Saturday, August 28, 2010

Of Swedes and conservatives

You can tell that it's election season in Sweden by the presence of the little mock cottages that have been erected in public squares. Each party has their own house, with different coloured trim and their respective flower (the dandelion for the Greens, the cornflower for the People's Party, the rose for the Social Democrats, the clover for the Centre Party and so on). But on the quiet Kungalv riverside, the Sweet Williams of the Left Party dominated. If Kungalv's riverine pedestrians decided the election, it would undoubtedly be a runaway victory for the Left Party, which is predicted to garner around 5% of the vote on 19 September.

But if you were expecting radical sloganeering and far-fetched promises from Sweden's former communist party, you'd be badly disappointed. The local branch of the party that had put up the posters had its feet firmly on the ground and its imagination on a short leash. True, they were uncompromising on the need to preserve the integrity of the local riding school (bourgeois, no?). But otherwise, they were modest: there would be more summer jobs for young people, more bus routes, more bike lanes, etc. Their schools policy, a Swedish friend remarked, translating, was a particularly masterful exercise in restraint: they only promised to maintain standards, not to improve them ('If you can dream--and not make dreams your master')!

To an American audience, used to being promised, well, little short of the Promised Land itself, that wouldn't go down very well. But what the essentially uncontroversial demands (well, they were a bit too modest to be described as demands) of the Left Party made me think about was the degree to which defenders of the role of the state, of the community and of social democracy are the conservatives in political debates in the U.S. today.

Normally the title of 'radical' has been associated with the left--and indeed has often been embraced both by those on that side of the political spectrum who were promoting strikingly novel ideas meant to transform society, and by those who get an adrenaline rush from proclaiming their militant radicalism to all and sundry. But today it is the right, the growing fringe in the Republican Party that is increasingly calling the shots in Congress and in state legislatures around the country, which is radical, leaving us on the left to play the unfamiliar role of the conservatives. Conservatives in the sense that the left is defending what seemed a settled ideal of a society that was responsible for the well-being of all its members.

And the re-writing of the political script by a group of people who want to mutilate the Citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, who think that guaranteeing basic physical and social welfare to people (healthcare, free and equal education) poses a threat to our liberties, who are happy to send young men and women to kill and be killed in the mountain passes of Afghanistan in the name of collective security whilst denouncing the war that society has traditionally waged on poverty, ignorance, unemployment, hunger and is not, as they claim, about returning to a version of the recent past, but about a radical reshaping of our country.

Although never as universally accepted as in Europe, after the depression and war years, when state spending--whether battling crippling unemployment or fascism--brought the country up from its knees, there seemed to arise a political and moral consensus. It went something like this: in a democracy, in which the state is accountable, that state has an important role to play in guaranteeing the welfare of all its people; in maintaining some kind of basic living standard; in ensuring that its laws protected the civil rights of its citizens. And these things were comparatively uncontroversial, even to lifelong Republicans like my grandparents, because they'd seen, at home and across the water, what happened when a nation-state turned in upon itself and then exploded outwards in fury and violence. They'd seen the columns of the unemployed streaming westward across an arid heartland, reaping the consequences of unchecked individualism, rampant greed, and years of warfare followed by a thirst for retribution under the guise of a peace treaty signed at Versailles.

When my grandmother, born the year before the Great War ended, seemed to break a lifelong habit and voted for John Kerry in 2004 she was repudiating an administration that put a bloody and unnecessary war ahead of the needs of the people it was supposed to represent; and when she cast her ballot for Barack Obama in 2008 she was recognising, like so many others in the wake of the financial (and moral) crisis that gripped the country's attention in those heady days, that we needed to rediscover our belief in the collective good and in the need to look out for each other as a people and a nation. But in reality, though her views had shifted with time, it was the political kaleidoscope in which she lived that had been upended. She was, in a way, simply going back to the place, to the set of ideas, where she thought she'd always been.

