answered with generalities. "Do you worship the same god as us?," came the question. I waffled with how there are many paths that lead to the same lake. Richard wanted to know if Hindus had a bible. I said that the Hindus had many holy books. "Is it the same as our bible?". This question proved to be the last straw. I lost my patience. I seethed with rage temporarily forgetting that he did not belong to a proselytizing Middle American denomination. "Why do you assume yours is the The Only God? Why do you believe it is only your Book that has the truth?," I snapped. Richard was visibly shaken by my outburst.

Only as I got to know Richard better did I understand that his questions were asked out of a genuine urge to learn and understand. The more I spoke to him, the more I understood his fascination with religion. I learnt that Richard was born before his mother was married. His stepfather disliked the fact that Richard, unlike his siblings, was not of his own flesh and blood. He mistreated him and refused to send him to college. Unable to put up with the shabby treatment Richard left home and now ekes out a living in Tala. He survives by doing odd jobs. Religion - especially the Catholic Church - has been his refuge during his trials. He confessed he was trying to become a catholic missionary priest. I felt sorry to his story and my earlier outburst. I tried to boost his morale with words of comfort and support.

Through a strange twist of fate I found out that Cyrus and Richard had gone to the same school. Wanting to research Richard's background some more I asked Cyrus to tell me more about what he knew. What emerged was a re-run of Rashomon. Cyrus' story of Richard differed from Richard's own version in minor and some major details. As far as Cyrus knew, Richard has just one sibling (Richard told me he had four). It was Cyrus' opinion that Richard could make a living through farming and menial work if Richard wanted to. But it was Richard's dislike of soiling his hands that was the source of Richard's problems and unrealistic goals of wanting to have the ultimate desk job there was - becoming a priest.

The saga of Richard, like the Kurosawa classic Rashomon, is complicated. I have decided not to come to a conclusion about Richard. Truth, after all, is not black or white but a shade of gray.

The Elections
The biggest piece of news over the last couple of months in Kenya was the elections held on the 27th of December. A few days before the elections the VSO Kenya office was constantly on the phone to me reminding me not to be in urban areas. The violence that accompanied the elections in '92 and '97 was their reason for concern. I spent Christmas and Election Day in a remote farmhouse in the middle of a tea estate. The estate belonged to a rich Kenyan friend of an ex-VSO volunteer. We watched elections with trepidation on the telly. The 27th came and passed without major incidents. The Kenyans I spoke to were surprised by how peaceful the election this time around was. The opinion polls predicted the opposition's Mwai Kibaki winning the presidential race and a parliament hung between the ruling KANU and opposition NARC.

The Aftermath
The results started flowing in on the night of Dec 28. My friends and I were glued to the TV watching the unfolding story. My friends back in Tala - NARC supporters all of them - started sending me sms messages of joy. Kibaki lead the presidential elections by over a million votes. His NARC party was also wining a sizeable simple majority in the parliament. Even the poll observers led by Kennenth Kaunda in a Carter Center t-shirt agreed that the polls were free and fair.

Kibaki was sworn in hastily on Dec 30. The crowd that turned up to watch and cheer the change of power at Nairobi's Uhuru Park was estimated at half a million - a significant portion of Kenya's 10 million electorate. The ceremonies were supposed to start at 8:30 a.m. All the three TV channels were confused about what exactly was supposed to happen and when. The hand over of the reins - for the first time in Kenya's history - happened at 1:30 p.m.

Every Kenyan I met was visibly happy that elections had been peaceful and the transition went smoothly. Strangers I met in bars have bought me drinks when I told them I was excited about the changes happening in Kenya. The Kenyan shilling appreciated by three shilling to the dollar the day Kibaki was sworn in. After quickly announcing a relatively lean cabinet the NARC government seems to be getting down to business. Ahead of them is the grueling job of delivering on their campaign promises of free primary education, affordable health care, better roads, better economy, more jobs and a crackdown on corruption. Much to my surprise positive steps are being taken to achieve these goals. When schools opened on Jan 6th primary education in government schools were free. The Health Minister has ordered those who owe money to hospitals to leave without payment.

The End of Kitu Kidogo?
Let me end with a small, yet significant, illustration of the changes that have taken place here. Mid-way between Tala and Nairobi flows the Athi river. There used to be a police checkpoint on the bridge on the river. Buses, mataatus and other public transport vehicles were stopped at this checkpoint for "inspection". Fifty and hundred shilling notes would change hands snuggled between the pages of the driver's license. A day after Kibaki was sworn in, the police stopped flagging down vehicles. In a couple of days even the checkpoint disappeared.

