In 2007/8, I wasn’t in Nairobi. I was working in Dar, far from the mess and watching it all on CNN. Things always seem worse on foreign TV, and it was heartbreaking to watch. I was crushed, suffocated, terrified, but only in my mind. I can’t begin to say what it was like for Kenyans who were actually here.
I wrote a few ‘political pieces’ expressing how I felt and received a little hate mail. I lie. I received one idiotic comment. He said I should get off my high across-the-borders horse and come face the music at home. I responded on email, calmly telling him I hoped his country never experienced what my country was dealing with.
After that, a bunch of people thought I was political. I was added to ‘elections blog’ lists and my blog posts were brought up in offline meetings. After a while, I deleted those posts because I didn’t like the attention they were bringing. I didn’t like the person they made me out to be.
This time, as I type, I’m in Lang’ata. It’s pretty quiet here, but yesterday and the day before, I could hear tear gas canisters and see the smoke from my bedroom window. I listened for a while, feeling it was my ‘duty’ to ‘witness’. It felt immoral to drown the sound with loud music while people were being gassed in their homes 500 metres from where I sat.
But then my teenager said she was hungry and went to the kiosk to get weetabix for breakfast. She told me to relax. She says I probably have PTSD because every time I hear a bang, I feel as though someone is holding a gun to my head. She said if I didn’t calm down, I’d give myself a heart attack. So I got a big bottle of juice, a bigger bottle of booze, and turned the music up loud.
I’ve never seen myself as a Luo. In fact, I’ve been accused of reverse tribalism against my own people, because I criticise ‘our customs’ so vehemently and make it a point never to date my tribesmen. I guess because despite what all my friends say, how romantic and suave they think Luo men are, how sexy the language is, I’ve seen the other side … and it isn’t pretty.
Though in fairness, my baby’s father is Kikuyu, and he did the very things I avoid Luo men for doing. And so … to generalise isn’t very clever. It’s like a stereotype. It is a stereotype. But stereotypes start in truth, and as I’ve watched my tribesmen, my relatives, the men I’ve been exposed to, I find it safer to pick my mating partners from the other 41 (?) tribes.
And yet this is me. The ‘Least Luo’ Luo that I know, and I’m feeling my blood begin to boil. I am noticing that Jubilee protests are unmolested while Nasa ones end up with kids dead in balconies and cribs. I am seeing people told to stay at home if they don’t want trouble, only to hear of people dragged out of their houses and shot. I am seeing trouble in Ongwaro, Kayole, nowhere near ‘traditional hot spots.’
I am feeling myself begin to get radicalised. I find myself asking questions. Questions like … even though jang’os are clearly being targeted, we haven’t swung into 2007/8 territory. Does that mean Luos were never the problem, even back then? Does that mean us Luos and our stones and arrogance are beings scapegoated for a deeper, more sinister problem, and that we’re embracing the scapegoatism and running with it? Does that mean it’s time to finally push back, in any way I can?
Again, this is me, the least jang’o, least conforntational person I know. So what about the people that are already time bombs? The ones that overtly declare their hatred for kyuks? What about the people in Kibera who know that every election season, the cops will come form them. Every time, without fail. Will they not sit back on the 24th and 25th and think – logically – that this time they would be prepared? That this time they would be ready with more than just stones?
It does feel like someone is deliberately trying to rile us up. Us Kenyans. The past few months have felt like people are trying to re-light the fuse of 2007/8 but Kenyans keep blowing it out. In our own quiet ‘peaceful’ inadvertent ways, we’re quelling the flame before it gets started. And so the agitators are getting smarter.
‘Dark forces’ tried to ignite anger in Kisumu, Migori, Kibera, Mathare. Shooting an eight year old. Clubbing a 6 month baby. Teargassing nursery kids. Nothing doing. And now suddenly … Kawangware? Kayole? Places where despite clear tribal groupings, things have never gotten to the national radar. Why suddenly now? Isn’t this a tad too choreographed?
This is the problem with political huffing and puffing. For them it’s just a show, but for us, the spotlight is real. To the political inciters, it may just be a strategy, but real people get killed. Real homes burn down. Real hatred gets stoked. And those divisions will continue for centuries to come.