Left-wing conservatism, of course, isn't anything new. G J DeGroot, an historian of the Great War, wrote, 'as for the workers, I have to thank Arthur Scargill [leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during its herculean struggles against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s] for teaching me a lesson in working class conservatism. During the 1984 miner's strike, he said the dispute was not about pay, but about the future of the industry--the chance for sons of miners to be miners'.*

This is a sentiment as jarring to the ears of many Americans, for whom the notion of constant upward social movement is so sacrosanct, as the Swedish Left Party's cautious education promises. But both represent the realisation that a social model, a set of values and ideas about collective responsibility and the good that accrues to the whole from the welfare of all individuals, is under attack. Of course, the attack on society, on community and on a common good was already well underway in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan masked his assault on labour, on a fair tax system, and on 'government' with sunny language. Today, whether it's Newt Gingrich equating Islam with Nazism, Sarah Palin ranting about a healthcare death tax, John McCain throwing the rights of migrants to the wolves, Meg Whitman promising to disinvest from public education, or Dianne Feinstein beating the war drums at the Capitol, we can see that the shining city on the hill is in a state of decay.

Conservatism struggles to imbue its proponents with the same fervour and urgency as radicalism, but all of those groups and individuals who were and have been party to the consensus about the common good of the union that emerged afresh in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s should rediscover a little bit of the inspiration that caused people to demand that the benefits that accrued from a collective national labour reach all members of society. We should recapture the terms of the debate, and inject some moral and intellectual vigour into the conversation about our future, reminding people that the things we're defending are not some radical departure from our way of life, but rather the fulfillment of long-term historical ambitions, and representative of what has long been a shared vision of our national community.

*G J DeGroot, Blighty: British society in the era of the Great War (New York: Longman, 1996): xii.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Farewell Kenya

It was strange to be sitting in the airport at Nairobi...leaving. The city is billed as the most dangerous in Africa, but I found it to contain the charms and necessitate the precautions associated with any large city. There are districts, of course, where extreme poverty leads to crime and violence, and the early sundown means that the streets become sparsely populated by 7.30, but by and large it feels like a very safe city. And, in spite of the crowds, the chaos of the streets and roundabouts--or maybe in part because of these things--Nairobi grew on me.

My last days I kept to my routine as much as possible. After a 6.45 breakfast at the YMCA, I walk into the city centre, grab a newspaper, and arrive at the National Archives shortly after eight. My last day left I had just one file left (albeit a thick one), and so was finished before noon. I bid a farewell to the archivist on duty, the indefatigable Philip Omondi Otieno, and to Mzee Richard Ambani, patron saint of researchers, long since formally retired, but still coming in every day to assist with document delivery. Ambani knows the files like the back of his hand. I'll ask after an obscure Machakos land file, DC/MKS/somethingorother, and he'll say, 'Yes, yes, I know just where that one is'. And then his eyes light up, and he'll continue, 'But if you want that, you might also want to see the one of the Chyulu Triangle and the Masai corner, LND/6.a something'. The archive's digitised catalogue has nothing on Ambani.

I leave the silence of the archives and am back on bustling Moi Avenue. I go down to the corner where the matatus congregate, and have lunch upstairs. A waitress comes by my table an doesn't even bother with a menu. 'Pilau?' Yes, but since it's my last day I splurge and have chai and andazi as well. I'm known here as the absurdly cheap mzungu (an oddity in itself) who orders the least expensive thing on the menu that counts as a proper meal, while the Kenyan clientele spend $3-4 on proper chicken and fish dishes. The staff's exasperation has given way to amusement over the weeks, although early on a waitress vetoed my request for sukuma wiki on the grounds that I had to eat more than that.

I knew, sitting in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, that when I arrived at Heathrow and went to the coach station I would miss the chaos, the shouting, the great press of people swarming around, and I would feel a bit unwanted absent the hordes of people trying to drag me off to their matatu, coach or taxi. And the buses in London and the East Bay weren't going to be the same without the colourful, personalised lettering. Although it's a bit unnerving when you're wandering around the maze that is Ubungo station in Dar es Salaam, and you ask for your coach, to be told that it's the one that says not 'Nairobi' across the top, but 'To God'. 'Gosh', I said to myself, 'I hope not'. But you never know the way people drive around here.

And I would miss the YMCA, where I've stayed whilst in Nairobi, with its limited supper variations on the timeless themes of chicken and beef, the incredibly friendly staff who feel a bit like an extended family now, the constant coming and going of weird foreigners (yes, I'm one too, but I realised the day before leaving that I hadn't spoken to another mzungu for a month and a half). I was awoken one morning by the growling of massive trucks and the sounds of Teutonic voices, and I wondered if the German army had arrived. It proved, on inspection, to be a massive horde of German scouts (perhaps they were going to Nyeri, where Boy Scout founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell is buried facing Mt Kenya).

