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Imagine Africa

from JACARANDA TIME by Shailja Patel

On December 27th, a record 65% of registered Kenyan voters rose as early as 4am to vote. Stood in lines for up to 10 hours, in the sun, without food, drink, toilet facilities. As the results came in, we cheered when minister after powerful minister lost their parliamentary seats. When the voters of Rift Valley categorically rejected the three sons of Daniel Arap Moi, the despot who looted Kenya for 24 years. The country spoke through the ballot, en masse, against the mindblowing greed, corruption, human rights abuses, callous dismissal of Kenya's poor, that have characterized the Kibaki administration.

But Kibaki wasn't going to go. When it became clear that vote tallies being announced differed from those counted and confirmed in the constituencies, there was a sudden power blackout at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where the returns were being compiled. Hundreds of GSU (General Service Unit) paramilitaries suddenly marched in. Ejected all media except the government mouthpiece Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

Fifteen minutes later, we watched, dumbfounded, as Samuel Kivuitu, chair of the Electoral Commission, declared Kibaki the winner. 30 minutes later, we watched in sickened disbelief and outrage, as he handed the announcement to Kibaki on the lawns of State House. Where the Chief Justice, strangely enough, had already arrived. Was waiting, fully robed, to hurriedly swear Kibaki in.

Violence rocked the country. In the 6 weeks that followed, over 1,500 Kenyans were killed. Over 300,000 were displaced from their homes, their lives. They were trapped in police stations, churches, any refuge they could find, across the country. Without food, water, toilets, blankets. Fields ready for harvest were razed to the ground. Grain rotted in granaries because no one could get to them. Nairobi slum residents of Kibera, Mathare, Huruma, Dandora, were ringed by GSU and police, denied exit, or access to medical treatment and emergency relief, for the crime of being poor in Kenya.

Nairobi’s Jamhuri Park became a makeshift refugee camp. Reminiscent of the news pictures of poor Americans, packed like battery chickens into their stadiums, when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. It was our own Hurricane Kivuitu-Kibaki, driven by fire, rather than floods. By organized militia rather than crumbling levees. But the same root cause - the deep, colossal contempt of a tiny ruling class for the rest of humanity.

Meanwhile, the man named President cowered in the State House, surrounded by a cabal of hardline power brokers, and a bevy of sycophantic unseated Ministers and MPs, who jostle for position and succession. Who fueled the fires by any means they could, to keep themselves important, powerful, necessary. Smoke rose from the torched swathes of Rift Valley, the gutted city of Kisumu, the slums of Nairobi and Mombasa. The Red Cross warned of an imminent cholera epidemic in Nyanza and Western Kenya, deprived for days of electricity and water. Containers piled up at the Port of Mombasa, as ships, unable to unload cargo, left still loaded. Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Southern Sudan, the DRC, all dependent on Kenyan transit for fuel and vital supplies, ground to a halt.

A repressive regime rolled out its panoply of oppression against legitimate dissent. Who knew our police force had so many sleek, muscled, excellently-trained horses, to mow down protestors? Who guessed that in a city of perennial water shortages, we had high-powered water cannons to terrorize Kenyans off the streets?

In that terrible time, I had the privilege to work with the most brilliant, principled, brave, resilient Kenyans of my generation. The idealists who took seriously the words we sang as schoolchildren, about building the nation. Under the collective banner of Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice (KPTJ), we organized, analyzed, strategized, mobilized, drew on everything we knew, to save our country. I marvelled at the sheer collective volume of trained intelligence, of skill, expertise, experience, in our meetings. At the ability to rise above personal tragedy - families still hostage in war zones, friends killed, homes overflowing with displaced relatives - to focus on the larger picture and envisage a solution. I listened to lawyers, economists, youth activists, humanitarians; experts on conflict, human rights, governance, disaster relief; to Kenyans across every sector and ethnicity, and I thought:

Is this what we have trained all our lives for? To confront this epic catastrophe, caused by a group of old men who have already sucked everything they possibly can out of Kenya, yet will cling until they die to their absolute power?