A beautiful illustration of how Kenyans are realizing that they have the power to change things is an incident I read about in the papers. Irate passengers in a bus beat up a police officer that was demanding a bribe. They confiscated the crumpled 50 and 100 shilling notes that they found on his person and donated it to the local children's center.

Kitu Kidogo ("something small") has been a bane of not just Kenya. Corruption has been crippling the economies of developing countries around the world. I am not nave to think that corruption does not exist in developed countries. The corrupt in developed seem to take the cream leaving the milk behind to generate more cream. The problem in the developing world is that the corrupt take the cream, the milk and the bottle. It is not that countries like Kenya don't have the natural and human resources to become a developed country. The avarice of the corrupt has funneled billions of dollars out of the country. If the infamous, ugly and complex Goldenberg International scandal (estimated at 65 billion Kenyan Shillings) is any measure, Kenya can do much more for itself by fighting corruption. Hopefully the corrupt will realize that it is better to have sustainable corruption than to take it all.

I wonder if the police check points will come back. And when....


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The grass is greener...
o On this side 61%
o On the other side 38%

Votes: 52
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Geek Volunteer Overseas series
o Rashomon
o Also by thaths

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GVO - A New Year and a New Kenya | 39 comments (31 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
The biggest piece of news (3.00 / 2) (#7)
by wiredog on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 08:54:40 AM EST

Wasn't there some sort of terrorist attack there? I seem to recall hearing about it.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

To whom? (5.00 / 1) (#10)
by rustball on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 10:58:54 AM EST

Biggest piece of news to whom? For the people living in Kenya, the peaceful and democratic change of power, and all the hope that it brings, is far more significant than a terrorist attack.

Yes, lives were lost in the attack. I don't mean to downplay the significance of the attrocity. However, how many lives will be saved and improved due to health care, education, and an end to corruption? These are noble goals and I doubt they will be perfectly implemented right away, but in time this will have a positive effect on millions of Kenyans.

[ Parent ]

True (none / 0) (#11)
by wiredog on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 11:09:17 AM EST

But from reading the article I got the impression that the election was the only news.

Maybe I need more coffee.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]

Attacks as news... (none / 0) (#19)
by mikey g on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 08:31:52 PM EST

When there is a terrorist attack in, say, Israel, it is news.  Kenya isn't as wracked by terror (and terroristic responses), but I can understand not mentioning it.  When I lived in Jerusalem, an attack in Tel Aviv or in the (IMHO unlawfully) settled area, it was worlds away.

I think he was right to not mention it; his article isn't about what's going in Kenya as much as his life and experience there.  More cultural analysis, less breaking news.

[ Parent ]

Kenya isn't as wracked by terror (none / 0) (#26)
by wiredog on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 07:38:58 AM EST

Which would seem to make it more important to the Kenyans. Look at the effect 9/11 had on the US.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
9/11 (none / 0) (#27)
by Wah on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 10:13:12 AM EST

Look at the effect 9/11 had on the US.

9/11 was us getting our cherry popped by rape.

Most of the rest of the world has been getting fucked for generations.

Pardon the strong language, but really...
Fail to Obey?
[ Parent ]

hmm these people sound very dangerous (4.00 / 4) (#14)
by turmeric on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 02:59:31 PM EST

as we in the US know, the only appropriate response to terrorism is a global worldwide network of computer spying operations, trillion dollar space missile laser systems, suspension of civil and human rights, and elimination of abortion.

i dont know what is wrong with these kenyan people, it is like they are sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring the problem.

[ Parent ]

Congratulations... (none / 0) (#29)
by vyruss on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 10:08:37 PM EST

...you truly comprehend the value of a good troll comment ;)

Keep up the good work!

  • PRINT CHR$(147)

[ Parent ]
or maybe they are conspiring! (2.33 / 3) (#15)
by turmeric on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 03:06:15 PM EST

as we all know, kenya was rocked by the barbarian communist influenced 'freedom fighters' in the 1950s. upright trustworthy british gentleman and ladies were turned topsy turvy by all sorts of ruffians and louts. especially bad were the kikuyu tribe's mao mao underground terrorist network. unfortunately the british, and western civilization, were defeated and thrown out of their rightful homeland: kenya. but the west is on the rise again, we have many new weapons that will help us take back kenya from the communists/terrorists! obviously since these people do not want to have terrorism on the front pages of their papers every day they must by sympathizers.... and should be classed as the 'axis of evil' or at least 'friends of the axis of evil'.