I'd also miss overhearing--and occasionally taking part in--impassioned political conversations, the mark of a people who know just how much is at stake when they go to the polls, and who take nothing for granted. And the blend of formality and easy humour that characterises Kenyans. And the frankness. A ranger in the Aberdares commented that they didn't get many Americans trekking up there. I asked why he thought that was, and he thought for a moment before saying, 'Americans are very...sensitive'. 'And fat?' I prodded. 'Lazy?' 'Yes, yes', he agreed, before realising that he was addressing a specimen of said species.

But what I would miss the most, to be perfectly honest, was being told in Tanzania, probably a dozen times a day, that I looked like Obama (purely coincidental that they were usually trying to get me to part with some cash). I tried not to let it go to my head, but during my final days in Dar I caught Jeff referring to himself in the third person. Kenyans, oddly enough, don't seem to see the resemblance...clearly not as perceptive as their southern brethren. Either that or it will someday be discovered that Tanzanians are affected by chronic shortsightedness.

Kwa heri ya kuonana, Jamhuri ya Kenya!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Snippets from the archives

Gratuitous, I know, but I couldn't resist. One of the reasons why I love history is that you couldn't make this stuff up...

If you ever thought that Game and Vermin control was all chasing elephants and shoving poison down porcupine holes (assuming the subject's ever crossed your mind), you grossly misunderestimated the profession's ambitious scope. In 1938, with war on the horizon, Captain J T Oulton embarked on a one-man mission to foil Hitler's designs on East Africa, and so save the British Empire. In November of that year he showed up unexpectedly at the German-run Larry's Rest House at Marangu in northern Tanganyika. 'Gossip', he informed his superior, 'had credited Mrs Larry with a bitterly hostile attitude to all Britishers'. Oulton, however, found Mrs Larry to be an utterly charming woman, and he gobbled up, hook, line and sinker, her insinuations that "'KLOSS", the proprietor of the "Kibo Hotel" at Marangu' (which I can personally recommend as a charming, rambling establishment on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro--look out for the "Rip 'em 'Eaters t-shirt hanging on one wall), was engaging in nefarious activities. 'A German by the name of Dr JAKOBS' met a man called FRANT DOKTOR and 'his lady friend named Josephine SCHNEEBERG', and was seen scheming with the local Wachagga chief, 'PETRO'. Mrs Larry confided her suspicions that KLOSS was fortifying the Kibo Hotel as a German outpost. Oulton begged his superior to be allowed to take an expedition up Kilimanjaro to evaluate KLOSS' moves. He also did what any good spy would, and recruited the services of 'USENI, the Taveta witch doctor ... [who] will likely prove a useful medium for acquiring information'. Unfortunately, Oulton was deprived of the opportunity to engage in any heroics: his superior in Nairobi, the redoubtable Arthur Ritchie, poured water on the scheme, suggesting that Mrs Larry was motivated primarily by professional rivalry. Worse still, the witch doctor failed to materialise. Presumably, his powers advised him of the presence of a simpleminded paranoiac long before he arrived at Marangu (KW 15/7, 1936-1941).


In 1933 the British Board of Film Censors rejected 23 films for the following reasons:
-Offensive burlesque of the marriage service
-'First night' scenes
'Maternity houses and intimate details connected therewith
-Matrimonial complications coming within the prohibited degree
-Comic suicides
-Extreme vulgarity and suggestiveness
-Cruelty to animals etc
-Methods of crime capable of imitation
-Industrial unrest and violence
-Physiological arguments treated too frankly for public exhibition
-Intense brutality and sordidness, coupled with promiscuous immorality
-Inaccurate and objectionably misleading themes purporting to illustrate parts of the British Empire
-British officers in uniform shown in reprehensible situations
(KW 27/1, 1930-1935)


And what better way to round out that late-summer BBQ than by adding a touch of the exotic? Writing to a Mr Fawcus, who had complained about the numbers of Antbears on his property, Game Warden D H Clarke inquired, 'Have you ever tried them roasted with apple sauce and green peas?' (KW 27/2, 1935-1938). If ever stuck for a little something missing from that special meal, we're all indebted to Mr Clarke...