I have heard it said that when you don’t know, don’t speak. I have heard myself get shushed as a keyboard warrior, a privileged pundit, a politically clueless lout. I’ve also heard those big people in big houses say ‘tuko pamoja’. They’re just like me, protecting their families the best way they know how. For them, power is a right, and all they are doing is defending their right, so if you’re in the way, shauri yako.
Here’s the thing though. When their rights get trampled, they throw tantrums, maybe lose a little money. When they lose a political seat, they have expensive shit to fall back on. And visas. And helicopters. But when we lose our rights, we die. Our kids fight each other in school, at work, on the roads. Livelihoods are compromised.
I am Luo. I will not say proudly, because that’s not something I feel. But I do feel Luo. For the first time, I feel Luo. And that’s an empty descriptor, because while my Luo-ness only leaves a painful feeling in my gut, the Luo-ness of my brothers and sisters is getting their homes burned and their babies shot.
My dearest friends are Kikuyu, as are my favoruite lovers. My feelings for them haven’t changed, and I defend and protect them as dearly as my own. Because they are my own. They are my people. And yet … if I am suddenly feeling Luo, what about those who have lived it – proudly – their whole lives? How far will they be pushed before they fight back? Is it so strange that a lot of them already are?
I will be told it’s not just the Luos. I will be told it’s also the Kisiis and the Luhyas. I will be told I am flaunting the privilege of middle class-ness and feminism and majority tribe-ness. I will be told I am speaking from a point of emotion, that I should stick to my lane. I will be told I think too highly of myself, and that if I really care, I should put my body where my keyboard is. I should be on the streets, not on the screen. I will receive ridiculous, maybe even threatening responses. And I will say bring it. Bring. It. But beware, this bitch bites, usiseme hukuambiwa.
All that aside, here’s what I’m saying. When you push people, they push back. And even this Kenyan spirit of ‘accept and move on’ has its breaking point. I will say that we are pushing back on the wrong people. My Kikuyu lovers did not teargas nursery kids. My Kyuk landlord did not shoot up Kibera. My Kyuk best friends did not arm youth in Kawangware.
Speaking of Kawangware, it’s not about who started it or who will finish it. I can see Kikuyu business people being upset that their stores were torched, and calling in reinforcements. And I can see Luos feeling targeted and hitting at whoever it was that sat on their rights. What both sides can’t see is that they were all pushed and prodded and armed by big people with big money and big guns. And although few of these guys are online, and my words don’t matter to them, my words are what I have. They’re what I choose to use.
When all the shit is done, Kenya will still be here. I will still be here. My child will still have both Luo and Kikuyu blood in her veins. My lovers will still (mostly) be circumcised. And I will still surround myself with people who see past my tribe. Those of us who will be left, we will have to pick up, clean up, and keep moving.
I know that a lot of the online rhetoric comes from bots and influencers. I know this, because I’ve created some in the past, and I know the power they wield. I can’t do anything about the people on the streets, in their homes, or hiding behind uniforms.
But I can speak to anyone who’s reading, and I can say don’t react to the rhetoric. Do what you can do, even if all you can do is text a Luo / Luhya / Kamba / Kisii / Taita / Somali friend and ask them out for coffee after elections. Even if all you can do is tell them that between you, inside the ‘privileged space’ of WiFi and coffee houses, tribe and politics will not destroy your kinship.
And yes, some people will see this as an insult in itself. That people are burning and killing and dying and I think I can fix it with coffee. Well, I’m not on the streets. I’m here. And my people are here. And if all I can do is tell my people that they are still my people, then that’s what I will do. It’s not enough, but it’s what I will do.
In the meantime can we maybe look into changing the narrative? Take us Luos, Kyuks, and Kales out of the equation and let the ‘smaller tribes’ have a go at the top seat. Because honestly, I could do with a Dida presidency, just because. Aukot seems a little too political for the nation’s good, so let’s have the original githeri man for a little while. If nothing else, it’ll be a fun five years …
♫ Last Boat to Goree ♫ Soweto String Quartet ♫