[ Parent ]
Heh heh heh (none / 0) (#38)
by thaths on Fri Jan 31, 2003 at 02:44:30 AM EST

Thanks for the hilarious post.  

The only problem with your thesis is the fact that independant Kenya was specifically used by the US as deterrent to the spead of the godless comunism that was all the craze in neighbouring Tanzania (and Ethiopia later).  The US and UK did not raise an eyebrow about a de jure one party country till the USSR disintegrated in the late 80's.  The West commented on the need for multi-party elections in Kenya in 1990-91.  The US and UK still have significant military bases near Mombasa.


[ Parent ]

The Mombasa Attack (none / 0) (#39)
by thaths on Fri Jan 31, 2003 at 02:50:16 AM EST

I did not write about the atack because:

1. It did not really change Kenyan peoples lives that much.

2. It was not carried out by Kenyans.  It was not targtted at Kenyans.

3. There were a lot of other things to talk about in my article.

4. Just before I posted the article I had read a small piece written by a fellow VSO volunteer who was actually very close to the events.  I felt my writing about the events would be a banal third hand account.


[ Parent ]

Suggestions for future poll question: (2.66 / 3) (#12)
by Rogerborg on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 12:29:06 PM EST

Of those who voted this +1, how many actually read it all the way through rather than because empowering Kenyan residents seems like a worthy thing to do.

"Exterminate all rational thought." - W.S. Burroughs

I gave your comment a two because I read it all (none / 0) (#22)
by Big Sexxy Joe on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 12:55:01 AM EST

the way through and found it unworthy and annoying.

I'm like Jesus, only better.
Democracy Now! - your daily, uncensored, corporate-free grassroots news hour
[ Parent ]
I respect your rating (none / 0) (#25)
by Rogerborg on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 06:20:24 AM EST

And it was a petty comment.  But I still have to wonder.

"Exterminate all rational thought." - W.S. Burroughs
[ Parent ]

I gave your comment a two because I read it all (none / 0) (#28)
by Anonymous 7324 on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 02:00:24 PM EST

and found it interesting, informative, and insightful (for a total of +3).

Thank you, that is all.

[ Parent ]

Would have +1ed it (4.00 / 1) (#30)
by Afty on Wed Jan 22, 2003 at 08:03:05 AM EST

It was already front page by the time I got to the site today, but had I had the chance, I would have awarded the story a +1 section at the very least.

It was well written, informative and a unique perspective on something that is very hard to hear about in the UK. We get told who won an election, but rarely are we allowed an insight into culture such as this.

And as one poster has already pointed out, it is nice to read for once about hope in a developing nation. Africa needs a few shining beacons, and hopefully under strong political leadership, Kenya can become one.

[ Parent ]

Please explain (none / 0) (#37)
by thaths on Fri Jan 31, 2003 at 02:37:10 AM EST

I don't get what your point is.  Could you please explain your reservations with this piece / series.


[ Parent ]

Thanks for a bit of hope. (5.00 / 3) (#13)
by jmzero on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 01:02:35 PM EST

Sometimes it's tempting to think of the developing world as a place of perpetual doom.  Thanks for a more positive and very real glance on the way things are.
"Let's not stir that bag of worms." - my lovely wife
Absolutely (Not) (4.33 / 3) (#16)
by shaper on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 04:00:10 PM EST

The saga of Richard, like the Kurosawa classic Rashomon, is complicated. I have decided not to come to a conclusion about Richard. Truth, after all, is not black or white but a shade of gray.

Very interesting series, I've enjoyed reading the articles immensely. But the final statement on Richard leaped out at me. It seems rather absolute to insist that there are no absolutes. In specific cases like Richard, yes, the core issues can often be contradictory and inconclusive, but to assert the same as a general assumption in all matters seems to me to be a bit of an over-statement.

It would be interesting in a future article to expand on Richard's actions and attitudes as either characteristic or atypical of Kenyan attitudes that you have observed. I am interested because I have encountered in others from different cultural backgrounds from mine a completely different concept of Truth, both in speech and action. I mean, I have met people for whom there is no real concept of a "lie", only a current interpretation of the truth, an interpretation which changes with time, audience and situation.

Would Richard have been puzzled by your statement about Truth, maybe because in his world view the concept of Truth in its absolute sense did not even exist? Your reaction to his actions just struck me as interesting for some reason.