In Mau Mau country

Unable to find a warden on my third day in the Aberdares to continue the trek, my guide David and I went a ways across the Nyeri plains to the edges of Mt Kenya National Park. The elevation across the region is high (many of the towns rest at well over 6,000 feet), and amongst the cornfields and potato patches, stands of eucalyptus, cedar and pine trees grow in even lines. This is clearly farmers' territory, and though there are a few ranches, the countryside, whether on the open plain or the undulating hills, is dominated by small wooden homesteads, surrounded by neatly-furrowed shambas, with the occasional crumbling brick house visible through the vegetation. Families, couples, men and women walked along the road coming to or from church. A cart laden with vegetables and drawn by donkeys rattled by. A passing lorry threw up a vast cloud of dust, and a squeaky apparition emerged from it: a man in a suit and tie on a bicycle, weaving furiously to negotiate the deep ruts in the road, and pedalling madly to get somewhere.

The faces are farmers' faces too. The men leaning on fence posts, in tweed flat caps, coats and wellingtons, look as though they'd be at home in the Yorkshire Dales as their English counterparts would be in the Kenyan Highlands. And you suspect that they might have more to talk about than either would with a countryman from Nairobi or London.

Walking through the forest, we came on a deep cave which had been used by Mau Mau fighters during the ten-year Emergency. As many as 300 men and women would have sheltered here during the day, leaving at night to collect (sometimes forcibly) food from the villages or to raid Home Guard posts.

I paused on the hillside coming back up from the cave and looked across the dense, dry forest. It was still but for the hint of a breeze making its stately way through the tall, well-spaced pine trees on the hill. It was difficult to imagine the smoke and fire of war, the roar of aircraft, the swift descent of bombs in such a peaceful place. An old man in a greatcoat, leaning on a stick, moved slowly amongst the trees, eyes downcast. What did he know of this place and its history? What stories could he have told of this land that many fought on, over and for? But the stories that people could tell and the ones that they do are very different things. Mau Mau remains a touchy subject for a variety of reasons. David told me that his grandfather had fought in the war, and that when asked about his experiences he might say a few words, and then grow silent and even weep, the memories proving too painful, as well they might. The British invented an internment system known as the 'Pipeline', and the horrors they perpetrated within on hundreds of thousands of Kenyans make Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib look like the work of a pack of disinterested amateurs.

But there is also the awkwardness that comes from the fact that many Kenyans fought for the British, and that those reviled Home Guards are thought by many Mau Mau veterans to have got some of the best land after Independence in 1963. David also suggested that his grandfather felt bound by the Mau Mau oath to discuss as little as possible of what he and his fellow fighters had done--less than pleasant things, to be sure. Then there is the tribal issue--some Kikuyu claim that the war was fought almost exclusively by them, and that the spoils should fall accordingly. Finally, there is a desire, I think, to forget the past--to forget the violence of the independence struggle, to buy that myth so carefully constructed by the British that their Empire ended peacefully, beneath the serene drifting up and down of flags. It was convenient for most, in 1963 and after, to forget that the ceremonies of decolonisation were the stage-managed aftermath of violent struggle--what one of that empire's greatest proponents called the 'savage wars of peace'.

On the matatu ride back to Nairobi the following day, I looked once more across the plains. This was the land that people had fought and died for. The land that had been taken by the British from people who owned it. Owned it, marked it out, used it, treasured it--not, as the British imagined, wandered aimlessly across it. You don't need to take Jomo Kenyatta's word in his elegant treatise on the Kikuyu, Facing Mt Kenya (Kenyatta was Kenya's first Prime Minister and later President, who exhibited a strong dictatorial bent that is often glossed over)...the British compiled the evidence themselves in the 1934 Land Commission. But as with empires past and present, they read what they wrote carelessly, and thousands suffered the needless consequences.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Aberdares

I took the long week-end and went up to the Aberdares to escape the smog and traffic of Nairobi. The range is a short matatu ride north of Nairobi, adjacent to the town of Nyeri, in the Central Highlands. This region is the homeland of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, and holds the country's richest farming lands. It was also at the heart of the Mau Mau war.

The ride up was crowded but quiet. I made small talk for a while with the man beside me who was returning home from business in the city, and was eager to return to the slower pace of life in Nyeri. He asked me where I was from, and I said the U.S. He asked where, and I said California. 'Oh, near Virginia', he nodded, and I agreed that from a galactic perspective the two were more or less on top of each other.

In Nyeri I found a driver to get to the park. Walking, unfortunately, is highly restricted in the Aberdares (my guide said that he's seen four people killed), and I quickly saw why when, on the way to a staging point, driving up through the forest, we found ourselves quite suddenly in the midst of a herd of buffalo. We had the element of surprise, and they scattered up both sides of the bank to regroup and glare down at us. As we scooted off, the driver reached out the window and flipped them off (bold, considering that they could have flipped the Toyota Corolla over had they been so inclined), and one of them gave us a look that reminded me of nothing so much of a particular Labour Party election poster. You're required to hire an armed ranger to take you trekking longer distances in the park, but they're expensive, and often plead illness, fatigue, etc, to get out of going--understandable, as it's no walk in the park, and as they're probably afraid you'll get munched by a lion and then sue them from its lower intestine.

I camped the first night at a KWS ranger station, a series of tin rondevals surrounded by electric fences and posts. At night the ranger and guide retreated into the headquarters, leaving the poor stupid mzungu in a tent near the fence line, along which I could hear the snorting of some large animal all night. The second night the camp was on the moor, and when I emerged into the cold, still-dark morning, I turned round to come face to face with a hyaena on the other side of the tent. They're bigger up close and in person (we'd seen some in the distance while crossing the moor on foot the previous day), but after a moment, it turned and made its ungainly way up a bank into the heather. I was just happy it hadn't been a lion, or else my bowels would likely have performed some embarrassingly untoward action. As I finished putting up the tent I noticed the guide, David, smoothing out some large, round paw prints. I jokingly asked him what they were and he improvised--'Bushbuck'. 'And that?' I asked him later, pointing to a massive pile of dung that the uninitiated might have imagined was an elephant's deposit. 'An impala?' 'Exactly', he replied, impressed, no doubt, by my quick grasp of bush craft.

The moor on the Aberdares looks like a cross between Dartmoor and Point Reyes, with the endless, gloomy reach of the former and the diversity of flora and concomitant rich smells of the latter. It meets the forest without any intervening vegetation, making it look as though the two had reached only a very uneasy accord as to which reigned over the wet soil. It is a beautiful landscape, by turns foreboding and inviting, but startlingly dangerous at times. Stopping off at a lonely station on the moor for a camping permit, we talked to the caretaker for a moment. 'I pray to God every day that I stay alive out here', he said, shaking his head. 'Some days, if I've seen a lion on the moor, I don't even open the door'.

During the Mau Mau war, the forest was bombed very heavily by the RAF (irritating the game department to no end...the warden, Hale, griped about the trigger-happy soldiers), as a result of which "elephant, rhino, buffalo have been driven out unto the plains below, often in a confounded condition", damaging shambas and having to be destroyed (KW 15/16, 1951-6). Like many of his contemporaries, Hale referred to the Mau Mau fighters as "bandits"--whether through ignorance or denial, many white Kenyans and British administrators refused to see the political character of Mau Mau.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

An historian and a champion of social democracy

You've probably seen his enormous (and very good) tome, Postwar, in one bookshop or another. Less likely that you've read his seminal histories on modern French politics. But the most worthwhile of late-historian Tony Judt's work is probably his more recent: the collection of essays, Reappraisals, and just this year (it's at the top of my reading list when I return to the U.S.), Ill fares the land, in which he argues for the continued relevance of the public, the collective, society.

Judt, at NYU, has been struggling for some time with ALS, but continued to provide an impassioned voice in defence of social democracy in our times. That his physical decline and death has been noted by a wider as well as the historian's community is a testament to his contributions to political debate on democracy, Middle Eastern politics and the role of the U.S. in the world.

Into the wild...

I awarded myself the day off on Saturday in honour of Louis Leakey's birthday (What do you mean you didn't celebrate? Me neither...I just looked it up on Wikipedia now.) and went down to Nairobi National Park. Kenya's first national park, founded in 1946, has a slightly surreal air about it. It adjoins the city, you pass by Kibera to get there, and once in the park, there's no point from which you can't see the Nairobi skyline, villages on the park's other borders, and jets from Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson Airports coming in to land.