Yea, I caught that one too (5.00 / 1) (#18)
by Wah on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 07:12:13 PM EST

When I read.

Truth, after all, is not black or white but a shade of gray.

I thought, "spoken like a true atheist".  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Hey, the story needs more comments....

Great story, BTW.  It's good to see progress for democracy.  Both China and Kenya have been able to changes regimes peacefully for the first time in the last year.  Iraq would be a wonderful trifecta (and probably pay about 1,000,000 to 1)
Fail to Obey?
[ Parent ]

China and Kenya (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by BlackFireBullet on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 09:54:16 PM EST

Kenya's change in government(to my understanding) is a triumph for democracy, and for the empowerment of the masses.

China, however, did not change leaders via public consensus, it changed because of the will of the shadow figures in the party, and Jiang Zemin's will to join those in power behind the scene. Of course, Hu Jintao is a progressive leader, and I think he will do a good job leading the country forward, along its set path slow, democratic progress.

Despite the progressive nature of these two leaders, it would be incorrect to say that the appointment of Hu Jintao is a victory for the Chinese people, in the same way as the elections in Kenya were for the Kenyans.

[ Parent ]

Absolutes (none / 0) (#36)
by thaths on Fri Jan 31, 2003 at 02:32:15 AM EST

Thanks for your comments.  It made me pause and think.  When I wrote the piece I was not aware that I was making an absolute statement.

I definitely will write more about Richard in future articles.  Muddying up the waters further is the fact that I am not really a westerner myself.  I am an Indian computer geek who has lived and worked in the US for about a decade.


[ Parent ]

Good work (5.00 / 2) (#17)
by LeftOfCentre on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 04:26:12 PM EST

Very well-written, as usual. I enjoy this series, one of the very best on K5. I can't think of any questions or comments at this time but please continue writing these articles.

Good Work (3.66 / 3) (#21)
by Big Sexxy Joe on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 12:49:35 AM EST

Very well-written, as usual. I enjoy your comments, some of the very best on K5. I can't think of any questions or comments at this time but please continue writing these comments.

I'm like Jesus, only better.
Democracy Now! - your daily, uncensored, corporate-free grassroots news hour
[ Parent ]
AS the rest of everyone who commented before me. (none / 0) (#23)
by ultimai on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 02:17:44 AM EST

Good work. Well writen. And it's good to see some hope in the world. I do like these article that you write.

A new year and a new Kenya (5.00 / 5) (#24)
by muchemi on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 03:28:28 AM EST

Hi, It is exciting to be a Kenyan after past the general elections. I am very happy to learn of a person leaving the creature conforts of Silicon Valley to come and offer free services to needy kenyans. You make me feel proud to be a Linux enthusiast. I would like to visit you (possibly during a weekend) for a chat. I work for an IT consulting firm (www.dcdmkenya.com) in Nairobi. You can reach me at peter@muchemi.co.ke .Muchemi.

Superb (none / 0) (#31)
by Weeks on Sun Jan 26, 2003 at 04:34:07 AM EST

Thankyou for this wonderful artical. Please continue writing them =)

Informative series (none / 0) (#32)
by bane on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 08:10:56 PM EST

Im originally from western Kenya [now living in Canada] and i have to say that yours is the first piece of reading that has made me miss living back home. Who knows if i find my life boring over here i just might pick up and move back. thnx [p.s. - first person that has made me want to sign up for k5 for over a year of anon reading]

Karibu (none / 0) (#35)
by thaths on Fri Jan 31, 2003 at 02:05:51 AM EST

Thanks for your positive feedback.  It means quite a bit.  Especially coming from a Kenyan.  There is definitely a magic in the air at the moment with great hope.  I will be eagerly watching how thew new govt. manages the job of walking the tight rope and hoping that it does not end up walking the plank.


[ Parent ]

Excellent (none / 0) (#33)
by salmoni on Wed Jan 29, 2003 at 07:46:11 AM EST

Thaths, I was lucky enough to have encountered your articles from the start, and have thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. I have no questions sadly, but I do hope you will continue to write. Thanks! Alan.

Thanks (none / 0) (#34)
by thaths on Fri Jan 31, 2003 at 02:01:33 AM EST

I am enjoying writing this series very much.  Every 30-45 days it gives me an oppurtunity to sit down and think about what has exactly happened to me and whether I have made any progress.


[ Parent ]

GVO - A New Year and a New Kenya | 39 comments (31 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
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