Back in the day, the park was quite controversial. Leopards moved into the Karen and Langata 'burbs, eating dogs and housecats. Lions raided the stock of neighbouring farmers, prompting complaints and calls for a compensation scheme. And a Mrs Lennox-Browne upbraided the park's trustees for not allowing the students of her riding school to take their horses into the lion-infested open ground...really, it's a small miracle that the British lasted as long as they did in some of these places (KNA. KW 13/31). The first director of the Kenya Royal National Parks was Colonel Mervyn Cowie, most certainly one of the old school, but possessed of a comparatively forward-looking vision for the future of wildlife in Kenya (then, of course, still a British colony). Cowie himself comes across from the archival evidence as a hail-well-met kind of fellow, and you can imagine him waffling over a memo, walrus moustache aflutter, calling to an aide, 'I say old boy, can't you call that farmer chappie over so we can discuss his dead cattle over a G & T like civilised human beings? No need for him to go blazing about with that bloody shotgun...jolly bad form, what! And tell that ghastly Lennox-Browne woman I've been eaten by crocodiles on the Mara'. (To be fair, I made up the moustache.)

Cowie and his trustees had any number of pressing issues to discuss as they got the park up and running. In November of 1946 they minuted that 'some discussion followed on the best kind of dress for native rangers and two types were favoured: a) tribal retainer's type with loin cloth and native headdress--as possibly adding interest for visitors, b) the askari type of uniform--as possibly carrying more authority' (KNA. KW 13/31). Needless to say, the 'askari type' prevailed--as unencumbering as it might have been, a loincloth would undoubtedly have made a ranger's fieldwork a prickly business.

On Saturday, giraffe, eland, impala, hartebeest, zebra, ostriches and warthogs were much in evidence. So, according to the driver of the open-topped van, was a large male lion hiding up in the bush. It looked very much like a tree stump to me, but I wasn't about to judge the quality of his vision through his coke-bottle glasses. There were two Indian men in the van, and one of them crawled out onto the back of the vehicle, sprawling across the narrow bar to get a better view of the stump, calling out heroically, 'If it is my time, and I'm meant to go in this place, there's nothing to be done!' I almost suggested that if he really believed that he could spread himself over with chicken fat and run behind the car, but the small part of my brain that trades in common sense, and the rather larger bit that deals with self-preservation escorted the thought out of the premises and quietly clubbed it to death.

We also saw Cape buffalo. Big, rough-looking customers, those. The beady, nasty little eyes beneath the wide-slung horns of one of the beasts reminded me of someone. It wasn't until we were leaving the park that I realised if you'd put glasses on the thing it was the spitting image of Dick Cheney. I wonder if anyone's ever informed him of the resemblance...I must remember to write the dear man in his hospital bed.

But the park is really a remarkable place, and provides heartening evidence that people and wildlife (even big, potentially dangerous wildlife) can coexist in relative proximity. And it was more than a little breathtaking to see miles of acacia-dotted savanna roll out from the city, and to admire giraffes silhouetted against skyscrapers. Most importantly, I added a Black-bellied sunbird, a Hunter's sunbird, some type of longclaw or other, and an Abyssinian roller to the Life List, so all in all, a thoroughly good day.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New constitution for Kenya

Yesterday Kenyans voted on a proposed constitution, and it looks as though the draft was passed by a large margin, though official results are set to come out tonight or tomorrow. The 4th was declared a public holiday, and Nairobi was quiet except for the long queues that snaked out of polling stations. I went into the city centre around 7.30, and throughout the day the talk was of nothing but the referendum. I heard one man on a street corner saying to a small audience, 'It's going to pass, but it's a shame'. An elderly man, grey-haired, suited and bespectacled, came into a tea shop waving his ink-marked thumb for everyone to see. Several people asked if I'd voted yet, and I had to explain that not even an Obama presidency had given Americans that right.

Back at the YMCA everyone was showing off their marked fingers, talking about how long they'd had to queue, and about their hopes that the new constitution would change Kenya for the better. For a week leading up to the referendum it seemed a foregone conclusion that the draft would pass, and so the main concern had become that the voting would go off without violence. Everyone I talked to expressed great pride that this seems to have been the case. Now everyone is just awaiting the official results before they begin to celebrate.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Doing their bit

The National Archives, where I spend my days in Nairobi, is doing its bit for democracy by making copies of the draft constitution available. And who says that historians aren't natural activists?

Kenyans count-down to a constitution...

Wintry Sunday mornings in Nairobi are quiet...the streets are mostly empty, shops largely shut. I was walking down Kenyatta Avenue when the silence was broken by the honking of a vehicle and shouting. An enormous flat-bed truck, weighted down by an improbably large mass of people, came hurdling down the streets, loudspeakers blaring, the driver laying on the horn. It was a bus for the 'Yes' Campaign. Kenyans are voting in a referendum on the introduction of a new constitution on Wednesday, and both the 'Yes' and 'No' campaigns are pulling out all the stops in the final days before voting. The 'Yes' supporters on the bus were wearing green shirts, baseball caps, and waving green 'Yes' signs. 'Katiba sasa! Ndiyo, ndiyo!' was the cry. 'Constitution now! Yes, yes!'

Later in the morning I went down to Uhuru Park for the 'Yes' rally. 'Uhuru' means 'freedom', and in Kenya's case, independence from Britain came in 1963. In a way, the referendum has become a kind of commentary on Kenya's post-colonial history. The draft's opponents see it as an unnecessary attack on the legacy of those in power since 1963. Its proponents see in it the possibility of resolving unfinished business.
The large hill in Uhuru Park facing a series of covered stands (for the dignitaries) gradually filled through the late-morning and early-afternoon, musical entertainment being provided in the interim (many of the songs apparently arranged for the occasion, featuring such original lyrics as 'Vote yes, vote yes!' and 'Raisi anasema ndiyo, Raila anasema ndiyo, Kenyatta anasema ndiyo...' [the various leaders who are saying 'yes'], etc). The campaign seems very politician-oriented, and this showed during the rally. Occasionally the supporters of a particular MP who was voting 'yes' would come running across Processional Way, which separated the stands from those of us on the hillside, chanting, yelling and carrying on. The master of ceremonies got rather peeved at one point, declaring that 'Such sideshows are not welcome!'

Eventually he announced that Waziri Mkuu Raila Odinga was on his way, and the crowd exploded. Odinga arrived to rapturous applause, and then police sirens wailing, helicopters thumping the air overhead, and a brass band doing its best to compete, Rais Mwai Kibaki pulled up and things got kicked off, with MPs, public figures and other prominent supporters of the constitution (entertainers, church figures) giving short speeches.
At this stage in the national drama, the key characters have assumed comfortable roles in the story. Raila Odinga is the charismatic man who was meant to lead the 'Yes' campaign, but who has been confined, on doctors' orders, to his house for the past month and more. Returning in the final days of the campaign, he has put the wind in the sails of the 'Yes' supporters and had the crowd at Uhuru Park at his feet. He took complete command of his audience and had them in stitches, laughing and nodding along to his every word. Mwai Kibaki is playing the part of the worthy if uncharismatic head of state who had to unexpectedly step forward to head the 'Yes' campaign, and most seem to agree that he did so more effectively than anyone could have imagined.
And of course every drama needs a villain. At least a half dozen speakers piled onto the man who has been increasingly outspoken for the 'No' campaign in past days--former-President Daniel Arap Moi. And it's easy to see why he makes the perfect villain. That a man whose administration presided over the arrest, imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of political opponents, mangled Kenya's election process, and then walked away to a substantial retirement package has the temerity to open his yap on the subject of democracy and political reform--and that anyone has paid him any heed--is quite extraordinary.

Many are hoping that the passage of the draft constitution will let Kenya decisively turn the page on the Kenyatta and Moi eras. Many public supporters have even been speaking of a Second Republic, so transformative is the document meant to be. However, and this is a danger that is particularly acute because the process of constitutional revision has been a very top-down one, a set of expectations are being generated around the constitution that might well lead people to see it as a panacea for all the country's ills (indeed, its supporters are encouraging this view). Its passage will not erase, as politicians promise, inequality, intolerance and corruption. That will require a committed generation of Kenyans, who must hold their leaders' feet to the fires that the passage of the draft on Wednesday might very well light.